Wisdom’s Treasures: Harriet Tubman–Humility and Hope in History

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” –I Corinthians 1:27 

   We live in the age of materialistic positivism, and age which has discovered and harnessed, to a fault, the technology to build not one, but many towers of Babel.  Military might, economic prowess, and covetous consumption not only describe our culture, but have become its defining prescriptive aim, measuring men and women not by character, but by the markers of their socio-economic position: education, conspicuous consumption, influence, dominance.  

   We have failed to learn the key lesson of both history and humanity:  that “life does not consist in the abundance of things,” nor in “ruling it over others.”  For all our scientific observation, slanted by the desire to use science like a sledge hammer to flatten creation and our neighbor to our liking, we have failed to observe the most basic message history and our own hearts have to offer:  “never underestimate the power and beauty of small things, for they represent a Creator who watches closely over sparrows and specks, who delights in the humble, while opposing the proud.”  

   Our modern philosophies are an abject failure.  Man may indeed be endowed with the capacity of a god, but he is a god under authority, living in a world in which he is a mere alien and sojourner.  He cannot define or build his world or conquer the One who made it, and his attempts to do either are as wise as a tree which chops at its own roots.  

   The arrogance and futility of building towers to one’s own honor is rightly the subject of universal laughter.  “The ass knows his master,” and the ant knows how to gather and store, but man, in all his best philosophy, politics, and religion, knows not his Master or his place.  

    History is not in the hands of man, for as dust returns to dust, so the hands and work of man also subside into vanity.  History is not written by the victors, for their victories have always been short-lived and subject not only to forces without, but decay within.  The seeds of destruction take root in the furrows made by the sword of victory, and the tree that raises itself above all others is the one that will be felled, even by the smallest of molecules present in wind. Winners quickly become losers, their conquests and accomplishments buried in “the deserts of vast eternity.”

      The ravages of the mighty sword have never exceeded the ravages of tiny bacteria and viruses.  Orwell, not Marx, understands the triumph of small things over great things:  that man’s arrogation of power undermines, rather than establishes his place in the universe.  “The meek shall inherit the earth.”  

    Despite their copious study and writing, not even Spengler nor Toynbee seem to understand the progress of history.  Their great error lies in making civilization, i.e. man’s accomplishments, the central focus of history.  In a way, both, like true citizens of Babylon, they bow in vain before the golden statue.  They are woefully unaware that–despite a gold head, silver torso, bronze thighs, and iron legs–the feet that support human civilization are an unstable mixture of iron and clay.  Even a small rock aimed at one foot could bring the whole crashing down in swift, sudden, and irreversible destruction. If mountains are moved by faith, how much more the cities of man founded on them.  The faith of a Harriet Tubman, even as small as a mustard seed, has and may yet “cast this mountain into the sea.”  

     America’s greatest people have not dwelled in palatial structures.  The great pomp and circumstance of our statesmen only obscures their banality.  Even the ‘great’ Lincoln floundered when it came to ending the culture of slavery which had flaunted defiance against the Torah.  To be sure, Lincoln played his part, but it was neither in the phalanx against against injustice, nor in the decisive rendering of justice by war or by post-war reconstruction.   

    Harriet Tubman was, by outward appearance, an unremarkable woman.   A slave, a woman, illiterate, and a petite 5 feet in stature, she was, by worldly standards, no person “of no reputation.” Yet for all this, she may be America’s most towering figure: it’s greatest prophet, judge, spy, and the true embodiment of alma mater, the cherishing mother.  

   Despite her illiteracy, she was able to recite Scripture from memory, having not only ears to hear, but a mind

 and heart to understand. 

   Having no formal training in public speaking and no copy of The Columbian Orator much less the ability to read it, Harriet held her audiences spellbound by articulating matters of the heart and mind clearly and cogently.   

    Despite her petite stature, she had a stamina and strength that matched and even exceded that of her fellow male timber workers.  Her strength, endurance, and resolve were proven all the more in her ability to endure harsh winter conditions in wilderness and swamp during her forays into the South to escort slaves to freedom.  It was also proven in the crucible of war, during her service as a nurse, scout, and spy with the Union Army.  Like America’s elite Rangers, she had the ability and resolve to move “further and faster than any other soldier.”

    A victim of traumatic brain injury, she was surprisingly one of the most careful of planners of the Underground Railroad (UGRR), as evidenced by her never once being apprehended despite consistent forays into the South.   She was the most intrepid of the “abductors,” for she was undeterred by physical deprivation or the threat of capture and severe punishment.  Her renown would certainly have given great courage and determination to the “white” men who formed the majority of abductors in the UGRR.  

    With no formal military training, she ranks among the best of America’s intelligence operatives.  She was the sine qua non of the Combahee Ferry Raid, a flawless mission that rescued almost 800 slaves from the South’s most prestigious plantations, with no casualties on the Union side.  The divine wisdom involved in such an endeavor ought not be lost on us:  “A wise [wo]man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust.” (Proverbs 21:22).  Nor ought it be lost on us that her ability to “show no pity” to the unjust not only finds its source in explicit Scriptural commands, but in the figures of Moses, Joshua, and Jehu.  

