Liberal religion and unions

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from a booklet titled “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” prepared for the August 28, 1963, march:

Why We March

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

The Southern Democrats came to power by disenfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.

[The second reading was a copyright-protected reading by Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Sermon — “Liberal Religion and Unions”

Today is the day before Labor Day, and Labor Day is the holiday on which we celebrate the contributions that working people, trade unions, and labor unions have made to the United States. So this morning, I thought we should talk about the relationship between labor unions and liberal religion.

Organized religion in general has had a strained relationship with organized labor. Some people in organized labor have felt that organized religion keeps people from addressing the unfairness they face in day-to-day working life by offering hopes of heaven in a life after death. But our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, teaches that we must address the problems facing us in our lives here and now, not waiting for some heaven in a life to come. Yet even so, we have tended to spend less time on the problems of working life than on other problems like racism, sexism, looming environmental disaster, and so on. What I propose to do is to talk about why we should be spending just as much of our time and effort on labor issues as we spend on our preferred issues.

And I’m going to start by reading you a story that comes from the Western religious heritage, more specifically from the Christian tradition, the 65th chapter of the Gospel According to Thomas. This is supposed to be a story that Jesus told:

“A […] [person] owned a vineyard. He gave it to some farmers so that they would work it (and) he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the farmers might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) almost killed him. The servant went (back and) told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps (they) did not recognize (him).’ He sent another servant, (and) the farmers beat that other one as well. Then the master sent his son (and) said: ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ (But) those farmers, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him (and) killed him. Whoever has ears should hear.” (1)

What a strange and controversial story, like many of the stories told by that Jewish teacher we know as Jesus of Nazareth!

It is a controversial story because later Christians interpreted this story as an allegory. After Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire, these later Christians remembered this story he had told, and they interpreted it to mean Jesus was foretelling his own death. They turned the story into an allegory, where the person who owns the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself is Israel. God sends prophets to Israel, prophets who are treated badly; then God sends Jesus (whom Christians think of as God’s son); and the people of Israel kill God’s son. Some later Christians even interpreted this story to mean that Jesus’s fellow Jews executed him; which is a silly and faulty interpretation of what actually happened, since it was the Roman Empire which was responsible for executing Jesus. Because of this silly and faulty interpretation, this story has become controversial.

But let’s ignore that silly old interpretation of the story. Let’s take this story at face value. What happens in the story? Some person owns a vineyard; he is obviously an absentee landowner, since he must send someone else to see what’s going on in the vineyard. This absentee landowner finds some farm workers to farm his land for him. Then he sends servants and his son to get his rent from the workers. But the farm workers are so angry at the absentee landowner that they beat his servants, and kill his son.

Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan suggests that this is a “deliberately shocking story of successful murder.” (2) The story causes us to ask: Why would farm workers resort to murder? What would make them so angry? And here we stumble across an interesting problem. The text of the Gospel of Thomas comes from a manuscript that is some sixteen hundred years old, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945,. In places, this old manuscript is damaged. I said that a person owned the vineyard, but there is an actual literal hole in the manuscript just before the word “person”; the missing word might “kind,” making this a “kind person,” or it might be a word for “usurious,” which would make this person one of those absentee landowners that were hated by the farmworkers of that time and place. (3) It is not too much of a stretch to say these landowners resembled the white landowners who had black sharecroppers working the land in the Southern states following the Civil War.

If we assume that the landowner is keeping the farm workers in a sort of semi-slavery, then we can understand why the farmworkers might want to murder the landowner’s son. The usurious landowner was charging the farm workers injurious rents, so they were unable to make a decent living from their work. In Jewish law and custom, such practices were discouraged and even forbidden. Indeed, in Jewish custom, the true owner of the land was God; no human being could own the land. This helps us to understand why the farm workers would beat the slaves, and murder the son; while the murder is deliberately shocking, it helps us see that the farm workers believed the landowner was trying to take some of God’s power and authority to himself.

