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.”

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.

America’s divided house

thinking

Following a long and tedious, tortuous presidential campaign rife with insult and innuendo, counterfeit story lines of candidates’ illnesses and inabilities, conspiracy theories of media favoritism and rigged election processes, and virulent threads of racism, sexism, and nativism, Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote and Donald Trump, winning the Electoral College, is America’s 45th President-elect.

The election is over, but no one’s happy.

Not Clinton stalwarts, many, perhaps most viewing Mr. Trump, at best, as unseasoned in governance and unprepared to govern and, at worst, a personification of a wholly self-interested, ethnocentric, exclusionary ugly America.

And not Trump supporters. To wit…

On Thanksgiving Day eve, a Michaels arts and crafts store customer in Chicago, proclaiming, “Yes, I voted for Trump, so there!”, erupted into a profanity-laced, racial-tinged tirade protesting discrimination at the hands of African American employees.

This past Wednesday, a Florida man, berating a Starbucks barista as “garbage” and “trash”, made the accusation of “anti-white discrimination”, though ostensibly for poor service, linked to his self-identification as a Trump supporter.[1]

This past Thursday, Clinton and Trump chief strategists joined in the now, since 1972, traditional presidential election post-mortem at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The customary civil character of the gathering quickly evaporated in the heat of mutual verbal fusillades of anger, if not also contempt, some of it markedly personal.

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln, then the state Republican Party’s nominee as Illinois’ United States senator, channeling Jesus,[2] delivered what became known as his House Divided Speech. Lincoln, as a latter-day prophet, speaking of America in the light and shadow of the idea, the reality of institutional slavery, said, in part: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free…Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it…or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States…”

The presidential election is over and no one’s happy. There are few gracious losers. There are more sore winners. Depending on where one stands, hope is shrouded in varied shades of doubt and fear and civility trumped by schadenfreude-esque self-satisfaction. America again is a house divided, and, according to Lincolnian and biblical wisdom, cannot stand. Which way will we go?

 

Footnotes:

[1] In a nation of over 325 million people, I would and could discount these two incidents as anomalies; considering them to be peculiar expressions of individuals at particular and isolated moments of personal stress or distress. However, in light of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s tabulation of 867 acts of intimidation and violence, most unabashedly motivated by racial or religious animus, coming within ten days after Election Day, I view the Michaels and Starbucks episodes, reflective of a larger and most worrisome malaise, as manifestations of a communal, national psychic disorder.

[2] When Jesus was accused by the religious authorities of casting out demons by Satan’s power, he answered, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3.23b-25, my emphasis).

a word spoken cannot be unspoken

thinking

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

The effect of an uttered word is long-lived and, as the proverbial ripples, the consequence of a stone cast into a pond, ever-widening, non-ending.[1]

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

An advisement that we take care, very great care with the words we share. I am reminded of the admonishment of the Apostle James: The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…No one can tame the tongue; a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.[2]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of that now generations-old observation of children, in my experience and hearing, often spoken in public settings as an apology to others for unruly behavior: “S/he’s bad” and in private directed at the child as a word of reprimand, “You’re bad.” In either case, what is missed, I think, is the effort to discipline by conveying to our children the desired or required behavior rather than almost necessarily teaching our children that we believe them to be inherently disorderly.[3]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I – and this is long look back in the day (and dating myself and giving insight into my adolescent curiosity!) – think of that boundary-breaking, rabble-rousing comedian and social activist and critic Lenny Bruce.[4] In one of his famous (infamous?) routines, Bruce laced the air with a repeated torrent of denigrating epithets about every identifiable ethnic and racial group. His aim? To delegitimize those words by their overuse, rendering them ineffectual elements in the arsenal of the wounding weaponry of racism and nativism. A brilliant, even noble effort, I think, but one that…did…not…work. The words remain; their use rising with society’s anxiety with the progress toward universal equality and inclusivity.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of America’s recently (finally!) completed presidential campaign that saturated, sullied the communal climate with all manner of invective. In this, I especially consider our 45th President-Elect, Donald Trump, whose mastery of the act (the art?) of insult – among them, through the Republican primaries, “Low Energy Jeb” (Bush), “Lyin’ Ted” (Cruz) and “Little Marco” (Rubio), and then, during the general election, “Crooked Hillary” (Clinton) – honored neither civility nor veracity. On January 20, 2017, Inauguration Day, Mr. Trump, among numerous national roles, will become our Commander-in-Chief, perhaps, too, our Defamer-in-Chief and surely our Tweeter-in-Chief.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I also think of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s previous presidential candidate, who made especial effort to denounce Mr. Trump (though whose endorsement he craved and received during his 2012 run at the White House). During a March 3, 2016, speech, Mr. Romney described Mr. Trump variously as “a con man, a fake…a phony…(possessing) neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” On November 19, 2016, Mr. Romney was asked by Mr. Trump to meet and consider a potential role in the Trump administration. Oh, to have been the unnoticed and observant fly on the wall! Given Mr. Trump’s consistently exhibited grudge-bearing animus, I wonder how that conversation unfolded. Perhaps, too, Mr. Trump’s invitation demonstrates his less-expressed capacity for pardon. One can hope. Yet whichever – both ever – the case…

