Remembering Community

Remembering Community

“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.

Or, you can listen to this as a podcast here:

Please join us in Remembering Community.

Words, Words, Words…

Words, Words, Words: Hamlet

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.

Officer Derek Chauvin on neck of George Floyd from Daily Guide Network, May 28, 2020

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.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – MAY 27: Two men wear shirts stating “Rest in Power George Floyd” outside the Third Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images as shared in United Methodist Insight, May 28, 2020)

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.

William Hudnut
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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/).

Hudnut with Oscar Robertson
Indianapolis Star

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.

The Whiteness Problem

The Whiteness Problem

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.

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[Elizabeth Eckford on her way to class at Little Rock Central High School.  Photo by Will Counts.]
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]

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

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Who or what will wash away the tears?  On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying.  It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment.  I had arrived home from travels late the night before.  Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.”  I didn’t know what he meant.  “Regular,” I remember saying.  Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.

Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away.  The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968.  They continue to echo fifty years later.

I wept on that cool sunny morning.  Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever.  I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts.  Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice.  And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism.  I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address.  I had not joined in any marches by then.   Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.

(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on.  I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.)  I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.  A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral. 

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We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta.  I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass.   At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children.  There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson.  The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by.  More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs.  Men hanging on telephone polls singing.  One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.

“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs.  I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough.  Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then.  My racism.  Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others.  Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives.  There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin.  Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims.  It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed. 

It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity.  No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students.  It was then I had my first African-American friends.  Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends.  I was growing toward understanding, but slowly.  At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege. 

My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed.  This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes.  I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.

Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church.  This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School.  Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation.  The African-American students were about half of those enrolled. 

Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me.  I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion.  Didn’t we share both? I wondered. 

Years and study have followed.  I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed.  Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough.  Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society.  I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.”  What more might I have done?  Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever.  There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.”  Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.

It is true, tears are not enough.  Nor are songs, or sermons, or books.  But they are all essential, I have come to discover.  These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics. 

So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules.  All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness. 

And, yes, then there are the upcoming elections…

 

Will, Warren and the Klan

Will, Warren and the Klan

As best as I can recall, I met Warren in the early 1980s.  Warren professed himself to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  I met him because Will told me I should.

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We lived in a core-city neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana at the time.  There were reports of several rape attempts in our neighborhood.  The assailant was said to be an African-American man.  Soon after these reports began, we learned that the Ku Klux Klan was going to patrol the neighborhood to protect our “white women” in our racially diverse community.  What to do?  Our ministry, known as Patchwork Central Ministries, was located in the center of this aggression, violation and fear-filled response.  What to do?

Memories of these days have come rushing back into my mind this weekend.  Seeing the hate-filled actions and language of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia has brought back images and stories now more than thirty years old.  Some things have changed over the decades but, sadly, other things have not.  Without recounting all of the ways we prayed, and we made strategies, and sought to give Christian witness back then, I would share one thing that proved most helpful.  Someone, perhaps it was Calvin Kimbrough, suggested I should “talk with Will.”  To say “Will” was enough.  He didn’t need a last name — I knew it was Will Campbell in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.  We had recently read Will’s book “Brother to a Dragonfly.”  He was a wonderful part of our tribe — a progressive Evangelical Christian!  So I called him.

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Will Campbell, Baptist Preacher, Author and Prophetic Voice, 1924-2013  photo by kellybbrill.wordpress.com

Mississippi born and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Will was not only known for his engagement in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans but was also known for developing friendships with a whole range of people including members of the Ku Klux Klan.  You see, Will took this Christian Gospel for ALL PEOPLE stuff seriously.

I called Will, left a message and, in a day or so, he returned the call.  Explaining our situation, he replied, “The first thing you need to do, is to say to the Klan ‘NO, YOUR ACTIVITIES ARE NOT WELCOME IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.'”  That sounded good — We had already done that — said “NO.”

Then, Will, stumped me, surprised me.  He confused me.  Will asked, “What are the names of the Klan people you know?”  NAMES?  Will thought I would know their names!  He thought I might know THEM?  I confessed that I didn’t know any of those folks.  He said, “Well, then, what the hell you been doing?  You better get started.  It is not enough to say ‘no.’ Now, your next step is to reach out to the Klan folks as people.”  There are many stories of the way Will Campbell reached out, made friendships, and shared the gospel with folks with whom he strongly disagreed.  He was a radical Christian in that he didn’t set up limits to where reconciliation and renewal might occur.  Will Campbell believed in the power of Christian witness and love.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that followed, one thing led to another and I meet some of the folks who said they were members of the Klan.  I remember Warren especially.  Warren and I talked on several occasions.  In fact, I invited him to our Sunday evening worship — and he attended — several times.  He listened, stayed and ate dinner with the group. 

