Jan 30, 2017
President Donald J. Trump reportedly modeled his Inaugural Address after Andrew Jackson, a white supremacist who was the architect of one of the most shameful events in American history, the Trail of Tears. Listening to President Trump’s Inaugural Address I heard another horrifying historical echo. When Trump used the phrase “This American carnage,” claimed that his inauguration signaled the transfer of “power from Washington, DC... to you, the people,” and promised to “make America great again” he sounded an awful lot like Hiram Evans, the Imperial Wizard of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.
The white supremacist Evans is no longer a household name. But ninety years ago he was known and by turns feared and celebrated throughout the country. Under his watch the KKK reached its largest membership. In 1924, millions of white men belonged to the Klan. Senators, Governors, and Congressmen from nine states either openly declared their allegiance or owed their elections to the violent racist organization. Today white supremacists call themselves the alt-right and their movement is growing again.
As Imperial Wizard, the titular head of the Klan, Evans offered blueprints for other Klan leaders to follow in his speeches and pamphlets. His texts typically contained the same set of elements. He warned of terrifying enemies both inside and outside of the country. He believed there was a “vast horde of immigrants” threatening to overrun the nation. He claimed African Americans, Catholics, and Jews weakened it from the inside. He declared the country was in a state of decline. He said a “spirit of lawlessness is abroad in the land... fast ripening into an anarchy.” He argued that action must be taken immediately, before it was “too late for the redemption of the Republic.” Trump’s speech on Friday contained some of the same elements.
Just as Trump berated the political “establishment,” Evans attacked “politicians [who] seek not the common welfare, but their own success.” He berated civil and religious groups who focused on their own particularities rather than “the forces of evil.”
He also offered a formula to solve the problems the country faced. His formula was inevitably “unity” and a return to what one of his followers called “that real, genuine Americanism of... our forefathers.” To return to this idealized America where “life is easy, health is good and conditions ideal” the Klan hoped to “Americanize America.” This meant keeping out immigrants and purifying the country of everything that caused “white civilization” to “degenerate.”
Sadly, these themes were present in President Trump’s Inaugural Address. The new President painted a picture of American decline. Just like Evans, he claimed that there are external and internal enemies bent upon the nation’s destruction. He also promised rejuvenation through unity.
Replace the word Muslim with the words Catholic and Jew in many of the President’s campaign speeches and it’s difficult to tell the difference between the new President and Hiram Evans. Klan leaders complained of American citizens who “owe allegiance to an institution that is foreign to the Government of the United States.” Trump has repeatedly questioned the loyalties of American citizens whose parents were immigrants. He continually questioned the country of President Obama’s birth. He has also made frequent use of the term “Americanism,” a word that appears in innumerable Klan pamphlets and speeches.
The terrifying thing about the Klan, of course, was not the words of its leaders, but the actions of Klansmen across the country. These violent white supremacists assaulted, lynched, murdered, and abused African Americans, political radicals, Jews, Catholics, and anyone else they viewed as a threat to their vision of America. Immediately following the election, there is good reason to think that the words of now President Trump emboldened contemporary white supremacists to violent action. There has been a spike in hate crimes.
This brings into focus what is at stake in normalizing the words of President Trump and his administration. Their language has direct parallels to the violent language of earlier generations of white supremacists. This is unacceptable. The Klan was eventually marginalized by women and men speaking out, marching, and organizing against the white supremacist terrorist organization. The Klan-like rhetoric of the President cannot stand. The global Women’s Marches sparked by his misogynistic behavior were but the first steps towards stopping it. Proving that the words of white supremacists have no place in the global discourse will require more marches, more organization, and a constant practice of speaking out.
Note: I sent this around to several major publications last week as an op-ed. I got a couple of very encouraging replies but no one was willing to publish the piece. The slightly dated references in the piece are due to the timelag between submitting the piece, having it rejected, and deciding to post it on my blog. Also, all of the citations of the Klan are from my dissertation. I would be happy to provide them to anyone who is interested.
Nov 27, 2016
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, November 27, 2016
I am grateful to be back with you. It now seems worlds ago, but I was last with you the Sunday you installed Sarah Stewart as your twelfth minister. I understand you colloquially know her as M12.
