Service: “A New and Unsettling Force” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
I hope you know the story by now. We didn’t learn about it in history class when I was growing up, it would not have fit the dominant narrative that my generation of white public school students were supposed to be learning. In point of fact, this was part of our own childhood mythological vocabulary – whenever we were told to do something we didn’t want to do, especially by someone whose authority we felt was questionable, we would retort, with maximum snark, “Lincoln freed the slaves, remember?” Whatever other vague data we might or might not retain from our history books, that at least was an incontrovertible fact. I wonder now, as it never occurred to me to do then, how that riposte rang in the ears of the children of color in my classes.
I wonder if any of them at the time knew the story of Juneteenth? If so, it wasn’t something they shared with the white kids. Being fresh out of school for the summer was excitement enough, and July 4th coming soon; I don’t think it would have gotten any traction in our version of the national narrative, but we know it now, I hope. We know that it took two and half years from the time the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on the first day of 1863, until the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas were publically informed of their freedom by Union Army General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865. The news spread across Texas after that, over the last days of June in various local communities, so that “Juneteenth” became the common reference for any anniversary date when groups of people who had been enslaved learned of their legal freedom.
Early on, it became a day of celebration, of parades and picnics and speeches and – hey, notice this: church services! (probably without air conditioning, y’all) – above all, a day of remembering, of story-telling, an act of an-amnesis, a deliberate not-forgetting. In the end, the stories that it tells together are the one thing a community has for sure. Everything else can be taken away, but if the stories are remembered, the community still exists, still offers its members identity, meaning, hope. Stories matter. Stories tell us what the world is, and who we are in it. Stories give us names, and motivations, and outcomes; patterns by which to understand ourselves and each other. Stories teach us how to live, and how to be human; how to act, and how to be good, or smart, or a hero. In fact, stories teach us what to want, what success means, what kinds of actions or people to admire, who to feel sorry for, what bad guys look and act like. Stories have power.
Every community, every nation, every advocacy group has its own stories. Unitarian Universalism has Michael Servetus burning at the stake for publishing his heretical beliefs; it has King John Sigismund of Transylvania issuing the first edict of religious toleration in western Europe; it has the ordination of Olympia Brown by the Universalists in 1863; it has Viola Liuzzo, killed while helping civil rights protestors; it has Hillary and Julie Goodridge, the lesbian couple whose lawsuit brought marriage equality to Massachusetts. It also has Neville Chamberlain, announcing ‘peace in our time,’ don’t forget, but stories can be cautionary as well as triumphant. Taken together, these stories serve to structure a narrative of heroic intellectual integrity, expanding human liberty, and sacrificial commitment to justice and equality. Even Chamberlain, though ultimately overtaken by the forces of history, was striving to use his diplomatic skill and moral persuasion to prevent the human suffering of another war.
America, too, has stories. About the Pilgrims, starving through their first winter in Plymouth Colony for the sake of religious identity. About the noble founding fathers, throwing off the tyranny of corrupt and crazy King George III. About the pioneers conquering the western frontier, and Lincoln freeing the slaves. About innovative captains of industry and hard-working immigrants who created economic growth, and saved the world from communism. About building the atom bomb, and landing on the moon. About free speech, and a free press, and the right to remain silent, and owning your own home. These stories, too, come together to frame an implicit, unconscious narrative that defines good guys and bad guys, virtues and vices, rights and responsibilities. There will always be stories; stories are part of how we do human. The thing is, stories have consequences; they affect what we believe, and who we believe.
Fifty years ago, the black preacher Martin Luther King told America a story that its white majority did not want to hear. It was the story of the black experience in America, and it was not about how Lincoln freed the slaves, and everyone lived happily ever after. It was a story of daily, grinding prejudice and poverty; a story of lynchings, and night riders and burning crosses; a story of violence and humiliation, on busses and at lunch counters and polling places; a story of drinking fountains and schools and hospitals forbidden; a story of hopes dashed and spirits crushed, and a long, slow-simmering anger reaching the boiling point. Martin Luther King tried to show America how that story intersected with the larger national narrative that we have been taught to believe; how bringing people of color into the expanding community of human dignity would make the American story even more coherent, an even prouder legacy.
Despite many people’s best intentions and efforts, it didn’t really work. America’s narrative was inherently a story about white people, and white folks were always the protagonist and the hero; their interests defined what was useful; their preferences defined what was good. Whatever served to increase their power — over nature and resources, over other nations, over knowledge and comfort and profit — was both inevitable and right. If we went to war, it was because we were threatened, and other nations had made it impossible not to. If we prepared for war, it was to protect the prosperity and ways of life primarily enjoyed by white people.
As Martin Luther King’s organization grew increasingly sophisticated, he began to lift up the interlocking connections between racism, poverty, and militarism. Just before he was killed, King started asking the kind of questions that continue to nudge at the edge of our national conscience fifty years later. What if the center of the American story has never actually been about liberty and justice for all? What if the unifying narrative is and always has been domination? Of the land, of the native people, of women, of people of color, of non-believers, of queer people – in fact, of everyone who isn’t a cis-gender able-bodied heterosexual American-born white Anglo Saxon Protestant male?
I don’t know about you, but I grew up under the impression that the American narrative was a great story, it just wasn’t quite inclusive enough. It seemed as though some people were confused about the meaning of the word “all,” and there was some work to be done getting them on board, so that liberty and justice and human dignity could be stretched wide enough to cover the actual extent of human diversity. This was serious and challenging and even sacrificial work, but its ultimate success was a foregone conclusion, because that was the American story, and we were all a part of it. Yes, we had had a few unfortunate lapses in the past, like stealing the land and violating the treaties with the indigenous tribes; like the whole slavery thing; like interning the Japanese, and arresting people for homosexual activity, but all that was over with, and we should all get over it and move on, so that we could continue to make the world safe for democracy.
Martin Luther King started to ask, what does that story about America make us not see? What, and who, does it leave out? How does it help some of us to feel better about ourselves at other people’s expense? He came to think that there was another story to be told. In a posting on its web site entitled A Moral Agenda Based On Fundamental Rights, the new Poor People’s Campaign, initiated by Rev. William Barber, says this:
Today, 50 years after Rev. Dr. King and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign declared that “silence was betrayal,” we are coming together to break the silence and tell the truth about the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and our distorted moral narrative.
The truth is that systemic racism allows us to deny the humanity of others; by denying the humanity of others, we are given permission to exploit or exclude people economically; by exploiting and excluding people economically, we are emboldened to abuse our military powers and, through violence and war, control resources; this quest for the control of resources leads to the potential destruction of our entire ecosystem and everything living in it. And the current moral narrative of our nation both justifies this cycle and distracts us from it.