This is an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about this Jewish understanding of the land. In the Torah, in the book of Exodus, that book that tells us about freedom and escaping from tyranny, God says to Moses:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (4)

Because humans do not own the land, God tells them, humans cannot exploit the land to draw from it every last bit of profit. The land must be allowed to rest. Not only that, but humans cannot exploit other humans to draw from them every last bit of profit. Workers, too, must be allowed to rest, and the poor must be allowed to have whatever the land offers up — or really, whatever God offers up — on this seventh year, this sabbatical year.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that God requires other things of humans during the sabbatical year. In another book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, God tells humans that during the sabbatical year, all slaves must be set free; no one shall be tight-fisted towards persons in need; and, God admonishes humans, in the other six years, humans had better be nice to one another in anticipation of the sabbatical year, lest they risk God’s wrath. (5)

Not only are we humans to celebrate a sabbath day every seven years, and a sabbatical year every seven years, but God says humans should observe a Jubilee Year every seven-times-seven years. In the book of Leviticus, God tells humans: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” This is a sort of super-sabbatical year, during which humans shall return to the land which their families traditionally lived on, no matter who ostensibly owns it now. (6)

Given this background, we are less surprised that the farm workers were angry at the absentee landowner. They felt they were being cheated; they felt the landowner was denying them their God-given rights; they felt the landowner was infringing on God’s pre-eminent ownership of the land.

This, by logical association, brings us to the historic March on Washington, which was held fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963. African Americans, particularly in the Southern states, were being kept in a state of semi-slavery by unjust laws set up by white European Americans. The African Americans who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were religious people, often religious liberals — so, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a liberal Baptist minister, and Bayard Rustin was a Quaker — and they knew what the Bible said about freedom, and fairness. They knew that the Bible explicitly states that slaves and semi-slaves must be set free, that the land belongs to God and not to any humans, that humans are commanded by God to be fair and just to one another.

More than that, their religion helped them to understand how all humans are interconnected. We heard in the first reading this morning the way the organizers of the March on Washington analyzed the economic situation of their time. They believed that the plight of white workers and minority workers is tied together; that semi-slavery for minority workers meant semi-slavery for white workers, too. Their economic analysis comes straight out of the standards of justice and freedom that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition, by way of the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This opinion was held by many European American religious liberals fifty years ago, including by many Unitarian Universalists. If you know your Unitarian Universalist history, you know that although we are a tiny and predominantly white denomination, we provided disproportionate support for the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, our Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist congregation sent its senior minister, Dan Lion, to the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and to the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet while we Unitarian Universalists were great supporters of the Civil Rights movement, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the Civil Rights movements was about jobs as much as it was about ending segregation. We Unitarian Universalists have never been particularly strong supporters of any kind of labor movement. Historically, many Unitarians were mill owners and factory owners and business owners, and they saw themselves as being in direct opposition to labor movements. Historically, many Universalists worked in the skilled trades or middle class jobs, and so were not particularly sympathetic to more broadly-based labor movements.

And from a theological point of view, we Unitarian Universalists have been strong individualists. We like to think that we live life as individuals, on our own terms. This goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson — who started his career as a Unitarian minister — and his essay “Self Reliance.” We glory in the theological ideal of self reliance; and this, I suspect, is why so many of us are atheists today, because we have little interest in a theological idea that affirms we humans are dependent on another being greater and more powerful than ourselves. Certainly, many of us have felt that we should rely on our own efforts, not on labor unions.

For these and many other reasons, we Unitarian Universalists have not been very sympathetic to labor movements. And so, when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, we readily talk about how it was a march for racial freedom and equality, but we pass over the fact that it was just as much a march for jobs and labor rights.

I would like to suggest to you that we need to rethink our attitude towards labor movements. And I would like to suggest that the story I told at the beginning of this sermon gives us a theological reason to rethink our attitudes.

What we learn from that story is that ancient Jews did not believe in exploiting the land to the utmost; they believed in letting the land rest every seventh year. And for the same reason, those ancient Jews believed that one human should not exploit other humans.

In our own theological language, we would say that all human beings, and all other beings, are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We got the term “interdependent web of existence” from the theology of Bernard Loomer, who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Loomer said that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, what he really meant (in our language) was the interconnected web of life; he was making the point that we are all interconnected. (7) This helps us towards a better understanding of the story of the absentee landowner and the farm workers: the absentee landowner ignored the interdependent web of all existence. He attempted to extract the maximum profit both from the vineyard, and from the human beings who worked in the vineyard. The point Jesus made by telling us this story is that ignoring our connectedness to other human beings and to all other living beings must lead inevitably to violence, hatred, and waste.

Now — we Unitarian Universalists today tend to interpret the interconnectedness of all existence as applying only to environmental issues; thus we say that we must halt global climate change because we are harming the web of existence. But to speak of a web of existence in which all creatures, and all inorganic things as well, are interconnected, means that we are connected not just with polar bears and whales, but also with all other human beings. The implications of this are profound: we do not own polar bears or whales; nor can we own other human beings; nor can we own the products of another person’s work, any more than we can own a polar bear’s pelt.

