"Whenever a civilization reaches its highest point, sooner or later a period of decay sets in." - Carl Jung, Psychiatrist and founder of Analytic Psychology
A Letter from Ridgewood A Sermon Delivered at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood January 19, 2014 The Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung once said it is in this moment we are the terminal point of civilization. Civilization is generally something about which we are unconscious. Everything that has come before us imposes itself on us in this very moment of time. We carry the burden of the weight of events past, decisions long taken, twists of fate and the happenstance of coincidence. The accumulation of these events presses itself upon the present with the heaviness of an anvil pounding away at the forge of history. Often we exist without questioning reality or how things are. In each and every day comes the opportunity to shape and transform events and to bend the proverbial arc of history and justice. The impact of history abounds through our lives not as a collection of events but as a mosaic of consciousness that hovers and often looms over us. We add to it each and every day through our actions, inactions, thoughts, our deeds, our dreams, our lived experience, the realized and unrealized aspiration of our lives, the opportunity taken, the thing not done, and all acts both courageous and cowardly. There is a container filled with the collective exaltation and suffering of our lives. It is here, in this room, in this moment, whether we choose to see it or not, or choose to feel it or not. It is present in each and every inhalation of the breath we take. At this moment we are taking in the very molecules of Julius Caesarâ€™s last breath. We are breathing in the atoms of his exhalation and every great figure or scoundrel of history is contained there in the very air we breathe. Our destiny or fate reveals itself with the passage of time. We can tune into the frequencies of the universe and try to decipher the code that is signaling to us. We can strain our ears to hear the very music that is intended to animate our lives. We can cast our eyes to the stars and ponder our destiny or console ourselves that our fate may reside either in the stars or in ourselves. Whether it is within our grasp or beyond our reach it is present. History makes of us vessels of time, containers of experience, we are each a text of life punctuated on each end by that first inhalation and the last exhalation of our breath. The certainty of our lives is that our first breath will come as surely as our last. The poetry, prose, music and art of our lives is contained between those very two points. History I believe has the ability to make heroes of ordinary everyday people. The hero in the Greek sense of the word faces adversity and danger for some greater good of humanity. The hero upholds martial courage or moral excellence for this greater good. To be vaulted into the pantheon of heroes is to ensure that the memory of their lives will survive once they have mouldered and returned to dust. The Ancient Greeks believed in conducting their lives in a manner that made each deed or act an investment in the memory that spoke to the heroic legacy they desired to bequeath to succeeding generations.
Ordinary and everyday people undertake courageous deeds of which we never hear. It is often the simplest of deeds that go unnoticed that adds to the collective vessels of examples of moral excellence and courage. Who could imagine that taking a seat on a bus, sitting at a lunch counter or walking across a bridge could in itself be the defining act of moral excellence and courage. These quotidian acts in the face of the weight and burden of history became defiant and heroic acts of courage. The spirit says do and it does. We are here to bring to mind the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. We are here to honor the memory of all the brave people—clergy, men, women, teens, children, friends and sympathizers who travelled from near and distant places and endured the wrath and vitriol of our fellow citizens who had clung to the remnant institutions of the Old South. Freedom loving people converged on places with names etched forever in history as the battlegrounds for social justice and civil rights protests. The names of Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Albany and Memphis ring in the ears as do the place names of others battles fought a century earlier: Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh and Chancellorsville. The Civil War was fought and the Confederacy was defeated but the fissures of the contest which divided this nation persist. The institution of slavery and its system of subjugation is a permanent stain on this nation. This became clear to me when last year I travelled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to see the famous battlefield where the Confederacy nearly routed the Union Army and later that year when I travelled to Charleston, South Carolina where the rebellion began. At Charleston I could see Fort Sumter off in the distance, I was standing only a short way from the place where its most infamous slave market stood. At Gettysburg the story was told of how the North defeated the South turning the tide of the conflict in its favor; in Charleston monuments and historical markers stood as telltale signs of a counternarrative of an unrepentant South recalling the upheaval as “The War between the States” and collapsing harrowing events to a political argument of “States Rights” rather than the looming moral question of the day. You need not look too far to see the evidence of the stain of this history. Consider that on this soil of New Jersey—which is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year—experienced a painfully slow emancipation. The gradual emancipation laws of 1804 limited the future of slavery however masters retained possession as long as possible. Slavery persisted in Bergen County well into the 1850’s. Bergen County registered a population of 13,000 whites, 1,624 free blacks and 41 slaves. The conditions of slavery in