Of Desert Fathers & Maroons: Victory in Unity

“Iron sharpens iron, and a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”  Proverbs 27:17 LXX

The chattel enslavement of Africans and African Americans in Virginia was established by the early 1700’s.  Slave patrollers and a colonial militia were effective in crushing a widespread rebellion before it began in 1730.  Blacks who escaped south of the James River managed to make it to the Great Dismal Swamp and add to the number of runaways living there.(1)  These Maroons lived in this harsh landscape for generations up until the end of the Civil War. 

Runaways in the Dragon Run Swamp had all the cards stacked against them.  Colonial planters had estates on either side of the waterway.  The wetland was narrow in some points with fewer venomous serpents and wild creatures to overcome.  The headwaters were a mixture of woods and cultivated fields.  The swamp widened downstream into the Piankatank River with plenty of people with an eye out for runaway Negroes.  At best, a Maroon could hide there for a few weeks, or maybe two months before being captured. 

In 1736, six runaways from two Middlesex County plantations did not let the dismal odds for victory distract them.    They succeeded in raiding a store in Gloucester County, defending themselves against a group of patrollers, and caused an alarm in six counties including two on the other side of the Rappahannock River.(2)  Unlike in past rebellion attempts, they did not let self-interest get the best of them.  Nor did their differences in tribal origin divide them.  I don’t know whether they fled to the North, took refuge in the Great Dismal, were captured and punished, or killed.  But these men had a moment of success by looking out for each other and working together against the enslaving enemy.

Among our Desert Fathers, Abba Apollo of Thebes saw the value of being a unifier against a destructive enemy.  As told by Abba Moses the Black, a zealous young monk struggled against lustful thoughts and sought a word of instruction from an elder.  The old man scorned the monk so harshly that he gave up the spiritual struggle fleeing to a nearby village.  Apollo caught up with the young man and encouraged him to return to the brotherhood.  That night, the abba witnessed a demonic figure go into the elder’s hut.  The old man staggered out of the hut and retreated to the same village the younger monk fled to in despair.  Apollo caught up to the elder and instructed him that he was attacked by the same demon that the young monk had.  Rather than denounce the brother, he should have spoken a good word in season to help him.(3)

Our real enemy is no social or political figure.  It is Satan and his minions who come to deceive and destroy our souls.  Self-righteously denouncing each other takes hope away from our brothers and sisters and sets us up for failure when their internal demons turn on us.  A woman was caught in adultery by the religious leaders of her time.  They only saw the legalistic solution of stoning her.  Jesus saw the advantage of restoring hope.(4)  The Apostle Paul taught us that judging ourselves was mandatory for having Christ in us.(5)  The scriptures give guidance for dealing with the immoral among us.  However, as much as possible, we must bring out the best in one another that we may gain the virtues that show our Christian faith.(6)

1.  City of Refuge:  Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp,   1763-1856, pg. 15

2.  Slavery’s Exiles:  The Story of the American Maroons, pg. 23

3.  The Philokalia Volume I, pgs. 105, 106

4.  John 8:1-11

5.  I Corinthians 11:23-34

6.  Orthodox Study Bible, pg. 863 (notes on Proverbs 27:17)

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