Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?

thinking

I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.

It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?

It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.

And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.

For a number of reasons.

Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.

An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.

In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.

In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.

And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea”[1] – won’t, can’t happen.

 

Footnote:

[1] Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

moral inequivalence

Moral equivalency. Two words, these days, seemingly every day, uttered in the public square. In my view, to cite a moral equivalence between two competing, perhaps conflicting points of view, is to assert that one side is no better or worse, greater or lesser, higher or lower than the other in the ethical terms of societally accepted and honored principles of being and behavior.

Since last weekend’s unrest in Charlottesville involving injurious and fatal clashes between Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, and other groups of white supremacists and counter-demonstrators, President Donald Trump has reacted variously.

His first response, as we have come to expect, a tweet: We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets (sic) come together as one!

Later, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Even later, “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Still later, Mr. Trump, in response to a reporter’s statement about Senator John McCain’s assertion that the alt-right fomented the violence in Charlottesville, said, in part: “…what about the alt-left that came charging…the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?…Do they have any problem? I think they do…I think there is blame on both sides…You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.” And, in reference to the alt-right, he said, also in part: “…not all of those people were neo-Nazis…Not all of those people were white supremacists…”

Mr. President, we Americans treasure our First Amendment free speech. You have the right to hold and harbor, espouse and express your point, indeed, points of view. I, too, and, in this case, I have only one. There is not and cannot be any moral equivalence between the attitudes and actions of those who advocate anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism and those who promote human equality. Ever. Period. Full stop.

Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

on sin & evil

In these immediate post-Charlottesville days, the air is filled with two words: sin and evil. (As I recollect, the same was not true following the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; but I digress.)

As I listen and read, it occurs to me that the application of these terms is dependent on where one stands, one’s foundational and formative worldview, that fundamental lens through which one perceives and understands reality. It also occurs to me that most often most speakers and writers employ “sin” and “evil” without definition, leaving me to labor to intuit their intent.

Speaking always and only for myself, I am a Christian who believes in God, as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth through the eternal Spirit, as unconditional Love (generosity, magnanimity) and Justice (equality, impartiality) for all, always and in all ways.

Therefore, for me, the word sin, derived from the Greek hamartia, meaning, “missing the mark”, conjures the image of an archer whose arrows (figuratively, one’s aims and aspirations) fall short of the bullseye of the target; a metaphor, in Christian theological nomenclature, for God, the source, the center of life and, in existential terms, for authentic, faithful living that is true to the purpose of one’s creation, which is to be loving and just.

Poneros, one of the Greek words for evil, interestingly, I think, originally was associated with the exhaustion of long and hard work so to be no longer fit or functional (for example, a HVAC system that breaks down, its warranty expired, and replacement parts no longer available, which Pontheolla and I had to replace recently; but I digress!). Poneros, when imbued with an ethical dimension regarding human behavior, connotes thoughts and feelings, intentions and actions that are not godly, not loving and just.

In the light and shadow of Charlottesville, again, speaking always and only for myself, this is non-exhaustive (painfully, sorrowfully, doubtlessly to be continued) list of sins and evils:

  • anti-Semitism
  • bigotry
  • hate crimes
  • hatred
  • homophobia
  • Ku Klux Klan
  • misanthropy
  • misogyny
  • neo-Nazism
  • prejudice
  • racism
  • terrorism (foreign and domestic)
  • violence
  • white (or any other color) nationalism
  • white (or any other color) supremacy

a monumental issue

In an August 13 missive, my bishop, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,[1] shared her reflections on the recent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving a demonstration by groups of white supremacists centered on their protest against the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee.[2] Opening with the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that”, Bishop Budde wrote with clear-eyed passion about “our nation’s demon of racism” that “(spews) hatred and (incites) violence.” She continued with her approbations of the heartfelt convictions of those in the Charlottesville community who mobilized and marched in peaceful counter-demonstration; their presence in the streets a public incarnation and witness to the value of human equality.[3]

Bishop Budde ended her reflections, writing: “…the symbols and monuments of the Confederacy serve as touchstones and rallying sites for racial hatred…There are, in my mind, only two morally defensible options: either remove Confederate symbols and monuments or contextualize them with the truth of their origins and a broader narrative of our past to include the voices we’ve silenced and the stories we’ve never heard.”

I am a historically-minded-and-hearted person. History, the chronicle of human events, words, and deeds in time and space, is a primary lens through which I perceive reality. I also, perhaps as a congenital Gemini-esque quality, strive to understand the perspectives of others, all others, even and especially those with whom I disagree.

Given these aspects of my nature, as elemental to me as breath, I wrestle with the issue of what to do with monuments to the Confederacy and the Confederate flag.[4] For I understand that these symbols represent, for some, the reprehensible reality of institutional slavery and, for others, irrefutable and irreplaceable markers of their treasured history and heritage. Hence, I understand the impassioned cry to remove them and the stalwart call to keep them in place. I also understand (or I think I do) how difficult, perhaps well-nigh impossible it is to separate attitudes and feelings of animus from either position, thus, to leave the monuments in place or to remove them is for one or the other an act of oppression.

