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)

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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.

an epistemological epiphany about life and legacy

My mother named me after St. Paul. (Perhaps she knew something!) I’ve always had a kinship with the Apostle; one of his words long being a touchstone for me: Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part.[1]

It never ceases to amaze me how much I don’t know. About anything. God. The creation. Others. Myself. In this daily state of conscious ignorance, I also always am amazed when an epiphany, especially about myself (which, of the four aforementioned things, I think I should know most well, but oft do not!) dawns. It usually happens in a moment of sheer serendipity, verily, from that proverbial realm “out of nowhere.”

It happened today. I was in conversation with a friend, Carolyn. Our subjects of interest, covering a wide range – meditation, prayer, God, eternal life, reincarnation – had a common core of spiritual beliefs and practices and, even more, epistemology, and that, still more, in its most basic sense concerning how we know what we know.

I spoke of my life as a writer, mostly sermons, but also poetry, novellas, and my blog. I told Carolyn that usually I never know where the words will take me until I arrive at an “Aha!” moment of deepened self-awareness.

William John Abernathy

As an aside, I referenced my blog post of yesterday – at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)… – a personal reflection about my father, which Carolyn had read.

And then, it happened. “Aha!”

For years, truly, so long ago that I cannot recall my first awareness, I’ve loved history; the chronicle of human life in time and space is a principle lens through which I perceive reality. And as a philosophical and theological existentialist, I long have been enamored by the questions of identity and destiny; constantly asking myself who am I and who am I becoming as a person, as a creation of God?

PRA 6-19-16

In yesterday’s blog post, I wrote of my father’s largely vain pursuit of his history and identity. And it wasn’t until today as Carolyn and I talked that I realized that I bear in my blood and in my bones my father’s legacy. I now know that I, on my father’s behalf and for myself, live to fulfill his quest.

 

 

Footnote:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.12

at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)…

William John Abernathy

On this first day of August, I think six days ahead to August 7, which, if my father, William John Abernathy, were alive, would be his 106th birthday. In thinking ahead, I think of him, which, at some point, I do every day.

His was a circuitous story of the quest for identity. (Thus, is mine. Truly, I am the fruit of his existentialist seed…need.) His life’s chronicle is laden with half-written chapters and missing, irreplaceable and irreclaimable, pages, which he, to the extent that he knew, for much of his life, sought to conceal. (Why? I don’t know. Disappointment? Anger? Despair? All this and more?)

Whilst I live, my days are darkened by shadows, within and without; my gossamer, ghostly imaginings of all I wish I knew, but do not, cannot know. (This lack, perhaps, explains why I alway have loved history.) What little I have are the sketchiest details, discovered, after my father’s death on April 27, 1996, among a cache of unlabeled papers and undated photographs.

This is a part of what I (think I) know…

Pedro Silva, paternal grandfather

My grandfather, my father’s father was Pedro Silva, born at some point in the late 19th century in Santiago de Cuba. At some point, Pedro migrated to the United States. At some point, he changed his surname to DeLacey (perhaps, and this is only my surmise, “Silva”, whether spoken or written, was a barrier to American assimilation, at least, as much as possible as that might have been)…

Edith Blondell Abernathy, paternal grandmother

At some point and somewhere, Pedro met and married Edith Abernathy. Their union bore two children, my father and his younger sister, my aunt, Benita… Dad and Aunt Benita (Becky)

 

At some point and from somewhere, the family moved to Portland, Oregon…

At some point, Pedro and Edith died…

William Henry Abernathy, paternal great-grandfatherAt some point, Edith’s father, my paternal great-grandfather, William Henry, adopted my father and my aunt, declaring, in so many words, “Those who dwell under my roof will bear my name”, and changing their surnames to Abernathy.[1] 

There is much that I do know about my father from the time of my birth to his death. Today, one thought dominates. My father was plagued by an abiding, angering melancholia that nothing – not his faithful love of his wife, my mother, Lolita, not his dutiful devotion to the care and provision for his family, not his ardent patriotism, not his loyalty to the church, not his daily prayer and Bible study, not his artful mastery of avocations as diverse as model railroading and photography, not, in his darkest moments, his alcoholic binges and the pseudo-cathartic raging that always followed, nothing – could ease, much less exorcise. His quest for his identity – his longing to know and, in that knowing, to be comforted with who he was and where he belonged – ne’er came to a restful place in this world.

