July 5, 2020 Message from Dr. Kathryn Benton

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Interdependence…our home in the Universe

July 5, 2020

The opening music from the Stanford Talisman Choir is evidence of the interdependent nature of the universe. It is evidence that our sense of freedom comes from our ability to connect and to recognize that we are connected to all our relations and to our mother earth…the one who birthed us and the one who will “swallow” us up. This is the foundation for all our work…the underlying assumption without which we will miss the mark. To say we have missed the mark is an absurd understatement…we are in need of, in the words of Frederick Douglass and later James Baldwin, fire!

In solidarity with the Poor People’s Campaign and in recognition of our interdependence with all life, I would like to share again with you the words spoken by Frederick Douglass on July 5th 1852…168 years ago. Douglass was addressing the Rochester NY Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

These words are being read and struggled with today in churches across the country as part of what they are calling, Prophecy Against Pandemics. The pandemics, according to this movement are Coronavirus, poverty and systemic racism. Barber and Theoharis state, “such a time as this, calls for religious leaders to cry out prophecy from the pain and to insist that America face the fullness of our truth”.

And of course this is what Douglass was insisting on as he spoke to a room full of people who were, presumably, committed to the cause of freedom and equality for all people. In speaking before this group, Douglass was speaking fire…not a gentle rain. He was clear about the urgency and seriousness of the situation. How much more true is that today…168 years later. The prophets come but we do not listen.

Another such prophet was James Baldwin. Here is a short recording where he answers the question, “What do you see…as the future of our nation? Are you optimistic or pessimistic….” His answer:

These are powerful words from Baldwin, but hopeful ones. Hopeful only if we are willing to face and embrace “the stranger” among us and to answer his question, why was it necessary for white people to enslave Blacks? and, why is it necessary, even today, to murder Black people on our streets and perpetuate the myth of race superiority/inferiority…of race in general? Baldwin knew that until this question was wrestled with, we would not be able to come together…we would not be able to embrace the interconnected nature of our world…our connection to “all our relations.”

Responding to a similar question, Frederick Douglass remarked that it is good that America is still young…only 76 years old. As such, he says, there is hope, hope that “high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny”. For as streams age and as nations age it gets harder to direct their course. He continues:

Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers, so with nations.

Douglass knew of the deeply interdependent nature of the universe. He was able to sense the connections between the earth’s processes and the human journey. He knew that, like the river, our own transformation will be hard-won…almost impossible.

It is hard to have hope today, yet within the tapestry of human history lies the inspiration to move forward. For, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “In spite of the difficulties of this hour, I am convinced that we have the resources to make the American Dream a reality.” And King did not stand on his own thoughts and beliefs alone. He quotes others as further evidence that this is true. He quotes William Cullen Bryant who wrote, “Truth pressed to the earth will rise again”. He quotes James Russell Lowell’s words:

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.

Our very own Howard Thurman’s words also fueled his vision, “Often, to be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as not to be overcome by them.”

King found hope for us mired in “the dark chambers of pessimism.” He spoke of the Great Spirit of Life…the All-pervading presence of the Holy…the great stream of hope that undergirds our life and the life of all beings. He also knew of the interconnected nature of the universe. His words echo in my soul in times of despair…in the deeper recesses of my own pessimism. He said:

…we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation to a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. This will be a great day. This will be the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last!”

On this so-called Independence Day, may we as a people rise up with fire in our hearts…may we be reminded of the long line of ancestors who paved the way for us…who continue to fuel this fire and may we continue their work of the transformation of a world, a country, a city, a heart from the cold fear and hatred of the past to the symphony of love and of hope.

I leave you today with this recording of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody by the Howard Gospel Choir.

May we not be overcome by the realities of our situation, but may we connect to the work of our ancestors and to the all-pervading presence that undergirds all life…that great underground river that no one can dam up and no one can stop. Amen

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