Jul 22, 2014
Our day started with a presentation by the American sociologist Elizabeth Kennedy. She has interviewed 322 deported children, I'll post some stuff about the data is she shared with us later. Suffice to say it was pretty startling.
The most intense portion of the day was our visit to the airport to meet deportees as they got off the plane from the U.S. The center where the deportees are processed is a squat cinder block building a few hundred meters from the main airport terminal. The building has two doors, one for the staff and visitors to come and go and the other where the deportees to exit. The staff and visitor door is made from the kind of nice plate glass that one expects in modern office buildings. The deportees' exit is crude chainlink. The cinder block to one side of it is smeared with ink left by deportees who wiped it with the leftovers from fingerprinting.
Inside the building we met with Jenny Vazquez, the director of the return center. She told us that deportees go through a three part process when they arrive in El Salvador. First, they are processed by migration and, if necessary are examined by a medical professional. Second, they speak with the police. Third, they are given back their belongings. She also told us that the center is set up to process 120 deportees a day. It receives one plane a day, except Wednesday when it receives two. On that day the center processes up to 240 deportees.
Today there were 45 women and 69 men. After meeting with Jenny Vazquez, we were taken three at a time to see them in the holding area. It resembled a worn out Greyhound bus terminal. There were beaten up plastic chairs in several colors, bad fluorescent lights and very little space. I think I saw 70 or 80 people in that area. I was surprised by how young most of them were. They were clearly traumatized and exhausted. I felt like a voyeur. I also felt like my humanity and their's was lessened.
Shortly afterwards we went outside to wait for people as they were released. The Sun was fierce and there was very little shade. People were release with their belongings, all of which could fit into a beaten up red mesh drawstring bag. One of the deportees shared her story with me and a couple of other people from my group. She was in her early twenties and had just been deported after 10 months in the United States. She spent half of her time in a detention center in Texas. It was privately run. She worked from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon in the laundry. She made a dollar a day. Prior to being detained she lived in Los Angeles for 5 months with family members. She shared with us that she has been manacled for the entire flight from Texas to El Salvador. She also told us about her trip from El Salvador to the United States. She was sexually harassed and saw two young men die en route. They drowned crossing a river. The only family she had in El Salvador were her grandparents and she had just learned that her grandfather recently died of a heart attack. She arrived with no money and no idea what she was going to do next.
We talked to several other deportees. Three of them, all men, shared that they had left El Salvador because they were being threatened and blackmailed by gangs. Now that they were back they feared for their lives.
We left the deportees after an hour. I I left with a mixture of emotions: anger, shame, sorrow... How is it human beings you can be so cruel to each other? How do we fail to see each others suffering? Why do we inflict such pain on each other? Why are we so afraid of each other? We need to answer these questions. We need compassion.
Yesterday we met with Sigfrido Reyes, the President of El Salvador's National Assembly. The meeting itself was a testimony in to the distorted power relations between the United States and Central America. It is almost impossible for me to imagine John Boehner, Reyes's equivalent in the United States, taking an hour to meet with a delegation of human rights activists from another country.
Reyes is a former FMLN guerilla commander and he spent more time listening than talking. When he did speak he mostly spoke abput the difficult political situation in the U.S. around immigration politics. He didn't seem to know a lot about the intricacies of US immigration law, which some people found disappointing.
Today we are holding a press conference to announce the findings from a study on the impact and causes of immigration in El Salvador. The study was conducted by faculty at the UCA and throughout the rest of the week we will be holding town halls to share its findings. This afternoon we are heading to the airport to interview people who have been deported after they get off the plane.
Jul 21, 2014
I arrived in El Salvador a few hours ago and was met at the airport by two gracious Salvadoran activists, Paula and Mila. Paula works with the Salvadoran organization Equipo de Maiz, a group that focuses on popular education. Mila is part of an organization that is based in the United States that works with the Salvadoran population there. On the way from the airport to Equipo de Maiz's office they gave a bit of background information on the situation of Salvadoran migrants. One thing I was surprised to learn that there are almost 3 million Salvadorans living outside of El Salvador, the majority of them in Los Angeles. El Salvador itself only has a population of about 8 million, which suggests something of the dynamic that migration plays in the country.
