Of Praising The Past

July 4, 2021


The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Of Praising the Past”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 11.11-19

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

During the last year Kathy and I have been exploring cemeteries. (Always a good time with me!)
It turns out three cemeteries near us hold her ancestors. Family going back around a century are buried in Kenilworth, Elizabeth, and Rahway. Recently we went to Rahway to find folks from two families in her tree.
We started near the road and worked our way back. Soon we found two of the three we were looking for, one near the front and one at the very end. Not long into our search, though, I paused for a bit. I came across an enormous obelisk that was surrounded by a wrought iron fence. I thought, “okay, so what do we have here?”
What I found is on the cover of your bulletin. At the base of the obelisk each side bears engravings in the granite for one Abraham Clark. The first side gave his dates: 1725 to 1794; the next declared that he was a conscientious and zealous Christian. The third side listed his efforts during the Revolution and ends by saying, Signer of the Declaration of Independence. The last transcribes that the monument was erected by the citizens of Rahway in 1845.
I liked the balance of the civic and religious as well as the idea that 50 years after he died the community put up one enormous obelisk in his honor. Intrigued, I started to dig, not literally, I mean I did some research.
I was truly impressed. Abraham Clark was a bit of a radical, a Jeffersonian Republican. He called for the use of paper currency to empower the small farmer and tradesman. He was a bit of forerunner in his call for transparency in government. He believed the elected officials should be available to and held accountable by the people they represent.
He warned his neighbors and constituents that if left unchecked the “moneymen” will restore the tyranny of the now discarded crown. He expressed these views anonymously in newspapers and a tract. His pen names are fantastic. He wrote as “Fellow Citizen” and as “Willing to Learn.” I love that “Willing to Learn.”
Yet, perhaps the most poignant moment, in term of history, for Abraham Clark was a terrible turn of events for his sons. Both of his sons fought in the War of Independence, and both were captured by the British and tortured. Being a known public figure, the British contacted Clark and told him his sons would be released if only he were to recant. If he recanted his signing of the Declaration of Independence, then his sons would be released. Abraham Clark said, “no.”
During my research of Clark, I must confess a moment of pause. I opened his Wikipage. It was the first line that threw me. It reads: Abraham Clark American politician, slave owner, and revolutionary figure. The pause was the placement of slave owner. All of the other research focused on his progressive, even radical, views of economic populism and his critique of those who gain from the labor of others. I am not one to turn a blind eye where history is concerned, but it was the way the charge was brought and dropped.
Pondering this I was reminded of our visit to Monticello about five years ago. Monticello is the home of Thomas Jefferson just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. It is easily one of the most beautiful places in America; the house is fascinating; and the restoration done gives you a real glimpse of life 250 years ago.
Shortly after arriving at the Welcome Center, I made my way to the theater where an introductory video was playing. The video provided the usual facts of Thomas Jefferson: renaissance man; someone who was often absent from his home being in Europe, Philadelphia and then New York and finally Washington D.C. as our third president. There is the tried-and-true oddity of his dying the same day as his fierce rival, John Adams, on this day, July 4th.
And then the video took a hard turn. It was as if the narrator said, “okay, now let’s talk about slavery.” This was not a side note or a brief disclaimer near the end of the show; this was the second half. By the end of the video one point was very clear, the house and estate of Monticello was built and sustained with slave labor and Jefferson was not just a slaveowner, but someone who defended it as a scientific/philosophical truth.
Jefferson’s slaves and his long-debated controversy of children born to Sally Hemings was not news to me. Yet, what struck me was the similarity to the first line about Abraham Clark. Slavery was not a sidenote; this was front and center. In fact, it was the last thing you heard as you left the welcome center. The point was clear: if you are going to visit this historical site, then you need to understand it through the lens and legacy of slavery.
How you write and read history is a bit controversial right now. But the thing is, history, if it’s the truth, must always be controversial. For history is the essence of the prophets and prophets, well, those folks are controversial.
There is a strange truth about prophets. They don’t predict the future. Soothsayers predict the future. Prophets, prophets remember what we have forgotten. They tell us: you have forgotten your God; you have forgotten mercy; you have forgotten justice and truth. Prophets are not about the future: they are the essence of history, the truth of our past. They call those who have forgotten to remember.
