Sermon for Sunday, October 4th, 2015 || Special Readings – Isaiah 58: 1-12; Psalm 133; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 4: 14-21|| Mr. Dain Perry, Guest Preacher
Come, Holy Spirit and kindle in us the fire of your love. Take my lips and speak through them, take our minds and think through them, take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
In the Book of Acts, while on the road to Damascus, Ananias said to Saul during Saul’s conversion, “The Lord Jesus…has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.
What a powerful image for the work the Episcopal Church is doing. After 150 years our church is sincerely trying to remove the scales from our eyes, so that we may see more clearly. For the church, in fact, most of white America, has had scales on our eyes and have not seen clearly the true history of slavery, the slave trade, Jim Crow, and segregation.
And more importantly, we have been almost totally blind to the ongoing impact that sad legacy has had on the descendants of slaves. It is my belief that slavery, and the attitudes and beliefs which it generated, is the foundation of the many forms of racism, which continue to plague our nation.
In fact, slavery in America set the stage for the many tragic events which we have witnessed over the last couple of years-Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Charleston, to name but a few. Slavery created intergenerational wealth, while at the same time it created intergenerational poverty and intergenerational trauma.
What we are witnessing today, including the turmoil in our inner cities, is largely a legacy of slavery. Many have a hard time with that idea, but there is an invisible umbilical cord connecting the two. Those scales over our eyes can make it very difficult for many of us to see the connection.
Our Epistle this morning called for us, all of us, to be reconcilers, to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation. Our church today is calling for us to engage in the difficult work of racial reconciliation.
I grew up in Charleston, SC. I hate to admit it, but I had scales on my eyes. No, I was wearing thick blinders. I did things then that I am not at all proud of. But over the last fourteen years I have slowly experienced many of the scales falling off. Are they all gone? No! Frankly, I doubt that they can all ever be fully gone.
I would like to share with you some of my experiences as a descendant of America’s foremost slave trading family, the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island. Share some of the experiences and learnings from a five-week journey taken with nine cousins, as we filmed the documentary movie Traces of the Trade, exploring the legacy of the slave trade for our family and for our country. During this remarkable journey, and the personal journey of learning that I continue to be on, I believe I have come to understand the relationship of slavery to the insidious cancer that continues to eat away at the very soul of America, racism.
I quote…“I want to tell you something of my grandfather, James DeWolf, of Bristol, Rhode Island, whose character, I feel, should be admired and reverenced by all his descendants…He deeply regretted ever having had anything to do with slavery, but as he has brought the hands on his plantations out of savagery, he felt it a kinder and more merciful thing to continue to give them good, comfortable homes, to treat them with leniency, rather than turn them loose (hundreds of poor, helpless, ignorant beings, to be cheated and misused).”
I quote this because it shows the atmosphere of racism, the depth of internalized white superiority, which we all must try to overcome. This was published in a small book in 1950 by three of my great aunts, published with pride, only a small handful of years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his crusade to turn around those attitudes, to create a reality in this country where the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution would be accepted as applying to all Americans, not just to those who happened to look like the people who wrote those documents.
As my cousins and I traveled on our journey following the triangle trade, from Bristol, Rhode Island to Ghana in West Africa, to Cuba, and back to Bristol, we had to look into the face of the terrible, inhumane things which our ancestors did which today are beyond our comprehension, and as their descendants look back and say, “why, how, what were they thinking?”
To the surprise of most people we talk to or who see the film, Traces of the Trade, the center of the US slave trade was in New England, most particularly in Rhode Island. Most of us learned in school that slavery was a Southern phenomenon, that Northerners were abolitionists. But the North was deeply involved in not just the trade, but many families owned slaves, and most of the North was involved in all of the supporting services to the trade.
After the slave trade was abolished in 1808 the next great wave of wealth in the North was the textile industry. Where did the cotton come from for those clothes? From the cotton fields of the South, off the backs of slaves. So slavery was not simply a Southern phenomenon. It was the backbone of the economy of the entire United States.
But the North won the Civil War and they were able to write the history and thus tell the story the way they wanted it told. They engaged in intentional amnesia and portrayed the North as courageous abolitionists, conveniently omitting from the story the fact that thousands of enslaved people were owned as property in the North for over two hundred years.
