(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 10 April 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)
Here’s an experiment: For a moment, try to think of yourself, and what you are doing, in the most basic terms — try to forget the social meanings of things. You are a mammal. You are breathing, and warm. You are sitting in a large space, with a ceiling high above1. There is colored light coming through the windows. You are sitting with several dozen other mammals of the same species, all facing the same direction. Moments ago2 you were making sounds, and the other mammals were making similar sounds. Now you are sitting, and breathing, while another mammal is at the front of the room, making unusual noises all by himself.
Now, gently, start to wonder. Why? How is it that some kind of social system has put me in this place? Why does this building exist? Why is there colored light coming through the windows?
I will do this exercise sometimes, just to remember how strange some of the things we do are. Yesterday I sat nearly motionless in a small metal box for two hours, among many other small metal boxes, moving at high speed. Somehow it made sense at the time.
I find that it helps me see some of the systems that affect my life, systems that can otherwise be invisible. Systems that we are not aware of can cause trouble.
Perhaps you heard about the April Fools “joke” that Google played on people who use Gmail through a web browser… Google added a button right next to the regular “Send” button in the composition window; the new button was also labeled “Send”, but it had in addition a little graphic of a falling microphone. This new button was for a special “Mic Drop” option. If you clicked on this button, your message would go out, along with an animated GIF of one of the characters from the Minions movies dropping a microphone. The feature would also block all further replies to the email conversation, so you just wouldn’t see anything else anyone said in that thread of messages. This is the email equivalent of dropping the microphone and leaving the room.
Well, one thing that went wrong was that the new “Send and drop the mic” button appeared in exactly the place where you would normally find the “Send and Archive” button. So some fraction of Gmail users who thought they were clicking on the usual “Send and Archive” button instead found that they had send an animated mic drop GIF to their friends; to their clients; to their bosses… and then they would not see any responses to that email. There was no way to undo this.
It may not have been a large fraction of users who had this problem… but when more than a billion people use your service, even a small fraction translates into a lot of unhappy people.
Who do we blame for the mistakenly sent emails? The buttons were clearly marked; but I don’t think any of us would find the users at fault. The main problem was in the system that they were using.
I use this story as a gentle introduction to today’s topic. Our worship theme last month was evil; this month’s theme is liberation. I would like to talk about the difficulty of liberating ourselves from systemic evil.
Last month, Rev. Tera and I both quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote:
Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world.
This is a pretty good definition of evil, but it seems to be most appropriate for evil on the individual level, evil done by a single person or a small group. But what about systemic evil? People can set up social systems whose end results are are evil, and the evil can lie more in the system than in the people who are part of the system.
Systemic evil can seem abstract, until we see it on a personal level. I would like to tell you a bit of my family history that helped me personalize a well-known systemic evil from American history.
We all have many ancestors, and we are part of each of their stories. And likewise, all of their histories are a part of us. What’s more, each of their histories can take us in a different direction.
My mother’s mother was born in a small village in Sicily. My mother’s father was the son of French immigrants. My father’s father’s family has branches that have been in California since before statehood. But my father’s mother came from Texas. The bit of family history3 I would like to tell you about concerns one set of this grandmother’s great-grandparents. I will warn you beforehand that three people are killed in this story.
William Baker and his wife Matilda Baker were born in England in the early 1800’s. He worked as a joiner, someone who does woodwork in the construction industry. In 1834 the Bakers immigrated to the United States with their newborn son. They spent about 6 years in New York, and then moved to Texas. Their family grew; their sixth child, my grandmother’s grandmother, was born in 1848.
Let me remind you of some of the historical context of Texas in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Texas became a state in 1846, and slavery was legal there. In 1851 about 60,00 people were enslaved in Texas. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress in late 1850. It mandated that people who had escaped from slavery to free states would have to be sent back to their former owners. This was very controversial in the Northern states, and many Northerners did not want to comply with the law. For instance, when Thomas Sims, a black man who had escaped slavery in Georgia, was arrested in Boston in early 1851, U.S. Marines had to escort him from the courthouse to the ship that would take him back to Georgia, because otherwise abolitionists in Boston would have helped him escape. So all this is the backdrop to the following events, which were reported in the Texas State Gazette, a weekly newspaper published in Austin.
On the morning of July 11, 1851, a black man rode up to the house that my ancestors, the Bakers, lived in.4 He wanted directions to a neighbor’s house. The Bakers asked him to wait until after they finished breakfast. While he was waiting, Colonel E.S.C. Robertson of the Texas Militia happened to stop by. Colonel Robertson questioned the black man and decided that he was fleeing enslavement, so Colonel Robertson and William Baker tied up the man, and Colonel Robertson rode off to alert the authorities. But the man somehow escaped his bonds, and found a kitchen knife; when William Baker tried to tie him up again, the man fatally wounded him with the knife. Matilda Baker rushed up to the fighting men, and was stabbed and instantly killed. The man escaped.
A reward was offered for his capture5, and on July 26th he was caught near the city of Austin.6 The newspaper reported that “[h]e was tried on the same day by a jury of twelve slaveholders, and his guilt being apparent and unquestionable, he was executed in the presence of a large concourse of spectators.”
The Bakers, my ancestors, were dead, leaving as orphans six children between the ages of three and seventeen. The black man was dead, killed by a lynch mob, and God only knows what family and loved ones he left behind. Colonel Robertson lived for another 28 years, and was one of the delegates who signed Texas’s proclamation of secession from the Union in 1861.
