Saturday, February 10, 2007

True Freedom; A Sermon for Absalom Jones Day

Absalom Jones The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins
Isaiah 61:1-4 Grace Church, Syracuse, NY
John 15:12-15 February 10, 2007

True Freedom

Set us free, O God, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that…we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God…
from the Collect of the Day

We are now encouraged…to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in. In meekness and fear we would desire to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.
from the Charter of St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends, if you [love one another as I have loved you].
from the Gospel of the Day

The collect of the day uses the term “true freedom,” which says to me that the writer or writers imagined that there is such a thing as “untrue freedom,” and I want to explore with you tonight just what the difference between “true freedom” and “untrue freedom” might be, particularly in our quest for reconciliation across the racial divides.

I think the first thing to know about the difference between true freedom and untrue freedom is that it is possible to be in a state of both at the same time, which should not be surprising given that in the biblical worldview true freedom is always a gift of God and untrue freedom a deceptive human-made bondage.

It is a mark of true freedom—indeed a gift from God—that I, a man of thoroughly European descent, with a long family lineage first in New England and then in West Central New York might be asked to preach at a celebration of Absalom Jones that is also an event in a longer series on race and reconciliation. It is a mark of true freedom, and, as such, I am grateful to God for its gift.

It would be a mark of untrue freedom, however, if I took this freedom, this gift, as an absolution of my own continued complicity in racism, including ownership of the part of that proud family lineage that was undoubtedly built on racism, for no white person in this country can claim that we are not the inheritors of an historical, sustained, privileged place in society built on the backs of our sisters and brothers of African descent.

The most significant mark of untrue freedom in this beloved country of ours, indeed, is our continued suppression and denial of its racist past, and, in particular, white people’s refusal to believe anything other than “the past is past.” That’s long ago, over now, I wasn’t a part of that, we white folk like to say. But the past cannot be past if the truth about it has never been told, and if the truth about it has never been told, than its effects cannot be laid to rest, in fact, they are allowed to continue their deceptive, pernicious influence on our lives.

I have been graced with glimpses of that true freedom. One of whom most recently has been two occasions on which I was able to view a still unfinished movie called Traces of the Trade, in which descendants of a prominent New England family, the DeWolf’s, come to terms with their family history of slave trading.

The first time I saw the film I was simply impressed by its powerful message: the truth that white members of colonial and early independent America almost universally benefited from the slave trade, north and south, and that the benefit lives on in the continued place of privilege that early social and economic advantage began.

The second time I saw the film, which was just this past week, it suddenly dawned on me that this was a film about me, about my family and the culture and social place in which I was raised and continue to live. The message of the film hit home on a personal level. If nothing else, my western New York family migrated to this part of the country from colonial Massachusetts through Rhode Island and Connecticut in the days of the slave trade.

I was raised to believe that my northern white hands were clean, and even as I have come over the years to understand the racism with which I was raised, I have continued to feel a certain superiority to those raised in the south. Traces of the Trade has completely shattered that illusion, which was an untrue freedom. Our own part of this country, too, was built on the sale of human beings. The place I hold in society as a white man was built on the sale of human beings. That is a painful, painful truth, but to acknowledge it is to begin the road to true freedom, the truth that sets one free.

I am an in-between person, however. As a gay man I experience being on the short end of another great mark of social privilege in this country and world—heterosexual privilege. I would not pretend that it is the same experience of my sisters and brothers of African descent. It is not. But it does make me a bit more sensitive to the presence of privilege, which most white people have little or no sensitivity to at all.

It also gives me the experience of being thought of as “a problem,” as persons in the minority are often thought of and treated as. You know you’re “a problem” when you’re mere presence in a room makes people nervous. What are you going to say or do? How uncomfortable are you going to make people feel? It would clearly be preferable if you were not there. It causes the kind of internal self-hatred that causes gay people, for instance, to try “to pass,” although I know that phenomenon is not unknown among African-Americans as well.

As a white person, I am increasingly aware that I have to take my own ownership, however, of being the real problem, just as I wish straight people would take responsibility for the problem they, not I, cause. As a white man I have to take responsibility that it is my unexamined assumption of privilege that is “the problem.” It is my refusal to share the burden of “un-privilege,” of disenfranchisement, that is the real problem.

My increasing realization that this is true causes me to be extraordinarily moved by the passage from the Charter of St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church that Absalom Jones helped found that I read at the beginning of this sermon.

Jones and his colleagues speak of their desire to trade fear of the master for fear of God—really the same thing as trading untrue freedom for true freedom. “With meekness and fear,” they say, “we would desire to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.” It was not privilege they sought, but freedom. They sought to live in the true freedom they knew had already been given to them by God, not the untrue freedom of a place of power and privilege in society. That is perhaps the greatest challenge for people who have lived under oppression, not to desire the power of their oppressors.

The Christian vision is not one in which power and privilege are the dominant forces in society, no matter who holds them. Jones and his colleagues knew that and it is to their eternal credit that they set about to order themselves not in the privilege of societal, untrue freedom, but what they called the meekness of the true freedom of the Gospel.

Meekness is not rewarded in this world and it is not desirable, it is not a value we hold dear. We do not train our children or encourage one another to be meek. We equate it with weakness, not only of a physical kind, but also of an emotional and social and even spiritual kind.

But it was meekness of the kind that Absalom Jones sought to practice that Jesus spoke of in this evening’s Gospel reading. It is meekness that gives one the strength to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, to give up one’s privilege for the sake of another, to simply make room in one’s life for the other, the true other, the stranger who is known only by virtue of our oneness in Christ.

White people, in particular, need to develop the value of meekness if there is to be anything that can truly be called “racial reconciliation.” We must be willing to lay down our privilege, including the privilege of our sanitized histories and the untrue freedom that continues to guarantee our social power. We must deliberately seek ways to tell the stories of the past and to not be afraid of what they reveal.

As I learn more about my New England ancestors I will undoubtedly learn more about the ugly side of their lives, particularly if I am willing to find it. That does not mean that they are also not folks of whom I can be proud. It does mean that my pride can only be in their humanness and not in their superiority. To look back on the past of my ancestors only with the lens of their goodness is one of the privileges I must relinquish as a white person.

I dream of a day not when the world has become “colorblind.” That would be an affront to the diversity that God has created. It is not a goal worthy of God’s creation. I dream of a world, as Jesus did, where we are all friends, the kind who lay down their lives for one another, knowing and embracing their differences, celebrating their goodness, acknowledging their fallen-ness in a common seeking of the truth that will set us all free. We will then truly have become the meek whom Jesus promises will one day inherit the earth.

Set us free, O God, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that…we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God…

Let us in meekness and holy fear, together, with our privilege lain down, walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.

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