Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

“slaves”?

Every Tuesday, I am blessed to join several of my sister and brother clergy in a Christian ecumenical, biracial group for Bible study. Our camaraderie is high and, concerning our shared ministry as preachers, our scholarship of the Word, broad, and our pastoral sensitivity regarding our people, deep.

Today, one of our passages of study was Luke 17.5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink and later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves. We have done only what we ought to have done!’.”

One of us commented that given her awareness that many black folk share a painful and indelible memory of institutional slavery as a part of their familial inheritance and their sense of our national history, she has difficulty saying the word, “slaves”, preferring to substitute “servants.” Our conversation expanded to encompass our considerations that the Greek doúlos can be translated “slave” or “servant”, that the principle meaning of the text focuses on what it is to be a slave or servant of Christ, thus making either term applicable, and that “worthless” does not mean “valueless” or “useless”, but rather “unprofitable”, signifying that in following and seeking to do Jesus’ will, we, as Christian slaves or servants, fulfill our calling; no more, no less.

All this I understand and accept. Still, as one who need trace back only five generations to find ancestors who were slaves, the word problematic for me. (I feel the same way about “master”, often the English rendering of the Greek kúriós [lord], which, when I encounter it [e.g., Luke 16.3, 5, 8], I favor “owner” [that is, of land or of a business, but not of people].)

For the remainder of this day and into this night, I have mused on this portion of this morning’s Bible study conversation.

In today’s mail, I received from a dear friend the program of God’s gonna trouble the water, a presentation of readings and spirituals in celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, held last week at the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC. One of the recitations particularly arrested my attention:

In consequence of (my master’s) decease, it became necessary to sell the estate and the slaves, in order to divide the property among the heirs…My brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while my mother…looked on in an agony of grief…My mother was then separated from me, and…was bought by a man named Isaac R(iley)…and then I was offered to the assembled purchasers. My mother, half distracted with the parting forever from all her children, pushed through the crowd…to the spot where R(iley) was standing. She fell at his feet, and clung to his knees, entreating him in tones that a mother only could command, to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare to her one of her little ones at least. Will it, can it be believed that this man, thus appealed to, was capable not merely of turning a deaf ear to her supplication, but of disengaging himself from her with such violent blows and kicks, as to reduce her to the necessity of creeping out of his reach, and mingling the groan of bodily suffering with the sob of a breaking heart…[1]

Reading and rereading these words, my soul wept. Yes, I’ve not known so horrendous an experience. Yet I am the fruit in my day and time of those in my family tree who, in their generations, bore the brunt of the lash, the choke of the chain, the brutality of daily inhumanity. Therefore, when reading scripture aloud in worship, I will not, I cannot say, “slaves.”

 

Footnote:

[1] The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), pages 3-4, by Josiah Henson (1789-1883); here, text amended for brevity

a meditation on race, repost

I am honored to serve as a member of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina’s Race and Reconciliation Committee. The initial planning and team-building retreat was held on Saturday-Sunday, August 27-28, at Camp Gravatt, Aiken, SC.

In the light and shadow of my immediate post-retreat reflections, I repost a meditation on race (here, revised more lyrically, for this is how the words willed themselves to be heard by my heart this day) that I wrote on my blog page on August 13, 2014. The sentiments herein continue to represent my sense of things.

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What is race? A thing to run? If so, how?

 

A thing to run toward as a shelter of safety

in which one’s identity

dwells secure?

A ground on which one’s integrity,

the maintenance of that identity,

is assured?

 

Or is race a thing to run through to get to the other

side to stand with “the other”

so to see one another

through the lens of our common humanity,

as in that generation ago

liberal-minded goal

of a color-blind society?

(A laudable ideal in theory;

one, however, beset by an insoluble reality:

Even when color-blind, we still see black and white. Thus, we can’t run through race

to some mythological place

of color unconsciousness.)

 

Or is race a thing from which to run, afraid of “the other”,

conscious of what we’ve been taught and learned,

and so consider,

or rather

believe about “them”, about “those people”?

 

Or is race a thing from which to run from ourselves, refusing to be identified,

vilified

by our race, in fear of rejection

and isolation

by the prejudice that prejudges without benefit of information

about us?

