It is a sobering and humbling thing to stand here, Sunday after Sunday, in the spirit of truth – to stand in this pulpit, my words held up by a figure which represents the Spirit of Truth. Her presence, alas, does not guarantee that what is said in this pulpit is true. But she reminds me that she’s there.
I am ever conscious that when I get up to speak to you, she will be standing before me, silently urging me, as she urges all who speak here, to speak the truth: the truth as I perceive it with integrity with all I know and all I am, the truth as I discern it responsibly. She continually reminds me of my responsibility to attend to all the evidence – the evidence of my own heart, indeed, and also the objective data which sometimes contradicts the conclusions to which my heart leaps.
I have, I am sure, failed her – through overreach and through underreach, in ways that I cannot now see, most of which I will probably never see. Yet there she is, steadfast and constant in her support of whosoever would address this Community Unitarian Church.
According to our historical records, this pulpit has been at this congregation for 90 years. Ever since 1925, this Spirit of Truth has stood encouragingly, bearing the load of the messages of this congregation’s six settled ministers, all the interim ministers, the ministerial interns, the guest ministers, and a long, long list of guest speakers and lay members who have spoken here.
On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday, it is particularly pertinent to remember the urgings of the Spirit of Truth. Race-based distrust, prejudice, and bigotry continues to bedevil and rive our nation. Our world, too – but I must say especially our nation. The ways we lie to ourselves and each other, the ways we are in denial, place us in sore need of the Spirit of Truth. The first balm for the wounds of division is truth. The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will fail without the salve of truth – the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are.
Let us begin with the truth about our history, for that will help us understand why racial harmony is so particularly difficult for this country. America did not invent prejudice, or discrimination against people that, in any physical way including skin color, looked different. But we did invent the modern conception of race, and the racism based upon that conception. By the Spirit of Truth, let us understand where this conception comes from.
The word “race” used to mean any other group of people. If you lived in northern France, the people a couple hundred miles south of you were a southerly race. Protestants referred to the Catholic race, and vice-versa. Nobles spoke of the peasant race. The emergence of the modern sense of race was a deliberate device of the wealthy landowners in the colonies in the 1600s.
Much of the manual agricultural labor of the colonies, at first was done by what we would now call white indentured servants. (But in many cases were full-out slaves. See HERE for a chilling account of the English enslavement of the Irish.) England’s anti-poverty program of the time was to make poverty a crime punishable by deportation to America essentially as slave, but with the provision for earning one’s freedom after 10 or 20 or sometimes as much as 30 years of labor. From what we can tell, when African slaves began showing up to work beside them in the field, the darker skin color aroused no particular animosity. Whether you had paler skin or darker skin, you were kept in separate quarters, supervised by an overseer, whipped as a means of “correction,” often underfed and underclothed, and stereotyped as vile and brutish and subhuman.
The two groups, both despised objects of the contempt of the bourgeoisie, saw each other as sharing the same predicament. As historian Edmund Morgan notes:
“It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.” (American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327)And sometimes European servants combined with African slaves to rebel against the ruling elite.
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This is part 1 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE