September 17, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
“You see it. You feel it. Spanish moss sways gently in the coastal breeze on historic giant oaks. The world famous Avenue of Oaks forms a timeless corridor transporting you back in time to an era gone forever but never forgotten. Come experience history, beauty and grace. Come experience . . . Boone Hall Plantation.”
I’m quoting, not from some antiquated advertisement hailing from Jim-Crow days, but from a current brochure which I was handed in the Charleston, South Carolina, visitor center last month. This brochure also features a black woman dressed in, I guess, authentic-looking slavery-era clothes. The expression on her face – you have to see this. It’s highly ambiguous; they must have looked long and hard to find, or pose, a photo in which this enslaved woman is neither obviously happy nor sad, which allows each viewer to imagine for themselves what she is feeling. I’ll leave it up on the altar and you can have a look. It’s kind of brilliant, as propaganda.
My sermon this morning is not, ultimately, about the South, or racist attitudes. It’s about what happens when we change our point of view about something very basic. The light bulb goes on, we open our eyes . . . and it all looks different. But since my brochure here illustrates a good example of this, let me continue.
Boone Hall Plantation, I learn from the internet, specialized in brick manufacture. According to Wikipedia, by 1850 “Boone Hall was producing 4 million bricks per year using 85 slaves.” Slave cabins were built and displayed at the front of the property as a sign of wealth.
You must imagine what brick-making was like in this era. The first successful brick-making machine wasn’t patented until 1855, so Boone Hall Plantation at its height made bricks by hand-molding, an arduous and labor-intensive process. In other words, Boone Hall Plantation was not some sort of idyllic pastoral affair. It was not a “farm” at all. It was what we would call today a slave-labor camp. Africans were captured, transported, and the survivors forced to make 4 million bricks a year. Let me reread the plantation’s brochure, with a few edits:
“You see it. You hear it. Spanish moss sways gently in the coastal breeze, and the cries of slaves being whipped waft in to you on that same gentle breeze. The world famous Avenue of Oaks transports you back to an era gone forever but never forgotten, especially by the descendants of those who were raped, beaten, and murdered beneath the oaks. Come experience history, beauty, grace, and atrocity. Come experience . . . the Boone Hall Slave-Labor Camp.”
Is this just easy indignation and sarcasm? I hope not. Again, I’m trying to describe how the same historical phenomenon can be seen so differently by two different groups of people. Maybe it depends on what glasses you’re wearing . . .
. . . such as NASA-certified eclipse glasses, for instance, which Katie and I wore during the total eclipse of the sun last month. This was our reason for being in South Carolina. On the morning of the eclipse, we learned that the weather around Charleston was likely to be overcast, so we drove three hours west, to Greenville. On a perfect sunny afternoon, we experienced the glory of God’s creation in a way that was utterly new and indescribably moving. That would take a whole other sermon to capture – yet in a way, the contrast between the ancient, numinous beauty of a solar eclipse and the down-to-earth, tawdry sights and “legends” of the South, was critical in shaping this sermon.
An awful lot of the people we met on our trip seemed intent on defending their “heritage” to us, though we hadn’t asked. To be fair, this was mere days after the disgusting events in Charlottesville, and I can understand how a well-intentioned Southerner would be feeling pretty appalled, and pretty defensive around Yankees. (A notable exception to this, I should mention, was the tour guide on the African-American History Tour of Charleston that we took. This guy wasn’t defending anything, or even making much of a case against the so-noble heritage of the antebellum South. He merely pointed out the lovely mansions of downtown Charleston, and explained who built them and what they cost in human misery. The facts were eloquent.)
Katie and I gathered to watch the eclipse with a small group of folks in a tiny park outside the old Springwood Cemetery in Greenville. The park was highlighted by a statue of a Confederate soldier. One of our new friends identified herself as a lifelong Greenvillean and said it was a shame that “liberals” wanted Southerners to tear down their Civil War monuments. (Did I mention she was white? And very gracious and well-mannered, and clearly an educated woman.) We’re not racists, she said forthrightly; this statue is a reminder of our history, our heritage. There was that word “heritage” again . . .
She certainly believed this, and I was half-willing to be persuaded. But then I read what it said on the base of the statue. It was a short bit of bad verse, which I quote in full:
All lost, but by the graves
Where martyred heroes rest
He wins the most who honor saves
Success is not the test
The world shall yet decide
In truth’s clear far off light
That the soldiers
Who wore the gray and died
With Lee, were in the right.
Nor shall your glory be forgot
While fame her record keeps
Or honor points the hallowed spot
Where valor proudly sleeps,
Nor wreck, nor change,
Nor winter’s blight,
Not time’s remorseless doom,
Can dim one ray of holy light
That gilds your glorious tomb.
I didn’t get into it with the native Greenvillean, but this statue is pretty obviously about Lee and his soldiers being right, and being martyrs in a holy cause, not so much about history and heritage. Unless that is the heritage? Fighting a losing battle for the preservation of slavery? What were they right about? Well, “truth’s clear far-off light” is still waiting to shine on that one, I guess. Anyway, speaking of light, the eclipse was nearly upon us. The wind had picked up, the sky was darkening, birds began to flock. For a few minutes, all of this – Lee’s cause, dead soldiers, even heritage –would be eclipsed.
