Wailing into Dancing

Sunday, July 7, 2019

There it was in all capital letters in white font, set in front of part of the waving stars and stripes.

ONE NATION UNDER GOD.

 

Above it in smaller font, was Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.”

This was the heading for a colorful page in the Denver Post on the Fourth of July. Below this red, white and blue background were quotes from Supreme Court cases and writings from some of the “Founding Fathers,” all designed to present a case that the United States of America is meant to be a Christian nation and further, that Christianity should be credited for “political and social happiness.”

At the bottom of the page, there is an invitation to visit a website in order to “know Jesus as Lord and Savior.” As if the way to be a true American is to be not just Christian, but a certain kind- wrapped in the American flag.

 

While it is true that many, maybe most of the founders of the United States of America identified as Christian, they were also slaveowners, who saw women as inferior and non-white people as other and less than human.

 

I think maybe we have gotten stuck as a nation because many of us were handed sanitized versions of American History. Did anyone here receive that kind of education? We haven’t told and lived the truth; which means we haven’t reconciled and repaired. The surface might have changed but the original sin and separation was never really healed.

Until we acknowledge that the founding of this nation was rooted in racism, sexism and greed…. Until we confess America was founded on stolen land and stolen labor, America won’t fulfill the dream of liberty for all. As we heard from the words of James Baldwin, “We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key -could we but find it- to all we later become…”

 

This week the poem Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes found me again.

 

Here’s just a piece,

 

“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")1

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed….

 

You might remember the middle of August in 2016 when the American flag was raised and the national anthem started to play, but he didn’t stand. It was just the preseason and he wasn’t in uniform, so few people noticed. But on 26th of that month, San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kapaernick received national attention, scorn, hate and more for his choice to kneel during the national anthem.

 

When asked why he was kneeling, Mr. Kapaernick said, "I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there's significant change and I feel that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand…"

 

He went on, "I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”2

 

But white Americans struggled with this protest. How can it be that America isn’t America for him, what it is for me?

 

But for many in this land, there is a cry:

 

“O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

Let America be the dream, the dreamers dreamed…”

 

In 1852, Rochester, New York, the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association invited the abolitionist, activist and statesman, Frederick Douglass to speak at their July Fourth Independence Day Celebration. He declined, but he agreed to speak to them on July 5th instead.

 

In his address to them Douglass asks,  “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…”3

 

“Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.”4

 

Above the national joy, we hear the mournful wail of millions…

 

Still even now.

 

Perhaps you saw some of the coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates testifying before congress on reparations last month. In part, he responded to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said that “America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible…”

 

As if to say, How can it be that America isn’t America for him, what it is for me? Because we don’t know our history…

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates said,  “We are American citizens and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our personal and individual reach…we recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as an inheritance. And the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that, a dilemma of inheritance… It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. Enslavement shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of America. So that by 1836, more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves…”5

 

We cannot escape our origins, we must acknowledge the history and pain we have inherited, we must see that the current inequalities and injustices we face took their roots long ago…

 

And still, the dream of America is glorious. For me, America is the dream, there are few other places in the world where I could do what I am doing with my life, where I can be a religious professional in this way.

 

And the idea that a government could be run by the people and not the powerful, a nation rooted in freedom and happiness… That is radical. Beautiful. Holy.

 

And we were gifted with these incredible documents, like the Declaration of Independence, which includes these words,

 

“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...”6

 

But in spite of what some might say, it seems to me that a nation devoted to freedom and happiness must evolve. 

 

Let America be, beyond what the dreamers dreamed. Because their dream was meant just for white men. That first document was limited to their own prejudice. Their wrote of freedom while they denied it to those human bodies they called property. We must challenge the idea of Originalism because originally, most of us weren’t included!

 

Now, the idea of who should be afforded life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has expanded …And yet we still have far to go because we haven’t told and lived the truth.

 

As we heard from Baldwin, “We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key -could we but find it- to all we later become…”

 

We must know our history and heal it, so we don’t continue to repeat it and I fear we are. We enslaved native peoples, then African peoples, then people of Japanese descent and now children from Central and South America. The wailing at the border can be heard…

 

On this most recent day celebration of America’s Independence, of America’s freedom, I heard some say, where is my liberty?

 

What is the Fourth of July to those enslaved by a poverty wage? What is the fourth of July to God’s children in a cage? What is freedom in a nation run by corporations? Where is freedom in this homeland of the free?

 

The Founding Fathers denounced the tyrants of their time, and then some of them became them… 

 

Hate draped in stars and stripes is still hate. Christians must do what Jesus did and call out the oppression of the nation state.

 

Above the national joy, let us not fail to hear the mournful wail of millions whose voices are heard from generations past and who cry out even now…

 

I believe it is our call as people committed to the way of Jesus to not turn away from the wailing of this moment. And I think we should pray as a church about what more we can do right now, to end all slavery of our day, the pain from our past is manifesting still now.

 

Ending for profit prisons and immigrant detention centers. Ending the separation of children from their parents. The wailing can be heard!

 

And we must use our gifts to turn all of the wailing of the world into dancing. Those are the words from the Psalm from today. It a song for the Temple on the other side of lamentation and pain. “I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths… You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent…”

 

As Christians in the United States of America at this moment in time, I believe it is our duty to not worship the idol of the nation state, but to help turn all of the wailing into dancing… From history and right now.

 

Let us listen for the lure of the Spirit who is calling us.

 

“O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe….”

 

Let America be the dream beyond what the dreamers dreamed….

 

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

1 https://poets.org/poem/let-america-be-america-again

 

2 https://www.sbnation.com/2016/9/11/12869726/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protest-seahawks-brandon-marshall-nfl

 

3 https://www.theroot.com/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july-1836083536

 

 

4 https://www.theroot.com/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july-1836083536

 

5 https://www.democracynow.org/2019/7/4/ta_nehisi_coates_danny_glover_make

 

6 http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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