Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. This well known aphorism from Frederick Buechner comes to mind as the presidential election approaches. Four days now, four days until the presidential election. Few things puzzle me more than the rigid certitude I hear from so many voters. They trust their candidate, without doubts, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Many seem to live in a world “beyond the shadow of doubt.” Has grievance erased the ability to doubt?
A fuller quote from Buechner’s volume Wishful Thinking reads: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 20). So, today I pray for an awakening in our body politic. No matter who is elected (and it is clear I have my preference) we need a good dose of skepticism at play in the future of our democracy. We have gone for too many years with a president who asks, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”
Doubt is a gift when paired with hope — for religious faith and for a vibrant democracy. The opposite of faith is not certainty. Rather it is lively and discernment that rests in hope. I would argue a healthy democracy isn’t secured by uncritical allegiance to one leader or one ideology, rather healthy democracy requires healthy doubt. Such doubt rests in hope. Doubting is a gift that other institutions (the press, the faith community, the educational, judicial and the heath care institutions, the corporate and research worlds) must also provide. Doubt builds heft into democratic behaviors… especially if it can move us to be more trusting. Hope and doubt are the oppositional muscles needed for a healthy democracy.
Perhaps the apparent reduction in “doubters” is a sign of confirmation bias. Receiving information (news, sermons, radio talk shows, social media, etc.) from sources that almost exclusively support a person’s preconceived beliefs. It is astonishing that as the band-width of information available has dramatically increased in our digital worlds, our circles of received information tend to become more and more narrow. Much of this is due to the algorithm that pres-sorts what shows up on our screens. As Google has learned, why expand the options for a person when you can own their choices through their data?
It is reported that Albert Einstein regarded scientists who were unimaginative as “stamp collectors” of science. He then quickly apologized to stamp collectors. Einstein regarded science as brittle and dreary without doubts, imagination, vision and creativity.
Vance Morgan writes of Confronting the Sin of Certainty, Patheos, June 16, 2020: “Certainty without doubt has been the argumentative gold standard for centuries in logical arguments, and such arguments have their place—but not in the life of faith. A lived example is far more convincing.”
J Ruth Gendler, in The Book of Qualities, “Doubt camped out in the living room last week. I told him that we had too many house guests. Doubt doesn’t listen. He keeps saying the same thing again and again and again until I completely forget what I am trying to tell him. Doubt is demanding and not very generous, but I appreciate his honesty.” (p21)
Tennyson wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds put together.”
Whatever ever happens in the coming election, I will look for a doubting that rests in hope as an indicator of vitality. We need more doubters, more agnostics. Along with hope, we will need people who will suspend judgment and then see the signs more clearly.
Natalie Sleeth offered language for people of faith in Hymn of Promise (#707 in the United Methodist Hymnal):
In the end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
(From Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth, #707 in U.M. Hymnal)
My God my bright abyssInto which all my longing will not goOnce more I come to the edge of all I knowAnd believing nothing believe in this.
-- Christian Wiman
And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here. (Wendell Berry)
If the presidential election, nine days hence, is to address the anxieties and despairing so many carry, it will require more than replacing one person with another. It will require more than changing the nameplates on office doors. It will require a transformation in us. It will require Sabbath. While many swamps may need to be drained, the primary swamp needing attention may be within the human heart.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, whether known in a few hours or several weeks, the temptation then will be to continue in the patterns and habits established out of anxiety, grievance and distrust. Sabbath will be required. Walter Brueggemann reminds: “Sabbath is the occasion to reimagine all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity. Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms.” (Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p. 44)
I fear many things. I am anxious about much. Mostly, however, I desire to move from patterns of constant anxiety to another way of life. A way where I know the gifts of sabbath. The joy of rest, restoration, re-imagination and resistance. Joan Chittister wrote: “Sabbath is that period for holy leisure when I take time to look at life in fresh, new ways.” She encourages “contemplative leisure.”
Sabbath can serve as the great equalizer — it is a time when we are freed to set competition aside. As a great equalizer we are freed to recall that all share in creation; each other person is neighbor. Again Walter Brueggemann writes: The task is to SEVEN our lives. — On the Sabbath Day these vulnerable neighbors shall be like you. Sabbath is not simply a pause, but the occasion to re-imagine all of society away from coercion and competition. (Sabbath as Resistance, p. 43)
A Jewish Sabbath Prayer:
And we walk sightless among miracles.
