Sermon: Value the Invaluable

2020 January 19
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Value the Invaluable

Ana Levy-Lyons

January 19, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


Last week we dramatized an archetypal story of slavery and liberation – the biblical story of the Israelites in Egypt. We don’t know for sure whether this particular story happened in history, but it has echoed down through the generations because these kinds of oppressions and liberations happen. It’s a powerful story, even a dangerous one if you’re invested in preserving a system of inequality or violence. You would not want an enslaved people to be reading such a story.      


Slavery exists still today. And one of the cruelest, most expansive systems of slavery the world has ever known was right here in this country. Not in ancient history where the mists of time soften the images; but just four generations ago, where the violence is still fresh in family memory and the pain is still reverberating through our society. Not far away, but right here in Brooklyn. At the time of the Revolutionary War, nearly one third of the people of Brooklyn were enslaved people. Slavery was only abolished in New York in 1827, just a few years before the founding of this congregation. Not long ago; not far away.


In order to keep control on the forced labor camps that are euphemistically called “plantations,” slave owners tried to dehumanize their workers. They did this through torture and punishment, the breakup of families, and the selling of children as property. They did it by trying to destroy culture – forbidding the people to speak their native languages, to marry, or to assemble in groups together. And they did it by trying to restrict their access to ideas – ideas of human dignity and equality, ideas of liberation and justice.


When missionaries came to bring the gospel to the trafficked workers in the British West Indies, they brought with them a special edition of the Bible called The Slave Bible. This Bible was just like a regular Bible except that it left out 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. It left out the stories of liberation like the exodus from Egypt; it left out the universalist teachings of Paul who said that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” It censored anything that might prompt rebellion or propagate ideas of inherent human value and belovedness. It’s very telling that most of the Bible was recognized as explosive material if it got into the hands of the oppressed.


Ultimately the project of keeping these ideas from the enslaved workers failed. The ideas welled up in human hearts and minds and passed from soul to soul as they have from the beginning of history. The message of the burning bush traveled across time and space. As Dr. King said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, writing many years later, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom.” A person can be born into slavery but no one is born a slave.


The survivors of slavery in this country and their descendants not only kept their humanity, but went on to become leaders in the fight for human dignity for all people. They were leaders during Reconstruction; they were leaders of the Civil Rights movement that pushed this nation forward, not just for people of color but for women and LGBTQ people and every oppressed people. They birthed new forms of music, art, dance, and spoken word that were uniquely American and have shaped this culture to be what it is today.


If anyone was dehumanized during the days of slavery, it was the white slave owners; it was the wealthy plantation managers; it was the white cotton factory owners up north whose raw product came cheap from stolen labor and stolen land. It was the northern Unitarian churches that, in 1851 when a fugitive slave was forcibly returned to the south, refused to ring their bells in protest like the other churches, because, it’s said, their bells were “too clogged with cotton to sound.” Not long ago, not far away. The dehumanization project boomeranged back to its authors and produced a brutal, dehumanized economic system that continues to this day.


The New York Times Magazine is producing an extraordinary series right now that places the history of slavery in this country at the center of the American experience. The series is called “1619,” which is the year that the first enslaved Africans were brought to this land. The concept is that it was that moment, not 1776, that was the true founding of America. A group here at First Unitarian, Weaving the Fabric of Justice, is sponsoring a series of discussions about these articles. And our very own Bill Wasik, a member of our choir, was part of the editorial team that put the 1619 project together. He’ll be joining one of these sessions in March. Today’s discussion, after the service, will be about the article called “Capitalism” by Matthew Desmond.


This article is a stunning account of how the values and methods developed during slavery directly gave rise to the kind of capitalism we have today – a capitalism that, compared to other nations, is extreme in its brutality, its inequality, its disregard for human rights, and its destructiveness to the earth, air, and water on which we all depend. This is not just how capitalism is – it’s how American capitalism is. And it all began in the cotton farms of the south which produced phenomenal wealth. That wealth was the foundation of what is still today, by some measures, the wealthiest country in the world.


But what gets discussed too little is that that wealth was extracted by force from people and the earth. In the article Desmond describes how the workers were forced to work the cotton fields at breakneck speed every day of the week for every second that there was enough light to see. Their overseers developed sophisticated systems for measuring and tracking the productivity of each worker for each hour, in each section of the field. They devised algorithms to determine how much each worker should be able to produce in a day and when someone fell short, they were physically punished. The farms became more and more efficient, and more and more cruel, as the managers tweaked their systems, revised their techniques, and learned how to squeeze out ever-increasing productivity.