 

Or is race

a thing from which to run from ourselves, fearing to face

our prejudice

our prejudgments of others based

on evidence other

than what we can garner

only through our encounters personal,

our engagements with individuals?

 

Race. A thing to run? No. Rather a thing to be

as an expression of diversity…

 

A diversity – seen from a theological perspective of divine intention

and from an anthropological point of view of the creation –

paradoxically, best shown

and seen as one.

For there is but one race, whose name is holy.

And that race is wholly

human…

 

So Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

An essential element of a life of justice and compassion

is our knowing

our neighbor

and honoring

our neighbor,

who is anyone

and our being a neighbor to everyone.

 

Then why,

O why

do we, in fear, still divide

ourselves one from another,

color by color?

 

Despite our ideals greatest

and intentions best,

our history and sociology

continually trump our theology and anthropology.

 

Let us pray

and struggle still that we may find a more excellent way.

the sin of blame

The Lord God called to the man, saying, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked and I hid myself.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”[1]

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (c. 1426) Masaccio (ne Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone) (1401-1428)

According to the Genesis story, the first act of the first humans, first having defied God’s will, was to deny all, any responsibility for their actions; the man blaming the woman, the woman blaming the serpent, and both blaming God, explicitly and implicitly, respectively. So it seems that a chief manifestation of human sin[2] is to shirk accountability, pointing a finger of reproach somewhere else at something or someone else.

July 5-17. In the dizzying, disorienting heart-rending spin of thirteen days, two black men were shot and killed during encounters with police and two black men, with declarations of retaliation, in separate incidents of ambush, killed five and three police officers. These tragic events are microcosmic elements of the American dis-ease of strained, estranged race relations, particularly in regard to the police community.

Today, the Republican National Convention begins in Cleveland; a week later, in Philadelphia, the Democratic National Convention. I will watch and listen, praying mightily to see and hear deeds and words of prescience and prudence, reason and respect in relation to race and the myriad of difficulties facing the nation and the world. For the last thing I believe we need is the first thing the first humans did when confronted by God.

 

Illustration: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (c. 1426) Masaccio (ne Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone) (1401-1428)

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 3.9-13, emphases mine.

[2] I define sin (from the Greek hamartia, literally “missing the mark”) as our innate human propensity, whether involving an individual or a family, a clan or a tribe, a community or a society, a people or a nation, to exercise our self-will in self-(often selfishly)interested ways  that violate a right (holy, wholesome, healthy) relationship with God, others, and ourselves.

rooting for the reboot of ROOTS?

roots 4 forest landscapes, Paolo Neo (Public-Domain-Photos.com)

Last night, I watched the first of four installments, running on consecutive evenings on the History Channel, of Roots; a remake of the history-making, award-winning 1977 ABC miniseries. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the movie traces the journey, verily, the founding of a family from Kunte Kinte, the progenitor, from West African shores via the brutal Middle Passage of slave ships across the Atlantic through the horrors of institutional slavery in the United States and the rise toward freedom of subsequent generations.

In 39 years, there are differences (the barest thumbnail sketch)…

Viewership, a (the) measure of commercial success.

In 1977, millions upon millions of viewers tuned in.

In 2016, this new edition, airing on a cable channel, won’t be, can’t be seen by as many folk.

Race, a measure (one of my chiefest barometers) of social progress.

In 1977, one could look back to the previous decade to the hopeful signs of the legislative victories of the Civil and Voter Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, and to the gloomy specters of the race riots of the mid-to-late 1960s as long-simmering black rage exploded, engulfing mostly northern American cities and the reactionary era of the dominant culture’s retreat from social reform (aka white backlash). In 1977, though black-white economic disparity remained, one could look around and behold progress, largely, I think, in the worlds of academe and the professions as schools and businesses actively sought to integrate and diversify their student bodies (doubtless, a change from which I benefited personally) and employee ranks.

In 2016, though pointing to continued advancements toward inclusion in the fields of politics (our 44th President Barack Obama being a frequently invoked exemplar of progress), education, and business, in this era of the rise and power of the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement and judicial impartiality, job prospects and economic viability remain present concerns, plaguing thorns in the American flesh. Moreover, to enlarge the spectrum, Arab and Hispanic Americans continue to face the unrelenting glare of discrimination under the bright, yet often unfocused light of our national passions, prejudices about terrorism and immigration.