The story of that season in our neighborhood moves on in many directions.  The rapes ended.  I don’t remember that anyone was ever caught.  Then there was the evening in worship when the offering was taken.  After receiving communion persons might leave something in the offering plate.  Sometimes it was money, sometimes a poem, sometimes a prayer request, sometimes a drawing.  On this evening, I watched as Warren made his way forward and dropped something heavy in the offering basket.  As soon as worship was over and dinner was about to begin, I took the offering basket to the office.  There I found a few dollars, prayer requests and Warren’s membership card in the Klan.  And, yes, there was also a 22 calibre revolver.

Warren disappeared shortly after this.  I called his phone a few times with no response.  I went to his home once in a nearby town.  Knocked on the door. There was no response.  I left a note for Warren.  He had disappeared.  Word came from one of his friends that he had gone back to his hometown in Southern Illinois.  Did he leave the Klan for good?  Was this a sign of a conversion?  Or, just a chance to make a new start?  Maybe that is what conversion meant for Warren — and for me.

For me, Will taught that I needed to “know a name — and a person” if I am also going to condemn and say “NO” to their words and behaviors.

As I have thought about Charlottesville and the evil exemplified there this past weekend, I am reminded of a sermon that Dr. William Pannell preached years ago.  He began by saying that he was going to use the ugliest four letter word in the English vocabulary.  It was, he said, “the word THEM.”

Let me ask you, good reader, the question that Will Campbell asked me years ago.  After you have said “NO,” (something we must do as a nation), do we know their names?  My conversion continues — how about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago Cubs vs. Cleveland Indigenous Peoples Demeaning Mascot

Chicago Cubs Vs. Cleveland’s Indigenous Peoples Demeaning Mascot

Okay, so that we are clear, I am a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan.  There was a time when as a preadolescent I had a brief fling with the Cincinnati Reds and, I confess, I admired the St. Louis Cardinals for a brief period, but it was always, first and foremost, the CUBS!  So you can imagine how marvelous it was to sit with my daughter at game five of this year’s world series with Cleveland and see my beloved team win a world series game there for the first time in seventy-eight years! 

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It was magical — nerve-wracking but magical.  After the Cubs had a great year (the best in baseball with 103 wins) they are struggling against that Cleveland team.  The Cubs are up against some extraordinary pitching, especially from a guy named Miller who is the best closer I have seen in, well, forever.

I will not mention the name of the Cleveland team because… well… because of… this:

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Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo

Come on Cleveland, time to clean up this image of your mascot.  I have often defended you as a fine city.  You are not “a mistake by the lake.”  In recent visits I have marveled at the vibrancy that has come to your downtown and the renewal taking place in many neighborhoods.  You have had some good political leaders and some not so good (Stokes, Kucinich, Voinovich, Campbell, Jackson).  I won’t mention which I think were the good ones.  You have many fine educational and cultural institutions.  Of course, there is also the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

I admit to being a Chicago partisan in this World Series but just a few months ago I was pulling for the Cavs to surprise everyone and come back from a 3 to 1 deficit to become the world champions in the NBA.  THEY DID!  So, now, a few hours before game six, I will be pulling for a similar comeback, this time for my dear Cubbies.  I am pulling for the Cubs to beat the team I shall call the Cleveland Indigenous Peoples Impersonators.

Is the Chief Wahoo image racist?  Of course it is!  Don’t pretend differently.  Ask the people who have the most right to be offended.  The National Congress of American Indians published a poster recently that covers the situation all too well.  Just imagine:

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Anything more need to be said? 

So, win or lose, Cleveland friends, please clean up this racist name and image.  It’s an important step.  Go to the website of the National Congress of American Indians to learn more (National Congress of American Indians).

Oh yes, and those of you NFL fans of a certain football team in Washington D.C. known as the R*dskins — you too can join in the fun of eliminating such demeaning symbols.

