African Ancestors

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an excerpt from a poem by Senegalese poet Birago Diop:

Those who are dead are never gone:
they are in the thickening shadow.

The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the tree that rustles,
they are in the wood that groans;

Those who are dead are never gone:
they are in the breast of the woman,
they are in the child that is wailing
and in the firebrand that flames.

The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the forest,
they are in the house.

The dead are not dead.

[English translation from Jacob K. Olupona, African Spirituality, p. 54]

The second reading this morning is from Varieties of African American Religious Experience, by Anthony Pinn:

“I suggest an alternative way of interpreting African American religion (and its often understated diversity) and culture by theologically embracing the creative and life-affirming, yet fragile, manifestations of African American culture.”

SERMON — “African Ancestors”

Who are our ancestors? How do we receive the wisdom of our ancestors? In our culture, we rarely revere our ancestors; it’s fine to take up the hobby of genealogy, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. We don’t even revere our elders much any more; our culture values the freshness of youth over the wisdom of age. There is even a part of our culture that consists in dismissing the great human wisdom of the past, telling us that only things which are new can be good.

In short, our culture whispers to us that we don’t need the wisdom of our ancestors, or of our elders: “Move on to something new; leave the past behind.” And you know, much of the time we follow that whispered advice to good effect. America has prospered precisely because we are willing to try new things, we are willing to innovate, to invent. this urge for the new is even a part of our religious heritage. A hundred years ago, Unitarians used to say they believed in “progress onwards and upwards forever.” There’s something in us that still believes that progress will keep going onwards and upwards forever.

One of the curious side effects of believing in progress onwards and upwards forever was that parts of the past could no longer be seen clearly; parts of the past get obscured, blurred, knocked out of focus. You can find examples of this everywhere in the American self-perception; but perhaps it is nowhere more evident than in African American history. The history of people of African descent in America has too often been knocked out of focus; it’s hard to see the African ancestors that we know must be there. So maybe we have to find a different way of looking for them.

For example, you have probably heard the stereotype that African Americans all became Christians pretty early on, until by the 20th century there was no evidence of any other religious tradition amongst African Americans. The second reading this morning was written by Anthony Pinn, an African American humanist theologian. As a humanist, that is, as someone who does not believe in God, Anthony Pinn was curious to know if the conventional wisdom is true: he wanted to know if African American religion exists solely in Christian churches. He found that Christian churches do not represent the only religion of African Americans, and in his field work he has found a rich diversity of African American religious traditions beyond Christianity, including Voodou, Santeria, Islam, and (of course) humanism.

Let me focus on this last African American religious tradition, humanism, for a moment — because African American humanism has a special importance for us Unitarian Universalists. In his field work and historical research, Anthony Pinn found that one major institutional home for African American humanists was, in fact, our own Unitarian Universalist Association. Pinn writes that “black humanism,” as it was called in Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s, took “into account the ‘unique’ demands and existential context of African Americans; the value of their ‘blackness’ was brought into human-centered thought and action.” Pinn has traced African American humanism well back into the 19th century; and in the second half of the 20th century, black humanism found an institutional home within Unitarian Universalism.

Not that Unitarian Universalism has necessarily been an entirely comfortable home for African American humanists, or any African American for that matter. Back in 1984, Mark Morrison-Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is African American, wrote: “Unitarian Universalism’s only significant penetration into the black community has been limited to a dozen inner city churches…. In 1968 when black involvement in the denomination was at a high point, blacks numbered 1,500 of the denomination’s members, less than one percent.” Yet having said that, it seems as if some things are changing. Bill Sinkford, the current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is an African American. A couple of those inner city churches that Mark Morrison-Reed mentions have been growing by leaps and bounds; in fact, I’ll be going to visit one of them, All Souls in Washington, D.C., when I’m away next week. So there has been a new feeling of hope that increasing numbers of African Americans will find a welcoming religious home in Unitarian Universalist churches.

