sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Feast of William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Stewart [Provisional], December 17, 2014
Our reading from the Book of Wisdom today presents us with the middle of a long rhapsody on the works of Holy Wisdom throughout the Genesis stories. Today we hear about Wisdom at work in the lives of Jacob and then his son Joseph. Earlier in the chapter, we hear recaps of the stories of Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, and Lot, and it continues from here to tell the story of Moses. The point is that Holy Wisdom has continued to work through human beings ever since, including you and me, granting us the wisdom we need to be courageous in our actions.
The psalmist speaks of the kinds of actions we need to take that might require such courage: “Save the weak and orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.” Furthermore, the psalmist expresses real urgency in God’s judgment of us when we do not act: “How long will you judge unjustly, and show favor to the wicked?”
In my experience, the Christian life should be an epic adventure. Yet we live in a time and place where many of us don’t have to be adventurous if we don’t want to be. Many of us have the option to carve out a rather easy life for ourselves and not worry about those whose situation in life won’t allow them this privilege. I think it’s a form of entropy—meaning to develop courage, but never actually doing it. It takes a lot of effort to resist such entropy.
|William Lloyd Garrison|
image from biography.com
Today we honor two people who definitely did not carve out an easy life for themselves. They were heroes of the 19th-century anti-slavery movement: a white man, William Lloyd Garrison, and a black woman, Maria Stewart. Garrison was the founder of the anti-slavery newspaper called The Liberator. Stewart was the first African-American woman to make public speeches and lectures against slavery in America.
Garrison insisted that slavery should be abolished immediately, and that former slave owners should receive absolutely no recompense for their slaves’ release. Why should we financially compensate people, he asked, for perpetuating such deplorable sin? The Liberator was an extremely popular paper; even the White House carried a subscription.
One occasional contributor to The Liberator was Maria Stewart, a free black woman who, shortly after her husband’s premature death, experienced a religious conversion and committed herself not only to the anti-slavery movement, but also to fighting systemic racism against free blacks in the north. It was not enough to abolish slavery, but also to insist on the absolute equality of all people. To relegate all free blacks to servants’ jobs was to waste the intellectual capacities of millions of Americans. Despite her eloquence and power, Stewart stressed that she was not well educated—that she, too, was a victim of American racism in her lack of opportunity. She claimed that her inspiration came not from any particular skills she had attained, but directly from God. She herself put it this way in 1832:
Methinks there are no chains so galling as the chains of ignorance—no fetters so binding as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge. O, had I received the advantages of early education, my ideas would, ere now, have expanded far and wide; but, alas! I possess nothing but moral capability—no teachings but the teachings of the Holy spirit.
image from zinnedproject.org
Maria Stewart was the first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of white and black men and women. She also worked for women’s rights. And during these years she occasionally penned essays for The Liberator. But after only three years of public speaking, she gave it up. One day in 1833, when speaking at Boston’s African Masonic Lodge, she opined that black men lacked “ambition and requisite courage.” Her comment caused such an uproar of negativity that she decided to go back to teaching, a sad end to a very exciting ministry.
These days, we have laws that are meant to prevent racism from oppressing people. Those who espouse truly racist attitudes have to find more subtle ways to act on them that don’t attract quite as much notice, while deniable, unexamined racism is also a real issue. So I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like to fight something as ubiquitous as slavery in America 200 years ago. It’s hard to imagine now that to be against slavery was once a radical issue. And no doubt, many times, both Garrison and Stewart heard these words: “Look, we understand your good intentions, but can’t you tone it down a little? Can’t we take baby steps? Slavery is the economic backbone of the south. Do you have any idea how much damage it would do to the economy to just end it?”
To Garrison, such economic worries mattered not a whit in the face of a situation so obviously and deeply immoral. In the first issue of The Liberator, Garrison made his agenda known in no uncertain terms, as follows:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
Despite his strong language, Garrison rejected violence as a means of freeing slaves. Still, his critics viewed him as a dangerous inciter because he was so unyielding.
In 1963, with the work of Garrison and Stewart still going on in new ways, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When criticized for causing tension, King wrote, “There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” And when it was suggested to King that fighting racism was merely a matter of individual people’s choices, he wrote, “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”
King’s words still ring true today. When I imagine myself living 200 years ago, and I try to strike from the record all of our history since then, I cannot help but wonder what I would think of Garrison and Stewart, even if I found their views compelling. Would I not stand with those who were calling for them to tone it down, to take it slowly, to be patient as God is patient? I’m ashamed to say it, but I probably would. And when I think of Maria Stewart, who had the courage to challenge those who were normally her most ardent supporters, I’m reminded that prophets are not typically welcomed in their hometown. Speaking God’s truth, especially when there are detractors on both sides, can be very costly indeed.
How does all this sit with you today? When you hear a story of Jesus healing a woman immediately—not next week, not in a few decades, but right now—what does that stir in you? When you hear that the wisdom of God dwells in you and enables you to do courageous things today—what are those courageous things? What words of wisdom is God speaking into your heart today? And what will you do about them? Amen.