Mar 2, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 23, 2020
As you know, we are in the midst of stewardship season. And I want to thank all of you who have made your pledges to support First Church so far. We had a really lovely early pledgers party last night. The stewardship team put on a great event with good conversation, good food, and, my favorite, good dancing. It was a pleasure to proverbially cut a rug with some of you. I think we may have to do it more often. And I want to lift up Dick Doughty for bringing his DJ skills to the party. I very much enjoyed the mix of World Beat infused electronica he provided us--and the bit of Chicago house he played to humor me. It was a lovely reminder that we humans share a universal need to, as the adage runs, shake what your mother gave you. As the funk anthem goes, we are one nation under a groove.
The poet Rumi wrote:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
I sometimes think that the field he was talking about was the dance floor--that space where we can come together beyond words and just experience the pleasure of connectedness through sound and movement.
So, thank you stewardship team and Dick for creating that space. I hope that the early pledger party will become a tradition. It is something that can be open everyone who contributes to sustain the beautiful community that is this congregation--an opportunity to celebrate the joy, compassion, and love that bind First Church together.
Speaking of stewardship, one of the many things that your gifts to this congregation allow us to do is bring fabulous guest preachers. This month, we have had two talented religious leaders come and bless us with powerful messages. My dear friend Aisha Hauser came and gifted us with a sermon challenging us to lead with love and liberation. And Duncan Teague, who is something of a new friend, brought us a story from his life about a time when his imagination failed him and what he learned from that experience. In their own ways, each of them called us to imagine the liberating power of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Each of them called us to imagine a Unitarian Universalism big enough for everyone, a Unitarian Universalism where we truly live into the vision of our religious ancestors: God loves everyone, no exceptions.
Their words painted pictures of what we might, following the historian Robin Kelley, call freedom dreams. These are, in his words, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
We dream freedom dreams when we are called, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to trust in “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” Freedom dreams are the paths--paths which often seem impossible--that lead us to a way when we are stuck in no way. We open ourselves to them when we realize that imagination is one of the most powerful forces on this Earth. Imagination enables us to bring things into being that do not exist. Every human creation that exists--microwaves, computers, violins, soccer balls, teacups, cutting boards, bundt cakes, brick sanctuaries, or well-tailored suits--began in someone’s imagination.
Imagination uncovers hidden paths when all the roads seem closed. Imagination lets us find a route through the forest when we reach the end of the trail. Imagination is trusting that there is a power which, no matter how difficult the day, how drear the hour, will help us to find more love somewhere, more hope somewhere, more peace, more joy. It might not be right here, we might not see it before us, it might not be present in the brutalities and disappointments of our daily lives, as we suffer, as so many of us do, from an exploitative and extractive economic system, but we can imagine that there is a power which, if we keep on keeping on, will enable us to find more love somewhere.
It is one of the purposes of this religious community to help each of us discover and uncover that power. It resides within each of us and surrounds all of us. It comes in many forms. We can call it by many names. Some of us might choose to label it God. Others might find that language limiting or oppressive and prefer to call it human creativity. For my part, I find this power runs beyond my human ability to describe or understand in its totality.
Sometimes we cry out and only encounter its absence. Not everyone is able to find a way out of no way. That is a reality that is heavy on my heart this morning. It is the last Sunday of Black History Month. Black History Month was conceived by the historian Carter G. Woodson as a time to celebrate the achievements of the African American community. A time to lift up: great abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; great scientists including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Daniel Hale Williams--the first surgeon to perform an open heart surgery; great athletes such as Muhammed Ali and the Williams Sisters; great musicians like Nina Simone and Beyoncé; great writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin; great artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kara Walker; great spiritual leaders like Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer...
The list could go on for hours. But there is a difficult truth behind it. We would not be celebrating Black History this month if it was not for the horror of the TransAtlantic slave trade. We only have Black History Month because one of the most brutal exercises in human history. Reflecting on a need to recognize this dynamic as part of Black History Month, writing in the New York Times, Erin Aubry Kaplan recently argued, “It’s time to acknowledge what black history really reveals — not individual heroism or the endurance of democratic ideals, but their opposites.” Black History Month, in other words, reveals not just the beauty and power of black people but the brutality and danger of white supremacy.
And so, as part of Black History Month, it is important to take a moment to honor all those who suffered as they were unwilling brought from Africa to the American continents. The Caribbean poet Edouard Glissant offers a challenging description of their pain:
“Imagine two hundred human beings crammed into a space barely capable of containing a third of them. Imagine vomit, naked flesh, swarming lice, the dead slumped, the dying crouched. Imagine, if you can, the swirling red of mounting to the deck, the ramp they climbed, the black sun on the horizon, vertigo, this dizzying sky plastered to the waves.”
It is terrifying to imagine that between 1502 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Caribbean and the 1880s, when the last ship landed with an illegal human cargo in Brazil, some ten to twelve million people--parents, children, friends, husbands, wives, mothers, lovers, elders, and babies--were forcibly moved across the ocean blue. Not all of them arrived. Not all of them made a way out of no way. Some died of illness. Some were thrown overboard by brutal captains who decided it was easier to collect insurance money for lost human cargo than to transport unwilling people from one continent to another. And some threw themselves into murky blue graves rather than endure a life of unfreedom.