Me, a (the) measure of my sense of self.

In 1977, when Roots originally aired on January 23-30, I was in my final seminary semester. I watched, largely in tearful silence, the visually, viscerally disturbing depictions of the human savagery of slavery. I watched, still largely in silence, yet with tears of hope, the painstaking pilgrimage of Kunte Kinte’s progeny from bondage to emancipation. I listened, again largely in silence, to the responses of viewers and film critics, news reporters and social/political commentators debating the accuracy of the history Roots portrayed, the necessity of the unvarnished representations of inhumanity, and the efficacy of the film’s purported subtext in elevating the racial consciousness of America. Then I shouted in exultation, for Roots, a visual, visceral validation of my American experience, inspired me in the quest and discovery of my familial roots.

In 2016, I half-watched last night’s episode. Throughout the evening, I switched back-and-forth between Roots and the National Basketball Association’s Western Conference game 7 final between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors. Yes, I am a rabid sports aficionado, yet, also true, I found the scenes of slavery’s debasement and defilement of black folk too upsetting and more disturbing than in 1977.

Why?

In 1977, at the age of 24, I had begun to formulate my belief that, as institutional slavery was a key element of the economic, political, and social foundation of America, racism remained an indelible and virulent strand in our national DNA.

In 2016, nearly 64 years of age, my belief that too many Americans, in tenacious opposition to the ardent plea of Martin Luther King Jr., continue to teach and to learn to judge one another not on the content of one’s character, but by the color of one’s skin has become a certainty. Therefore, I do not believe that Americans, no matter how tolerant, even celebrative of diversity (and in my view of history, our national welcome and embrace of pluralism is, at best, cyclical and fragmentary, and, at worst, susceptible to suppression by the repeated rise of nativism, so evident in this current political season) ever can escape the necessity of dealing with race. Hence, I do root that the reboot of Roots may spark and strengthen another and deeper round of our national conversation.

 

Illustration: roots 4 forest landscapes, Paolo Neo (Public-Domain-Photos.com)

 

a privileged position

Recently a friend shared a web post on privilege, pointing to the reality that humans, by virtue of qualities of birth beyond individual command or control, e.g., gender (read: male), race (read: white), affluence (read: rich and educated), nationality (read: American), and combinations thereof, possess unspoken, often unconscious economic, environmental, political, and social advantages.

As I read the article, I was reminded of a passage addressing this issue from my June 2008 novella, The Makings of a Memorable Life. (Since 2006, I’ve been writing these works of fictional prose for personal pleasure and the exercise of my imagination.) I share the episode.

The characters: Madeleine Katharine Fitzgerald, 26, only child of a prominent Atlanta family of attorneys, a graduate of Cornell University and law school. Carl Antony Thomas, “Cat”, 21, born to a farming family on the outskirts of the fictional small town of Robardsville, SC, recently completing his sophomore college year, his matriculation having been delayed by family struggles and personal strife.

The scene: Washington, DC, 1971 (not long after the end of the formal Civil Rights Era and the emergence of the Black Power movement and the April 1968 rioting in DC and 110 American cities, the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that made unmistakably visible and palpable the all-consuming rage in many a heart and soul). Cat is visiting Madeleine, who works in DC. They return to her apartment following dinner with one of Madeleine’s clients and friends, Dorothea Jackson, who, meeting Cat for the first time, hardly veiled her skepticism about mixed raced couples.

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Entering the apartment, swiftly Madeleine turned, closing the door; leaning against the wall, sighing, trying to release the terrible discomfort she had harbored all evening. “I’m sorry, Cat. I just don’t understand.”

I do. The idea that people need to stay with ‘their own kind’ isn’t held only by white folk. Black folk, some of us, believe it, too.” His sadness suddenly was eclipsed by an explosion of energy and anger. “And if I’m a ‘good man,’ a ‘good black man,’ why do I want a white woman? Am I rejecting women of my own race?” Gesturing madly, speaking to some unseen audience of inquisitors, he paced about the room, seeking without success a comfortable place to stand, without and within. “Do I think black women are inferior? No! Less beautiful? No! Less attractive than white women? No! Have I bought into the white culture’s definition of what is beautiful? No, I have not!”

