But in my quest (or maybe I should say obsessive quest) to one up my older siblings, I had to get creative. So I decided to search for famous events that were related to my birth date. And I hit gold. On September 22nd, 1862 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. There are some who call this document the second Declaration of Independence. Our Declaration of Independence states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
So our Declaration excluded women and excluded slaves. Comedian Chris Rock caught some heat a few years back when he tweeted on July 4th “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks” For many African Americans, an additional, special Independence Day is often celebrated, independence from Slavery.
That day is June 19th and is called Juneteenth and there will be Activities all week long at United Neighbors Center in Downtown Davenport culminating with a family Celebration next Saturday. On January 1, 1980, in Texas, Juneteenth became the first official emancipation celebration. It is now officially state celebrated in 43 states including Iowa and Illinois . Now why June 19th you ask? Well June 19th was the day that Union Soldiers, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. More than two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. More than two months after the war had formally ended the news finally reached Texas. It shows that words written on a piece of paper are meaningless, unless they are communicated. Words on a piece of paper even if they are communicated just set out an intention. That is important, but if the intention is not backed by right action the words and the intention become meaningless.
As the emancipation proclamation stated, “The Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” And what were these former slaves free to do? For a short time after the war the Federal Government actually enforced laws to protect African Americans in the south and African Americans acquired a modicum of power.
But soon after, compromises, money interests and an engrained culture of entitlement led to disempowerment through direct violence, segregation and Jim Crow Laws. As well, many former slaves migrated North. There they found job and housing discrimination. Many former slaves had been separated from their families during slavery, and so there was less structure to support them. There was an article in the most recent Atlantic Magazine entitled the “Case for Reparations” which speaks specifically about the abuses the African American Community were confronted with in Chicago, with redlining preventing them from obtaining home loans, they were forced to borrow at usurious rates from less than scrupulous lenders. Even the most recent bank scandal, it was shown that banks were specifically targeting African American Churches to sell sub prime mortgages to their members with high fees and terms that were bound to force foreclosure in the future. We know African Americans and people of color are targeted by police for search and arrest in far greater proportions than Whites. What does it mean to be free if you have no opportunities. What does it mean to be free. Does it mean we are free to do anything?
Although we have personal freedoms, each of our choices have consequences. Freedom is an important value in our country and particularly in our religion. We come together as a society and as a Congregation and decide, what boundaries are acceptable. We usually start with “do no harm.” But there is unfinished work. Past and present racial and economic inequality is still causing harm. Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address at the sight of one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War said
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”
Did they die in vain? Today hard working undocumented immigrants and people of color are being disproportionately arrested and being forced to work for prisons. We may be free to ignore the challenges in our midst, but if we do, we do so at our own peril. We cannot escape the consequences of our inactions, If we have to wall ourselves off from the troubles of the world are we truly free?
Now I do not tell you this, to make you feel guilty, for the truth is feeling guilty leads to shame, and shame leads to not talking about the issues that hurt us. But I tell you this to remind you of our responsibility as citizens of this country, to remind you of the moral duty our religion asks of us. It has to be more than just about us. It has to be for everyone. It doesn’t matter that it happened before we arrived or if we were not personally a part of it. Whites still have to live with the ramifications of those acts and whites often still benefit from those acts. I ask you to help all people who are down to lift themselves up, to help them rise to freedom.
Unlike the Declaration of Impendence’s claim of the pursuit of happiness, 19th Century Unitarian Transcendentalist Minister Ralph Waldo Emerson said “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” The questions we have to ask ourselves, is not what are we going to write, what are we going to say at cocktail party or potlucks in polite company, but what are we going to do, what can we do to right the wrongs of the past. What type of healing and reconciliation can we put forward to bind up the wounds.
I tell you this is just as true for us as individuals and as a Congregation as it is for the entire world. What wounds do we have that we ignore, that we let fester, until something triggers something within us that makes us lash out. We need to deal directly with the problem or it will eat us alive just as the remnants of slavery are eating alive our country. There is a path to reconciliation. It is not always clear And its hard, it takes both humility and courage. The path includes direct encounter, not one filled with judgment and defensiveness, but filled rather with openness to hearing and sharing, filled with empathy and learning, which will hopefully one day lead to trust and deepening relationships.
When we are in pain, it is hard to see something from another’s perspective. And although we hope to find a mutual solution, it is not always about finding a solution but rather about building relationships. Its about making new commitments and covenants and about putting closure to the past so we can start a new beginning. It is about living out our values to build the beloved community. A community that includes everyone, working together to bring home the captured, to find the lost, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to heal old wounds. That sounds like a lot of work.
But as Unitarian Minister Edward Everett Hale said, “I am only one, But still I am one. I cannot do everything, But still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Let us work together to do what we can do and in so doing encourage others as well. In 2009 the United States Senate and House offered a Resolution of apology for Slavery. A part of it said, “While no apology for past wrongs could ever right them, a spirit of true repentance on behalf of a government can help to speed racial reconciliation and healing; it is hoped that by acknowledging a grievous past we will better avoid future human tragedies,”
Again, nice words on paper. But than at the end it says (in big letters) "DISCLAIMER- Nothing in this resolution--(A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” That sounds just a tad defensive to me. Even Abraham Lincoln realized the need to work for healing and reconciliation. In his second inaugural address as the civil war was in its waning moments he ended it
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
A just and lasting peace….one day may it be so. But there is still unfinished work. In our lives, in our congregation and in the larger world. We often don’t like to talk about things that make us uncomfortable. Race and racial inequality is just one of those things. But we will never find wholeness if we do not do the work. Both the internal and external work. The internal work to understand ourselves and what drives us, drives us to act the way we do or to ignore the things we ignore. And the external work to bring justice and healing to a fractured world.
Transcendentalist Walt Whitman said in his poem Song To Myself wrote:
“I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers and the women my sisters
And that the foundation of the creation is love”
And that is what our religions calls us to do. To Love. I am not here to argue the merits of or challenges of the need for reparations. I cannot tell you what the solution is. I just know that our brothers and sisters are in pain. They have been in pain for a long time and they need our help. None of us are free until all of us are free. All of us, coming together can help to heal the fractures in our world, with love. May it be so.