Posts Tagged Independence
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/18/17. It explores the heritage of slavery on the 152 anniversary of Juneteenth.
As we mentioned earlier in the service, today’s sermon is different than advertised, even if we’ll try to get to the same place of finding renewed purpose in gratitude for a religious community striving for a better world. This week saw a shooting a congressional practice baseball game – targeting republicans and the capital police officers who were risking their lives to protect their charge. We saw graphic images of a horrendous fire engulfing a poor London apartment complex on a street that had vacation mansions being held for later property value. And we learned that no one would face any punishment for the killing of Philando Castile of Minnesota at a routine traffic stop, while his young daughter watched from the back seat of the car. Our systems are broken. And they’ve been broken before, and been repaired, only to break again. Humanity is imperfect, and we need to keep trying.
Let’s begin with today’s holiday, and see how we can find purpose, meaning, and deep wellsprings for the work for the years to come. “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:”
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.””
What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely, at best, only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets.
The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity moved forward that day, and takes another step forward, every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the for-private-profit prison-industrial complex is torn down. It will move forward when justice is served equally across all races and occupations. With acquittal being the ruling for the officer who killed Philando Castile (a black man who was caught on video, obeying all requests from the officer, who also posed no visible threat, who also had no record, and who also served the community he lived in) we painfully and tragically see that the worth of our lives are still not all treated the same. It’ll move forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities for those who have few and less in retribution against those we see as merely different. Our humanity will move forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living. This last bit has caused much strife in our nation and our political landscape – as white people increasingly feel the burn of what I would call the logical conclusion of capitalism in a world where humanity can be greedy. As fewer people have so much more (as of January of this year, 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population) we’re seeing folks increasingly blaming those who are different. The thinking goes… ‘If only we closed our doors to the immigrant, or to Muslims,’ and on and on – all fake solutions born of fear and personal loss.
I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.
I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to go to college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the nature of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
If you will, try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.
Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?
I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of slaves in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though, to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 152 years has not yet gone far enough.
Fourth of July is the day we celebrate freedom with fireworks, but it’s only a comma in our history. The real celebration of America’s Independence happens when that last American became independent. Juneteenth completes that dream; and yet it too, is another comma on the path toward freedom – because all of us are not treated the same.
It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The progress forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.
So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but it’s the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of its affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them. Strive to find where we are connected, without diminishing the struggle of our neighbor, and build places of strength and succor from those connections. Appreciate our differences, while building upon our commonalities.
What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, to not create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. Be patient with other people’s pain. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 152 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?
And it all can be so overwhelming. I felt helplessly at a loss this week as I watched the news cycle. A shooting at a practice session for a congressional baseball game; a horrid housing fire in England that was a story that seemed to better belong to another century; and ending the week with the news about acquittal over the killing of Philando Castile. What has been done, we can’t change. It’s doubtful that the work any of us individually do will affect the outcomes we hold in our dreams. But building a better world is an incremental ministry we do collectively, and it begins at home. If this sermon is about the spiritual internal work we do to grow in compassion, our service is about how we come together to heal this corner of the world. I’ll invite us all to join in song about stoking the flames of our commitment to building this new world; and then we’ll hear from Liza Burby to tell us about what we’ve done in the world, and what we plan to do in the years to come. The work of life is never over, and we do it together.
This sermon was preached on July 6th, 2014 in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby/Eden Soy cases.
When our nation’s founders colonized this land, their predecessors from Europe were largely seeking a world free from religious or social persecution. Tragically, our succeeding waves of colonizers would commit the same acts of persecution – this time to the Native Americans – who were here first. They would also persecute, or banish, other Europeans now living in our colonies who had different religious views from their own. Our colonies would become a mishmash of religious practice, segregated in the name of religious freedom. With little sense of the irony of each religious persecution, towns like Pocassett and Providence, Rhode Island, would form when Puritans exiled other Puritans on the basis of religious grounds.
Roger Williams, one of those exiles who built the city of Providence (where our denomination just held its annual General Assembly last week that 7 of us from the Fellowship attended) would be the first Puritan leader to advocate for the separation of church and state. Rhode Island would become of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.
At our start, religious freedom didn’t mean the right to segregate communities or for secular authorities to dictate religious practice. It meant, the freedom to live someplace with the same autonomy as everyone else, regardless of what religion one held. Since then, US courts have upheld that this also meant regardless of whether one even had a religion.