Madeleine was overwhelmed by the vigor of his oration, the tenor of his voice. “I never would think those things about you!”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You’re white. It wouldn’t ever occur to you.” Standing still, he looked into her eyes. “It doesn’t have to occur to you.”

She hadn’t quite understood what he was saying, but felt he had misunderstood her expression of confidence in him. The conversation having turned in a perplexing way left her feeling lost, anxious, and defensive. “What do you mean, Cat?”

“It’s the privilege of being white in America, especially if you’re privileged. And you are, Madeleine! You don’t have to think about what you have or don’t have because you’ve always had whatever was considered valuable. In fact, you…not you, Madeleine, but you, white people, always have had the power to define what was valuable. So, you don’t have to think about whether you’re buying into someone else’s definitions. They’re all yours! Money. Opportunity. Society, you know, family and friendships that were given to you at birth. Even dreams! You’ve always been able to dream without having to pay a price for it. The price of having a dream, but not being able to fulfill it. You always could dream and make it come true!” Again Cat strode around the room, his arms flailing, his voice rising and falling in accord with the overflow of his anger and sorrow.

She never had seen him like this and it, he frightened her. What scared her most was her sense of the divide between them. One she hadn’t thought about, even given their experiences and encounters with those whose bigotry and racism was pronounced. One, given what he had said, she believed he must have thought about many times. “You’re right, Cat. I haven’t…I don’t think about these things. Definitions of value or beauty. Do you? Do they occur to you?”

“Of course they do! I’ve asked and answered myself many, many times, especially once I knew I had fallen in love with you.”

And?” Apprehensive, she bent forward, not sure of his reply and knowing she had to ask.

“No. I’ve already said that I don’t believe white is the standard of beauty. I don’t believe I’ve opted for the dominant culture’s description of what is good and fine or desirable. At least, not consciously.”

“I think I understand that. As hard as it is to hear.”

“Yeah. Like a fish in water breathing through its gills.” Coming to rest, his turn to lean against the wall, his hands stuffed in his pockets, he exhaled. “It’s hard to know at any moment how much of the environment is inside you or out.”

time for change

The November 23 issue of Time magazine arrived in the mail. On the front cover: On the night of June 17, a gunman opened fire in the basement of a church in Charleston. Nine people died. Five survived. What It Takes to Forgive a Killer. Survivors and families tell their stories.

Inside, on pages 42-68, writer David Von Drehle with Jay Newton-Small and Maya Rhodan, and photographer Deana Lawson share, with sensitivity and care, vignettes and portraits from the lives of the dead, recounts of ongoing grieving by their families, and testaments of the peace of forgiveness and the power of anger and resentment.

One essay arrests my attention, perhaps because it addresses an issue I oft ponder: Searching for signs of a change in Charleston by John Huey. I have believed for quite a while that as institutional slavery was so key an element of the economic, political, and social foundation of America that racism remains an indelible and virulent strand in our national DNA. We, Americans, seemingly continue to teach and to learn to judge one another as “the other” based, in tenacious opposition to the ardent plea of Martin Luther King, Jr., not on the content of one’s character, but rather by the color of one’s skin. Huey, responding to his own question about meaningful change, answers “yes and no.”

As I have poured, prayed over these pages, I continue to dream of change. It is time. Long past time. Out of the depths of my hurt at what I still see and from the heights of my hope for what I long to behold, I recall and share a prayer I wrote some years ago:

O Gracious God, source and substance of light and liberty, in whom no dungeon-darkness dwells, you made yourself known to Hagar, a slave, when she was rejected by human hearts and, redeemed by your hand, you showered the succor of your mercy and grace upon her. For that she called you El-roi, God of seeing. By your Self-same Spirit, O God, pour upon us that gift of sight that we may be liberated from our darkness of ignorance and fear through which we reject others who appear and who are other than we. In your sight, may we see the better and brighter horizons of hope of reconciliation, and of peace among all peoples. This we ask in faithfulness by the favor of Jesus Christ, another rejected by human hearts and redeemed by your hand, who is our Liberator. Amen.[1]

[1] Race and Prayer, Collected Voices, Many Dreams, Malcolm Boyd and Chester L. Talton, editors, Morehouse Publishing, 2003, page 150