This fortnight, unlike any other of my lifetime, seems a good time to post thoughts on faith and human flourishing; a time to review gifts of hope, community, love, conviviality, and grace. This fortnight, as the cold wind of autumn arrives, a sharing of this folio of reflections seems apt. Why? This fortnight will culminate on November 3rd; if one counts the days, that’s fourteen. If one ponders epochs, however, this fortnight faces into a test for a nation’s soul. This fortnight culminates with a pivot point.
Samuel Johnson wrote “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.“This fortnight for me, then, is a time when the mind is wonderfully focused!
In the fortnight ahead, leadership is on the ballot in the United States. We will better know what Americans prefer in terms of a leader — not just the “who,” but the “how” of leading. What will be seen as leadership strength? What vision, language and actions are seen as most desirable?
Leadership or Connectorship?
All the focus on leadership development over the past two decades has left me bemused. One can only guess at the resources (dollars, graduate courses, research, coaching and consulting) that been given to teaching leadership. I do not doubt there is some benefit; still I am unconvinced the fruit harvested has been worth the expense.
Just as there are times when listening is more valuable than speaking, there are times when following is required in order to later lead. Jesus put it this way, “if you would be master, first be a servant.” On occasion I preached sermons suggesting follower-ship is every bit as important as leadership.
Years ago, in a visit with Robert Greenleaf, I asked if he thought leadership could be taught. He had been an executive with ATT and had written a popular book on Servant Leadership. He had consulted with a wide array of foundations, religious and civic institutions. Bob smiled at my question, paused and said he was “an institution watcher, simply a student of human behavior, noting what I see and not intending to change anybody or anything.” He went on, “Being a leader,” he suggested is “a little like playing violin. If you can’t hear the pitch you shouldn’t try to play.” [There will be more lessons from Bob Greenleaf later in these fortnight briefs].
I was at lunch with a couple of friends. One, the president of a fine academic institution; the other was John McKnight, proponent of asset based community development among communities around the globe. The academic leader spoke in glowing terms of a new leadership development initiative at the school. McKnight, the wise observer of institutions and advocacy efforts over the years, waited until lunch was ending to comment. With good humor and a kind smile he offered, “You know, you may want to consider giving attention to connector-ship more than leadership.” Connecting people is likely to have a longer term pay off… and allow the new, the not yet foreseen, the leaders already present to join the effort.”
Connecting has been much in my thoughts as a critical element of community as we enter this fortnight; even more, CONNECTING is an essential in not only claiming a faith but living it. Faith as a verb, a way of life, is what is missing from so much of the religious lingo and posturing around leadership.
From the Gospel of Mark, 10:42-43 we read: Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. [The Message].
As this fortnight continues, it is worth considering who seeks to serve and who seeks to be served? It is worth considering who seeks to connect and who seeks to divide? Even as the leaves fall from the trees this autumn revealing what has been hidden in the hills across the valley, may clarity come to our nation as to how to follow and how to lead.
Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem “Autumn Overdue” is identified as a “Fortnight Poem“:
Autumn OverdueCold wind of autumn, blowing loud
At dawn, a fortnight overdue,
Jostling the doors, and tearing through
My bedroom to rejoin the cloud,
I know—for I can hear the hiss
And scrape of leaves along the floor—
How many boughs, lashed bare by this,
Will rake the cluttered sky once more.
Tardy, and somewhat south of east,
The sun will rise at length, made known
More by the meagre light increased
Than by a disk in splendour shown;
When, having but to turn my head,
Through the stripped maple I shall see,
Bleak and remembered, patched with red,
The hill all summer hid from me.
Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.
As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.
There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.
This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.
When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”
Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.
I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”
Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.
We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.
Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.
It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.
Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.
I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.
Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.
This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.
They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.
I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.
I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.
I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.
I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.
Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”
I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.
Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?
Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.
As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.
No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!
“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.
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.
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.
Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?
Who will take responsibility? Is there a voice of ethical clarity among the leaders in the White House?
As a six-year-old I accompanied my father to a religious bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky. To my preschool eyes, the counters were a wonderland — filled with lovely trinkets — “notions,” as the store owners called them. I saw dozens of inviting small treasures designed, no doubt, by someone in post-war Japan to appeal to a six-year-old American child. One of these items, a small two inch pocket knife somehow, mysteriously, ended up in MY pocket. The imitation pearl handle carried the inscription “God is Love.” Those were the same words beautifully stenciled in the front of the sanctuary of the antebellum church where my father was pastor. In fact, those words, “God is Love,” were among the first three words I had learned to read.
