as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, June 18, 2023
And my slumbering fantasy assumes reality,
… afro blue
all slaves are free.
This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property…
the promise of a different ending
The promise of a different ending; there are stories. There are stories from that time. Stories about the end of chattel slavery and the crumbling of the slave master’s power. Do you know them?
They come to us, as such things do, in faded newspapers, fragile magazines, snatches of the congressional record, old military reports, oral histories recorded as memories faded and bodies failed, words passed from grandparent to grandchild and then onto the next generation.
“All slaves are free,” in the mistaken popular imagination, three events stand out. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “all persons held as slaves within any State … in rebellion … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger published General Order No. 3, “all slaves are free.” On December 18, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment took effect, stating that there shall be “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude.”
In truth, there were many. As the opening shots were fired Harry Jarvis, on the run from a slave holding tyrant in Virginia, appeared before General Benjamin Butler and told him he wanted to enlist in the Union cause. When Butler replied that the war was to preserve the union of the North and South, that it wasn’t a “black man’s war,” Jarvis said to him, it would “be a black man’s war before they got through.” Free in the chaos of conflict, he traveled North to Boston and two years later joined the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry.
July 17, 1862, Congress enacted the Second Confiscation Act, prefiguring the Emancipation Proclamation, and enslaved persons became “forever free of their servitude” as soon as they came “under control of the Government of the United States.” One army chaplain recounted what it was like as the news spread, and the Union army marched on. “[T]he cotton plantations were abandoned” and freepeople “flocked in vast numbers–an army in themselves–to the camps of the Yankees … like the oncoming of cities.”
Like the oncoming of cities; the promise of a different ending; there are stories. November 1863, Gallatin, Tennessee, some hundreds of freedmen organized themselves into the Fourteen U.S. Colored Infantry. Within days they were marching “many proud slaveholders” through the streets. They had turned the world upside down–those who had been held in bondage were now free and men who fancied themselves masters were off to the gaol pens.
The promise of a different ending; there are stories. And so it went, from day-to-day, week-by-week, month-by-month. First there were rumors, William I. Johnson, held in bondage by one of Robert E. Lee’s men, heard whispers “that Lincoln had freed us all.” Then there were actions; years later he recounted how he watched for a chance to “to steal away from camp and … [get] over to the Yankee side.” And, finally, after the enslaved people had largely freed themselves–fled the plantations, joined the army, and defeated the Confederates–there were proclamations and laws.
All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born.
That is how W. B. Yeats, writing of a different event, might have it.
But I have a theological argument with history. I am suspicious of sudden cleavages, apocalyptic events that fundamentally shift social relations or alter what it means to be human. Perhaps you are too.
The grand narrative of conventional Christianity is so organized. It divides human time neatly into epochs. There is all that happened before Jesus. There is all that has happened, is happening, since his death and resurrection. And there is all that will happen when it shall be said, as it is recorded in The Revelation of John:
Look, he is coming with the clouds; everyone shall see him, including those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the world shall lament in remorse. So shall it be.
So shall it be; the scripture bespeaks a confidence in total and complete transformation. The arrival of the Kingdom of God is imagined as a cascade of hallucinatory horrors. White, red, black, and green horsemen ride across the Earth, bringing pestilence, violence, famine, and death everywhere hoof strikes ground. Angel battles dragon. The soil shatters and trembles. Blood rains from the sky. The world burns.
And then, and then,
Every accursed thing shall disappear. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there … There shall be no more night, nor will they need the light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will give them light; and they shall reign for ever.
They shall reign for ever, that is not really how human history unfolds. Even something as dramatic as the abolition of slavery–the Juneteenth holiday we celebrate today–was far more something that unfolded in fits and starts than in sudden rupture. Harry Jarvis was telling General Butler how wrong he was some four years before General Granger published his order, “All slaves are free.”
Such narratives are convenient. They suggest that once a thing is done, it is done; that human history is divided into one period and then the next. Once there was chattel slavery, the story is told, and now it is no more, the story continues.
But I have a theological argument with history. Perhaps you do too. Perhaps you suspect, like I do, that whatever goodness exists, whatever it is we might call the divine, or the highest in human life, is something that emerges not at a singular time or in a singular event. It is unfolding constantly around us, within us, inspiring me to return, once again, to that favorite verse of mine in the Christian New Testament, Luke 17:20-21. Do you remember it? I shared it with just last week.
It describes Jesus’s response to the question, “When will the kingdom of God come?” He answers, “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 within you!”
The kingdom of God is within you, can I get a Hallelujah? Ralph Waldo Emerson protested the “corpse cold Unitarianism” of his day. We have been trying to bring a different spirit–a different sense of breath–into our services. Hallelujah, the ancient word signifying praise being, praise existence, praise the holy, Hallelujah, can I get a Hallelujah? The kingdom of God is within you, can I get a Hallelujah?
I have a theological argument with human history. I am suspicious of the singular event, the sudden rupture, the sudden rapture, the immediate ascent. In place of the messianic moment, all slaves are free, I imagine Harriet Tubman. October, or perhaps it was November, 1849, she freed herself, told a friend, “I’m bound for the promised land,” and found her way to liberty.
And then, December 1850, she made her way back to the territory held by the slave masters and brought a few family members to freedom. Over the next decade, she: helped more than a hundred others find liberation; met John Brown; and thought with him about the raid on Harper’s Ferry. When the war came, she organized Union scouts, spotted Confederate weaknesses, and led efforts freeing hundreds from bondage.