This tragedy does not make sense without the context of slavery. Slavery was the systemic evil that wound the mainspring of the whole sequence of events. It is fitting and proper to mourn the deaths of the Bakers, because their lives had value, as all of our lives do.7 It is fitting and proper to mourn the death of the man whose name the newspaper did not see fit to tell us, because his life had value. But to get beyond the particulars of this tragedy — to address the systemic evil of slavery — to fight the systemic evil of slavery — one would have to start by insisting that black lives matter, because that is the fact that the system denies.
Today, because we live in miraculous times, you can find every issue of the Texas State Gazette online, and you can read through their scanned pages, almost as if you were there 165 years ago.
Reading these pages, you see how much violence was necessary to maintain the institution of slavery. The week after my ancestors were killed, there was another tragedy.8 An overseer at a plantation was beating an enslaved woman with a whip. A black man, seeing this, could not take it any longer. Was she his sister? His daughter? His wife? Was it just that he could no longer bear to see a man flogging anyone? The newspaper doesn’t say. It just reports that the man rose up and stabbed the overseer in the heart. “After a fair and impartial trial by jury,” says the newspaper, the black man was hung, for having defended a woman against a savage beating.
Violence, and more violence, and those in power could not get beyond the thinking that created it. The newspaper dismisses any other possibility, and mocks the abolitionists in the North. In the weeks during which they reported on the case involving my ancestors, the Texas State Gazette wrote about Thomas Sims, the man who escaped slavery in Georgia and who was arrested in Boston. The paper says:9
To recover the famous slave, Sims, […] his owner […] paid $2000; the city of Boston and the authorities of the General Government, about $10,000 each, in putting down the mob [of abolitionists] and enforcing the law;— making the whole sum paid for the recovery of one fugitive, twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars. The negro was probably worth $800.
All of this was long ago, of course. What does it mean for us today?
Well, one thing is that even in the telling of these stories, I could feel the long reach of the social structure of slavery. How should I refer to the man who killed my ancestors? As a “slave”? That is the terminology that made sense at the time, but I will not use it. He was a man, a man who had been enslaved.
And what was his name? The newspapers did not give it, because in their estimation he did not deserve one. You know who they did name? His owner, and his former owner.
Systemic evil from long ago still influences how we think of events. It is hard to escape.
And the systemic evil of slavery did not just disappear. It morphed into new and subtler forms. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow10, traces the links from slavery to segregation and the Jim Crow system in the South, to red-lining and restrictive housing covenants, to the War on Drugs. Ta-Nehisi Coates personalizes this in his book Between the World and Me11. He writes of his friend Prince Jones, a fellow graduate of Howard University.
For Ta-Nehisi Coates, Prince Jones was one of those friends of young adulthood who seem to represent the limitless possibilities of youth. He was talented, popular, well-liked. And one day, a year or two after college, Prince Jones was shot by a police officer.
The officer was undercover, and dressed like a drug dealer. The officer was supposed to be tracking a man who was eight inches shorter and 40 pounds heavier than Prince Jones. The officer, from Prince George County, Maryland, followed Prince Jones as he drove his Jeep out of Maryland, through Washington D.C., and into Virginia. He confronted Prince Jones as he neared his fiancée’s house, where she and their baby daughter were waiting for him. He confronted Prince Jones with his gun drawn, with no badge, dressed as a drug dealer. The officer — the only witness to survive these events — says that Prince Jones tried to run him down. The officer shot and killed Prince Jones yards from his fiancée’s home.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his own anger as the details of the killing came out, as the officer faced no serious repercussions, as the Prince George County police department and the local politicians circled the wagons.
The officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians […] seemed unconcerned. How could this be?
In exploring this question, Coates argues that it is a systemic evil that set up this situation in which a black policeman killed a black man. The racism is not in the people; it lies in the system that puts people in these situations. The system may not explicitly deny that black lives matter, like slavery did — but the effect is the same.
How do we deal with systemic evil? It is hard to break out of the systems of thought that affect us — it is hard even to recognize them. But systemic evil threatens lives, and to save our lives we need to free our minds.
Think back to the exercise at the beginning of this sermon. Throughout the week, consider repeating the experiment: Think of what you are doing in the most basic terms, and then slowly try to understand the social forces and systems that explain why you are where you are. Try to see how systems we take for granted may be harming ourselves; harming others; harming the planet. Try to see how changing them might make life better for us all. And then go out and work for that change.
May it be so. Blessed be.
Image credit: Detail of Page 1 of the Texas State Gazette (H. P. Brewster and J. W. Hampton, eds.), Vol. 2, No. 47, Ed. 1, Saturday, July 12, 1851. Digitized by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Texas, and hosted by the University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.
- Those of you not reading this during a church service should make appropriate adjustments. ↩
- When the congregation was singing a hymn. ↩
- Which my sister Pat tracked down about a decade ago. ↩
- See this page of the 12 July 1851 edition of Texas State Gazette. The article is in the first column, about halfway down. ↩
- See this page of the 19 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, second column, first item. ↩
- See this page of the 2 August 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, first column, fifth item from the bottom. ↩
- Our Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person affirms this. ↩
- See this page of the 19 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, third column, a few paragraphs down. ↩
- See this page of the 26 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, second column, top. ↩
- The New Jim Crow is available from Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookseller. ↩
- Between the World and Me is available from Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookseller. The title of the book is taken from a powerful and disturbing poem by Richard Wright, which you should go and read. ↩
- Page 83. ↩