This is the theological point of ancient Jewish law: to say that God owns the land, and the fruits thereof, is simply another way of saying that all things belong to the interconnected web of all existence, and that nothing can really belong to any individual organism which is a part of the web of existence. By the way, you don’t have to believe in a literal God to affirm this statement; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch for us to say that God is nothing more, or less, than the interdependent web of existence.

This is a very challenging teaching for us religious liberals. We are accustomed to thinking that we are in control. We are accustomed to thinking that we are most important as individuals. But what our religion is actually teaching us is that what is most important is our connections with other human beings, and with other non-human beings.

And this at last brings me to labor unions and religious liberals. Considered in light of our theological understanding of the interdependent web of all existence, a labor union is very similar to an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, or Bill McKibben’s; a labor union is also theologically similar to organizations that fight for racial justice like the NAACP. Of course all these organizations have their failings. But these are all organizations that affirm the ideal of the sanctity of the interdependent web of all existence. These organizations affirm, as do religious liberals, that we should not exploit other beings, whether human beings or any living beings. These organizations affirm that we cannot live our lives as if we are radical individualists, for to do so tends to separate us from the interdependent web of all existence. And these are all organizations that challenge us to criticize our current economic system of unbridled competition and individualism, in which the highest values are money and, let’s be honest, greed.

We religious liberals know that our highest value must be the interconnectedness of all beings. And so it is that we should place a higher value on the ideal of labor unions (8) — the ideal of people working together for a higher cause, the ideal of fair wages and economic justice, ideals which were a part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the ideals that come with the realization that we are all bound together in our interconnected network of mutuality.

With these ideals, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.” And so, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet Amos, may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (9)



(1) As translated in Stephen Patterson, J. M. Robinson, the Berlin Working Group, The Fifth Gospel (1998).
(2) John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1992), 96.
(3) “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way. The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee. One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor — the tenant class — how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?” — John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser, Q-Thomas Reader (1988), 102.
(4) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Exodus 23.10-12. To read more on one contemporary Jewish interpretation of this general topic, see “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by Michael S. Perry (1993), available online here.
(5) NRSV, Deuteronomy 15.1-15.
(6) Ibid., Leviticus 25.8-17.
(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (1984), 1.
(8) Of particular interest to religious liberals in the Freelancer’s Union, “A Federation for the Unaffiliated,” online here. Something like 30% of all U.S. workers are now contract workers or freelancers of some type, and the percentage is probably higher among us religious liberals, since freelancing fits in with our preference for individualism. What the Freelancer’s Union is demonstrating to us is that even independent workers need a union. This highly innovative union breaks out of the old of trade unions and factory workers unions, funding itself through selling discounted insurance and other services to its members. The Freelancer’s Union engages in political advocacy, provides training and support, helps freelancers deal with deadbeat clients, and is beginning to offer face-to-face meetings for networking.
(9) NRSV, Amos 5.24.


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from a family memoir by the poet Lucille Clifton:

“Mammy Ca’line raised me,” Daddy would say. “After my Grandma Lucy died, she took care of Genie and then took care of me. She was my great-grandmother, Lucy’s Mama, you know, but everybody called her Mammy like they did in them days. Oh she was tall and skinny and walked straight as a soldier, Lue. Straight like somebody marching wherever she went. And she talked with an Oxford accent! I ain’t kidding. Don’t let nobody tell you them old people was dumb. She talked like she was from London England and when we kids would be running and hooping and hollering all around she would come to the door and look straight at me and shake her finger and say, ‘Stop that Bedlam, mister, stop that Bedlam, I say.’ With an Oxford accent, Lue! She was a dark old skinny lady and she raised my Daddy and then raised me, lest till I was eight years old when she died. When I was eight years old. I remember everything she ever told me, cause you know when you that age you old enough to remember things. I remember everything she ever told me, Lue, even though she died when I was eight years old. And then I knowed about what she remembered cause that’s how old she was when she got here. Eight years old.”

The second reading was from the same family memoir by the poet Lucille Clifton:

“Walking from New Orleans to Virginia,” Daddy would say, “you go through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. And that’s the walk Mammy Ca’line took when she was eight years old. She was born among the Dahomey people, and she used to say ‘Get what you want, you from Dahomey women.’ And she used to tell us about how they had a whole army of nothing but women back there and how they was the best soldiers in the world. And she was from among the Dahomey people and one day her and her Mama and her sister and her brother was captured and throwed on a boat and on a boat till they landed in New Orleans. And I would ask her how did you get captured, Mammy, and she would say that she was a child and I would ask her when did it happen, Mammy, and she would say ‘In 1830 I walked from New Orleans to Virginia and I was eight years old.’ And I would ask her what was it like on the boat and she would just shake her head. And it seems like so long ago, you know, because when I was asking her this it must have been 1908 or ‘9. I was just a little boy. I was a little boy and my Mama was working in the tobacco plant and my Mammy Ca’line took care of me and I took care of my brothers and my sister. My Daddy Genie was dead. He died young. He was my real Grandmother Lucy’s boy and of course she was dead too. Her name was Lucille just like my sister and just like you. You named for Dahomey women, Lue.”

