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Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson
The National Council of Churches Christian Unity Gathering
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019
Opening Plenary Session

I am humbled by this opportunity to share with you, my sisters and brothers in Christ. All of us are summoned here from different faith communities and diverse backgrounds; we are black and white, male and female, yet united in the cause of justice. Regretfully, we are gathered at this place negotiating the reality of America’s original sin, and her continuing shame and pain. We are here, in our diversity, within a tapestry of hope. As we stand with this backdrop of human misery and shame—the misery of the enslaved and the shame of the enslaver—I, nevertheless, feel encouraged by the fact that we have gathered here together in observance of the continuing impact of this awful chapter in American history.

Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson at the opening plenary at the Christian Unity Gathering. Photo: Jim Winkler

We are here today both to remember and to lament! To this place, we have come with solemn sadness; to this very place where the cruel system of American slavery was birthed. We, the sons and daughters of the enslaved and the enslavers, have gathered and come to this place where the long procession of systemic dehumanization of men and women began in this country, a dehumanization based on skin color and fueled by greed. This place has been and is a place of human bondage. The trees, the hills, the rivers, and the roads stand as silent witnesses to indescribable cruelty that took place in this space. I believe, if we listen hard with our hearts, in this moment, we can hear the slaves –their voices, their lament, their cries, and their tortured groans.

I want to suggest that today we should, each one of us, own four things as a counter-response to the fact that enslavers owned Africans in order to lead us down a pathway of hope:

The first thing we must do here, today, is own slavery as a reality. Slavery is not a fable. The stories of slavery are not fairy tales. It actually happened. Real human beings were tortured and raped, mutilated and humiliated, lynched and murdered. Enslaved people were seen not as people at all but as commodities to be bought, sold, and exploited. We can never understand the depth of slavery’s degradation until we have disengaged ourselves from the slave masters’ definitions. American slavery is about exploiting, raping, lynching, and killing real children, women, and men. It is about dissolving family structures and inflicting psychological pain. It is a cruelty that cannot be overstated. It is often referred to as the worst form of human bondage in the history of the world. Yet, we have gathered today to own it afresh. It may be hard to put our heads around the fact that we, together, are both the heirs of those who committed this gross inhumane treatment and the sons and daughters of the victims of this mass cruelty. As a Black man, I am not only feeling grief in this moment for my ethnic forebears, but I also feel deep sadness for the depth of disregard our humanity is capable of inflicting. We must, in the spirit of remembrance and lament, attempt to visit this reality in our minds. To step back into this reality is a deeply despairing experience, but, if here and now, we fail to own the reality of slavery, we miss the pregnant opportunity to exploit this moment.

The depth of the cruelty is captured in the stories of the enslaved. Such is the case in a statement made by Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman), as told in a recent article in the New York Times. She captured the essence of the slave experience, while lobbying for her freedom, in this single line, “If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.”

Frederick Douglass, when speaking as an abolitionist to white audiences in North America and in Europe, opened the window for them to observe the cruelty of what it was like to be a slave, as he offered up his whip torn back as a testimony to the harsh reality of slavery.

Secondly, we must own the church’s complicity in slavery, racism, and discrimination. Christians would do well to build an altar here in Virginia and at other places. We should begin at the Vatican, England, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands to confess and seek a way to rectify the pain they have inflicted upon the people of the Diaspora. The fact is that the progenitor and sustainer of the enslavement of Africans was the Christian church. In the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church divided the world in half, granting Portugal a monopoly on trade in West Africa and Spain the right to colonize the New World in its quest for land and gold. Pope Nicholas V buoyed Portuguese efforts and issued the Romanus Pontifex of 1455, which affirmed Portugal’s exclusive rights to territories it claimed along the West African Coast including the proceeds of trade from those areas. It granted the rights to invade, plunder, and reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.

During this enslavement, many Christian churches adopted an accommodating theology for the practice of slavery—a practice which continued after the emancipation, into the Jim Crow era, and beyond. Clergy produced extravagant eisegesis to accommodate the slave masters, who were members and leaders of their congregations. More devastating was the silence of the church at a time when something needed to be said. The pulpits of white congregations knew better but had no prophetic courage to speak or to act. The good news is that, while the white church was silent and disengaged and advocating for slavery, the spirit of Christ was alive and well among the enslaved, birthing a faith of survival and liberation. It was a defiant faith in the midst of oppression. This defiant faith showed up in their theology and in their musicology. The enslaver’s preacher would show up and quote a safe, docile scripture, like “slaves obey your masters,” or “God has ordained your master to rule over you,” but the enslaved would go worship by night in the brush harbor and quote an antiphonal response to the slave master’s scripture: “so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” ( John 8:36) or “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In addition, the music sung by the enslaved defied the context of their oppression. In the grip of slavery, with trouble all about them, and no existential evidence of things getting better, with defiant hope they sang, “I am so glad trouble don’t last always.” While the organized church was absent, Jesus was in the slave camp.

