Oct 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 29, 2019
Democracy is in crisis. This week brought what will almost certainly be the start of an impeachment inquiry against the sitting President of the United States. The week’s events were prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint that alleged: “that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
I will leave it to Congress to adjudicate whether or not the whistleblower’s complaint justifies the impeachment of the President. And I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on whether or not Congress should impeach the President. Instead, I want us to investigate the nature of this crisis in democracy. It is not a crisis that suddenly developed last week. It has crisis that has been going on for a long time. If you doubt this, let me offer you a single observation: if the House of Representatives ultimately proceeds to draft impeachment articles it will be the third time in forty-five years that they have been drafted against a sitting President. We might well ask what is going on.
One place to start our inquiry is with the opening statements of Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes at the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Macguire. They are a study in contrasts. Schiff, you might know, is the Committee chairman and a Democrat. Nunes, you may remember, is the ranking Republican on the Committee.
Schiff began by outlining the nature of the presidential oath of office. He stated that the President was to faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution. And he claimed that the President cannot defend the Constitution if they do not defend the country. He said, “where there is no country there is no office to execute.” The Constitution is not merely a piece of paper, he observed. Instead, it is, he stated, “the institutions of our democracy... the system of checks and balances... and the rule of law.”
Nunes started his opening statement in a completely different place. He made no reference to the Constitution or the President’s oath of office. Instead, he said, “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the President, and their extraordinary ability to once again enlist the mainstream media in their campaign.” He continued by claiming that the Democrats stood guilty of every crime or misdeed of which the current President has been accused. In 2016 it was not the President but “the Democrats themselves [who] were colluding with the Russians.” Today, he alleged, “there are numerous examples of Democrats” who are doing what they accuse the President of doing, “pressuring Ukrainians to take actions that would help... or hurt... [their] political opponents.”
The two men appear to inhabit different realities. In one, the President is a fundamental threat to democracy. In the other, the Democratic Party is subverting and destroying democracy. My own perspective is somewhat different. The crisis is with democracy itself. The President is one manifestation of the crisis. And the Democratic Party is another.
Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is not the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch, or the United States Congress. It is not the Constitution. It is not the United States of America, the state of Texas, Harris County, or the city of Houston. It is not going to a polling place and voting for a political representative.
Democracy is a fluid set of practices. In essence, it is found whenever a group of people embark together upon the project of self-rule. It is found whenever, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, people engage in the struggle “against bosses, against oligarchies.” Oligarchies are societies in which power rests with a small group of people. The meaning of bosses is probably rather obvious. Rorty uses it to prompt the questions: Can a society actually be democratic if people do not have democracy at work? Can a society be democratic if there is vast economic inequality? Can a society be democratic if it is essentially ruled by a group of self-perpetuating elites? Consider how money is used to buy political influence. The late comedian Robin Williams had a novel suggestion about how campaign donations should be accounted for amongst professional politicians. He said, “The voters should know who you represent, and if you represent special-interest groups, we should be like NASCAR. ...be in the Senate with our suits on, and if you’re backed by something, it’d be like little patches like they wear in NASCAR.”
To stand “Against bosses, against oligarchies,” to invoke Rorty, and to name democracy as a set of practices, is to recognize something vital about it. It is come to understand that democracy is not a merely political system. It is something you have to practice. It is something you have to do. And here is where we run into the core of the crisis in democracy we are facing. We do not practice it. Almost nowhere in American society do we engage in the project of self-rule. It is rarely found in our schools. It is largely absent from our workplaces. It does not exist in many of our neighborhoods or in most of our churches. In truth, much of American society is constructed precisely to prevent self-rule and to preserve the power of elites. There are massive monopolies that perpetuate economic inequality. The needs and safety of local communities are often sacrificed so that the owners of these monopolies might profit. And all the while we continue to talk about American democracy.