Sermon — “Generations”

This is the last in a month-long series of sermons on poetry and religion. On the first Sunday in February, I gave a sermon on the poetry of James Weldon Johnson; the next week on the poetry of Langston Hughes; last week, Jorge Pereira gave a sermon on the poetry of Niki Giovanni; and this week I’d like to speak to you about the poetic prose of Lucille Clifton.

When I say that I’m preaching on the topic of poetry and religion, I’d using “poetry” in its broadest sense. Some poetry is written in verse, some is written in prose. I mean poetry in the sense of what the ancient Greeks called poesis, which was a kind of making. We might say that poets make the world. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that when we read certain poems, those poems make us anew, remake us, and in that sense our world is made anew.

Or put it this way: In a post-Christian religion like ours, where do we turn for religious inspiration? If ours were an orthodox Christian faith, we would know to turn to the Christian scriptures, and to orthodox Christian writers, for inspiration. Since ours is a post-Christian faith, we can still turn to the Christian scriptures for inspiration,– and some of us indeed do read the Christian scriptures to help us on our spiritual journeys, while others of us have no interest in the Christian scriptures. Yet all of us recognize that the world has changed since the days when Christian scriptures were written down. We know that revelation is still going on all around us, and we are open to the idea of finding religious and spiritual inspiration in other literature: in any of the scriptures of any of the world religions, for example; and we are willing to look for religious revelation in any literature where we sense the religious or the spiritual.

For us, spiritual writing does not need to contain the word “God” any more than it needs to contain the word “Allah” or “Buddha” or “Confucius.” Spiritual writing does need to be poetic; that is, it needs to reveal our deepest selves to us, it needs to reveal what truly is around us. It doesn’t matter whether poetic spiritual takes the form of verse or of prose — the form matters less than the effect it has upon us. Does it remake us? Then it is poetry; then it may be spiritual and religious.

I said I am preaching this month on poetry and religion. Specifically, I am preaching about poetry written by American poets of African descent. I wanted to speak about American poets because I wanted to address some of the immediate spiritual and moral issues that confront us as people living in this time and place. In our country, one of the key moral and spiritual issues that we are continuing to deal with is the ongoing legacy of slavery. We now have a new president who is of African descent, and the fact that he was of African descent made history. At this time last year, there were still those who said a Black man wouldn’t be elected president, and the fact that people could say this and be widely believed, tells us that the legacy of slavery continues in our country today. Since religion concerns itself with matters of morality, and since the legacy of slavery remains a central moral issue, this moral issue should be the concern of any religion that claims to take morality and ethics seriously. And if we as a post-Christian religion are going to be serious about the legacy of slavery, we cannot rely solely on ancient scriptures; we will also read American poets of African descent in order to make spiritual sense of this national moral issue.

And so this week, I’d like to speak about the African American poet Lucille Clifton. In particular I’d like to speak about her poetic memoir called “Generations.”

Let me tell you part of the story of “Generations”; let me tell you that part of the story which concerns a woman who came from Africa, known by the name of Caroline, and which tells about her descendants down to the poet herself. This is the story as it was told to Lucille Clifton by her father, Samuel.

In 1822, a girl was born to the Dahomey people of West Africa. She never told any of her descendants what her African name was, so we don’t know what she was originally named. When she was eight years old, she and her brother and sister and mother were captured and taken to New Orleans and put into slavery.

She and her brother and sister and mother survived the Middle Passage — something she would not talk about later in her life — and arrived in New Orleans in 1830. She was made to walk from thence to Virginia. In Virginia, she was sold to a white man named Bob Donald; her brother was sold to another white man nearby; and her mother was sold off somewhere else, Caroline never knew where. Caroline lived as a slave from the time she was eight. She heard about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion; she heard about John Brown’s daring raid.

Caroline’s master owned an orchard, and one day while she was working in the orchard, an older slave named Louis Sale drove his white master’s carriage past the orchard, saw Caroline, and asked his master to buy her to be his wife. Louis was born in 1777, so he was 43 years older than Caroline; but Caroline was bought and they were married, legally married in fact. Caroline’s new master had her trained as a midwife. They named their eldest daughter Lucille, or Lucy.