When I arrived at Equipo de Maiz I discovered to my delight that they are very inspired by the legacy of Oscar Romero. There is a full audio library of his homilies and several portraits to him. There are also ample materials celebrating the FMLN and the 1992 Peace Accords.
The major project of the moment is one I am better equipped to observe than participate in. The other members of the group all belong to different immigrant rights organizations in the United States. They are creating popular education materials to help immigrants in the US know their rights and understand the history of immigration laws. The materials will be a mixture of text and cartoon images. We leave very shortly to meet with the National Assembly.
Jul 20, 2014
preached at First Parish in Lexington, July 20, 2014
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller's tragic death, she was forty when she drowned at sea, prompted him to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or driving a taxi through the mazing Portland streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were almost always similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”
“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. Just a few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making is a pretty powerful common center.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. Just the other day, a friend visited from Cleveland. I took the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I had never done before but will certainly do again. We delighted in its silky sweet eggey texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. Just the other day, a friend called me and reminded I should try to make the world a better place. Next week I am going to El Salvador to gather testimony from undocumented immigrants who have been deported back there.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights.
Jul 19, 2014
I am starting pack for my trip to El Salvador. I have two long plane rides and so I am anticipating having a fair chunk of time to read. I have compiled a small of list texts to bring with that will either provide me with historical and political background or aid me in the theological reflection.
Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky
Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora, Daniel Kanstroom
Witness to War: A Doctor’s Moving and Urgent Story, Charles Clements
Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation, ed. Michael Lee
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Oscar Romero
The first two are some of the better recent books on immigration. Clements is a Harvard professor who served as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for a several. He spent his politically formative years in El Salvador. Ellacuria and Romero are both important Catholic liberation theologians. Both were assassinated by right-wing thugs during the civil war. I also plan to bring a good Spanish dictionary, I’m fond of Larousse, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Chet Baker piensa en su arte; Relatos selectos. I realize that’s rather a lot of books for such a short trip but we’re going to be based out of a hotel and I’d like to have useful tools on hand preparing notes and, possibly, blog posts.
Jul 17, 2014
Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office and Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director asked me to represent the UUA on a delegation being organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) to El Salvador. I leave on Monday. The trip is promoted by the increasing number of children attempting to migrate to the United States and the abusive, outrageous and immoral treatment they have experienced at the hands of the Border Patrol. The goal of the trip is to better understand the causes for their migration and the horrors that they experience when they migrate to the United States, during the deportation process and when they return to their native country. We will be taking testimony from people who have been deported and organizing public town halls to raise awareness about their plight and the need for investment in reintegration initiatives.
I hope that my participation in the delegation will equip me to aid in the effort to shift the conversation about immigration. It is currently rooted in fear. It needs to be rooted in compassion. Immigrants are not abstractions. They are human beings. They suffer the same as anyone else and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness. The cores of the Western religious traditions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--all revolve around loving one’s neighbor. Good hearted religious people, whatever their political alignment, should be reminding America’s politicians of this at every moment of the immigration debate.
When I get back I will be preaching and writing about my observations in El Salvador. On August 17, I will give a sermon, “Through Eyes that Have Cried,” at the First Parish in Lexington. I will also be working with one of the editors at N+1 on a piece and will be looking for other venues for my reflections as well. I am not bringing a computer to El Salvador but if I can find an internet cafe I will post about the delegation as it unfolds.
Jul 10, 2014
I have been asked by the Unitarian Universalist Association to serve as the association's representative on a delegation organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network later this month to El Salvador to take testimony from undocumented immigrants who have been deported back to that country. While there we will also be trying to understand why people, particularly children, are leaving El Salvador for the United States. This means that I've had to revised my preaching schedule for my time at First Parish in Lexington. Here's the revised schedule:
Over My Head
July 13, 2014
When, where and how do we find the divine? What is it? Is it even meaningful to speak in such terms?
One Soul, Two Bodies
July 20, 2014
Drawing from Aristotle and Emerson’s insights, we will consider, in this sermon on ethical living, the role friendship can play in helping us live virtuous lives.
Unknown Visions of Love
July 27, 2014
Universalist theology exists outside of organized Unitarian Universalism. What does it look like? What might Unitarian Universalists learn from it?
