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.

saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.

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.