I believe part of the process of welcoming more African Americans into Unitarian Universalism will be recognizing that not all African Americans go to Christian churches. I believe we have to bring the past into better focus, we have to better understand the ancestors. And this brings us back to Anthony Pinn, who has what he calls “an alternative way of interpreting African American religion (and its often understated diversity)… by theologically embracing the creative and life-affirming, yet fragile, manifestations of African American culture.” Pinn has a name for this alternative way; he calls it “theological archaeology”; and Pinn believes that “attention to archaeological method can mean a richer understanding of African American life extending beyond a select and distorted representation….” Pinn wants to show us that African American religious experience is far richer and far more diverse than it is commonly portrayed; but what I’d say he is really doing, is he is showing us how to listen to our religious ancestors.

I believe we should all learn how to engage in this “theological anthropology.” I don’t mean to imply that white folks like me should be the ones who are investigating African American religious experience; but I do think if we all start exploring our religious histories together, we can support each other in our various explorations. And for myself, I have found that I can learn from the African, and African American ancestors; those ancestors have helped me to learn how to listen to my own ancestors. Which brings us back to the first reading this morning.

The first reading this morning is a translation of a poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop. As you probably noticed, a slightly different version of the poem was used as the lyrics to the first hymn this morning. That first hymn was written by Ysaye Maria Barnwell, and she is a singer, composer, and scholar who performs with the a capella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock; and, as it happens, she is also a Unitarian Universalist. I believe that Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song gives us practical instructions on how to do theological anthropology; her song tells us how to find those fragile, vulnerable remnants of our religious histories.

The song starts out telling us to “Listen more often to things than to beings.” This seems odd; why should we listen to things instead of to people? The song tells us why: ” ‘Tis the ancestors’ words”: when we listen to things, we can hear the ancestors’ words directly. You see, if you listen to other people, you’re not listening to the ancestors’ voices directly. If you listen to other people, you’ll find that other people put their own interpretations on the ancestors. That’s what Anthony Pinn tells us: when he listened to other people, they told him that African American humanists didn’t really exist because all African Americans belonged to Christian churches. Pinn went out and did field work; he found things, old books and magazines, old folk tales, old blues songs; and in those books and folk tales and songs, he found the voices of the ancestors. These ancestors told him he was not alone in being an African American humanist; these ancestors told him that African American religious expression is far richer than most people say it is.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song goes on to give us more practical advice about doing this “theological anthropology”: “Those who have died have never, never left/ The dead are not under the earth./ They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods….”

In traditional African religions, the ancestors are literally living in the trees, and in the woods. For traditional African religions, the ancestors are very real. You pour libations for them: clear water, or millet mixed with water, or some palm wine. You ask them to intercede for you: to protect you from evil spirits, or to ask the divinities for assistance. In some African American religious traditions, such as Santeria, you might call on the ancestors in much the same way.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song tells us to listen to the rustling trees, to listen to the groaning woods. It was deep in the groaning woods, that enslaved African Americans held their secret hush arbor meetings, places where they could have free expression for their own deep religious feelings, without interference from their white overseers. It was through the rustling trees that they passed, in the dead of night, as they slipped away to freedom, following the Underground Railroad, some of them through New Bedford. There is a fragile meaning in the sound of the rustling trees; there is a fragile meaning in the groaning woods; meanings that you will find in things, not in beings.

The song continues in this way: “Those who have died have never, never left/ The dead have a pact with the living….” This we must believe: our ancestors have not forsaken us, they are always there to give us guidance, if we will but take the time to hear them. The song tells us where to listen for their voices: “The dead have a pact with the living:/ They are in the woman’s breast, they are in the wailing child,/ They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd.” That is to say, we can hear the voices of the ancestors through our human interactions, we can find the voices of the ancestors in the religious experiences of the living. If we look deeply into ourselves, into the way we interact with others, if we look into our human institutions: then we can find the voice of the ancestors.

Our society today does not want us to listen too hard to our ancestors. Our society today would like us to be, for example, good little consumers. We are not supposed to yearn for greater spiritual richness and meaning in our lives, we are just supposed to spend more in order to keep the economy purring along. When you listen to the ancestors, though, you find a great spiritual richness to the world, you find that you and your world are far more complex than you had thought, you find that there are unplumbed depths in who you are. To listen to the ancestors is a religious act of seeking out identity, seeking out who you are, and what your place might be in this world. It is seeking out the fragile manifestations of who you are, before that fragility is crushed by the social imperative to buy more, to own more, to act just like the characters on the television screen. That fragile manifestaion is your true self.