Through Eyes that Have Cried
August 17, 2014
At the end of July Rev. Bossen is serving as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s representative on a delegation to meet with undocumented immigrants who have been deported to El Salvador. In this sermon he will reflect on his experiences in El Salvador and the moral imperative for immigration reform.
...It’s a spiritual thing
August 24, 2014
In an experimental worship service, we will celebrate the transformative spiritual power of music and dance. Our special musical guest has been a DJ since 1991, has records out on four different labels and is the house music buyer for Capital City Records. He has had residencies at clubs in Washington, DC, Chicago, New York and several other major cities throughout the United States. Of the music he plays he says, quoting James Brown, “Bobby, I don’t know, but whatever I play, it’s got to be funky.”
Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in the Labor Movement
August 31, 2014
We will celebrate Labor Day weekend with a service honoring labor in the pulpit. There will be a special collection benefiting the work of a local labor organization.
Jul 8, 2014
I have been invited to participate in a panel on "The Present and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship" at the autumn 2014 Collegium conference. While I have my own thoughts on the subject, I am eager to learn what readers of this blog think of it.
Jul 7, 2014
My paper “With Two Lamps to Guide Me; Staughton Lynd as Theologian” has been accepted by the Unitarian Universalist Collegium: An Association for Liberal Religious Studies for presentation at their November 19-22, 2014 conference. Here’s my proposal:
Staughton Lynd is an American historian, social justice activist, labor lawyer, and, I argue, theologian. He was the only significant white organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, was deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War, and has played an important role in theorizing the problems and potentials of the contemporary American labor movement. Despite his own profession of faith as a religious person, and frequent deployment of religious tropes, little scholarly attention has been paid to how he proceeds as religious thinker. In this paper I track Lynd’s development from his childhood involvement in Ethical Culture through his work as a Quaker prison abolitionist in Youngstown, Ohio.
I suggest that Lynd functions as what Sallie McFague calls a parabolic theologian. As McFague presents it, parabolic theology “is not a theory to be applied to literary genres of the Christian tradition but a kind of reflection that arises from them.” It resides primarily in works of literature, stories, poems, autobiographies and, most importantly, parables. Parabolic theology is “embodied thinking, thought which cannot finally abstract from the person who is doing the thinking.” Parabolic theologians are not known, primarily, by what they say but rather how they live and what they do. Lynd is a parabolic theologian exemplar. Throughout his career his consistent emphasis has been on pairing what he terms “exemplary action” with theoretical reflection.
Lynd’s own theological interests center on the Latin American tradition of liberation theology. He pays particular attention to the liberation theology concepts of the preferential option for the poor and accompaniment. He has found these two concepts to be essential for his own work as an activist and has theorized how they can help other activists engage in more authentic and effective work.
The paper is built around the discussion of some of Lynd’s key parables, how they relate to his activism and what they suggest about an important religious concern of his, the kingdom of God. In sharing it at Collegium I hope to prompt Unitarian Universalists to see the work of this religious humanist as a resource in our own strivings to create a justice filled world.
Jul 6, 2014
preached at the First Parish in Lexington, July 6, 2014
Have you ever played the “Race Game?” Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate young white man. He brought with him his seven-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”
I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is taught to children.
Thandeka recounts the stories of how many white people learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:
See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see
We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee
She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin
Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say
Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...
It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.
I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.
I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.
This morning I do not wish to only stir up whatever feelings of shame, anger, and fear come up when we talk about race. I want to give you a note of hope. I want to talk about reparations for slavery, for Jim Crow, and for the continuing racial injustice in our society. Racism has been called America’s original sin. Like many Unitarian Universalists, I do not believe in original sin. I do not believe that we born racists or racialized. I believe racism and racialization is learned behavior. And just as the behavior has been learned, it can be unlearned. Those of us who are white can teach our white children differently than we have been taught. We can work to make things right.
I took Frederick Douglass’s “What to Slave is the Fourth of July?” as my text this morning because I knew that on this Sunday after July fourth I was occupy one of the great pulpits of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was read here, as it is every year, on Friday. Let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed from thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for some, mostly white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.
