“From Here To Timbuktu”: A Sermon on the 8th Commandment and Fighting White Supremacy

Sermon:  “From here to Timbuktu”            By Rev. Katie Aikins, preached on August 27, 2017

Texts: Romans 12:1-2 and Luke 19:1-10 (and Deut. 5:19)

Key texts:

So, my siblings, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual worship. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.  Rom. 12:1-2

“If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much….today salvation has come to this house”  – Luke 19:8,9

The Ten Commandments are back! We are picking up again where we left off in our sermon series a few weeks ago. The Commandment we’re exploring today is number 8: Do Not Steal.

What we’ve been saying throughout is that the commandments were given to the people of Israel on their journey out of bondage. God had heard their cries, God heard their suffering and brought them out of bondage. So already we have in the biblical witness a God who opposes systems of domination, systems of supremacy of any kind, where a group of humans dominates another group of humans. The God of our ancestors is a Liberating God, concerned with bringing people out of bondage. The Commandments serve to help instruct the people on how to stay on the path of Liberation. Each Commandment in some way or another is about loving God and loving your neighbor. We are learning that these Commandments – especially as they begin to focus on neighbor love – are about protecting community members from oppressive and exploitative practices. Stealing was in the category of oppressive practice. Stealing was to break down community. Stealing – taking something from someone else that does not belong to you is dangerous because it rips into the social fabric, it destroys trust between people. Stealing is connected to greed. Stealing sees only the object that is desired, detached from the person or context to which that object belongs. Stealing sees no history connected to the object.

We must be careful to not interpret the commandment too narrowly. We must not reduce the command to individual acts alone. So for example, maybe you think of that time when you were 9 years old and you took that bag of M & Ms from the corner store without paying for it. Was that stealing? Yes it was. Was it a wrong thing to do? Yes it was. Or think about someone who is food insecure, a mother perhaps who is trying to provide enough food for her kids but really doesn’t have enough money because her job doesn’t pay a living wage, and so one day she picks up an extra bag of rice from the store without paying for it. Is she stealing? Yes she is. Is this kind of theft the kind God is most concerned about? I’m not so sure.

Does the commandment have anything to say about the market driven system we live in that thrives on THEFT? In such a system, it can be totally legal for investment bankers, regulatory agencies, heads of corporations, to amass huge fortunes for themselves, while robbing the poor. We know the many stories of corporations that commit massive fraud and are rarely punished. When you have a system of theft that creates that situation for that mother to steal a bag of rice because she doesn’t have a living wage, while working for a company whose top executive is raking in billions – it begs the question “Who is really stealing from whom?” And who is being held accountable? The eighth commandment must not be so reduced and interpreted thinly that we end up pointing the finger at individual acts of stealing while ignoring the major THEFT taking place in the very systems we’ve created. Generally speaking the truth is there is theft behind great wealth. There is theft behind great wealth.

Where I think this commandment challenges me is that instead of asking “have you stolen something today?”  It asks, “How will you live now that you’ve realized that you are already a thief? ..And that you’ve benefited from a system of thievery? I’m living in a context where much of my wealth is connected to that which has been stolen. As a person classified as white, I have privileges and access to wealth in part because I am benefiting STILL from the stolen land my ancestors took: land stolen from Native Americans. People stolen from Africa. Unpaid and forced labor of Africans and immigrants create the foundations of our market driven economy, an economy of legalized theft. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And it’s completely legal, and many churches would say this system is completely righteous and moral.

If yet if we are honest and humble, and if we allow the God of Liberation to speak to us anew in our context today, and in light of the gospel we know in Jesus Christ – we may very well find ourselves convicted by the 8th commandment. Just like the apostle Paul said, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All (especially white folks) have benefited from what our ancestors stole, and we fall short of the glory of God. The only path forward is a journey of repentance.

But what does repentance look like? What could it look like?

We are not without witnesses. We have witnesses.

I learned about one of these witnesses while Heather and I were away on vacation. We spent one day visiting the John Brown Historic Farm in North Elba, New York. John Brown, a white abolitionist, is best known for his role in organizing and leading a raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Seven of Brown’s men were killed, some fled, and some were captured by pro-slavery farmers, militiamen and the U.S Marines led by none other than Robert E. Lee. John Brown was found guilty by the commonwealth of Virginia for his actions and was hanged. His body was brought back to North Elba farm where he is buried. And Heather and I ate lunch and took a nap on a field just overlooking the historic farmhouse and grave site where John Brown and several of his followers are buried. It was a beautiful land, beautiful country.

While we were there we learned about another white abolitionist about whom I knew very little. I knew a little about John Brown. But I had not heard about Gerrit Smith. And he really captured my attention. Gerrit Smith, was a supporter of John Brown. And Smith was one of several people who financially supported John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Gerrit Smith also sold the North Elba farm to John Brown. You see, Gerrit Smith very wealthy landowner in New York. In fact he was the wealthiest landowner in the state of NY at this time. He inherited large swaths of land from his father.

