Nov 18, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 17, 2019
The Trappist monk, mystic, peace activist, and scholar Thomas Merton wrote about how he decided to pursue saintliness. One spring night he and a friend were walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. The subway was being dug. The street was torn up--there were banks of dirt “marked out with red lanterns” lining sidewalks and piled up high in front of the shops. This was the 1940s. It was before Merton became a monk, when he was still a young man. Merton and his friend, someone who went on to become a noted poet, were arguing, passionately, about something.
Suddenly, Merton’s friend turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
Merton recalls his answer, “I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English...,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged.”
Then Merton tried to formulate his response. He said, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
Merton’s friend was not satisfied, “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton admitted that he was confused. And so, his friend continued to press him. “What you should say,” Merton’s friend informed him, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
“A saint!... ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’,” was Merton’s reply.
“By wanting to,” his friend said simply.
Merton was filled with self-doubt. “I can’t be a saint. I can’t be a saint,” he answered back. He recounts that in that moment, “my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the they must reach... cowardice.”
Merton’s friend would have none of it. He told him, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Merton described this story in his spiritual classic the Seven Storey Mountain. It was the first major work that he published. For many people, especially of the Vietnam War generation, he went on to become exactly the person who his friend was prompting him to be, a saint.
Merton’s Catholic theistic theology may not resonate with most you but his narrative touches upon the theme of our sermon this morning. This is my second sermon for you on courage. We might define courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. We exhibit courage when we acknowledge our fears, admit that there are ills which might befall us, and act anyway.
Last week I spoke with you about collective courage. Collective courage is the way that we can collectively face our fears and struggle to find new ways of being. It is the expressed in the seventeenth-century universalist phrase, “turn the world upside down.” It is the act of working together to confront social crises--great and small--and then attempting to reorder society.
This week I want to speak with you about individual courage. What I mean here is finding the courage to become the person you feel called to be. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about finding “the courage to be.” We humans are born with the knowledge that we will die. We witness the mortality of others and realize that death will soon come for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but each breath draws us closer to our moment of expiration. This can make us anxious. No matter what we do--no matter how carefully we eat, how much we exercise, or how many doctors we see--the threat of death cannot be overcome. “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself,” wrote Tillich.
In the face of our individual impending extinction it takes courage to continue along with life. And it takes even greater courage to be and to attempt to become, to recognize ourselves as poised on the existential void and still strive to live a life of authenticity. For Merton, it took an extraordinary amount of courage to pursue the vision of sainthood that he found with his friend that New York City night. It meant rejecting all of anxiety that told him he could not or would not or was unable to or that his life was too insignificant. Instead, it meant somehow moving past all of that and coming to recognize, in his words, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
The courage of becoming has long been prized by our religious tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” Our characters might be described as the total sum of our virtues and vices. Virtues are things about us which are praiseworthy. They are the accretions of our actions. Our actions become our habits and then eventually our habits turn to virtues--or vices--and these become our characters. And we Unitarian Universalists have long taught that we are not born with our character fixed in place--born wicked as many a conservative religious tradition teaches. But rather we are born with the capacity to become, the capacity to develop our virtues and vices.
Thomas Aquinas, the twelfth century theologian, identified four principle virtues. These are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. Over the next several months as we explore how to develop the spiritual and resources that will allow us to address the grave crises of the hour and of our lives we will be examining some of these virtues. We have started with courage because developing the courage to be is essential if we are to pursue the other virtues. Without courage it is difficult to gather the wherewithal to figure out how to be ourselves. William Ellery Channing, another nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian, wrote that the courage to become ourselves might even “be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature.” When we find it we open ourselves to the rich possibilities of life and confront the truth that we have a responsibility for forming our own characters.
Bob Schaibly used to frequently remind this congregation of this truth. During the two decades he served here he often told you some variety of, “life... [does] not have a meaning; we give life its meaning, or rather we give our lives their meanings.” Bob’s death this week prompted me to go read a number of his sermons. Reading them I found that he also often told you some variant of, “You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.” The recognition that life does not have an intrinsic meaning, the realization that we are born with what we need to pass our time on our muddy planet, it takes courage to face these truths starkly. It takes courage to admit to them and then open ourselves to becoming ourselves.
I spent a portion of this summer thinking about courage. As some of you know, Asa and I were in Europe for about five weeks with my parents. You might remember that everyone else in our family is in the arts. My father is an art historian and photographer. My mother was a ceramicist in her younger years and then, after she retired from teaching, served on a musem board. She, incidentally, makes all of my stolls. My brother is a figurative painter. His girlfriend is fashion designer. And Emma is pursuing a career in fashion photography.