Jesus said, John was not only a prophet, but more than a prophet; he is a messenger, preparing you. For those who are born, Jesus said, there is no one greater. He is the end of the law and the prophets. John then is not only the one who interprets history; he is the essence of history. You can hear this in the cryptic teaching of Jesus, the kingdom of God is taken by violence and the violent bear it away. This is the essence of prophecy because it is our legacy. We take what is good by violence; this is our great fault of which prophets must ever remind us. This is our history.
In the Fall we will walk through the parables of Jesus that Matthew records and in each one we will revisit this violent legacy revealed one last time by John. John is the ending. Jesus will make a new way, a way beyond the legacy of the history John proclaims. For with each and every parable Jesus offers us another way of living. We can find and dwell in the kingdom of God through meekness, humility. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God; blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. This is the truth buried within each parable. We will get there. Today though we must not rush past John the Baptist.
A century after our Declaration of Independence, in 1876, Friedrich Nietzsche warned us about history. He wrote of the danger of unprophetic history, what he called monumental history. Monumental history is written by those who despise their own time and generation and seek to make a shrine to the past, to a fictional account of greatness and glory where all the ills and failures are glossed over and covered with empty praise.
In my fifteen years serving as pastor in Watertown, New York I was surprised to find that it was the officers of Fort Drum who were the harshest critics of monumental history, the dubious patriotism of a hallowed past. They concurred with Nietzsche. Monumental history was not only bad history, it was also dangerous. Fort Drum was and is the most heavily deployed Army base in the country. This is a short step to harm’s way. And monumental history that turns a blind eye to our faults and failures, where we refuse to gain wisdom, this is perhaps even more of a risk than combat.
Being close to Fort Drum for all those years I had some unique opportunities. I had lunch with General Mark Millie; Kathy and had dinner with General Lloyd Austin and his wife. About a decade ago I stood in a long line to be a speaker at a commencement ceremony for a college and I was paired with the current general of Fort Drum. During our long conversation I could feel his frustration grow as there had been talk recently about how many years our nation had been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. With a bit of expiration he said, “the nation is not at war; the army is at war. If the nation was at war, Detroit would be making tanks, not pick-up trucks.”
More than generals, though, I drank a lot of coffee with a lot of colonels. Again and again, I heard their compassion and wisdom and deep sense of calm. These were not folks easily rattled. Yet the bluster of those who posture and demand of people a certain view or seek to test their patriotism with rage and disdain was dispiriting to them. What I heard from them again and again was a love of God, family, and country, but this love was not blind or foolish and it certainly was not uniformed. They were all students of history; history was the parlance and confidence binding them together. Yet, again, and I can’t say this enough, it was honest history, clear-eyed.
I know on the Fourth of July it might be nicer or easier or tidier to just speak of Abraham Clark as a patriot or signer of the Declaration of Independence. I am certainly impressed by his life and his sacrifice. To refuse to recant, to reject the cruel offer of the British to save his sons from torture, I have a hard time imagining the courage.
I struggled with the insertion of slaveholder in the first line of his biography. I did. I struggled with this. I had a really nice sermon about the balance of the sides of the obelisk with a nice reflection about memory, remembering the past. The more I struggled with this first line though the more I felt that to ignore the legacy of violence to push aside our faults or let it be a silent shame, well, that was the opposite of how Abraham Clark lived.
Even more, I believe if ever there was a time to hold fast to what is true, not conveniently true, but truth unvarnished, now is the time. And what is more, if there was one thing I found true about the soldiers both enlisted and commissioned, if there was one consistent demand they made of me it was to not paint them in a heroic light. And what is more, their persistent hope for those not serving in uniform was to understand your duty to freedom, your part in liberty: be an informed and honest citizen. The lessons of history where we failed and stumbled, the legacy of violence in slavery, if ignored, or worse willfully offered a blind eye, that is where we come to ruin once again, forsaking the full measure of devotion offered to us.
The prophets were not meant to tell the future; they came to make clear the past, to uncover what we have buried in ignorance or fantasy or deceit. That there is something more than John is our great hope. Yet, before we seek a better future, we must be honest about our past. I do believe Abraham Clark would concur. Amen.

Bible References

  • Malachi 3:1 - 14
  • Matthew 11:7 - 19