The problem goes back to the very beginning of the country. The problem is, as the historian Gordon Wood has claimed, that many of the nation’s founders used “democratic rhetoric... to explain and justify... [an] aristocratic system.” The Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, were designed explicitly to stifle the self-rule of the majority and ensure the continuing power of the wealthy minority. This should not be surprising. The leaders of the American Revolution were largely wealthy landowners. Many of them owed their wealth to the exploitation of enslaved Africans. They did not want a true democracy. They wanted a society modeled after ancient republican Rome. Prior to the advent of Roman emperor, Rome was a society ruled by the Roman Senate. The Senate was an elite institution whose members held their seats for life. They came to hold their offices through a system that explicitly gave extra weight to wealthy voters. Rome was, in essence, an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
In ancient Rome, the Senate’s proponents maintained that it should be an elite institution because they believed that only the elite was fit to govern. Only the Roman elite, these men reasoned, had the leisure in which they could cultivate the knowledge, the skills, and the personal integrity to effectively rule their society. Everyone else, the ordinary people who struggled to pay their rent, who worked for wages, who farmed small plots of land, was too caught up in the struggle for life to acquire the necessary character traits to govern society.
Looking to ancient Rome for inspiration, the majority of the founders of this country came to believe that it was only elites who could successfully cultivate what they called public virtue. Their idea of public virtue was “endearing and benevolent passion,” as one of them put it. This passion came from “charity” and was based on the cultivation of private virtues like benevolence and truthfulness. It also required that one respected the established social hierarchy and knew their place in the social order. Public virtue could not be practiced by someone who was hateful, envious, or greedy. Challenging the social hierarchy, or failing to cultivate the appropriate private virtues, meant that someone would quickly lose, as one of the founders put it, their “sense of a connection to the general system” and with it their “benevolence.” When that happened the “desire and freedom of doing good ceased.”
Put differently, if someone challenged the bosses and the oligarchs, they threatened the social order. Their private virtues were out of alignment. They coveted social positions and economic goods that did not belong to them. And that rendered them ineligible to serve the republic. The founders created the Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, precisely to ensure that the elites would continue to rule. If you doubt this, consider that the average net worth of a Senator is over three million dollars. If you doubt this, consider how routinely the Supreme Court rules in favor of wealthy corporations and against local communities or individuals. If you doubt this, consider the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in which money was equated with free speech. It was a reminder that under our system, in the words of Senator Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
This is the crisis we are facing. The sad reality is that we have conflated the rule of an elite with a democracy. The stark truth is that there are few places in our lives where we practice democracy.
Democracy could be understood as the political application of Jesus’s words in Luke 17:20-21. There he is recorded as having said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!;’ because the Kingdom of God is among you.” Democracy is the constant practice of negotiating self-rule. It is never permanently established. It is always coming into being. It found in a set of practices, not frozen in an institution. It is the attempt amongst a group of people to figure out how to collectively meet their needs, set a vision for their community, and move together into the future. We might say that it is the effort of a group of people to create the kingdom among themselves.
Most people have little direct experience with democracy. In general, people think that if they vote or donate money to a political cause they have done their civic duty. But usually this means continuing to let the entrenched and wealthy, the powers and principalities, run society. It is only be organizing together, by directly attempting to govern ourselves, that we can experience democracy and, possibly, move towards a more democratic society.
One place I have learned about democracy is within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing institutions. It is you, the members, who decide the direction you want the congregation to take. Clergy like me might try to inspire but First Church is ultimately your congregation. This is true whether you are served by an interim minister who will only be with you for a couple of years. And it is true when you are served by a minister like Bob Schaibly who was here for twenty years. Ministers come and go but you, the members, remain.
First Church is governed by its Board of Directors. The Board is nothing like the Senate. Any member of the congregation can be elected to serve on the Board. Terms are limited and people rotate off each year. What is more, the Board’s ultimate authority rests in the congregation. It can set direction but you, the congregation, ultimately set First Church’s agenda when you do things like call settled ministers, pass vision and mission statements, and change your constitution.
I was reminded of the dynamics of congregational self-governance on Wednesday when the Board and I agreed upon our goals for the year. One of the goals that the Board voted on was the chartering of a Transformation Committee. This committee will report to the Board. Its job will be to lead in the congregation in the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy inside of and outside of our walls and building a more diverse and multiracial beloved community. Hopefully, it will prepare the congregation as a whole to hold a vote on whether or not to endorse the proposed eighth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The proposed principle reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
If you adopt it, it will be part of your long work towards becoming a more multiracial congregation. That work began as early as 1954 when you were the first historically white congregation to vote to integrate. That was an act of self-governance that occurred because democracy is a central part of our religious practice as Unitarian Universalists.