Well, Lucy was a strong-willed woman. The Civil War came, Emancipation came, and white carpetbaggers came down south. Lucille had a baby with one of those white carpetbaggers, a man named Harvey Nichols. The baby boy’s name was Gene, and he was born with a withered arm. Lucille went out one night with a rifle, and shot Harvey Nichols in a crossroads. Amazingly, she wasn’t lynched, because (says the poet’s father) she was from Dahomey women; so she became the first African American woman to be legally hanged in the state of Virginia.

The little boy Gene was raised by Caroline, now known as Mammy Caroline. He grew up to be a ladies’ man, and “wild.” (When Samuel Clifton told this story to his daughter, he said that Gene was “just somebody whose Mama and Daddy was dead.”) Gene has a little boy who was named Samuel (this is the Samuel who is telling the story), and when Samuel was four or five years old, Gene used to take him into beer gardens and have him whip other little boys on a bet. Gene died when Sam was five, so Mammy Caroline raised him, too, until she died when he was eight years old.

This is how Lucille Clifton summarizes these generations in her memoir:

“‘The generations of Caroline Donald, born free among the Dahomey people in 1822 and died free in Bedford Virginia in 1910,’ my Daddy would say, ‘and Sam Louis Sale, born a slave in America in 1777 and died a slave in the same place in around 1860
are Dabney and Gabriel and Sam and Helen and John and Lucille,
called Lucy
who had a son named Gene by a man named Harvey Nichols
and then
she killed him,
and this boy Gene with a withered arm had three sons and a daughter
named Willie and Harvey and Samuel and Lucille
and Samuel who is me
named his boy Sam and
his daughter Lucille.
We fooled em, Lue, slavery was terrible, but we fooled them old people We come out of it better than they did.’”

So it is that Lucille Clifton’s poetic memoir begins to remake the world. “‘We fooled em, Lue, slavery was terrible, but we fooled them old people We come out of it better than they did.’” This poetry remakes something that needs to be remade. We’ve got slavery in our shared national story, and we don’t quite know what to do with it. We try to balance the story of slavery with the story of Emancipation, but in my view that never quite balances out. We’ve got Jim Crow and racism in our shared story, too, and again we don’t quite know what to do with it. We try to balance the story of racism with the story of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, except that racism didn’t end with Martin Luther King. So what do we do with the story of slavery, and with its sequel, institutionalized racism?

Lucille Clifton adds something to our shared story; this is what poets do, they reshape our shared stories. Lucille Clifton adds Caroline to the story, a Dahomey woman who was born free and then enslaved and then emancipated, and who died free. Caroline, who talked with an Oxford accent. Caroline, who remembered from her girlhood a whole army of Dahomey women, women who were the best fighters around. Caroline, who makes slavery personal, as we think about a crazy and immoral economic system that would enslave a powerful Dahomey woman. Lucille Clifton tells us that her father said this about slavery: “It ain’t like something in a book, Lue. Even the good parts was awful.” And so this poetic memoir that I read in a book manages to take slavery out of the book and make it real, for when you read this book the poetry makes you feel as if you know Mammy Caroline; and even the good parts of slavery were awful.

Lucille Clifton adds her own children to the story, the great-great grandchildren of Caroline. Speaking of her own children, Lucille Clifton says: “They walk with confidence through the world, free sons and daughters of free folk, for my Mama told me that slavery was a temporary thing, mostly we was free, and she was right.” And so this poetic memoir remakes the world for us by telling us that slavery was a temporary thing, It was something that humans made, and eventually they unmade it. This gives us the hope that all such human-made evils can someday be unmade, if we will but put our minds to unmaking them.

Lucille Clifton tells her family’s story about how they survived slavery through the generations, and so she remakes the world.

You see now, don’t you, that telling our stories and religion are somehow mysteriously linked? After all, what is the Bible but the stories of the children of God? and out of these stories a grand religion has grown. For that matter, what is the Koran but the story of how Allah revealed himself to Mohammed? and out of that story another grand religion has grown. And what are the Buddhist suttras but stories of how Gotama Buddha lived his lives and taught his followers? and out of those stories yet another grand religion has grown. Somehow, religions grow out of stories — not out of just any old story, but out of a kinnd of poetry.

There is a moral point here, too. We all tell stories about ourselves. Those stories can shape the way we live, and the way we shall act in the future. Poets are a kind of storyteller who can shape, not just themselves, but the rest of us as well; because poets can shape the way we tell our own personal stories.

