Sep 18, 2017
as preached at the Ashby First Parish Church, September 17, 2017
I am delighted to be with you this morning. It is the first Sunday of a new church year and I have the privilege of serving as your new minister. I am looking forward to getting to know each of you, the town of Ashby, and your wider community. It is my hope that in the coming months we will learn and grow together.
I join you at the beginning of your congregation’s, and your town’s, 250th year. It has been a long way from there to here and yet any time, any moment, can be an opportunity for fresh starts or re-imaginings. The poet Dante knew this. He commenced his great poem in, as it were, the middle:
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
We too find ourselves in the middle of this story we call the First Parish Church of Ashby. Thanks to the diligent work of Dorothy Wilder, we know how the story began. We know that the town voted to build a meeting house almost immediately after its incorporation. We know that the first meeting house was begun in 1771, completed in 1790, and replaced by the present building in 1809. We know that the church and town formally separated in about 1841. That was when the building was split into two floors. The top became the present sanctuary. The bottom served as the town hall until sometime in the late 1880s. We know the sanctuary was remodeled in 1927. The rooms that stand on either side of the chancel were added.
The story of First Parish Church is not merely its building. Amid Wilder’s litany of ministers and active members of the congregation, we learn that its liberals and conservatives split in 1820. The liberals became Unitarians and kept the building. The conservatives adhered to the trinity and formed the congregationalist church across the street. Evidentially, it has generally been the larger of the two congregations. Wilder indicates it was begun by “a majority of church members.” In reference to First Parish Church, she writes that its members “could not hope to belong to a large and comfortable majority.”
Reading Wilder’s history, we learn two further things about the life of this congregation. The first is that music has long been important to its members. The initial reference to music in the town’s records appears in 1768, one year after the church was founded. The other thing we learn from Wilder is that heating the building has long been an issue. She reports debates about how best to keep it warm in the winter months as far back as 1833.
Though this sketch of the story of First Parish Church leaves much unmentioned, I suspect it captures the major highlights. Certainly, the importance of music and the challenge of keeping warm in the winter were both shared with me when I met with the search committee. At least one person told that they come here largely because they love the music. I was also told that in the cold months you drain the pipes after services to make sure that they do not freeze.
The search committee did more than tell me about the Lizards in the Hayloft and avoiding frozen pipes. They brought the story of the congregation into the present. The last fifty years of congregational life are in many ways similar to the First Parish Church’s first two hundred years. Throughout all this time the congregation has been deeply entwined with the town.
Today is my third time in Ashby. The two other times I heard the same story about the congregation last fifty years. The first time was from a member of the search committee. The second time was from Pastor Ken, who serves the congregation across the street and who grew up in First Parish Church. The story centered on your former minister, Philip Zwerling.
I understand that Phil served here during the Vietnam War. He was an anti-war activist and, like many Unitarian Universalist ministers at the time, opposed to the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. He appears to have expressed his opposition in a rather imprudent manner. In 1973, I have been told, he denounced the American war effort on the bandstand in the town common during the annual Memorial Day joint service between First Parish Church and the Ashby Congregational Church. “This split the church and more than half of its members went across the street,” Pastor Ken advised me when I met him during the summer concert on the green I attended.
The congregation has yet to recover to the level of membership it had prior to Phil’s tenure. In the 1960s it seems to have had perhaps a hundred fifty members. Today it has forty or so. Listening to this story I was reminded that in our collective lives trauma leaves an enduring imprint. Much of the present political conflict in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War and through it to the twin traumatic sins of the nation’s founding: the enslavement and forced migrations of Africans to the North American continent and the genocide of the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. Trauma can narrate our collective life, suggesting what we imagine to be possible and what we imagine to be prohibited.
In the collective life of First Parish Church, the traumatic tale of Phil Zwerling on the bandstand seems to come with a subtext. The subtext is that the town of Ashby is conservative and that if I want to succeed as minister I would probably do my best to mind that.
I wonder the truth of that subtext. Certainly, Ashby is much more conservative than any place I have lived. The majority of its votes went to Donald Trump in the last election. And yet, the story of Phil and the bandstand is hardly unique. Lots of Unitarian Universalist congregations were split by the Vietnam War. No less a congregation than Arlington Street Church suffered the same fate.