M12’s installation took place, you might remember, a couple of weeks after the death of Freddie Gray. In the days leading up to the service there were large protests in Baltimore against police brutality. People were mobilizing to proclaim Black Lives Matter. Ministers and congregations across the country, I observed, were spending their Sundays talking and praying about the need for racial reconciliation and racial justice. I suggested that I was, at best, skeptical about such efforts. In many liberal religious communities, I complained, serious conversation about racial and social justice only take place against the backdrop of calamity. The crisis occurs. Congregations confront the tragedy with much hand wringing. Little changes. The traumatic event is largely forgotten, or becomes normalized, or fades into the background of daily life.
The only way this pattern would change, I argued, was for religious communities like yours to become sites for conversion. Conversion might be defined, I told you, in the words of James Luther Adams as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings with it a new perspective, a shift in a point of view. After the death of Freddie Gray, and the deaths of far too many others, I offered that most whites in America needed to undergo a conversion process. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be white, I urged, need to shift our point of view to see the United States from the perspective of people with darker skin. Whites must come to understand that white supremacy is not an abstract concept or a political slur. White supremacy is an economic and political system in which white wealth is built upon the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment. Those of us that claim we are white must empathically comprehend that racism is as much physical as it is psychological. For human beings with brown and black bodies, racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “is a visceral experience… it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
It is only once those of us who believe ourselves to be white imaginatively shift our perspective, I claimed, that we can begin to participate in the work of dismantling white supremacy. Otherwise, I warned, the pulpit would remain silent on issues of racial and social justice except at moments of crisis. Speaking out only when tragedy strikes is a form of idolatry. It allows the pretense that the community uplifts justice when in reality it worships comfort and complicity.
In retrospect my sermon from last year appears quaint. For many of us, the world in late November 2016 feels fundamentally different than it did in May 2015. The United States has been through a desperately polarizing election. A new President has been elected through the undemocratic peculiarities of the American political system. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than two million votes. He lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any successful candidate for the national executive since 1876. The man who assumes the executive office on January twentieth will be at the head of what can only be termed a minority government.
He gained that office by what can best be termed bad faith. His tactics were those of a con man: misdirection mixed with outrageous lies. He violated electoral norms. He praised autocrats and called for foreign intervention in the presidential election. He refused to release his taxes. He revealed himself to be a sexual predator. At times, the man who will be the next President stirred base human instinct: fear, hatred, misogyny, and racism. He verbally attacked immigrants, Muslims, women, and anyone who challenged him. He received open support by white supremacists and an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite all of this he will soon head the most powerful government in the history of the world.
We have now come to a moment when there are calls to unite behind the incoming President. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, urged such unity in her concession speech, “We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The current President has offered a conciliatory tone. He has enjoined American citizens “to remember that we’re actually all on one team.”
The New York Times columnist Charles Blow responded this week writing, “Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never. You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything--no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts--to satisfy your ambitions.” Russian American dissident and critic of autocracy Masha Gessen has spent her life writing about the regime of Vladimir Putin. She warns that calls to reconciliation that fail to recognize that “Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election” are foolhardy. In her analysis, he is an aspiring autocrat, a proto-totalitarian, a neo-fascist.
Now me, I’m not much of a political liberal. I place myself in a similar camp to Blow and Gessen. I trust the President-elect. I assume that he will govern like he campaigned. He has already indicated he wants figures whose politics are best described as white supremacist as part of his administration. He has indicated that he will be intolerant of dissent. He intends to round up and deport several million immigrants. He refuses to place his businesses in a blind trust, creating the possibility of conflict of interest and corruption on an unprecedented level. I reject the idea of normalizing our next President.
I suspect that there are a few present here who would like to stop my wind-up to a jeremiad at this point. My litany of woes may seem out of place on a Sunday morning. I imagine that those of you whom I am making uncomfortable desire to remind me that religious communities are not places for partisan politics. So, let me be clear. I am not being partisan. I am offering a prophetic critique. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, I would be standing before you a warning of the Democratic Party’s complicity in attacking immigrant communities. More people have been deported under President Obama than under any other President. I would be reminding you of Secretary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy tendencies. She was instrumental in pushing for the violent overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was an event which resulted in civil war, the deaths of thousands, and the further destabilization of an already instable region. I would be criticizing the Democratic nominee for her longstanding practice of promoting economic programs that benefit the few at the expense of the many. And I would prod you to remember that she helped oversee the massive expansion of a prison industrial complex that targets human beings with brown and black bodies. In the 1990s she notoriously coined the phrase “super predator.”
