My county ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride
From every mountain side let freedom ring.[i]
This is a weekend of thanksgiving. We thank God for the blessings of our life and for the many blessings of the land we make our home, even while we appeal to God for grace and strength to make it a more holy, humane and loving place. But our thanks do not need to stop there. I also give thanks to all those who have served, who have fought, who have protested, who have given of themselves, above all who have sacrificed so that that this place may indeed more closely resemble the land of liberty that we want it to be.
I give thanks to all who have sacrificed. That gratitude leads me to a question for today: what are we willing to sacrifice in order that all people may truly be free, may truly live in peace and come to see and know the image of God in one another? What are we willing to do or to give up?
A few weeks ago I received a call from Bishop Marble about an event taking place just a few blocks away at First Congregational Church, in which folk from Greensboro (primarily white people) were going to come together to talk about racism. Bishop Marble is the retired bishop of Mississippi who lives here and speaks out against systemic racism and injustice. He is a prophetic man who speaks of racial reconciliation in a way that only one with a deep bass Mississippi drawl can do. This is not the first time Bishop Marble has said, “BJ, I want you to go to an event about race.”
I don’t usually take him up on his offers. Thank you, Bishop, I always say respectfully. Well, as respectfully as I can, given that by this point in the conversation he would have dropped one if not several profanities. (There is a certain freedom that comes with being a retired bishop.) I am always too busy for these things. There are always more emails to write or respond to. There are always more schedules to put together. There are always more calls to make. There is rarely time to follow go down one of Bishop Marble’s well-intentioned reconciliation rabbit holes. Besides, I’m already converted. I think racism is terrible, and I’m readily willing to admit that it’s probably worse than I think, therefore I already know myself to be one of the good guys.
My native country, thee, land of the noble free, thy name I love
I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills
My heart with rapture thrills like that above.
OK, I had to look up what a “rill” is. It’s a small stream. What a wonderful, peaceful image of patriotic affection: I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills. This is the picture of the land of the “noble free.”
The noble free. If we recall the origins of our nation, there was a desire on the part of many to be far away from the oppressive system of nobility that was for so many the very antithesis of freedom. There were of course those who also hoped to establish their very own colonial nobility, the cavaliers who sought to become a new permanent upper class. These were the folk who – if you’ll forgive the great oversimplification – bequeathed an economy built upon slave labor.
The very idea of the “noble free” was both a repudiation of the rigid class system of old Europe and a re-claiming of what nobility means. This hymn, written in 1831 by Baptist minister Francis Smith in his first year of seminary, tells us that nobility comes from God alone and is as evident in rocks and streams as it is in our own hunger for freedom.
Let’s remember that this is a hymn not to America but to the God who created freedom and liberty and indeed the nobility that comes from being created in God’s very image. In rocks and rills we can connect to some of the great metaphors of our faith – from the steadfast rock on which Jesus builds the church (that being Peter, who alert readers will remember wasn’t very steadfast at all) to the streams of living water through which we encounter the holy.
Our lives abound in gifts of grace; we were created to live in dignity and freedom. This is the American ideal. But sadly, we know that it is for so many still but an ideal, several hundred years into the experiment.
This time, when Bishop Marble called, I said yes. You see, it had been just days since the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, and I thought that any conversation I could join in on was a step in the right direction. Mayor Nancy Vaughn was there and spoke of the working group she has convened to learn about and hopefully begin to heal racism in Greensboro. The church was packed with 300+, mostly white people. Mayor Vaughn spoke without notes, indeed without great emotion, as she talked about two Greensboros: one side knowing prosperity, one side knowing devastating poverty and hunger. On one side signs advertising banks. On the other side, ads for check-cashing. Vessels for prosperity on our side of town; economic strip-mining on the other side.
Let music swell the breeze
and ring from all the trees sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake, let all that breathe partake,
let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.
We then heard from Bay Love, the new director of the Civil Rights Museum, who talked about how racism is still in the “groundwater” of our culture and has measurably seeped into all the various systems of our communities. He pointed out how in so many different systems vital to our lives – education, healthcare, jobs, wealth – even when we account for factors such as income, history, living conditions, family support – outcomes are always worse for black people. White people always come out on top – measurably so.
I couldn’t keep up with the examples, but here’s one that stuck with me because I know the value of education. Studies were done on job applications with resumes of comparable education and experience, but they were broken into two categories: those with “black sounding names” and “white sounding names.”
White resumes with mediocre qualifications were more likely to get interviewed and hired than black resumes with outstanding qualifications. A black person with a degree from Duke was less likely to get a job than a white person from a regional school such as UNCG. (UNCG is a great school, but you see what I mean.) We can say anything we want to about bootstraps and such, but the doors that are the white person’s entry to prosperity continue to be less available to black people of comparable ability.
Never mind, for a moment, that the kingdom of God is not a meritocracy, and that all God’s children regardless of color, wealth, ability or anything else deserve nothing less than to have their dignity affirmed and respected.
Our father’s God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
What I have described to you is something we don’t want to acknowledge. A nice word would be “white privilege.” But I think it is more accurately described as a deeply class-based society that seems to be in profound conflict with the ideals of this hymn, the commitments of our Christian faith and indeed the values that we claim as a nation. One of the reasons why the Confederate flag debate is so important – and yes, why that flag must come down – is that it is more than a symbol of white privilege, or a reminder of self-proclaimed “heritage.” That flag is one of many instruments of enforcement of a class-based system that does not know itself to be anything other than an open and free society.
So good for Brittany Newsome, who climbed the pole (wearing a harness and a helmet) in Columbia, South Carolina to bring down that flag. Jesus tells his disciples that you do your best, but when you realize that the person you’re with is not going to be a partner in your mission no matter what you do or say, shake the dust off your feet as a testament against them. That was as public an act of foot-dusting as ever I have seen.
We have denied the God-given nobility and freedom of so many, and so we must ask, what are we willing to give up to remedy this? What, if anything, are we willing to sacrifice?
Most white people aren’t willing to sacrifice anything because they we don’t see the need. “If I don’t look at it, I can just keep telling myself the same story.” But we are in church, and being in church means being honest, so we don’t get to hide in those protected cocoons of our own imaginations.
Let’s go back to the metaphor of the hymn. “I love thy rocks and rills,” those stones and streams that speak of the nobility of nature as an image of God’s creative imagination. And then let’s borrow the gospel metaphor of the rocks on which the church is built. Rocks of steadfastness, solid anchors of faith. Rocks around which the healing, transforming streams of living water flow all around us. This metaphor even allow us to stay where we’re kind of comfortable, as (though I dislike this phrase) the frozen chosen who are faithful, committed, but generally pretty quiet and unlikely to rock the boat. We’re good for ballast, and that’s important, but it’s not enough.
Francis Smith may have accidentally suggested that we instead take the prophetic route when he wrote “let mortal tongues awake, let all that breathe partake, let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.”
Let all that breathe partake in the God-given nobility that is our birthright. For all you who have sacrificed and served this country, in whatever capacity, I deeply believe that this is why you did so. And I thank you for creating this place. I thank you for the freedom to worship without fear, to speak the truth when it needs to be said. And I thank you for the opportunity to now, as the steadfast rocks who have ballasted the steady ship of the church for so long, to now break our silence, to awaken our tongues, and complete the work of reconciliation begun years ago, and for which so many brave souls have sacrificed.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, July 5, 2015
[i] Hymn 717, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Words by Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895)