as preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 20, 2016
This morning I want to talk with you about the prophetic power of liberal religion. That power is something I imagine is familiar to many members of this congregation. After all, Adin Ballou, your congregation’s founding minister, was one of the great prophets of non-violent civil disobedience. Ballou, of course, did not use those words. He called his belief system Practical Christianity. He preached pacifism He counseled that only moral force was powerful enough to solve social problems. The use of violent means would only beget more violence.
Ballou is by no means unique for holding up the transformative power of prophetic liberal religion. My mentor at Harvard Dan McKanan suggests that prophetic power has two dimensions. It can “denounce… condemn those who would [in the words of Isaiah], ‘grind the face of the poor into the dust.’” It can also announce or, as Dan writes, “proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old.”
The formula is present in our biblical reading from this morning. There Jeremiah warns the people of Israel, that they have gone astray. If they change their ways, he tells them, they will have God’s blessing. If they don’t then they will face disaster. This is the essence of prophetic power. And, so, what I am telling you this morning is that we as a country face disaster if we do not change our ways.
I want to start our meditation on the prophetic power of liberal religion this morning with an unlikely religious symbol, a bucket. Yes, I said a bucket. But not any bucket. Rather, I have in mind very specific bucket. Come along with me and I will show it to you.
To see this bucket we have to go to a rural Universalist church in Northern Ohio. In some ways, it is quite similar to this one. It was started in the middle of the 19th century by people who believed, like Adin Ballou did, “.” And like your congregation, it played a small role in the struggle to end slavery.
That congregation’s building was built in the style of an old New England meeting house. You probably know what I mean. Iconoclastic. White walls, wood floor, wooden pews, simple windows, not much to look at on a Sunday morning when you diligently ignoring the minister’s sermon. But like most churches that were built in that style, the congregation had a rickety aged bell tower. That’s where we are going.
The tower is only accessible from a ladder that can be up through a trapdoor. Up the ladder we go. Watch that rung. The fourth one. It probably needs to be replaced. We are on small platform now. There are little slits in the tower walls. Light comes in and we can see out. In front of us is solid rope. Do you want to ring the bell? Now over in that corner is the bucket I want to show you. It is not much to look at it. It is just a bucket. But it is really old. And it is filled with all kinds of nasty junk. There are nails and stones and broken pieces of pottery. What’s the deal with the bucket you ask? I almost forgot the most important part. It has sat in that corner for more than 150 years. You see this bell tower used to be the place where the congregation sheltered escaped slaves. The junk in the bucket: missiles to be thrown down the ladder if anyone came to drag the church’s wards back to slavery.
When I saw the bucket I was a guest minister, preaching at that little Ohio church. Apparently, they show it to all of their guest clergy. I suspect that it is the congregation’s most important religious symbol. It is a sacred object that represents an aspect of the community’s heritage that the feel a need to preserve it and share it.
The bucket represented what we might call prophetic memory. Prophetic memory can alternatively be cast as honest history. It begins with an acknowledgement of human agency. We human beings have done much to create the world in which we exist. With our hands, hearts, and minds, out of the soil, under the blessing of the sun and rain, we have hewn our society. This acknowledgement of human agency leads to a second aspect of prophetic memory. We human beings are responsible for the evil we inflict upon each other. Here, Rebecca Parker offers a helpful definition of evil. “Evil,” she writes, “is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” Evil, the patterns of exploitation that shape our lives, is historically constituted. It comes from somewhere. Prophetic memory begins with the admission that the world we live in has a history. It continues with the observation that we are held in the bonds of that history, it shapes everything we do. It finishes with the proclamation that the bonds of history can only be escaped if we face them.
In Dan McKanan’s framework, prophetic memory, like other prophetic acts, combines the act of denunciation with an announcement. It denounces a historic evil and announces that if people had not acted that evil would have remained in place. In doing so, it reminds us that we have been shaped will to continue to be shaped by history.
Many people in this country, particularly white people, try to escape history. It can be easier, more pleasant, to imagine that we are somehow free from history’s bonds. Such an act of imagination can provide a false sense of freedom. Resisting patterns of evil are reinforced by ignoring their roots.
The pretense we are not formed by history is a dangerous one. History matters. It shapes us in two very substantive ways. First, our communities have been created over time. They are the results of specific acts and decisions by specific historical actors at specific times. The history of Hopedale would have been far different if Adin Ballou had not gathered a utopian community here.
Second, the way we remember history matters. In this sense, history is not some static unchanging thing. It is something that we construct out of an available set of resources and view through a specific lens. It is essentially a narrative act. Historians take the accumulated detritus of society’s archives–books, letters, half-remembered stories, faded photographs, company ledgers–and fashion a story about the past from them. Ordinary people do the same thing with our lives and for our communities. We find old buckets and make stories of them.
