Last week we welcomed Marlin Lavanhar, the minister of the largest church in our denomination, as our distinguished visiting minister. This morning I want to tell you about what may have been the largest Unitarian church ever. In the mid-19th century, some wealthy supporters of a controversial Boston minister named Theodore Parker decided to start their own congregation. They rented a theater in Boston and invited Parker to preach a series of sermons. A few months later, Parker’s supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society. Parker preached a controversial theology that was so outside the mainstream of Unitarianism at the time that the Unitarian clergy of the Boston area decided to cut him off from all collegial relations. Parker preached his own installation sermon at the 28th Congregational Society because the other Unitarian ministers boycotted the event. In fact, relationships were so strained between Parker and the other ministers that when Parker was on his deathbed, dying of tuberculosis, the other Unitarian ministers took a vote on whether or not to send him a message of sympathy and voted against it.
As unpopular as Parker was with other ministers, he was extremely popular with the people of Boston. His congregation soon outgrew the theater and services were moved to the Boston Music Hall, the largest venue in the city, where Parker preached to standing room only crowds of 2,000 people every Sunday. His congregation included the best and brightest leaders of 19th century social movements including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as Louisa May Alcott and Julia Ward Howe. It was a multiracial congregation that included free African Americans and also offered refuge and protection to fugitive slaves.
In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act which mandated that federal law enforcement officials participate in the capture of runaway slaves. Parker’s congregation was active in resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. They formed the Boston Vigilance Committee that helped to hide escaped slaves. The Vigilance Committee also harassed, bullied, and obstructed slavecatchers who came into the city. Theodore Parker gave runaway slaves sanctuary in his own home, and claimed to write his sermons with a pistol on his desk so that he might defend the liberty of those he harbored. In the decade between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and the beginning of the Civil War, only two fugitives were returned to slavery from the city of Boston.
One of those two was Anthony Burns. He was nabbed on the streets of Boston in 1854. When word got out that Burns had been captured, a crowd of 5,000 Bostonians gathered at Faneuil Hall to decide what action they should take. Theodore Parker addressed the crowd; you can also find his speech in an anthology by Howard Zinn. Here was a portion of Parker’s speech.
“Well, gentlemen, I say there is one law—slave law; it is everywhere. There is another law… it is in your hands and your arms, and you can put that in execution just when you see fit. Gentlemen, I am a clergyman and a man of peace; I love peace. But there is a means, and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it. Now I want to ask you what you are going to do. [At this point, a man in the audience started to yell, “Shoot. Shoot.” Parker modified his approach.] There are ways of managing this matter, without shooting anybody. Be sure that these men who have kidnapped a man in Boston are cowards, every mother’s son of them; and, if we stand up there resolutely, and declare that this man shall not go out of the city of Boston, without shooting a gun then he won’t go back.”
The crowd decided to return the next morning at nine o’clock to demand the release of Anthony Burns. However, at the same time that Parker was speaking, another Unitarian minister was helping to organize another response. That minister was ThomasWentworth Higginson. Armed with battering rams, axes, cleavers, and revolvers, Higginson’s band led a raid on the jail where Burns was held. In the ensuing melee a federal marshal names James Batchelder was stabbed and died. Thomas Higginson received a cut on his chin from a saber, a scar he would wear with pride for the rest of his life. The city of Boston was placed under martial law and the President of the United States sent marines to guard the courthouse. The judge ruled that Burns would be returned to Virginia. Burns, under a military escort that included a cannon, was paraded through the streets to a ship in Boston harbor bound for Virginia. Fifty thousand Bostonians came to protest, to boo and hiss. The streets were draped in funereal black bunting, church bells tolled, and the American flag was flown upside down.
The Boston abolitionist community continued to work for Burns’ freedom, eventually purchasing him from a slave owner in North Carolina. Theodore Parker was indicted on charges of inciting a riot but the trial turned into a referendum on slavery and the judge dismissed the case on a technicality. However, the story of Anthony Burns would go on to radicalize the abolitionist movement. Abolitionist gatherings burned copies of the Constitution. Theodore and Thomas would each go on to become members of the Secret Six who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The conclusion they reached was that violence, even war, was preferable to slavery.
