The Face of Our Money

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 7, 2015

Mark 12:13-17 ESV

Have you ever taken time to consider the face of our money?  It is really quite interesting when you stop to think about it.  And, it seems, the face of money has always given rise to controversy, as we have seen in today’s scripture reading.  The question at hand was whether Jews should pay tribute to Rome, their oppressors.  Both Mark and Matthew tell the story of how some of Jesus’ opponents questioned him as to whether or not they should pay taxes.  You see, “The pagan religious imagery used on coins violated Jewish rules against making images and idolatry.  The inscription on Roman coins also proclaimed the emperor divine,” which was also a problem for Palestinian Jews.1  Jesus’ opponents posed the question, not so much because they wanted an answer, but to put him in an impossible situation.  Jesus’ reply was, “Give me a coin.  Whose picture is on the money?”  And they replied, “Caesar’s,” or “the Emperor’s.”  “Well,” Jesus returned, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  In other words, if the coin bears the inscription and image of Caesar, then it must belong to him.  Return it to him!  And then be sure to give to God what belongs to God.

So for at least 2,000 years there has been tension between Caesar (i.e., the government) and God.  But American money is even more complicated, in that our money bears the inscription of both the government and God, since our money has U.S. government written all over it, and both coins and paper money have pictures of famous government officials; but our money also includes the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

But what about those faces?  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson—such are some of the famous government officials whose faces grace the money we use on a daily basis.  But let us zero in on Andrew Jackson, since the face of Jackson on our $20 bill has been in the news of late.

I don’t know whether you caught it or not, but there has been quite a discussion in the media over the push to yank Andrew Jackson’s face off our $20 bill and replace it with the image of Harriet Tubman.  I have sort of been following this controversy for about three weeks, and I have clipped and saved articles from The Washington Post, USA Today, and our own Knoxville News Sentinel. There have been a lot of pros and cons shared having to do with replacing Jackson’s image with that of Tubman.

When I first heard about the Women on 20s Campaign to replace Jackson’s picture with one of a woman who has contributed significantly to American history, I secretly applauded it.  And the fact that Harriet Tubman won an online poll out of a pool of 15 different women made it even more delightfully ironic.  Because Jackson, as you may remember, amassed his wealth from the toil of the slaves he owned.  And Jackson was the chief proponent of the Indian Removal Act and the primary one responsible for the Trail of Tears (overriding Congress in the process) that uprooted, enslaved, and drove thousands of Native Americans to their deaths.  The irony is one who enslaved might possibly be replaced by one who helped slaves escape and led them to their freedom.

Well, as you might imagine, the push to actually get Tubman’s photo on our $20 bill has generated a lot of support.  After all, Tubman is a woman to be admired from most any quarter.  She spent most of her youth as a slave in Maryland.  She married a free black man and changed her name.  After escaping from a plantation 1849, she made many trips back to the South to lead slaves to their freedom under the cover of darkness via the Underground Railroad.  This she did at the risk of the penalty of death.  She also was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and her heroic efforts made it possible for many more slaves to gain their freedom.  Later Tubman was a women’s suffrage advocate alongside Susan B. Anthony.  So how could anyone argue with honoring Tubman by putting her face on our money?

One of those writing in support of Tubman’s image is David Swerdlick of The Washington Post’s PostEverything.  Swerdlick writes, “putting a self-emancipated, self-described conductor on the Underground Railroad on a $20 bill is sort of a fitting rebuke to the slave owners who bought and sold human beings as commercial property.”2

Another columnist, DeWayne Wickham, who writes for USA Today, states, “Slavery supporters put a price on her head, paid in U.S. dollars.  How ironic to move her from wanted poster to $20 bill. . . Tubman’s image on the $20 bill, America’s Moses will replace a slave owner.”  Wickham concludes his column by saying, “Putting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill would be a fitting tribute to her achievements.”3

Yet, as you might imagine, opponents for replacing Jackson with Tubman have been many as well, and at least one of the ones who are opposed might surprise you.  Of no surprise are the supporters of our seventh president, especially those who have a vested interest in protecting all things Jackson and the Jackson legacy.  I found it quite interesting that two May 17 editorials in the Sunday Perspective section of the Knoxville News Sentinel—taking up almost a full page—lobbied for keeping Jackson’s face on the $20 bill.4  I wasn’t so surprised when I realized that one of the editorials was written by Daniel Feller, who is editor/director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee.  And I imagine that those folks down at The Hermitage—the home and plantation of Andrew and Rachel Jackson—are much up in arms as well over the loss of Jackson’s image on our $20 bill.

But the opponent that really surprised me is Feminista Jones, a feminist writer from New York City writing for The Washington Post.  Jones, who happens to be a black woman, writes, “There’s no place for women—especially women of color—on America’s currency today.”5  Jones admits that replacing Jackson’s image with Tubman’s at first sounds like a wonderful reversal of fortune.  “But in examining Tubman’s life,” she continues, “it’s clear that putting her face on America’s currency would undermine her legacy. . . Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism.  Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting. . . For every dollar a white man earns from his labor in the United States,” Jones points out, “black women earn 64 cents. . . .  Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets.  She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves.  She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them.”5

Well, Jones makes some good points and gives good reason to stop and think about the whole face of our money issue.  Yet, I have to disagree with her, as I feel the honor awarded to Harriet Tubman in placing her image on our money would outweigh the reasons for not doing so.

Oh, by the way, returning to where I began, later in the same chapter as our scripture text, Jesus tells us that which should be rendered to God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31 ESV).  The money might belong to Caesar, but the entire human person—heart, soul, mind, and strength—belongs to God.  And the fact that the human person belongs to God makes the human person—every human person—sacred.  And that reason alone, the fact that every human is sacred and of inherent dignity and worth, is reason enough to honor Harriet Tubman—who understood the inherent dignity and worth of every person—by placing her image on our $20 bill.  Tubman got it; Jackson did not.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

1The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 673.

2David Swerdlick, “If we’re putting someone new on the $20, Harriet Tubman is actually a perfect choice,” The Washington Post, PostEverything, May 15, 2015.

3DeWayne Wickham, “Tubman earned her right to be on $20 bill,” USA Today, May 18, 2015.

4Daniel Feller, “Why keep Jackson on $20 bill?” And Joe Johnson, “True leader first president to speak in voice of common man,” Knoxville News Sentinel, Sunday, May 17, 2015.

5Feminista Jones, “Keep Harriet Tubman – and all women – off the $20 bill,” The Washington

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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