as preached at Unity Temple, Oak Park, IL, October 22, 2017 [Note: This is a substantive revision of the sermon I gave on October 15, 2017 at First Parish Church in Ashby. The primary texts from Du Bois that I referenced in composing this sermon were “The Souls of White Folk” and “Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880.]
It is good to be with you this morning. I am grateful for Alan’s invitation to fill this pulpit in his absence. Alan is a fine minister and a good colleague. I am honored that he trusted me to bring you some words of truth and beauty this morning.
I am also honored to be preaching in this magnificent sanctuary. Unity Temple is one of Unitarian Universalism’s cathedral churches. I grew up in Michigan but my Dad is a Chicago boy. I have an aunt and uncle who live in Oak Park. I remember visiting your building when I was a child and marveling in its soft allure. Your renovation and restoration work is stunning. The sanctuary is even more magnificent than I remember. It is a tribute to humanity’s ability to craft beauty from wondrous wood, sand, and stone. In this space, Frank Lloyd Wright’s words are true, “if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”
Would that this morning we could do nothing more than raise our voices in a hymn to beauty. But no matter how skillful the artisan, how perfect the painting, how finely carved the timber, 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 that ever we inflict suffering upon each other. Susan Sontag’s words apply any day of the week, “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.” Channing’s words should remind us, race is a social fiction and political reality that has been historically constructed. 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 more steadily, when we understand precisely the path on which we wonder and what besets us. Finding truth and meaning requires honest analysis and honest speech. Otherwise, we will find ourselves mired in illusory falsehood. 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 loved to participate in an exercise in truth seeking. We are in the midst of the second association-wide teach-in about white supremacy. 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.” 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.
My working definition of white supremacy comes from one of the founders of the Confederate States of America. He described the origin and purpose of the Confederacy thusly, “This Union was formed by white men, and for the protection and happiness of their race.” In that statement, we find three elements that are central to the majority of white supremacist political movements in the United States. First, most white supremacists conceive of themselves as committed to a variant of democracy, one that they believe is the true expression of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. As one white supremacist described the United States, “We are a Republic. The consent of the governed is the underlying principle of our public life.”
This professed commitment to democracy is followed by a second claim that seemingly works against the first. White supremacists believe that democracy, the Union, citizenship, and the governed who can consent are limited to “white men.” In doing so, they place the legal fiction of whiteness at the center of their understanding of what it means to be part of the polity. But they also do something else, which leads to a third element of white supremacy. Gender is not incidental to its conception. It is central. Unlike a number of nineteenth-century thinkers whose claims we might try to universalize in gender neutral language, when the Confederate father used the word “men” he meant precisely that, the category of human beings we would now describe as cis-gendered and heteronormative. The role of white women within the white supremacist enterprise is largely reproductive. They are viewed as essential to the continued propagation of the white race.
There are two final aspects of white supremacy that are not expressed in the words of the Confederate I just quoted. The “white men” it benefits are not just any white men, they are wealthy white men. White supremacy is a system of racial capitalism where the wealth of the white elite is built off the exploitation of brown and black bodies.
In order to maintain it, white supremacists peddle what the great philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois called the American Assumption. This is the false beliefs “that wealth is mainly the result of its owner’s efforts and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.” It is the lie that each of us, if we just work hard enough, can become fantastically wealthy.
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, he is understood to be one of the originators of the academic disciplines of sociology and history. Du Bois 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 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 Du Bois’s view, the success of abolition-democracy required confronting the American Assumption. The wealth of the world has been built upon bloody exploitation. It is only by uncovering this truth that we can begin to build real freedom.
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.” It promotes the American Assumption. It ignores the history of white supremacy at the heart of this nation.
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. 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. We lean towards the American Assumption. In doing so we usually ally ourselves, if only temporarily, with the industrialists and even white supremacists 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. This is more than recognizing that the majority of the men who founded the United States were slave holders. It is more than recognizing that the founders of this nation unleashed a genocide on the continent’s indigenous peoples in order to steal land. It means confessing that the American Assumption is fundamentally untrue. The majority of the wealth in this country has not been accrued through its owner’s efforts. It means honestly admitting that the majority of the institutions we participate in were created by wealthy white men, for the benefit of wealthy white men.
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 are the majority of 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 most of these cases, the white men at the top come from families not unlike my own: highly educated and, at least, upper middle income.
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 may require confronting how the American Assumption has functioned in your own life. How much of what you have, have you truly earned?
If you are white, choosing abolition-democracy 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. It expresses an important perspective on what it means to be black in America, that is to say, what it means to live under white supremacy. As she tells us at the opening of the text, “Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person.” A little later she claims, “Black rage is founded on blocking the truth.”
We may believe in racial justice. We may belong to or support any number of the courageous movements that are now blooming across this country and throughout the world to confront white supremacy. We may go to or help organize protests with the Movement for Black Lives. We may collaborate with other congregations to challenge racism. We may declare that no one is illegal. These actions will not change one truth. Our words and actions will remain hollow unless we examine and transform the institutions of which we are a part. Who were they built for? Who do they continue to serve? Wealthy white men?
We Unitarian Universalists are not Calvinists. We do not believe in original sin. We believe that wrongs can be righted. We can begin with a truth: this nation and the majority of its institutions were created by wealthy white men for wealthy white men. And we can recognize that things can be different. We can confront the American Assumption. We can be compassionate. We can remember that love is transformative and reason clarifying. We can commit ourselves to abolition-democracy.
In the hopes that we can all make such a commitment, I close with words from the 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.”
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.