Traveling with my parents meant immersing ourselves in the arts. We spent about a week in Arles, France at the giant international photography festival there. Rencontres d’Arles is even larger than Houston’s FotoFest. It brings close to a hundred thousand people to the ancient Roman city where Van Gough painted. It is a premier event in the arts world, a bit akin to the Cannes Film Festival.
My parents go most years. This year was very special. One of their closest friends, the Czech photographer Libuse Jarcovjakova was one of the featured artists. She was given the former Saint Anne’s church as an exhibition space. The building has been stripped of religious iconography. The stones have been washed white and a blonde wooden floor put in. The side chapels and the nave have been converted into a gallery that allowed Libuse to exhibit more than two hundred of her images.
Libuse is about the same age as my parents. This was her first major show. It would something of an understatement to say that it was a smash success. During the week that we spent together in Arles there were major articles about her work in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the Guardian. Walking around Arles with her was what I roughly imagine moving through Cannes with a well-known movie director. People stopped us in the street or came up to us and introduced themselves to Libuse while we ate in French cafes.
It would be fair to say that Libuse was in a bit of state of shock. In the space of a week she went from a complete unknown to an international art celebrity. And there are two things about Libuse and courage that I want to share with you. The first is about her art itself. And the second is about her life as an artist.
Libuse’s photography comes from straight from her life. It is her record of courageously becoming. Which is no small thing. She, as I mentioned earlier, is Czech. She came of age in Communist Czechoslovakia. She is also queer. To put it mildly, being a queer artist was not a form of authenticity that was largely tolerated by the Marxist-Leninist authorities. And yet, over the course of more than twenty years she took thousands of black and white photographs documenting her life, lives of those she loved and the lives of those she just happened to encounter. She used photography to attempt to make sense of her life. She told me, “Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.”
The images that garnered the most attention were from the T-Club, which was one of only two gay clubs in Prague during the Communist-era. Never entirely legal, Libuse describes it as a place for: “Convulsive laughter and genuine tears. Insightful conversation and superficial coquetry. One-night stands and love for life. Beautiful young men and beautiful young women. Effeminate “B´s” and respectable-looking gentlemen, who rebounded from their families. Female footballers, waiters, taxi drivers and most probably the secret police too.” In this “place of eternal carnival,” as Libuse called it, people were able to find the courage to be themselves.
And Libuse took photographs of them as they lived that courage. This Transgender Awareness Week, one image in particular stands out. It is of a young postman from North Bohemia who traveled to Prague to visit the T-Club. He wanted to be a woman and gender transition was not possible for him in that repressive society. And yet, there is Libuse’s photograph. In it, the young postman appears as the woman he longs to be. She’s wearing a blonde wig, flirting with the camera, beaming in a long fur coat, courageously, fully, being herself.
Libuse empathy for her subject pops right out of the frame. I can only imagine the courage that was necessary to both take the photograph and be its subject. It is quite possible that either act could have cost the photographer or her subject their livelihoods. For Libuse, even the attempt to be an artist took courage. You see, she came from an artistic family. Both her parents were artists. But they were not the kind of artists approved by the Communist Party. They painted modern abstract canvases. The Party wanted socialist realism, which depicted working people living an idealized life under the Marxist-Leninist regime.
When Libuse graduated from high school the Party had its revenge upon her parents. They her made undergo what was called forced proletarization. In other words, they denied her a college education and tried to make her become a factory worker. She wanted to be an artist like her parents. She did not give up the courage to become. Instead, she told the factory officials that while she worked in the factory, she wanted to document the glorious life of working people had under the Party’s leadership. So, she took her camera and made photographs of people at work. But she did not do it in service of the regime. Instead of showing workers nobly toiling away, she took photographs of them engaging in their everyday acts of resistance--goofing, napping, ignoring supervisors, or doing whatever else they did when they showed up to the factory and did not work. I particularly like the images she made of the creative ways people found to sleep at work--under desks, in giant steel tubes, behind piles of wooden crates...
It took a lot of courage for Libuse to make such defiant photographs. Finding this courage was necessary for her to be herself--to become an artist when her society told her explicitly that she could not be one. It also helped her to develop a sense that courage and beauty are found in everyday life. In conversation with me, she explained a bit of her philosophy, “Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
It takes courage to recognize the specialness of ordinary life. We probably will not become famous religious teachers like Thomas Merton. And we probably will not become internationally known artists like Libuse. But we can find the courage to be ourselves. After all, this is what both Libuse and Merton recommend to us. It is also what the virtue of courage offers us. When we cultivate it we find within ourselves the ability to shape our character. We are born not good or bad but with the ability to choose and in order to do so we must be courageous.
I had initially thought to end our sermon there, but the events of the week require further observations about the courage of being. I speak, of course, of the week’s impeachment hearings. They have demonstrated extraordinary instances of the courage to be by civil servants. The women and men who have testified in front of the nation have offered case studies in how we can shape our own characters. They each have decided upon a profession and then performed its actions, cultivated its habits, and, ultimately, found them embodying its virtues.
It is clear that one of the virtues of their profession is courage. In the face of intimidation by the most powerful man on Earth, the President of the United States, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine, testified on national television. In a telephone call, the President of the United States had said to the President of the Ukraine that he was displeased with Yovanovitch and that she would “go through some things,” words that for me recall mafia movies. Yet there she was, in front of the world, offering information that may well lead to the impeachment of the President.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, to “be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” And in her testimony, Yovanovitch demonstrated that whomever the President might be she can be relied upon to perform her professional duties. It was a demonstration of how she had cultivated the virtue of courage. It was a demonstration of the courage of being--of embracing the role, the profession, she had chosen for herself.
Her testimony reminded me of words by the civil rights organizer, Ella Baker. Baker said, “I am here and so are you. And we matter. We can change things.” Baker’s words are an invocation of the courage of being. They remind us that we are here and that what we do matters. It takes courage to accept this, courage to admit, as Bob Schaibly taught, that we make the meaning we find in life. Yovanovitch was reminding the world that civil servants play a significant role in government. However much the President of the United States might slight her and her State Department colleagues, they remain actively involved in shaping the destiny of the federal government. And their professional virtues, of which courage is but one, are a significant reason as to why.
Not all of us are civil servants, just as not all of us are artists or great religious teachers. And yet, there is something about the courage to be that it is found in the lives of each person I have talked with you about this morning that recommends itself to each of us. It takes courage to recognize that we have within us the potential to be something and then courage to search for that something. It is the ordinary courage of life, not something extraordinary, and it is something we can find within us.
That is what Libuse tries to communicate with her photography. Her work is not of important religious leaders like Thomas Merton or successful government officials like Marie Yovanovitch. It is of regular working people like the woman from Bohemia dressed in her furs outside the T-Club, finding a space to courageously be the woman she knew she was despite having to live as a postman. It is of regular working people discovering the courage to be their human selves amid a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime--to goof off at work, to sleep on the job.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Such courage might mean admitting that you are uncertain of who you are supposed to be and living with that ambiguity. That is certainly something of what Bob Schaibly suggested in his sermons. Before we find the courage to be we must first discover the courage to recognize that it is we who make the meaning of our lives. In some times and places this is much easier to recognize that in others. Living in New York, the child of relative wealth and privilege, it was no doubt easier for Thomas Merton to accept that he could become who he wanted to be than it was for Libuse in 1970s Prague. Finding the courage to be a queer dissident artist under the Soviets and refusing to let the officials of a totalitarian regime be the people who made meaning from her life was extraordinarily difficult. It meant creating in secrecy, without recognition, for decades. And yet, she found the courage to be.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Have you found it? Can you accept that we make meaning in our lives? It is a significant responsibility. And it means accepting that our ordinary lives--yours and mine--can contain the meaning we give them. We might be hemmed in on many sides. We might not come from lives of privilege or have the advantages of a fine education or struggle with poverty. But we can find the courage to be and discover within ourselves the resources to make meaning in our lives. And to accept that such meaning will change over time. It is like Bob Schaibly said, “at different times the meaning of your life may have been to do God’s will, or to do justice, or to love mercy, or to enjoy the fruits of creation, to complete your education, to raise your children, to get these kids through college, and so forth.” Your meaning is your own if you can cultivate the courage to make it.
This belies the universe having cosmic meaning. And it takes courage to face that, as the poet Cristina Peri Rossi wrote:
“Se necesita mucho valor
para tanta muerte inútil.”
“One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death.”
Death, like life, is only given the meaning we provide it. It takes courage to face that and to give our lives, and ultimately, our deaths meaning. And so, let me give the last words to Bob Schaibly who gave his life, and his death, meaning in part by serving this congregation, Unitarian Universalism, and our human world:
You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.