These may appear to some to be small matters; not significant.  Some may say I am being “politically correct.”  Others may say I should focus on matters of more substance like the Sioux Nation’s efforts to protect land and tribal rights at Standing Rock in North Dakota.  I get that and I also think this is all a part of the same package — names of mascots, environmental threats, and small bigotries are all a reflection of our nation’s sinful acts against the First Peoples and our continuing discriminations.  It is our enduring embarrassment and, yes, it will require more than just changing a mascot’s name.

As I write, game six of the Series is only a couple of hours away.  So, Go Cubs, Beat the Cleveland Indigenous Peoples Impersonators!

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Turning Bad News to Good

First, Confess The Sin of Racism

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Racism in Plain Sight*

It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory.  These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries.  And what can be seen in these images?  There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism.  Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.  It is painfully clear.  Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify. 

The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states.  He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters.  Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist.  In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.

Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama?  Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.

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Wendell Berry**

Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.  It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite:  Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism.  Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…

Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism.  Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness.  If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage.  But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.” (Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015.  See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.

I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States.  During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi.  Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008.  However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!

I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists.  Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe.  I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama.  These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics.  I have known them for years.  As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president.  The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections.  It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement.  In hindsight, I wish I had said more.  In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.

In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth.  Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.”  (Kruse, p. 68)  Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.

The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ.  In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer

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What would a beliefs x-ray show about a person’s real commitments?***

I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.”  The damage, the identity theft, has been done.   Such a project belongs to others.  Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss.  As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage.  This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology.  Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.

What are we to do?  What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer).  Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism.  In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms.  The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?

We learned three important things:

  1. The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism.  That which is obvious and that which is more subtle.  I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since?  One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
  2. Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors.  (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.)  However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible.  We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
  3. Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended.  In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism.  Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!

Silence.  Vague content to our faith.  Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets.  These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.

Phil A

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Attributions:
  1. *Women viewing x-ray. Copyright: http://www.123rf.co/profile_rmarmion’>rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>.
  2. **Photo of Wendell Berry from newsinfo.iu.edu, (Indiana University media)
  3. ***Simulated x-ray of brain. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_scottff72′>scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
     

Of Blessed Memory

“OF BLESSED MEMORY”

Only yesterday I was thinking of the three words spoken all too often these days — “Of Blessed Memory.” This is a phrase that typically follows the mention of the name of a friend who is now deceased.  That list among my friends “of blessed memory,” sadly, continues to grow.

Little did I realize that today, less that 24 hours after this awareness, I would speak those words about two GREAT women — Harper Lee and LaVerta Terry. They were both 89 years old — they certainly experienced life over the same decades, yet in very different ways.  I think they probably saw the world – its joys and challenges – in similar ways and would have been dear friends had they met.  Both will remain among my greatest teachers.

Harper Lee

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Harper Lee 1961 Monroeville Courthouse

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Although I met Harper Lee only through her writing and the occasional news stories about her, I felt she was a friend.  We had a mutual friend, Thomas Lane Butts.  Tom who for years would visit with Harper weekly would keep me updated about Ms. Lee.  A treasured book on my shelf is a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that he arranged for me during one of his weekly visits. I did meet Harper Lee’s older sister, Miss Alice Lee, at a church event over twenty years ago.  Every United Methodist active in denomination-wide activities knew of Miss Alice.  She was that remarkable lay leader and attorney from Monroeville, Alabama.

Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 which was an immediate success.  I can still remember reading late into the night while a senior in high school, caught up in the drama surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It was fictional but I knew it was about real life, real bigotry, real threats, real racism.  I loved picturing Scout, Jem, Boo and and most of all Atticus Finch in my mind’s eye.

So, it was a quite a joy this past year to read Go Set a Watchman, a

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Harper Lee 2006

novel that was written prior to Mockingbird.  It was not as polished… and less idealistic.  It was not published back then.  Too bad.  In Watchman, Good and evil are not as easily separated… and Atticus?  Oh, sadly he turns out to be more true to real life as he buys into the racism of the town — for a larger “good.”  Alas.

I must say, however, that I found Watchman to be a great read, full of humor and a clear-eyed view of life.