All this said I am not an indifferent observer. I am a person who identifies – in part by choice, in part perforce by the classifications of society – as an African American. Yet I am the literal fruit from Hispanic roots on my father’s side blended, on my mother’s side, less than five generations past, with white seed.

All this said, having run back and forth many times along the continuum of thought and feeling, I believe that the monuments to the Confederacy are to be removed[5] from parks and streets. This, for me, is one of the lessons of Charlottesville. For it is one thing to behold in a statue of General Lee a historical figure, no more, no less. It is another thing to see a symbol of the subjugation of a people. It is still another thing to remember with reverence a past cause. And it is yet another thing to perceive an anamnetic[6] rallying cry that compels the calling of that past cause into the living present, which, I believe, the forces of white supremacy seek to do.

And if any of the monuments are not demolished, then let them be displayed in museums or perhaps on a Civil War battlefield, in each case, affixed with plaques and other memorabilia detailing the histories of those who lived and fought and died on both sides of the war and the stories of those who lived and died in slavery.

For, it seems to me, that sometimes the best or, perhaps better said, wisest way to address the past, particularly a troubled past is not to parade its images in the public square unembellished by critical commentary, but rather to present them, if at all, in the simplest, starkest light of truth.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Although I have retired and reside in South Carolina, I remain canonically (that is, by the rule of law of the Episcopal Church, officially) resident in the Diocese of Washington, where I served two parishes in Washington, DC, for a total of nearly 27 years, the bulk of my active full-time ministry.

[2] Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) American Civil War commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (1862-1865)

[3] The complete text of Bishop Budde’s reflections can be read at: https://www.edow.org/about/bishop-mariann/writings/

[4] Also known as the rebel flag, the Dixie flag, and the Southern cross.

[5] By “removed”, I mean through the decision-making processes of elected and representative municipal bodies and not via the self-authorized vigilante actions of citizens.

[6] My made-up word drawn from the Greek anamnesis, which generally infers an act of remembrance that goes beyond a cognitive recollection of a past event or era, but rather actively seeks to recall, indeed, to recreate that past event or era in the present.

this one word

thinking

I am 65 years old. In my lifetime, I have been referred to (and I have referred to myself) successively as Negro, Black, and African American. Throughout my lifetime, there’s another word, whatever my age, to which I have been referred, though never by me about me (and, here, I will not use the pseudo-polite euphemism, the n-word): nigger.

I can remember the first time I heard (or perhaps more accurately stated, I can remember the first time I recall hearing) this word. I was 13. On a crisp autumn Saturday, my St. Louis Boy Scout troop was on a 5-mile hike near the town of Hillsboro, Missouri. On a remote backcountry road, passing by a lone house, four white children standing on the porch called out, pointing, laughing, “Look at the niggers!” All of us were angry. A few of us doffed our backpacks, preparing to race toward that house and confront those mean-mouthed children. Our Scoutmaster, Willie Chapman, surely mindful of where we were and alone against whoever might be in that house, commanded, “Keep marching!” We did.

I can remember the last time I heard this word. Early September, a bit more than a year ago. I stood in the checkout line (all those well acquainted with my “indoorsman” housebound tendencies might be surprised!) of one of the local hardware stores; my cart laden with tools for some garden projects. A young man was in the adjacent line; his head swathed in a sweaty bandana, his shirtless sinewy frame draped in bib overalls, the cuffs, hanging over scruffy steel-toed boots. A construction worker, I reckoned, inspiring my instant admiration for one, far surpassing me, skilled with the use of his hands to build. Leaving the store, we crossed paths, our carts nearly colliding. He grunted, “Nigger.” Surprised, I looked at him. “Yeah,” he snarled, “that’s what I said.” As calmly as I could, I answered, “I heard you” and walked away.

Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, violent skirmishes broke out between white nationalists staging a “Unite the Right” rally and counter-demonstrators, leading to multiple injuries and, as I write, one fatality.

I believe in the free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I also decry the hatred embraced, embodied in the principles and practices of racial supremacy. Whenever the two collide, as they have in Charlottesville, in countless incidences in the past, and doubtless in times to come, this one word, nigger, ringing in my consciousness of history and my experience, offending my every righteous sensibility, and reanimating my passion for the justice of equality summons me to stand against any and all who dishonor humanity by claiming any inherent or inherited superiority.

a restless prayer in perilous times

my-hands-2-27-17O Lord, our God, our times are perilous; our days o’ershadowed by threat of war, our nights, enshrouded by fear of what sorrow, whether on this land or half a world away, may befall before next light. Rocketry’s spears aim skyward, targets in sight, tipped with bombs; the only purpose of launch to rain doom and death. Leaders, comme des enfants terribles, trumpeting infantile bellicose threats of annihilation, disfigure the face of diplomacy and threaten to make nonviolent, even if uneasy resolution less an imagined ideal and more an impossibility.

O Lord, our God, though You ne’er herald our liberty from all trial and tribulation nor that our hearts ne’er will be made anxious by what transpires in time and space at the hands of despotic human wills, You alway assure, come what may, come whene’er, as Your Apostle saith, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from (Your) love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] By Your Spirit, O Lord, our God, speaking, breathing through us “with sighs too deep for words,”[2] let us pray for Your presence and power to cleave to the impregnable peace of this Your eternal promise.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 8.38-39

[2] Romans 8.26