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.
Oct 18, 2015
as preached at Harvard Divinity School, October 16, 2015
The sermon I am going to share with you this afternoon is a result of one of those unpleasantries with which we preachers find ourselves saddled. I speak of the assigned sermon topic. We Unitarian Universalists like to celebrate our tradition of the free pulpit. And we should, it is a worthy tradition. But one of the things that your professors might not tell you is that you do not always get to pick your sermon topic. If you serve as a parish minister you will be often burdened with a topic of someone else’s choosing. You’re stuck with all of the holidays. Christmas, Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Flower Communion, Mother’s Day, come each and every year. But you also have to tend to the particular business of your congregation. Every minister I know dreads the annual pledge Sunday sermon. And what about Membership Sunday? You have to learn how to respond promptly to the events of the hour. Congregations across the United States will expect their ministers to preach about the results of the Presidential election next November.
This afternoon I find myself facing one of the assigned sermon topics that each of you who aspire to the parish ministry will face. I have to preach a sermon on one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our congregation in Fall River, Massachusetts invited me to take part in a series they are doing on the principles. They assigned me the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And so, today I want us to consider democracy as a religious practice.
Democracy is a religious practice. At least, it is for us Unitarian Universalists. James Luther Adams, that great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist, liked to share a story that illustrates the way we practice democracy religiously.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. The congregation was in the midst of an effort to racially integrate. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, including some Universalist churches in the South, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we "take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate—probably around a ridiculous massive solid oak conference table sipping cold coffee in a room that did not have enough light and where the temperature was either too hot or too cold. Anyway, our racist friend recognized that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
Democracy is a religious practice. Can anyone here testify to the transformative power of democracy in your own lives? Raise your hand if you have ever had an experience like our friend in Adams story, where you went to a meeting and felt afterwards, “I was blind but now I see.”
Well, whether you raised your hand or not let me testify something to you. If you enter the parish ministry or devote yourself to some kind of community ministry you will experience the transformative power of democracy. You will go to a meeting—an emotionally wrought possibly indeterminably long meeting where the coffee goes cold—you will go to a meeting and you will leave that meeting a different sort of person. But more than that, the community that you serve will be different afterwards. You will practice democracy and undergo personal transformation. You will practice democracy and help usher in social transformation.
Such a transformative experience might take place in an exciting setting over what can be cast as an important issue. You may immediately feel, “I was blind but now I see.” The transformation also might take place in a more quotidian environment. Adams’s story is set at church Board meeting. The testimonial I want to offer you is from an equally banal setting, a congregational meeting. And the transformation that I can attest to did not occur in instant. It was spread out over years.
The congregation I served in Cleveland is small and urban. Like most Unitarian Universalist communities, my former congregation voted on approving its annual budget at a congregational meeting. By the time I got to Cleveland, the congregational meeting had devolved into an unpleasant ritual. A motion would be made to pass the budget and then an argument would begin. It was always the same. One small group of longtime members would voraciously complain that the congregation did not have enough money to pay its minister. Another group of, much larger, members would yell back that the congregation had over a million dollars in liquid assets. It could afford to support a full-time minister. The vote always went the same way. More than 90% of the congregation voted to approve the budget. But the energy of the community was drained. It was difficult for us to focus our energy on anything else.
This changed a couple of years into my ministry when the congregation got a new Board chair. She was brilliant. She was experienced in leading non-profits. And she cared about the process of decision making. Between the two of us we developed a plan transform the congregational meeting. It had a free wheeling affair. People got to speak until everyone was exhausted. We got serious about parliamentary procedure. We convinced the Board to adopt a set of rules of order that required discussion to alternate between pro and con positions. Each person was allowed to speak on an agenda item one time, instead of however many times they felt like. We set up pro and con microphones. We asked people to line-up behind the microphones if they wanted to speak on an issue.
This changed the congregational meeting. It meant that the same few people were not allowed to speak endlessly in opposition, making the same points over and over again. They got their say and then we moved on. Meanwhile, I made it a point to schedule pastoral visits with those opposed to the budget during the winter holidays and in the months leading up to the meeting. I got to know them and their concerns. Soon, the congregational meeting became a space where work could be done on things beyond adopting the budget. The congregation was able to shift its focus. Yes, there was still bickering about money. But it was not exhausting. We built a lovely community garden that served local public housing residents. We hosted refugee families from Bhutan. We were a founding member of a large interfaith and interracial network of congregations working on urban and racial justice issues.
