Engraving by Samuel Austin, 1829. Image, courtesy Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries and Information Services.

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Sermon at the Service of Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation

Diocese of Louisiana
Service of Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation[1]
18 January 2014
Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans

Sermon delivered by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

The only international museum devoted to slavery is in Liverpool, England.  Long before the Titanic, Liverpool was the site of ship manufacturing and trade in slaves and the products of their labors.  By the 1740s it was the leading British slaving port, and remained so until Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807.  Liverpool’s merchant ships transported more than a million slaves to the Americas.[2] That museum includes exhibits about the trade between Liverpool and New Orleans – some eleven voyages in the 1840s that returned cotton and other products of slave labor to England.  During the Civil War, an entire fleet of blockade runners was built there for the Confederacy.[3] Although most Brits don’t know much about their part in the slave trade, they’re beginning to learn.[4]

The Diocese of Liverpool is part of a threeway “Partnership of Hope,” together with the Diocese of Virginia and the Anglican Church in Ghana.  It’s a counterpoint to the triangle trade that sent ships from Liverpool to Africa, loaded them with slaves bound for Virginia, and returned their cotton, sugar, and tobacco products to Liverpool.[5] That diocesan partnership has been working at racial healing, justice, and reconciliation for nearly 15 years.[6]

There are triangles like this all over.  The history and people of Haiti and Louisiana are interlinked by the history of slavery on this continent and on the island of Hispaniola.  The French colony of Saint-Domingue produced fabulous wealth through the labor of nearly a million slaves imported from Africa.  Roughly a third of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1780s supplied that colony with labor for the sugar, indigo, and tobacco industries.  The world’s first successful slave revolt, led by Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, resulted in the nation of Haiti. France quickly cut its colonial losses in this hemisphere by selling the Louisiana territory to the United States.  Louisiana’s Creole culture has a good deal of Haitian blood and influence, as a result of migration after the Haitian revolution.  And in spite of the deep desire to distinguish Louisiana Creole from Haitian Creole, they have common roots – ils sont tous Créoles, et ici vous n’êtes pas des gens oubliés.  [they are all Creole, and the Creoles here are not a ‘forgotten people.’]

Two centuries later Haiti’s poverty and governmental dysfunction have much to do with the heavy reparations paid to France after independence – reputedly for the loss of planters’ property during the revolution.[7] This nation, Haiti, and France continue to be interlinked by the history of slavery and the slave trade.  Most Americans are unaware of the reality that many Haitians, descendants of slaves, fought in the American Revolution to help liberate others living under colonial oppression.[8]

One more chain of connection.  In 1939 the ship St. Louis, with more than 900 German Jewish refugee passengers, first tried to land its human cargo in Cuba, then in the United States and in Canada.  It was turned away from all shores, although some 22 non-Jewish passengers were permitted to disembark in Havana.  The vessel returned to Europe, and the passengers went to Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK.  Some 250 died in Auschwitz and Sobibor, worked to death as slaves or executed as subhuman.[9]

Those chains connect us all:  West Africa, Haiti and Havana, North America, England and Europe – we are all connected, and have been for centuries.

The human urge to expel, enslave, and exterminate the other is as old as Cain and Abel, as old as Canaanite and Israelite, as old as Joseph and his brothers.  We are all connected by that sin – and we are all connected by our common yearning to live free.

When Joseph’s brothers come looking for help, he notes that in spite of their evil intentions toward him, God has used their actions for good.  It is hard to claim that about the aftermath of slavery, yet we must note that whenever individuals on opposite sides of the dividing wall between slave and master began to see the other as human being, created in the image of God, the seeds of justice were planted.  That recognition led some to work for an end to the evil institution, some to ask questions about its morality and relation to biblical values, and some to think about the responsibilities of all human beings who want to love God and neighbor.  That awareness is the beginning of a plea to create a new heart in me, to have mercy on me, as one who can’t ever live completely clean and sinless.  The very ability to ask why things are the way they are is the beginning of justice.  The arc of the moral universe may be long, but that is the direction it bends, even when the bending seems frozen in time.