But Secretary Clinton did not win the majority of votes in the electoral college. She is not going to be the forty-fifth President. Donald Trump is. And so he, not her, is the subject of my critique. And while Clinton would have represented yet another figure in the long standing, tragic, crisis of the moral bankruptcy of political liberalism, Trump represents something even more sinister, neo-Confederate autocracy. The question before this religious community and each of us as individuals is not to figure how to live responsibly in Hillary Clinton’s America. It is to discern how to live responsibly in Donald Trump’s.
Drawing from the prophetic liberal religious tradition, I suggest that this congregation and other Unitarian Universalist congregations like it have five tasks ahead. We must boldly proclaim our vision of what it means to be and flourish as humans. We have to develop a historical and social analysis that allows us to truthfully describe our present moment. We need to dream freedom dreams of what might be possible and, in the words of Robin Kelley, aid us “to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We are called to translate those dreams into action. We must maintain a spiritual practice to sustain ourselves through difficult years.
We are part of a liberal religious community. These tasks are not tasks for an individual. They are tasks for our collectivity, our gathered community. If we accept them, we will accept them as a community that upholds the inherent worth and dignity of each individual human being; a community that practices democracy; a community that honors the web of interrelation and interconnection of which we are all a part.
Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition with a particular understanding of what it means to be a human being. Close to two hundred years ago your congregation, like other New England Unitarian churches, rejected a theology that taught that human beings were innately depraved. Our religious ancestors instead favored a theology that viewed human nature as predicated upon freedom. We each contain within us, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, “the likeness to God.” The choice whether we will tilt towards that likeness or give ourselves over to baser instincts is ours.
What ultimately distinguishes religious liberals from religious conservatives is that we believe that human nature is not fixed. It is flexible. People can change. This assertion is more a matter of faith than it is a scientific claim. That we uphold it is one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism a religion. Human freedom has yet to be empirically proven to be true or untrue. Faced with this wager we boldly bet on freedom, on the possibility that we can freely choose who and what we will be.
As a religious tradition we are comfortable with our claims about the essential nature of human freedom. In contrast, developing a historical and social analysis that truthfully describes our present moment is a far more difficult task. White American society--the society that celebrates the Declaration of Independence, worships the Constitution, and lionizes consumer choice--is quite comfortable with abstract discussions of freedom. But historical and social analysis is something that is widely frowned upon. Media outlets like Fox News and the white supremacist Breibart mock rigorous analytics as an egg-headed, liberal, elite activity.
So be it. Our religious tradition is one which is committed to telling truths in church. Describing the world as it actually exists is the most important form of truth telling. Offering a detailed analysis of what happened on November eighth and is happening now would require far more time than we have remaining on this bright Sunday. But allow me to make a few gestures that might help you as a community in your own truth telling. If you disagree with me at the very least my words will give you a helpful data point for the “not that.”
The presidential administration of Donald Trump will be a neo-Confederate autocracy. Like other kinds of neo-fascist, fascist, proto-totalitarian, autocratic, or right populist regimes, it emerges from a failure in political liberalism.
Since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.
The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.
When I label the rising presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s Senior Counselor and the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else. As Senior Counselor, Bannon will push Trump to consider the needs of white voters, the next President’s electoral base, over the needs of all others. As Attorney General, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.
I use the label neo-Confederate to place the new Presidential administration within the context of the American history. Neo-Confederate reaction first emerged as a national political force after the Civil War, during the failure of Reconstruction. In the years of and immediately following the Civil War the United States government was largely controlled by a political alliance that the great W. E. B. Du Bois called abolition democracy. Abolition democracy was an alliance between abolitionist and anti-slavery Northerners and Southern African Americans against white supremacy. It was committed to ending chattel slavery and incorporating freed blacks into the American body politic. It collapsed in the mid-1870s when the Northern white elite decided that it had more in common economically with the Southern white elite than it did with African Americans.