The discouraging, disheartening, dismal truth is sometimes it is impossible to find the power that will help us make a way out of no way. But, then, I am not entirely certain that finding a way out of no way is something we are supposed to do on our own. Nor am I entirely certain that we are supposed to be finding a way out of no way for ourselves. I suspect that when we dream freedom dreams, we are often dreaming them for the people who will come after us.
There were people who dreamed freedom dreams in the bellies of those disgusting slave ships. Many of them dreamed those dreams for themselves--dreamed of returning to Africa. Many of them also dreamed dreams for their descendants, for the people who would come after them. They imagined that the world might not be better for them, but it could be better for future generations: there is more love somewhere.
Sometimes when I think about freedom dreams, I think about the last public words of Martin King, the words he left us right before he was brought down by a white supremacist bullet. He told us, God’s “allowed me to go the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
It is right there. In that passage. The truth about freedom dreams. It is not about your survival or my survival. It is about our survival. It is about us, collectively, together, as a human community, as a community of memory and witness, love and justice, figuring out how to find a way out of no way.
We can only survive together. It is important to remember this when we cry out for a way out of no way. Sometimes we cry out and hear nothing in response. But when our voices are met with silence, we might recall the words of denise levertov:
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
History teaches us that it is always possible to imagine a way out of no way. I might not be able to envision it. You might not be able to visualize it. But the collective we can find it.
This is one of the lessons of Black History Month. Beginning in the holds of those awful freighters, suffering humans began to dream freedom dreams. They imagined that their lives and the world could be different than it was. They imagined no slavery. They imagined freedom for themselves. And that imagination enabled some of them to find it. They found it onboard ships like the Amistad when they rose up and overthrew the slave traders. They found it when they organized and revolted--creating the nation of Haiti and enabling the Union to win the Civil War. And they found it when they ran away.
Carol told the children and youth a story about a maroon. Have any of you heard that word before? Maroon? The maroons were groups of people who escaped slavery and then, using their freedom dreams, built new communities where they could live free. Some of these communities became quite large. They numbered in the thousands and fought against Europeans who wanted to re-enslave.
In Maroon communities people often sought to live and worship as their ancestors did back in Africa. They attempted to recreate ways of life and love that had been disrupted by their forced migration. Some of these communities endured for years. In towns in Jamaica and on the island Barbuda there are communities that were founded by maroons hundreds of years ago and are still governed by their descendants today.
Maroon communities were sometimes multi-racial affairs--places where people imagined a continent organized around interracial cooperation not white supremacy. In such places black people, white people, indigenous people, the polyglot of people who lived in the Americas, came together and imagined and built new kind of communities where they could pursue their dreams of freedom. In such places, people held up and held out ways of being that were antithetical to the white supremacist economic and social order that told them they were less than human. In such places, there were ways of being that suggested it is possible to find more love, more hope, more joy, somewhere.
Freedom dreams, some people dreamed them in the holds of slave ships, some people rebelled, some people ran away and started maroons. Freedom dreams, the TransAtlantic Slave Trade ended with the abolition of slavery. Freedom dreams, the legal regime of Jim Crow was ended. Freedom dreams, black people survived and many thrived.
We are lifting up freedom dreams because this is the last Sunday of Black History Month. It is important to take time to center the experiences and theologies of people of color. It is important for at least two reasons. The first is simple: our congregation is on the cusp of meeting the definition of a multiracial religious communities. The vast majority of religious communities in the United States are racial and ethnic enclaves--where one group comprises 80% or more of participants. So, when a religious community is reaching a point where 20% or more of the people do not belong to a single ethnic or racial group it is considered a multiracial one.
At the beginning of the month, Alma and Tawanna reported our congregational data to the Unitarian Universalist Association. They had to tell the UUA how many members we have, the size of our annual budget, the number of people who attend worship and the like. One of the questions that the UUA asks is the percentage of people of color who are members of the church. And Alma and Tawana came up with at least 17%.
So, we are on the cusp of transitioning to a predominantly white church to one that fits that definition of a multiracial one. And experience teaches me that one way we make that transition is being intentional and inclusive about our theology and our community. It is why we have been using more Spanish in the service. And why I have been very intentional about inviting people of color and women to fill the pulpit when Scott and I are not in the pulpit.
And it is why I take time each year to give a sermon inspired specifically by black theology. I want us to live into the vision of our religious ancestors--the vision that said that God loves everyone, no exceptions, and be a community where all people can feel beloved. This is why next month I will also be offering a sermon on eco-feminist theology and another in the autumn on indigenous and Latinx theology.
Second: we are talking about the Black Radical Imagination this morning because I think it is an essential resource for all us--regardless of our racial identity--to find a way out of no way. I know this from personal experience.
I think that many of you know that I grew up in Michigan in the eighties and nineties. Detroit in those days was a musical hotbed. There was always something amazing something going on. It did not matter if you went to a tiny club, a street party, a county fair, or a big concert venue--there was always some funky music to be found. And if you tuned into your non-commercial radio station--college or public radio--you could catch a flash of audio inspiration.