So, it is that I, at some point during every day for the past 21+ years since my father’s death, have prayed his peace:

Dad, in the loving presence of God, your story is complete.

You are complete.

Love, Paul

 

Footnote:

[1] This occurred at some point in my father’s 11th or 12th year, for the inscription on the inside cover of his Book of Common Prayer (1892) reads: To William DeLacey – Because you have been so loyal and faithful as “cross bearer” I am exceedingly proud of you and I know all the members of the congregation of St. Phillip’s (the Deacon Episcopal Church) feel the same. Clarence Porter, Lay Reader, Christmas 1922

is it possible?

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 2.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, December 24 and 25, 2016

“She gave birth to her firstborn son…and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

the-adoration-of-the-shepherds-1609-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-1571-1610

A mother lays her newborn baby in a filthy feeding trough for animals in a dark, dank, rank stable because there was no room in the inn. It doesn’t matter why. The heartless negligence of an innkeeper’s refusal to find lodging for a needy family, the blameless coincidence of the inn already filled by others coming to be registered, or something else. Whatever the reason, this story often is viewed as a sad depiction of privation and exclusion.

I see it as a story of hope. Hope that reflects our desire for the way we want life, the world to be. A desire deep and abiding precisely because it is seldom achieved and whenever realized, never long-lasting.

Hope is why this story has mesmerizing power. Why we read it every year. Why we gather annually to hear it. All to remind ourselves of the way things are meant to be.

So, let us listen again.

This baby, according to his-story, grew up and for many in his time was and, according to history, for countless over two millennia is the embodiment of love, the kindness for which our souls cry, and justice, the fairness for which our hearts hunger. This baby found no room in the inn and was laid in a manger.

An inn is a lodging place for guests; a temporary house for visitors, those who are not at home. A manger is a place for food where those who hunger are fed.

This Jesus, the embodiment of love and justice, is not a guest, not a visitor, therefore he need never lodge in the inn. Rather lying in a manger, he is the feast!

Is it possible then that love and justice are the food of which we are to partake so to become what, who we eat? Is it possible that as love and justice are embodied in our lives that we, others, God will see and know that kindness and fairness are not alien or unknown, but alive and at home in this world?

If we embrace and embody that hope, then it is possible that we this Christmas Day and every day will make all the difference in this world.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

“and…or…” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 3

Continuing to contemplate healthy and helpful behavior in the sphere of human relationships, other characteristics or qualities come to mind. Verily, I think of the word “power” and in much the same way the Apostle Paul speaks of the spiritual gift of love;[1] that is, an ability or a capacity to do something and, even more, a proficiency to do something well and most of the time.

I say “most of the time,” for I do not believe there are or can be any absolutes in human behavior, save perhaps for our idealized visions of how we should act. For none of us, whatever the standard, is faultless in her/his conduct. None of us is perfect, that is, complete in her/his being and becoming. None of us, again by whatever criterion, is completely good or bad. None is us is immune to the effect of that immutable aspect of human living: inconsistency. None of us, in the Apostle Paul’s language, “understands all mysteries and all knowledge”,[2] save perhaps for our acute awareness that among life’s variables of circumstance, chance, and choice, we, at best, most of the time have governance only over the third.[3]

Now, in the light (or under the shadow) of ungovernable circumstance and chance, a healthy, helpful power, I believe, and always only speaking for myself, is my ability to respond to life’s twists and turns, ups and downs with wisdom so to act wisely. By “wisdom”, I mean more than my knowledge or my intellectual grasp of an idea, but rather also my understanding, that is, my capacity to put into practice what it is I (think I) know.

In this, wisdom is multidimensional. It is grounded in experience and experience is the fruit of history, both my own and my observations of and conclusions drawn from that of others and, in regard to the latter, requiring my humility to be open and willing to learn from others.

Looking at my life, honesty compels my confession that my unhealthiest and most unhelpful behaviors have a common character of impetuousity. When I make a decision before I discern what’s real and true about the circumstance and chance confronting me or when I forsake reason and act largely on my feelings or when I ignore history’s lessons from others and trust only in my experience or when I repeat errors of my past and, thus, reaffirm the counsel of that proverbial saying from the annals of 12-step programs that the greatest form of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

More to come…

 

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; regarding what love does (and doesn’t do) see especially verses 4-7.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.2

[3] However, even our command of/over our choices is partial, given that our discernments about what’s real and true and our decisions/actions based on those determinations always are in response to those always wholly uncontrollable determinants of circumstance and chance.

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.