That’s started to change in our country. This week, when a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled to enact a practice that allowed corporations to have religious beliefs, thereby placing one’s boss in between one’s body and one’s doctor. The all male, all Roman Catholic majority, would rule that a craft store (Hobby Lobby) could refuse offering certain forms of contraceptives to employees through normal health insurance on the basis of religious grounds. Not to paint too broad a swath on religious identity, one Roman Catholic woman and one Jewish man would join two Jewish women in the dissent of the ruling. Despite the court originally saying this would be narrowly applied to specific contraceptives that were believed to be tied to abortions, the court two days later would clarify that there would be no restrictions on reviewing lower court cases tied to all forms of contraceptives. This is so egregiously different than what the majority said two days earlier, that Justice Sotomayer would add to her dissent, “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word, not so today.” She would go onto say, “…the justices’ decision in [this] separate contraceptive case “‘undermines confidence in this institution.’”
Interestingly, the contraceptives cited in the Hobby Lobby case were not in fact actually tied to abortions. Apparently, medicine, science and facts no longer have a place in our highest court, as well as the original meaning of the phrase religious freedom. Hobby Lobby claims it won’t offer contraceptives that might be tied to abortions (but remember factually aren’t actually tied to abortions) to its employees, but it’s very willing to invest in the companies that produce such contraceptives because they have good returns for their retirement plan investments (401k’s.) They won’t care for their employees who may need contraceptives for a whole host of medical reasons on so-called “moral grounds”, but are fully willing to profit from contraceptives on wholly financial grounds. That is not the picture of religious freedom I was taught around the 4th of July.
When I hear of our hallowed worship of the ideals of independence and freedom, I have begun to feel like we’re in the story of the fire-starter – the folk tale I told earlier this service. The fire-starter is a teacher who becomes beloved by the people for teaching them how to build fires on their own – granting safety, invention and food. The powers-that-be have the teacher killed and train the populace to revere the idea of the now dead teacher in rituals, and statuary and in celebrations. In the more modern-day take on the classic story of Prometheus, the people no longer know how to do all these things. The people revere only what they no longer understand or can no longer live. I’m concerned that we as a people only revere the ideas of independence and freedom, and we’ve forgotten how to live them in community, with care and common sense. I’m concerned that power and privilege now trump all else.
Our nation was founded partially through objecting to the monarchy. The idea that any one individual was sovereign on the basis of birth and luck, was anathema to our founding fathers. They were opposed to forcing citizens (or maybe I should say subjects) to share the same faith as their sovereign king or queen. Or that any one individual was above the law based upon their stature or position. Being sovereign is the very image of privilege without repercussions, or power without sacrifice. Both qualities are dead ends for our spiritual lives. Our principles begin and end in diametric opposition to privilege without repercussions or power without sacrifice. If we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual while recognizing that were are part of an interdependent existence, as our 1st and 7th principles state, then our use of power and privilege must keep the virtues of worth and interdependence in mind.
This is particularly challenged by the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, perversely adapting the freedom of speech to corporations’ ability to buy elections. This is where we first hear the phrase, “corporations are persons.” Our national heritage, our nation’s founding documents, and our own faith perspective shout loudly that this idea is a lie! We lose each of our individual freedoms to voice and influence democracy when we trade voter transparency for practices of oligarchy where the top 1/10 of 1% get to secretly buy elections, transmute news into propaganda and to confuse facts for simply more partisan noise.
What we’ve created is a world where corporations are persons – except we can’t throw them in jail for criminal behavior, punitive fines often have no teeth, individual members of a corporate Board are often not liable for the debts or liabilities of the corporation they profit from, and there has been little accountability for public malfeasance throughout very visible scandals tied to the collapse of Wall Street and the bailing out of the banks while the individual perpetrators received six figure bonuses for their failure of leadership.
We can certainly reasonably argue for the governmental efforts spent to keep the banks working and our economy from a complete collapse, but there has been no lasting or meaningful repercussions for privilege or sense of shared sacrifice by those corporations. Corporations are not in community with anyone, so they can’t be citizens, yet we’re giving them privilege over people.