What I’d like you to do is pause and consider what you might have done had you been there a century and a half ago. Would you have joined the mob and gone to the jail that night to free Anthony Burns from bondage? A few years earlier, a Boston mob had walked into the courtroom during a hearing for a runaway slave named Shadrach Minkins, snatched him away from the proceedings, carried him out of the courthouse, and sent him on his way to Canada where he would live the rest of his life as a free man. Would you have advocated the use of force, as Parker did? Would you have dressed in black and stood by the side of the street to witness the procession as Anthony Burns’ return to slavery was enforced by the United States military?
What do you think you would have done? What do you hope you would have done? What was the right thing to do? By what moral calculus do you decide?
[Musical Interlude – “Revolution” by the Beatles]
About a week and a half ago I had lunch with a group of local UU ministers, and I have to tell you that I walked away with second thoughts about the sermon this morning. I shared with them the idea of preaching about different notable movies from 2012 in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards. They found this idea intriguing. Then I shared, specifically, that this week I’d be talking about two violent and controversial films, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty. Only one other minister in the room had seen either of these two films, and several of the ministers seemed appalled that I had even seen the films, much less that I was planning to deliver a sermon about them. As one of my colleagues put it, “I try not to expose myself to toxic things.” Was it too late, I wondered, to get a babysitter and take Anne to see The Silver Linings Playbook?
Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are both violent and controversial films that have been condemned by some at the same time that they have received critical acclaim; each film received five Oscar nominations including for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Django Unchained is directed by Quentin Tarantino whose films typically take the form of violent revenge fantasies. This film, a Western set in the antebellum south, sparked controversy for its shocking violence and for the way that slavery is depicted by Tarantino, a white director. The director Spike Lee, who hadn’t seen the film, called it disrespectful to his ancestors and asked people not to see the film. That controversy, however, is small potatoes compared to the firestorm that surrounded Zero Dark Thirty, a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow that deals with the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty was originally scheduled for release in October which had Republicans calling foul, concerned that the movie would be seen as a tacit endorsement of Barack Obama. Further, it has been alleged that the CIA leaked classified information to the filmmakers. However, most of the controversy revolves around the depiction of torture in the film, for which it has been attacked by many on the liberal left as well as by politicians of all stripes, from Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to Senator John McCain of Arizona. Does the film tolerate, excuse, condone, or apologize for the use of torture? Does it suggest the efficacy of torture? If so, that’s a big problem. The harshest critics of the film have compared Bigelow to the Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. These are controversial films.
The backstory of Django Unchained is that Django and Broomhilda are slaves who are married to each other. They attempted to escape slavery together but were caught, tortured, branded with an “r” on their cheek for “runaway,” and sold to separate plantations. The story begins when Django, played by Jamie Foxx, winds up coming into the employment of a bounty hunter played by Christopher Waltz. The bounty hunter strikes a deal. If Django will help him earn the bounty on a gang of outlaws, he will grant Django his freedom and help him rescue Broomhilda. It turns out that Broomhilda is now owned by the especially sadistic Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. They conjure up a plan to rescue her that involves peacefully deceiving Candie and tricking him into selling Broomhilda to them. However, as their peaceful plan unfolds, they realize that acting peacefully requires them to witness passively as acts of grotesque violence are done to others. Finally, the peaceful plan goes haywire but Django manages to get another opportunity to attempt to rescue Broomhilda. This time he elects the path of direct violence, killing the bad guys and saving the good ones.
Unlike Life of Pi, the movie that I spoke about a few weeks ago, Django Unchained is not exactly a thoughtful movie whose subject matter inspires profound conversation. However, after seeing the film, I found myself reflecting about the morality of violence and about moments in our religious history where violence was encouraged and blessed. I thought about Theodore Parker. Parker once officiated a wedding for a pair of fugitive slaves, William and Ellen Craft. During the wedding ceremony, Parker presented the husband with a sword and charged him to use it if necessary to protect his freedom and his wife’s freedom. I thought of the attempted raid to free Anthony Burns and the passive Bostonians who watched a man be marched back into slavery. The violence in Django Unchained is gruesome, but is it justified?
