The Legacy of Slavery Is Alive and Well

I am caught up in two difficult and painful struggles. Our nation is facing the most serious political crisis since the 1960s Vietnam War crisis, and my religious organization, The Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA), is struggling once again with its own internal racial isolation.

Our national turmoil is the result of a profound division within us, the division between those who believe that the core of life involves power and property and those who believe that the core of life involves compassion and connection. This division can be creative and constructive when each side has respect for the other. However, this mutual respect has been evaporating since the 1980s and has now all but disappeared.

Our current President is the embodiment of the power and property view. He, his administration, and much of his political base have nothing but contempt for compassion and see connection and relationship as weakness. And since contempt on one side births contempt in the other, we are now in a downward spiral of division, suspicion, anger, and cynicism. (The word “contempt” comes from a Latin word that means “to despise.”)

The turmoil within the UUA is the result of increasingly powerful calls for us to understand how it is that our organization embodies structures, processes, policies, and procedures that incarnate the idea that Euro-American culture is superior to non-Euro-American culture. This consistent and unrecognized favoring of Euro-American culture is the essence of systemic white supremacism.

Unfortunately there is no bright line that divides structures, processes, policies, and procedures on the one hand from specific actions taken by specific people on the other. As a result, when someone points to, say, a procedure that embodies white supremacism, others assume that they are being called white supremacists, thus missing the point entirely. The result is that, rather than moving toward resolution and reconciliation, more often we move toward anger and even deeper division.

This confusion is what stands behind the defensiveness that one often encounters when procedures and policies are called into question. It may be that all of this is both inevitable and necessary, but in the meantime, hearts are breaking. It remains true, though, that the work of deepening racial reconciliation is difficult, painful work that cannot be engaged without hearts breaking.

These two conflicts that seem, at first blush, very different, share a common ancestor. Both are aspects of the legacy of slavery within the United States. Writers such as Douglas Blackmon and Edward Baptist have documented how slavery in one form or another was at the heart of American industrialization. It is a moot question whether or not our industrialization required slavery. The fact is that it actually was based on cotton, and that cotton was grown by enslaved labor.

The influence of industrialization was so pervasive that every institution in the new nation benefited from it and therefore also benefitted from slavery. As a result every institution, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, was organized in ways that reflected that benefit. This was true of our government, and it was true of our religious institutions.

At the national level, consider. It is a small step from thinking that power generates worth to the idea that those without power are worth nothing except as property and as generators of wealth. And this is the essence of slavery. The enslaved, having no power, are but property and properly so. Thus was slavery justified. On the other hand, compassion and respect for relationship and human connection are what motivated the Abolitionists, even though they rarely grasped the true breadth and power of this idea. Some say there was no reconciliation of this divide until the Civil War. I would argue that in fact it has never been reconciled. Not even the election of an African American President illustrated reconciliation. Quite the contrary.

At the religious level, consider. Unitarianism and Universalism arose in the United States when the Industrial Revolution was either nascent or exploding across the land. Fortunes were made by the Industrial Revolution, and some of the scions of industry and the economic endeavors it required were attracted to Unitarianism or Universalism. Thus it was that fortunes generated either directly or indirectly by enslaved labor fueled the rise both religious movements.

Our parent organizations, The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, were not exceptions. They too benefitted from slavery. And therein lies our turmoil. There is a conflict lying at the heart of the UUA. On the one hand two of our most cherished ideals are the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependence of all beings. And yet the UUA is descended from older structures that embodied slavery and the Association has inherited, albeit unwittingly, a considerable amount of that embodiment. And we are loath to acknowledge that fact. Thus the conflict.

So here we have it, two very different power struggles, one governmental and one religious. At least on the surface they may appear to be completely unrelated. And yet they both have roots in the same soil, the soil of American slavery. The lesson I take from this is that the legacy of slavery, though very well hidden, lives and breaths its poison into the soul of America at nearly every level. If we have any hope at all of solving these problems, we must address these roots, honestly, humbly, and compassionately. For, as William Faulkner told us, the past is not over; it is not even past.

