America, Living in This World

Keep taking risks

Yesterday I saw a boy climbing a tree in the neighboring yard behind MPC’s Youth Center. He settled against the slender trunk of what is no more than a sapling, and he began to stare at Teddy and me.

He was holding a gun.

He held it up and pointed at something, not us, but to say it was disconcerting is an understatement.

He looked about 12. I reminded myself that I am an adult, that not everyone grows up in the kind of gun-free household that has been my experience, even that there has been a hawk in the neighborhood.

Teddy stood holding a ball in his mouth, staring back at the boy, silent and still.

“What are you planning to shoot at?” I asked.

“What?”

“What are you planning to shoot at?”

“I’m not planning to shoot anyone.”

(Please note the rhetorical shift.)

“What kind of gun is that?”

“It’s an ‘airsoft.’ It’s harmless.”

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Approximate representation

He continued to watch us, and to adjust his “harmless” weapon, while I Googled “airsoft” and tried to remember what an air gun can do.

This one was shaped like an automatic weapon.

He climbed down about the same time Kathryn arrived to meet us, and a few minutes later he returned to the backyard with his mom. He climbed back up; she passed something to him.

This one was the size and shape of a handgun.

As I said, I first thought the boy might be watching for the neighborhood hawk. I tried to take a picture of it last week, perched on the branch of a tree in the side yard of the Youth Center. When we walked Teddy in the afternoon earlier this week, the same hawk flew out of a tree close to our heads, carrying a squirrel off across the street, still hanging low as it flew over the church parking lot and beyond.

The next months and years will be full of such moments writ large, I think. The people in positions of power will sit in their trees, displaying their own threatening weapons: legislation, social influence, private funding, and an amoral lack of care for those deemed less than. And the very few who are most clever at finding an advantage for themselves will fly off like the hawk.

The rest of us will, I hope, react to stimuli, pull back and evaluate, determine actual danger, then figure out how to respond and resist. It may be tempting for those who can pass as part of the power structure to go about their business, to smile and pretend no actual bad things are happening.

Do not give in to the urge. Keep asking questions. Keep seeking answers. Keep taking risks.

America, Church Life, Racism

I flinched at their forgiveness

When I first heard they forgave him, I flinched. Why should they have to do that? So quickly?

My visceral response gave way to self-examination. Maybe, like the Amish families who lost their children to a shooter a few years ago, these families are better Christians than I am, with a deeper faith, a less questioning theology, a more profound relationship with God.

A woman who gave her name as Sista Soul Love protested during the morning service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A woman who gave her name as Sista Soul Love protested during the morning service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

I came this.close. to writing something about it. Then I started reading blog posts and essays like this one by my friend Denise Anderson at her blog, and this one by Candice Benbow at Ebony, and this one, a great conversation at The Toast. They provided a different, and needed, perspective on what it means to be Christian when you are part of a minority and oppressed culture. If you only read one, read this one by Kiese Laymon about talking to his grandmother, at The Guardian. Then come back.

Ready? Okay.

I’ve been linking on Facebook to these essays and blog posts by African-Americans on the subject of shame and forgiveness and the trap created for the Black church simply by the attempt to survive in a majority white world. Wherever I read the ensuing conversations, the majority white participants, and particularly the Christian ones, resist the idea that there is anything multi-layered about the forgiveness offered by the families of the victims of the massacre in Charleston last week. They remind me that forgiveness is about letting go of things so you won’t be burdened by them, a psycho-spiritual approach popularized by Lewis Smedes in his book “Forgive and Forget,” a book I have recommended and handed along to many people.

One of the things on my mind is how disconnected our experiences as white people can be from those of others. I think it’s harder to ask people to apply that to massive, longstanding cultural wrongs.

And for white liberals of a certain age, this is a horrible time of reckoning as they – well, honestly, we – realize the dreams we had for a better more equal world, and the work they or their parents did in the 1950s and 60s was a drop in the bucket. I’m a little younger and better in tune with wider conversations about race, yet I am still having to tell the voice in my head that says “But really, things are better!” to shut up.

It’s not just that there is still a ways to go. It’s that we congratulated ourselves for making the three-point turn to get out of the driveway and never went further, and now we’ve backed down the street into eroding the Voting Rights Act and allowing police brutality instead of putting the car in Drive and actually making a difference.

We have been in denial, and especially for those of us who came up through religious communities, and maybe even had relationships with churches of not primarily the same racial makeup, or glad-handed or even genuinely welcomed the non-white visitors who stopped into our churches, we’re finally looking at how much more needs to be done. It’s uncomfortable, and we resist it, and we can’t figure out how to be allies and thought we already were. No excuses, just noting that there is a lot of reckoning occurring here.

I hate like hell that it took a shooting in a church to bring us to this moment – both because I hate that it happened in a church,  and because I hate that putting the spotlight on “respectable” victims makes it more likely that white people will have to face the truth. It seems like we have had plenty of chances already.

And this is not the problem of our friends in the Black church or in the more secular anti-racism movement. This is *our* problem. We need to listen and hear the truth and figure out how we are going to help make the change. We are complicit in it, and we need to suck up our disappointment, listen to other people’s stories, and stop telling them they are wrong about the White church simply because we’ve never seen anyone be discriminatory or spoken or heard anything terrible from our own pulpits.

I don’t want to hear that I am forgiven for these things; I flinch at the notion, although I need forgiveness for the ways I am part of the problem.