     It would be intellectually dishonest to overlook the mutual influence and exhortation between herself, John Brown, and COL James Montgomery, or their influence on Sherman.  The squeamish abhorrence Shaw had toward Montgomery in the movie, Glory, is a shallow judgement not only of Montgomery, but of Tubman herself, and–by extension–Moses, Joshua, and Jehu.  The Scriptures clearly demand that even temples and churches must be removed when they become bastions of blasphemous cruelty.  The work of desolation (Ps 46) is a necessary means of humbling man’s pride in order to return “the hearts of fathers to their children,” and re-establish an environment in which “faithfulness and love meet together; righteousness and peace kiss.”  Stillness follows the storm.  So it was in the Exodus and the exile, for “His way is through the waters.”

   Perhaps, best of all, Harriet, though ill-treated, abused, and even neglected by the country she served, did not let a root of bitterness grow within her.  To her, justice and love were inseparable.  Her material freedom was a poor consolation without the presence of those she loved.  Freedom from slavery paled in comparison to the freedom to “outdo one another in rendering honor” and “let love be genuine.”  For her, affection over-ruled autonomy just as “light pierces the darkness, and the darkness is unable to overcome it.”  

     Harriet Tubman puts America’s power and pride to shame.  She is an embarrassment to the Left, for she proves that faith and a hungering after justice accomplishes more than compensatory hand-outs from a condescending big-brother.  She is an embarrassment to the Right because her faith, tested in the crucible of suffering and grown in the fertile soil of humility, expressed a power of godliness that is absent in those who only render a mere outward form of godliness.  

   In all this, Harriet is a champion of those who delight in the distillation of Scripture rendered by a young Jewish woman two millennia ago:   

    “He has performed mighty deeds with His arm;

         he has scattered the the thoughts of the proud; 

      He has brought down the mighty from their thrones,

         but has lifted up the humble.   

      He has filled the hungry with good things, 

         but has sent the rich away, empty.” –Luke 1:51-52 

Harriet Tubman is a symbol of hope, and a rally point for all those, “black,” “white,” or otherwise who feel like “harassed sheep without a shepherd,” powerless to fight against the great titan of a warped culture that consistently bullies us into its mammon-centered rat race. 

    With the zeal of Moses, Joshua, Deborah, David, and Jehu, Harriet attacked giants and fortified cities and brought them down.  A student of Lady Wisdom, she was among those who “served before kings,” having the ear of the Secretary of State among others.  Her vision that Lincoln could only win the war by making it a just war for emancipation of slaves was a (if not the) decisive factor in the war’s outcome.  Final causes must precede efficient causes for any progress in life, love, and war, and Harriet’s wisdom in this matter is worthy of recognition by every race and creed in our country. To merely relegate her to “black history” is to deny not only her service to the entire nation, but the nation’s indebtedness to this woman, “clothed with strength and dignity,” who “looked to the interests of others,” spending all her strength and thought to conform herself to One who “came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.”

   This ought to provoke thought:  why do we dally about with ideologies and “safe” messages for our children in school when we have a history worth telling? a history which gives us the strength and courage to yearn for and strive for justice? America’s might and prestige are but dust in comparison to the heart of the ‘lowly’ Harriet Tubman, and when America is long forgotten, her story will be told as a beacon of hope for a remnant who, like her, “hunger and thirst for justice,” for a day when man’s glory is conformed to the glory of One who “came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”  

   The God who “loves justice and righteousness” (Ps 33) and founds His throne upon it (Ps 89, 97) remains on His throne no matter how many powerful and unscrupulous ‘leaders’ toss about like frothy waves.  When unjust men and women “draw their bow at the upright in heart” (Ps 11), He sends his Harriets in to put them “to shame and confusion.”    He has never abandoned His own, nor will He abandon his intent to “laugh the nations to derision” and “the unjust to destruction,” laying low every mountain and raising up every valley.  This is history, past, present, and future, for history’s beginning is in its end, and both are in the hands of the One “who is the first, and the last.” 

   America, having become once again a crooked tree, must be coppiced, and that by Divine Wisdom rather than human revolution. Not only America’s political and economic institutions, but her religious institutions require ample pruning.  God spares not temple or palace when excising the cancer of injustice.   

    This is not the first time God has performed such a surgery, nor a cause for despair.  The God of history must do His pruning and coppicing in order to grow trees that are strong and fruitful.  Mammon’s dead branches–political, economic, academic, or religious–must be removed to foster the growth of justice and mercy, and life that springs from “truth in the innermost parts,” i.e. from “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  He has given us green shoots in the past, among whom Harriet Tubman stands like a “tree beside the waters…bearing its fruit in due season.”   He will not fail to do so again.  May He renew His work in our time, and may He imbue His own with the same great faith as Harriet, that we too might “laugh at the days to come.”

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