New Jersey were said to be as vicious and demeaning as those seen in the slave markets of New Orleans and the plantations of the South. If you have seen the Academy Award nominated film 12 Years a Slave you are witness to but a small portion of the brutality endured by the protagonist, Solomon Northup, a free man lured from his home in the North to be sold into slavery in the South. “.,.After the Civil War, the African Americans living in the Ridgewood area began to settle along Broad Street. In the early 1900s, African Americans wanting to escape from the South and the harsh Jim Crow Laws moved to the north seeking jobs and better wages. Some moved to Ridgewood, finding employment in the large homes as housekeepers, cooks, and butlers. Others established their own businesses, offering catering, taxis, and childcare. They also opened a beauty parlor, barbershop, and a boarding home for women moving to the area and seeking employment….” 2
The exhibit at the Ridgewood Historical Society’s School House Museum shows the Diversity of the Area but also points to the long history of intolerance and racism in part the legacy of the corrosive behavior of the Dutch Reform slave owners toward the slaves. In Bergen County circa 1923 a Ku Klux Klan chapter was organized and met in Ridgewood. Here in this very place the Ku Klux Klan orchestrated rallies against Catholics, Jews, and Eastern European immigrants believing that they would fundamentally change the character of the nation. And prior to 1945 Ridgewood Realtors had a code upholding “the Ridgewood Way” that essentially prohibited the sale of homes to other than white Christians. In 1945 the Ridgewood Board of Realtors disavowed this code when a complaint was filed against them. The evidence of pamphlets announcing Ku Klux Klan rallies; examples of restrictive deeds which demand that homes only be sold to non-whites; a Ku Klux Klan uniform used at local rallies. Through adversity the Ridgewood African Americans grew and prospered. They had strong ties to their community and to their churches. Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church (1882) and Mt. Bethel Baptist Church (1905) opened their doors offering religious, educational, and social opportunities to their members. The pastors and members of these churches have been in the forefront of working to improve relations between African Americans and whites. In 1976, the A.M.E. Zion Church collaborating with other religious groups celebrated our nation’s bicentennial with a banquet. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., father of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the guest speaker. Our inability to see and respond to evils is due in part to the “conscious trance” or “the sleep of everyday life” to which we succumb. It comes as the result of the encroachment upon our awareness and an inability to change direction. It is a trance induced by the society we live in. We become accustomed to our lives and the patterns of the daily life in which we live. The culture reinforces or settles for patterns of daily life that dull or deaden our senses to other ways of being. For example, we become desensitized to the daily occurrence of violence which happens because of the wide availability of hand guns, or the incessant news of mayhem that occurs regularly. Our response to evil becomes a wound, a trauma, which affects our physical, emotional, psychological, relational and spiritual selves. In this trance like state we become physically and psychologically overwhelmed to make meaning of what has happened to us. To protect ourselves we too often choose to bury it away or we disconnect from it entirely. In either case, we respond to these daily evils in ways that we may not fully know or comprehend because they become part of us: our wound, our trauma. If Carl Jung is right and we are at this moment the terminal point of history, of civilization. The accumulated good and evil of the world is here, imposing itself on this moment, ever present. When we awaken from our trance I believe windows in time open up like portals of opportunity in which we are summoned to destiny and beckoned to our call like a sailor hearing the sound of a faraway siren. Such a moment came in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery. It came crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, standing us to intimidation and brute force. It came at the receiving end of firehoses and holding on to fear in the face of the ferociousness of attack dogs.
The moment comes when are asked to awaken from our trance and press back against the force of the pounding anvil at the forge of history. What was present then is present now if we choose to be conscious of this moment of time and the civilization upon which the present is now constructed. This Society has long been instrumental in â€œrighting unjust and dangerous wrongs locally, in the nation, and in the world at large.â€? This society has made Social Justice its flagship cause and has stood unswervingly against all forms of discrimination. This society has called outspoken ministers to build ministries of powerful social concern. This society had made social justice central to its mission through its programs of social action policy, civil rights, local and community action and voicing its concern for national and international matters. This society has been a progressive force of change against intolerance and racism is again being called to step forward. It is vital that we stay awake and vigilent. In 2014 I expect we will again be called to stand for what is right and just because injustice never sleeps, it knows no slumber. Tomorrow, the 32nd Annual Ridgewood/Glen Rock Martin Luther King Jr. celebration will be held to unite area residents, regardless of faith or ethnic background, in worship and action as they work towards peace and justice for all. Our participation in this celebration is our reminder that together we can awaken ourselves from our daily trance and be open to the possibility of wielding the anvil and bend the arc of history when called upon to do so again. So be it, amen, let it be so.