Sermon, June 28, 2015
Idols Closer to Home
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Matthew 7: 1-5
1“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and
the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but
do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out
of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and
then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Last Friday, I participated in the Prayers for Charleston service sponsored by the Black
Awareness Association and held at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. We prayed for the nine slain at
Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) as they gathered on June 17 for Bible
study. It was an awful tragedy for the families and the congregation, and the horror of the deaths
is intensified as we think of such destruction invading their church, their holy space meant as a
sanctuary for all. On Friday, we prayed also for our country and the ongoing racism and racial
violence that infect our collective soul. Some of you of you were there. It was right and good to
gather as a community to pray and testify to love amid the hate.
In the aftermath of the murders, there has been no shortage of commentary on the reasons and
meaning of this and other events that expose the racial divide and the persistent animosity that
besets the contemporary scene. Among the proposals that have emerged is a renewed call for the
state of South Carolina to remove the confederate battle flag from its statehouse grounds. South
Carolina Governor Nikki Haley acknowledged that the flag was a painful offense for many in her
state and in our country – that it is a symbol of the brutal and oppressive legacy of slavery. She
has added her voice to those calling for removal.
The current debate over the confederate flag has been the occasion for me to recall a gathering
fifteen years ago when I was pastoring in Denver. Representatives from the South Carolina
chapter of the NAACP were in town seeking support for their campaign to remove the
confederate flag from the top of the South Carolina Capitol dome. Many in the Denver
community gathered on a Sunday evening at New Hope Baptist Church to support the NAACP
in their cause. The pastor of Shorter AME was one of the featured speakers and when I arrived
he invited me to sit with the other ministers and to say a few words as well. I was humbled and
honored to do so, and I added my voice to the chorus that said, “Take it down.” Take down the
symbol of that glorified “the good old days,” and that for many stood for the enduring racism of
The campaign was partially successful. The flag was moved from atop the dome to a pole
overlooking the monument to the confederacy that is featured on the grounds outside the
statehouse – the place where it currently flies and from which calls are now being issued for it to
be removed. I supported taking it down in 2000, and I support its removal now.
On this Sunday before the Fourth of July we can give thanks that things are different in the rest
of the country, can’t we? We can celebrate that America stands for freedom in the way the
confederacy never did, correct?
I recently read a commentary in Native News Online by columnist Mark Charles. It was titled,
“The Dilemma of the Fourth of July.” In it Charles juxtaposed the beginning of the Declaration
of Independence with what follows. Reading his piece was the occasion for me to realize that I
had never read the full text of the Declaration. And I was a history major! The Declaration
begins with an affirmation familiar to many: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
It goes on to list the signer’s complaints against the King. Among the grievances they lodge was
the King’s failure to protect them from the “merciless Indian savages.” The “we” who hold self-
evident truths, and the “all” who are created equal did not include, women, persons from Africa,
nor those Native to this continent. Do we ever address the blemishes in this founding document,
or do we suppress any talk of our country having flaws?
Langston Hughes gives voice to this foundational contradiction of our country. “America never
was America to me.”
You might wonder why I am going on about such things in a service of Christian worship. You
might think, “These are matters of national politics; what does this have to do with Christian
Faith? That is life outside these hallowed walls.” Yet, they are not. There is no separation.
Slaughter invaded Mother Emmanuel AME. And the systems of slavery and genocide have been
supported, yea validated, yea justified by proponents of the Christian faith. I believe that we have
to come to terms with this as a Christian community. Not because any of us individually are
necessarily bad people. Not so that we will wallow in guilt. No; I believe we need to come to
terms with this aspect of our past in order to be truthful. The truth will set us free, but only if we
are mindful of it. Only if we face it. Only if we deal with it. Genocide didn’t begin in this
country, but here it has been moralized. “Kill the Indian to save the man.” Slavery didn’t begin in
America, but here it was racialized and then it was codified. And even after the laws changed it
remained essentialized. What I mean by that is that the Christian majority could not live with
itself because Christians proclaim that God made us in God’s image. But this meant white
people. And the only way we could live with what white society has done to people of color,
particularly those from Africa and particularly those indigenous to this continent, is to de-
humanize them. We created a myth that they weren’t really human. We developed the pseudo-
science of eugenics to support the myth. The myth says races are different. It says people of
color are biologically inferior. The white majority believed this lie. It was the only way those of
us who were white could live with ourselves. And we were so good at telling the lie that many
people of color also, tragically, began to believe it, thus internalizing the oppression they
I don’t believe that any of us gathered in this sanctuary believe this now. I don’t believe that any
of us, whoever we are, believe that those who are unlike us are not human. I believe that white
people have learned the lesson from Tlingit people and others that Tlingit means “human being.”
We are, all of us, in the words of Genesis, earth creatures, created from the earth in God’s image.
We are not biologically different. We the same.
If we all believe this and know it why is it that I am belaboring this point? I am doing so because
the systems of inequality we put in place still impact life in the present. I am doing so, because
remnants of the message of oppression and inequality still influence us subliminally even when
we have consciously rejected the explicit expression of the message. And I am doing so, because
even though Christianity has been part of the problem, it also contains a particular gift that can
be part of the solution if we face our history and face ourselves. Truthfully. Honestly. The gift is
embedded in traditional Christian practice. It is the gift of forgiveness that is prefaced by, made
genuine through, and made possible by the means of confession and repentance.