A Hard Rain

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching and contemplating a revival of the Civil Rights Movement. And while I have not been silent, I have also wanted to be sure I knew my song well before I started singing, because the hard rains are gonna fall. We are entering a hard, painful, trying time in our history, religiously, nationally and culturally. We are trying to heal a divide that has existed for millennia, and the hard truth is that none of us will live to see it fully healed.

I am 72 years old. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Crow had to die. The struggle was long and hard. People bled and died in the struggle. Friendships and families were broken. Hearts were broken. And people were called upon to see their worlds differently. Not everyone could do that, though more could than couldn’t.

By about 1970, many of us, mostly Euro-American, thought that the work was essentially finished. We thought that all that remained was working out the details and correcting the oversights. We thought the world had changed. We were, of course, wrong. What was changed was the law, not the souls of the Euro-American people. And that is the task we face today: changing the soul of white America. What we are being called to do is to let go of a consciousness that we do not even know we have.

Before it will be possible for white privilege/white supremacy to evaporate into no privilege at all, the world that we Euro-Americans build out of our deep and unknowing racial consciousness, must die that a new world can be built. This cannot happen without struggle. It cannot happen without people being offended, hurt, and angered. It cannot happen without good and well-intentioned people saying things that are wrong, misunderstood, offensive.

Some will insist that things are moving far too slowly, that they cannot wait because people are dying. Some will insist that things are moving far to fast, that they cannot change their consciousness that quickly. Both will be right.

This is a time when compassion and strength will often be in conflict, because all of us will be called to do what we cannot do. Our compassion will sometimes fail, and our strength will sometimes fail.

There will be times when we want to throw up our hands n despair and give in to the violence that lurks with the hearts and souls of all of us, kept in check only by our commitment to a greater love and a cleansed world. And sometimes we will question that very commitment.

Each of us will falter and stumble sometimes. When that happens, may we have the humility to reach out to those strong hands and hearts walking beside us. And each of us will sometimes be the strong and the faithful. In those times, may we reach back to those who falter and stumble.

The newer, cleaner, just world call us, though it is over the horizon. The journey to that world is long and hard and filled with stumbling blocks. And the hard rain is falling. It stings our eyes and threatens to blind us. But that world is there. Its song calls us onward.



Stiff with death, last summer’s corn
Rattles as a breeze invites it to dance.
As aimless as fog, I wander through the field
To a marsh at its edge. My heart is empty.

The marsh is cold and lonely, the color of fall.
The breeze drifts through broken cattails.
A flock of starlings has settled into the rushes,
Each bird speaking its own complaint.

All is silence except for the rattling corn,
The shaking cattails, the complaining birds.
Afternoon falls, silently and deliberately,
Carefully into evening. My heart shivers.

Shattering the silence, a distant dog barks.
My heart stops like music reaching a cadence.

Shards of birds explode out of the marsh.
They gather into a flock that comes alive.
It turns on itself, each bird knowing
What to do and when to do it.

Obeying unspeakable commands from no one,
The flock whirls and weaves, twirls,
Makes undulant patterns in the sky,
Birds moving together, many and one.

I stand on the edge of the marsh watching:
This living flock, these birds,
This air, these unspoken patterns.
The dog barks again. The flock returns.

The gateless gate opens.

On Unearned Privilege

Something happened Thursday within Unitarian Universalism that has the potential to shake our foundations. The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) resigned just three months before the end of his term of office. Now, this might appear to be no big deal. “So? The President of the UUA resigned a little early. So what?” The big deal is that this resignation is actually the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is an expression of something that has been a wound in our religious body politic I assume for as long as there have been Unitarian and Universalist churches, but certainly since 1961 when the two denominations merged to form the UUA.

The issue behind the visible issue is unearned privilege: unearned white, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege. Like so many institutions in America, especially churches, unearned privilege seethes in our ranks. It is usually barely noticed and unaddressed. The controversy that led to the President’s resignation centered on unearned privilege in hiring UUA staff. This, though, is only one expression of unearned privilege in our movement.

I have spent the past 10 years researching slavery and my family’s involvement in it, and in the course of that research, I have learned a lot about unearned privilege. Among other things, I have learned that unearned privilege is nearly invisible to the privileged but painfully obvious to unprivileged. As an example, unearned privilege is part of the sea we Euro-Americans swim in. As a result, it is very difficult for us to see this water. For some, it is impossible. But people of color swim in a different sea, and they see our privilege every day of their lives.