I should come clean to you. I choose a boring story to share with you for my own testimonial. Congregational budgets? Rules of order? Parliamentarians? Did you have a good nap? Did my story turn you into a somnambulistic zombie? The truth is democracy, real democracy, is kind of boring. It is usually ploddingly slow. First Unitarian in Chicago passed its resolution in the 1947. It did not actually integrate until the mid-1950s. Democracy does not offer the kind of immediate satisfaction that many crave in a consumer culture. But that is true of other religious practices. It takes time to follow a process that gives everyone equal voice. But trying to meditate your way to enlightenment or connect to ultimate being through prayer are not quick paths.
I will further admit that I picked boring or difficult readings to highlight this. A chunk of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and a passage from Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving speech “We’re On Our Way” do not usually form a part of worship fare. They are probably better suited for a graduate seminar. I imagine that you were hoping for more poetic texts, maybe a little Rumi: “Until the juice ferments a while in the cask, / it isn't wine. If you wish your heart to be bright, / you must do a little work.” Or Audre Lorde: “Quick / children kiss us / we are growing / through dream.”
Instead you got a splash of insight into the relation between a community’s perception of the divine and its polity. Tocqueville, “There is virtually no human action, no matter how particular we assume it be, that does not originate in some very general human conception of God.” Instead you got the entangling words of a modern prophet. Hamer, “we are living in a captivated society today.” Hamer reminds us that like other religious practices democracy contains both the possibility of transformation and the possibility of stagnation, even oppression. Prayer, meditation, and scripture reading cannot all be cast as universal goods. People kill each other over their differing interpretations of scripture. Meditation and prayer can both lead to self-absorption. Democracy can go awry.
In my former congregation someone once tried to get me dismissed because we did not have congregational vote to change the color of a curtain. When practiced wrong, when focused on issues that are marginal, democracy can be immobilizing. Part of the religious practice of democracy is learning to distinguish between the issues that are important to the community and the issues that are not important.
Another part of the religious practice of democracy is finding a definition for the term. It is a term that means different things to different people. As a religious practice, democracy is a process for making decisions about matters important to communal life. In a democratic process all members of the community have equal voice and either representation or a vote.
With this definition in mind, we can remember that in the United States democracy has often gone awry over matters far less trivial than the color of curtains. It has not just immobilized communities. It has destroyed lives. In this country democracy, even democracy as a religious practice, has been far too often linked to white supremacy. The clause “all members of the community” has for much of American history meant that only white males are understood to be members of the community. And this limited notion of democracy has been used to justify slavery and genocide. I picked a reading from Hamer because she reminds us that there have been mighty struggles to change this dynamic. And that religious communities have a had a complicated role in those struggles.
Take Hamer herself. She was one of the great figures of the sixties civil rights movement. She spoke truth to power. She scared President Lyndon Johnson. He once called a press conference explicitly to take the cameras away from a speech she was giving.
Hamer, you may remember, came from a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. She encountered the civil rights movement when she was middle-aged, after years of regular involvement in her church. In fact, the only education she received after the age of twelve took place in Bible Study. In church she learned to interpret the Bible for herself and lead hymns.
Hamer’s story reminds us that religious communities themselves provide important resources for the practice of democracy. She was critical of the church and its male leaders. Yet she took hymns and scripture, she learned in church and turned them into a powerful resource for inspiring people. She took the religious resources of the church and used them in a movement to recast society, used them to cast a vision of a society that included all members in its decision-making. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” during protests and in jail to teach that democracy only truly exists when every human is valued, to proclaim that black lives matter.
Democracy is a religious practice. Hamer helps us recall that as a religious practice it is about manifesting the spirit of a community. She was effective because her songs and words made that spirit palpable.
Those of you are aspiring clergy must learn to make the spirit palpable in the communities you serve. So, my charge to you, my beautiful, vibrant, hopeful, powerful, future colleagues, is to take the religious practice of democracy seriously. Recognize that is a practice, a skill, in which you must engage in repeatedly, over and over, if you are ever to master it. Understand that your congregation will look to you help teach them the practice of democracy. Recall that democracy carries with it risks, that it can go deeply awry, when it is misdirected or, worse, held as province of the few. But most of all, remember that like all religious disciplines, it contains within it the possibility of transformation. So, go forth and study your congregational polity. Learn how to run a meeting. Memorize the important bits of Roberts Rules of Order. And prepare for the possibility that one night, during a long meeting, after the coffee has gone cold, you may find yourself singing, “I once was blind but now I see.”
Amen and Blessed Be.