continuing becoming…

“Honey, is something the matter with me?”

This is the question I asked Pontheolla after another restless, sleepless night channel-surfing among CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC following, fretting over the news of Hurricane Harvey’s relentless approach to the Texas coast, then, making landfall, stubbornly, punishingly, injuriously, fatally dumping catastrophic amounts of rain…

And this after equally fretful, restless, sleepless nights following the August 11-12 unrest in Charlottesville perpetrated by an unabashed and public display of vociferous and violent white supremacy and neo-Nazism…

And this after equally restless, sleepless nights and weeks and months of following what I view to be, at its heart and in its soul, a feckless, reckless presidential administration driven by the impulses of a man enamored by the self-manufactured mythology of the power of his personality.

Me: Honey, is something the matter with me?

Pontheolla: Why do you ask?

Me: I’m struggling. It feels like…it is like everything troubles me.

Pontheolla: What do you mean?

Me: Down in my belly and in my bones. I’m angry, but mostly sad.

Pontheolla: About what?

Me: Not what. Who.

Pontheolla: Who then?

Me: Those…all those hurt by the force of nature and human hands.

Pontheolla: Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re becoming who you were meant to be.

For 40 years, since my ordination in 1977 as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, then, in 1978, as a priest, I have served as a Christian minister. Knowing that I possess (or…and am possessed by!) an irrepressible selfish streak (ask Pontheolla!), oft I’ve thought, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that God called me into ministry knowing that the self-sacrificial nature of the work would…just might be a sanctifying, sanity-inducing balance to my overweening egocentricity.

Pontheolla’s incisive observation has helped me to see that one of my prayers truly, painfully has been answered…

During this past Lenten season, as a personal, spiritual discipline, I wrote a prayer a day. On Saturday, April 8, 2017, the 34th day of Lent, reflecting on Colossians 1.21-24,[1] I wrote, in part:

O Jesus…seeing You more clearly, I now know more surely that what is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake is my sharing in Your suffering for Your sake…For though I claim and call You as my way, my truth, my life, I…love to go my own way…so to liken my life unto mine own image. O Jesus, I pray You, by Your Spirit, bind my wandering mind, bend my wayward heart, bolster my wavering soul, break my willful spirit that I now, at least, on some days and moments of days, may…can…will sacrifice my self wholly unto You. Amen.

With joyous pain and painful joy, I believe that Jesus has answered my prayer. And though I also believe that I cannot be rid of all of my, at times, selfish self-interest, for such is the character and curse of the life of the flesh in this world, I pray that I, down in the depths of my belly and bones, continue to become, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s[2] description of Jesus, “a man for others.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, (Christ) has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him; provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis for resisting the racial and military policies of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime. In Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrificial living and dying, as he described Jesus, so he was, too, “a man for others.”

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hate & violence come in all colors & causes

On Saturday, August 12, in response to the violence that beset Charlottesville, Virginia, involving clashes between white supremacist demonstrators and counter-protesters, President Donald Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”[1]

Yesterday, August 27, in Berkeley, California, over a thousand demonstrators gathered at an anti-hate rally. Their principally peaceful protest was disrupted when scores of self-described anti-fa[2] anarchists, masked and adorned in black clothing, stormed the assembly. These interlopers, many, for me, excruciatingly ironically, wielding shields inscribed with the words “no hate”, physically assaulted Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, a conservative group that supports the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution[3] and others who could be identified as pro-Trump supporters.

I am a 65-year old African American. I was born and raised during the formal Civil Rights Era.[4] I was tutored at the knee of my Baptist maternal grandmother, Audia Mae Hoard Roberts, who seamlessly wove the Exodus story of Hebrew emancipation from Egyptian bondage with the Negro’s striving for freedom. I followed her, my maternal aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, and my parents, William and Lolita Abernathy, in their involvement in the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I also am an advocate of the teachings and practices of those I revere and affectionately call the 3Ms – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Therefore, I believe in protest. Peaceful protest. I hate hate and violence. Whatever the group. Whatever the cause.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The phrase “on many sides” coupled with Mr. Trump’s then omission of referring by name to the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, and other alt-right groups, hastened a backlash of criticism accusing him of establishing a moral equivalence between those factions and the counter-protestors. I heard and understood the president’s remarks that way (see my previous blog post, moral inequivalence, August 19).

[2] Anti-fascist

[3] Patriot Prayer, accused of being a magnet for white nationalists, though Mr. Gibson has disavowed racism and denounced white supremacy, had cancelled a free speech rally on Saturday, August 26, due to threats of violence by leftist counter-protestors.

[4] 1954-1968

three thoughts for today’s troubled times

 

Note: The unrest in Charlottesville two weekends ago involving clashes between white supremacists and counter protestors remains for me a disturbing symbol of societal turbulence. Something unresolved (irreparable?) – a misanthropy with cultural, ethnic, genderal, racial, and religious overtones – has broken loose in the bowels of America and now freely, insidiously courses throughout the bloodstream of the nation. Something, too – a distress, a dis-ease – has erupted in my soul. Daily, I wrestle and, from time to time, write, seeking some semblance, if not of peace with the ills of the world (for how could that…I be?), then for a way to abide in the equanimity of personal integrity. Out of my ongoing inner quest, these three thoughts…

