Salt Satyagraha And Slavery   Leave a comment

The piece below was a reflection I gave (slightly modified here) on Tuesday evening to a Together Colorado campaign committee meeting for “Yes On T”, the ballot initiative to remove the exception for Slavery from the Colorado State Constitution. Together Colorado is a multi-faith community organizing network.
Like 24 other states and the U.S. Constitution itself, Colorado allows an exception for slavery: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” (Bill of Rights, Article 2, Section 26; emphasis mine). If successful, the Yes On T ballot initiative will amend the state constitution to strike the above-quoted line and remove the exception.

Much of my passion and motivation for this issue comes from working for several years on the Racial Reconciliation Task Force of the Episcopal Diocese of California. Our starting point for that work was a journey that the whole Episcopal Church took to look closely at how we as a church benefitted from slavery, and to repent of that sin.

You may have seen a 2008 documentary called “Traces of the Trade” which chronicles the beginning of that story: a very prominent, wealthy Rhode Island family of the name DeWolf never personally owned slaves, but their business was the buying and selling of human beings. And from their profits, they gave generously to The Episcopal Church. Inspired by the work of members of the DeWolf family, the Episcopal Church began the work of examining how the Church thrived at the cost of our black siblings’ dignity, freedom, and their very lives. And we looked at how to repent of those sins and work towards the healing of those still-raw wounds. That work continues, and though I have left California, I feel called to continue my part in that work in whatever way I can, wherever I am…

In 1930, Mohandas K. Gandhi and his followers spent 24 days walking over 200 miles to the Indian coast. There Gandhi collected some mud from the ocean shore and boiled out the salt, and said, “With this [salt] I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”

Why the big fuss over a little salt? Well, the British colonial government had made it illegal for native Indians to collect, make, buy, or sell salt; they had to purchase only officially government-made salt. Gandhi’s small act was outright rebellion, and the beginning of the end of British Rule of India.

It wasn’t seen as such at the time: though the action began a wave of similar protests among Indians, the non-violent rebellion was quickly crushed—in some places violently—by the British, who mocked the Salt Marches as laughably insignificant. Even Gandhi’s allies questioned how useful the protest had been.

But the world was watching: Sympathy for Indian independence began to rise all over the world, and Indians began to understand that they had no moral obligation to comply with oppressive and often violent British rule.

Gandhi called his protest the Salt Satyagraha, from Sanskrit words for truth and firmness. He said, “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence.”

Note the religious implications in truth and love; we know Gandhi’s activism was motivated by his Hindu faith.

We also know that The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was highly influenced by Gandhi: he studied Gandhi’s story and writings as he developed his own theory of nonviolence. I learned from a recent sermon by the Right Reverend Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, that Dr. King told all of his followers: “As you go out to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.” Bishop Curry told us: We humans are not powerful enough on our own to carry this work out, but that divine love can transform the world. Love is the only law. Love your enemies: those who disagree with you or argue against what you’re working for.

We’re multi-faith here, so not all of us are motivated by or even interested in the life and teachings of Jesus, or concepts of truth and love based in Hindu beliefs. But one thing most of us here have in common is faith itself: we are all people of faith, and something about that faith—some concept of divine truth and love—motivates us to political action. Our love for our fellow human beings—especially for those on the margins of our society—drives us to action, and that love keeps us peaceful when things become contentious in the struggle.

(And if you are an atheist or agnostic who was brought here by a religious friend because you are passionate about this issue, you are very welcome here. And because atheists and agnostics have spiritual lives too, there is probably some concept of truth and love that drives you to this work as well).

As we work to finally remove slavery from our state constitution, we know that this campaign will not, in itself, heal all racial wounds or change the criminal justice system. We know that we have a long road ahead of us in those struggles, and not everyone in this room may agree on what the specific goals are. But we know that in the Yes on T campaign we are making a moral plea to make the law of the land reflect our values, our morality, our faith. We know that even if we lose this election, we will keep working towards that greater end of justice for all people.

Here are two questions to consider and discuss:

  1. Have you had the experience of being part of something that felt at the time an insignificant victory—or even a failure—that turned out to be an important step towards change in the long run?
  2. How does your faith keep you motivated and grounded as you take part in your activism? On what do you meditate as you march?

Posted 10 August 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

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