The Storm is Passing Over
an Easter sermon by Rev. David Carl Olson
preached at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Universalist & Unitarian)
April 21, 2019
“Have courage, my soul,” we sang, just moments ago, “the night is dark and I am far from home. Hallelu! The storm is passing over.” Easter is a time when Unitarian Universalists like me, like us, think about the winter that has past, and the white snows that may have covered our world (if quite briefly!) just weeks ago. “The storm is passing over,” we know, and we decorate this space with spring flowers; and some of us even wear an Easter bonnet.
But the storm that Lynn Scott read about a few minutes ago is another storm, the storm of White supremacy. Theologian James Cone addressed White supremacy throughout his fifty year career as a leading scholar of Black identity and culture, a leading critic of the culture of the United States. But it was only at the end of his life that he finally addressed the great paradox of American history, that faithful White people in this self-proclaimed Christian nation were, as a people, as a culture, involved in a terror campaign for the control of Black people, of Black bodies.
“Unfortunately, during the course of 2000 years of Christian history, [the cross,] this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings. . . . Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
“The night is dark, and full of terrors,” says the Red Woman Melisandre in Game of Thrones. Our culture, for Black people, has been full of terrors. The terror of capture and the Middle Passage; the terror of chattel slavery; the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the terror of Jim Crow. And in this self-proclaimed Christian nation, the terror of the lynching tree.
You know that the NAACP, whose founding leadership included important Unitarians in New York City, was created to advance the lives of people of color. But what was this advancement? Was it just to elevate Dr. Dubois’s class of public leadership called “the talented tenth”? Was it just about religious respectability and social advancement and career options within corporate America? Or was it about something much more sinister, more portentious, more perverse, more malevolent?
The Crisismagazine, the national journal of the NAACP, was founded in 1910 to report on lynchings that were happening around the country, and especially in the south. Men and women, boys and girls, were being tortured and murdered all across this country for supposed violations of the social code. These killings were not the result of legal proceedings, trials, convictions; but were imposed by individuals, organized individuals, who ruled the lives of many by making an example of a few.
Lynchings were grisly. I’ll let you read Dr. Cone’s book, among many others, to know more fully this history of ours; but the astonishing truth is that lynchings were festive occasions where dozens and hundreds and even thousands of people would witness the torture, the mutilation, the hangings, the burnings; people would have their pictures taken by the bodies, would retrieve keepsakes like teeth; others would use the opportunity of the crowd as a place to sell food and drink and souvenirs. “The night is dark, and I am far from home.”
The NAACP wanted America to look at itself, wanted White America to know the truth about our own reign of terror against Black folk. The Crisisreported on voter suppression, of course, and all kinds of discrimination; and it raised the spectre of lynchings in the south. It also waged a campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who used to sing in the paid quartet in this very sanctuary when he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, and who, when he became President of the United States, arranged for the first motion picture to be shown in his White House—in ourWhite House. That picture was Birth of a Nation, the racist diatribe that pictured Black folk as lazy, shiftless, sub-human beings, enemies of the “culture” of the South, deserving of the terror delivered by the Ku Klux Klan. It was no overstatement that the magazine was called The Crisis.
Terror ruled in this nation—White terror ruled, and could continue to rule as long as White supremacy was a cultural norm, White complicity an unstated support.
Lynching was terror. Crucifixion was terror, too.
In the first century of the common era, Roman power used crucifixion for those committing high crimes. Slaves who rebelled were crucified. Local leaders who organized against the Empire were crucified. Unlike how it is told in the Bible stories, it was insurgents—not robbers; those convicted of sedition—not blasphemy; political foes were the ones who were crucified. Not simply put to death, but publicly tortured. With a painful, lingering, public death.
Easter is a response of faith to the terrible truth of crucifixion, and maybe to the terrible legacy of lynching. The cross and the lynching tree, Dr. Cone argues, speak to each other. The White Christian folk who hanged Black Christian folk from the lynching tree were oblivious to the Gospel truth that says the prophet Jesus, the teacher Jesus, the miracle worker Jesus, the companion Jesus, was hanged, was tortured, was fully debased on the cross, his lynching tree.
