30 Jan WE Devotional – We Are ALL in This Together
Genesis 12:3 (NRSV)
I was reminded of this keynote as I attempted to “perfect” my sermon on Friday afternoon while our new President was issuing several different Executive Orders. My message, planned several weeks ago, was rooted in the story of Abraham and Sarah and one verse in particular, “I will bless those who bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). As a geography nut, I wanted to make sure that I understood exactly how Abraham and Sarah managed to migrate from Ur to Haran before heading to Canaan, so I pulled out a number of maps of the region. In studying these maps, I was reminded that my spiritual ancestors (and founders of three major faiths) migrated out of modern day Iraq, into modern day Syria, right past Aleppo and through Damascus before entering Canaan.
I knew I couldn’t start off my week without finding and re-reading this keynote. After a short search on my email, I found a copy. Seven years later, the words still ring true.
Love and peace to you all, lane
Like all of you, I stand here today as the beneficiary of the hard work, dedication and vision of a small group of diverse women and men who believed that something had to be done, something had to be said, to combat the inequalities and injustices that had plagued our beloved land for over three hundred years. On the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, this group of six met on February 12, 1909, with the hopes of Reconstruction long since being suppressed by the brutality of Jim Crow. And who were these six prophets, who were these six visionaries?
There was Ida Barnett-Wells, African-American sociologist and women’s rights leader, raised in the same Methodist tradition that I have been raised.
There was WEB DuBois, the famed activist, author, and educator who was the first African-American PhD graduate from Harvard.
There was Henry Moscowitz, a Jewish physician from New York.
There was Mary White Ovington, a Unitarian laywoman born two days after the close of the Civil War who devoted her life as a journalist to the women’s suffrage movement.
And there were Oswald Garrison Villard and William English Walling, two white men devoted to the promotion of Civil Rights for all people.
Yes, we all stand here today – no matter the shade of our skin or the beliefs that we hold deep in our hearts – the recipients of their willingness to give voice to the truth that we Americans have claimed since day one of our Republic – that all men and women have been created equal. It’s what 20th century German theologian Helmut Thielicke called the “alien dignity” that each and every human being enjoys. Not a dignity bestowed by another human being that can be arbitrarily given and taken away, but a dignity that comes from a different place, a different source, a different world that can never be stolen or diminished by another human being.
Even today, the stated mission of the NAACP captures the spirit and goals of this diverse group of founders, as it seeks “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of ALL persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”
My faith teaches me to believe that all human beings come from the same parents. Anthropologists generally agree with this notion, theorizing that the earliest forms of human life emerged on the African continent, with gradual migrations resulting in members of the human race settling throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and eventually the Americas. Geneticists confirm these theological and anthropological assertions, noting that 99.9% of the human genome is identical across all races and ethnicities. Yes, it does seem that old Thomas Jefferson, despite his own personal flaws, had it right. We, as human beings, are all created equal. We’re all part of the same, and I would argue Divinely-created, family.
Over the last few years I have enjoyed watching a documentary by Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates on ETV. Some of you may have seen it – in fact I saw portions of it once again last week. As some of you know, Gates is the head of African-American Studies at Harvard, and in this project he seeks to determine through the use of DNA the racial and even tribal lineage of some of the most famous African-American celebrities of our day. Oprah. Tina Turner. Chris Rock. Don Cheadle. Tom Joyner, to name a few. I found it fascinating and very moving to watch these African-Americans as they discovered their roots, in some cases even discovering the specific tribe or region in Africa where one of their ancestors certainly lived.
But of course, the DNA evidence led Gates and his guests to other places as well, places that our history books often ignore. And while it is usually an unspoken history, it is a history that we all know. You might say “it is written all over our faces” given our differing hues. It is a part of the history of this former plantation on which this great university is built…it is a part of the history of the great statesman for which this building is named. To properly understand and appreciate the past and present challenges of our Beloved South, it a part the history that we all must know.
To his surprise (or maybe horror), Skip Gates, the man who leads African-American Studies at one of our nation’s leading universities, discovers that he is basically half African and half European. All of the other celebrities, if I recall correctly, discover that they too have European and/or Native American blood as well. In most cases, having some knowledge, any knowledge, of their ancestry proved both overwhelming and liberating for those who participated.
As a white male who, to the best of my knowledge is mostly Irish, English and Welsh, the documentary had a sobering effect on me as well. Watching the DNA evidence as it was revealed and listening to the geneticists as they interpreted the results led to a personal epiphany that I should have realized long ago – either in Sunday School or in my middle school biology class. And what was that epiphany? That deep, deep down…way, way back…I am African too. I share the same great grandparents as my Black brothers and sisters…as my Asian brothers and sisters…as my Latino brothers and sisters. And maybe the most difficult for me to believe, as my Arab brothers and sisters. We all can call Africa our home.
I made reference earlier to the mission of the NAACP, “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of ALL persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.” What a beautiful mission, and yet one, like so many of the high ideals that I preach and teach regularly, that we so often fail to achieve or lose sight of. In light of the new day that we as a nation are witnessing with the election of our first African-American President, maybe now is the time for not only the NAACP but all people to reflect not so much on where we’ve been, but where might we be going – together. For as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught on many occasions, “All men”…and women, I would add…”are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” And if we don’t “learn to live together as brothers and sisters” we will surely “perish together as fools.”
As I close, I’d like to offer several concrete steps or actions that we each might take in order to combat the hatred, discrimination, inequality and disunity that continues to frustrate and handicap our shared future together.
First, make friends with someone who is not like you. Commit to be in conversation together regularly, and seek to listen and learn from one another. I can’t tell you how much I have learned over the years from people who are racially, culturally, politically or religiously different from me. I know that I am a better person because of it, and I believe that your life will be enriched by it as well.
Second, evaluate the groups to which you commit your energy, finances and time. Are these groups committed to maintaining things just the way they are, or are they committed to being a voice and an example for justice and unity in the future? This goes for communities of faith, clubs, and other fraternal organizations. I still recall a statement that one my professors, coming out of the South African context, made to our class in seminary, “A Christian should never belong to a country club.” His point was not to say that country clubs were evil per se, but that they and other groups like them typically exclude the very people that our faith calls us to engage and love.
Third, educate yourself. If the only knowledge that I possessed was that which I learned in the public school systems of Charleston County in the 70s and 80s or from my alma mater Wofford College (a school that I love), I would not be standing here today. Nearly all of the Black History that I know I had to learn on my own. Nearly all of what I know of Judaism, Islam and other religions I had to learn on my own. Education is a great gift, and the more we know and understand the more able we are to be an agent for change and good in the world.
Fourth and last, as my wife likes to say, “When you see something that needs fixing, do something about it!” My faith teaches me that to whom much is given, much is expected. All of us have been blessed with good minds and the opportunity to learn and grow. But soon and very soon, many of us will be leaving this safe and comfortable place to engage the greater world. And when we leave, let us be agents for change. Let us be voices for the voiceless. And let us always be strong, but never thinking too highly of ourselves as we always seek to put the interest of others before our own.
And remember, always, no matter our color, class or creed, that we are family. We are ALL in this together.
Rev. Lane Glaze