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)

a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

a little BIG thing

Another hot and humid South Carolina day…

I stood, more or less (more, I confess, less) patiently, in a line at the store; my cart half-filled. The air-conditioning system on the blink (really?) offered no respite from the sweltering weather.

Before me, a young black man, a can of soda in his hand; his pants slung low, exposing more (too much more!) than the waistband of his brightly-colored boxer shorts, his tank top at least two sizes too large, hanging loosely from his narrow shoulders.

Before him, an older, portly white man, his suspendered trousers high on his waist, with two carts, each a psalmic “cup running over” with groceries.

“What a contrast in age, race, and style,” I thought to myself, that is, when I wasn’t grumbling about the heat and the length of the line moving at the pace of a geriatric arthritic tortoise.

Finally, we neared check-out.

The older gentleman turned to the young man behind him, looking up-and-down, his countenance quizzical (I imagined: curious? disdainful?). “My dear young sir,” he said, his Southern drawl molasses-thick, “you only have one item. You go ahead of me.” I couldn’t see the young man’s face, but I heard his voice, his tone registering surprise. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

America’s tenaciously long-lived racial divide wasn’t healed. Nor the ill of ageism overcome. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself. Spontaneously, I smiled. This little act, both in the giving and in the receiving, in a big way, fortified my hope, my trust that, in a world and time of increasing anxiety and anger, particularly in the public square and directed at “the other”, civility lives.

when…then…

a 4th of July epigrammatic poetic meditation

Statue of Liberty

when Martin’s misty dream crosses the as yet insuperable obstruction

from the ethereal theory of virtuous ambition to righteous action,

from the hallowed declaration of a half-century plus four past[1] to the corporeal reality of daily realization,

and character, not color becomes the fairest, truest measure of human perception…

 

and when gender remains an aspect of human identification,

yet no longer a veiled, vile justification for subjugation…

 

and when this land’s loathsome chronicle of injuries unto others

(the venal seeds of prejudice yielding the poisoned fruit of injustice) –

because of

color and gender,

race and culture,

lineage Native or immigrant or slave –

is read aloud by public penitent voices within the hearing of a moral heaven,

and, in acknowledging the sin, repenting, promising, “never again!”,

 

then the American experiment will become the American experience…

 

then America will “be America again –

The land that never has been yet –

And yet must be – the land where every one is free.”[2]

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech, I Have A Dream, August 23, 1963

[2] From Let America Be America Again (1935), a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967); altered (one substituted for man)

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.”

is brown the newest black?

Black. A basic (my wife, Pontheolla, truly a fashionista from birth, tells me, “a grounding, foundational”) color in the fashion palate; as such, the basis of the formation of many an outfit. Hence, the meaning behind the provocative title of the acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama, Orange Is the New Black, telling the tale of life in a federal minimum-security women’s prison where jumpsuits are prescribed attire and their color, orange, the new black.

Black, however, for me, as an African American, always bears the connotation of race. And, given my life’s experiences and my sense of American history, always brings a flood of memories of the discriminatory deferral, at times, denial of life’s opportunities and, equally, perhaps worse, the disavowal of God-given human dignity. And, as I believe that race and racism remain constant elements of the American “experiment” (for The Declaration of Independence’s promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has yet to be realized by all at all times), discrimination always, on any given day, at any given time, for any other color painfully can be renewed.

“Annalisa”. I wrote about her before (revelación, June 1, 2016), describing her as “an engagingly convivial twenty-something ambitious college student with a thoughtful vision for her future.” In that prior blogpost, I recounted how I was made freshly aware of the insidious nature of my own prejudice. For I had asked Annalisa how she planned to spend that year’s coming Memorial Day, adding (not assuming she would observe), “an American holiday.” I realized and later asked Annalisa’s forgiveness for my sin, for she, Puerto Rican, was, is American.

In short time, Annalisa has become a dear friend. Verily, Pontheolla and I view her as we would a daughter.