One of my favorite groups to listen to was Parliament-Funkadelic. Have you ever heard of them? They are headed by the fantastic George Clinton, an incredibly talented musician known for his wild, often multi-color hair, flashy and imaginative costumes. The band itself is a large admixture of vocalists and instrumentalists--drummers, bass players, keyboardists, and horn players.
As the band’s name suggests, Parliament-Funkadelic is a funk band. They create hypnotic, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic soundscapes filled with ingenious Afro-centric fantastic and futuristic lyrics:
Well, all right, starchild
Citizens of the universe, recording angels
We have returned to claim the pyramids
Partying on the mothership
Those lyrics appear on their seminal 1975 album “Mothership Connection.” Earlier in the album listeners are informed that the P-Funk is coming from “Top of the Chocolate Milky Way.”
P-Funk’s words offer a vision, in Robins Kelley’s words, of “modern ancients redefining freedom, imagining a communal future (and present) without exploitation; all-natural, African, barefoot, and funky.”
P-Funk made that vision available for everyone. Sure, it came from their experiences and their tradition as African Americans, but it was available to everyone who wanted to turn their dial to radio “station W-E-F-U-N-K” or attend their concerts.
And let me tell you, a P-Funk concert in Detroit was an amazing affair. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic brought the whole family on stage in a way that I cannot imagine was possible anywhere else. The stage crafted mothership descended and out came Bootsy Collins with a bass guitar, star shaped sunglasses and fabulous high heels. And then George Clinton was inviting everyone he knew on to the stage. His granddaughter--a starchild of maybe the age of five--was telling everyone, “Make My Funk the P-Funk.” At one concert I went to I think Clinton even invited his accountant on stage. I am not sure my memory is exactly correct, but I do remember an older white man on stage who had no discernable musical talent and was wearing a button-up shirt. Clinton gave him a quick introduction that seemed to suggest the man helped him manage the business of the band.
Such experiences opened the world--opened the imagination to me--in a way that was not otherwise possible. I saw, live and enfleshed, a community that invited everyone to live their own truth, live into own self, a community where people were just free, “free of evil and violence,” in Robin Kelley’s words, “free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
These visions are not limited to George Clinton and P-Funk. They are all around us. We can discover them inside ourselves. We can find them in so many voices. They are in music today, just as they were in music from Clinton’s generation. The Grammy Award winning artist Janelle Monae casts her own freedom dreams in songs like “Crazy, Classic, Life.” There she sings:
We don't need another ruler
All of my friends are kings
I'm not America's nightmare
I'm the American cool
Just let me live my life
Just let me live my life. As we move to the close of this sermon, I want to invite you to have space to dream your own freedom dreams. What would it mean if we were all able to truly live our own lives? The exercise I am about to offer you comes from Chris Crass, I have invited you to do it before I am inviting you to do it again now because there are precious few spaces in the world where we can come together and imagine a world organized around love and liberation.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your pew. Notice how it feels to sit in this sanctuary filled with people inspired by our Unitarian Universalist tradition’s vision of love for humanity. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the force of life. As you exhale, feel your body releasing any stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain to the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working to create. What is your vision for a just society? What is your freedom dream? There is so much violence that exists in the world. It exists in the government. It exists in our communities. Sometimes it exists in our homes. If you could imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world be like? If you left your home a week from now and discovered that white supremacy had been dismantled what would your neighborhood be like? If you went to the grocery store and learned that violence against women, sexism, and misogyny had been overcome, how would the world appear? If you went to work a month from now and found, we were no longer in the midst of a climate crisis what would humanity’s relationship to the planet be like? What can you imagine? What would it look like in family or your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how?
Imagine that the world you dream about has come to fruition. Imagine that the honest world, the fair world, has arrived. Imagine that you encounter it today, after you leave this worship service. When you depart from this sanctuary what do you find outside of the door? As you travel down the street what kind of institutions and resources do you discover? What do they look like? What sort of services are there? What values are the economy based on? As you return to your home, what does it look like? What is your neighborhood like? What kind of activities are going on? How are decisions being made? How is conflict dealt with? Can you think about the rest of the city of Houston? What are other neighborhoods like? What about other cities? What is Dallas like? Or other states or countries? What is California like? Or Ethiopia?
When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your freedom dreams. As you do, I invite you to recall the advice of our poet from this morning, Angelamaría Dávila. She wrote about being:
un animal que habla
para decirle a otro parecido su esperanza.
An animal that speaks
to tell another animal what it hopes for
Today, after you leave this service, I invite you to find someone you do not know already and share with them some part of your freedom dream. By speaking it aloud you may just bring it closer to being. By speaking it aloud you might just strengthen your own resolve to work towards creating it. By imagining together, we might be able to find a way out of no way. It might not be for us. It might be for those who come after us. But it is there, waiting, in our imaginations. It is waiting for us to envision it.
We are going to follow the sermon with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It is a wonderful piece rooted in the African American tradition that calls us to remember the possibility that we can dream freedom dreams and move together into a better future—move together like the saints.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to 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.
Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.