The demise of abolition democracy brought about an era of reaction that created the regime of Jim Crow. This regime of legalized racial discrimination was only partially overturned when abolition democracy reconstituted itself in the civil rights era. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s Northern elites allied themselves with African Americans and other people of color to oppose what was then the neo-Confederate state governments of the South. This project reached a great pitch in the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. It could be argued that it reached its zenith in the Presidency of Barack Obama. And it might be said that the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton represents its second collapse.
One way to describe Democrats like Clinton is that they believe that American elites have more in common with global elites than they do the working class. Clinton advocated free trade, possessed a dodgy record on civil rights, and abandoned the Democratic Party’s base in labor unions. She lost for the same reason that abolition democracy fell apart in the 1870s. Working people of all races stopped supporting it in sufficient numbers to maintain it because they felt that liberal elites did not have their best interests at heart.
Knowing what went wrong in the past and what is wrong with the present can aid us in dreaming of a different future. If we want to live in a world where the neo-Confederate vision of white supremacy and male dominance is relegated to the dust bin of history then we must imagine a world that is structurally different than the one in which we live now. We must dream freedom dreams.
One of my intellectual heroes, the historian Robin Kelley urges us to dream such dreams. Drawing from the teachings of his own mother he challenges “us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstituted... to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We need to dream of a world without white supremacy before we can build one. Poetry can help us.
Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any planet in the sky
If we came from
Why can’t we go somewhere there?
Diane Di Prima:
Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
share blanket, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.
I will not tell you what your freedom dreams should be. I just suggest you should cultivate them. Look to your daily life. When do you feel most fully yourself? Gardening? Cooking? Playing with your children? Riding your bike? At work? At rest? With your partner? Your friends? Alone? At a worship service? Perhaps such moments are good places to start looking for freedom dreams. True freedom is about the transformation of everyday life.
I invite you now to pause and complete the sentence: “I dream of...” Take a moment in silence “I dream of...” [Wait a minute.] Now, if you are comfortable turn to a neighbor and share what you dream of. [Wait a minute.]
Our freedom dreams will only become reality if we share them with each other. If we share them not just inside this building but outside of it with members of our family, our community, and throughout the world.
This sharing is the first step towards action. For action is the next task before religious communities in this time of crisis. I am not your minister. I am just a guest that you have generously invited into your pulpit. I don’t want to overstep my bounds. And so while I want to stir your dreams and push your analysis I suggest that finding your path forward is your collective task, not mine.
I can offer you this advice. Action will not be successful if you act alone. The new President will be at the head of a minority government. Actions that succeed in challenging him will come from mobilizing the majority of the populace. So build networks, resist together, not alone. Reach out together. Forge new relationships and strengthen the ones you already have.
The next four years will be difficult. The neo-Confederate agenda is clear. In order to survive and to act it will be necessary to maintain a strong sense of self and a calm center. The last task before us is simply to take care of ourselves, to nurture the spiritual practices that will sustain us again and again in what I know will be disappointing work. Meditate. Pray. Write in your journal. Cook a nice dinner for your family. Tell your partner that you love them. Hug your kids. Go for long walks on the edges of the city, through autumnal forests, or by frozen river banks. Ride your bike across town. As you nurture yourself you will find that you nurture others.
As you nurture yourself you will find strength for the tasks ahead. You will find companionship. You will find joy and, perhaps, a modicum of peace. You will find yourself dreaming. Let yourself dream. For in our dreams we can see a better world, a world that stirs in our hearts. It is a world that no matter how treacherous the path before us we can yet bring into being. So, let us set ourselves to the tasks ahead. And let us dream freedom dreams. And let us share those dreams with others.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 7, 2016
On the Sunday before the 2016 I preached this signficant revision of the sermon I delivered two weeks earlier at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton. So, here's the A New Heart and a New Spirit as preached onNovember 6, 2016 at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson, Hudson, MA.
It is nice to be with you again. You have invited me here each of the past three autumns. This academic year, if all goes well, I will be finishing my doctorate. It is likely that this time next year I will be living someplace other than Massachusetts, working a new job, and no longer doing regular pulpit supply in New England. So, let me begin my sermon with a simple note of gratitude. The support of your congregation and congregations like yours has made a real difference in my ability to support my family while I have been in graduate school. Thank you.