May we each, as members of this religious community and as members of the great family of all souls, cultivate within us the courage to find what we need within Bob Schaibly’s words.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 19, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
We have just rung our church bell twenty-one times. Mallet has struck metal for each of the “twenty and odd” Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia in late August 1619. Their arrival was a pivotal moment in this country’s history. African Americans have provided this country with its some of its foremost artists, religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. African American culture has given the United States, and the world, powerful and popular musical traditions that shaped global culture: the blues, jazz, hip-hop, house and techno, rock ‘n roll, and soul. And African Americans have again and again pushed this country to be a land of freedom and equality rather than a land of slavery and injustice.
The Africans who arrived in Virginia were kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship originally destined for the Caribbean. At least a few of the names given to them by their kidnappers were recorded. There was a woman called Angelo and a couple called Antonio and Isabella. They were the parents of William, the first African American born in the English colonies. He was born free. Slavery did not become hereditary until later.
Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, and the others who arrived with them were natives of West Central Africa. They arrived on an English ship called the White Lion. The ship’s crew is believed to have traded them for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America. And their arrival marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the colony of Virginia.
1619. It is a year that is just as foundational to the United States of America as 1776. The two years represent the contradiction that lies at the heart of the country. From its very inception, the United States of America has proclaimed itself “the land of the free.” From its very inception, the United States of America been built upon unfreedom. It is like the late Toni Morrison observed, “the presence of the unfree [lies] within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Unfreedom has, from its point of origin, warped the very idea of freedom. To build one person’s freedom on another person’s slavery is to turn freedom itself into a lie.
I have a friend who has a joke about this. He says, “Whenever white folks start talking about freedom, I start to look around to see what, or who, they are trying to steal.” Often freedom for people who believe themselves to be white has come at the expense of everyone else. And just as often, African Americans have proclaimed that freedom is either for everyone or no one. It is like Martin King observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This contradiction between freedom and unfreedom has led slavery to be called America’s original sin. Unitarian Universalists, as I said last week, could use a more robust understanding of sin. And theological language is illuminating when we attempt to understand the legacy of slavery.
Sin can be understood as estrangement. Estrangement is a form of separation in which there are, at a minimum, unfriendly feelings between the estranged parties. It is the mission of religion to help us overcome sin. Sin, I am suggesting, is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality. It is something to be found in our human relations (and in our relations with the planet). When I speak of slavery as a sin, I am speaking of a pattern of estrangement that was actualized in the material conditions of people’s lives. The institution of slavery was a set of behaviors, and set of beliefs, that enabled people who believed themselves to be white to imagine other human beings as primarily tools and instruments for producing wealth. When an enslaver looked at someone they had enslaved they did not see the pain in the eyes of another human being. They did not see another being whose purpose in life was to love and laugh, imagine and create. They imagined they saw someone who existed to serve them, who existed to be exploited to build wealth. In their crass imagining the enslavers estranged themselves from their own humanity. In their fierce resistance those who had been enslaved proclaimed theirs.
Sin is overcome by practicing and preaching love. For if sin is estrangement then salvation might be understood as a coming back together, a reunification. And the impulse that brings us back together, and that binds us back together, is love. I am not speaking of romantic love. Instead, I refer to what in the Christian lexicon is called agape--goodwill towards all; the desire that all humans can be free. Salvation, the overcoming of estrangement, then should be understood as basing our lives, and our society, upon a love that honors all human beings.
Sin and salvation, freedom and unfreedom, all of these have a distinctly earthly flavor. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches us not to look for salvation in the next world but to see it in this one. It teaches that sin is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality, but something found in human relations. This is why the Universalist lay leader Fannie Barrier Williams said, “I dare not to cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice...” It is why the Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown prayed, “May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore to love.”
Freedom and unfreedom... 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia. They arrived after enduring the brutal Middle Passage. They had been forced into a ship in Angola and cramped below deck. We have no words from them describing their experiences, but we do have the words others who survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was one of them. Kidnapped as a young boy in what is now Nigeria, he published “The Interesting of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” the same year the United States Constitution became the law of the land. He described the Middle Passage as “filled with horrors of every kind.” He recollected his time confined below deck this way: “with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”
At least two million people--daughters, sons, children, mothers, fathers, parents, lovers, friends, artists, prophets, singers, geniuses, dancers, poets, human beings--died in the Middle Passage. Some succumb to illness. Some were beaten to death when they resisted. Some jumped from the ships rather than endure unfreedom. Let us honor them with a silent prayer.
And a poem: “August 1619” by Clint Smith.
Over the course of 350 years,
36,000 slave ships crossed the Atlantic
Ocean. I walk over to the globe & move
my finger back & forth between
the fragile continents. I try to keep
count how many times I drag
my hand across the bristled
hemispheres, but grow weary of chasing
a history that swallowed me.
For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.