Arlington Street is one of the flagship churches of our religious tradition. Located across from Boston Common, possessing sixteen beautiful Tiffany windows that glow with an almost holy light on a Sunday morning, the congregation was for many years the cathedral church of Boston Unitarians. No less a figure than William Ellery Channing served as its preacher during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. You might remember Channing as the greatest theologian of American Unitarianism. He was the promoter of the claim that each of us contains within “the likeness to God” and the author of memorable aphorisms such as, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”
Arlington Street split in the 1960s over the minister’s support of the anti-war movement. Jack Mendelsohn served there in the during the Vietnam War and under his leadership the congregation hosted a massive draft card burning that garnered national attention. It resulted in a famous court case that included the conviction of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then the chaplain to Yale University, for obstructing the war effort. It also resulted in significant criticism of Mendelsohn’s ministry by a number of the church’s members. In one letter he received from a congregant he was told, “such demonstrations serve only to provide aid, comfort and encouragement to North Vietnam in prolonging the war and refusing to discuss any reasonable basis for ending the conflict.” The phrase aid and comfort, you may know, is legal shorthand for treason.
Arlington Street went into crisis and decline in the decade or so following the draft card burning. In the 1970s it actually ran as a fellowship, without a minister. It struggled through the 1980s to such an extent that the physical plant fell somewhat into decay. Yet, today, Arlington Street is a thriving congregation with a Sunday morning worshipping congregation of about two hundred. It weathered its crisis and returned to vibrancy. Why? Well, the answer is straightforward. After its crisis, the congregation was eventually able to answer a simple question: what is the purpose of the church? They respond by saying, we are “gathered in love and service for justice and peace.” And then they take actions to live out that answer.
I am not affiliated with Arlington Street and I am not intending to lift them up as the paradigmatic example of twenty-first century liberal religion. Instead, I share their journey to suggest that any religious community that wishes to recover from its past traumas must be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of the church?
I posed this question to the search committee and again to the Parish Committee when I met with them. Each time I got a similar answer. Members of both committees said something like, “the purpose of this church is to survive and preserve our historic building.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this answer. It is good to keep a keep small congregation afloat. It is important to meet Sunday after Sunday and offer each other emotional support. You make a difference in the world by maintaining a Unitarian Universalist voice in rural Massachusetts at a time when religious institutions across New England are in decline. You have a beautiful building. From the outside, it is picture postcard perfect. There is no reason to suspect that placing the survival of the congregation and the preservation of the building as your mission is inadequate for your community’s near future. First Parish Church has been here for two hundred and fifty years. It will be around for sometime to come.
But, I suspect, that if we want to see the congregation move from surviving to thriving we will need to come up with a different answer to the question what is the purpose of the church than the one you have now. Survival and preservation are good for current members. We may need a new story if we want to attract new ones. What is the purpose of this church?
This is not my question to answer. It is yours. In the coming months, I plan to work with the Parish Committee and all of you to answer the question, what is the purpose of the church? It may be that you decide that your current answer is sufficient. It has served you for the past few decades. It might also be that you decide you want a new answer, one that tells a different story about the life of the congregation. That will be your choice.
I close not by suggesting my own answer to the question what is the purpose of the church but by offering words from three of the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologians of recent decades: James Luther Adams, Rebecca Parker, and Mark Morrison-Reed.
Adams: ...the vocation of… the church, [is] to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsible to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.
Parker: Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move to: from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good.
Morrison-Reed: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
What is the purpose of this church? What story will help the congregation to survive? What story will help it thrive? May we answer these questions well.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Jun 21, 2017
I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal:
This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.
After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?
The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.
May 4, 2017
Apr 30, 2017
as preached at Memorial Church of Harvard University, April 30, 2017. The readings for the day were Isaiah 43:1-12 and Luke 24:13-35. The sermon focuses on Luke 24:13-35.
It is good to be with you this morning. I want to begin with a simple note of gratitude for your hospitality and for Professor Walton’s invitation. Rev. Sullivan, Ed Jones, your seminarians, and Elizabeth Montgomery and Nancy McKeown from your administrative staff have all been delightful. Thank you all. Working with everyone has been a pleasant reminder that while I might prepare my text alone, worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
Today is the third Sunday in the Easter season. In keeping with the Christian liturgical calendar, our lesson this morning is an Easter lesson. It is Luke 24:16, a sentence fragment that we read as “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I want us to use a slightly different translation. It runs, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.”
The fragment comes from a longer passage known as the Road to Emmaus. In the text, we find two of Jesus’s disciples hustling towards a village called Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, the first Easter Sunday. They are discussing Jesus’s execution, the empty tomb, and all that has happened in the past months. Well, actually, they are not having a discussion. They are having an argument. And they are not out for a casual afternoon stroll. The text suggests that they are fleeing Jerusalem. They are part of a revolutionary movement on the verge of collapse. The movement’s leader has been executed. Its members are scared and confused. They had been expecting victory and experienced defeat. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the text explains.
Into this hot mess steps Jesus. As the two disciples hasten along bickering about, I suspect, everything, up walks Jesus and asks what is going on, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.” In that whole story this is the verse I want us to linger upon, “something prevented them from recognizing him.”