This Sunday, I wish I could build the sermon around a sustained note of gratitude. Unfortunately, Tuesday is the presidential election. Gratitude seems like an inappropriate emotion for the closing hours of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy. Instead of gratitude, I find myself obliged to talk with you about the need for national repentance. As a wide variety of political commentators have suggested, no matter what happens next week the impact of the election will be long lasting. One of the candidates has received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The other has been embroiled in endless scandal and controversy. Regardless of who wins, the deep cleavages in American society have been exposed and exacerbated. On Wednesday morning, it will not be possible to pretend that America is a country that does not contain enduring patterns of misogyny. On Wednesday morning, we will not be able to declare that America has left behind its long history of white supremacy. And on Wednesday morning, we will not be able to say that this nation does right by the poor, the marginalized, the most needy, the people who Jesus called “the least of these.”
Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is revealed to be the nation’s next President, these problems will endure. I grew up in a family where we followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. The President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality. No matter who has been in the White House, for the past thirty years the wealth gap between whites and people of color has grown.
The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to have sparked conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent--if we as a society can repent--or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.
This election has had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.
These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.
In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem--mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities--and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.
Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell... If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced the existential threat of nuclear war. He warned, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.
I thought of these prophets--King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel--as I watched the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Neither offered support for reparations for slavery. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.
The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.
To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom while the other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.
In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.
Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female... Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.
None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away that be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.
Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy with my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.
Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.
Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in her seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.
I recognized the truth in what she said. I gained clarity. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then I admitted that my behavior had been problematic. I confessed. The minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did and in doing so both I apologized and changed my behavior. Over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.
This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyny, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required clarity around my own patterns of behavior. It required confession that I had done ill. And then it necessitated an apology and a change in behavior.
Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected original sin, the idea that human beings were innately wicked. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. The great 19th-century Unitarian, William Ellery Channing, taught people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.
The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. In the words of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, we must realize that “We are the cause, and we can be the cure” for much is what is wrong in the world. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.
This returns us to the subject of national repentance. For me, this election has brought clarity. There is little to celebrate about either political team. America is sick. No matter who wins the election the illness will continue until we, as a nation, are brave enough to confess. We must confess that in this country the poor continue to be exploited. We must confess that white supremacy and misogyny remain the norm. We must confess that the natural world is being destroyed to feed our materialist addictions. And we must confess that a failure in the political imagination means that unreflective militarism is offered as a violent solution to international problems.
Each of these confessions deserves an apology. But more that, they demand a change in behavior. What would our government’s policies be if America’s politicians took seriously the project of eliminating poverty? How would we treat each other if we tried to move beyond white supremacy and misogyny? What would our lives, and our relation with our ecosystem, look like if we recovered from our addiction to materialism? How would our foreign policy be different if it was not based on the threat of violent force?
As we move towards the close, I invite you take to time in silence. What do we as a nation need to repent for? How are you as an individual in need of repentance? What kind of clarity do you need? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?
[Two minutes of silence.]
My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Apr 29, 2016
The comedian W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America premiered on CNN this past weekend. The show’s first episode focuses on the contemporary Ku Klux Klan. A portion of my dissertation is on the 1920s Klan. I decided to watch the show to get a better sense of the Ku Klux Klan of today. I am glad I did. Overall, I found the program to be informative and, often ironically, funny.
One of the most entertaining moments in the show comes when Bell offers direction to Thomas Robb as he films his video program “This is the Klan.” The black media professional instructs the white amateur on how he might better communicate to his audience. In doing so Bell disproves the whole premise of white supremacy, that people with “white” skin are somehow innately superior to people of color. If there was any truth to that superiority Robb would have been the one offering instructions.
The Klan the Bell portrays in his show shares significant continuities with the Klan of the 1920s. Like its predecessor, it is a white supremacist Protestant Christian organization. Robb and many of the other Klan leaders that Bell encounters are Protestant clergy. The words used at the cross burning Bell witnesses are words of Christian ritual.
Bell’s piece would have been even more compelling if he had highlighted not only the continuities but also the dissimilarities between the epochs of the Klan. This would have meant offering a more nuanced historical background to the Klan. Bell assumes that his viewers know the movement’s history and that the Klan has exclusively targeted black people. This glossing over of history represents a missed opportunity.
There have been three separate Ku Klux Klan movements. The Klan of 2015 is a different organization, or rather set of organizations, than the Klan of 1871 or 1920. Its members have different concerns than their earlier brethren. By examining those different concerns Bell could have demonstrated how white supremacy has changed, and how it has remained constant, over the course of the last 150 years. In doing so, he could have made a statement about our current political moment.