In the third instance, we must own the consequences of slavery and racism. The last sentence on the historical marker at Point Comfort, where the first Africans disembarked, reads, “the United States abolished slavery in 1865.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Slavery continues in the form of racism. Racism is a byproduct of slavery. When slavery ended, it metamorphosed into racism. The legacy of American slavery is American racism. Racism is the legitimate child of slavery.

The ancient prophet Jeremiah, upon assessing the state of Israel, during a continuing crisis in the 5th century BC, spoke words that align with the situation of Black people today. He said, “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” African Americans can’t help but feel the collateral damage of 246 years of slavery and 151 years of overt and covert racism. The fallout of slavery still stigmatizes black existence in America. No matter what an African American may achieve, he or she is never far from the negative consequences of being black in America.

All of the systems of America measure a conscious bias against black people. According to a Pew Foundation report published this year, “most Americans say the legacy of slavery still affects black people in the U.S. today.” The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. There are many continuing vestiges of racism in the day to day lives of African Americans. From as subtle an incident as a Black man waiting for his car at a valet stand and a white person walking up and handing him their key, or a Black man entering an elevator whereupon the white woman grasps her purse tightly, these instances I have personally experienced. Moreover, there are inequalities executed on a daily basis in our criminal justice system. Just recently, a black homeless mother who sent her six-year-old to a better school in the wrong town was jailed for five years, while a white wealthy mother was sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in the college admissions scandal.

A recent report found that Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. The economic statistics are equally revealing of the continuing impact of systemic racism. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. Blacks are three times more likely to live in poverty. Blacks earn 65% as much as whites at the median. It is generally known that given every measure of the quality of life in America, blacks are at the bottom when compared to whites, Asians, and Hispanics. Whether we are speaking about incarceration, education, health or economics, the negative legacy of slavery is irrefutable. Not only has the legacy of slavery inflicted black people physiologically and sociologically, but it has affected blacks psychologically as well. The damage of our collective self-esteem and self-confidence is directly connected to us internalizing inferiority. It is what Dr. Joy DeGruy refers to in her book as “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” America’s Legacy of enduring injury and healing—the fallout of slavery on a whole group of people.

Finally, we must own a meaningful response to the residue of slavery and the continuing violence of racism. There is only one response for the black church and the white church. It is a joint assignment. Unfortunately, part of the destructive consequence of racism is that we see ourselves as black and white; we must find a way to see our difference as an opportunity to celebrate our diversity like one who walks through a flower garden appreciating the diversity of colors, shapes, and sizes without assigning stigma or guilt. The rose is beautiful, but so is the mum, as is the daisy, and, together, they make a garden. The goal of the church is to make the world a garden. The question that begs to be asked is; how do we do that?

I am not sure! However, I am sure that we are the only ones who have that assignment. Both black and white Christians will have to figure out how to fulfill the mandate of that assignment. It will require soul searching, repentance, repair, sacrifice, and grace. It will not be easy, but, if we are sincere, God will be with us because He gave us this assignment. “Be thou reconciled.” We are called to be gardeners, to make all the flowers heathy, and to celebrate the value of each. Our collective response must be restless and relentless to eliminate the stain of racism from our culture.

Jesus speaks in the gospels of the young rich ruler who, in order to inherit the kingdom, had to sell all his riches and come and follow Jesus. I am not sure that it was the giving up of riches that made him leave Jesus, but maybe it was the following Jesus that he could not handle. Following Jesus is hard! In the case of racism, black Christians will have to truly forgive the white church. That is hard! And white Christians will have to repair the damage done by four hundred years of slavery and racism. That will be hard. We will have to help each other with our assignment, and that will be hard.

But it is hard to follow Jesus!

We Christians are called to live with a righteous indignation regarding social injustice. Awareness of systemic racism and the legacy of slavery ought leave us radically disturbed by the conduct of the current president of the United States.

Disturbed at the resurgence of overt white supremacy.

Disturbed at the continuing inequalities grounded in racism.

Disturbed at the criminal justice system.

We who are Jesus’s people ought to be known as the fellowship of the disturbed, the restless, the determined. I must confess that I have little hope in our institutions and systems of government devoid of an external insistence driven by the force of higher values.

I have little hope in corporate entities to remove the stain of America’s original sin as a priority above capital gains.

I have little hope in the resident good of our humanity to subsume our selfishness and greed.

But the hope I do have is in the transformative power of the gospel to change the hearts of men and women, to dismantle the systems of oppression. My sentiment is adequately appropriated in the words of the 19th century pastor who wrote:

“My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but holy lean on Jesus name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
all other ground is sinking sand.
When darkness hides His loving face
I rest on his unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the vail