We're The Tolerant Ones

Can you imagine a black man caged like an animal and put on display for all to gawk at? It is hard to believe, but it actually happened right here in our own land. In fact, the book, Ota Benga: The Pygmy In The Zoo, co-written by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, recounts the painful life story of a young pygmy from the Congo, Ota Benga, who became the main attraction in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and later in a controversial "human zoo" exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Ota had been freed from African slave traders by Samuel Phillips Verner, an entrepreneur recruiting Africans for the Exposition, and eventually traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Ota had free run of the grounds before and after he was "exhibited" in the zoo's Monkey House each day.

Exhibits of dark-skinned humans as examples of "earlier stages" of human evolution were all the rage in the early 20th century, as Darwin’s theory of natural selection began to take hold. As a result, thousands of curious spectators flocked to see the little black man who stood only 4 ft. 11 in. and weighed only 103 pounds.

Not surprisingly, it was Christians - pastors in particular - who opposed Ota’s treatment as a “lesser human” and fought for his freedom. At one point in this struggle, a black pastor named James H. Gordon declared, "Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes…We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls." He added, “The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted." Dr. R.S. MacArthur, the spokesman for a delegation of black churches, petitioned the New York City mayor for his release from the Zoo. The mayor eventually released Ota to Pastor Gordon who ran the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn and made him a ward. This afforded Ota the chance to indulge his voracious appetite for learning. He was tutored in English and eventually took on employment.

Ota yearned to return to Africa, however, the outbreak of World War I prevented him from doing so, plunging him into a deep depression and resulting in his tragic suicide in 1916, at only 32. His body is buried in an unmarked grave in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The racially motivated exploitation of Ota Benga is a disgraceful event in our nation’s history. Today almost every apparent form of bigotry is condemned in the strongest possible terms. However, it seems much of this expressed indignation is fabricated since the same thinking that once put Ota into the Monkey House now puts the unborn into dumpsters - and this with the vehement support of today’s “tolerant” moralists and with little or no outcry from many within the Church. Like those who once viewed Ota as a “lesser human” simply because of his size and skin color, many today congratulate themselves for having moved beyond the moral ignorance of Ota’s captors, yet conveniently ignore or even defend the dismemberment, disembowelment and decapitation of unborn children simply because of their size, gender or location - hardly a picture of tolerance!

Although pro-life advocates are routinely portrayed in the media and in Hollywood films as intolerant and hateful, the opposite is true. We are the tolerant ones and it is our view, not theirs, that provided the philosophical and moral foundation for the Declaration of Independence, which declares, “All men are created equal.” Their view put a man in a cage; our view let him out. Yes, the Christian worldview produced the outspoken Pastor James H. Gordon who stood on the shoulders of the Hebrew midwives whom centuries earlier disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to murder every newborn boy. Many other examples of Christian rescuers could be cited. To borrow language from Hebrews 11: What more shall I say? I do not have time to tell you about Martin Luther King, Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonheoffer, James Zwerg, Casper Ten Boom and many others who “shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames and administered justice”. What a rich family tree we are a part of!

Historically, when injustice is found, when poverty or racism abounds, when the weak and vulnerable are targeted for death, faithful Christians become rescuers. There is a reason for this: Our Lord, Jesus Christ, is the consummate Rescuer. Together we stand on His shoulders when we stand for the unborn.

Andrew Hanssen