“Take time to grieve.” I have offered such counsel while standing with families and friends at the time of loss. Take time. I have counseled myself when facing crises. Time to pray, time to reflect, to breath deeply; take time to embrace family and friends; time to gain perspective for the journey ahead. It will take months, years perhaps, decades maybe. Time is necessary to better understand the whole of pain and healing.
On Friday last, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. She was 87.
On July 17th, Congressman and Civil Rights leader, John Robert Lewis died. He was 80.
Over the past six months, in the United States’ more than 200,000 folks have died of COVID-19. Of these more than 150,000 were fellow citizens over the age 65.
We have much grief work to do as a nation. We have lost leaders and icons. Many of us have lost loved ones and dear friends to coronavirus.
We have grief work to do!
Cormic McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, and the movie that followed, comes to mind in this moment. It is a powder keg of a book. Played out on the Southwest Texas border with Mexico. It is a tale that moves all too quickly and violently upending the quiet lives of those caught in the unwelcome drama. Like James Lee Burke’s recent novel A Private Cathedral, McCarthy’s story plumbs the depths of human good and evil and the world of truth and lies.
Our nation’s future appears to reside in the hands of many old men (and a few old women). Some are seeking to rush past the national grief work so needed now. This is needed grief work to celebrate the service of Justice Ginsberg or Congressman Lewis — grief work that remembers the lives of those hundreds of thousands struck down by the coronavirus.
Let this also be added to our grief work: to stand against the corruption and lies offered by those who seek only to hold on to power. Let our grief work be to move our nation beyond the grievance of bigotry; let us move past unproductive racial, religious and cultural divisions. Let our grief work seek compassion for all, young and old. Let our grief work involve prayer, reflection, reaching to friends and family. And, mostly, let our grief work be to join those who will work and protest and vote for a society that values all people.
Prayers for our nation today — and a resource for hope.
This week, my friend, Mark Feldmeir’s book,
“A House Divided: Engaging the Issues Through the Politics of Compassion,” will be released. It offers a hopeful way forward in these challenging times. Mark is pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Regarding racism, Mark offers these axioms:
How we think about racism is largely determined by our own particular race.
Race is the child of racism and not the father.
Colorblindness is a myth that blinds us to the truth about racism.
God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters, in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racial attitudes behaviors, and speech that demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. Amen. (A House Divided, page 30)
Prayer for Today, August 31, 2020:
Dear God, calm the fears of our nation. We think especially of the events in Kenosha, Portland, Louisville, Atlanta, Minneapolis and in so many other places. We pray for our own home towns. [Silent prayer] Show us the way to greater justice for all as we seek understanding. Even as we go about our lives in this restricted world of COVID 19, awaken us to, and remind us of, the gifts and value of our neighbors. [Silent reflection]. Make of us, who are your church and who live outside the church, advocates for non-violence and renewal. [Silent prayer] Amen.
There are multiple reasons to ignore the Republican National Presidential Convention this week: Hurricane Laura battering the Gulf Coast; unrelenting wildfires in California, the death toll from the coronavirus passing the 180,000 mark, as millions of students from kindergarten to graduate school return to classes — and others face months of isolated online learning; concerns about future postal service as persons wait for needed checks and medications, another young black person, Jacob Blake, shot by police — this time shot in the back, seven times — and the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin erupt in protest. Plenty of reasons to ignore the GOPs made-for-reality-television episodes.
It can be overwhelming. Each of these tragic events deserves attention, human care and response. There are so many threats as so many innocent people face unexpected, life altering events.
Two images come to mind as I watched the Republican National Presidential Convention. The first is a balcony curtain seen in Barcelona two winters ago. It was, to my eyes, a delightful piece of whimsical art: two hands appear to be pulling back the curtains on a balcony. It represents the joy of discovering what might otherwise be hidden.
The other image is a photo taken on the same day in a nearby neighborhood. There were dozens of these banners, hanging from balconies and roof tops. The image is a blank face where a mouth has been smeared over and the word “democracia!” is printed below.
Democracia! This is a cry heard round the world in our time. From Hong Kong to Belarus to Damascus to Louisville and Kenosha the cry, too often muted and all too real, rings out.
As I watch snippets of the made-for-television Republican convention, there is little mention of the multiple tragedies that surround and threaten to overwhelm. In fact, these calls for democracia are not mentioned.