Let me share with you a story from another Unitarian Universalist congregation about how our tradition practices democracy. It comes from James Luther Adams, one of the great Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
The transformation of First Chicago has been on my heart this month we have been discussing the three great disruptions, the three great crises, of our hour. As I have mentioned before, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy.
In some sense, each of these is connected to the underlying crisis in democracy. That crisis is that this society has been continuously ruled by entrenched elites since its inception. Elites have cloaked their rule in the rhetoric of democracy, claiming as the current President does, to serve the “forgotten men and women of our country” even as they pass legislation that solidifies corporate rule. They use the word freedom to mean freedom for the wealthy to do what they will while the mass of society is left disempowered and marginalized.
Historically, they spoke of freedom while they enslaved Africans. They spoke of democracy while they ensured that people of color could not have the vote and disrupt their manufactured white supremacy. Today, many of them speak of democracy and do nothing to confront the country’s skyrocketing economic inequality. In the last forty-five years inequality--the gap between the richest and poorest in society--has grown more than almost any other time in the country’s history. In our contemporary society there are people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who are so wealthy that they own more than whole segments of the country. This gross inequality almost certainly has something to do with the county’s political instability and the crisis we find ourselves in.
This inequality is not only connected to white supremacy and the crisis in democracy, it is related to the climate emergency. As journalists like Naomi Klein have carefully detailed, the entire industry of climate denial has been funded by energy tycoons such as Charles and David Koch. They owe their fortune to the fossil fuel industry. The have funded the climate denial industry to the tune of millions of dollars in order to stave off regulation that might impinge their ability to make more money.
Democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because our system of government was designed to perpetuate the rule of the elites. The climate is in crisis. It is in crisis because our government continues to serve those elites. It passes legislation and issues policies designed to ensure that wealth from fossil fuels continue to accumulate. It fails to pass legislation that protects the Earth upon which we all depend because, I can only assume, the rich believe that they will never be poor. And that no matter how despoiled the environment they can always buy their way into safety and comfort.
We can overcome these crises only if we commit ourselves to the religion of democracy and engage in the practice of collective self-rule. A our racist friend from earlier observed, this religion of democracy gets ahold of people and changes them. It is not the self-rule of some but the self-rule of all. One of the places that this struggle has long manifested itself is within the labor movement. Our first reading this morning “Sermon on the Common” comes from the great labor organizer and poet Arturo Giovannitti. He wrote it after helping to organize a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that brought together people of all races to struggle for their collective good. It was a strike not led by an elite but by the workers themselves. To coordinate amongst more than twenty thousand people they formed a committee in which there were representatives of all the city’s ethnicities. The vision of self-rule he saw in that struggle inspired him to write:
Ye are the light of the world. There was darkness in all the
ages when the torch of your will did not blaze forth,
and the past and the future are full of radiance that
cometh from your eyes.
I know that in these days, as we face the impending crisis of impeachment, many of us feel like the poet Fatimah Asghar:
I build & build
& someone takes it away.
It is easy to feel that so many of society’s achievements are crumbling beneath us. It is easy to feel that we have lost so much that we have worked for. This may be true. But it is also true that there is another possibility. That we “are the light of the world;” that we can learn to practice true democracy and engage in collective self-rule. That we can learn to practice in our congregations and elsewhere in our lives. And we take this religious practice of democracy, this collective experiment in self-governance, and spill it over into society--becoming a reforming energy that challenges rule by elites.
If you doubt me, I invite you to picture this. Friday before last, at least seventy-five members of this congregation gathered to support the youth-led climate strike. A sea of yellow shirts, siding with love, children, parents, elders. Democracy not in crisis but in action. A community mobilized for democratic renewal to confront the crises of the hour. The religion of democracy made manifest. A religious tradition that understands, in the words of our closing hymn, “that it is time now.” It is time to move to self-rule and finally bringing about a true self-governance that so that we might confront the climate crisis and disrupt white supremacy.
That it may 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.