I imagined placing the rough sketch of the narrative of Django Unchained in conversation with the story of the murderous mob of Theodore Parker’s Boston. Parker quite clearly believed that there were uses of violence that were legitimate and justifiable, a pistol by his desk to protect the escaped slaves in his home. And, I have a feeling that if Theodore Parker and Quentin Tarantino sat down and had a beer together, Quentin would say, “Exactly. The violence I depict is justifiable as well.” Tarantino’s motivation in his movies is to create characters so evil, so loathsome, and so irredeemable that the vengeance that is inevitably inflicted upon them seems cathartic and defensible. Tarantino is a seducer who trades in the seductiveness of violence. Would Parker be seduced? I think he very well might be.
But then I imagine Kathryn Bigelow sliding up next to Quentin and Theodore at the bar and saying, “Let me say something about seduction.” I went to go see Zero Dark Thirty last month and I think it is a movie that is hard to interpret. That’s probably generous. There could be two reasons for why the movie feels complex. One reason could be that the director and writers were confused about the movie they were making and didn’t succeed in getting it to jell into a coherent narrative. The other reason could be that the team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal decided to create a story that was intentionally impressionistic and vague.
Here is what one very positive review of the film had to say, “Getting bin Laden isn’t the cathartic triumph at the end of a hard road, but an absolute horrorshow, treated without the faintest squeak of rah-rah triumphalism. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t meant as a stirring tribute to the men and women responsible for taking down bin Laden, though their bravery and persistence is duly respected. It’s a film about revenge and its immense costs, different from a common vigilante story because of the target, not the arc. The events of 9/11 call for a response, but from the torture scenes in the beginning to the raid on Abbottabad a decade later, Zero Dark Thirty takes the audience down a grim, terrifying path that isn’t relieved by the death of the elusive man who killed 3,000 Americans. Some demons cannot be exorcised.”
I think the point I want to make about seduction works either way here. If Kathryn Bigelow was seduced by the CIA into taking a position that seems to condone torture, well then she was seduced. If the film is about immense cost of pursuing vengeance and the toll that it takes, then it is still a cautionary tale about the seductiveness of violence.
And so I imagine Kathryn coming to sit next to Theodore and Quentin at the bar and warning them that the violent path is seductive and takes its toll. I think we can debate whether Theodore Parker was right when he said that “Liberty is the end and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.” I think that in cases of self-defense, Parker may in fact be right. However, I don’t think we can debate the reality that violence is not cathartic and glorious and triumphant. It is dark and destructive. Violence does not create wholeness; it rips at the fabric of humanity, it tears apart.
At the bar, I imagine Kathryn saying, “The title of my film has at least a double meaning. “Zero Dark Thirty” is military term for very late at night. It refers to the fact that the mission to kill Bin Laden took place in the darkest part of the night. The other meaning is not literal, but metaphorical. The decade long effort to find and kill Bin Laden involved a hell of a lot of darkness. The darkness of war in Afghanistan and the detour into war in Iraq. The darkness of CIA black sites and torture in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay. The darkness of children killed by bombs and the families of American servicemen and servicewomen being torn apart by death, injury, PTSD, and fathers and mothers missing seeing their children grow up. The darkness of civil liberties infringed. The darkness of more money than you can possibly imagine drained from health care, education, and infrastructure and instead burned up in the exploding of bombs or transferred to the coffers of the Halliburtons of the world and other war profiteering corporations.
I imagine Kathryn turning to Theodore and Quentin and saying, “By your calculus, some violence is justifiable. Your equation is correct. But let me also say that violence is dark as hell. This is not a celebratory toast. We’re drowning our sorrows. It is a hell of a price that we’ve paid.”