The anniversaries we’re noting – Civil War, Civil Rights Act, Thirteenth Amendment – remind us that the arc toward justice continues to bend.  Each act of remembrance raises awareness of human dignity all around us.  It shouldn’t take a number on the calendar to prod us, but God will nevertheless use the opportunity.  The images are increasingly before us:  the White House butler who served eight presidents, each of whom largely missed the race issue right in front of him;[10] today’s slaves in brothels and mines and factories; the man abducted from a supposedly free Northern state into twelve years of slavery in the American South;[11] the wretched – and widening – income inequality in this nation.  Like the situation in Haiti, much of our growing poverty is the result of slavery and its distortions of human relationships.  When some human beings are seen as having less value, it leads to the degradation of others.  The end result is the dehumanization of all, everywhere on the socio-economic-ethnic spectrum.

We are all connected – by sin, by justice, and by the hope we hold for a healed and reconciled world.

The particular challenge of Episcopalians here and across the Church is to acknowledge our complicity in the institution of slavery – that the Church here in Louisiana began and continued as a wealthy, white proclaimer of a gospel of obedience and loyalty to a system of domination.  Lay leaders and clergy here participated energetically – as slaveowners and planters, and as militant and military defenders of oppression.  One of my predecessors, Philander Chase, was the first priest here, and acted as chaplain to the system here and later served as the sixth presiding bishop of this church.  My husband and daughter are his blood relatives.  Leonidas Polk was bishop here and a general in the army that sought to uphold this system.  I do believe he’s the only bishop ever sent to meet Jesus by cannonball.

Yet we continue to be a people of hope – that bond we have as beloved children of God is deeper and more powerful than death.  When Joseph claims that God has made him a father to Pharaoh, he is naming that reality.  We know the same reality, as Martin Luther King became redeeming father to “the man,” and Nelson Mandela to his captors.  The underdog can always choose how to engage the threat – it may not remove it, but ultimately our hope says it can change the interaction and the system.

The fellows sentenced to die alongside Jesus engage him in ways that are evident all around us – one tries to peg himself a bit higher by dissing Jesus and the other one tries to reach across the breach between them.  Which face do we show when we meet the dividing wall – the face of hauteur or of humility?  Do we play alpha dog or underdog?  A demonstration of vulnerability – the humility of connection – can dissipate the threat, and even the other’s violent need to be top dog.  Americans began to demand change when they saw the dogs and firehouses of Birmingham.

Those violent encounters and dividing walls are everywhere – and they’re physical and psychological and spiritual:  the Korean peninsula, Central Africa, Sudan and South Sudan, Congress, on school boards and in vestry meetings.  Creative engagement comes in deciding to see the reflection of friend Jesus in the other, and act on that awareness.

That’s what John Newton saw as amazing grace.  That’s what Toussaint Louverture insisted about himself and the slaves and former slaves around him.  Are we willing to look for our common humanity in someone labeled other, “not me,” or “not my kind”?

That is fundamentally the kind of turning around we call repentance.  Continuing to hold the other and myself in the same mirror is the beginning of reconciliation.  Building societies and systems that prevent and remove hierarchies of value in regard to persons is the work of justice.

We claim that in baptism there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white, slave nor free, for we are one in Christ.  Whenever that vision prevails, Jesus’ words to his vulnerable neighbor are confirmed:  today you will be with me in paradise.  Here, today we are in paradise.  May it grow and expand and take root everywhere – we are its messengers, together with everyone to whom we are willing to be related and connected.

Go from here with the balm of Gilead – the healing that comes of truth-telling and true-seeing and right-acting.  Gilead means “the hill of testimony,” and its roots[12] mean “joy forever.”  Go tell it on the mountain, that we are all sisters and brothers, beloved children of God, and that our own healing depends on the healing of all.  Today we are in paradise – may it be joy forever!  Let justice roll down like waters and an everflowing stream.  Around here, I think Jesus would say, Laissez les bon temps rouler!


[1] The lessons for this service were Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 4:12-16; Luke 23:32-43

[4] Required for secondary students since 2008  http://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/aug/26/slavery.schools

[10] The Butler

[11] Twelve Years a Slave

[12] Gil = joy (or a round stone); ad  = eternal