Our culture began as a Christian culture. Our forbearers read the same lessons we read. They heard, and spoke, and believed, the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They were exposed to the words, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love,” and “love thy neighbor.”
Yet they missed the mark so terribly badly, by such a wide margin. White Europeans and their descendants lost touch with their humanity through slavery. Tom Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts who tragically passed away last year, said, “Any kind of oppression ruins everyone’s lives…every thing that oppresses people comes from the lowest part of the human existence.”
I submit to you that we are missing the mark as much today, in terms of our understanding of, and correction of racism, as earlier Americans missed the mark with regard to slavery. What makes this particularly complex and confusing is that this is not of our own making.
We are caught in a twisted legacy handed down to us by those who came before us. It has festered, churned and destroyed lives for many generations, and become a tragic part of the fabric of our nation. Our job, our responsibility, in our time is to do our utmost to reverse it, to leave a legacy for our descendants that is one of understanding and appreciating, even celebrating our differences, rather than allowing them to divide us. We are invited by our faith into reconciliation. No, I would say that we are called to it, for God gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We are called not only to be reconciled to God, but we are called to be reconciled to one another.
For whites, racism is almost an intellectual exercise. For blacks, and in fact for any people of color, it is a reality, every second of every minute of every hour of every day.
Some say why bring up a hurtful past, that we should not rehash things that are so uncomfortable. Katherine Jefforts-Shori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, recently said, “Once we understand the past we can begin to understand the present, our political realities, our challenges and our relationships.”
I believe that racism is an unfortunate part of the human condition. It has existed in one bigoted form or another around the world, in practically every culture. But for some reason, here in our land it has been more insidious, more destructive, and more debilitating than perhaps anywhere else in the world.
The degree of racism that still exists here is appalling, and not even recognized by many of us, at least those of us who are white. Rather than blatant, overt discrimination, it is now often disguised, hidden, not noticed until it is pointed out, and even then still denied by many. That is the scales-over-the-eyes syndrome.
We must stop pretending that slavery has had no lasting consequences. Unless we speak out against racist jokes and cartoons and behaviors, actively speak out, we are part of the problem. Might it be that those scales keep us from speaking out?
I have come to believe that the worldview of the descendants of slaves, in fact of all people of color, is very different than the worldview of those of us who are white. This is because our day-to-day life experiences are so dramatically different. They know it, but most of us do not. People of color need to understand, as best they can, the white worldview, simply in order to survive. But whites don’t even need to give a nanosecond of thought about the worldview of people of color. The scales once again. So many of us who are white simply don’t know what we don’t know.
It is astonishing how fearful we are, I would say we all are, no matter what race we may be, how fearful we are to engage with someone different from ourselves, how there is an almost automatic distrust of “the other.” We simply don’t know how to communicate with each other, and we don’t trust each other. How can we learn to face those things that divide us?
It really is so simple, isn’t it? And yet so profoundly difficult. The words of our Lord, and of St. Paul, are the road map. “Do unto others…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.” AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU…AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU. How can it be any clearer? Love your neighbor as yourself!
Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing.” Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU. This is pretty much what the Epistle lesson this morning said when we were called to be ambassadors of reconciliation in this world.
I believe that the answer lies not in more laws, some of which may end up dividing us further; not in reparations, at least not as generally portrayed in the media; not in more blame or recrimination. I believe that the answer is the same as the answer to most of those difficult, seemingly impossible issues of our lives, individually and collectively. The answer lies in getting together and telling our stories, honestly telling our stories, and in listening to the stories of others, truly listening, sacredly listening. Getting to know one another-reconciling.
For we cannot heal alone, in a vacuum. We must heal together, through difficult and courageous conversations and interactions. And with a deep conviction and faith that every time we gather together Christ will keep his promise and be there with us, hoping, cheering us on, shedding tears with us, radiating his peace, that mysterious peace which passes all understanding, and God himself will be praying, praying that we get it right this time.
There is no other way. We must open our hearts to each other.
Lord, it can be so challenging to open our hearts to others who are different from us. But you have created this world, and have intentionally created these differences. We know you have not done that to create strife, distrust, hatred and misunderstanding. Please, God, help us to live into your dream for your creation, where we can walk and talk humbly together, and live in peace and harmony. Help us to remove the scales from our own eyes. We know getting there will not be easy. Please, give us the courage and patience to persist, to be your voices of reconciliation in this world.