Today, upon greeting, Annalisa had a look. One I’ve seen before. Sadly, many times. In my mirror and in too many eyes of too many others. A look of sudden hurt; the sort of which comes from an unexpected encounter. I asked, “Are you alright?” She answered, with welling tears, “I had incident on the street.” A man, pointing at the decal of the Puerto Rican flag on Annalisa’s car, drove up beside her, gesturing wildly, madly uttering derogatory epithets. Even more, she told us that her fiancé, “Victor”, had had a similar confrontation. A man approached him in a threatening manner, making disparaging ethnic references. Still more, she recounted how she and Victor and their families and friends, in the light and shadow of the heightened racially-tinged tenor of these times in America, had begun having intentional conversations about how to respond with calm and care if, when they encountered discrimination.

Pontheolla, Annalisa, and I joined in caring embrace. Pontheolla and I, thanking Annalisa for sharing with us, expressed our sorrow, and, later, when she departed, bade that she “take care and be careful.” This last counsel, I feel, I fear is all too necessary in these times.

facing another way, part 3 of 5

thinkinga personal reflection in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

When I look back to 2016 for epiphanies or revelations of change for others and for myself, among many things, I think about…

Election Day, November 8, and the culmination of a tumultuous, rancorous presidential campaign and the ongoing ramifications, reverberations for America and, I daresay, the world…

I grow more fretful (fearful?) about the incoming administration, which, given Donald Trump’s continuing and consistent airing of his stump-speech rhetoric and his choices for Cabinet and governmental posts, appears to be more politically and socially conservative, indeed, regressive than I find fitting or faithful to our American identity as expressed in our national motto, E pluribus unum.

The rise of nationalism, nativism in the politics of many countries in Europe and America[1] as governments sought to grapple with numerous concerns; prominent among them, the explosion of violent ideological extremism and terrorism, immigration and the migrant crisis of millions of dislocated peoples, and cyber-insecurity and its immediate effects on domestic and economic security…

I wonder whether America, both concerning our presidential administration and we as a people, particularly in regard and response to extremism and terrorism, can and will sharpen the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of our personal liberties, between self-defense and, if vengeance is our course, self-destruction of our national soul’s health.

The continued minority community-law enforcement tensions, heightened by police-involved killings of black men and what seem to be retaliatory shootings of police officers…

I worry that the trust-mistrust of the police, which distinctly divides along racial lines, may be, if not conclusive evidence, then a dreadfully proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine-warning of America’s yet to be resolved societal and systemic inequality in the respect for human life.

The Bethelehemic experience of birth, bearing the joy of new and innocent life and a renewal of hope for the growth of love, peace, and justice in this world…

I have shared, often through the “miracle” of Facebook, in the wonder of the births of babies of friends around the nation and world. Still, I worry about the world into which these new lives have come; a world where, as I perceive it, hatred often overrides love, war outweighs peace, and inequity outbalances justice.

Illness

I witnessed and walked with others through their bouts with sundry sicknesses from moderate to severe and their rounds of various treatments. Late in the year, I, and later still, my daughter underwent surgeries to correct longstanding conditions. The infirmities of friends and family, and my own brought me face to face afresh with my unhappiness, sometimes, I confess, my bitterness about life’s often sudden and always uncontrollable turns of chance and circumstance and gratitude for the restoration to health whene’er and for whom it came and a commitment to live as well as I can for as long as I can.

Death

I joined with countless others with saddened sentiments of the deaths in 2016 of many notable persons and personalities; the accumulation of their departures seeming to pick of speed in the last months of the year. Most near and dear, Timothy MacBeth Veney, my brother from another mother, died in July. That Tim was Pontheolla’s and my forever “frienily” (a friend who is family) and married to Loretta, also our forever “frienily”, stirred and still stirs sorrow. Yet, given Tim’s especially virtuous love, verily, righteous lust for life, I have come to a higher appreciation for the content of human character of others and my own, a broader attention to crafting and caring for my legacy to the next generation, and a deeper acceptance and less fearful respect for the enduring reality of human mortality.

Continuing to look back, again I ask, what do you see? How have you been changed?

More to come…looking forward

 

Footnote:

[1] Sometimes I think of this development as a Western expression or perhaps reaction to what has been termed, rather misleadingly, I think, as the “Arab Spring” of late 2010 forward; a time when multiple Middle Eastern countries witnessed the advent of citizen demonstrations protesting the way things were and compelling change. What makes Arab Spring a confusing or, at the least, an ambiguous descriptor is that the political transformations largely have been away from an Arab nationalism toward a Muslim identity.