Every year on this weekend I attempt to connect my thoughts here to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is hard because I am the recipient of "white privilege." However I believe that a thing being difficult to write about is one of the best reasons to do so. Even if it exposes ignorance and blind spots, it may move the conversation forward.
There is a long list of different groups of people stomping on the rights and freedoms of other groups in the history of North America since the arrival of Europeans. There is not one group (Europeans, Native Americans, Africans, and Asians) who have not been victims of slavery, indentured servitude or enslaving poverty. The founders of the colonies and many of our founding fathers were notoriously complex (some say hypocritical) and blind concerning the rights of other races.
Those same people penned some remarkable ideals that we have been reinterpreting and moving toward for over 21/2 centuries. It is just as important to celebrate progress, however minimal it may be, as it is to remind ourselves of how far we have yet to go. Concentrating on one to the diminishment of the other will either stall progress or build polarizing differences. For today, let's consider progress. I want to borrow from two people who lived about a century apart as examples of ideals and celebrating minimal progress.
The first is a Puritan preacher who founded the Providence Plantations, which became the Rhode Island colony, in the 17th century. He is well-known for his writings concerning religious freedom and nearly came to blows with Massachusetts over the Quakers, whom he allowed to live in Rhode Island and openly practice their faith. He was, like many of his time, not entirely consistent on slavery, but he did believe that slavery as a result of war or poverty should be for a limited time. He lived before the chattel slave trade with Africa turned into the economic machine it was to become.
He was very influential in promoting the idea that the state should not endorse or compel citizens to support an established religion (church). Much of his thinking is in the DNA of our founding documents written around one hundred years later.
The Puritans fled England because they did not want to submit to the religion imposed upon them by the state. Those in Massachusetts came to establish a Christian nation to be chosen and blessed by God. They were well down the road of the state enforcing those beliefs on all who lived there.
At the conclusion of his book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, John Barry summarized, "Roger Williams declared that the state must not enforce those of the Ten Commandments which defined the relationship between humanity and God ... (he) separated himself from the dominant view of the day and declared a citizenry, 'distinct from the government set up ... such governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for longer time, than the civil power of people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with." (page 394).
As for celebrating progress, let's turn to Philadelphia on Jan. 1, 1808. It was on this day that the United States abolished trans-Atlantic slave trade. It would take six more decades and a civil war to abolish the practice, but on Jan. 1, 1808, Absalom Jones delivered a Thanksgiving Sermon in the African Episcopal Church expressing joy at this small step of progress.
It is a powerful example of praising progress and calling for continued change. It is a powerful sermon and still holds up today. He says, "Let us unite, with our thanksgiving, prayer to Almighty God, for the completion of his begun goodness to our brethren in Africa. Let us beseech him to extend to all nations in Europe the same humane and just spirit towards them, which he has imparted to the British and American nations. Let us, further, implore the influence of his divine and holy Spirit, to dispose the hearts of our legislatures to pass laws, to ameliorate the condition of our brethren who are still in bondage; also, to dispose their masters to treat them with kindness and humanity; and, above all things, to favor them with the means of acquiring such parts of human knowledge, as will enable them to read the holy scriptures, and understand the doctrine of Christian religion, whereby they may become, even while they are slaves of men, the freemen of the Lord."
It is my hope and prayer that our nation and our world will continue to move toward equal rights for all. Let us continue to praise the progress as we strive toward our ideals. Let us never be so content with our station in life that we forget others.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.