"Above all let us be sober, be vigilant, [and] fully determined never to return to any yoke of slavery -- whether in word, or thought, or action," the Rev. Dr. Kortright Davis told hundreds gathered September 30 at St. Philip's Church in New York City for a solemn Evensong service in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in Britain.
The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire and made it illegal for British ships to be involved in the trade, marking the beginning of the end for the transatlantic traffic in human beings. The Church of England held the official commemorative liturgy in Westminster Abbey on March 27. Prior to that, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Archbishop of York John Sentamu were joined by nearly 4,000 people as they led a Walk of Witness March 24 in London. Aspects of the September 30 Evensong were used with permission from the March 24 liturgy.
During the February Primate's meeting in Tanzania, a Eucharist was held at Zanzibar's 127-year-old Christ Church Cathedral, whose high altar now rises where a slave market whipping post once stood.
Davis, professor of Theology at Howard University School of Theology and rector of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, both in Washington, D.C., began his sermon by acknowledging the foresight of liberators such as John Newton, hymn-writer of 'Amazing Grace' who abandoned his slave-trading ways and became an Anglican priest; William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade; Olaudah Equiano, who wrote an autobiography that depicted the horrors of slavery and helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade in 1807, and others.
"What we are celebrating today is the memory of a pivotal turning point in the history of our global community," he said. "It is a history that still has to atone for the colossal genocide of a race of people whom God had blessed with ebony grace; totally unlike any previous forms of human bondage."
A history, Davis said, of a world that profited from the displacement of 30 million people in Africa, the shipment of 15 million Africans to the New World, 5 million of whom died on land or at sea as captives.
"It is a history of turning human bodies into chattel and real estate property, and of establishing an entire region, the Caribbean, as the incubator for white racism," he said. "Persons were reduced to non-human status, their claims to have souls were denied, their rights to be fully human were eliminated, and their access to means of self-preservation and relief were grossly compromised."
Sharing an excerpt from Alexander Falconridge, a ship's surgeon in the slave trade who described conditions on a Liverpool ship, Davis said: "Imagine how many thousands lost their lives in such inhumane ways all for the enrichment of those who had the misguided notion that all men were not created equal, and were not endowed by their creator with all the rights, freedoms, and liberties of full humanity."
"Imagine how many self-righteous people, having read or heard the words of Jesus Christ the Master Slave that he had come that all may have life and have it in all of its fullness, had decided that there were justifiable exceptions to that notion," he continued. "Imagine how many Christian leaders, principally in the Church of England, and the Roman Church, and their outposts, had blissfully ignored the clarion call of Paul in Galatians: 'For freedom, Christ had set us free, stand fast therefore, and do not return again to any yoke of slavery.'"
The church, he said, had its "full share of slaves" and "profited enormously" from the slave trade sending missionaries to minister to the enslavers, while encouraging the enslaved to be "obedient to their masters."
"In a very real sense, the Church transformed the transcendent and sacred symbol of the cross and its liberating work, into an immanent instrument of oppression and fresh crucifixion," he said.
Jesus, Justice and Joy
The supremacy of God's "liberating grace" over the combined forces of selfish greed, and unbridled god-almightiness, and rampant racism, and systemic inequality, said Davis, is also the catalyst for this gathering.
"What brings us here today, if it is not for a recommitment to our baptismal covenant to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being?" he asked.
We should never forget, Davis said, that "Jesus, justice, and joy always go together."
"That is, to truly know Jesus, is to truly do justice," he said. "And to truly do justice is to usher in true joy, a joy that no one can take away from you or me."
Telling those gathered that the desire for "collective healing" from the "pervasive sense of cultural amnesia" is what also gathered them together, Davis said. "We must be very careful that it is never truly said of us that we have exchanged one form of slavery for another."
"The fear of freedom is inextricably linked with the fear of human equality; and nowhere is that more blatantly, yet painfully, expressed than in our systemic violations of human rights, in our callous neglect of the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed, and in our abuse of power, privilege, and prestige," he said.
Davis suggested a seven-stage process on the road to "social, moral, spiritual, political, and economic transformation": remembering, recognition, repentance, reparation, redistribution, reconstruction, and reconciliation.
"We have to believe that all our forms of brokenness can be made whole again. We have to dream of the day when all the accidents of our birth will matter not at all," he said. "We have to work untiringly for that glorious liberty of all God's children, wherever they may be, where together we will be able to proclaim that in Christ there is no East nor West, no North nor South, no male nor female, no bond nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus."
Jointly sponsored by the Dioceses of New York and Long Island, and led by the Rt. Rev. E. Don Taylor, vicar bishop for New York City and the Rt. Rev. Orris G. Walker, Jr., Bishop of Long Island, the service also consisted of music reflecting the "sons and daughters of the African Diaspora."
New York Bishop Mark S. Sisk and Suffragan Catherine S. Roskam participated in the liturgy. Other participants came from throughout both dioceses.