Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Kings 9:10-25) transports me to the newly designed nation’s capitol at the beginning of the 19th century, as President John Adams and First Lady Abigail move from Philadelphia into the new executive mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue. The massive building, later to be known as the White House, was constructed largely by forced labor. African American slaves dug the foundations, quarried the stone, made bricks, cut timber, and performed rough and finished carpentry work for the seat of executive power designed by Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant in the land of the free. Along with the East Room and West Wing, the mansion included slave quarters in the basement, and slaves served as domestic staff well into the 1850s. Congressman Gary Ackerman from New York sent a letter last week to President Obama, encouraging official recognition of the role of slave labor in the construction of the White House. Two years ago, Representative John Lewis from Georgia led the effort to get a similar commemoration for the slaves who built the Capitol. Representative Ackerman, in his letter to the President, stated that While slavery is no moment worthy of national pride, the American way has always been to acknowledge our wrongs and constantly strive for better. It is wrong not to acknowledge wrongs. An acknowledgment of the role of slave labor displayed in the White House would be an important symbol that the United States does not run from its history, but rather learns from it.
The same kind of conflicted history marked by political realities clashing with ideals is evident in the construction of Israel’s seats of power, the Royal Palace and Temple. When King Solomon and his First Lady (or Ladies, in his case) moved into the executive mansion, they were inhabiting quarters built by forced labor. Slaves dug the foundations, quarried the stone, made bricks, cut timber, and performed rough and finished carpentry work. The chroniclers of Israel’s history must have had their own versions of John Lewis and Gary Ackerman, for the work of these slaves is commemorated for all to see here in I Kings 9. Solomon conscripted the descendants of all the conquered ethnic groups left in the Promised Land after the conquest. All the people they were not able to exterminate, the story tells us, remained as slaves. It’s more than ironic to read that this King of a liberated nation birthed out of an exodus from slavery was presiding over the same peculiar institution. The wise King made regular pilgrimages to the slave-built Temple to make sacrifice to the God of freedom. I wonder if this was in the back of Jesus’ mind as he cleansed the Temple of its marketplace accoutrements and predicted its downfall. Did he realize that the foundational clash of values – slavery and liberation – at work in the construction of the Temple, meant that the edifice was on shaky ground to begin with, and the faith community needed to learn from its history and construct its future on a more solid foundation of freedom?
Our nation, situated here in a conquered Promised Land, has been working out our clash of values relative to freedom throughout our history. The White House has been the center of many of the power struggles as people have scratched and fought and sung their way to freedom. Perhaps one of the more memorable moments came in October of 1994, when newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela was honored in a White House ceremony. He got to hear his favorite singer perform at that event, as Whitney Houston sang People Who Need People and The Greatest Love of All in the Rose Garden for her hero. And now, the news of the day is that President Obama, the first African American to occupy the seat of executive power, will pay tribute to Whitney Houston by singing at her memorial service. You just have to wonder what all those ghosts of the original builders think about it all.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith?