as preached at First Parish Church Ashby, October 15, 2017
It is delightful be back in Ashby with you all today. The fall colors are just as glorious as I had been promised. The cascading hues of brilliant dying leaves against rumpled enduring bark reminds me that no matter how difficult the hour, how deep the crisis, our muddy planet is thick with beauty.
Would that this morning we could do nothing more than raise our voices in a hymn for the beauty of the earth. But no matter how crimson the leaf, how captivating the unfolding patterns of trees, we must confront human wickedness. I am not making a theological statement about original sin and the fallen nature of humanity. Instead, I am acknowledging the sad truth that we mortals are often horrible to each other. Fatal federal neglect in Puerto Rico, mass shootings in Los Vegas and elsewhere, hurricanes that have leveled overbuilt cities across the continental South, wildfires in Northern California, genocide in Myanmar, the constant gruesome humanitarian disaster in Syria, casual and bombastic threats of nuclear war, the unveiling of liberal male Hollywood icons as sexual predators, all of these can at least partially be attributed to human folly. Thus, it seems ever true that we inflict suffering upon each other. Any day of the week Susan Sontag words ring true, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
We should talk about things that will make us cry in church. If we do not talk about them here where else will we talk about them? There are precious few spaces in our lives for genuine human-to-human dialogue, the kind of dialogue that acknowledges our problems and pains and helps us try to navigate our way onward with them. So, today I want to talk with you about things that might make you cry, for they certainly bring tears to my eyes. Today I want to talk with you about white supremacy, one of the most difficult things in American society, and how confronting it relates to something called abolition-democracy.
We will get to abolition-democracy and how it might help us address white supremacy in a moment. Before we do, I want to clarify the theological points behind everything else I will offer you this morning. The first might be captured in my favorite adage by William Ellery Channing, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” There is one human community. We are all a part of it. Its rifts can only be healed through acts of love. The second, could be summarized by words found in the Christian New Testament and attributed to Jesus, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This could alternatively be restated as the fourth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. It challenges us to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” As we stumble through life, we make our way best, walk a little steadily, when we understand precisely the path on which we wonder and what besets us. Honest speech and honest analysis couple our understanding of the truth. I could summarize these points thusly: We Unitarian Universalists believe in the singularity of human community, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying power of honest rationality.
We Unitarian Universalists do not just believe those things. We try to act upon them. This Sunday, across the United States, hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations are moved by love to participate in an exercise in truth seeking. We have joined with them in an association-wide teach-in about white supremacy. The teach-in is the second on the subject this year. The teach-ins emerged as a direct response to the revelation of hiring practices within the Unitarian Universalist Association that appeared to favor white heterosexual men. This controversy, you may know, led to the resignation of Peter Morales as the President of the association. It also increased awareness of how, when it comes to race, the values and actions of many white Unitarian Universalists are in conflict.
In describing their goals, the teach-in organizers stated, “Everyone has to start somewhere, and it takes a commitment to disrupt business as usual.” They claim that for Unitarian Universalists “to be more effective at tackling white supremacy beyond our walls, we must also identify ways in which systems of supremacy and inequality live within our faith and our lives.” In other words, we must tell the truth about how Unitarian Universalism has related to and continues to relate to white supremacy.
We must do so within a context that can only be described as the reinvigoration of white supremacy and white supremacist movements throughout the United States. White supremacy has long been one of the three major political ideologies operative within this country. It was favored by many of the slave owners who numbered amongst the nation’s founders. It animated the actions of the leaders of the Confederacy. And it continues to be present among those who we might call neo-Confederates. It is at the root of what some have called our two national original sins: the institution of chattel slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the continent in pursuit of their land. One of the founders of the Confederacy described his country, and thus white supremacy, in these words: “This Union was formed by white men, and for the protection and happiness of their race.” Though he was writing in 1860, his words should not be understood as gender neutral. A study of the Confederacy and white supremacist thought reveals it be based on the belief that society should be organized for the benefit of white men, not just whites. And those white men are not just any white men, they are wealthy white men. Ultimately, white supremacy is a system of racial capitalism where the wealth of the white elite is built off the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment.
The great philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois is our a principal guide this morning in trying to understand white supremacy. The first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard and one of the founders of the NAACP, Du Bois is understood to be one of the originators of the academic disciplines of sociology and history. He sarcastically summarized white supremacy as a belief in “the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
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 the transgendered.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition-democracy demanded the 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.
In addition to white supremacy and abolition-democracy there is a third school of American politics. Du Bois identified it as “industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power.” We might call it a belief in the unfettered power of the market, pure capitalism, or reduce it to the maxim of “profit before people.”
The story of American history could be simplistically reduced to a three-corner fight. In one corner, stand the white supremacists, trying ever to protect and expand the political rights and economic power of wealthy white men at the expense of everyone else. In the second corner, there are the abolition-democrats trying to build a society that recognizes the truth that we are all members of the same human family. Finally, in the third corner, are those we might term as the industrialists or, even, economic liberals. Their understanding of freedom is material. That is, they believe that freedom is primarily about the ability to pursue wealth.
