Without a Shepherd

Shortly after escaping from slavery, Frederick Douglass found himself in New Bedford, Massachusetts. As a “lukewarm” Methodist, he felt it his duty to seek the “spiritual advantage of public worship,” and “therefore resolved to join” the local congregation.

Though Massachusetts was a free state, Douglass was denied a “seat in the body of the house” on account of his color. His initial reaction, and subsequent actions, are well worth pondering in detail.

The service he first attended was a mixture of “converted” and “unconverted” participants. Firmly convinced that racial prejudice is contrary to the Christian faith, Douglass assumed that segregation was “an accommodation of the unconverted congregation who had not yet been won to Christ.”

Tellingly, Douglass was willing to comply with this offensive measure, “lest sinners should be drawn away from the saving power of the gospel.” Out of true charity, he laid aside his just complaints in hopes of winning his oppressors for Christ, after which he “thought they would be sure to treat [him] as a man and a brother.”

Sadly, Douglass soon discovered that his “charitable assumptions” were mistaken. Attending “the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, that most sacred and most solemn of all the ordinances of the Christian church,” he witnessed the behavior of “the religious part of the congregation by themselves,” after the unconverted had been dismissed.

The minister, whose sermon “proved him to be acquainted with the inmost secrets of the human heart,” made scrupulously sure that “all the white members had been served” before inviting his “colored friends,” in an “unnatural pitch,” to come forward.

Meanwhile, Douglass had been observing these “colored members,” who looked to him “like sheep without a shepherd,” “black sheep penned” in the church corner, lest their presence upset the so-called “saints” who, to his horror, remained “under the dominion of [a] wicked prejudice.”

To this Catholic blogger, Douglass’s grasp of ecclesiology and the Blessed Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood appears inevitably incomplete. More remarkably, though, his narrative demonstrates an understanding of these issues many leagues deeper than that of today’s “lukewarm” Christian, Catholic or Protestant.

To begin with, Douglass sees the connection between Holy Communion and the brotherhood of believers. Though it is Holy Baptism that makes one a member of Christ, it is the worthy reception of his flesh that makes one a living member of his Body, rather than a dead branch to be cut away and cast into the fire.

Furthermore, Douglass sees that one cannot be a living member of Christ and continue to deny the rights of humanity. No one publicly affirming the exclusion of others from society is worthy of participating in the “most sacred and most solemn of all the ordinances of the Christian church.”

Finally, Douglass sees that the points above are to be understood and implemented through the lens of charity. From charity, we must welcome even the unconverted into the Church, for the sake of drawing them to “the saving power of the gospel.”

From the same charity, however, we must exclude those who publicly trample on the teachings of Christ from the manifestly unworthy reception of Holy Communion.

Not only is such reception a symbolic lie, suggesting wrongly that they are healthy members of his Body. Even worse, such sentimentalism allows the disease of mortal sin to fester in the souls of those who are encouraged to eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Cor. 11:29). And it sows confusion in the hearts of all the faithful, who are abandoned “like sheep without a shepherd.”

By the grace of God, let’s pray for an end to the farce according to which those who promote the slaughter of innocent persons, the indoctrination and mutilation of confused men, women, and children, and the persecution of their fellow believers, are treated as Christians in good standing, rather than manifest sinners in need of conversion.

There is no such thing charity without truth, and the lies we are currently living do nothing but lead unfortunate souls away from their one and only Good Shepherd.

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