In the state of New York between 1821 and 1873 – if you were a free black man, you were only permitted to vote if you had a property requirement of $250. This was a discriminatory law of course, very few black free men had this kind of wealth in property.

Garrett Smith was convicted by the sinfulness of his wealth. I don’t know if he made the connection between his wealth and it being stolen. I don’t know. But we do know that he became convinced through his faith that it was a sin to be rich and that racism and inequality was a sin. And so with this conviction, between the years 1846 to 1853 (7 years) Garrett Smith gave away 120,000 acres of land that he owned in the Adirondacks to 3,000 black New Yorker’s in 40 acre lots. The hope was to give opportunity for property ownership of $250 dollars so that black free men could vote. He wanted to help make the dream of Timbuctu a reality. This experiment at some point became referred as “Timbuktu”. It was a dream that many black folks had at the time – the dream of being able to own and farm your own land, to be self-sufficient, to survive by living an agrarian life style away from the city. To be able to vote and gain political power, to be treated like a human being, and hopefully experience less racism and hatred and violence in a rural setting than you would find in a city. Gerritt Smith worked with other black social reformers including Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnett –Garnett spent countless hours recruiting free black men to become grantees of land that Gerrit Smith was giving away in the Adirondacks.

This settlement was not successful in the way Smith and others had hoped. Black ownership of the land did not endure for a whole host of reasons (the enduring power of racism being the most basic reason). However, Gerritt Smith is a powerful witness of someone whose actions exemplified a life lived in repentance. Repentance isn’t about gloom and doom. Repentance is about life and giving of your life. It can be joyful and freeing. It can mean giving back, giving away what is not yours in the first place – in order to be a part of the larger dream of God’s Reign. The dream was called Timbuktu. Timbuktu is an actual place in Africa, in the country of Mali. Today we often  hear the phrase  “from here to Timbuktu” to refer to some outlandish faraway place that you’ll probably never really get to. Well that’s not so unlike the Reign of God. Some outlandish place, some place where God’s justice reigns and racism and violence against black folks will cease to be an everyday reality – that sounds like the Reign of God, it’s like from “here to Timbuktu.”

But Jesus said, that the reign of God is not as far away as you think. Jesus said that the reign of God is near to us. Jesus said it is “within you”. And it is “among you”. Jesus said this just a little bit before the time that he met that little person Zaccheus up in that tree. Zaccheus was not so unlike Gerrit Smit. Both of them were rich. Smith may have been more well-respected than Zaccheus, but both of them rich, and convinced that the wealth they owned was connected to sin. That somewhere along the line some people had been defrauded, killed, lost their livelihood, forced to steal from the local store because they were defrauded…and that Zaccheus and Gerrit Smith had benefited from this economy of stealing that was completely legal and worked in their favor. But to meet Jesus that day, changed everything for Zaccheus. And we are told that the day that Zaccheus decided to divest himself of his wealth– that on that day, salvation came to him and his household.

The very salvation of Zaccheus was linked to his divestment of wealth. His journey toward becoming a new person began with divesting from his wealth that he had stolen and benefited from. This is a picture of living in repentance. Zaccheus and Gerrit Smith can be our witnesses today.

We cannot repair all of history. You and I can never give back all that our white ancestors took. We can’t fix it. And in humility, as white folks we must face this impossibility. But it is also our responsibility to look at our lives and look honestly at what we have, what we can do, what we can give, what we can decide to NOT take. We can create limits to what we are willing to own. We can divest. We can ask ourselves, where did it come from? Who lost their life so that I have this privilege? Who is not getting something right now because I’m getting something?

These are hard things to face. But Jesus has asked us to follow him. And if we are serious about being Jesus followers, then we don’t have to be afraid of these questions. Because salvation is offered to us when we look at the truth about our lives. Liberation is offered to each of us in the murkiness and muck of our world. But liberation doesn’t always feel fluffy and fun. Sometimes salvation work really does look like divestment, giving money away, and making reparations – even if they are just small and partial and imperfect. Bad religion and mainstream white-washed Christianity has made salvation into a spiritual, heady, otherworldly thing. But it is earthly and spiritual. For Garrett Smith it looked like 120,000 acres to give away. For Zaccheus it looked like giving resources to the poor and making financial reparations to those he defrauded.

What does it look like for us? What if we as a church – as a small little church (small like Zaccheus!) here in West Philly, Tabernacle United Church – decided we were going to take some time to do some joyful repentance work around our money and wealth – with the goal of making an act of financial reparation? What if we decided we wanted to give money away because it wasn’t ours to begin with and we discerned that God would like it to go to someone else who’s been defrauded by our system and history of theft? What if we did that? I’d like us to do this together.

It may feel like traveling from here to Timbuktu. But its not unlike the Reign of God. Jesus often asks us to do impossible things in company with a God of Liberation, for whom all things are possible.




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