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.
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.
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.
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.
The last time I was in Baltimore,
a hot bright summer day,
I remembered why I love it there,
a real city,
beautiful and eccentric,
It’s a place that feels real,
where it’s dirty and pretty,
and now it’s burning,
and kids can’t go to school,
and maybe they are hungry,
wishing for the school lunches
my ten-year-old picks at
knowing there is plenty at home.
And it’s churches feeding people,
and it’s pastors who lead protests,
then taking to the streets,
trying to make a change
where there is so much strife,
with such long history.
Lord, I pray for those pastors,
doing work harder than mine,
no doubt wounded by the scenes
playing out on television,
or running eternally on Vine.
(Do not read the comments
on the Internet, that horrifying
collection of everything hateful.)
They are speaking to the press
and ministering to the people,
and cleaning up the mess.
All I have to do is this:
decide whether to talk about it.
I sit in a safe suburb,
and I weigh the possible reactions
of people in the pews,
or the ones I call my friends,
the ones who watch the news
and see a different story,
or only one side of it.
All I have to do is decide to talk about it.
I’m embarrassed that it feels like a lot.
So I’m praying, Lord,
for the ones with more courage,
who may not have known they had it,
but are working for You now,
clearing away the debris,
trying to clear a way for peace.
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”
My quarry was the American South of the mid-20th century, a racially-mixed city where I grew up in a neighborhood so oddly quaint that it felt more like the setting for a 19th century novel written by a maiden lady with keen skills of social observation. My childhood memories skew to the excessively genteel. I can see my mother sitting at her desk, writing thank you notes, and have few memories of my father not wearing a necktie, unless he was playing tennis or in his pajamas. We lived in an old city, and both sides of the family had been there for many generations. One of my grandmothers was President of the Historical Association and an avid preservationist. Therefore I almost cannot help looking back and pondering how we all got to where we are.
There are a lot of influences in each of our lives that form us.
Location – where were you born, and how did the climate and the environment impact you?
Ethnicity and Nationality – what are the cultural influences that mattered in your early life?
Religion – what stream of faith formed you?
Isaiah wrote these verses for a people returned from exile in Babylon to take up living in Jerusalem again. Their faith tied them to a location their ancestors had left behind unwillingly, but by this time not only had that place been changed by years of occupation, the people coming back were not the ones who left in the first place. “Returned” is a term that applies to their race, but not to the individuals making the trip. They went back to the location of the Temple, the place where God could assuredly be found – but the occupying forces had destroyed the Temple, too.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn – look to the ancestors, says Isaiah, and to the way God dealt with them. Abraham was only one person, but from him came many. The heritage of the returned exiles included many people who felt like they lived at the end of the line, but God delivered them. Isaiah wrote a word of encouragement:
This land may feel unfamiliar, but no matter how complicated things seem, God is with you.
Look to the Rock.
Peter, the gospels tell us, grew up by the Sea of Galilee. He worked beside his brother, Andrew, casting the nets and supporting their families. He grew up in a family-oriented time, but he left both boat and family to follow Jesus. All the gospels suggest he had a strong, impulsive personality. When Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter never hesitated. “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus called him the Rock; “On this rock,” he said, “I will build my church.” We remember Peter for his denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but we also remember that he went on to lead the early church, preaching and teaching and eventually being crucified himself.
Look to the rock from which we are hewn, to the quarry from which we were dug.
My childhood home may have been quaint and genteel, but it was also segregated. The African-American women I knew were all maids in our neighborhood. The one I remember best took care of my brother and me. No one thought it was strange for me to call her by her first name, Catherine. The one man of color I knew worked at my church; he was the janitor. No one thought it was odd for a very little girl to call him by his last name without a “Mr.” in front of it.
That’s been on my mind the past few weeks, as we’ve watched some terrible scenes unfold on television, scenes of armored vehicles on the streets, cell phone video of what amounted to an execution. I don’t like to see these things when they take place in Syria. I hate to see these things when they take place in our country.
I wish that scenes of violent oppression and stories of racial prejudice were ancient history, or at least as far away as my childhood. I was sheltered from the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement – the violent reaction of white people, my people. I could hide behind the memory of the times we made sure to visit with Catherine after we moved away, because it’s a true story, and I could tell you about how my mother was one of a minority of white women employing help who bothered to do the Social Security paperwork, but the truth is we lived in a segregated and oppressive time and place, where the drug store counters and the water fountains had signs saying who could use them and who could not.
And what do we have now, fifty years later?
We have armored vehicles on the streets, deployed against our citizens. We have flash-bangs and tear gas canisters being used on our citizens. We have a church being raided in an American city – an AMERICAN city – for the sin of offering protestors first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.
We see scenes that look like the gates of Hell.
Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It’s too easy to read the gospel lesson this morning and pretend it refers to some far-off confrontation between metaphysical powers or imagine it as an apocalyptic IMAX summer blockbuster with Biblical figures instead of comic book characters.