As I read Lucille Clifton’s story of the generations of her family, I found myself wondering about my own family’s story. If I were a poet — and I’m not — what could I say about my own people? My mother’s people lived in this part of the world for many years: the lands east of Providence, the Cape, and the Islands. Living where they did, along the coast, these people earned a living from the sea. Some of them earned a living in the whaling trade, and I have no doubt that some of them earned at least part of their living in the slave trade, because these weren’t the ship owners and wealthy merchants and they earned their living where they could.

Now some of my mother’s family came from Martha’s Vineyard, and in the middle of the 19th century we lose track of some of them. Where did they come from? Were they simply swamp Yankees who had so little money that they didn’t get included in any written records? Islands being what they are, I sometimes wonder if one or two might have been colored folk who slipped onto the island from somewhere else and were passing as white; it’s unlikely but not outside the realm of possibility. Surely there are some Americans who are both descended from slaves, and from those who engaged in the slave trade. We like to think to separate the American story into black and white, but it is more complex than that.

Our national story is far more complex than the simplistic story that appears in high school history books. We Americans are descended from Dahomey women and from white slave traders. As a people, we are descended from abolitionists, white and black, and from slave owners in the south and in the north. We are descended from Caroline Donald and from Harvey Nichols. And our story goes far beyond simple black and white: we are descended from Azoreans and Cape Verdeans and Irish and English and Wampanoag and Vietnamese and on and on.

Telling our stories in all their complexity is a matter of national morality. If we can tell our national story in all its complexity, some day we will be able to look at ourselves and our neighbors and say: We all are free children born of free folk. We will remake ourselves into a truly free people. That is what poets like Lucille Clifton help us to do: she tells a very personal story, but in her personal story is something of the national moral dilemma.

This is where it gets religious. This is where I tell you about the basic Universalist theology that underlies our religious faith, the certainty that there is inherent worth and goodness and dignity in all persons.

As Americans, we are descended from all these people, and there is some goodness in all our forefathers and foremothers, in spite of our national tragedies and our national moral disgraces. Slavery was a national tragedy and a disgrace, and we’re still not done with it. The way the Europeans pushed Indians off the land was a tragedy, and we’re still not done with it. This goes back still further: the way the English pushed my Welsh ancestors off the land, so that they had to come and settle here in southern Massachusetts, was a tragedy, and in Wales they’re not done with that tragedy yet. These are all tragedies that continue today.

As a religious matter, we know that it doesn’t do any good to cover up these old tragedies; just as they Bible doesn’t cover up some of the ancient horrific tragedies of slavery and wars and rapine and conquest. Covering up tragedies only makes us feel worse. But we need our poets to tell our tragedies to us in ways that make sense. Our poets can tell us how things are so that we appreciate that within each of us that is worthy of dignity and respect.

We are all worthy of dignity and respect. Our best poets will have to keep on telling us this until we have finally freed ourselves, and freed our children. That kind of freedom will come only when we know, in our heart of hearts, that every person is worthy of dignity and respect; acknowledging that is the road to true freedom.

The Weary Blues

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was the poem “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. This poem is not included here due to copyright restrictions.

The second reading was the poem by Langston Hughes, titled “The Ballad Of The Landlord” This poem is not included here due to copyright restrictions.

Sermon — “The Weary Blues”

This is Black History Month, and in three sermons this month I proposed to speak to you about three different Black poets; more specifically, about three American poets of African descent. Last week, I spoke about James Weldon Johnson; and this week I would like to speak about Langston Hughes.

If you were here last week, you heard me say that poets make the world; and I meant that in a broad sense of poetry, where poets make language and language makes our world. This is not some supernatural magic trick; rather it is a statement about the basic being of the universe. There is a fundamental connection between language — between what we speak and hear and write and read — a connection between language, and the very core of That Which Is.

I want to be careful to tell you exactly what I mean by a poem. A poem is not just something that sits there on the page, and you read it, or your high school English teacher makes you read it, and that’s the end of it. A poem is language that is meant to change you, and maybe change the world around you. A few poems are meant to be looked at, like paintings, but mostly you have to say poems aloud for them to change you, or change the world around you; and if you can chant them or intone them or sing them, sometimes that increases their power.

I’d even say that poetry and music are much the same thing; — two points on a continuum that stretches from ordinary conversation to the most abstract music. It is not always clear to me where the spoken word ends, and music begins. What is clear to me is the power of poetry, and music, to change us; more specifically, the power of poetry and music to heal us, to heal our souls, to heal our selves.