Was there a way out for Jesus and those who loved him? Is there a way out for White America—for White supremacist America—and those who love us?
At the time of Jesus, there was a hope that God would intervene in human history; that through an apocalypse, a new order—a right order, and just—would be created, so that God’s good intention for this world might be realized. Jesus who was killed would return in glory to save his kindred and put down all that was against the reign and rule of God, the reign and rule of “the good.” Such a sense of what is needed, even today, to redeem this old world persists when we declare—as I do, from time to time—“ye must be born again!” God must remake you, rebirth you, change you into something that you are not now to be what God intended all along.
On this Easter, that is not my message.
Instead, I’ll turn to Henry Nelson Weiman and Regina Westcott Wieman, psychologists and philosophers whose thoughts some of us have been considering for the past two months. For the Weimans, God is the natural process of which we are all a part; God, like nature itself, is that process which, when unburdened by illness or defect, grows to become increasingly complex; but this complexity, if it is truly led by God, is also increasingly integrated. For the human soul, each life becomes increasingly complicated and individuated as we move from the simplicity of being a bunch of babies crawling around experiencing what is around us to the complexity of each of us finding ourselves, of being our own person, of knowing what is inside us and relating that to what is around us; and, as we mature, we know more fully what our purpose is in the grand scheme of things; as God is in the natural process of our living, we are given a chance to grow our souls and grow our selves by being devoted to meaning-making, mutuality, sensitivity and responsiveness to what is around us and within us. We become aware of self, but always curious of that which is beyond the self.
“In what we call inquiring religion, as over against the dogmatic, . . . . the religious devotees do not think that they alone have the truth about the saving reality in which all human living must find whatever supreme fulfillment it can ever have,” Weiman writes. “They confess that their knowledge of it is very limited and very partial. . . . [the] inquiring type of religionist knows that there are other insights, further knowledge, additional perspectives, and great possibilities of development in our apprehension of this most important reality. That type knows, furthermore, that this growing apprehension, full of vision and more open access to God can be attained only in the way that all truth grows, namely, by creative interaction with many different minds, many different cultures, many different insights, and the pool which is of many traditions. Therefore, such people go forth not to validate their beliefs, for they have no desire to validate them. They want to correct and enlarge them. They go forth not to save other people from the [black] hopelessness and error of their ways, but to enter into that creative interaction with them, that sharing, that mutual criticism, correction and enlargement that comes from cross-fertilization, fuller appreciation and interchanges of thought and spirit.”
This is the Easter that I know: that an inquiring religion is always seeking the greater; that an inquiring religion knows it is limited and partial; but that an inquiring religion may begin to discover those parts of the greater whole, the greater good, the Godhead itself, in the natural processes of life; and that these processes include the naturalness of death. Some things will die; we see it each day, we know it with the turning of the seasons; and some things will be born, and reborn, as they are each spring time, as they are each Easter.
There are obstacles to such growth. Human life that will not accept its transience develops anxieties that get expressed in the many ways we want to live forever; by acquiring things and demanding recognition; but placing our names on the sides of towers and the walls of churches; by enacting terror on those equals that we would demand are lesser. Human anxiety creates the cross and the lynching tree, the terror and the sorrow.
But there is another truth; we are not only impeded by obstacles; we are part of an expanding universe to which we may be devoted; our inquiring religion may offer us a way to be corrected and enlarged, more complex and more integrated, more fully devoted to the God which we may spell g-o-o-d, more fully devoted to the quest of liberation for ourselves and all people, more fully loyal to the truth of one human kindred, giving fealty to this precious planet which sustains us and which we must steward; more sincere in expressing the Universal Love that holds us close, and lifts us up, and expects of us great things.
Not the cross, not the lynching tree, but the great Hallelu! Thanks be to God! The morning light appears. The storm is passing over. Amen.