Folks are paraded in front of the cameras — grifters, cons, wanna-be-future-presidents. There are folks who seek profit or status by supporting the forced alternative reality that is being sold from the platform of fear and grievance. It is a world deconstructed of truth; a world of scarcity that is broadcast by folks who have more than enough.
All aimed at good persons, who have bought into conspiracy theories because they fear the future and, like too many people all across the world, they are willing to put their trust in a totalitarian idea… No worse yet, trust is put in a totalitarian and narcissistic man. He actually suggests we shouldn’t believe what others may say or think — trust him only as a source of truth. Forget science, ignore history, avoid moral thinking apart from a few made for grievance and simplistically answered dilemmas. He who, though you know he cheats and manipulates, still claims to be the one to bring the order and easy solutions you hope will one day come.
Truth is turned on its head — the immigrants who bring talent and a willingness to work are turned into the enemy. Young people who seek justice and protest out of conviction are turned into rioters. NATO becomes our enemy and Russian operatives who seek to undermine our common well-being are turned into our friends. After all, the supreme leader sends love letters to the North Korean dictator and speaks fondly of the tyrant in Turkey. He is “doing foreign policy differently” we are told and any appeal to human rights disappears. The scriptures are not read or studied; no. The “holy book” is but a symbol, a prop; it is held up like some talisman that can block out the truth contained in the great and true counter narrative within the book.
The idea that there is only one person who can fix things, all of the social disarray around is what this man openly stated four years ago. Today, in the United States the true believers are the Trumpists. Who would imagine, who could imagine, a political party that decided it needed no plans for the future, no party platform, especially when tragedies abound? Who could imagine? Would someone please pull back the curtain and let the realities of our situation be made apparent. Might “we the people” discover it is essentially our shared, widely enacted, response that can begin to bring renewed health and hope.
There are also well meaning, sincere folks. Persons I think of as “the genuine articles” who are given a cameo performance on the GOP stage. They have bought into the big lie. The lie that the world is an either/or place. Either you are with the supreme leader, and that is the only way to fix things, or you will lose your place of security, of status and order. There are multiple alternate paths for a people who might seek truth together; however we will have to work with persons who see some parts of reality differently. Pull back the curtain. There are options to being a Trumpist. It will require pulling back a curtain to see that those who differ are also Children of God, like you? The Trumpist wants to say all who differ are “socialists.” Such astonishing, deceptive, untruthful language is repeated over and over until good people believe the lie.
Democracy means we will have to work with others to solve the complex real world problems; we must, in fact, do it together. I so value the good folks who seem stuck in this trap of binary thinking — they are my neighbors, my friends, my family. Still, my reality is that our democracy is now being smothered.
It is like a giant pillow of grievance and fear is forced down across the face of our body politic. There is not room for protest, dialogue, compromise. As Bill Moyers put it “A democracy can die of too many lies. And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (See Bill Moyers on Truth).
A Call for Antiracist Commitments by Indiana United Methodists
Date: August 17, 2020
At the August 15th session of the Indiana Annual Conference the following motion was referred for consideration: “In preparing the 2021 budget for the Indiana Annual Conference, the Conference Finance and Administration Commission will set aside 10% of future program ministry budget(s) for antiracism work.”
Rationale: We have reached a kairos moment in the life our nation and church. Ours is a time of opportunity, transformation, and an occasion to clearly and directly address the enduring racism that besets our nation, state and church. In truth, racism is embedded in all of our systems: education, medicine, commerce, housing, law enforcement and, most tragically, even the church.
This motion to aside a tithe of conference program budget for antiracism efforts is an opportunity for United Methodists to lead in this critical work. It would demonstrate again our witness to racial justice through positive and constructive actions. We would thereby demonstrate our commitment to follow the Christ who welcomes all without reservation. Sadly, more than the vestiges of racism survive in our body. Racism continues to reshape our practices, our ministries and our structures. By wide majorities our members live and worship in racial enclaves. Membership reports, programming and attendance records since the beginning of the United Methodist Church in 1972 offer abundant evidence of our failure to extend our denomination’s welcome very far beyond that of being a church primarily focused on ministry with and for Whites. At the same time the racial and ethnic diversity of our state has greatly expanded while our percentages of persons from differing racial groups remains small.
This is an evangelistic and missional dilemma – and an opportunity. If Indiana’s youth see our church at all, there is scant evidence that Indiana United Methodism is modeled upon the beloved community of Jesus, where all are welcome. Antiracist commitments are seldom displayed, whether in camping, leadership initiatives, or church development programs. It is painful to ask the question, Where do we invest our dollars and our lives in specific and clear ways that confront the sin of racism in our society and in our own church? Persons of Color now make up more than sixteen percent of Indiana’s population, while our membership percentages of non-white persons is somewhere between three to five percent.