So it is that we come to this church: to create for ourselves the time and the space to sit together in quietness, to listen, to think. Each among us will have somewhat different journeys we are making. If you’re an African American, you’ll be listening for different things from your ancestors than if you’re a white New England Yankee like me. Or whoever your ancestors were, whatever differences you may find in your journey. We come together knowing that we are each different, knowing that we are united by our search for truth and goodness, and knowing that we haven’t been satisfied with the usual religious platitudes. We are committed to rigorous thinking about religious matters, but rigorous thought alone isn’t enough. For what we seek is fragile; our thought and our actions must assume a delicacy and precision that only comes about through poetry: through listening more carefully to things than to beings.

Learn who you are by listening to who your people once were. When you are at home cooking, listen to the fire’s breath — even if you’re using an electric stove, you can hear the voice of a thousand generations of human beings in the voice of the hearth, the voice of the fire. When you wash your hands, listen to the voice of the waters. We all know that our dead loved ones are truly dead and gone. Yet though they are dead, they live on in us, they live on in the children. We allow the dead to live on when we uphold their highest ideals, when we use the gifts they gave us to better the world.

This we have learned from the African ancestors. This is perhaps the greatest truth of all: as the dead live on in us, so we will live on in the children and in those yet unborn. That is what is meant when we say: listen more often to things than to beings. In the quiet of the rustling grass, we listen to the ancestors that we may hear the truths of the past. In the quiet of the moaning rocks, we can know something of the coming generations so that we might save something of this good earth for them.

African Time

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading, an excerpt from the poem “Of the African Eve” by Everett Hoagland, is not included here due to copyright restrictions. Mr. Hoagland is the former Poet Laureate of New Bedford and member of this congregation.

The second reading this morning is from an essay titled “African Indigenous Religions” by James Cox:

“African indigenous religions can be called a form of humanism, because religious activity focuses on how positive benefits for society can be enhanced…. This humanism is a communal humanism and is not individualistic. Fulfillment comes for individuals as they participate in family and community relationships.

“Because religions focuses on communal wellbeing, Africans are concerned with the present moment and not with a future existence after death. There is no sense of the past moving through the present to some future event; the past and the future find their menaing in the present. Hence, distance from the present is more important than the direction time takes…. The fundamental concerns of African societies with health and well-being are expressed primarily through ritual activity. Festivals, feasts, dances, and artistic expressions celebrate communal existence, both of the living and the dead.” [pp. 127-128]

SERMON — “African Time”

For the past three months, I’ve been exploring our Western religious tradition in my sermons on Sunday morning. That is to say, I’ve been talking about the religious heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and the indigenous European traditions currently being revived as paganism. Now I’d like to turn our attention on Sunday mornings to a broader field, and spend a little time engaging in conversations with non-Western religious traditions.

I say we “engage in conversations with” other religious traditions, and I am careful to use exactly that phrase. In the last century, Unitarians and Universalists occasionally tried to adopt liturgies and other practices from other religious traditions. We have come to recognize that that sort of thing is wrong; we now have a term for it, “cultural misappropriation.” Rather than trying to steal the religious traditions of other peoples, we instead are coming to re-evaluate our own religious tradition, and we are finding great richness within our Unitarian and Universalist traditions; in short, we are becoming more comfortable with who we are, and we’re not trying to pretend we’re something else. Yet we also recognize that there are non-Western religious traditions out there, and we recognize how important it is to engage those religious traditions, not in the sense of trying to adopt them wholesale, or trying to co-opt them, but in the sense of engaging in conversations with equals.

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d start us off by engaging in conversations with traditional African religions. I have been fascinated by traditional African religion and philosophy since 1983 when, as a philosophy student in college, I was introduced to this tradition by Lucius Outlaw, a philosopher and one of my mentors. I still remember when Lou had us read a book titled African Religions and Philosophy by John S. Mbiti. Mbiti was trained as a theologian, and I suppose you could say this was the very first book of theology I ever read.