The typical reaction to being called out on unearned privilege is first to be defensive, denying any privilege and trying to point out why it can’t possibly be true. Then we try to explain everything we have done to counter the oppression in question. And finally, we start to attack the person calling us out, using increasingly aggressive language. And finally we walk away angry, mystified, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.

How do I know this is how people react when called out on unearned privilege? Because I have seen it in myself more often than I want to admit. This is how I have reacted over and over, and this is what I constantly struggle to overcome. And, struggling with it in myself, I have learned to see it in others.

So what happened at the UUA Thursday? Precisely this drama was acted out over a period a few weeks. A top leadership staff position came open, and the short list contained two fully qualified candidates. One was a white, male, minister; the other was a Latina, female, lay Director of Religious Education. The white male minister was hired. Reaction to this hiring was been loud, careful, and articulate.

It was clearly pointed out that the reaction was not at all about the person who was hired. He is fully qualified, and he will do a fine job. No one has any qualms about that. The reaction was about how this hire perpetuates a pattern of discriminatory hiring, especially at the upper levels of the UUA staff. The UUA was being called out on unearned privilege, and discussion swirled for a couple of weeks. And then the UUA President joined the fray and acted in exactly the manner I described above. The response to his behavior was quick and sure, and Thursday he resigned.

The reason that this has the potential to shake our foundations is that there is a pattern in our congregations when controversy arises. The pattern is quite simple. Someone is offended or hurt by something they see happening and speaks out. In response, there is a flurry of expressed concern, breast-beating and promises to deal with the issue. But then the flurry dies down; the breast-beating stops; and the promises are forgotten. And nothing happens. The congregation has managed to ignore the issue by pretending to address it.

Essentially the same thing happens at every level of our structure. But this time we have the opportunity to change that pattern. Our Bylaws state that when there is a vacancy in the Presidency, the Board will fill the vacancy until a new President is elected. The Board’s next regular meeting is in about three weeks. So a new President will be appointed by late this month. Since the next regularly scheduled election for President will occur this June, this appointed President, whoever it is, will be a caretaker. On July 1 we will have a newly elected President.

Both the appointed interim President and the new President have the opportunity to open a genuine conversation about how unearned privilege is expressed in our movement and to act to correct it. And that would shake our foundations to a fair-you-well. One of the Presidential candidates has already published what she would do about this were she elected. I call on the other two candidates to do the same.

We have an opportunity to make major changes in the ways that we Unitarian Universalists carry out our mission. Let us not simply fall back into to old patterns that do nothing to heal injustice within our own ranks.

無 Thoughts on Joshu’s Dog

The first koan most beginning students are given is Joshu’s Dog: two monks were arguing about whether or not the dog has Buddha-nature. Unable to reach an agreement, they decided to ask their Roshi, Joshu. Joshu looked at them and grunted “Mu!”

A koan is not so much to be understood as it is to be grasped, and that is a matter strictly between the student and the Roshi or Sensei. And so while an intellectual analysis can be helpful it is not the same thing as grasping the koan. This, for what it is worth, is my understanding.

To begin with, this “Mu” is untranslatable into English, because it is not really a word since it has no independent meaning. Rather it is what linguists call a negating particle, because it turns a positive statement into a negative. Some Indo-European languages have such a thing. Russian is a good example. But, alas, English does not. At least formal English does not. Perhaps the very informal version of English that allows double negatives has something similar, as in “He don’t know nuthin’.” So how are we to understand Joshu?

At one level, he appears to be agreeing with one of the monks that the dog has no Buddha-nature. But how could that be? A basic Buddhist teaching is that the only thing that is real is Buddha-nature. So either the dog is not real, or it must have (or is nothing but) Buddha-nature. Surely Joshu knew that perfectly well. So what is he saying to his monks?

I ask myself what it is that Joshu is Mu-ing. Is it that basic Buddhist doctrine? Seems unlikely to me. What then is it? Let’s go back to those hapless monks. Seems to me they are falling into an unfortunate dualism on at least two levels. First they are assuming that one of them must be right and the other wrong. Dualism. But suppose right and wrong are both equally beside the point. Suppose being right is irrelevant. What then? Mu!