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

Now, I surmise the same is true for positive words of acclamation and affirmation. They, as words, once spoken cannot be unspoken. Still, there is, I think, a repeatedly demonstrable reality that we humans tend to remember and ruminate more on the negative than the positive.[5]

Nevertheless, as a Christian, in this Advent season of preparation for the annual Christmas celebration, there is one occasion in which a word spoken cannot be unspoken that enlightens my mind, lightens my heart, emboldens my soul, enlivens my spirit…

As John the Evangelist wrote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.[6]

The Word, the divine logos, took human flesh in Jesus, entering the realm of time and space, standing on the stage of human history. And John’s wondrous statement, a cascade of words about the Word linked by the word “and”, testifies that God’s life-giving power is unconquerable, that God’s light-bearing presence is inextinguishable, that no matter how ebbs the tide, no matter how dim the day, God’s life and light prevail. For the Word spoken cannot be unspoken. Thank God!

 

Footnotes:

[1] I believe this to be true also of words emailed, texted, tweeted, or otherwise set aloft in the universe of cyber-communication, despite the capacity of electronic deletion!

[2] The Epistle of James 3.5-6a, 8-10a

[3] If “badness” is a genetic predisposition or a learned behavior and fault must be assessed, in the name of justice, wouldn’t that be ours to claim, specifically, as the principal adults in the child’s life and, generally, as society at large? Would it not be fairer to say, “We’re bad”? I think so.

[4] Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925-1966)

[5] Perhaps it is our innate psychology that thinks more about the bad and feels more about the good that makes the former longer lasting in the realms of our recollections and reflections and the latter more ephemeral.

[6] Gospel of John 1.1-5, 14a

Trump change redux

In my November 10 post, Trump change, I reflected on the result of America’s November 8 presidential election. More, I wondered about the character of the Trump presidency, recognizing that it’s too early for me to tell, too early for me to arrive at a conclusion, any conclusion. Hence, as I wait, looking forward to what will be, what may be, I looked back and asked questions in regard to some of Mr. Trump’s campaign promises.

Now, on this day after the day after the day after the day after Election Day, reflecting afresh on my November 10 point of view, I realize that my fundamental internal stance on that day was what I’ll term egalitarian idealism. In a word, believing in the God-given equality and respecting the dignity of all people, I gave Mr. Trump the proverbial benefit of the doubt.

This morning, I’m in a different place; one, in some abiding measure, the product of my responses to life’s disappointments, more akin to my typical skeptical, even pessimistic realism. In this light or perhaps more truly said, shadow, I ruminated on Jesus’ word from the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of false prophets…You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7.15-17).

Prophecy, particularly of the biblical sort, is not a prediction of the future (which, I believe, is a common perception or rather misconception), but the proclamation of God’s revealed word to a community (which, in calling for a response from the people, bears within their choosing to obey or reject it future consequences).

I do not presume to cast Mr. Trump in the role of a biblical prophet. However, in the same way that I, in my November 10 post, looked at the substance of some of his campaign pledges, I think now of the spirit of his rhetoric. In this, Mr. Trump, as I perceive him and his words, fashioned his appeal on a homophobic, nativist, racist, sexist foundation, each element and all elements of which, in the brilliance of God’s love and justice, God’s unconditional benevolence and fairness for all, I believe to be bad fruit.

Given that a sufficient percentage of the electorate that cast ballots bought and ate of this fruit, I do predict that the future of America, indeed, the world will be difficult.

The Star-Spangled battle?

In recent days, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, has refused to stand for the traditional playing of the national anthem at the start of games. He said, in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (On this last point, I surmise a not-so-veiled reference to law enforcement, Kaepernick amplified his protest by donning socks depicting cartoon pigs wearing police hats.)

The response, predictably, has been largely negative. Social media is aflame denouncing Kaepernick as anti-American, anti-military, and anti-police. Fans boo him and burn his #7 football jerseys. The Santa Clara police union threatens to stop providing protection at 49er games.