I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.
I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.
The soft hum of history spins
on its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost ships
wash their hands of all they carried.
The soft hum of history spins / on its tilted axis. 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia not as slaves but as indentured servants. Europeans who lived in the colony were in a similar legal state. Indentured servitude was a system whereby an individual was bound to work for an employer for a particular period of time. At the end of the contract the individual was free to sell their labor to whomever they liked. If they could find land to work, they were also free to live as a farmer. Many poor Europeans made their way, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the English colonies as indentured servants.
Why is this technical distinction between indentured servitude and slavery necessary? Because slavery was created explicitly to divide Africans and poor Europeans. United in mutual love they were a threat to the wealthy elites of the colonies. Estranged through slavery, Africans and poor Europeans could both be exploited to produce wealth for the rich men who owned plantations and factories.
This condition of estrangement was intentionally created to shore up the power of the wealthy. It was created through the legal system. The Africans who arrived in Jamestown, if they lived long enough, died free. Their children were born free. They sometimes united with the children of European indentured servants for greater freedom for the poor. This mutual love was unconscionable to the men who owned most of the land in the colonies, men who understood freedom as the freedom to earn money and not the freedom to be. They passed laws that, in essence, created race and created slavery as a racial condition. First, they passed laws that declaimed that only African people could be slaves. And then they passed laws that said that an individual’s legal status followed that of their mother. If the mother was an African slave then the child, no matter the color of its skin, would be a slave.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Africans resisted and imagined true liberation from the beginning. They ran away almost as soon as they arrived in the Americas. In the dismal swamps, the mountains, in the deep recesses of the forests, they formed maroon societies. Sometimes joined by poor Europeans who had fled indentured servitude, sometimes joining with Native Americans, free Africans created communities where true freedom was the norm. Interracial solidarity--the salvation of mutual love--overcame the sin of slavery. These communities, as the political philosopher Cedric Robinson has described them, were “communitarian rather individualistic, democratic... Afro-Christian rather than... materialist.” Over the centuries they provided safe harbor for people escaping slavery. Over the centuries they offered a space where people could dream freedom dreams outside of or on the edge of a society where freedom only existed for some people. Many of these free maroon societies lasted until at least the Civil War when they provided bases of operation for African American guerrillas and Union loyalists in the struggle end chattel slavery that the Civil War became.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Here is an uncomfortable truth about the United States: enslaved people laid the foundation stones of the White House. Enslaved people placed the Statue of Freedom atop the Capital dome. The American Revolution was at least partially about the freedom of men who believed themselves to be white to enslave others. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed in England itself. Men like Thomas Jefferson feared that Britain would eventually abolish slavery in the English colonies. This dynamic prompted the English writer and politician Samuel Johnson to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of” slaves?
Throughout the history of this country it has most often been African Americans who held out a different vision of freedom. It is not a vision of freedom based in the ability to enslave others—a vision of freedom rooted in estrangement. It is a vision of freedom based in a belief, in the words of the abolitionist Martin Delaney, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” It is a vision of freedom organized around the idea of universal equality.
The great W. E. B. Du Bois called it abolition democracy. He coined the phrase abolition democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and transgender people.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
Abolition democracy is the greatest of the American political traditions. It is only one that actually offers the possibility of freedom for all people. It proponents form a pantheon saints. In that pantheon are people of African descendant like Phyllis Wheatley who said, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” And Harriet Tubman who wrote, of the struggle for freedom, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.” And Frederick Douglass who gave a speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” And Martin King, and Ella Baker, and Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others. It is a pantheon that includes not only people of African descent but all of those who have held out a vision of love that can conquer hate, a vision in which the estrangement of sin can be overcome by the salvation of equality.
Writing about the contradiction between unfreedom and freedom that lies at the heart of the United States, W. E. B. Du Bois argued more than a hundred years ago, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Writing as an advocate of abolition democracy, though she does not use that term, the African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones posed her answer to Du Bois’s problem in the form of a question, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
It is a hope that I cling to in these troubled days. It is why I look to people of color and women for leadership in the face of a blatantly white supremacist President who aspires to authoritarianism. It is the saints of abolitionist democracy who have most boldly articulated a different view--a view that proclaims the salvation of love for all. In this desperate hour, when democratic societies are under threat, when racial injustice is increasing, when inequality is growing, when we face the existential threat of climate change, let us turn to their vision of freedom. Let us a proclaim and live an understanding of freedom not born from estrangement and separation but love and unity. For now is the crucial time, not just for you and for me but for all who come after. We live in a moment like the one James Baldwin wrote of at the end of his magnificent meditation on the civil rights movement and race in America, “The Fire Next Time”:
“If we… do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Let us inscribe the words of Baldwin, and all the other abolition democrats, known and unknown, on our hearts. 1619. On this four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, who we know only by the name given to them by their kidnappers, and the other “twenty and odd” Africans who came with them, let us commit ourselves to a vision of freedom for all. It is not a vision of freedom to exploit. It is a vision in which you and you and you and I and all of us can truly be who we ought to be. It is a vision we find articulated in the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which I now invite you to join me in singing.