Tragically, it has taken the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abery, Elijah McClain, Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Christian Cooper, Treyvon Martin, Eric Garner, and dozens of others, to awaken our nation to the profound violence and daily bigotry against African Americans. These murders, and dozens of others, are the most dramatic examples of the ways an acceptance of racism contributes to a societal assault on human decency. Indiana United Methodists have been far too passive. This is not a time to claim neutrality or blame some other forces for our tribal and de facto segregated lives. It is not sufficient to simply claim to be “non-racist.” This is a moment of gospel opportunity. This is, potentially, our Kairos moment, when the United Methodist Church in Indiana, can be true to the best of our history, our Evangelical theology, and our better angels. This is our time to act in bold, antiracist ways.
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote “I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.” (New York Times, February 2, 1969)
Robert P. Smith’s book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” published only this summer, draws on Baldwin’s perception. Smith’s research is both a deeply disturbing and helpful resource for Christians who seek to take the next steps in confronting the sin of racism. While much of this research is based on Smith’s own Southern Baptist background, there are ample illustrations for United Methodists and other mainline folks. Clear evidence of our racist complicity and our deeply embedded racist-worlds-taken-for-granted behaviors is provided. Fortunately, there are also examples offered of the ways congregations and judicatories have moved from simply talking about racism to taking specific steps to act in constructive and restorative ways to repair what has been broken and reach out in life giving ways.
This motion, offered and referred on August 15, is a call for the Indiana United Methodist Church to give witness and take responsibility for the damage done to all parties, Blacks (along with other “minorities”) and damage to Whites as well, for too long. It will require more than preaching to change prejudiced attitudes or attending workshops on inclusion and diversity. It will require more than a few token examples of racially integrated vacation church schools or charity work with the poor.
Antiracism work will involve structural changes, new partnerships and a stepping away from the paternalism that has shaped many of our ministries. This is a time for seeing the remarkable gifts and resources brought by persons of color already within our churches and in the neighborhoods and communities surrounding them. It is an opportunity to establish a new template for the long-term health of our congregations and conference that is marked by including new persons and groups. Such renewal work will require decades of effort and resources. It will be, however, a key investment in a stronger and healthier future for the church.
In earlier conversations, I have been appropriately reminded that Bishop Trimble does not need our counsel, advice or wisdom in matters regarding racism so much as he needs us to put action behind our words of hoped for racial reconciliation. I do not claim to be an expert so much as a long-time observer and a follower of Jesus; I am one who is captured by the hope of the gospel. Do I think such a change in the budget is easy or likely? No, and probably not. Even so, I believe a tithe toward antiracism ministries is essential to matching what we say with what we do – and to sustain United Methodism’s witness in the future.
How might this be done? There are dozens of ways our pastors and lay leaders can, and I believe would, respond to this call. Many more ways than we can imagine. Attached is a page of “possibilities” that briefly offer ideas for positive antiracism work in Indiana. Prayers for you and with you as you contemplate how best to respond to this time that calls for our repentance and action.
Philip A. Amerson
Ten Examples of Potential INUMC Antiracist Activities
There are dozens of ways Indiana United Methodists can act in antiracist ways. These could begin to repair damage done over the decades by racial violence and brokenness. Such actions might be mixed and matched together through study, travel, outreach, witness, etc. A tithe from our conference program budget might:
1) Reestablish the work of a Commission on Religion and Race in the Annual Conference with funding for such work for the next decade.
2) Join with our United Methodist Hospitals and other health services in direct, hands-on and prayer-supported, engagement to address the high rates of infant mortality in Indiana. This is something that is particularly a problem in our minority communities.
3) Offer annual updates and workshops on the racial makeup of our congregations and populations in each county in a district. This would offer new insights for persons who mistakenly believe there is “no diversity in our community.” Several counties have seen significant increases in Hispanic and other non-white populations in the last decade; still many in our churches seem not to be aware.
4) Provide resources for at least two annual gatherings of persons of color in the conference, pastors and laity. Mostly they would get to know one another. Another goal could be to monitor conference actions; or another goal might be to design “learning journeys” with white clergy and laity where they could spend time in prayer, reflection, learning and planning for the future, together.
