© Mark Rahman 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 19, 2011
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,
This June Nineteenth, 1865: General Order Number Three
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
The order goes on to say that there will be no laziness and no handouts at the military bases. There was no effort at a new brotherhood, no attempt to give the new citizens education or means to be active in the new world order of wage labor and democracy. This was just the dissolution of one type of relationship in exchanged for another, a relationship that was also hierarchical.
This was the last place that the announcement was made. Every other state in the south had already heard the news officially. It was only in Texas, after the end of the war and the death of Abraham Lincoln - the author of the proclamation - that the Juneteenth news caused a stir amongst those now recognized as men and women, citizens of these recently re-United States. The news was old, given the capacity of rumor and the 'slave telegraph'. It was now official and would be enforced. And the one-time slaves responded with jubilation. They had freedom, a freedom that was not an abstract, but consisted of concrete realities. No more auction block, no more floggings, no armed posses licensed to terrorize, no more forced attentions. Some headed north to the fabled land that had always meant freedom, some moved elsewhere just to be anywhere else and many moved to other southern states to reunite with their forcibly divided families. The world had opened just enough to allow hope and progress. Promises would be broken, and progress reversed.
Jubilee was the comparison that came to the minds of many. Thus, Leviticus 25, verses 8 through 10 from the laws given unto Moses in the wilderness:
8 - And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.
9 - Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
10 - And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.
The biblical periodic manumission of Jewish slaves held by Jews and the repatriation of their property with compensation to the temporary owner now relieved of property was mandated. Further, pious Jews were to redeem fellow Jews owned by Gentiles. Gentiles owned by Jews did not figure into the Jubilee. The Jubilee is a promise, a part of the covenant with His people.
Verse 55: For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
God is not anxious to have human power relationships interfering with the obligations of the chosen people who are His servants and the servants of no other. The timing is set to fifty years, approximately the life expectancy of a healthy man in those days; a complete turnover of society since the last Jubilee. Thus the society would be returned to a condition of wholeness as it had been at the time of the covenant with Moses. Such was the promise of Jubilee and the covenant with God. Jubilee was not to end slavery but to keep the chosen people from becoming permanently altered by fluctuating economic conditions. It is possible that it was that fifty years that Thomas Jefferson was thinking of when he said that the country needed a new revolution every fifty years. The country could keep differences within the population from becoming deep and permanent.
Emancipation after the Civil War did not return people to a state of grace or back into a whole society. The promise of integration into an equal polity was encouraged by the work of the radical Republicans with their pushing through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution. But the promise fell victim to Jim Crow laws and the Klan. The promise returned again and again in the form of anti-lynching laws, integration of the military, Brown vs the Board of Education, and Civil Rights legislation. Yet it has always came up short, shorter than the intent. The closer the goal is in sight, the greater the frustration at not achieving the desired end.
Promises are peculiar beasts. They come in various sizes and shapes and intents. The really big ones are rarely voluntary, you are born into them. They are contractual in nature. Abraham's covenant is renewed with every newborn son. It puts you in a relationship to God in which it is promised for you that you will act according to the laws as laid down millennia ago. And you are in turn promised that you will live in peace with your enemies fleeing before you. Break the commandments and you will be handed over into the power of your enemies. Exactly how that works out in today's world is a large part of Jewish philosophy.
The US Constitution is a promise we are born into. We agree to be bound by the document when we use the document to change the agreement. Nearly everyone has some improvement to make. In the effort of change we acknowledge the constitution by following the path it indicates for making the changes. The main promise of the Constitution is that I shall preserve everyone elses right to coverage by the document if they will do the same for me.
Mutual covenants are another form of promise. We here covenant with one another in a spiritual community. It is completely voluntary. We promise to carry on the vocation of community for one another. We promise to join that community and be comforted by it in turn. It is a peculiarity of our covenant that no two of us has the same arrangement. We each of us covenant with a different polity. The promise is with the whole of Mission Peak save ourselves, and that makes a different group for each one of us. The group changes over time in its constituency, its thoughts and its maturity. The promise of the covenant is an evolving intangible wispy beast.
"Till death us do part." This is a promise to one other that is mutual and mostly voluntary. The substance of the promise evolves over time and deepens with function and adversity. In a perfect world, we promise for what we wish to give rather than for what we will receive. In an equally perfect world this is reciprocated. The relationship survives only with mutuality. The one side is held by the other, and the other by the one.
Then there are the promises to one other that are not voluntary nor necessarily mutual, though they might be. We cannot help but do for our children. Whatever the burden, whatever the time, whatever the return, we will be there for them. We hope for recognition by them, for love in return. Sometimes we even hope for grandchildren. If they are wayward in their path, then still we must love them. We are compelled to believe in them, to hope, to be there.
But for frustrating times there is nothing like the promises that we make to ourselves. Whether it is to quit smoking, quit drinking, be a better father or husband or finish this sermon before one this morning, we are rarely able to take the promise seriously. Even when we promise ourselves for someone else's sake, there is a special difficulty. It is so easy to let it slide, wait for tomorrow, wait for a change that has never happened before. A lifetime of habit will not give way without great struggle. a struggle that we are habituated to wage badly.
In all the promises that I have mentioned, optimum follow-through is not the normal course. We fall short of our expectations, of our needs, of our hopes and of those beliefs that we would like to have about ourselves. And then comes the letdown. We belabor ourselves for what we cannot gain control over. Whether we do too little, too much, or for the wrong reasons, there is always something not quite right enough. There is the feeling of having let someone down. It is possible to feel this in a group as well as individually. What hurts most is that so much has the appearance of being within our control and not prevented by events or the impossibility of a task. There needs to be a form of forgiveness that recognizes our shortcomings as part of our being. Not a forgiveness that absolves but one that does not condemn; a time and place to learn and begin anew.
In Shakespeare's words, "What is past is prologue." In more current usage, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." We cannot change the past. We cannot easily change ourselves at all. But the past is what brought us here today. It lives within us as our being. Our use of what we are at this time can be a grand creation or yet another disappointment. The knowledge of our shortcomings is necessary to move to a setting where we can try again. In the mental health world that believes in recovery, there is a saying that relapse is part of recovery. To have tried to be better proves that it is possible. To have fallen short, not failed, brings understanding and the knowledge that life is no worse than this at the lowest, and better is possible.
I began this sermon of Juneteenth Day as an unfulfilled promise. We cannot change the tragic history of American race relations, but we can recognize the ongoing commitment we have of the original promise of equality. We can forgive imperfections in ourselves and others as long as we accept that this is another promise to which we were born and which we accept as our birthright.
I doubt that we shall see the promises redeemed, but I equally doubt that we shall give up on our commitment. In today's context, what was once a simple matter of a single legality - a question of humanity or property - is now about many more issues and yet just the one issue. Shall a person be free or no. Whether in Tiananmen Square, Syria, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, voter suppression laws, the ill health of poverty, or access to clean water as a right, the promise that was in General Order Number Three is with us still. There are many ways to move towards recovery and away from relapse. I cannot guarantee success but I can promise many opportunities to keep our promise alive for all who suffer.
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