Mbiti was a Christian; he went to seminary and served as an Anglican priest, and only later became a scholar. As a Christian, he was of course concerned to a certain extent with missionary work, and if you read his work carefully, you get the sense that one of his motivations for his scholarly work was how to communicate Christianity to persons embedded in a traditional African framework. Coming from that perspective, he believed the way people look at time, the way Westerners and traditional Africans experience time, was the fundamental problem for the Western tradition as we try to understand Africans.

You see, we Westerners believe that time is like a line. For us, time begins at some point — maybe with the Big Bang, or maybe with God creating the world. After that, everything moves forward in time. But one day, time will end — maybe time will end when entropy overtakes the universe, or maybe time will end with God’s last judgment. The specifics may differ, but whether you’re a traditional Christian, or a Jew or a Muslim; or whether you follow the insights of Western science; either way, we Westerners believe that time has a beginning and an end.

Time considered as a line is so fundamental to our culture that we don’t even question it. We assume that’s the way things are, that there can be no other way of thinking about time. I mean, what could be more basic than a timeline? It’s so basic that we learn about timelines as children.

But if you’ve ever taught younger children, you quickly realize that thinking of time as a line is a fairly sophisticated concept. If you show a timeline to a preschooler, he or she will simply not get what you’re taking about; preschoolers like timelines, they think they’re pretty, but they don’t really understand them. And when children start to learn how timelines work — really learn about timelines, to the point where they can create their own timeline without outside help — you can see the pride they take in this accomplishment. I can remember when I first learned how to make a timeline as a child; I remember feeling a sense of wonder at this fascinating new concept; it was something I quite literally had never thought of when I was younger.

So we Westerners train our children to think of time as a line. But John S. Mbiti tells us that traditional Africans think of time differently. Mbiti says in traditional Africa

“…time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present, and virtually no future. The linear concept of time in Western thought, with an indefinite past, present, and infinite future, is practically foreign to African thinking…. What is taking place now no doubt unfolds in the future, but once an event has taken place, it is no longer in the future but in the present and the past. Actual time [as opposed to potential time] is therefore what is present and what is past. It moves ‘backward’ rather than ‘forward’; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place.” [pp. 21-23]

Since I first read this passage, twenty-some years ago, I have been fascinated by this idea that there could be a very different way of understanding time.

It should be obvious that a linear notion of time is essential to Western religions. For Christians and Jews, time begins when God created the universe, time unfold in a linear fashion, and one day God will bring about an end to time. All the indigenous European pagan traditions I’m familiar with have a similar understanding of time: time begins when the universe is created, and it flows in a line from that point to the present, and an many European pagan traditions the universe will someday end — think of Norse myths for one example. And non-theistic humanists are pretty sure that the universe started with the Big Bang, time proceeds in a linear fashion from there, and the universe will end when everything cools down from entropy.

It’s my guess that most of us here this morning think of time as a line, and for most of us, religion is unthinkable without linear time. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing to think about time as linear. Unitarians of a hundred years ago used to say they believed in salvation by character and progress onwards and upwards forever — progress onwards and upwards forever requires us to think of time as a line headed in one direction. At some level, we still retain that belief, which is why we are so dedicated to social justice work: we know, given time, that we can overcome injustice and make the world a better place. The good side of thinking of time as a line means that the Western tradition holds out the possibility of working towards greater justice in the world.

However, the traditional African concept of time challenges us to understand things in a new way. And this brings me to the first reading this morning, the poem by Everett Hoagland.

In the poem, Everett Hoagland points out the great irony of Westerners who claim to have discovered certain things. Christopher Columbus claimed to have discovered the Americas, while ignoring the native peoples who discovered the land thousands of years earlier. Livingston claimed to have discovered a waterfall in Africa, which he named after a British queen “to keep it from going native.” And now, says Everett Hoagland, based on the analysis of mitochondria in human DNA, there are scientists who claim to have discovered an ancient African woman who is the ancestor of all, and these scientists have named this hypothetical woman “Eve.” She was an “African Eve,” says Everett Hoagland, and these scientists who discovered and named her, “they acknowledge eden was/ and mother africa is.” And then later in the poem, we hear: “she is more than isis aphrodite madonna/ even more than eve.”

She was even more than Eve. And I’d like us to try to understand what the poet means when he says she is even more than Eve. For me, one way to understand how she is more than Eve is to understand time in a different way. So I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a moment — we’re going to go back to John S. Mbiti, get a little better understanding of how traditional Africans understand time, and then return to the African Eve.

First, back to John Mbiti. Mbiti did research in East African languages, and discovered that in some ways these East African languages have a richer understanding of time than do many Western languages. Mbiti found nine verb tenses in these languages. There are three future tenses: East Africans can talk about a far future of perhaps two years worth of natural cycles; an immediate future of within the next short while; and then a future that places one event after another event. East Africans have three present tenses: what’s in the process of happening right now; what has happened in the past hour or so; and what has happened today since morning. Then there are three past tenses: one which speaks of yesterday; one which speaks of any day before yesterday but within living memory; and then a tense which refers to the deep past of no specific time.

From a theological or religious point of view, I am especially fascinated by this last past-tense, which speaks of the deep past, a past of no specific time. If we had such a verb tense in English, it would solve lots of religious problems for us. In our Western languages, we are stuck on the timeline of historical time. When we speak of something in the past, we can only speak of it as if that event actually truly happened as history. This has caused us much confusion. For example, when we speak of God creating the world, we can only speak of that as if it actually happened, which confuses things badly. It confuses things so badly that there are people who are convinced that you can assign a historical date to God’s creation of the world: they say that God created the world in the year 4004 B.C.; so if you want to know exactly when the Biblical Eve was alive, it was 4,000 years ago. I was recently reading a news article about a Christian company that offers tours of the Grand Canyon, where they assume that the Grand Canyon is less than 6,000 years old, and they point out alleged evidence that the Grand Canyon was not carved out by the Colorado River over millions of years. These tours are very popular, but the only reason they exist is because in our Western tradition, we confuse the past-of-no-specific-time, and the actual historical past. Timelines are powerful, but they can be dangerous!

And in his poem, Everett Hoagland points out another danger. Those scientists who say they discovered an African Eve are actually using their verb tenses incorrectly. They need to distinguish between the past-of-no-specific-time, and the past-of-scientific-inquiry. Eve, whether she is an African Eve or a biblical Eve, lives in the past-of-no-specific-time. Eve did not ever live in the historical past, the past that can be explored by scientific inquiry; Eve is no more real than Anasi the spider, and in fact Anasi and Eve live in exactly the same time. It is extraordinarily presumptuous for those scientists to presume to name that hypothetical woman, the source of all human mitochondrial DNA, to name her “Eve.” Worse yet, those scientists give her a Western name, straight out of the Western religious tradition. And that’s as bad as Christopher Columbus claiming to have discovered the Americas; that’s just as presumptuous as when Livingston decided he would name that African waterfall.

Not only that, but once you call this hypothetical woman who was the source of all human DNA “Eve,” why that raises this funny possibility that the “African Eve” lived in some kind of “African Eden.” And from there, it would be easy to find ourselves right back in the same trap that certain fundamentalist Christians fall into, when those fundamentalist Christians try to tell us that when human beings lived in the Garden of Eden back in 4,004 B.C.E., the world was perfect and then woman sinned and it’s all been downhill from there. My friends, if we can just remember to distinguish between the past-of-no-specific time, and the actual past, we could save ourselves a lot of problems.

We challenge ourselves by exploring other religious traditions. Traditional African religions can teach us something about ourselves: they can show us that our religious tradition has us understand time as a line. Traditional African religions can also help us see that we have to be careful with our religious understandings of time as a line. For if time is a line, that timeline will come to an end sometime in the future. From a religious point of view, we Westerners have to watch our for a deep-seated belief in the inevitable end of the world. This kind of thinking can be most destructive: if you believe the world is going to end someday, maybe sooner rather than later, you have less incentive to make this present world any better; if everything’s going to end and die anyway, why clean up the environment, why feed the hungry, why correct social injustice?

So it is that by exploring other religious traditions, we learn more about ourselves than about those religious traditions.