Heading home, back across the old K & I bridge that separated Louisville from New Albany, I took out my new prized possession, opening the blade and reading the words again. Then I heard, “where did you get that?” I was jolted from my revere. I remember that my heart leaped and there was a noticeable wetness in my six-year-old pants. Again, “Where did you get that?” my papa asked. Through tears, I told him that it was beautiful and it had the words “God is Love” printed on it just like in the front of the church. “See,” I held it up, trembling and then handing my booty over. Within a half-an-hour we were back in the store. After paying for the knife, papa explained that he had given me a loan and I would be paying him back out of my allowance, with interest!
I learned a lot that day… and on many other days, as I learned personal habits of responsibility and about the lifestyle to be expected of followers of Jesus.
As the COVID-19 virus lumbers across our nation destroying the lives, health and the future of millions, I wonder if our president ever learned such a basic ethical lesson. As our healthcare, educational, commercial and technological strength is sapped away, instead of a clear taking-of-responsibility, instead of a plan, we are offered up excuses, phony narratives, wagons-full of diversions, and, most troubling we are given binary options as to who is to blame and how we are to proceed. We are told again and again — and shifting from day to day — that one idea, or group, or preference must be sacrificed to another in order to recover from this scourge.
I wonder — did anyone ever hold the six-year-old Donald Trump accountable that made a difference in his sense of the value of himself and others? Or, how about when he was twelve, or twenty-five, or sixty? Has this sad, sad man ever been asked to move toward healthy adulthood? It is precisely this that would help him now lead a nation in answering the questions, “Whose lives are to be saved and what is to be treasured?” Did he ever have to look past his own self-interests to know that life is complex and most things are NOT a simple either/or choice?
With the virus, a veil has been lifted that makes evident what was present but unseen by too many prior to this pandemic. It is much more than the narcissism and deceitfulness of the White House that is exposed. It is a revealing of the inequalities in healthcare access and economic resources available to our citizens. [I will not rehearse the data here as to which groups of persons are currently suffering the most from this virus. I will suggest that ultimately, we ALL face difficulties due to these inequities.]
The disparities in healthy options for care based on social class or race have become painfully clear. Who are suffering the most? Will we treasure these? As the statistics from this pandemic are presented it is clear that the essential front line workers, healthcare providers, AND public service personnel are also those who are the most economically challenged. They are the lower-middle class, the poor, the immigrant and those without shelter or healthcare options.
The United States represents less than five percent of the world population and current reporting has us with more than twenty-five percent of the reported cases in the world! Something is amiss. Something more than the way the counting is done — here or elsewhere!
Where is Our Treasure? If God is Love, what does it mean for us?
Persons familiar with Christian scriptures will have already anticipated that I will point to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. Jesus offers this observation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus goes on and teaches, in these passages and throughout the gospels, that it is the neighbor, the weak ones, the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the wealthy — ALL are to be treasured. All are a part of God’s household of love.
What do we believe should be valued and who should be sacrificed? These are matters of the heart — they are core values. For most they are learned in childhood. Sadly, for some, these are never learned. They may also reflect our ability as a nation to stand tall and take responsibility now.
A second answer, found throughout scripture is our kinship with all others and all of creation. Every other person is a child of God and they should have BOTH a life and a livelihood.
In Genesis 4:9 after killing his brother Abel, Cain responds to the question, “Where is your brother?” He answers with those famous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some translate this as “Am I my brother’s guardian, my brother’s baby-sitter, or my brother’s brother?” In this exchange of questions, it is the next question asked of Cain by God that we now face. It is “What have you done?” Are we our brother and sister’s kin?
I believe the answer for our citizens and responsible adults everywhere is, and must be, a resounding “YES.” Who is my neighbor? Who is the one who should receive my care? Every other person!
Sadly, I have known some pastors, rabbis and imams who read their scriptures differently. They would say the answer to the question “Where is your brother or sister?” is “they are only those who are in my congregation or who are truly Christian, Jew or Muslim. Only these are to be considered my neighbor,” they would suggest. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). How can we not see that the three words “God is Love” apply to all, everywhere?
This is NOT a screed against the wealthy. Some of the most generous folks I have met are blessed with many resources and they share them wisely and widely. At the same time, some of the stingiest people I have known are persons who always, in every action and decision, seek to selfishly add to their possessions. In a year, or perhaps two, the answer will be clearer as to what we have truly treasured. We will see how some of those who have taken political actions in these months were also benefiting their own status, portfolios and bank accounts. This is, sadly, too often the human behavior.
We can love our livelihoods — but not if we sacrifice the neighbor.
For me, as a Christian, I continue to learn the core lesson that “God is Love.”