But how does this happen? How is it that poetry heals and changes us? This is why I want to speak with you this morning about the poems of Langston Hughes. More than most poets, his poetry is musical. More than most poets, his poetry has the power to heal and change and transform. And his poetry has helped me to understand a little bit of how it is that music transforms and heals us.

Just before the sermon, I read one of Langston Hughes’s best-known poems, “The Ballad of the Landlord.” This is a poem that tells a story, which goes something like this:

Here’s a man (or is it a woman?) who lives in a run-down old house. This house is some place in the United States, and it’s sixty or seventy years ago, and the landlord appears to me to be white. At least he acts like a white person of sixty or seventy years ago; because he has an African American tenant, he doesn’t bother fixing the roof, or fixing the broken-down steps that lead up to the front door of the old run-down house.

The landlord has stopped by to collect the rent. The tenant reminds him about all that’s wrong with the house. The landlord doesn’t pay any attention. The tenant gets increasingly frustrated, and finally says, I’m not going to pay you any rent, and if you keep talking so high and mighty, why I’ll sock you one. But the landlord is white, and doesn’t stand for being threatened by black folk. The landlord calls the cops, who arrest the tenant. The tenant is charged and convicted of assault, and sent to jail.

Through this whole poem, we know the landlord is in the wrong. We know that the tenant’s anger is justified, and we’re rooting for the tenant. When we get to the end of the poem, when the full force of the law is used to perpetuate injustice, we share in the anger of that tenant, and we know we have to work to correct that kind of injustice in the world. Even though this is just a made-up story, we hear the ring of truth in it — for all good poems are true; truth is what makes them good poems. We hear the ring of truth, and we hear as well a call to heal and change a world in which such injustice can exist.

When we address injustice in the world, we are healing the world. That’s what this poem does; and that reveals to us a connection between poetry and religion, since religion is also supposed to heal the world. This is a significant point for us religious liberals, because we tend to dismiss the fact that healing is a central part of religion. Too much of religion is obsessed with faith healing, miraculous cures where some father God makes it all better without much effort on our part. We are right to dismiss such kinds of religious healing. Yet we cannot dismiss the fact that healing is central to religion. Part of the purpose of religion is to heal the world; part of the purpose of religion is to heal our souls when we are damaged by the injustice of the world.

When I say “healing,” I don’t necessarily mean sitting there passively and waiting for some healing energy to do its work. The story of the tenant and the landlord force us to confront an ethical problem: the full power of the law and the police can be used to cause injustice. Once you start chewing over that ethical problem, it’s hard to simply sit there and enjoy the beauty of the poem. We find that the poem calls us to do something. How does this poem heal and change the world? — the poem calls us to rouse ourselves and heal the world by correcting injustice.

It is very good that poetry heals and changes the world, and I know that will help heal me in the long run, but sometimes I need some more personal healing. It’s fine and noble to say that I’m going to go out and heal the world, but sometimes life has got me down so that I don’t have the energy to do that. What then? Forget the world for a moment — how is poetry going to heal me?

To answer that, I’d like to speak about the blues. “The Ballad of the Landlord” makes us want to heal the world, but another poem by Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” describes to us how to heal our own souls.

And what are the blues? The African American humanist theologian Anthony Pinn is one of those who has pointed out that the blues are a form of musical expression through which “enslaved Africans wrestled with existential questions forced by the absurdity of slavery.” Pinn tells us: “Through this music, they sought to make sense of the world and provide a framework for life. Within the spirituals, the manner in which traditional religious doctrine dominated this rationale for life is apparent. However,… there were other forms of musical expression that did not embrace the basic doctrine of the Christian church, or other traditional forms of religious expression.”

Now Anthony Pinn is a theologian, which means that he is somewhat caught up in the theory. What I have found is that when you put his theory in practice, you find that the blues can be a legitimate form of religious expression; some blues songs are a kind of humanist hymn. They provide serious answers to religious and existential questions. When you’re singing the blues, if you have trouble in mind, you don’t call on God to solve all your troubles — you laugh to keep from crying; you go down by the riverside and rock those blues away; and you know that somehow the sun’s gonna shine on you someday — these are humanist hymns because you don’t call on God to fix your problems for you. In the poem “The Weary Blues,” there is no God who comes down to solve the problems of the unnamed musician who is singing and playing the piano; there is no God to come and take away the pain of living. The musician plays and sings, and that heals him, a little. He is not completely healed; but at least he can sleep that night. So it is that the blues have a healing power.

