This excerpt from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book Revolution of Values, is the third installment of our series on Christian citizenship, which explores how our values inform our voting decisions. View more in this series here »
Rosanell Eaton was twenty-one years old in 1942 when she hitched her mule to the family wagon in rural North Carolina and rode to the Franklin County courthouse. All along the two-hour journey, she repeated to herself the Preamble to the United States Constitution—lines she had been memorizing for weeks. A young black woman in the Jim Crow South, Eaton knew the literacy test that three white men would administer to her was designed to prevent her from voting. With only 3 percent of black citizens registered to vote in North Carolina in 1942, she understood that her chances of gaining access to the ballot were slim. But Eaton also knew that the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteed that she, as a citizen of the United States, could not be denied the right to participate in the democratic process simply because she had been born black. Between the promise of America’s Constitution and the reality of its persistent inequality, Eaton’s faith gave her courage to stand flat-footed, stare straight ahead, and recite the Preamble’s hope that America might become a “more perfect Union,” guaranteeing the “Blessings of Liberty” to all.
With only 3 percent of black citizens registered to vote in North Carolina in 1942, she understood that her chances of gaining access to the ballot were slim.
An embodiment of that hope, Eaton became a registered voter in North Carolina in 1942. She went on to become a voting-rights advocate and community organizer in the unsung generation of Southern black women who built organizations and strategies that made the civil rights movement possible a quarter century later. Working at times with Ella Baker, a fellow eastern North Carolina native who would go on to serve as both the first executive director of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and a key adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Eaton personally registered over four thousand people to vote in North Carolina. For her, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which established federal oversight to guarantee African Americans access to the ballot box, was a vindication of the struggle for which she and so many like her had shed blood, sweat, and tears.
But in the summer of 2013, when Ms. Eaton was ninety-two years old, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the Voting Rights Act’s formula for determining which counties need federal supervision was outdated (never mind that the law allowed for any county that could demonstrate a decade without any evidence of voter suppression to be removed from federal oversight). If Congress wanted the Justice Department to continue to review voting rules in counties with a history of discrimination, Chief Justice John Roberts said they would have to pass new legislation to determine which counties require preclearance. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg likened the 5-4 decision to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
The Republican supermajorities that controlled the legislature in Eaton’s home state of North Carolina had followed the Shelby case closely. Before the umbrella of voting-rights protections had made it to the metaphorical landfill of history, they passed a downpour of legislation to wash away every measure that had expanded the electorate in North Carolina over the previous decade. Among the dozens of changes was a harsh voter identification requirement insisting that the name on each voter’s registration card precisely match the name on their state-issued ID. Seven decades after she’d defied Jim Crow to become a registered voter, Eaton, who was registered as everyone in Franklin County knew her (Rosanell Eaton), was disenfranchised because her driver’s license gave her name as Rosa Johnson Eaton.
When I met Eaton in the spring of 2013, she was indignant about the lack of public attention to a fundamental attack on democracy by people who had sworn to uphold the constitution. “I raised my family and have lived on the same piece of land for the past seventy-two years,” Eaton told me. “You know who Dr. King was, don’t you? Well, I marched with him. We had to work real hard for integration. But we won back then.” She knew she could win again. Together with the North Carolina NAACP, Eaton sued her state’s governor after he signed the legislature’s omnibus voter-suppression law in 2013, launching a legal battle that would last until the summer of 2017, when the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that said lawmakers had targeted African American voters like Eaton with “almost surgical precision.”
Seven decades after she’d defied Jim Crow to become a registered voter, Eaton, who was registered as everyone in Franklin County knew her (Rosanell Eaton), was disenfranchised because her driver’s license gave her name as Rosa Johnson Eaton.
If you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you won’t find a single reference to voting rights. But the modern Hebrew word for “vote”—qol—is the same as the word for “voice” in the Hebrew Bible. So a kind of voting happens whenever someone speaks in Scripture. In the long struggle for voting rights that Rosanell Eaton embodies, God’s attention to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people make a striking biblical case for the expansion of democracy in modern society.
When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, saying “I have indeed seen the misery of my people. . . . I have heard them crying” (Exodus 3:7), we are reminded of the voices of women in the Exodus story: Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who engaged in civil disobedience to save Moses and other children when Pharaoh ordered genocide (Exodus 1:15-21); Moses’ mother, who hid him in a basket and floated it down the Nile, praying God would make a way out of no way (Exodus 2:1-3); and Miriam, his older sister, who chased the basket down the river and, when Pharaoh’s daughter pulled it out of the water, asked, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” (Exodus 2:4-7). These are the voices God hears crying in the Exodus story. They are not the votes of the established authorities but votes that have been suppressed and ignored for generations.
God’s attention to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people make a striking biblical case for the expansion of democracy in modern society.
In the New Testament, Jesus tells a parable about a persistent widow—a woman who pled her case to an unjust judge. Even though the judge didn’t care about God or people, Jesus said, he eventually gave the woman what she asked to get her to stop bothering him. Luke says Jesus told this story to teach his disciples about the importance of prayer—that is, using your voice to petition God. If even an unjust judge hears the voice of a persistent widow, Jesus asks, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7). Long before women like Eaton had the opportunity to cast a vote in modern democracies, the Bible makes clear that she had a vote with God, where ultimate power in heaven and earth resides.
God’s attention to the voices of women, children, and those who suffer injustice shape an imagination for a new kind of society, which the apostle Paul calls ekklēsia—the ones who have been called out. With an imagination soaked in the story of Israel, Paul saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as the creation of a new political reality by which people learn to listen to the voices God hears, even when they are ignored by powerful people in society. Four centuries later, Saint Benedict translated this vision of a community in which people listened to God through one another’s voices into a rule for monastic life, which offered a concrete example of radical democracy that ultimately shaped modern political thought. “Christianity succeeded where the Hellenistic and late classical philosophies had failed,” the twentieth-century political philosopher Sheldon Wolin wrote, “because it put forward a new and powerful ideal of community which recalled men to a life of meaningful participation.”
If a Christian imagination shaped the ideals of modern democracy, it’s equally true that a biblical anthropology compels us to resist the specific action of voter suppression in democratic society. While Christians have and do imagine faithful public witness within other political philosophies, the reality of our current political system is that we equate personhood with citizenship. When politicians who want to hold onto power use tax dollars and legislative power to suppress votes, they aren’t just engaging in the messy business of politics. They are implicitly denying the humanity of millions of people. If you are a person born or naturalized in the United States, eighteen or older, you have a right to vote. No one can deny Eaton was born in Franklin County or that she spent over nine decades in the place of her birth. To suppress her vote, then, was to deny her personhood—a reality she understood all too well.
A biblical anthropology compels us to resist the specific action of voter suppression in democratic society.
“Many have become my enemies without cause,” the psalmist prays, echoing the struggle of women like Rosanell Eaton (Psalm 38:19). But Eaton stood tall well into her nineties, shoulders back and head held high, just as she had when asked to quote the Preamble to the Constitution in the 1940s. She embodied the conviction that God’s image is stamped on every person, and she knew in her bones what her church taught her to sing: “This joy I have the world didn’t give to me . . . and the world can’t take it away.”
Adapted from Revolution of Values by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com