The truth of these past two weeks has been a grindingly every-day hell. It’s as horribly ordinary as the delay of the first day of school, or a trip to the convenience store interrupted by a shooting, or a deadly walk home on a residential street. In big cities and middle class suburbs and small towns there is hatred and fear and cruelty. Mistrust feeds on mistrust. People get righteously angry. People speak painful truths. People do things we wish they wouldn’t. People on all sides do all these things. We – collectively – commit the sin of treating God’s beloved children as “other.”
Even without the tear gas, it’s hellish.
If it feels unmanageable to you, you’re in good company.
Listen to these ancient words, from Psalm 138:
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138:7-8, NRSV)
The Israelites coming back from Babylon didn’t know how they were going to manage in Jerusalem. Peter had no idea how to be the person Jesus claimed he would be. I grew up and through many awkward relationships with African-American classmates and co-workers before I could be a real friend to any of them. I’m pretty sure most of the faithful sitting in churches this Sunday morning have a feeling we ought to be doing something about racism, but just don’t know where to start.
I don’t like to use “we” here. I want to say “they” and make it someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s problem. We are afraid we don’t know what to say, or what to do, or we tell ourselves these things only happen far away from us. We could turn our heads away, but the trouble is, we read Isaiah this morning.
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”
We want to be those people, don’t we, to have that kind of persistent faith? That quarry from which I was dug had some pretty faithful people in it. They couldn’t shield me entirely from the unconscious racism of our culture, but they could point me to the rock from which we were all hewn. God is that rock, a God of steadfast and enduring love for all people. God is that rock, who loves all people *so* much that God became one of us to make sure we knew it.
Peter knew. He knew God was in the world, even before the world was ready to know it.
That’s how every new movement starts. Someone listens to God, even before the rest of the world is ready. Someone puts it into words. People start to listen. The world begins to change.
We can see it some places. But we aren’t all the way there yet. It seems like it should be simple, but when we turn on the TV, there they are again, the fiery gates of Hell, in the middle of a neighborhood.
In that neighborhood, the raided church continues to offer first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.
We can do it in any neighborhood when we open out with healing and nurture and community for all beloved children of God. That’s the way to be Christ’s church, founded on a rock, hewn from the quarry of God’s steadfast love.
We are a blended, gay family. Each of us previously had an opposite-sex husband, and our children are from those previous marriages. We have lived in the world of straight, white privilege as college-educated women with graduate degrees and professional credentials. We have jobs with titles.
Last month we took two of our kids to the Smithsonian. Now, they look like family, the boys we took with us, despite their age difference of 14 years. They are both slender and their coloring is not dissimilar, and they move together like siblings. I’m not sure if people would generally look at us and say, “Oh, two women with their children!” unless they meant one mom with her child and another mom with her child. I don’t know how we read to others. K says it’s there for people who have eyes to see, and maybe that’s true.
I worry, when I’m alone in public with her son, that I’ll be assumed to be his grandmother.
Because I am, let’s admit it, a gray-haired lady in her early 50s, and he is an 8-year-old boy. It’s cutting it close for me to be the grandmother of a child that age, but I have high school classmates whose grandkids are older, so it’s not impossible.
I am a more-than-middle-aged white lady.
So I am in a funny position, wondering if people will realize this more-than-middle-aged white lady is also a lesbian out with her wife and their children.
It was on my mind all that day, as we rode the Metro and bought tickets at the Smithsonian and walked through the exhibits and purchased a membership to get a discount in the gift shops. We know we are a family, but not everyone in the world would see it that way.
Our last stop was the American History Museum, where I was looking for perhaps the ultimate white lady book, a history of America’s Doll House. First we visited the house itself, where I hoisted a sweaty 8-year-old (and made his other mom do some hoisting, too) because everyone should be fascinated with the number of miniature animals, among other things, residing there. Then I took off on my own to look for the book that tells the story of the eccentric, single white lady who collected all the miniatures and assembled the doll house and wrote the biographies of the family and the servants and then donated the whole kit-and-kaboodle (white lady talk for a whole bunch of stuff) to the museum.
Clutching the book to my ample, white lady bosom, I approached the cash register and waited while the person ahead of me made his purchase. He was about my age, or a few years younger, dressed, like me, for a day of sightseeing, in nice but casual clothes. He had grey in his hair, but not as much. He bought a shot glass. (That gift shop is full of popular culture swag.) When he handed over his credit card, the clerk solemnly asked one thing, to see his ID. He hesitated for a moment, then complied.
Immediately, I opened my wallet, contemplating my new Pennsylvania driver’s license, which surely I would be asked to proffer alongside my Disney Castle-themed credit card. Yes, my wife thinks I’m a Princess, and she got me an Enchanted Castle card.
I was ready.
Shot glass wrapped and bagged, the gentleman departed. I presented my book for purchase, and my credit card, and got ready for the ID question.
The young lady smiled broadly at me and asked something entirely different:
“Are you a Smithsonian member?”
“Oh!” I responded, surprised. “Well, yes, but we just joined–”
“So you have one of those cards that gives you the discount today,” she prompted.
“Yes,” I replied, “but I left it with another – here I paused, not sure whether it was safe to say the W word – family member.”
“No problem!” she enthused. “I’ll trust you.”
She rang up the purchase, with the discount, as I reflected on the fact that the grey-haired gentleman in line ahead of me was African-American.