LaVerta Terry

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Source: Bloomington, Indiana Herald Times

LaVerta Terry became my friend and mentor when I served as her pastor in Bloomington, Indiana.  You can catch a glimpse of her dignity, intellect, her direct manner and memorable presence in this brief piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRrZTKik8L8

Nothing was better for me than hearing LaVerta Terry laugh — and usually at my expense.  She would tease and I would tease right back.  She usually won. However, one evening when Elaine had other commitments, I asked LaVerta to accompany me to the opera at the Indiana University.  (The opera is one of the great gifts of I.U. and LaVerta was a fine musician.)  When we arrived at the auditorium, LaVerta looked at me and said “What will people think, the two of us out on a date.”  I was ready for her and replied, “Don’t worry, they will think you are Elaine.” LaVerta was still laughing at the end of the first act.

In 1963, LaVerta Terry was the first African American hired by Public Schools in Monroe County.  Twenty years earlier, in 1944 she had won a scholarship to the Indiana University School of Music.  The remarkably sad story is that she had won first place in auditions with the Metropolitan Opera; however, when she arrived at I.U. with her luggage, she was denied a place in the dormitory because of her race.

Sadly, the persistent racial discrimination she found led her to complete her bachelors degree at Jarvis Christian College after some study at Tuskegee Institute.  What a sad story and yet she was a great spirit.  Later she became Assistant Director and Director of the Groups program at Indiana University.  This program focused on encouraging and supporting racial ethnic minority students, most were the first generation from their family to attend college.  Her students now are in places of leadership all around the world.  When I was pastor in Bloomington, I would often meet them and hear of the way Mrs. Terry had been a “difference maker” in their succeeding at the university and in life.

Laverta-Terry-1455972308 My friend La Verta Terry taught me much.  Mostly, she tried to teach me to speak the truth about difficult things with grace, elegance and style.  I will never match her in this; but often I can hear her voice in my head cheering me on.  And, like many of my dearest friends, she knew how to be a loving critic if I said or did something she thought might have been handled better.  LaVerta, lived on the other side of the white-privilege Harper wrote about.  They both knew the bitterness of racism and shaped beauty and meaning from the ugliness.

There are many, many others about whom I speak of with the words “Of Blessed Memory.”  Mostly I speak these words about folks I knew, some very well, and folks who shaped me for the good.  People like Daphne Mayorga Solis, Carl Dudley, Earl and Ethel Brewer, Stella Newhouse, Bob Greenleaf, Clarence Jordan, Scott Lawrence, Ernie and Polly Teagle, Ray Dean Davis, Bob Lyon, Gil James, Dow Kirkpatrick, Parker Pengilly, Liz Shindell, David Stewart, Jerry Hyde, Kenda Webb, Will Counts and Jane Tews… I am realizing this list could continue on and on.  It does.  Yes, the list goes on and on.  It is called “the Community of the Saints.”  Blessed are we who have known them, in person or otherwise; blessed are we indeed.

(You can read more about Tom Butts in the February 4, 2015 post Southern Exposure.  See: https://philipamerson.com/2015/02/04/hands-of-the-strong-southern-exposure-people/)

Hands of the Strong: Get Off My Shoulders!

“Get Off My Shoulders!  There is Work to Be Done.”

Amelia Boynton Robinson, 103, back in Selma with President Obama
Amelia Boynton Robinson, 103, back in Selma with President Obama

No one said it better.  “Get off my shoulders!  There is work to be done.”  Amelia Boynton Robinson was responding to those who sought to honor her by saying they were “standing on her shoulders.”  In March 1965 she nearly lost her life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  Severely beaten, unconscious, she was left for dead.  On March 7, 2015, at age 103, this time in a wheel chair and holding the hand of President Obama, she crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

 

“Get off my shoulders” she says, “There is work to be done.”

images-5Work to be done?  In 2015?  Yes, there is.  Don’t we have an African American President?  Isn’t this a Post-Racial society?  Well, yes our president is African American… but NO this is not a post racial society.

Today, less than a week after the remembrance of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” we see video of members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a song full of racial vitriol and threat.  What is happening?  From Ferguson, Missouri there is the tragic shooting of two police officers at a rally outside the police station.  What is this about?

Yes, Ms. Boynton Robinson, THERE IS WORK TO BE DONE.

Racism continues to plague our society.  There are many causes, many reasons.  Racism remains because some view it too simplistically and some see it as overwhelmingly complex.  Some seem to imply that by simply cleaning up our language and no longer tolerating certain words (or by ending fraternity songs), we will eliminate racism.  I hear former congressman and television personality Joe Scarborough opining that the use of such language wasn’t a part of his experience growing up in the south or attending the University of Alabama.   There was racism around but he seemed to suggest he didn’t participate.  Really?  The implication seems to be that if we would all just clean up our language, we could end racism.  We might eliminate blatant, red-neck racist words but, while laudable, that would not be sufficient.  Language, while important, is one of the least essential elements contributing to the persistence of racism.