5) Review and update existing conference programs, in consultation with African American, Hispanic and Asian educators to offer more racially sensitive and appropriate approaches to strengthening our education, outreach and evangelism. Persons like the Rev. Vanessa Allen-Brown or Mr. De’Amon Harges and Ms. Seana Murphy of The Learning Tree in Indianapolis would offer valuable assistance.
6) Encourage every congregation in the conference to establish a partnership with another congregation or group of persons from a different racial or cultural background. This might include regular ways to fellowship and worship with Indiana AME, AMEZ and CME congregations. One can imagine how remarkable such gatherings these might be if guest lecturers shared insights regarding antiracism options.
7) Read, study and travel with others. For example, read the books by Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) and Robert P. Smith (White Too Long) and take a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama Or, read Jim Madison’s book on the Klan in Indiana and visit one of the sites, perhaps with a video or face-to-face conversation with Professor Madison.
8) Join the Community Remembrance Project sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative to offer witness at each of the seven known lynching sites in Indiana. These are recorded at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and a part of the Community Remembrance Project that seeks to set a Historical Marker at each site. There is also a gathering of the soil near each site to be placed on display along with the victim’s names at the museum. Wouldn’t it be “GOOD NEWS” to report that it was the UMC in Indiana that saw memorials placed and services of repentance held in each of location of a lynching.
9) Identify places where racism has damaged our witness (such as the troubled cross racial appointment at Old North Church in Evansville in 1985 or the closing of City Methodist Church in Gary) and/or locations where we once had a congregation of color that is now vacated. Hire persons to document these stories and/or share with the conference materials that are already available giving preference to researchers who are persons of color. Work with pastors in these settings to hold gatherings of repentance and reconciliation.
10) Ask the Indiana United Methodist Historical Society to research and publish a fuller account of the connections between Indiana Methodism and the Ku-Klux Klan, especially in the early 1920s. (In his 1994 United Methodism in Indiana, John J. Baughman wrote: “Particularly awkward was some local Methodist support for the infamous Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s. Even now this is a no-no subject within the denominational history.”) Knowing this history, painful as it may be, can lead to honest acts of repentance and restoration. It is likely that several of our congregations could benefit from an honest knowledge such a history.
“Racial Prejudice is a sin.” So reads the lead sentence in an ad from a well meaning Christian institution. Yes, it is! “Good,” I thought. “Not sufficient,” was my second thought.
The ad was announcing a new educational program. Daily I read of a new degree program, or certificate, or workshop on racism. There are programs featuring inclusion and diversity; some offering cultural awareness. Good — many in our nation have been woke to our nation’s prevailing racism. Then, again I think, not sufficient.
Anti-racism work involves more than addressing individual prejudice, or practicing inclusion, or graduating from diversity training. The deeply embedded racist practices, white privilege and enduring structures of our society require more than changing bad attitudes or reorienting mental categories. I am helped by Isabel Wilkerson’s recent argument that our society is, in reality, a caste system.
In my tradition, the prayer for each day begins “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.” Once woke, there is the need to keep awakening.
Setting aside my unpleasant thoughts about the marketing and commercialization of programs to address racism, it is clear that antiracism work will require more than a new curriculum, or a certificate or registration for a webinar. If we are to continue movement toward the Beloved Community we will be required to do some major overhauls, yes personally, but also in our institutions and economies.
As I have come to realize, over and again, my personal confession and repentance is only the prelude to a life-long reorientation. Recently I was asked if I was suggesting there is need for a “continual conversion.” In short, YES. As one friend suggests, this is “one-hundred-year-work.” It is as Eugene Peterson reminds us “A long obedience in the same direction.” Antiracism requires sustained commitment to institutional and cultural change. If you thought differently, I want to disabuse you of belief in any easy path. This is to say those eight week or eight month programs are… well, a small, good beginning, but only that.
In ways too numerous to list, we will always be learning, confessing, repenting, and re-imagining our common life and its institutions. In our podcast/videocast, Mike Mather and I suggest this lifelong commitment will involve Remembering Community — remembering our common Beloved Community.
While we don’t offer a certificate, a degree program, or a $135 workshop or webinar, Mike Mather and I invite folks to listen in and join the conversation. We are reflecting on our own racism and the deep caste-like patterns with which we have struggled in our ministries — personal, institutional and cultural. In the weeks ahead we will be looking at this along with the many stories from parish and community ministry.
In this weeks episode we speak of institutional racism, and of how two remarkable African American women, Hertha Taylor and Sadie Flowers, each acted in creative and joy-filled ways. Our call is to remember folks like these and to venture beyond the comfortable formats of small projects in “helping others,” that so many assume to be best. You can watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFkguEMsSw.
