“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.” – Audre Lorde
“O my Ancestors, what was it like to be stripped of all supports of life save the beating of the heart and the ebb and flow of fetid air in the lungs? In a strange moment, when you suddenly caught your breath, did some intimation from the future give to your spirits a wink of promise? In the darkness did you hear the silent feet of your children beating a melody of freedom to words which you would never know, in a land in which your bones would be warmed again in the depths of the cold earth in which you will sleep unknown, unrealized and alone? (Howard Thurman)
Much has been happening in our world that should call us to attention and help define our moral obligations. The last week or so brought into our presence Juneteenth, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, the opening of Gay Pride Month events, summer solstice, continued protests and calls for something new in our communal journey and relationships.
Many years ago, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick stated: “At the beginning the gospel was primarily a message not about what we ought to be but about what we are. ‘Now are we,’ – Now are we the sons[daughters] of God.” The Good News translation reads: . . . “We are now God’s children.” What is before us, according to Fosdick, is the idea that “You are.” You are a son, daughter of God, and then you ought because you are. The ideal must proceed from the reality of You are, we are. Fosdick explains: “You never can tell what anything ought to do until you know what it is…. Only when you know what anything is can you tell what it should be expected to do.”
According to the Psalmist, we are made a little lower than the angels and are crowned with glory and honor. It is time for us to assume this heritage.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel declared us “Holy sparks.”
To be defined as children of God, holy, cosmic sparks means that we are primarily spiritual beings, and this idea is often lost when we raise the question of where we go from here, what ought we do. This reality of spirituality is incorporated in each breath and embedded in the cells and tissue of our being. We are revelations of the universe’s continuous birthing, the energy of the cosmic flaring forth, the All-Pervading Presence, the Great fashioner of existence. We are born in original blessedness not original sin. When we think of ourselves in these terms, we are better able to understand, and pursue the “ought.” The ideal must proceed from this grounding in the soul of the Sacred, in the recognition of who we are.
Putting words in the mind of Jesus, Thurman describes Jesus’ struggle with temptations in the following way: “My interests in creature needs must be genuine and practical, but I must see these needs as things which may stand clearly in the way of the realization of the higher ends of life. Feed the hungry? Yes, and always. But I must know that man is more than his physical body. There is something in him that calls for beauty and comradeship and righteousness.” This understanding, Thurman says, is critical for those who seek to answer the question: “What shall I do with my life?”
Heschel continues: “God needs us: the fulfillment of the divine intention for the world cannot be accomplished apart from the work of God’s children…. God has placed us here in the midst of an unfinished creation and has given us the task of helping to bring it to fulfillment” –” the ought.” “That is why we were created. That is the purpose of our lives. That is the content of our prayer. That is why our deeds and our prayers can never be separated…. The meaning of [a man’s] life lies in his perfecting the universe. [He] has to distinguish, gather, and redeem the sparks of holiness scattered through the darkness of the world.”
That is the quest before us today, not merely as individuals, but as a nation, the redemption of the sparks of holiness scattered through the darkness of the world.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to redeem “the soul of America.” The presumption was that the nation had a soul. The redemption was to be done through nonviolent resistance, a resistance that projected belief that even the opponents of the moral imperatives were holy sparks. Under the leadership of Dr. King, the organization drew on the power and independence of black churches to support its activities. King wrote that SCLC was founded “because we have no moral choice, before God, but to delve deeper into the struggle—and to do so with greater reliance on non-violence and with greater unity, coordination, sharing and Christian understanding.” King often quoted ideals inscribed into the Declaration of Independence: “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.” And, with clear insight and uncompromised courage he with voice and body declared the fallenness of the nation, what it really was: the most violent nation on the earth filled with injustice and the inevitable chaos caused by the nation’s devotion to the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and excessive materialism. Only a revolution of values he announced would be able to bring about a society where justice would “well up like fresh water, and honesty roll in full tide.” Heschel like King believed that society could be redeemed: “God has a stake in our moral predicament. I cannot believe that God will be defeated.”
What are we as a nation? It appears to me that this question must be addressed before we imagine what we ought to do and can become. Was SCLC deceived? Sixty-three years later, Dr. William Barber presented to the nation, just last week, a Declaration of Fundamental Rights and Poor People’s Moral Agenda. He spoke before Congress last year on the same day that Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke about reparations, an interrelated campaign. What are we as a nation doing regarding repairing what has been broken since its inception?
Yes, we know that reparations cannot repair the bodies, minds, hearts brutally raped, dissected, and murdered during slavery and ongoing oppression. Reparations must not be merely an attempt to mend in the present sins and exploitation of the past. It must be about the future, what ought to be. It is about a future of all of us, all humanity, all genders, all racial/ethnic expression, nationalities, creatures that dwell on this terrestrial ball. It could mean an invitation to forgiveness, a recognition that the “new nation” that Lincoln declared in his Gettysburg address – a nation of the people, by the people and for the people – never became manifested. It could mean that Rabbi Heschel was right when he said: “Not all are guilty; but all are responsible.” If reparations incarnated respect for all the cosmos itself into the corporate body of the nation, how liberating and sustaining that would be!
In this invitation to forgive, there must be the recognition that the financial compensation itself would include monetary extraction from communities on the edges, extraction that continues to haunt and harass those communities even today. This asking for forgiveness could be an asking for a new relationship, one that does not continue to demean, dominate, destroy. For whatever amount the financial compensation might be, it would not put the descendants of the enslaved on an equal footing with the descendants of the owners of those enslaved bodies.
My hope would then be that reparations would be an opening for all the children of the cosmos to begin a new walk together truly as sisters and brothers. We could: “Walk together children and not get weary” during the difficult discussions, decisions, dismantling, deconstruction, revolution of values, and construction of something we have never experienced before but ought to experience now. I would hope that we could disarm the barricades that prevent our claiming common ground and sing of “a great camp meeting in a New Promised Land” – in the new consciousness of freedom that we must claim in the World House as Dr. King envisioned, where we would all snuggle together with warmth, kind hearts, affection for all and malice toward none.
Reparations to me could signal that perhaps this nation is seeking its soul, to have integrity, to be authentic, to seize the opportunity to be its best self, a best self that needs and comes about only by claiming and respecting the richness of its diversity. It could mean a commitment to live differently, with an economic order not based on profit and division – the capitalistic model; but, one that would incarnate the idea of beloved community, where there “is plenty of good room” for all, where the nation would be a vine and fig tree and everyone could live beneath the vine and fig tree without being crushed, and live in peace and unafraid. The protests are re-defining who we are. The disinherited are claiming their inheritance. They will no longer be silent or afraid. They are surgically revealing who we are. With ears as stethoscopes we hear faint heartbeats being revived and now imagine what a wonderful world we could be.
Think what a love God has for us, in letting us be called ‘children of God! That is what we are. We are children of God now, beloved; and it does not yet appear what we shall be. I John 3:1-2