Now, consider the two monks separately. The one who claims that the dog does not have Buddha-nature clearly thinks that there is Buddha-nature and there is the dog, two different things. Dualism. What about the other, the one who says that the dog has Buddha-nature? This monk also assumes that there is a distinction. Why? Because to have something that thing must be different whatever it is that has it. I have an eye; I have a nose; I have a house; I even have a lovely little dog. They are all different from me. But I do not have myself; I am myself. So both monks are assuming there is a distinction between the dog and Buddha-nature. Dualism. But suppose there is no such distinction. Suppose the dog and Buddha-nature are the same thing. What then? Mu!

I suggest that Joshu is mu-ing the whole argument as pointless, not an effective means of achieving Enlightenment. Forget about right and wrong. Forget about the dog. Forget about the monks. Forget everything but Mu. And learn to Mu whatever appears to be this and that. In fact, Mu even Mu.

Into my own pond,
Old Bashō’s frog—

To Honor the Dishonorable

There is a problem I have been wrestling with for many years. One of the refrains I hear over and over among people working for racial reconciliation is the necessity of honoring the ancestors and the insistence that the ancestors are helping us in our work, especially in the unraveling the intricacies of enslavement and its genetic and cultural legacy.

Well, let me tell you a little about my ancestors. The earliest any of them arrived in the New World was 1609, when a young ship’s carpenter’s apprentice named John Powell arrived in Jamestown aboard the Swallow. Thus began my mother’s family history. The first Collier, Isaac Collier, arrived in York County, Virginia about 1655, and just about the first thing he did was to establish a plantation. His grandson, Charles Collier, purchased 350 acres nearby in what is now part of Langley/NASA and established his own plantation there. I am directly descended from this Charles Collier.

The Colliers enslaved Africans and African Americans from the very beginning until Emancipation in 1865, and my grandfather’s cousin was actively involved in Jim Crow activity in the 1920s. As far as I can tell for sure, the Powells did not hold anyone in slavery until the late 18th or early 19th century. Benjamin Powell, my 4th great grandfather willed several enslaved people to his son, George Cader Powell, in 1833. And somewhere along this line, some Sub-Saharan genes entered my gene pool.

The legacy of this slaveholding is a line of racism running through my family. The most virulent post-Emancipation racists that I have actually encountered were my paternal grandmother and an uncle by marriage, but I have no reason to believe that the others, all of whom benefitted from both slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices, did not share some degree of this racism. The first people of whom I am sure fought against it were my parents. Yet, of course, they had an enormous uphill battle and never completely overcame the racism they grew up with.

And here is my problem. My ancestors were not honorable people. One was so cruel that his enslaved people rose up and murdered him, slowly to insure that he suffered. So how do I honor these dishonorable ancestors, these ancestors whom I see as undeserving of honor? How does one honor the dishonorable?

Last night a solution to the problem occurred to me. Anne and I were watching the film “Amistad” for about the third time. Shortly before the hearing before the Supreme Court, Cinque speaks eloquently about his ancestors, and says that the line of his ancestors all the way back will stand with him and help as they can because he is the culmination of their line. They act in history through him, and they are honored by his honorable actions and life.

And there is my answer. My ancestors’ crimes against humanity (and what else is slavery but a crime against humanity?) cry out for redress, for atonement, for being set to rest. When I was very young and she was very old, I met that last living person to have been enslaved by my family. She died in 1961 “about 100 years old”. And so neither my ancestors nor the people they enslaved are still living. So how can these crimes be atoned for? And by whom?

By me. The task falls to me, and this why I am called so powerfully to work for racial reconciliation. My ancestors call out from beyond the grave for me to atone for their crimes, and I honor them by confessing my family’s sins and working to repair the damage they inflicted on so many people. I think again of my racist grandmother whose hatred was so deep that I am sure she did not even acknowledge the humanity of people of color. How can I forgive her for the racism she planted in my heart? I forgive her by working to erase the very racism she embraced.

When I talk about my family’s slaveholding history, I can count on being told that it’s not my fault or my responsibility because I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. So I should get over my guilt trip. My response is that this misses the point entirely. Of course I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. But I am responsible to my descendants and to my culture to extinguish the legacy of despair and racist hatred that my ancestors handed on to me. And now I realize that I am also responsible to my ancestors to expiate the guilt and shame their actions created.