None of this rules out traditional religious music as healing music. Traditional religious music that calls on God can heal the soul, too. But sometimes religious music pretends to heal, when it really doesn’t heal. Religious music, and religion itself, pretends to heal when it merely distracts us with God and deadens us to the pain and anguish we experience in the here and now; and by deadening us, the pain appears to go away, but we don’t actually heal. The same is sometimes true of the blues: sometimes the blues pretend to heal us, but instead distract us with a catchy melody and a danceable beat, serving merely to deaden us to the pain we’re in.

When the pain we feel is deadened, but nothing else happens, that is false healing. Rather than deadening pain, the blues give us enough distance so that we can feel the pain without becoming overwhelmed by it; herein lies the power of the blues. The music and the poetry of the words channel the pain into something constructive rather than destructive. True healing allows us to regain strength and wholeness. The poetry of the blues allows us to regain strength and wholeness: it is musical poetry that has the power to heal us and change us.

Of course that is also the purpose of these Sunday morning worship services. We come here to be healed, we come here to feel we can be made whole. And how do we do this? We do this with words and with poetry and with musical poetry. We have conversations together; we listen to the spoken word; we listen to poetry and scripture that is read aloud; we sing songs together. You may have a conversation on a Sunday morning after church where someone says something to you that somehow changes you for the better; just a small thing, just a small change for the better; but that small change may do more to heal you than all the sermon and poetry and songs during the worship service; and in that sense, that conversation is a kind of poetry (for you, at that time). I have never heard a sermon that is poetry the way Langston Hughes writes poetry, but I have heard sermons that in a specific time and place healed my soul, and for that moment there were better poetry than anything Hughes ever wrote.

Poetry has power in it; it has the power to heal us. What we try to do here on Sunday morning is kind of poetry. We create a time and a place where words and poetry and music can heal and change us. We get through the pain of living, we get through the anger at injustice, and in doing so we aim to hold onto our dreams.

We aim to hold on to our dreams. It’s not a good idea to defer dreams for too long, because deferred dreams can turn into anger — and once you get mired in anger and pain, you wind up deferring your dreams. There’s an awful lot of pain and anger that comes with living. When you think of all the injustice that exists in the world, how can we possibly get rid of all the anger? When sadness enters our souls, how can we possibly get rid of all the pain? I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of all the anger and pain — the world is too full of anger and pain — but we can be sure the anger and pain doesn’t hold us down.

So it is that healing from pain and anger requires us to hold onto our dreams. We have to get through the pain that life can bring; that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of pain, we just have to get through it. We have to get through the anger; that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of it, we just have to get through it.

Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “Dream-Dust” that goes like this:
  Gather out of star-dust
  And splinters of hail
  One handful of dream-dust
    Not for sale.

Poetry collects from life the earth-dust, the cloud-dust, the storm-dust, the splinters of hail, and distills these elements of life into dream-dust. In this way, poetry helps us hold onto our dreams.

If you come to church regularly, you have heard me say that religious scriptures are a kind of poetry; religious scriptures at their best distill the elements of life and make dreams out of them. Holding on to dreams is one of the things we do in our religious communities; it’s one of the things we try to do here each Sunday. We collect the elements of life — the joys and sorrows, the pain and the joy — and we take an hour or so each week to distill dreams out of our lives. Some of the dreams are personal — your dreams, my dreams. Some of the dreams belong to us all, like the dream of an earth made fair and all her people one. Our religious community is based on poetry, both the poetry of ancient religious scriptures and contemporary poetry like that of Langston Hughes. We come here to hold onto dreams, keeping them safe until they can become reality.

All too often our dreams get deferred. For African Americans, the dream of true equality has been deferred too long; indeed, for too many racial and ethnic minorities, the dream of equality has been deferred for too long. Sometimes the world around us seems to conspire to keep our dreams from becoming a reality. When that happens, we have to do something that allows us to hold on to our dreams. Like that old dream of earth made fair and all her people one — we have been dreaming that dream from more than two thousand years, and while sometimes we seem to make some progress towards it, that dream has not yet become our reality. Yet we keep that dream bright and untarnished. So it is that poetry, and communities founded on poetry, helps us to hold on to our dreams.

How is it that poetry heals and changes us? Poetry heals us and changes us by calling to rouse ourselves and go out and heal the world by correcting injustice. Poetry heals us and changes us by allowing us to get through the pain of living, to get through the anger at injustice. Poetry heals us and changes us by helping us to hold onto our dreams, and keep them bright and untarnished. Communities that are founded on poetry, like our church community, do the same thing: in communities like this one, we are healed and changed by healing the world; we are healed by having a place to deal with personal pain and heartache; we are healed and changed by the dreams that we hold together.

And when we are healed and changed, we might just find that we have renewed strength to go out and help to heal the world.