Doesn’t that sound familiar to the story of today’s factories, farms, warehouses, and even mass retail? The technology is more advanced, the coercion more subtle, but the surveillance of the workers, the use of algorithms to maximize productivity, driving the lowest hourly wage earners to produce more and more in each hour, it’s all echoes of the same thing. And while today’s so-called “unskilled” workers are technically paid and theoretically free to quit, they are often kept so impoverished that they can’t risk leaving. Slavery lowered the bar so far that by comparison the conditions of today’s working poor seem reasonable. To be very clear, it’s not slavery, but neither is it a life, a living, or fair pay for a fair day’s work.


As it turns out, the cotton plant is a ravenous plant that sucks vast amounts of nutrients and water from the soil. Desmond wrote, “A field could only tolerate a few straight years of the crop before its soil became depleted. Planters watched as acres that had initially produced 1,000 pounds of cotton yielded only 400 a few seasons later.” And so the owners were faced with a problem: how to keep profits growing. The solution? More land. Not – let the soil lie fallow, rotate crops. No. All of that would have lowered profits. More land.


More land could be acquired for next to nothing from the native people who were living on it. And so that’s what they did. They bought forest land on the cheap – vibrant, nutrient-rich, biodiverse land and made the enslaved workers clear-cut it, raze it to the ground. As John Parker, one enslaved worker put it, “whole forests were dragged out by the roots.” And so the great American forests were replaced, row after row, acre after acre with the cotton monocrop. Later, chemical fertilizers and pesticides forced the dead soil again and again into a zombie fertility.


This abuse of the land also foreshadowed the capitalism of today where the natural world is limitless body of wealth to be punctured and extracted by the syringe of cheap labor. If it gets depleted, force it, or leave, and leave the stripped, barren land behind. A forest left as a forest has no value. Of course, the colonists didn’t know back then what value a forest has. The Native Americans could have told them; some of the enslaved Africans could probably have told them, but nobody asked.


And even now that we know in our brains about the importance of healthy soil, and biodiversity, and the interdependent web of life, it’s the habits of mind that developed during slavery that still guide our economy. Value is what can be measured. Value is counted in dollars and hours and pounds. Value is fungible – it doesn’t have to take any particular form. It can be in the form of an enslaved child, a number of dollars, or a piece of land. It’s all the same. And value is a zero sum game – if I have more, you have less; if you have more, I have less. One of the brutal legacies of slavery is a culture that mistakes the invaluable for the valueless. It churns humans and nature into capital. Today’s upwelling of public white supremacy exposes what has been there all along – a society built on the cruel practice of ranking and measuring human beings, sorting and exploiting by race. And today’s ecological crisis exposes an economy so spiritually hollow that, trying to fill itself, it devours everything, even its own mother.


And though we in this room are not slaves, this economy has an interest in keeping us docile. And so we too from childhood are handed a kind of Slave Bible –today’s secular narratives of commerce and fulfillment through money. Our education and entertainment, sports, online shopping, reality TV – all give accounts of human life that leave out 90% of the revolutionary fire of the burning bush and 50% of the universal love that makes life worth living. We need to reclaim the whole book.


For the longest time I was confused about the word “invaluable.” It seemed like it should mean “not valuable,” just like “inaccurate” means “not accurate.” But eventually I figured out that in fact invaluable means you can’t place a value on it. It’s infinitely valuable – precious in a way that’s beyond measure. In the words of the old MasterCard ad, “priceless.” Here we leave the domain of economics and enter the domain of religion and spirit; the region of the heart that is truly a parallel universe to that of profit-making, extraction, and productivity. In this region of the heart, it is the invaluable that matters most. A human life is invaluable. Freedom of self-determination: invaluable. The smile of a child who feels safe: invaluable. A shared moment with a loved one that becomes a shared memory: invaluable. Music, art, dance: invaluable. Human cultures: invaluable. A forest, an ocean, a clear sky that releases heat back out into the cosmos: invaluable.


This is what Dr. King was talking about when he said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” On the other hand, once we begin a “revolution of values,” as he called it, change can begin. Once we can begin to value differently, confront the national nightmare of racism (not long ago; not far away; but here today), then we can begin to re-humanize our society. When we learn to value the invaluable, we will find that we are already wealthy beyond measure. And when we dwell in that wealth, we may begin to heal our society and our earth. And then the year 1619 may finally begin to end.

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