All slaves are free, I have a theological argument with human history, there are stories, stories that suggest not the abrupt ending but, instead, the slow swelling of a wave, the gathering of a storm, until all comes crashing down and there is something of a shift. But only something of a shift, for we humans change less suddenly than we might admit and cultivating the Kingdom of God–we might more comfortably call it living into collective liberation–is not a one-time affair but an ongoing activity.
Life does not conform nicely with notions of sudden disjunctions. At least, that is what I have found. What has your experience been? Consider the uncomfortable subject of death. It less a definitive ending and more of an ongoing process. To be born is to be fated to die, and dying is something we are doing all the time–sometimes more actively than others.
But yet, even when death comes, and the final breaths are taken, and the appearance of consciousness fades, that is not the terminal point. I am not referring to some kind of supernatural life after death. Death is the undiscovered country, from which no traveler has returned, and I have no knowledge of what happens after the last heartbeat.
“Rarely do the political careers of important individuals end in death,” the anthropologist David Graeber observed. “[A]ncestors …,” he continued, “can be far more important after death than when they were alive.”
Harriet Tubman’s bravery keeps inspiring us, reminding us that somehow, somewhen, there were people who made a way out of no way. This month we are reminded that the prisms of glass unleashed by the brick Marsha P. Johnson threw at Stonewall continue to offer up pride filled rainbows of human diversity, even though she is long gone. Can I get a Hallelujah?
And what is true a historical figure like her is true for each of us. We live on in the stories that people tell and in the ways, subtle and profound, that our actions have influenced those around us.
All slaves are free, the promise of a different ending, we have come together in this sanctuary, or virtually online, to celebrate Juneteenth. It is sometimes referred to as the country’s Second Independence Day. It is supposed to mark the definitive break between the power of the slave masters, the Confederates, with their awful notion of freedom for White men only, and the advent of a multi-racial democracy.
But that is not exactly what happened. Earlier, we heard Joshua Bennett’s magisterial poem troubling such neat divisions.
I woke up this morning and there were men on television
lauding a wall big enough to box out an entire world,
families torn with the stroke of a pen, citizenship
little more than some garment that can be stolen or reduced
to cinder at a tyrant’s whim my father knew this grew up
Bennett’s father born under the Apartheid regime we call Jim Crow. He is part of a generation knowing that the definitive statement, “all slaves are free,” was not quite so definitive. The definitive statement is a myth we struggle with today. There are so many ways in which the legacies of segregation–and through them the legacies of the Confederate regime of unfreedom–remain with us today.
I experience it every time I ride the bus. I have spent much of my life in cities like Boston, Chicago, London, and San Francisco. I believe that public transit should be for the public, which is to say all of us. Yet I have lost track of the times that I have boarded Metro and discovered that I am the only person with what one my friends calls the complexion connection along for the ride.
It is but a minor example. You can imagine others. And we could go on with the ways in which racial segregation continues to be tied to economic segregation and end with a litany of all that must be done.
Instead, I want to return us to a theological argument about human history. We recently made one, as a congregation. Do any of you know what I am talking about? During our annual meeting we adopted the Eighth Principle by an overwhelming majority. Now, that deserves a Hallelujah!
There are words within the principle that bespeak an understanding of what it means to be religious and how we collectively conceive human history. The text runs that we have covenanted 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.”
It is the phrase, “journeying toward” that I want to lift up. “Journeying toward,” they are good theological words. They do not imply that there will be a sudden break, a specific moment, to which we can look and say, “things used to be that way, now they are this way.” Instead, they suggest that we are caught in an unfolding process. Collective liberation is something we are moving towards. It is not some distant land or the one time breaking into human history of the divine. It is something we continually journeying toward, working to create.
And in the labor, something of the realization, something of the promised for ending. The Kingdom of God is within you. The Kingdom of God is among you. The experience of collective liberation is something we have together.
I have been reminded of this through one of the programs we have been running for the last year or so. Many of you are likely familiar with the series of oral histories that Sadé and I have organized on Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community. If you are not, you can find out more about them and view recordings of our conversations on our website.
We have conducted nine now. They have been with some of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards’ most distinguished elders. The discussions have been powerful and shaped and reshaped much of how I understand social movements and the religious experience.
Often I have been as struck by the audience as I have been by the speaker. Sometimes, the person we are interviewing brings their longtime companions in the struggle for love and justice along with them. When we have interviewed former members of the Black Panther Party like Charlotte O’Neal or John Crear other Panther alumni have attended. Thursday, we interviewed Omowale Luthuli-Allen, a Houston civil rights legend who worked closely with Congressman Mickey Leland.
And here, in the sanctuary, were a number of Leland and Luthuli-Allen’s longtime comrades. Past County Commissioner Gene Locke was here. And so were several others who had journeyed together to create a more just Houston and more beautiful world.
And my slumbering fantasy assumes reality
… afro blue
all slaves are free.
This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property…
the promise of a different ending
The promise of a different ending, what I have been reaching for across this sermon is another message. It is perhaps best not encapsulated in my words but in the words of another poet, the Yiddish singer Daniel Kahn. For he tells us:
Freedom is a verb
Something never finished, never done
It’s something you must make
It’s something you must take
It’s something you must constantly become
It’s something you must constantly become. The Kingdom of God is among you. This Juneteenth let us consider our place in the great sweep of history. It is not rest upon the belief that once justice came and it is now here forever. It is instead to recognize that it is something we are always striving for, always seeking to create, in our daily lives and in all the work we do.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say, Hallelujah and Amen.