16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/15/2012
Some words from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given August 28th, 1963:
“In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
The genius of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, aside from the beautiful poetry and the powerful moment in which it was given, and the great setting in which it was heard, the genius of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is that it forever linked the African American civil rights movement to the founding notions of our nation.
By calling out the well-loved all-American phrases “unalienable rights” and “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” to an audience that included those who already had access to such rights as well as those who didn’t, King reminded us all of the values that formed this country. He reminded us of what this country is capable, and he pointed out the devastating distance between that potential and the reality faced by African Americans. He mentions the “fierce urgency of Now,” and urges all Americans to fix this problem, quick. And why? Because this is not who we are.
But what King did not do, when he mentioned the “insufficient funds” that America had banked to cover the African American experience, what King did not do was point out the enigmatic hypocrisy from which sprouted the inspiring words of the Founding Fathers in the first place. What King did not mention was the reality that Americans AND Unitarian Universalists now know only too well. For the purposes of this sermon, I will call that reality The Thomas Jefferson Problem.
The Thomas Jefferson Problem is this: The man who wrote the words that King found so inspiring, the words that tell we Americans that it is “self-evident” that “all men are created equal, and are,” in fact, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and “that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”…the man who wrote these words, Thomas Jefferson himself, owned African-Americans as slaves. He owned them when he wrote these words, and he owned them for the five decades afterwards, until his death. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He frankly didn’t seem very repentant about it at all. And that is something that aware modern Americans are forced to struggle with. How could someone who promoted so much of what we know about freedom deny so much freedom to so many people?
This is also a Unitarian Universalist problem, this Thomas Jefferson situation, or at least we’ve made it so. It is true that Jefferson, although not much of a religious person, was very drawn to the ideas of the Unitarianism of his time. When he and John Adams were getting along, in the early days of their friendship before the war, Jefferson was surely influenced by that man’s firm Unitarian beliefs, and those Unitarian ideals are clearly written into the Declaration of Independence.
In later years, Jefferson struck up a close friendship with a Unitarian minister named Joseph Priestly, after whom our UU district is named, and the two men exchanged many a letter about religion.
This relationship likely had an impact on one of Jefferson’s big projects, the Jefferson Bible. Has anyone here run into a Jefferson Bible? They used to be given to every new member of Congress, for the first half of the 20th century.
In it, Jefferson literally cut out all the parts of the Bible that he found unlikely or irrational or supernatural, and he left behind a much shorter version primarily consisting of Jesus’ ethical teachings.
The Jefferson Bible does not represent my favorite way of doing Unitarian Universalism, but it has the hallmark of Unitarianism anyway, I think, in its perhaps overzealous quest for religious truth.
At any rate, despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson never claimed Unitarianism as his own and never went to a Unitarian church, UUs very much came to claim Jefferson, because we so love the ideals of freedom and equality that he espoused. We have UU congregations called Jefferson and until last year, we had a UU district named after Jefferson.
The Jefferson that wrote the Declaration of Independence has been a hero to the UU movement, and since the UU movement is largely a white one, UUs did what white folks unfortunately often have done with The Thomas Jefferson Problem: They pretended that Jefferson was not a complicated, enigmatic person who promoted freedom to the world at the same time he was denying it to his slaves. UUs, like white America at large, just chose to remember him in the one way that they wanted to. The freedom-loving, heroic Jefferson won out.
But pretending the dark side of Jefferson doesn’t exist isn’t fair, and it isn’t accurate, and it gets us into trouble. And, what’s more, ignoring the complicated nature of Thomas Jefferson keeps us from learning how to go forward with our own complicated natures into a world that is still unjust. And this weekend, Martin Luther King weekend, is a time we have chosen to think about how we are going to be able to make changes to our unjust world.
We ourselves may not be as troublingly hypocritical as to own slaves while at the same time writing human equality into the founding documents of a nation. But most of us do struggle with our own dual natures, as well as the dual natures of those around us, those whom we love, those with whom we work. How do we move towards our highest ideals, when our abilities and frankly, our motivations are so fleeting and faulty? Maybe Thomas Jefferson, the real Thomas Jefferson, has something to teach us about that.
I honestly don’t know what was going on in Jefferson’s head. Really. I’ve read all sorts of stuff from the perspective of slave-owning society, and I still don’t get it. How could he not see the pervasive injustice, the obvious wrongness of what he perpetuated, what he centered his life around?
Jefferson was certainly not the cruelest of slave owners, not by a long shot. But the inherent cruelty of slavery was his to own along with the people he kept. Jefferson had dozens of people, hundreds over a lifetime, whose free labor was at his beck and call for as long as they lived. Their children became Jefferson’s to control as he wished. Jefferson divided families, although sometimes he tried not to, and he moved his slaves around the world with him whether they would have preferred to stay home or not. He sometimes arranged for his slaves to get specialized training and to work for wages, but when he decided that he needed them to join him somewhere else, they were still obligated to go to him. That is the nature of being owned by someone else.