But it’s the nature of an eclipse that it’s soon over. It seems like we get lots of eclipses, total and partial, when it comes to American white supremacy – brief moments when the power of that old, evil way is blotted out – but it always comes back. My take on this is of course bitter in 2017, a year in which the first African American president, a man of rare good sense and thoughtfulness, was succeeded by a . . . I crossed out a lot of adjectives here in my attempt to describe Donald Trump. I’ll just call him “the man who rushed to defend the ‘good people’ ” allied with all the sieg-heilers in Charlottesville. Sorry if I sound a little pessimistic.
It’s not as if the “beauties” and “glory” of the Boone Hall slave-labor camp don’t exist. I’m sure they do, just as downtown Charleston is truly lovely. The problem is that it’s impossible to feel admiration for whatever positive qualities are present when the negative reality is so dreadful, and pervasive. It would be like enjoying the shapeliness of the enormous mushroom cloud after a nuclear explosion. Once you’re “woke,” to use the current expression, you just can’t go back to sleep.
This is the heart of my sermon this morning: that experience of being “woke,” of metanoia, of suddenly seeing something in a new way, maybe something you’ve been used to looking at your entire life. It’s about getting a new heart and a new mind, as our liturgical theme for this season says. The institutions of Southern white supremacy are by no means the only example in my life of this kind of experience. You heard Michele give a Peace & Justice prayer referring to “Climate in the Pulpit” . . . Once you see, really see, the results of our reliance on fossil fuels, you can’t unsee it. And, just like the example of slave institutions, you can no longer feel the same way about whatever positives are associated with that overwhelming negative. Big gas-guzzling vehicles are safe and useful and fun to drive? Well yeah, but they are a big part of the collective murder of Mother Earth, which at least for me kind of takes the fun out of it. Almost like visiting a plantation and being asked to ooo and aaaah over the “famous Avenue of Oaks” . . .
Even more striking is the way the institutions of white supremacy compare with the institutions of animal abuse. I know this point of view isn’t necessarily shared by all Seekers, so, mindful of the good counsel I received from some people this week (which I’ll talk about in a moment), I will try to say this in a way that isn’t offensive or judgmental. We all enjoy a tasty meal, and of course we all want everyone to have enough to eat. So it’s easy to stay asleep when it comes to the basic question: How is your food brought to your table? No one wants to admit that factory farming even exists, much less that it does the barbaric, unconscionable things it does to 9 billion animals a year, just in the US, and not including fish. Yet once you do look, once you do wake up, you can never see the simple act of eating in the same way again. It becomes impossible to find much good to say about the taste of pork, because this taste is only possible in a context of mass (and by the way, unnecessary) brutalization. Kind of like those slave-labor camps . . .
So how do you get woke? How do you achieve metanoia, a change of heart? The Bible tells us it’s like being born again. And that metaphor holds the key, I think: I cannot give birth to myself. I cannot make myself born again. Only my Mother in Heaven can do that. Metanoia is a gift, something that is done for me and to me. There is absolutely no point in condemning individuals who may not see things my way. I have no idea what their Heavenly Mother has or hasn’t done for them. Nor is there any virtue in being smug about my own moral righteousness, or trying to take credit for it — we all know what Jesus thought about people who do that. It was a constant temptation as I wrote this sermon.
Some of you may have noticed that I sent out an all-Seekers email asking if those who identify as Southerners would get in touch with me. I did this for two reasons: First, I don’t like it when a preacher appears to be needlessly giving offense because he or she didn’t think about how others might receive their word; and second, because our reading from Romans today asks the question, “How can you sit in judgment of your sisters and brothers?” which made me very nervous. I don’t want to give needless offense, and I don’t want to sit in judgment on my family. So I asked the self-identified Southerners who responded what they thought about the gist of my sermon. No one was offended, but I heard a theme from several of them: The “South” is not monolithic, it’s composed of many individuals with widely different beliefs. Don’t generalize or use stereotypes. In considering this, I realized that the same is very much true of, say, “climate deniers” or “meat-eaters.” As individuals, I have nothing to say about them, and no right to say it. After all, some of my best friends eat meat.
I greatly valued that pre-sermon feedback I received. I’ve tried to heed it – and if I’ve failed, that’s down to me, not my counselors. I think, I hope, that my only purpose in this sermon is condemning institutions, not individuals. And especially, I’m trying to call out the power structures that continue to promulgate a false and dangerous version of history, and an even more dangerous vision for the future. I don’t think Paul had this kind of judging in mind when he gave us his warning in the Romans reading. As I suggested a few moments ago, the Christian word on being judgmental seems to me very different. We’re told that we can’t possibly see into the hearts of our brothers and sisters, and that only God can know why a person has lived their life as they have. We’re not supposed to judge because we don’t know the facts about another person’s soul. To believe we do is to be foolish and arrogant, and to take upon ourselves a role that is God’s alone. It is not the same thing as denouncing the evils of slavery, eco-destruction, and animal abuse. We know God weeps for them too, as our Scripture tells us this morning.
So, let me end with those words from the Psalm : “How you love justice, Holy One! You are always on the side of the oppressed. . . . You are tender and compassionate, Holy One – slow to anger, and always loving; your indignation doesn’t endure forever, and your anger lasts only for a short time. You never treat us as our sins deserve; you don’t repay us in kind for the injustices we do.” I invite you to join me in this prayer: Holy One, show us how to take our anger at oppression and cruelty, our indignation at injustice, and turn them into tender, compassionate action.