The first Klan was the Reconstruction-era Klan. It was founded in late 1865 or early 1866 by former Confederate soldiers. Under the leadership of the detestable Nathan Bedford Forrest, it terrorized and assassinated black and white radical Republicans and former Union soliders in an effort to reassert white supremacy in the South. It was suppressed by the Grant administration and rendered largely irrelevant by the betrayal of Reconstruction by Northern whites in the mid-1870s. After the 1874 mid-term elections white supremacists in the South no longer needed masks to kill black and white radicals. (For more on the first Klan see my recent lecture at Harvard).
The second Klan was founded in 1915 in Atlanta, Georgia. Its founder, the execrable William Joseph Simmons, was inspired by the W. B. Griffith’s white supremacist fantasy Birth of a Nation. This second Klan grew slowly at first and took until about 1924 to reach its peak. At its height it could claim five million members and held significant political power in nine states.* This Klan lasted until late 1940s by which time it only had a few thousand members.
The second Klan was distinct from the first in three important ways. First, it was as anti-immigrant organization. While the Klansmen (and Klanswomen) of the 1920s certainly terrorized blacks they were mostly concerned with the threat that European immigrants posed to “Anglo-Saxon civilization.”** They feared that “our government would be overrun with undesirables, and instead of being a Nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, become a veritable melting pot for the scum of the earth.”
Second, it was both an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. One of the primary objections that Klan members had to immigrants was that the undermined the place of Protestantism within the culture of the United States. They supported things likes women’s suffrage and universal public education because they saw them as strategies to both counter the influence of the foreign born within politics and force assimilation.
Third, the second Klan was a national, not sectional, organization. Its leaders claimed they had several hundred thousand members in states like Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon. These claims are believable in that the Klan exhibited significant public strength in these states either through large rallies or the election of public officials who openly supported the Klan.
The third Klan, the Klan that Bell encounters in his show, is more similar to the first Klan than the second in that it is primarily an anti-black and Southern movement. The first Klan owed its origin to white supremacist opposition to Reconstruction. The third Klan began as a white supremacist reaction to the civil rights movement.
If Bell had spent even a couple of minutes tending to the second Klan something would have become clear to his viewers. Its rhetoric is similar to that of the presumptive Republic Party nominee, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Klansmen of the 1920s painted immigrants are fundamentally threatening the nation. Compare this 1924 statement from the Grand Dragon of South Carolina to some of Trump’s utterances:
“The immigrants who come to this country form communities by themselves and congregate in the great cities. Paupers, diseased and criminals predominate among those who land upon American soil. They have a very low standard of morals, they are unable to speak our language and a great majority of them are unable to read and write their own language. They come from countries where they have been accustomed to a lower standard of wages and living and therefore, compete with American labor which is already overcrowded.”
Or contrast this statement about Catholics from Hiram Evans, the second Imperial Wizard of the Klan, to Trump’s words on Muslims:
“In Protestant America we must have time to teach these alien peoples the fundamental principles of human liberty before we permit further masses of ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees to come within our borders.”
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. As the Washington Post and other news outlets have documented his father, Fred Trump, might have been affiliated with the Klan. He has appears to have been arrested at a Klan rally during a time, 1927, when the Klan could hundreds of thousands of white Protestant men as members. It would not have been unusual for the elder Trump to have been a Klan member. A number of prominent Protestant white men at the time either were members or openly sympathetic to the Klan.
Whether or not Fred Trump was ever a member of the Klan is probably beside the point. Far more relevant is that by briefly discussing the second Klan Bell could have shown through his documentary how the ideas of that incarnation of the white supremacist Protestant terrorist organization are at the center, and not the margins, of contemporary American political discourse.
*For membership numbers see Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), xi. The states where the Klan held significant political power were Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Texas (see David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, third edition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 80, 59, 200, 127, 72, 162, 57). I define a state in which the Klan held significant power as a state in which either a Governor or a Senator openly affiliated with the Klan was elected or a state in which the election of a Governor or a Senator was due to the mobilization of the Klan. Chalmers claims that Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Indiana were the states where the Klan held its greatest political strength.
**All quotes are drawn from my dissertation research. If you’d like the precise citation feel free to contact me.