In the last months, as the rhetoric on the Presidential campaign trail has grown increasingly ghastly, I have found myself thinking about prophetic memory and the debris filled bucket. I have asked myself the question, what do we, as religious liberals, need to be announcing and denouncing today? That ratty old bucket and the ugly words of the Republican Party frontrunner remind me of a uncomfortable truth about America. The central problem in this country since before its founding has been the problem of white supremacy. This is the history that we need to be prophetic about and that many white people are trying to escape.
This morning I am speaking as a white man to a predominately white congregation that is part of a largely white religious tradition. The term white supremacy might make you uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable moment to be white. The rhetoric of the Republic Party frontrunner has made it clear that we have two choices, and only two before us. We can denounce and actively work against the peddling and practice of virulent hatred. Or can we be complicit with white supremacy.
What the bucket reminds me is that the choices for white people in the United States has have always been thus. For hundreds of years, white people have had to decide whether we would accept the system of white supremacy or whether we would fight it. The majority of us who believe ourselves to be white have chosen, to this country’s enduring shame, to accept the system. I use the word believe intentionally here. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently reminded us in his recent work, race is a belief. It is not a biological fact. And yet despite its illusory nature, it is a belief with profound social consequences.
Let me put my premise slightly differently. Those of us who believe we are white have two choices. We can accept the belief that we are white. In doing so we can benefit from everything that white supremacy offers us. Or we can reject this belief and try to make a different world. The prophetic act is to denounce race for the social construct that it is and then announce, in the words of William Ellery Channing, we are living members of the great family of all souls.
I can well sense an objection that might be murmuring amongst you. There is a crisis in white America right now. Decades of deindustrialization, the heroin epidemic, the dissolution of white working-class communities, increasing death rates amongst poorer whites… The subject of white supremacy might seem irrelevant, a distraction from more urgent issues at hand.
Here, I return to us to the words from our readings this morning. Herman Melville, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” The shadows cast upon poor working-class communities, just as those cast upon the communities of people of color, are shadows cast by white supremacy. The only way to escape the deeper shadows is to step out from the clouds of white supremacy.
White supremacy can also be understood as a system of racialized capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois offers a formula for racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Du Bois lays out a central problem with racialized capitalism. It pits white workers against black and brown workers by promising white workers what David Roediger as evocatively called “the wages of whiteness.” These wages include a sense of superiority, the belief held by many whites that no matter how bad things get at least they are not black. They also include easier access to a whole host of society’s institutions. Today, people of color are not barred formally from educational or employment opportunities, as they were in the past. That does not mean that they have equal access to them.
The fear that is so pervasive amongst American whites today is directly related to the loss of the wages of whiteness. Immigrants are linked to a fear that they will take away the jobs of white Americans. There is an often unspoken fear that the presence of blacks within predominately white communities will lessen the strength of the public institutions within those communities. Phrases like “good school” or “good neighborhood” are code words for schools and communities largely free of people of color. The success of the Republican frontrunner is directly tied to his ability to both symbolize the wages of whiteness and articulate many white people’s fears of losing them.
Under our system of racialized capitalism, white people are taught to blame brown and black people for our problems. Under capitalism corporations compete against each other for the cheapest labor. So, the problem is not people of other races. The problem is that capitalism itself is an essentially exploitative system that pits groups of workers against each other.
Du Bois posited a solution to this conundrum, something he called abolition democracy. He used this term to describe the ideology of abolitionists in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Civil War. These nineteenth-century men and women believed that white free labor was undermined by black slave labor. The only way for both blacks and whites to escape the exploitation of racialized capitalism was to unite to end it. Before the Civil War this meant the destruction of slavery. After the Civil War it meant that the creation of strong public institutions, like universal free public education, that served everyone, not just specific groups in the community. Du Bois rightly understood that existence of a disadvantaged racial group in society undermined the possible existence of equality and justice. The collective poverty of blacks served as a constant threat to whites. It created a labor pool that could be endlessly used to undermine white labor. And it offered a threatening example of what might happen to white workers if they failed to buy into racialized capitalism.
So, here is the historical truth with which we as a religious community of memory must struggle. Here is the prophetic truth we have been given. This country has long been caught between white supremacy and abolition democracy. The one, insists that we can somehow escape history and that we can meet in the state of nature. It pretends that whites have not benefited from generations of white supremacy. The other, proclaims that we have to wrestle with history and form interracial alliances if we are ever to transform our society.
All of this brings me back our bucket. It suggests that once upon a time that congregation, like many others, practiced abolition democracy. In this historic moment the question is will we as a religious people practice prophetic history and revitalize abolition democracy? Or will give into America’s other tradition, the tradition of white supremacy? Can we step clear of the shadows or forever to be stuck under them? Can we clear the shadows or do they foreshadow? Let us choose wisely.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe