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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Historic Iniquities | First Sunday of Advent 2020


We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
 (Isaiah 64:6 NRSV) 

When I was a small child I noticed a large stone sunken into the ground in the yard near the back door of a neighbor's house. It had a perfect concave shape indenting it, 7 or 8 inches in circumference (if memory serves, as I did see it many times thereafter). She had a few cats and she put food for them in it. I asked her about it, and she explained that it was from when Native Americans (she said 'Indians') had lived in the area centuries before. It was a grinding stone that had been shaped like a bowl through years of use, functioning like a mortar and pestle. That's the first time I remember having a sense of realization that there had been people in the area where I was raised in northeast Missouri before Europeans arrived. Still, with my child's mind I could only think of them having left, with no idea that they had been wiped out through disease and displaced by the arriving colonizers. 

Within just a few generations, the continents of the Americas were virtually emptied of their native inhabitants – some academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas.

No medieval force, no matter how bloodthirsty, could have achieved such enormous levels of genocide. Instead, Europeans were aided by a deadly secret weapon they weren't even aware they were carrying: Smallpox. (Guns Germs & Steel: Variables. Smallpox 2005)

The estimates range from 80% to the 95% cited above, but in either case it was a breathtakingly huge number of people who lost their lives in the Americas. Civilizations collapsed. Trade routes were reduced to wildlife paths. Cities were abandoned and reclaimed by the forest. Burial mounds and sacred land were forgotten. That stone from my childhood was only one of countless artifacts left behind.  The situation this created made it even easier for European colonizers to claim land. For the natives who remained, this was the beginning of sorrows. Over the following centuries efforts would be made to relocate them to less valuable land, and to absorb them into Western culture through concerted 'education' efforts. One advocate of such ethnocide put it like this:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man. (Pratt)

In the meantime, another great evil was being done through the African slave trade. 

On August 20, 1619, “20 and odd” Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrive in the British colony of Virginia and are then bought by English colonists. The arrival of the enslaved Africans in the New World marks a beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in North America(First Enslaved Africans Arrive in Jamestown Colony 2019)

A little over a year before the arrival of 'the Pilgrims' in Massachusetts. The number of victims is both overwhelming and, in some ways, perhaps a little surprising.

The most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson. (While the editors are careful to say that all of their figures are estimates, I believe that they are the best estimates that we have, the proverbial “gold standard” in the field of the study of the slave trade.) Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.

And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage. (Gates, 2013)

12.5 millions captured and shipped. 10.7 million who survived, and out of those a 'mere' 388,000 arrived in North America. Compare that to the number who were taken to Brazil. 

Of the 9.5 million people captured in Africa and brought to the New World between the 16th and 19th century, nearly 4 million landed in Rio, 10 times more than all those sent to the United States. (Bourcier, 2012)

Yes, I get that the total arrivals between the forgoing quotes don't precisely line up. It's not as though the records still extant are precise, given time and the sheer volume of the trade. Consider, though, 400,000 arriving in the United States, and 4 millions arriving in Brazil. In both cases, an incalculable injustice was done. In both countries the consequences of this grievous sin remain in the lives of the descendants of both the enslaved and the enslavers. 

The day after Barack Obama was elected president the first time I saw black folks actually congratulating one another in the streets of New York. For many of us it felt like our country had turned a corner, and the press was breathlessly asking if we were now in 'post-racial American.' Of course it couldn't have happened that easily, and in both the Tea Party and now with MAGA we've been seeing the backlash.

"It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted," Obama writes. "Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety." (Merica, Liptak, Zeleny, Wright, & Buck, 2020)

In 2020 we saw Black Lives Matter protesters pepper-sprayed, gassed, and beaten by police around the United States. I'm not referring to the cases of looting. I'm talking about the peaceful protestors who the police brutally attacked. We also saw Trump supporters screaming at Native Americans to 'go home,' as if this land weren't theirs far before the first Europeans or Africans showed up. 

Founded on exploitation, the United States of America and most of the so-called 'New World' are soaked in the blood of generations of oppressed people. White supremacy culture is so much the default in our institutions that often not only the white people but also people of color can't see it. It's compared to the water that a fish swims in, or the unseen air we breathe, and I think rightly so. This situation extends into every facet of our shared existence, including religion. My own Unitarian Universalist Association, as progressive a denomination as you'll find anywhere, is bears responsibility.

In 1989, a report titled “We Have No Problem… Again,” from the Black Concerns Working Group, [39] included the following words:

That the white majority refusal to acknowledge and accept the firsthand knowledge that people of color, indigenous and other marginalized groups face within our frames is maddening to those who experience it over and over among us.

These words still resonate three decades later. This lack of regard and respect is what leads to an evolution from accusations of “racial bias” to “racism” to “white supremacy culture.”

In spite of the promise of our movement, we still need to address the bias and oppression within our systems to build resilience in our living tradition for the times we are in and strengthen it for future generations. Making these changes will allow us to stay relevant. Addressing these issues will allow us to live into the theology we profess. Furthermore, if we are committed to this work as central to our faith, we will create the conditions in which all who are attracted to the theological premises of our faith can thrive. (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2020)

This isn't a matter of guilt, although there's plenty to be had. I've never kept an enslaved person, or driven an indigenous person out of their home. So far as I've been able to trace, none of my direct ancestors did either. Yet, they and I have benefited from a system that favors white men over everyone else. Though my hands are not red with blood, and I am not guilty of the crimes that founded modern society, I do have my part of the responsibility to work for change. The same goes for us all. 

All our righteousness is as filthy rags, and so long as we don't come to terms with that, the iniquities of our history will only continue to buffet us and sweep us away into chaos and recrimination.


References:

Bourcier, N. (2012, October 23). Brazil comes to terms with its slave trading past. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/23/brazil-struggle-ethnic-racial-identity

First Enslaved Africans Arrive in Jamestown Colony.
(2019, August 13). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-slave-ship-arrives-jamestown-colony

Gates, H. L., Jr. (2013, September 19). How Many Slaves Landed in the U.S.? Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/how-many-slaves-landed-in-the-us/

Guns Germs & Steel: Variables. Smallpox. (2005). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/variables/smallpox.html

Merica, D., Liptak, K., Zeleny, J., Wright, D., & Buck, R. (2020, November 16). Obama memoir confronts role his presidency played in Republican obstructionism and Trump's rise. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/12/politics/obama-memoir-promised-land/index.html

Pratt, R. H. (n.d.). "Kill the Indian, and Save the Man": Capt. Richard H. Pratt on the Education of Native Americans. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4929/

Unitarian Universalist Association. (2020, August 04). Widening the Circle of Concern: Final Thoughts. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening/final-thoughts