But instead of drawing upon this gift when facing horrors of our behavior, historically and
currently, we are tempted to search for a scapegoat or to withdraw deeper into denial.
Facing the sordid aspects of our history is not aided by scapegoating, but we sometimes think it
is. “That Dylann Roof (the man charged in the Emmanuel slayings), he was a loner, he was
insane, he was demon-possessed when he killed those people.” He may be all those things but he
was also socialized into a culture that has not dealt truthfully and thoroughly with its racism. He
was fed on a diet of confederate mythology that whispered even when it didn’t shout it that the
South was better off before the Civil War. That it was a good place for white people then and it
is not now. Even when no one said it out loud, Dylann Roof still saw the confederate flag waving
in places of honor. Still drove the streets named for confederate generals past schools named for
confederate officers. The South has to come to terms with that, and I believe that is what some of
the elective officials there are beginning to do.
But if we can’t categorically scapegoat Dylann Roof, neither can we wholesale blame the
confederacy. As a nation, we elected twelve presidents who had enslaved other human beings.
The confederacy didn’t do that. The men who penned the Declaration of Independence that is
still revered throughout the land labels Native people “merciless savages.” The confederacy
didn’t do that. Those who created boarding schools and destroyed families in Alaska as well as
down south were not products of the confederacy.
Sometimes we don’t scapegoat. We deny. We suppress truth, and we get angry and defensive if
someone tries to get us to deal with it. We put up barriers, bury our heads, avoid the topic and
change the subject. Recently I have learned of the work of Bryan Stevenson. I have been
introduced to his writings and his activism by our daughter Katie who now lives in Atlanta.
Stevenson is the founder of the Montgomery, Alabama based Equal Justice Initiative. The
initiative calls for the dismantlement of the system that incarcerates people of color in hugely
disproportionate numbers. His is among the voices advocating for a transformed justice system
that restores right relationship. “Restoring right relationship” is what justice is. Currently we
have an unequal, unjust system of vengeance and retribution, but those for whom the system
works don’t want to face the injustices of the criminal justice system.
There is another dimension of Stevenson’s work that deals more directly with ending our
collective denial. He spoke about it in a recent interview in the aftermath of the Charleston
slayings. The Equal Justice Initiative is seeking to erect interpretive markers throughout the
South that will document the slavery and racism. The markers would identify where slave
markets operated and where lynchings occurred. The Alabama Historical Association has said
this would be too controversial. But it’s not controversial to have Stone Mountain, Georgia and
numerous other places throughout the South that celebrate the confederacy and the attempt to
commemorate and preserve culture built with slave labor and to hail the soldiers who died for the
cause? Stevenson is not saying, “Take those monuments down.” Stevenson is saying, “Tell the
whole story.” We can’t know our history if we don’t face all of it. We can’t deal with it
adequately and justly if we deny the difficult dimensions.
As those gathered for Christian worship, we are those called to tell the whole story. Not just in
Alabama but here in Tlingit Ani, where boarding schools stood. Where children were ripped
from their homes and abused and oppressed and where the ongoing legacy of this racism still
besets our souls. The Apostle Paul spoke of the principalities and powers that hold us in their
grip. What I believe that Paul meant by that is that there are systems that remain in place even if
and when good people have repented of the hatred in their hearts. Their impact impinge upon us.
We have an obligation, therefore, not just to cleanse our souls but to redeem the principalities
and powers so that they can function as systems of justice and equity for all.
On an individual level, any of us can be hateful. Any of us can be hurtful. Any of us can be mean
spirited. If we scapegoat or deny, we can’t face what we need to face. Start with the person in the
mirror. We begin with a log in our own eye. Address both the personal and systemic dimensions
of human history and contemporary existence. We participate in a system that does not tell the
whole story. Its legacy continues to impact the present.
The Christian contribution to this work is confession, repentance and forgiveness. The way the
Apostle Paul put it in the third chapter of Romans is that all have sinned and have fallen short of
God’s glory. Not just some of us. Not just “those people” whoever they are, but all of us. Face
the truth of our sinfulness individually and collectively. Don’t scapegoat or deny.
But the story doesn’t end there. Yes we fall short, but we can also change. That is what
repentance means. We can live as forgiving and forgiven, reconciling and reconciled people. For
you see, Genesis and the beginning of the Declaration of Independence are right. We are created
in the image of God – the God of love and justice. We can embrace our calling to live as God’s
children. We can grow in our understanding that all mean all. That we are all human beings; we
are all, as Tlingit wisdom tells us and us as David Katzeek reminds us, precious children of the
earth. This is our destiny. This is the identity we embrace today.
Friends, on this day when we anticipate the joy of the Fourth of July, I pray that we will
recommit to Langston Hughes vision of defiant hope. There are so many in our land for whom
America has never been. But with Hughes, let us declare, America will be! As a Christian people
let us know that we have a role in making it possible. This is the empowering good news: when
we reject blame and denial and confess our sins, we are liberated from them and equipped to
change so that their consequences do not continue to visit themselves upon us and may it serve
the cause of justice and truth, of hope for the future, and of liberation and life for all God’s
children, this day and in all our days. Amen.