Do not let fact that the President of this country is black fool you; we continue to live in a society designed to benefit whites over others. Freedom and oppression continue to be conjoined. If you doubt this consider that the average wealth of a white family in this country is twenty times that of an African American family; consider that the unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites; consider that African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites; consider that African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites; consider how hard it is to play Thandeka’s “Race Game.” The statistics for Native Americans are similarly depressing. The conclusion is inevitable: our society is structured to benefit white people at the expense of African Americans and most other people of color.
On this Sunday after July fourth it is appropriate to ask not “What to Slave is the Fourth of July?”--for legalized slavery has been largely ended--but: “What to anyone who cares about racial justice is the Fourth of July?”
Now, I suspect that at this point some of you are beginning to wonder what you have gotten yourself into. Peter has gone away for the summer and left your storied pulpit in hands of a lunatic radical. You might be thinking: we are ten minutes into the sermon and all we have from this maladjusted savant is a cringe worthy political oration. I might reply, in the words of Martin King, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” We ought to be maladjusted to white supremacy. It is a grave threat, perhaps the gravest, to our souls.
By soul I mean, our essential essence, the core of our personality, that part of each us that animates us and makes us uniquely who we are. Our souls are social products. They are born from our interactions with ours. White supremacy lessens our souls. White, black, brown, white supremacy spreads the lie that some of us are more innately gifted, better than, others. For many European Americans, it creates illusion that we have earned what have not. For many people of color, it suggests that undeserved suffering is somehow a predestined punishment. It circumscribes the circles that we interact with, separates people and communities.
For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”
The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you are white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.
Race is a social construct, a collective sin. It requires institutions to maintain. Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” If we are to overcome the sin of separation and save our souls then we must speak out. We must admit that our own Unitarian Universalist Association tends to continue to do social justice and theological work from primarily the perspective of the white middle class. We must call for, work towards, reparations.
You might know that this year at General Assembly we adopted a study action issue focusing on “Escalating Inequality.” It is a telling, and well intentioned, document. It document acknowledges the increasing inequality in our society but it makes no mention of race or racism. It makes no reference to the gross disparities in wealth between most people of color and most whites.
Racism and economic inequality are hopelessly intertwined. One is almost certainly the product of the other. The skin caste system in this country dates from the colonial period when it was intentional constructed to turn the African and European servants of the great plantation owners against each other. Whites were promised a modicum of privilege if they sided with the great landowners against African slaves. Poor whites gained a measure of freedom in exchange for enforcing the slavery of blacks. Whites who strayed, who sided with the African slaves, were ostracized, or worse.
If we are going to address inequality then we must seek reparations. And here’s where the hope comes in. Reparations may seem like an impossibility but they are a real possibility. There is a precedent. During World War II Japanese Americans were viewed as a threat to national security and forcibly relocated to internment camps. In 1988 the United States Congress passed a bill giving each living survivor of the camps redress. On the international level, Germany and German firms have paid various forms of reparations to both Israel and individual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.
I do not know what form reparations will take but there are four concrete things that can be to move us towards them. First, those of us who are white can examine what it feels like to be white. We can play the “Race Game.” We can examine the ways in which we have learned to be white, and how we have benefited from and suffered under the racial caste system. We can end the denial that we live in a white supremacist society. Second, your congregation can pass a resolution making a public statement in favor of reparations. You celebrate your connection to the great abolitionist Theodore Parker. Honor his legacy. My home congregation, First Parish in Cambridge, has a banner on the front proclaiming its divestment from fossil fuels and challenging Harvard to do the same. How powerful would it be for the church on Lexington Common to hoist a banner each July fourth calling for reparations? Third, you can write the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association and challenge them to include language about reparations in the final version of the study action issue on inequality. Finally, call your white Congresswoman, Katherine Clark, and ask her to support Congressman John Conyers’s bill calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations. He has introduced it repeatedly. It does not commit the government to do anything beyond creating a commission to study reparations. That would be a first, necessary, step.
In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass compares the country to a river. I find his description hopeful. Let me leave you with his words. “Great streams are not easily turned from channels... They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel... But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch...” Which is the river’s true channel? The legacy of liberty or slavery? Will your soul, or mine, be a withered branch or will it rise in stately majesty?
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.