Wrestling with the text we can imagine all kinds of reasons why the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus. The Catholic priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan took a fairly literal approach. Berrigan suggested that Jesus’s disciples failed to recognize him because his body was broken. Jesus appeared as he was, the victim of torture: bloodied, bruised and swollen.
Another interpretation suggests that it was the sexism, the misogyny, of the disciples that prevented them from recognizing Jesus. The initial eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In the verses immediately before our passage, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, along with some number of unidentified women, try to convince the rest of the apostles that the tomb is empty. The male disciples do not believe them, call their story an “idle tale” or “nonsense.” Recognizing Jesus might have required these disciples to recognize their own sexism. It would have required them to acknowledge that the women they had chosen not to believe were telling the truth.
Whatever the case, the text tells us this: there were two people traveling a path together; they were joined by a third; and they did not recognize him for who he truly was.
This is an all too human story. It is too often my story. I imagine you are familiar with it too. Think about it. How often do you encounter someone and fail to fully recognize them? Let us start with the mundane. Have you had the experience of thinking you are near a friend when you are actually in the vicinity of a stranger? More frequently than I would like to admit I have my made way across a crowded room to greet someone I know. When I arrive I discover someone who merely resembles my friend. They have the same haircut, a similar tattoo, or are wearing a shirt that looks exactly my friend’s favorite shirt. But beyond the short dark bob, double hammer neck tattoo, or long sleeves with black and white stripes is a stranger.
Such encounters are embarrassing. Blessedly, they usually last a fleeting moment and then are gone. Other failures of recognition carry with them much greater freight than mistaken identity. For another kind of failure of recognition is the failure to recognize the human in each other. And that can carry with it lethal consequences.
When police officers murder people with brown and black bodies they fail to recognize the human in the person who they shoot, choke, or beat. The police officer who shot Mike Brown said the young man looked “like a demon.” That is certainly an apt description of failing to recognize someone as human.
Reflecting on the murder of Trayvon Martin, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas has written we “must recognize the face of Jesus in Trayvon.” She challenges us to consider that Jesus was not all that different from Trayvon. They both belonged to communities targeted by violent structures of power composed of or endorsed by the state. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, the list goes on and on. What would it mean if their killers had recognized the human in each of them? What was it that prevented police officers from recognizing the human in 321 people they have killed thus far in 2017?
I want to let that unpleasant question linger. Let us return to our text. It contains an encounter with the holy. Our two disciples were on the road to Emmaus. They discovered the divine. But they did not realize the divine was amongst them until it was too late, until Jesus disappeared.
One of the principal theologians of my Unitarian Universalist tradition is William Ellery Channing. He taught that each of us contains within “the likeness to God.” Jesus, Channing believed, was someone who had unlocked the image of God within. He did this by seeing the divine in everything, “from the frail flower to the everlasting stars.” Channing might be labelled by more conventional Christians as a gnostic. The gnostics believed that Jesus came not to offer a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world but to teach us how to shatter earthly illusions and find enlightenment.
This suggests a reading of our text that focuses not on the resurrection of Jesus in the body but the resurrection of Jesus in the spirit. Remember, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared from seemingly nowhere. The disciples were walking and there he was. Remember, he disappeared immediately, as soon as the bread was broken.
Maybe what happened was this: as our two disciples debated, and argued, and bickered as they fled down the road to Emmaus they finally understood Jesus’s teachings. As they recounted what had happened, the divine became palpable to amongst them. And when they broke bread together they felt the divine stirring within. It was the same feeling they had when they were with Jesus before his execution. They felt Jesus still with them when they recognized the divine in each other. They found each other on the road to Emmaus.
Understood this way, the story is not about what prevents our two disciples from recognizing Jesus. It is about what prevents them from recognizing each other. What was it? What is it that prevents us from recognizing the human in each other?
Let me suggest that failing to recognize the human in each other is an unpleasantly enduring feature in academic life. Think about it. Most of us have participated in the question and answer sessions that follow presentations and lectures. These sessions have a scripted dynamic. Someone from the audience asks a question, the presenter responds. Harmless enough, such exchanges further the collective project of the intellectual community. Except... these exchanges sometimes include failure of recognition.
Do any of these seem familiar: the individual who asks the same question no matter the subject of the lecture; or the person who aggressively repeats someone else’s query as their own; or the comment in the form of a question? Each of these comes from a failure to listen.
Failures to listen are failures of recognition. They often come from failing to imagine someone else as a conversation partner, as an equal, as another person with whom we are engaged in a shared project. If we lift the curtain behind failures to listen we will frequently find insidious cultural dynamics, corrupting structure of power. I have seen, over and over again, an older male colleague restate a younger female colleague’s question as his own. I have seen white academics ignore the words of people of color or try to co-opt their work. I have seen graduate students comment on each other’s work not in the spirit of inquiry but in the spirit of currying favor with their faculty. To be honest, I have done some of these things myself.
When I commit them I am locked in my own anxieties, my need to appear smart, my desire to impress, even my longing to be a hero. Instead of listening to what someone is saying, I focus on my own words. And so, I miss the conversation. I do not fully recognize who or what is around me. What about you? How often are we, like our disciples on the road to Emmaus, oblivious to the holy?
Recognizing the human and the divine in each other is hard. Let us think about race. Race is a social construct. Race is a belief. White supremacy is a belief system. It requires that there are people “who believe that they are white,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memorable words, and that those people act in certain ways and believe particular things.
Most people who believe they are white believe in white normativity. This is the idea that an institution or community is primarily for or of white people. The assumption is that normal people in the institution are white and that other people are somehow aberrations. Religious communities are not immune to this. Neither are universities.
The theologian Thandeka came up with a test for white normativity. It is called the “Race Game.” The game is straightforward. It has one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you might tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate white man. He brought with him his ten-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”
The “Race Game” can be uncomfortable. It can bring up feelings of shame. Thandeka reports that in the late 1990s she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or an email describing their experiences. She received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Does it require courage to recognize the human and the divine in each other? What was it that prevented our two disciples from recognizing Jesus? What assumptions do each of us hold about what is normal and is not that prevent us from recognizing each other? We could play variations of the Race Game as a test. The Gender Game: “The guest preacher was a cis-gendered straight presenting man.” The Social Class Game: “He was an upper middle-class professional.” The Ableism Game: “The able-bodied man with no noticeable neurodiversity.” Such games might be difficult to play. They reveal the social constructs that prevent us from recognizing each other.
But something prevented them from recognizing him.
But something prevented them from recognizing each other.
But something prevented us from recognizing each other.
What must we do to recognize each other? Again, I turn to the text for an answer. Recall that our disciples were part of a revolutionary movement. Remember, they had given themselves over to a liberating struggle, a common project. Two thousand years ago they did not accept the status quo of the Roman Empire. Today, we can recognize the divine when we join in struggle against the world’s powers and principalities.
Tomorrow’s May Day marches, protests, and strikes demand that the American government recognize the human in every person. The rally 4:00 p.m. at Harvard is a challenge to the University community to protect our marginalized members. Yesterday’s climate march was a call to honor the divine everywhere and in everything on this blue green ball of a planet. This morning’s passing of the peace was briefly an opportunity to recognize the human in the face of each person you greeted.
The first hundred days of the new President’s regime have been a sickening reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the human. The afflicted are not comforted. The comfortable are not afflicted. The brokenhearted do not have their wounds bound. The stranger is not welcomed. People die from the violence of white supremacy, from the violence of military action, from the violence of state sponsored poverty.
Our disciples finally recognized Jesus because they were part of a revolutionary movement that was committed to welcoming the stranger into its midst. A movement that bound wounds, healed spirits, and denounced violence. But more than that, it challenged people to find the divine amid and amongst themselves. For as Jesus said, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is! “For the kingdom of God is among you!”
It is the poets who sum this sermon best.
T. S. Eliot:
“Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?”
Jimmy Santiago Baca:
“the essence of our strength,
each of us a warm fragment,
broken off from the greater
ornament of the unseen,
then rejoined as dust,
to all this is.”
“Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent”
Let us pray.
spark that leaps each to each,
source of being
that in our human language
so many us of name God,
stir our hearts
so that we may have the courage
all that prevents us from recognizing
and the divine that travels amid
our mortal community.
Grant us the strength,
and the compassion,
that we need to go together
down the revolutionary road,
liberating the human within each of us,
binding the wounds of the broken,
welcoming the stranger,
comforting the afflicted,
and encountering the truth,
the holy is never absent when we join together in struggle.
May we, like our two disciples,
find each other on the road to Emmaus.
Gloria Korsman, Research Librarian at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, aided me with the research for this sermon. My understanding of Luke 24:13-35 also benefited from conversation with Mark Belletini. One of my advisors, Mayra Rivera Rivera, helped connect me with the congregation.
Jan 25, 2017
My preaching date at Bell St. Chapel in Providence, RI has been changed. I am now leading worship there on Feb. 26. Here's the service blurb:
The Great Family of All Souls
William Ellery Channing’s claim “I am a living member of the great family of all souls” is central to our Unitarian Universalist theology. In this service, we’ll wrestle with what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist today and how Channing’s words are both a call for us to be our most authentic selves and be compassionate to those around us.
Sep 1, 2016
Aug 28, 2016
Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.
Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.
Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.
My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.
I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.
My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?
Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?
I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.
This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”
The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.
Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.
All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.
Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.
I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.
The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.
We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.
All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.
Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.
Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.
Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”
And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.
Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.
As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.