Kaepernick contends that his position has been distorted, saying, in part, “…that’s (anti-American, anti-military) not the case at all…(as) men and women of the military…sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my…freedoms…I have the utmost respect for them.” Kaepernick also has pledged to contribute $1 million to organizations addressing concerns of racial inequity and police brutality.

Given my history and life’s experience, my theology and ethics, I respect the God-given dignity of every human being. In this, I strive to see all sides (at least, as many as I can behold and comprehend) of any issue.

Therefore…

I understand why Kaepernick has staged his protest (“staged”, I believe, is a fitting word, for, as a public and wealthy figure, he is in a position to have his voice heard and magnified above and beyond most individuals)…

I understand the irony of his protest in reference to the symbols of America’s flag and anthem, which represent our individual and collective freedoms to speak and act in accord with personal principle and opinion…

I understand the reactions of those who consider his protest disrespectful of beloved symbols and all who hold them dear and disloyal to the nation whose bestowed freedoms have given him the opportunity to gain his fortune…

I understand (verily, I am one of) those who perceive in America’s soil and soul the root and still flowering stalk of racism by which people of color are devalued as persons and disenfranchised of those “unalienable rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (In this realization, this, for me, reality, I oft quote the words of the late, great Poet Laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, who, in his elegiac poem, Let America Be America Again, bewailed an unfulfilled, yet undying dream: “O, let America be America again. The land that never has been yet and yet must be; the land where every man is free.”)…

I understand why some view some of Francis Scott Key’s anthemic lyric (originally a poem chronicling the British naval attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812) as racist, especially those words of the third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” I also understand that “hireling” referred to British soldiers and “slave”, those who escaped their captivity and fought on the side of England. Even more, I understand that Key honored the defenders of Fort McHenry who, though mainly white soldiers, included blacks, both free and escaped slaves. Still more, I understand that Key and his words were part and parcel of an era when institutional slavery was an accepted facet of American life in commercial practice and legal principle.

Therefore, I understand, I believe that words, all words composed in time and space, at a given moment for a particular purpose, including those of The Star-Spangled Banner, constantly must be read, reviewed, and reconsidered in the light of succeeding generations and from the standpoints of manifold interpretations. For through this broadly intellectual, deeply emotional, and highly spiritual endeavor, we, individually and communally, can come to a greater appreciation for the significance, even reverence for the words we stand to sing.

Therefore, I thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the issue anew by sitting down.

“We will no longer participate…”

Yesterday, after months of demonstrations involving students and faculty concerning race-incited incidents of bigotry and vandalism – exposing, for some, a campus cultural petri dish of prejudice, encouraged, if not also empowered, however inadvertently, by official disregard – Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System, resigned.

The issues are numerous. So, too, the attitudes and opinions about them. Some, citing with dismay the aggressive tactics of some of the protestors, raise the importance of law and order. Others, the absolute value of free speech rights vis-à-vis public demonstration and civil disobedience. Still others wrestle with what I deem an ages-old question about the difference between institutional racism and situational prejudice, and whether or when an instance of the latter is a manifestation of the former. And more than one commentator has averred that Mr. Wolfe’s resignation is only symbolic salve that does not begin to address the social and systemic concerns that sparked the dissent.

On one subject most seem to agree. On November 7, the protests were invigorated locally in and around Columbia, Missouri, and garnered immediate national notice when a number of the members of the university football team, pledging solidarity with the protests, declared: “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” The next day, the football coach, Gary Pinkel stated: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”

This, for me, signals a nearly unimaginable potential transition in the nature of collegiate athletics. For generations, major university sports, principally football and basketball, have been the engine of a multi-billion dollar commercial industry that affects various aspects of American life; three among them, politics (I think particularly of the relationship between state government executive and legislative branches with state-run flagship educational institutions), economics, especially media investment, chiefly television (and the benefits for schools in funding academic program development and infrastructure maintenance), and entertainment. Now, with a singleness of purpose expressed in a 26-word tweet, the Mizzou footballers, speaking with a voice of social consciousness, have stepped into the arena of public witness.

I would guess that at least some of the powers that be who govern collegiate athletics cannot be happy. An essential element that makes the money-making system run is the compliance of the student athletes.[1] Players are recruited and come to school to practice and to play.[2] With a precedent set by the Mizzou players, what happens now whene’er (and there will be such a time) another issue of social importance arises and a group of athletes considers saying, “We will no longer participate.”?

Footnotes:

[1] Or some would term athlete students, given legions of proven stories of the provision and reception of undue, at times, illegal benefits with less than stellar performances, even appearances in campus classrooms.

[2] As recently as the past year’s football season, I recall, with chagrined admiration for his honesty, one player of a perennially nationally recognized program, say, “I didn’t come here to study school, but to play football.”