As I watched the tragic scenes unfold across our nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I remembered the phrase scratched on a napkin and slid toward me: “Words, words, words: Hamlet.” This writer of the quote in 1992 was Bill Hudnut, former long-time mayor of Indianapolis. Bill was a friend. I was pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church. We often had to agree to disagree. In considering the wounds to our nation’s soul just now, I think of Bill.
There have been too many words. I believe this is a message the rioters are tying to communicate — in imperfect ways, yes, but there have been too many words… words of promise, words to placate, words to delay. And, there have been too many words from the highest office in the land that harm and destroy. More, even worse, there have been words designed to incite violence. There are words tweeted in short attacks or enshrined in policies that reinforce the systemic racism of a nation that has never recovered from slavery, segregation and centuries of discrimination and shame.
Hudnut wrote the note “words, words, words” as we listened to the remarks of a popular young governor. The speaker was his opponent in 1992, as Bill challenged the young governor for his seat. Hudnut lost that race. The governor went on to another term; then was elected senator, like his father before him. As I recall all these years later, Hudnut was reacting to the governor’s word-salad related to a question about law enforcement and tragedies like the death of Michael Taylor. How might we better address police abuse? In 1987, Michael Taylor, a 16 year old, was handcuffed and in the custody of Indianapolis police officers when he was shot and killed. The officers claimed Taylor had somehow, with hands in cuffs, behind his back, grabbed one of their weapons. — So, they said, “they had to kill him.”
Michael Taylor’s murder remains an open sore for many in Indianapolis, myself included. George Floyd’s murder and the national response only displays that we have a pervasive and longtime pattern of such abuse. We have only formalized the “lynching culture” prevalent a century ago. In 1987 Bill Hudnut and I publicly disagreed about Indianapolis’ response in the Michael Taylor case.
Don’t get me wrong — Hudnut was a wise voice, took a lot of heat for not being tough enough on crime and too friendly with the minority community. At the time, Bill challenged some prevalent police practices. Still, he was the mayor and thought his primary job was to keep the peace and the support of his party. In private, we talked on several occasions, we prayed together and he shared his profound sadness. Behind the scenes Bill took actions to improve police practices, including better public review — something that is still not sufficiently dealt with today.
“Words, words, words: Hamlet” is remembered now. At the time they were first shared with me, neither of us knew how much “the Rev. Bill Hudnut,” graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, was a part of a dying breed. He was a Republican committed to racial justice and civil rights in word and DEED. A part of his story is told in Indiana History, “William Hudnut III versus the Reagan Administration” (https://indianahistory.org/stories/william-hudnut-iii-versus-the-reagan-administration/).
The Republican Party lost its way. How can they claim to be the party of Lincoln or Grant? How? I wish it was this easy. If one can just blame someone else, it is too easy. Our nation has lost its way as well. Bill Hudnut was a practical politician — yes, he made compromises. He was right to have a jaundiced view of the language of the Democrats.
We have all lost our way. We somehow think that there is some easy way to undo the massive damage of racial injustice that is four centuries old in our land. “Words, words, words” Bill Hudnut rightly quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In every arena related to racial justice we have talked too much and accomplished too little. The deceit was implicit in the opening words to our constitution, written by a slave owner, who knew better but never emancipated his own slaves. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) all are created equal…” Perhaps our generation can do some bold things to make these sentiments more than words.
When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?
Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?
In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?
Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?
Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”
When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.
So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).
Is Normal Our Best?
My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!
In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”
In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”
As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).
Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.
I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.
If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.
Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.
Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)
So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.
Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.
Late in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I came across a surprising passage from an economics text. Edmund Phelps, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and professor at both Columbia and MIT, edited a book back in 1975 (Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory). In his introduction he writes, “When Sir Dennis Robertson lectured at the bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University, it was therefore expected that he would address a question of grandeur: What Do Economists Economize?” His unexpected answer: We economize on love.”
We economize on love. How apparent this has become in recent weeks. What or who do we love most truly? What or who do we treasure most dearly? It is an ancient religious question that has been raised to the highest levels of our consciousness by this pandemic.
Life or Livelihood? The debate ramps up. Will we preference saving lives or saving livelihoods? My congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, was an early voice (April 14) proposing we should “put on our big boy pants” and accept some loss of life to secure the ‘American way of life.’ The genie was out of the bottle — there would soon be a wider call to sacrifice some people to the benefit of others. We shouldn’t let the “cure be worse than the disease,” meaning, of course, that a national effort to shelter-at-home shouldn’t get in the way of quickly returning to “business as usual.”
