I am sure most of you have heard about the ongoing debate in Florida about the so-called personal benefits of Slavery. Well, I wonder... who benefitted? Is it the African American, or is it the dominant culture? Those in support of such nonsense claim that by the mere fact that African Americans learned some skills - like blacksmithing - they personally benefitted from the institution of Slavery. There was, according to these people, an upside to Slavery.
A few years ago, the world was thrust into an upheaval regarding various statues of those people who may have committed some atrocities in the past. One of them was Cecil Rhodes, an English colonizer who profited immensely from the exploitation of Africa. He would later establish a scholarship in his name - Rhodes Scholarship. This is the oldest graduate scholarship in the world and recipients are offered the opportunity to study at Oxford University. For example, the current governor of Maryland, Wes Moore, was a Rhodes Scholar.
There was a story out of Virginia a few years ago about Christ Church in Alexandria, an Episcopal Church where both George Washington, our first President, and Robert Lee, a Confederate General, once worshipped. George Washington helped fund the construction of the church and bought box pews for which he paid rent. Robert Lee was a parishioner, and his family were prominent members of the parish. His daughter donated a sum of $10,000.00 which was used as seed money for the church’s endowment - one that still supports their ministry today.
Sometime in 1870, a plaque was erected in the sanctuary to honor both men, these two individuals with different histories. Whereas one led the Revolutionary War fighting the domination of the British, one led the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. But more than one hundred years after the plaque was put in the church, there arose a question, one borne out of the idea that some people do not feel welcome in the sanctuary because of the plaque of the two men. I wonder how someone would feel unsafe in a place with the plaque of George Washington.
The parish, after much prayerful consideration, concluded that the plaque of both men needed to be taken down and be placed elsewhere until they make a final determination regarding where they are to be displayed - the sanctuary isn’t a museum, they concluded.
I have always wondered why the church didn’t compute the seed money for the endowment and return the money back to the descendants of Robert Lee with a note that they are returning the money and the plaque and essentially expressing "thanks, but no thanks." From my point of view, if we want to make a statement or take a stand, then let’s go all out and actually take that stand. Let our stands hit our bottom line, and that, in my view, tells others how serious and sincere we are. The question is, what did the plaques represent?
I was very much surprised by the upheavals because as a student of history; not that my knowledge of history is extensive, but my limited knowledge no doubt informs me that there’s always the temptation for people to forget the lessons of history. There is always the temptation of people repeating history, and for that reason, we all have to be vigilant and mindful about erasing the marks of history or the symbols that remind us of how depraved humans can be, and the extent to which our depravity can take us.
I am not in any way endorsing the politics or moral character of Robert Lee or George Washington, but the fact is that people simply forget. People forget the events of the past and so it is imperative that we are constantly reminded of these events, not to glorify them but to make this point: NEVER AGAIN!
For those who remember the story of Joseph in Egypt, you should be surprised that in spite of the good work that Joseph did in securing the future of all Egyptians, there arose a king who didn’t know about Joseph and the work he did. That king turned the Israelites into Slaves. That to me is the crux of the matter - that there will arise a time when others won’t remember Slavery or what Slavery did to African Americans.
Like it or not, that time has come. And if anything scares me, it is the fact that in August of 2023, in spite of human advancement, and all that we have come to learn and know about each other and ourselves, there are still people in positions of power who want us to believe that the darkness of Slavery was somehow beneficial. How so?
For those who believe in this kind of stuff, I have a question for you. How do the ills of our society and the ills of Slavery impact the way you breathe? Do you breathe all right, knowing that your neighbor’s struggle is owed in part to the ravages of Slavery? Do you breathe just fine knowing that the effect of Slavery still haunts your neighbors who are descendants of Slaves? Do you breathe just fine, knowing that Slavery created a perpetual myth about the inferiority of the neighbor who sits next to you in church, and drinks from the same cup as you do?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote these wise words: For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world. There’s no doubt about the darkness which pervades our spaces and gives oxygen to those who believe in their own superiority.
But if you would stay with me for one more moment - darkness has never proven to be enough. If it were ever enough, creation wouldn’t have happened. God gave birth to a new world through the unique presence of the light which overcomes all darkness.
The real joy for me has never been about some absence of darkness, but that we each are free to light our own flame, and to give birth to new lives and worlds where light overshadows any darkness.
Believe me - when we have the courage to light our own flames, we will see through the silhouette of those flames that there was never an upside to Slavery.