Apr 11, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, April 8, 2018
I am grateful for the invitation to fill your pulpit this morning as we pause to reflect upon and honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Your minister, the Rev. Abbey Tennis, is a dear friend of mine. She is someone who I knew before she entered seminary. And so, it is a special privilege to be able preach from the pulpit she regularly graces. It is also a particular privilege to be in Philadelphia. My parents are from the civil rights generation. They met here while my mother was a teacher at Kenderton School in North Philly. And I grew up with stories about their involvement in civil rights efforts here, their participation in the teacher's union, and their connections to your city's vibrant arts community. So, in some sense, even though I have never lived in Philadelphia, this city's movements for justice have deeply shaped who I am and my commitments to antiracism and the labor movement.
This week many good-hearted people have paused to honor Dr. King. The President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, took three days out of her busy schedule to travel down to Memphis, Tennessee so that she could be present with the religious leaders, civil rights veterans, union organizers, and ordinary dreamers of peace and justice who gathered together to remember Dr. King on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. In order to be in Memphis, the Rev. Frederick-Gray turned down an invitation to travel to Washington, DC to participate in the remembrances organized by the National Council of Churches. I think her choice could be interpreted as a statement about the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Our fate as Unitarian Universalists is tied to those who dare to imagine that a world filled with peace and justice is possible. Dr. King taught that if we were not going to perish together as fools we need to dream of and then create a world where the psychic toxins of white supremacy have been purged from this nation and the globe, a world where we have set aside our gross materialism to live in sustainable harmony with our muddy blue ball of a planet, and a world where revolutionary love, rather than stultifying violence, is used to mediate our conflicts and solve our problems. Our collective fate as religious liberals is far more bound up with the fates of the visionaries who dream of such a world than it is with the fates of the mainline denominations or the moderate mainstream of American culture. This why Dr. King considered us friends and once referred to our tradition as "so near and dear" to him. It is why he often visited Arlington Street Church when he was a student in Boston. And it is why he took time on two occasions to directly speak to us as Unitarian Universalists and share with us what he hoped from our movement. He hoped "the church... [would remain] awake during a great revolution."
Now all of that should enough of what a Baptist minister friend of mine calls "throat clearing." I would, however, be remiss if I failed to extend a final note of gratitude to your guest music director, Nate, to Benjamin, who prepared the order of service, and, of course, to Anne. Working with each of them has been a reminder that while I may prepare my sermon alone worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
The title of today's sermon is "The Most Notorious Liar in America." Have you heard these words before? They are a phrase the director of the FBI used to describe Dr. King in 1964. I have chosen this phrase as the title of my sermon for two reasons. First, they are a reminder that Martin King was not always lauded during his lifetime. In his later years, as he turned from working to end segregation to critiquing the giant triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, he became increasing unpopular. In 1966 more than two thirds of Americans disapproved of him. That same year, 85 percent of white people said that the civil rights movement hurt African Americans more than it helped them. After he died some 31 percent of whites thought that King brought his assassination on himself. In the last fifty years the earthly powers and principalities have gone from calling him "the most notorious liar in America" to whitewashing him. In the imaginations of many he has become not that the man who told us "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin... the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society" but the man who dreamed only "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." As the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently observed, "America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages." In his transformation from marcher to martyr Martin King underwent the transmutation from maladjusted prophet to co-opted saint of the status quo.
Second, I choose the FBI director's words because Martin King was not the most notorious liar in America. He was this country's greatest truth teller. He told the truth about racism. It diminishes us all. As he said, "all life is interrelated, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you out to be until I am what I ought to be." He told the truth about militarism. He knew, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government." He told the truth about poverty. He reminded us that we lived among "economic conditions... [that] take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few..." He told the truth about the hypocrisy of white moderates and liberals who say that they are for justice but loathe marchers and celebrate martyrs. He said, "I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. There is nothing more terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities than the truth. Their power is rooted in lies. It is watered by falsehoods. It is grounded in fabrications.
