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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

As With Rivers, So With Nations | July 2, 2023 Rev Dr. Kathryn Benton

Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory.

As with rivers, so with nations.

The opening words are from Frederick Douglass, in a speech he gave for the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society of Rochester, NY on July 5, 1852. The analogy of the stream…the river is, in a way frightening. And I think that is what Douglass was going for. Amid a predominately white audience in 1852, Douglass had to embed his message subtly at first, but then becoming more and more clear.

The river is a symbol, often of healing and rest…much like this song…

This is one aspect of the river, yes. But in this case the more destructive and powerful symbolism of the river is raised. If we are realistic about a river, it does have a lot of power…power to bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. But rivers also have the habit of going back to the same old channel…the one that it used before the rise in wrath and fury. This is what we have often experienced throughout history and Douglass was aware of this. It is important that Douglass did not shy away from difficult analogies. His forceful words were necessary and, I’m afraid, still necessary today. Though the river of humanity has often overflowed its banks and refreshed and fertilized the earth our actions have gone back to the same old channel. There is a certain inevitability in this process, much like the river. But remember that Douglass said these streams are not easily turned from the channels that have been worn so deep. As human beings, we can change course…we can forge new channels. Another analogy is that of a tree that continually grows new layers…layers that replace the outworn and the old. In the words of Olive Schreiner:

As the oak tree cannot grow unless, with each new ring it adds, its old bark cracks and splits, so humanity cannot develop without the rupture of its old institutions and laws…

Olive Schreiner had, like Thurman, a deep connection with nature. She saw human life, and even human institutions in the context of all life. Like Douglass, Schreiner (and Thurman) understood the connections between the natural world and the world of the human being…between the natural processes and our human ones. Without the rupture of the outer bark…the old institutions and laws, no change is possible. Still, is that all that is needed? Clearly no…although we have changed laws and institutions, it is often the hearts of people that have not changed…the flesh and blood…the inner core. And this, says James Baldwin, can only be achieved with love…

I think the inability to love is the central problem, because that inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.

Further Baldwin commented on love...

Baldwin knew that peoples’ attitudes don’t change because the law changes…that unless we experience that “being touched” we will never be able to change…personally and as a nation. Baldwin says that the inability to love causes terror. Just look at the world today. Terror abounds. And change…the cracks and splits of the bark have only caused our world to resemble Douglass’ sad tale of departed glory…the withered branch and the unsightly rock. We seem to have hung onto the old and outworn beliefs and have been unable to transform them through love. We have instead grown further apart and so many have not been able to change…to forge new channels.

And this has not been through lack of trying. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of love…

Power without love is reckless and abusive,

and love without power is sentimental and anemic.

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice,

and justice at its best is power correcting everything

that stands against love.

King, like Baldwin, knew that it was this definition of love that was needed to change things…to change the course of the river. Not anemic and sentimental love, but the power of a love that touches us…that feeds our sense of justice and equality…of community and unity…of compassion for ourselves and others. With this love we are able to correct the things that stand against love…such as the hounds of hell described by Dr. Howard Thurman…fear, deception, hatred…we are able to transform our rage and anger from war and oppression to the transformation of a nation…of a world. And at times these “hounds of hell” reveal the powerful draw to return to the same old channel. And this makes our struggle seem impossible.

But the struggle is not impossible. Even Douglass…born a slave, living in a time when slavery still existed, had some hope. Near the end of his speech on the July day in 1852 he said:

I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up, from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference…

Douglass was looking to the future with hope! He pointed out that the world was changing. The world was becoming more connected. There is indeed hope in being connected. We are now so connected that few things go unnoticed by the media…we can no longer be shut off from the world and trot round in the same old path of our fathers without interference. But this connection is, at times, anemic and sentimental…it is not the deep connection we experience when we love, truly love each other…when we love each other to the point of being touched…to being changed…to being alive! Douglass ended his speech with these words…

God speed the year of jubilee The wide world o'er! When from their galling chains set free, Th' oppress'd shall vilely bend the knee, And wear the yoke of tyranny Like brutes no more. That year will come, and freedom's reign, To man his plundered rights again Restore. God speed the day when human blood Shall cease to flow! In every clime be understood, The claims of human brotherhood, And each return for evil, good, Not blow for blow; That day will come all feuds to end, And change into a faithful friend Each foe. God speed the hour, the glorious hour, When none on earth Shall exercise a lordly power, Nor in a tyrant's presence cower; But all to manhood's stature tower, By equal birth! THAT HOUR WILL COME, to each, to all, And from his prison-house, the thrall Go forth. Until that year, day, hour, arrive, With head, and heart, and hand I'll strive, To break the rod, and rend the gyve, The spoiler of his prey deprive So witness Heaven! And never from my chosen post, Whate'er the peril or the cost, Be driven.

Do we have the hope of Douglass? Are we able to believe that THAT HOUR WILL COME? Are we driven? Do we have the passion and courage of a Frederick Douglass…a James Baldwin…an Olive Schreiner…a Martin Luther King, Jr.? If not now, then when?

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