Let me, let us, sort that out with God. And Lord, my Lord, help me to see the ways I can make a difference.

America, Family History, Politics, Privilege, Racism

A Culture of Remembrance – Take Down the Flag

I grew up in a house in which hung a print of “The Last Meeting of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Before the Battle of Chancellorsville” (engraved by Frederick Halpin, after Everett Julio), that classic emblem of the Lost Cause. This was common then in my neighborhood in Old Town Portsmouth, Virginia. My father, a Civil War buff who would tell me about the battles as we drove around Virginia, never indicated that the cause was just, but honored both men as soldiers, tacticians, human beings, Virginians. Yet in his political life he angered people including his own political party, to the point of death threats, by his political stands against the institutionally-protected racism of Massive Resistance.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these things.

I still have the print, no longer hanging anywhere, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t want to send it out into the world, nor do I want to destroy it, simply because it reminds me of my dad. Let me be clear; he was a soft-spoken intellectual, not a gun-toting guy with a truck bearing Confederate flag decals. I told you, in his time, he was considered radical in his politics. Well, radical for Virginia.

Yet, we have this heritage, this culture of remembrance of the men who gave their gifts to what was in every way the wrong side of a terrible war, evil as war always tends to be and doubly evil in pitting, as I learned in school, brother against brother, and even brother against sister in the case of the Jackson family, and ultimately evil in the lies people told themselves and the world about the reasons, praising chivalry and states’ rights, denying that the profit to be found in owning other people and considering them to be less than human drove the cause so rightly lost.

Lee and Jackson on a plate
Lee and Jackson on a plate

Somewhere among my books is a large pictorial biography of General Lee, awarded to me for outstanding work in Social Studies in the 5th grade at an Episcopal girls’ school, St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was presented by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What about the stack of Lenox commemorative dinner plates sold in the 1970s to fundraise for the restoration of the White House of the Confederacy? I never saw them used, never knew they existed until after my parents were dead. I can picture him writing a check for the sake of historical preservation.

Is it defensible because we should not forget?

Can we remember without glorifying?

What to do with these things?

As a child, I remember sitting on the rug, playing with a figure of Lee seated on his horse, Traveller. That at least is long gone.

I am not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with all the things that carry the taint of revolution and racism. I don’t want to get rid of them and thereby circulate them.

I do know what *not* to do with them, not to celebrate them, not to display them in our homes or our cars or our public monuments, not to imbue them with some holy power.  

Please, South Carolina, take down the flag.

America, Prayer, Religion

Religion and Civility

Last summer, I received a request to offer a prayer of invocation and a benediction at a civic event. The VFW planned to dedicate a plaque in honor of town residents who died in World War II, as well as presenting pins and certificates to surviving veterans. I didn't have to think hard about it. I said "yes," and began planning prayers that would invoke the God I understand to have been called upon by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence, a Divine Providence not individualized to meet the needs of any one religious group or subset.

It always surprises me when other pastors seem unaware of this. When we stand in front of the public library to honor war veterans, we are Americans who happen to be Christians or not, rather than Christians who happen to be Americans. I have no trouble sorting this out, not at all. I have a sense of what it means to be American, one I'm proud of, even though some days (and some years and some presidencies) may have challenged it. I have a clear understanding of what I believe and also of how it differs from what you, or you, or you might believe. When I'm invited to pray at a civic event, I'm not there to convert you to my way of seeing Jesus or anything else. I'm there to invite something greater than any of us to be present among us as we take up matters of gravity or rejoicing to the larger community.

And so with great curiosity I have listened to the different pray-ers of the past few days. I have watched preachers struggle to keep their eyes down to pray, because they have this moment, only this moment, and they want to engage the crowd because as preachers they cannot help themselves.

I understand them. I am a preacher, after all, and a professional pray-er, too. But more than that I am a writer, and I believe that words matter. Words matter. My words for God, if they must exclude others by their very nature, are also by their very nature limited. And God is by God's very nature not limited at all. God means, to me, everything beyond our seeing, everything grounding our existence and everything outside our understanding. The details of our attempts to pull God closer sadly make the infinite measurable, because we demand it. We contract the Divine Source of All Love into an old man who tells us what to do and punishes us when we are bad and rewards us when we are good because such a system organizes otherwise disorganized forces known as human beings. We convince ourselves that those who succeed in this world must be in the Old Man's favor. We invoke Him the way some people might fondle a rabbit's foot.

Is it any wonder that sensible people, thoughtful people, cannot play that game with us?

In my family reside believers and questioners and one person who feels left out of the civic oratory whenever it invokes the Almighty. But today, the words of the President included him. The President, a believer himself, included those who differed from him not only economically, racially and socially, but theologically.

We're a long way from real respect for each other in America when it comes to religious beliefs. I found the inclusion of Rick Warren today very hard to take, and I cringed when he used The Lord's Prayer. That prayer belongs in church, or in gatherings of the faithful or even the seeking whose purpose is primarily religious. Today we stood at the door of a new national era and no sooner had it opened than the words of a prayer I value highly were used to close it against people of other faiths and people of no faith at all.

That was wrong of him. This is America, and we are free to believe and practice what we will, Rick Warren and I. But in the public forum, I believe faith leaders have a responsibility to be Americans first, to live out the creed of country first and faith second, in gratitude for the freedom to do otherwise all the other days of our lives.