Language and behavior are not always aligned.  Prejudice and discrimination can be distinct realms.  Sociologists for decades have shown that what people say and how they act don’t always match.  It is possible for one to have pure language and only noble thoughts (good luck with that) and still act in ways that exclude, belittle and diminish another. 

Racism can also appear to be overwhelming as it is so complex.  Prejudice and discrimination are only two elements in this wicked brew.  There are also deeply embedded institutional and cultural patterns.    We could elect an African American president and still see the dismantling of voters rights in our nation.  This is the other side of our dilemma — we can treat racism as so complex that there is little we individually can do about it.  This is when the words “get off my shoulders” take on special meaning.  We are to keep moving ahead against the forces of injustice, despite the complexities.

For example, how will we now see the situation in Ferguson?  There is absolutely no justification for the shooting of two police officers simply because they are seeking to keep a demonstration peaceful.  My prayers are with those men who were shot — and their families.  It is also my hope that arrests are made soon.  The irony, of course, is that the rally on the evening of March 11, 2015 should have been one of celebration.  The U. S. Justice Department had documented the on-going patterns of discrimination and institutional damages against the black citizen in Ferguson over many years.  Changes were being made, judges and officials are being replaced by persons committed to making change.

And what happens now?  More violence.  This time directed toward the police — police there from other municipalities.  Is this what we have come to?  Are we really so caught up in an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice that anyone could think such a shooting is justified?  Faced with such patterns of revenge, I am astonished that the shooting of these officers in Ferguson did not result in greater violence.  The restraint of the police officials on the scene is, in my view, nothing short of remarkable — and is doubly worthy of praise. 

Now the question my friend — should the protests in Ferguson continue, even after these shootings?  It is not my call.  Others on the scene who are committed to nonviolence need to make this tough decision.  However, if there are citizens who still feel their voices have not been heard, then…  yes, the right to peaceful protest remains essential.  Such are the complexities of dealing with race in our time.  What is on display in Ferguson requires deeper thought and careful study.  The killing of Michael Brown this summer only tore the scab off of a wound that runs decades deep.  I commend to the reader the exceptional research done by Richard Rothstein on housing and job discrimination in St. Louis over the past century. These decades-old practices of racial discrimination helped established the template for the challenges we face today.  What is true of St. Louis is true of every city in our nation.  This report can be found at: http://s3.epi.org/files/2014/making-of-ferguson-final.pdf.

A video interview with Mr. Rothstein can be seen at: http://www.epi.org/event/the-making-of-ferguson-with-sherrilyn-ifill-and-richard-rothstein/

The mystery of why racism persists may lie in our temptation to view it too simply — or to become overwhelmed by the complexities of continuing institutional and cultural realities.  Most of us live our lives in places where we don’t easily see how we can make a difference.  We can be careful in our language and be nice to others but is there more?  We are more comfortable standing on the shoulders of others rather than seeing the work around us to be done.  This work may be as simple as greeting a friend, or as challenging as joining a protest march. 

Many of you make a difference every day, in your places of work or play.  Sometimes it is a smile, sometimes an appreciative or corrective word, sometimes it is making a donation, sometimes it is writing an elected official, sometimes it is joining a project that affirms racial justice.

This past fall a group of friends gathered in Chicago to celebrate my spouse Elaine’s birthday.  I watched and listened remembering the ways Elaine has learned and acted to seek racial justice.  Like Joe Scarborough, she grew up in north Florida.  She too was taught not to say ugly racist words.  However, she looks back with astonishment on the reality of discrimination, segregation and Jim Crow laws in Tallahassee where she grew up.  I have been privileged to watch as Elaine has journeyed ahead in her own ways, seeking to end discrimination and promote racial justice.  Her work over the years as teacher, school board member, advocate for justice and her life as friend to so many signals an abiding witness to the work that still is to be done. 

Recently I was surprised when Elaine said she had arranged to volunteer in a school nearby.  I was proud for her and I also chuckled to myself when thinking about the witness Elaine will be making.    

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Dr. Adrienne Mims and Dr. Elaine Amerson, September 28, 2014.

There is work that we all have to do.  Won’t you join?