The contest between white supremacists, abolition-democrats, and industrialists has gone on now for more than two hundred years. No one group is powerful enough to win alone. The white supremacists and abolition-democrats are forever opposed to each other. Power in the country shifts whenever the industrialists change their allegiance from one to the other. During the Civil War, the industrialists aligned themselves with the abolitionists and the Confederacy was defeated. After the Civil War, the industrialists decided it was more profitable to work with the former Confederates than to continue to their alliance with the abolition democrats. Incredible amounts of money were to be made in rebuilding the devastated South. In pursuit of profit, they choose traitors, terrorists, and former slave traders over those who believed in a universal human family. Then, during the Cold War, the industrialists switched sides again. They felt they would be more effective at home and abroad in fighting Communism if they allied themselves with the abolition-democrats. It was much harder for the Communists to argue that American democracy was corrupt if it extended the right to vote to all people. In recent years, the industrialists have vacillated. They worked with the Reagan administration to undermine labor unions, thus creating many of the conditions necessary for the rise of Donald Trump. Many of them supported the presidency Barack Obama and the candidacy of Hilary Clinton. They believed Clinton and Obama best served the interests of Wall Street.
In which corner do you stand? If you are anything like me, I suspect that you want to come down firmly as an abolition-democrat. You probably want to say that you believe in “freedom, power, and intelligence” for all. As a Unitarian Universalist, you probably believe in the singularity of human community, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying power of honest rationality. This is not surprising. The most important white advocate for abolition-democracy was a Unitarian. Charles Sumner was a lifelong member of Kings Chapel in Boston. He was also a Senator from Massachusetts in the lead-up to, during, and immediately following the Civil War. His insights into civil rights were so powerful that they formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, legislation passed over 80 years after his death. Du Bois described him as a hero, “one of the finest examples of New England culture and American courage.”
Yet, Unitarian Universalism has never been free from white supremacy. We celebrate Theodore Parker as one of our abolitionist heroes. Yet he held racial views that we would today find appalling. Men like Ezra Stile Gannet and Orville Dewey, whose names we have forgotten, were solid industrialists and, in opposition to the abolitionists, promoted alliances with the southern white supremacists in the lead-up to the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder whose white supremacist actions cannot be described in the company of children. So many of us, myself included, far too often make choices based upon our own comfort. In doing so we usually ally ourselves, if only temporarily, with the industrialists instead of the abolition-democrats.
In which corner do you stand? If you wish to declare yourself firmly an abolition-democrat you must come to terms with the history of this country. That does not just mean coming to terms with the reality that many of the men who founded the United States were slave holders who participated in the genocide of the continent’s indigenous peoples in order to steal their land. It means recognizing that however much you find white supremacy abhorrent, the majority of the institutions which we participate in were created by white men, for the benefit of white men. And the majority of the most powerful in almost any institution we might name continue to be white men. The majority of CEOs of large corporations are white men. The majority of the members of Congress are white men. The President is a white man. His administration contains a larger of percentage white men than any president in my lifetime. The majority of university presidents are white men. So too with major league football, basketball, and baseball coaches. Our own Unitarian Universalist Association is not exempt. Of the ten largest congregations in our association, nine have a senior minister who is a white man. In the vast majority of these cases, the white men at the top come from families not unlike my own: upper middle income or above.
In which corner do you stand? If, like me, you have what one my friends used to call “the complexion connection,” then the answer might not be easy. Finding it may require a change in actions. It might require making yourself uncomfortable. It might necessitate opening yourself to unfamiliar voices and difficult truths. I choose the poem by Lauren Hill “Black Rage” this morning precisely because it presents difficult truths about what it means to be black in America, that is to say what it means to live under white supremacy. As she tells us, “Black rage is founded on blocking the truth.” And the truth is that however much we may believe in racial justice, our words will remain hollow unless we examine the institutions of which we are a part and consider how they have been built for and continue to largely benefit one group of people: wealthy white men.
We Unitarian Universalists are not Calvinists. We need to recognize that the nation and its institutions were founded by wealthy white men for wealthy white men. We need also to recognize that things can be different. We can be truthful with each other. We can be compassionate. We can remember that love is transformative and reason clarifying.
I close with words from that great abolition-democrat and Unitarian Charles Sumner, offered shortly before his death. I pray that they guide us all:
“I make this appeal also for the sake of peace, so that at last there shall be an end of slavery, and the rights of the citizen shall be everywhere under the equal safeguard of national law. There is beauty in art, in literature, in science, and in every triumph of intelligence, all of which I covet for my country; but there is a higher beauty still–in relieving the poor, in elevating the downtrodden, and being a succor to the oppressed. There is true grandeur in an example of justice, in making the rights of all the same as our own, and beating down the prejudice, like Satan, under our feet. Humbly do I pray that the republic may not lose this great prize, or postpone its enjoyment.”
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.