Jefferson smuggled slaves into Paris when he was sent there for five years on diplomatic mission, pretending to the community there that they were his paid servants. One of those slaves was the beautiful, and very, very young Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson eventually had several children. Those children he sort of recognized as his, but really sort of didn’t. They weren’t set free to live a life of privilege under the Jefferson moniker like his all-white kids were, that is for sure. They were hidden away from the society in which Jefferson lived, and their very existence was disputed by the broader culture for two hundred some-odd years.
How do we reconcile Jefferson’s behavior with his ideas? After all, we’re talking about a man whose writing on behalf of freedom was so powerful that it inspired a fledgling nation to start what seemed at the time an impossible fight for its freedom. That’s big enough.
But Jefferson’s words were so powerful that, 150 years later, the greatest civil rights leader that our nation has ever seen used his words to fight the remnants of the same social system in which Jefferson himself was enmeshed. Jefferson’s very language was used by King to fight the evil system that Jefferson was too weak to escape himself, even with his grand ideas. Can you see how strange that is?
Strange or not, this history ought to give us all some hope. Because in the battle between the good ideas and the flawed behavior, given the course of time, the goodness of the ideas won out. In the good guy/bad guy fight going on inside of Thomas Jefferson, the good side has had much more staying power and much more influence than the bad side, even on the issue of racial equality which is where Jefferson really fell down on the job. And may that be so for all of us.
We UUs tend to suffer from a crippling perfectionism when it comes to the social justice work we do. We can be purists, and if something isn’t all-the-way good, we sometimes don’t want to be involved. The whole venture seems tainted, somehow. And I fear this may be especially true when it comes to our anti-racism work, because white UUs know that we are tied up and complicit in the American racist structure, same as everyone else. There aren’t any of us who are free of racism ourselves, or who live our lives in a way that racism hasn’t privileged or damaged. It’s an American curse, and we all of us have it.
And maybe that makes us think that we would be hypocritical if we were to stick our necks out and work hard for racial justice.
Same goes for other sorts of justice work. Should we not fight for good environmental policies, because we almost all of us drove gas-powered vehicles to church this morning? Should we not struggle for governmental reforms, when we ourselves work for the federal government? Should we not promote the idea that people should get together and talk things out when they disagree, just because we don’t always have the energy to do that ourselves?
When faced with The Thomas Jefferson Problem, the fact that Jefferson was both incredibly inspired and fundamentally flawed has made most folks want to stick their heads in the sand. Most folks either want to ignore the bad and pretend only the good ever happened, or they become so overwhelmed by the bad that the good seems inconsequential at best and downright polluted at worst.
But neither of these responses adequately reflects the true, complicated nature of Thomas Jefferson. Only by looking at the whole man are we able to glean the whole story, and only then can we take what he had to offer in an authentic and sustainable way. And that’s true for all of us flawed human beings who try to do good in the world with the small bit we have to offer.
“Thank God for the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson,” the Reverend Kate Braestrup writes. Thank God “for his two-faced talk of liberty, his slaves, and his African-American lover. Thank God he did not talk the talk his walk would have exemplified.”
Most of us are at least a little bit as complicated a person as Thomas Jefferson. When you discover this complication about yourself, or about another person you rely on, what will you choose to do? Will you bury your head in the sand and tell yourself that all is lost, because nothing is pure? Well, let me tell you, you’ll be burying your head a lot, because you’re right, there is not much about human beings that is pure.
Or, will you say, thank God there is a glimmer of light here, a mustard seed of the good, and let’s go see what we can make happen with it…? Will you be strong enough to say, I am a flawed human being with just this much to give, but since that is all I have to give, I can do nothing else but to give my little bit?
“I am only one,” wrote Edward Everett Hale. “But still, I am one. I cannot do everything. But still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
As a Unitarian Universalist and a human being, you are not obligated to be perfect. You do not have to be entirely good, because you do not have to be entirely good in order to do good. But you are obligated, as a Unitarian Universalist and a human being, to do the good that you can do.
You were created to be complicated, rich, enigmatic and sometimes hypocritical, just like Thomas Jefferson. There will be times when you will not do the right thing, when you are not inspiring to others, and you won’t help anyone or anything. That is the human condition sometimes, like it or not.
But there will also be days where you are the best of what humanity can be. There will be days when you inspire, and days where you help, and days when you act in the right way, and those are the days that count.
On this Martin Luther King Day 2012, I ask that you resolve to act upon your best self, even while knowing that your full and complex nature will not always be at its best. Remember that it is the good that we do, not the bad, that lasts the longest. Remember that it is your job to do the something that you can do for the world that still struggles for justice, that still struggles “to make real the promises of democracy.”
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech given at Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.
 Reed, Annette Gordon. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: WW Norton and Co., 2008.
 Braestrup, Kate. Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life. New York: Free Press, 2010. P. 72
 UU Hymnal, #457.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech given at Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.