If we return to the beginning, looking back at what our founders fled from in Europe and eventually rebelled against England for, we see that we may have repeated familiar ground. “Persons” who are not subject to the same laws as the rest of us, who are able to force their employees to follow the same religious restriction they hold, who can control elections without accountability or transparency, and who can act with impunity – sound awfully like the monarchs of old. Corporations are not persons, but we’ve allowed them to become sovereign. On this holiday weekend, we are worshiping the idea of freedom and independence, but we’ve forgotten how to govern with freedom and independence.
When I moved to Huntington last August I was surprised one day when the lawn in front of what I think is the Town Hall became overrun with US flags. It looked like the photo on our screen today. Every two feet another large flag. It took patriotism to the comedic level. As if all we had to do was fill every other cubic foot with a flag and our patriotism would shine forth. I have no idea the reason for the invasion of flags, nor any sense of who made that call, and who decided one day to take them down – so I’ll not read into their motives or character. But it’s become emblematic to me of a blustery sense of patriotism – all show and little depth. We’re strident with our visible symbols of freedom filling our lawn, but there’s no room to walk there anymore for all the flags.
True patriotism is working toward the ideals of our nation; that all people are created equal. That one’s personal beliefs should not impinge on another – especially not to the detriment of their health, well-being or reasonable exercise of the pursuit of happiness. Placing one’s boss in between a woman and her doctor is not patriotic. Forcing an employee to check in with their manager to determine what religion they now are, is not patriotic. Ensconcing corporations as people, with the same rights as citizens, but with none of the accountability the rest of us must maintain, is not patriotic. Willfully being ignorant to the science and medicine that clearly indicates birth control practices that manage a women’s period to prevent pregnancy is not an abortion technique, and then changing the law of the land based upon your willful ignorance, is not patriotic.
True patriotism is living up to our ideals. It’s also accepting the fact as a community, we’re not all going to see the world the same way. And the answer is not to fight to win the world to our view. Patriotism is leaving room for difference. Patriotism allows diversity of view to have a say – and doesn’t silence it through the force of millions of political dollars. Patriotism is being more concerned with being accountable for one’s own actions than trying to become sovereign over the will’s of others.
In our faith tradition, this sense of patriotism reflects our principles. How are we guilty of forcing our will upon others in our own lives? When does our privilege or power, command the room? Even here, in our Fellowship, are we each ever guilty of the same sorts of things on a much, much, smaller level. When do we have to have things exactly our way, to the detriment or disagreement of many others? How does it feel to be on one end or the other? When we exercise power without accountability, when we demand our way without personal sacrifice, it taxes the spirit. We disconnect our sense of self from the interdependent truth of our existence, and we all walk away a bit bruised for it.
Our nation is feeling a bit bruised right now – to say the least. For far too long, women’s rights have been the battle ground for an ideological debate that is deeply rooted in power, agency, and differing sexual morales hidden behind the facade of biblical text. I say the facade of biblical text, because any serious reader of Christian or Jewish scripture will know that the story teaches us life began at breath. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Gen 2:7” One would think that was clear enough for anyone reading scripture literally or figuratively. It’s strange to pretend these scriptures say anything else.
And I can imagine that for many women, the battle ground doesn’t feel like something over their rights, but over their personhood. I saw a meme (a photo shared in social media) recently that was showing the “We the people” text from the Constitution with three pictures. A corporation with the word person written over it. The second was a church with the word person. The third was a picture of a woman that instead had the word meh written over her. The highest court of our nation just said meh to half our population, and it was said by 5 men deciding the health and future of these women and their families. Power without accountability or personal sacrifice.
It’s tough to end with a call to action. The highest court of our land ruled. In our system of checks and balances, we’re left with trying to influence the legislature of our 50 states to make an amendment to the Constitution. Apparently we need a 28th amendment that places an asterisk next to “We the People.” “*And by the word people, we mean actual – individual – people.” I believe there is already a movement to this effect. I hope it gains more traction in light of this farcical court ruling. In the interim, before such a legislative miracle occurs, we can educate ourselves about the corporations, schools, and businesses that are the most egregious abusers of this new ruling – and spend our money elsewhere. We can also lobby for a single payer health plan run by the government, like every other developed Western nations does, so that no citizen will ever have to rely on the faith of their boss to care for their personal health and the health of their family.
And to those of us who feel real bruised right now. I’m sorry we’ve gotten to this difficult place. Know that your individual worth, and your importance to our community and our nation is not reflected in this decision. Power and privilege will win out some times, but it doesn’t diminish your soul. Power and privilege diminishes the perpetrator, not the victim.