It has been four Sundays since I’ve been in this pulpit, as we’ve enjoyed the Gospel preachments of fellow staff and a guest. On Princeton’s campus, a lot has happened since then. As you may well know, a group of students held a sit-in in the University president’s office. They, and their supportive friends elsewhere in Nassau Hall and camped outside, demanded a variety of actions from the senior administration, including designated space within the university’s multicultural center for specific affinity groups, cultural competency training for faculty, and the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson from one of the University’s residential colleges and also its school of public and international affairs. The decisions about those demands will be made way above my pay grade, so I won’t opine on them here. I will say that I am grateful for these students’ insistent questions, which I hope will be received by this institution as an invitation to do a very brave investigation and reckoning not only of these immediate questions but especially of much deeper ones. The students’ questions provide the University with an invitation and an opportunity to look into the histories of our privilege, status, and wealth, our blessings and curses, our challenges, our hopes, and our real potential as a uniquely American institution of elite teaching and research.
About seven years ago Stanhope Hall, one of the oldest extant buildings on campus, was remodeled to become the home of the (then) Center for African-American Studies, now the Department of such. At the dedication ceremony those many years ago the then-Director of that Center, Val Smith, now President of Swarthmore, stood on the steps of the building and noted in language much more meaningful and poetic than I can reconstruct, this sentiment: “How powerful in its symbolism is the fact that a building, constructed in part by slave labor, should now become the pre-eminent place to study the African-American experience.” Indeed! Val single-handedly, and with such simple language, resurrected, honored, and sanctified the slave labor, the sweat and blood and tears, that went into the construction of that building. With that simple recognition she did not make slave labor OK; she acknowledged its existence, she honored the humans whose only choice was to build the building or suffer the lash; she testified to their ongoing work – centuries after they died, they slaved not only to build a college building for whatever purpose it had in the 18th century but also for the purpose it has now. She didn’t just find – she created, through her acknowledgment of their effort, the redemption of those human beings’ work that was done in chains.
And so I want to ask the entire Princeton University community and all its friends how we can continue Val’s efforts. Our student activists give us the point of entrée. My questions may go beyond theirs, I don’t know – but the students gracefully provide us the invitation and the opportunity. On the point of slave labor, yes – the earliest buildings at the University relied on it for their construction. Are we going, thus, to pull down Nassau Hall, circa 1756? No. And we shouldn’t. (Arguably we can’t – it’s a national historic landmark.) And still we shouldn’t. The answer to enslaved labor in the United States and at Princeton isn’t to pull down their work but truly to honor it. I’m not sure what that most appropriately looks like. Maybe it is through the simple ritual of words like Val Smith’s – redemptive words that make us recognize and value the forced labor underneath the stones upon which we stand and within which we do our work. Maybe we chisel those words of recognition into the same stones.
But it’s not only the economic means of production 260 years ago but now that could make all of us who affiliate with Princeton somehow, including through this Chapel, spend even a moment in self-questioning. Modern buildings bear the names of donors whose legacies are less than pristine to many today (don’t get my father-in-law going on Carl Icahn, whose name now graces a significant laboratory, and who raided the assets of Trans World Airlines just before my father-in-law was able to quickly retire with any semblance of a pension after 32 years there as a pilot). The students today, and in years past, who gladly enjoy scholarship money may be doing so thanks to the generosity of donors who made – and make – their money by paying employees less than a living wage, in this country and in places like Guatemala and Congo and Cambodia, where mostly women labor for much less than a living wage, and where we benefit from the same. Years ago, the fabulous a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock produced a song called, “Are My Hands Clean?” about the journey of the shirts we literally wear on our backs. They are made by women and men in poor countries who do the piecework so that we can enjoy cheap clothing. My point is, none of our hands are clean. The amenities we enjoy – even if we know ourselves to be from self-made families – are also standing on the backs of earlier people we may never know and who had less than us. Slaves. Indentured labor. Underpaid labor in every kind of setting. Exploited immigrants. Interned persons. If you are sitting in this chapel you are not free from the stain of anyone who has ever exploited anyone else, even if you haven’t done it yourself.
So, what do we do? “You brood of vipers!!” That’s what John the Baptist says to us this morning. I think he’s right – and I think he’s redemptive! You may hear no good news in that edict of his, but I think it’s there (in triplicate.) A brood is a bunch of kids, offspring, and so we are – we are a bunch of offspring of systems of exploitation and humiliation that we may never have intended to sign up for, and yet it is our paternity/maternity. We are the offspring of generations of good, good people who never meant to do harm to any other, who emigrated to this country in order to prosper and to live rightly with others. It is not easy to be called by John “a brood of vipers.” We are the offspring of people who were brought to this country in chains, or who were born here 10,000 years ago, and we hope we don’t do harm to any other. He still calls us all “vipers.”
Ouch. Viper? ME?? Not me. I’ve started this sermon with an example from Princeton University, about how all of us with a connection to this place (including even showing up here this morning) need to think about structural repentance. The baptizer John talks about a divine ax that is going to cut off the roots of trees that do not bear fruit. What do each of us need that divine ax to cut off from ourselves? Is it our hubris, our self-delusion of our self-sufficiency, self-importance, and self-righteousness? The chastening ritual of cleansing that John the Baptist brings to us is not just unpleasant and hard, it is truly purifying. A minister of mine when I was younger would say, “You can’t be disillusioned unless you had illusions in the first place.” John the Baptist calls us to live a DISULLUSIONED life – a life freed of whatever illusions we’d concocted before that made us think that we are not vipers – that we are not connected to the past and present injustices upon which our privileges are actually founded. What else do we need that refiner’s fire to purify us from? How about our complacence? John’s words really stung the good people who heard him, and they should sting us, too.
We are good people. We pay our taxes. We study very, very hard. We do community service. We make charitable donations. Really – we are good people! But we don’t share anything near as much as we could, and that is why John calls us vipers - we have so much material excess in our lives that we don’t give away. We have so much money that we don’t give away – whether that’s a few bucks or many thousands. Like the tax collectors of John’s day, we benefit from unjust structures and call them “natural,” and “neutral.” The losers, the poor today we call “recipients of their own poor choice-making,” when they’ve made no choices about the contours of their lives. We have. Meanwhile, we hear the message to share from our excess and we say, “But I don’t have anything I don’t need.” Yet we do.
We are each saint and viper. We choose in every minute which part of our hearts to live out of. John the Baptizer says that repentance equals a turning of hearts and minds and actions toward the will of God. Doing that is always a choice for us. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to talk about it this morning. We’d all just do it. It’s not easy. It means looking at every privilege that we have inherited and truly discerning what, among it all, we can and should give away. As individuals, as families, as institutions – what can and should we give away so that others might live?
We actually know what is right to do. The choice is hard to enact but not to understand. Our next hymn is “Rejoice, You Pure In Heart.” We really are pure in heart. Our minds and intentions are good, even if our consequent actions are not. We are saint and viper at the same time. As we await the Messiah, the humble One who is to come, and who is to redeem us, let us pray and live with such integrity – in heart and mind and body. Let our works and our ethics proclaim all the things that we believe in Christ – like human equality, religious freedom (Donald Trump be ignored), the fact of the second coming of Christ and the salvation of all who are pure in heart. Thank God that the judges of the universe are none of the demagogues who fill the airwaves, none of the preachers like me who fill your Sunday morning, but only God and Christ. This is the very Good News for vipers like you and me!