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)

Advertisements

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.”

curious-est and curious-est

After my “curiouser and curiouser”

blog post of August 2nd,

commenting on our increasingly stranger and stranger

(mostly about Trump) presidential campaign, I reckoned

that between then and November 8th

I’d be moved to write a piece

called “curious-est and curious-est”

(for I love to make up words when I can’t find ones that best

express

my sense of what I perceive as essentially oddest

or fundamentally quirkiest

about our quintessential humanness).

 

Also in my August 18th post,

“my pivot,”

I declared my dismay

with folk on the airways,

whether candidates, political commentators,

or reporters,

who, standing on whatever side

of the political divide

were unwilling and unable

to channel

some (any!) degree of personal honesty,

humility,

indeed, integrity

to say of an opponent,

of another view a proponent,

You have a point.”

 

Thus, at that time,

I decided for a time

to walk away

from my day to day

view

of the news.

 

Well, some of the latest

words & deeds of the (unprincipled?)

principals,

which I consider fancifully (comically) escapist,

if not also colonially (sadly) expansionist,

have caught my attention,

leading me, at least once more –

long before

I thought I would

or could

to exercise my imagination…

 

To wit, Trump, in every recent speech

seeking to reach

African American voters –

appealing

by asking,

regarding

his view

of Democratic policies failed and few,

“What have you got to lose?” –

might, I think, choose

to make his pitch to an audience other

than largely white and rather to one with people of color.

 

Even more, Trump,

concerning

his cornerstone stance on immigration,

pledging

the immediate deportation

of “illegals”, 11+ million, each and every,

by force, if necessary,

now,

with a speedy,

practically

and politically

expedient nod to the Hispanic community,

is contemplating the “softening”

of his policy.

 

Still more, Trump, citing an audit

(for a man of his wealth, nothing odd about it)

won’t his tax returns release.

Hmmm, has he something to hide

about his business and financial ties?

Or is it

that he doesn’t

have as many billions as he contends

or that his liabilities trend

far higher than the value of his properties?

 

Now, not, never to overlook Clinton

whose problems with her family Foundation

continue to dominate the front page,

verily, the center stage

of her White House run;

involving foreign national contributions

that loom large in the pay-to-play

State Department controversies

and her stubbornly ongoing,

insufferably never-ending,

supernally everlasting

email difficulties.

 

Ah, “curious-est and curious-est,”

yes,

I believe this describes this campaign season best.

Or perhaps a word even better than best

is the one I used already

in my August 1st post, “unreliability & unreality”:

“mess”!

 

Still, I digress

with one last comment,

at least for this moment…

 

“Politics,”

it hath oft been said,

“makes strange bedfellows,”

meaning, I suppose,

that common interests can bring together those

who, on the face of their individual views, would oppose

each other.

 

So, I wonder,

verily, imagine something even curious-est than this curious-est

presidential election campaign mess:

What if two diametrically disparate groups –

say, right-wing constitutional conservatives

and left-wing social progressives –

both tending to speak from the ground of reasoned conviction

and neither liking the choice between Trump and Clinton,

coalesced;

that is, formed a – however temporary – union,

indeed, a communion

to engage in sober conversation

(one void of dissembling disingenuity,

the sort of which I hear from the major political parties)

about national policy.

 

The point?

To bring to the center the far-flung positions

on one of our dominant continuums of opinion

as an act of radical inclusion,

therefore, counter to the division

so characteristic of this election season.

 

The purpose of the conversation?

To see,

if declared enemies,

as people of goodwill,

might find a way, still

unfound

and unknown,

toward a consensus

to bring us –

not some of us

or only friends of us

or just us,

but all of us

forward toward a future of equality

and opportunity.