I know that I will not be able to erase the hatred of racism entirely, and that realization can be a temptation to freeze and do nothing. But if I give in to that temptation, then I dishonor my own ancestors, and I dishonor those they enslaved and their descendants. And I dishonor my own children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. I dare not do that, for then I take on my own guilt. I cannot do it all, but I commit myself to do whatever it is that I can do. For to do nothing would be a crime before God and against humanity.

The Theodicy of Endo’s “Silence”

St. Francis Xavier travelled to Japan in the mid 16th century and began a successful missionary movement. In 1582 it was estimated that there were about 200,000 Christians in Japan. This new religion was tolerated at first, at least in part because the Spanish and Portuguese traders that came with the missionaries also brought lucrative trade. But it did not last.

When the Tokugawa shogunate took power in the early 17th century, the Shoguns began to be uncomfortable with Christianity. They saw how the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were colonizing China and Korea, and worried that if Christianity continued to grow the same thing could happen to Japan. And so in 1614 all Catholic missionaries were expelled, though a few priests were allowed to remain. Lay Christians were required to swear at least nominal allegiance to the shogunate by registering at a local Buddhist temple.

This was the beginning of the end, though. The colonization of China and Korea continued. The French joined the Spanish and Portuguese, and the Protestant English and Dutch were just as aggressive. And so, by the mid 17th century all forms of Christianity was outlawed, all missionaries and many lay Christians were expelled. Any remaining Christians who refused to renounce their religion were executed. This persecution drove the few remaining Christians underground where they remained until Commodore Perry force Japan to re-open itself to trade in 1853.

In the 1960s Shusaku Endo, reflecting on this history, asked himself what a Jesuit priest would encounter if he smuggled himself into Japan in about 1640s, after the Tokugawas forced Christianity underground. The result was what most critics rank as his masterpiece, the novel Silence. Martin Scorsese has made the novel into, as they say, a major motion picture. I have not seen the film and so I have nothing to say about it. The novel, though, is a different story. It is a wonderful book.

Endo’s main character, the Jesuit priest Father Rodrigues, smuggles himself and a colleague into Japan. Eventually he is captured and is forced to watch as believers are tortured and executed in the most heinous ways. Much of the book is taken up in his agonized reflections on God’s silence. How can God permit such evil to continue? Why does He not intervene? Where is God’s love, God’s justice? Does not His very silence condemn Him as complicit in the evil? Yet how can God be evil? How can we understand the extreme silence of God?

Endo is hardly the first to turn these questions into great literature. Think of the silence of Christ in the face of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Think of the enormous literature of The Holocaust that wrestles with the very possibility of religion in the face of the silence of God. “Where is God?” is Elie Wiesel’s agonized question in Night, and the haunting answer comes “There. On the scaffold.”

In the early 1970s Wiesel and the French composer Darius Milhaud collaborated in writing the oratorio Ani Maamin. The Three Patriarchs confront God with The Holocaust, yet God remains silent. Each tells a story of suffering and after each story, God remains silent. When they are finished, a voice demands of them,

Does not God have the right
To question you, in turn,
To ask of man:
What have you done with my creation?

They are dumbfounded and return to Earth. This time they see faith, infinite hope, flourishing in the midst of suffering. They do not realize that God has come with them, and weeps for the faith of the Jewish people. The oratorio closes with an affirmation:

I believe in you
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing,
Who mock the man who mocks the Jews,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over:
Ani maamin. [I believe.]

At the end of Silence, Rodrigues wrestles one final time with God and says, “Lord, I resented your silence.” And God answers, “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” This is also Wiesel’s answer. Rodrigues is comforted by the realization that even Judas suffered. Even Judas was in anguish. Even those who desecrate God’s creation, in their very acts of evil, suffer. And God suffers with them. The books ends with Rodrigues saying to himself, “…Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this point would have spoken of him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” This infinite hope, I suggest, is the very essence of faith. Both Endo and Wiesel, out of their own traditions, are telling us that it is, ultimately, the answer to the apparent silence of God. I agree with them. Read the book.