Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Homily: Absalom Jones

Now that we Halls have a digital video recorder, I’m finally able at this late stage in clerical life to watch the Sunday morning news programs—the group of pundits whom Calvin Trillin once dubbed “Sabbath Gasbags.” This past Sunday, on Meet the Press, a distinguished group of Sabbath Gasbags passed the time dissecting the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and one of them quoted a line from Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography that I had never heard before: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." [“This is My Story”, 1937] Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroes—if you ever have the chance, visit her recently restored home at Val-Kill in Hyde Park, New York--and any account you read of her life involves the myriad ways in which she struggled to overcome the shyness and insecurity she developed as a result of her mother’s harsh criticism of her looks and comportment. (As a young girl, Eleanor’s mother Anna called Eleanor “granny” because she lacked the physical grace which Anna herself was known for.) One of the many things Eleanor Roosevelt exemplified over the course of her life was the ability to claim her own agency. You may think me inferior, she said, but I don’t actually become inferior until I consent to your opinion.
This quotation started me thinking about a lot of things, especially as I have tried to make my way through the public reactions to all of Seabury’s announcements last week. Most of the responses I’ve gotten have been both personally and institutionally supportive. Most people in the church –most rational people in the church--understand that all of our institutions—from dioceses and congregations to camps and chaplaincies and even seminaries will need to change dramatically if we wish to adapt to the changing social and economic realities of the 21st century. But there are a few voices—either rigid ideologues or those wedded to the “traditional” way of doing things—which have emerged calling Seabury’s decisions admissions of some kind of institutional or theological failure. It’s when I begin to internalize that critique that I find Eleanor Roosevelt’s words so helpful: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Or, as a former colleague of mine used to pray, “let us never become agents of our own oppression.” Their story about me doesn’t become my story until I buy it myself.
It seems to me that it’s in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s musings on how we collaborate in our own oppression that we read the Gospel we have heard this morning as we, together, commemorate Absalom Jones:

I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.—John 15.15

When we commemorate Absalom Jones, we usually remind ourselves that he was the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. But the more you read about Jones (and about his friend and colleague, Richard Allen) the more you see that what distinguished Absalom Jones was his refusal to be an agent of his own oppression. When the members of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church decided that the black parishioners should sit in the balcony, Jones and Allen walked out—Jones to become an Episcopalian, Allen to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones went on to have a distinguished ministry in the Episcopal Church, and his day has become a focusing point for all of us to reflect on our church’s institutional racism, still alive and well almost two hundred years after Jones’s death. But today I would like us to think about Jones in the light of what Jesus and Eleanor Roosevelt have to say to us about our complicity in our own oppression. “I do not call you slaves any longer . . . but I have called you friends.” "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Whether you hear these words through the filter of your social location, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your body image, or your job, the witness of Absalom Jones has something radical and life-giving to say to you.
There is something in us as human beings that makes us want to define ourselves by means of arbitrary categories which we ourselves invent. In the Bible, this tendency reveals itself in the use of words like “pagans” or “nations”—from the latter of which we get the word “ethnic.” The first big controversy in Christianity, after all, was whether your ethnicity, your belonging to a human category, had any ultimate meaning for your status in the church. Once we could say that neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised mattered, we had articulated a fundamental Christian truth. All categories—racial, sexual, ethnic, national—are meaningless in the face of our fundamental human identity as creatures made in God’s image and drawn into God’s divine life in the Incarnation. Because we are cussed, ornery, sinful folk we will continue to try to define our sense of belonging more narrowly than God defines it. But the basic Christian facts are incontrovertible. God does not think in categories. Only we do.
And if we were to stop there we would have said a good deal of the truth, but not all of it. Because Absalom Jones realized that his racial identity was not the final word about him, but he realized something else, too. He realized that his racial identity could be used as a tool of his oppression only if he consented. We remember and give thanks for Absalom Jones, then, because he graciously and courageously said, “No.” He refused to consent to feeling inferior. He refused to become complicit in his own oppression. To use Jesus’s language, he ceased being a “slave” in a literal or metaphorical sense of that word because he stepped out of the cycle of abuse. By refusing to consent to a limiting and soul-destroying version of who he was, Absalom Jones claimed his status not as a slave of Jesus but as his friend. And that, I believe, is what our Baptismal Covenant means when it talks of seeing “Christ in all persons” and respecting “the dignity of every human being.”
Christianity is about many things, but perhaps chief among them for us this morning is its continuing proclamation that God takes us seriously. God created us in God’s own image. God has become one of us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are not God’s slaves. We are God’s friends. That means, at least, this: God does not consent to our oppression or to our inferiority. Our oppression and our so-called inferiority become our identity only when we consent to them. We have examples—Absalom Jones and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jesus himself—of those who have refused to let their oppressors write their story. And their examples are a witness to us for our way forward as women and men trying to make sense of our own lives and vocations in changing and stressful but also potentially freeing times.
“I do not call you slaves any longer . . . but I have called you friends.” "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Let us give thanks that God takes us seriously enough to have called us to take on and live out our own agency. And let us commit ourselves to being agents of liberation and wholeness and grace not only for us but also in the lives of those whom God would empower to shake off others’ oppressive definitions of them, too. Amen.

1 comment:

Maddie said...

This was a real gift for me today; reading that, while oppression does not necessarily start with me, it can end with me. In terms of exerting the power to say no to how I react to a myriad of my own shortcomings, I can refuse the "bait" of labels or the judgements of others. Oppression starts in our own hearts, when we have either consciously or unconsciously bought into other's beliefs about ourselves or rejected elements of identity to protect ourselves from becoming targets.

Today, I will bring this conscious approach into my meditations.