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In the midst of turmoil, without and within, may I, by the grace of the Spirit, remember what a mighty God I serve. A God, my God who can deliver me, deliver all from whate’er befalls. And if, when God, who can, does not – for I recall the words of the psalmist, which Jesus prayed, cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but find no rest”[1] – then I believe God must be doing a greater thing than I can conceive. It is this faith that inspired Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, under the threat of death, to answer, “O Nebuchadnezzar…if our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. If not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods.”[2] It is this faith that inspired the Apostle Paul, to exclaim, “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”[3]

It would be…is easy for me to blame Donald Trump – and what I consider to be his egotistic, opportunistic populist rhetoric that, through his presidential campaign, animated and, now, during his presidency, has continued to galvanize the forces of misanthropy – for Charlottesville, both in its immediate historical moment of two weekends ago and as representative of a larger societal ill. However, I follow Jesus who calls me to do (embrace) and to be (embody) the unconditional love that strives not merely not to inflict harm, but more to enact good for the sake of “the other” (all who differ from me) that he demonstrated on the cross of his crucifixion and death, praying that God forgive those who were killing him. Therefore, in the face of the temptation to judge, indeed, to condemn, I must look first and most within. And my confession of my sins leads me to a blessed state of compassion for others, turning me away from a bitter spirit of condemnation of others.

Having compassion for (and not condemnation of) another, nevertheless, should I discern that another’s words or deeds reflect an unsavory aspect of character or intention, and, given the status of authority, resurrect objectionable elements within the body politic, I, refusing to be silent, can and will commit myself to respond with the free speech of protest.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Psalm 22.1a, 2; Mark 15.34

[2] Daniel 3.16b, 17-18a

[3] Ephesians 3.20

Charlottesville redux: part 2, stepping back from the edge of pessimism’s ledge

thinkingI’ve been struggling…

Since identifying, naming and claiming my abiding, burdening existential angst about American bigotry in my August 22 blog post, Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?, I’ve been struggling to discern a faithful and hopeful way forward; a way out of the deep valleys and darkened alleys of my quintessential pessimism.[1] For, as I wrote previously, thinking that we, as a nation, have come to another moment in history when a conversation about our communal American identity is absolutely necessary, I believe the dynamism of our current and revivified cultural discord, expressed, in major part, in virulent anti-Semitism and racism, sadly renders such opportunities moot.

I am grateful for my bride, Pontheolla Mack Abernathy, my dear sister, Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, my newfound (though, given my sense of our spiritual simpatico, long-lived) sister, Gayle Fisher-Stewart, and my brother from another mother, Grady Hedgespeth, to a person, buoyantly optimistic souls, through whose sage and stalwart words of counsel and comfort, I have come to a new, renewed place of perceiving, of being.

To wit…

Considering it always important for me to define my terms and declare the ground on which I stand, I am a theist. I believe in God as creator of all life, who, from the formless void brought forth a divine differentiation – in other words, not some, any semblance of holy sameness – and called it all “good”.[2] I am a Christian. I believe in God as revealed through the Holy Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is recorded in scripture and conveyed through two millennia of Christian tradition.

From this stance, I summon myself and all people of good will to repent, to turn away from, verily, to step over and beyond the barriers and boundaries of my and our phobias and prejudices, my and our numbing fears and negative judgments of “the other.”

If your, my phobia or prejudice is about or against a person who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind),

then, I bid that you and I seek out and engage in conscious conversation, and with honesty and humility, one who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind).

And I boldly predict that you and I will discover that that wholly different human being is utterly similar to you and me in possessing a personal history and a set of memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, hopes and dreams, fears and failings, phobias and prejudices, struggles and successes and, in these unmistakable, irreducible similarities, that we all have more in common than we may have dared to dream.

My point is this. You and I can think and feel, hope and pray for a better world of comity and concord. But if you and I daily do not do something, anything different than remain secure, self-imprisoned in the towers of our ideological and existential sanctuary from “the other”, then you and I silently are complicit in maintaining the status quo. And given what we all beheld in Charlottesville, that doesn’t look at all good to me.

How about you?

 

Footnotes:

[1] For reasons tracing back to my formative years (the root, I believe, of most of our personal characteristics and ways of being and doing, both good and bad), I tend to assume and await the worst.

[2] See Genesis 1.1-2.3

moral inequivalence

Moral equivalency. Two words, these days, seemingly every day, uttered in the public square. In my view, to cite a moral equivalence between two competing, perhaps conflicting points of view, is to assert that one side is no better or worse, greater or lesser, higher or lower than the other in the ethical terms of societally accepted and honored principles of being and behavior.

Since last weekend’s unrest in Charlottesville involving injurious and fatal clashes between Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, and other groups of white supremacists and counter-demonstrators, President Donald Trump has reacted variously.

His first response, as we have come to expect, a tweet: We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets (sic) come together as one!

Later, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Even later, “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Still later, Mr. Trump, in response to a reporter’s statement about Senator John McCain’s assertion that the alt-right fomented the violence in Charlottesville, said, in part: “…what about the alt-left that came charging…the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?…Do they have any problem? I think they do…I think there is blame on both sides…You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.” And, in reference to the alt-right, he said, also in part: “…not all of those people were neo-Nazis…Not all of those people were white supremacists…”

Mr. President, we Americans treasure our First Amendment free speech. You have the right to hold and harbor, espouse and express your point, indeed, points of view. I, too, and, in this case, I have only one. There is not and cannot be any moral equivalence between the attitudes and actions of those who advocate anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism and those who promote human equality. Ever. Period. Full stop.

Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

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