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.

Prayer, Prayers for Pastors

A slight nod of the head (a prayer for pastors)

Nine victims of the Charleston church shooting.   Top row: Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton middle row: Daniel Simmons,  Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders Bottom row: Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson
Nine victims of the Charleston church shooting.
Top row: Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
middle row: Daniel Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders
Bottom row: Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson

Lord,

When we worry

about the way people will hear us,

when we worry

that the truth will sting,

when we worry

what will happen to us,

remind us

that our silence

does not serve you.

Our silence is not safety,

or neutrality.

It is a slight nod of the head,

giving permission for

the sin of racism to continue.

May our heads shake,

as we say “No more,”

shake hard enough

that there can be no question

where we stand,

for the sake of Jesus Christ,

and his beloved servants

who have lost their lives

to human evil.

Amen.