Since that time, in a rising crescendo, the American people have been called on by folks like Larry Kudlow, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and the governors of Texas, Georgia, Florida and other states, to “wage a war” on COVID-19 by… you guessed it — restarting the economy. It is that simple? Really? These folks admit such actions will threaten the lives of many, especially the most vulnerable, still they persist. Why? The true purpose, in far too many cases, is the protection of wealth, property and businesses of those who are at the top of our economic system. I am not unaware of the damage that is being done to small businesses — what I do argue is that we can find a better way.
How far we have come from early American leaders like William Penn who wrote: “A good end cannot sanctify evil means: nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it… let us then try what love will do.” What might love do differently? What might faithful people seek in this time. As a Christian, I ask myself, “isn’t there a better way to proceed?”
Life or livelihood is, of course, a false choice. Why are we not approaching this with a third option? Why are we not asking how can we save as many lives as possible and at the same time do as much to stabilize economic interests as well? The answer may be that what we truly love, what we most deeply cherish, is exposed by this pandemic.
Like so many of the choices offered, things are being boiled down to simplistic dichotomies – either/or – either the wealth some have accumulated or the life of many others. In some places (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California), after the tragic loss of life, there seems to be a slowing of new infections. Yet, even this is at risk, if we are not prudent.
In other places where the COVID-19 virus is only now appearing, governors and mayors are being urged “open up the economy and immediately get back to normal.” My fear, based on considerable experience and research, is that we will see, not only many persons in poor and/or rural and/or isolated communities succumb to this virus, and in the process we will see the destruction of the economic life of these poor and already weakened communities, their businesses, hospitals, social services and safety personnel. All of this will be due to this false choice that has been unevenly conceived with a preemptive “restart” and “return normal.”
A few days ago Donald Trump projected that “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” lose about 60,000 lives, then a few days later it was “ONLY” 75,000, and as I write, he suggests “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” see perhaps 125,000 die but, he argues “we must all fight the war and restart our economy.” One wonders what will be the “tragic as it is” number of lives that will be counted among the dead from this virus by mid-summer? One wonders what is most loved and most treasured?
All of this begs several questions for people of faith, and especially for those of us who are Christians. Here are three that come to mind today; questions we will consider in the days ahead:
1) Which livelihoods are to be preferred and saved?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives. Another year. Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world. Memories cascade:
Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.
These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces. I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category. Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live. In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.
White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity. There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement. The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core. Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.” Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.
Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal. Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.” In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.
Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report. Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure. Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.
In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work. My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.” The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding. We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions. More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities. We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed.
Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation. Change required relationship. It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes. It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.
Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us. It is the notion of “good people on all sides.” Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed. Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”
This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear. Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy. Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.” Really, Senator McConnell? You say this with a straight face.
There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care. One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.” She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on.
She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth. Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap. It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.” [Thick, p. 152]
My experience is that much of our current United Methodist situation has been brought about by persistent and well-financed outside groups bent on reshaping Methodism away from our natural theological sensibilities and core understanding into a force field of division more to their liking (e.g., Institution for Religion and Democracy). What has happened to the Republican Party in the past two decades is an interesting parallel image. I encourage you to read Smith’s overview — it is a helpful analysis of where we currently stand and what might be possible.
Excellent overview, Jeremy. Excellent, thanks. The proposal has many flaws and potential cautions; however, it does seem to offer a direction if not a precise map to a way ahead. All of our categories and desires for perfection will be tested. That can be a good thing; if we are able to act and think in imaginative ways where the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. Over the years I have been in three previous attempts at finding a space of compromise — of offering options beyond our ideological/theological entanglements. None made it this far… although a few came close.
Sadly a deep distrust will continue among many who carry decades-long wounds. Distrust will continue to percolate. Others more deeply tied to institutionalist roles will say silly things like bishops “have never stopped the pursuit for a more excellent way for the diversity of United Methodism to be freed from internal theological conflict so that love and respect can triumph over legislative votes that leave a divided church more wounded and less focused.” Poppycock. We need a more humble and repentant stance just now in my view.
What has happened is a tragedy… lost opportunity, broken promises, lost legacies, a tearing out at the root of centuries of witness, analysis that is shallow in anthropology and devoid of theological rigor.
Going forward we all could benefit from a larger dose of generosity, humility and repentance.