We live in era of fake news. We live at a time when the President of the United States could be described as the liar-in-chief. In his first six months in office he told six times as many lies as the previous President told in eight years. The current President lies about migrants. He lies about people of color. He lies about poverty. He lies about women. He lies about climate change. He staffs his administration with liars who lie for him and tell us that violence will bring peace, that trade wars will bring prosperity, that isolation is better than interconnection...
The words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah were made for our time:
Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees
and who write unjust judgments which they have prescribed
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to take away the right from the poor of My people,
that widows may be their prey,
and that they may rob the fatherless!"
We can imagine that Isaiah was named the most notorious liar in Judah. The world's powers and principalities have feared the truth for as long as the prophets have spoken it. Perhaps that is why we are reminded in the Gospel of John, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." During his brief thirty-nine years Dr. King gave us the truth that could shatter the lies of those who keep the human family divided, of those who profit from what he named as the triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism, of those who peddle fake news and climate change denial, of those who exploit women and push transphobia and homophobia. That truth is, "We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools." The language may be gender limited but the core insight he offered shines through all the same, "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. Today, fifty years after Martin King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the truth does not just threaten to disrupt the worldly powers and principalities. The truth remains challenging for many good-hearted people to hear. The truth threatens the comfort of those of who Dr. King called "the white moderate."
Some years I was reminded of just how difficult truth can be for the white moderate. I was invited to preach the Sunday sermon at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in suburban Boston. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. I took for my text Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." On that Sunday we read the passage where Dr. King takes moderates to task for being conflict adverse for, as he put it, preferring a "negative peace... [with] the absence of tension to a positive peace... [with] the presence of justice."
Now, I admit I was angry. But as the bumper sticker tell us, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention." I was upset about living in a society where Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and Stephon Clark have all died violent deaths. I was mad about living in a country where, in 2017, 1,193 people were killed by the police. That is five times the number of people who lynched at the height of lynching. I was irate about a country where the median wealth of a white family is seven times that of a black family and five times that of a Latinx family; where the unemployment and poverty rates of most people of color are two to three times those of whites; and where African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.
It was near the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. I might have been injudicious with my words. I praised the brave prophetic protestors. I called the police killing of an unarmed man like Stephon Clark a murder. And I celebrated a group of activists who, to support Black Lives Matter, had done what Dr. King had frequently done. They had committed civil disobedience to draw attention to the systematic racism that festers at the heart of American society. They had occupied a major highway for several hours and blocked traffic from flowing into Boston.
Would you like to know what happened after the service? I was not greeted with the normal courtesies extended to the guest preacher. Instead, someone told me how upset they were that I describe the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police as murders. They wanted to know how I could have the knowledge that juries lacked when they acquit police officers after they kill people. That is a perspective that assumes that justice in America is race blind. And yet, we know, that it is anything but race blind.
Another group cornered me to share how much they disapproved of the protestors blocking the highway. They had been inconvenienced on their commutes. They failed to see how that civil disobedience was effective to the cause of racial justice. And they thought that as a minister I should criticize such activists rather than praise them. The next day I received an email from my ministerial colleague who had invited me to preach at the congregation, disinviting me from preaching there in the future.
I share this story not to turn myself into some sort of hero. Perhaps you agree with my colleague and their congregants. If so, that is fine. Disagreement is sometimes necessary for dialogue. But know this, I offer the story as an example of the ways we Unitarian Universalists can find the truth about racism in this country upsetting. It can be hard to recognize the truth that fifty years after the murder of Dr. King this country remains as racially unequal as ever. It can be even harder to realize that many of us have benefitted and participated from the systems perpetuate such racial disparity. And it can terrifying to recognize that changing such systems requires all of us to be maladjusted to the status quo and, for some of us, to risk losing our comforts.
The most notorious liar in America... Dr. King understood that the truth could be terrifying, upsetting, and dangerous. And yet, he gave his life to speak that truth. He shared that truth with us Unitarian Universalists on two occasions. The second time was in 1966, a text from which we have already read. The first time was in 1964 when he delivered a eulogy for the Rev. James Reeb. Reeb was a white Unitarian Universalist minister beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama because he marched for civil rights.
In eulogizing Reeb, Martin King urged us not ask the question: "Who killed James Reeb?" Instead, he encouraged us to ask, "What killed James Reeb." And he observed, "When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows."
Dr. King gave a true answer to his rhetorical question. And it was an answer that all of us might find challenging. He said, and I apologize for the dated racial language:
"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every… [black person] who tacitly accepts the evil systems of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice."
Martin King wanted us to know that James Reeb was, in some sense, killed by all of us. The same might be said of Dr. King himself. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger but there is a larger truth. That larger truth is terrifying. Dr. King he died because this country hates marchers but loves martyrs. Dr. King died because this country was built upon the systematic exploitation of people with black and brown bodies. Dr. King died because he threatened the standing racial order. Dr. King died because someone who spoke the truth to the worldly powers and principalities could be labelled the most notorious liar in America.
In the last two years several prominent leaders of Black Lives Matter have died. Muhiyidin Moye was shot in New Orleans. His murderers remain at large. Erica Garner suffered a fatal heart attack. It was brought on by the stress of trying to achieve justice for her father Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York City police. Shall we not say that these modern prophets were killed by the same system that killed Dr. King? As Erica Garner said before she died, "People are dying. This is real."
Facing the truth that the same system that killed Dr. King remains with us today is difficult. I choose as one of our hymns "We Shall Overcome" to try to point us to a different truth, that we shall eventually transform this system, defeat the evil triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, and live together in peace. But today, I have to admit, that fifty years after Martin King's death I am not so certain. What about you? Do you believe deep in your heart that we shall overcome? Or is the hope found in the song actually a lie? What do you think?
The most notorious liar in America... Is the actual lie that there will be victory over the systems that oppress us all? Perhaps, militarism, racism, and poverty will endure forever. Was it not Jesus who said, "The poor you will always have with you." Maybe that is the truth.
But if it is, surely it must lie alongside another truth, a truth that I have not yet mentioned, the truth that was at the core of Dr. King's life, the truth that made him so dangerous to the earthly powers and principalities. That truth is that the most powerful force in the world, the most powerful force for justice, is and has always been love. Dr. King told us this love "is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all… an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When one rises to love on this level, [they love]… a person who does evil while hating the deed."
Speaking the truth is terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities. Living the truth of love is even more threatening to them. I was reminded of this just recently when I received a letter from my friend Keith "Malik" Washington. Malik is a prison abolitionist. He believes that the prison system in the United States is a new form of slavery. And he wants to abolish it, just as we abolished chattel slavery.
Malik is one of the bravest people I know. He was one of the organizers of 2016 prison strikes that spread across the country. As many as 60,000 prisoners refused to work in protest to their subhuman conditions. It was one of the largest prison strikes in the history of this country. In retaliation for his role in organizing the strike Malik has been placed in the hole, which is to say in solitary confinement, in a jail in Texas. He has sent me letters describing the awful state of his cell, the brutality of the guards, and the, sometimes fatal, plight of his fellow prisoners.
In his most recent letter Malik was reflecting on the legacy of Martin King. He wrote about "the prevalent psyche in Amerikan society." It is that "Prisoners are bad not deserving of attention or love. Prisoners who are subhumans who deserve what they get!" He asked, "So how do we combat this Colin? We combat it with love! We humanize prisoners as much as we can in the public eye!" And then he made what seemed a remarkable statement, "I get angry and frustrated at times--but I have discovered that love is the best weapon I can have in my arsenal." This from a man who regularly suffers what I can only describe as torture. No wonder love is so threatening to the earthly powers and principalities.
You know, in the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday of Easter. And Malik's letter has had me thinking a bit about a truth that relates to Dr. King. That truth is that the love of Dr. King lives on. It is something that we must resurrect in ourselves this morning. If we are to ever overcome, if we are not turn Martin King into the most notorious liar in America, we need to resurrect the love that he taught in our hearts, just as Malik has done.
And Malik's love speaks to yet another truth, the final truth I want to share with you this morning. While Martin King was this country's most articulate purveyor of truth and love, he was not the only one. We risk turning him from a marcher to a martyr if we hold him as the sole example of someone who lived a life dedicated to acting with love and speaking truth. He was part of a movement, a movement that included numerous other brave prophets who struggled for justice. When we honor Dr. King we sometimes elide them. And so, I want to close, not with Dr. King's words but the words of three women who were the backbone of the civil rights generation. Without them there would have been no movement. Without the movement there would have been no Martin King.
Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Coretta Scott King:
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.
Will you pray with me?
Oh, spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others find unnamable,
be with us this morning,
and every morning,
as we strive towards the truth,
as we learn to love,
so that someday,
in Martin King's words:
"we can sing 'We Shall Overcome'
because somehow we know the arc of moral universe
is long but it bends towards justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right:
'No lie can live forever.'
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right:
'Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.'"
Let us have faith
that we shall overcome
not because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
was the most notorious liar in America
but because he was this country's greatest truth teller
and his truth
and his love can live in all of us.
Let the congregation say "Amen."