Fortnight – Day2: Virtue

Fortnight – Day2: Virtue

October 21, has been designated Global Ethics Day by the Carnegie Council for International Affairs. It’s a good and timely thing to give attention to virtue as we approach the selection of leaders in our nation. In this fortnight we reflect on virtue or ethics. What is “the best” way forward? What values, principles, intentions should be reflected in our personal and corporate actions? Where do we see evidence of the good, the true and the beautiful?

Virtue is born of our deepest beliefs, values, attitudes and desires. It finds expression and shape in our habits, our learned behaviors as these are repeated over and again until they are taken-for-granted as the “right” way. In this second fortnight post, we focus on the care that needs to be given in challenging what some believe is to be normative. I would ask, where is the virtue of immigrant children who have been separated from parents? What is valued in the denial of climate change? Should wearing a mask be a political statement when others may face harm by a neglect? Can any ethical person, let alone a Christian person, ignore the value of the health and well-being of another?

Aren’t these critical questions for all persons of faith — who is my neighbor? — how shall I therefore live my life? Will deception or lie be seen as normal? Will perpetual shading or spinning of the truth, or “gas lighting” (offering false stories) become appropriate for our leaders?

Aristotle offered four virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. These have become known as the “cardinal virtues.” The church later added the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope and charity (from I Corinthians 13). These became “the seven virtues.” Others have said virtue is evidenced in that which is good, true and beautiful. Okay — nice overview — but how will we therefore live? And what is the test for these seven virtues or this this triad? How will we know the good, the true, the beautiful?

Few ethicists have shaped my thoughts more than Glen Stassen. He spoke of the guidance offered in the Sermon on the Mount where over and again Jesus points to the fruit borne in lives well-lived. In his work Living the Sermon on the Mount he writes: “I am suggesting that even though we do not know all there is to know, and we do not have the certitude of a universal viewpoint, we can see within our own history what kind of ethic comes through, which is truer because of the fruits it bears.” The theme throughout the Sermon on the Mount is “doing,” “producing,” “acting.” Here is joy and deliverance from deceit. (See Living the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 192-199).

Ivan Illich spoke of virtue as the “habitual facility of doing the good thing.” With a sharp and critical eye on our institutions (schools, hospitals, church and our politics), Illich notes a failure to accomplish primary stated purposes. Other values, he suggests, are given preferred over that which is truly the good. The love of neighbor is somewhere lost in the maze of social interaction. Some are excluded. “No category, neither law or custom, language or culture can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (see David Cayley’s The Rivers North of the Future, p. 30). Illich often points to the parable in Luke’s Gospel spoken of as “The Good Samaritan.” It is the “expert in the law” who says he has kept all the customs and rules who challenges with “And who is my neighbor?” There is a rupturing of traditional categories in the answer Jesus gives. There is a call to conversion, to change.

Theologian Nancy Bedford calls on Christians “To Speak of God from More than One Place.” When leaders are reluctant to speak against White Supremacy or suggest that other nation’s and peoples are to be disrespected, there is an effort to link God’s purposes to my small, small world of my self interest… to my unwillingness to share. There is a signpost along a country road not far from my home. I chuckle each time I pass. It simply reads “Entering-Leaving Gatesville.” A single sign, same message, front and back, all on one post. For many, the reach of virtue, of ethical concern, begins and ends in one place.

The folks of Gatesville are lovely people I suspect. They clearly have a good sense of humor an perspective. This is important. Sadly, when awareness and care for the neighbor is lost, when our beginning and ending is at the edge of our own skin and ego, then we lose an ability to know the gifts we are offered in community, in diversity, in journeying to new understandings.

When thinking about practical virtues of in daily life, I am also helped by folks like Shirley Duncanson, a retired United Methodist pastor in Minnesota. Her posts in “A Pastor’s Heart: Thoughts on Life and Faith” offer clear and practical assistance. Writing on “Recovering Christian Ethics in an Age of COVID-19,” Rev. Duncanson offers cites the work of Barbara Brown Taylor’s pastoral experience in wise counsel: “The only way out of a pandemic is by all of us working together . . . Each of us doing our part . . . Each of us caring for people around us . . . Each of us using the means available to us to protect one another . . . Each of us holding tight, (in our hearts) to one another . . . And all the while, making sure that no one, but no one, is left behind.” (see: https://shirleyhobsonduncanson.com/tag/barbara-brown-taylor/).

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“Love does no wrong to it’s neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10.

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Poem by Linda Ori, 2004

The Time of Truth

The time is now
Let change begin,
Blend heaven and earth
In an endless spin,
Wherever you're going,
Wherever you've been
Now change your direction
And travel within;

The time is now
To take a good look
Examine your life
And the roads that you took,
From cover to cover
You've written your book
Did you swim in the river
Or sleep by the brook?

The time is now
Get your head on straight
No more indecision
To love or to hate,
Since you are the author
Don't blame it on Fate,
Take control of your future
Before it's too late.

Harvesting Surprise

Harvesting Surprise

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.

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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.

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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!

A Call for Antiracist Commitments by Indiana United Methodism

A Call for Antiracist Commitments by Indiana United Methodists

Date: August 17, 2020 

Dear Friends,

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.

'I Can't Breathe' Protest Held After Man Dies In Police Custody In Minneapolis
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. The station has become the site of an ongoing protest after the police killing of George Floyd. Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired after a video taken by a bystander was posted on social media showing Floyd’s neck being pinned to the ground by an officer as he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe”. Floyd was later pronounced dead while in police custody after being transported to Hennepin County Medical Center. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

 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.

Sincerely,

Philip A. Amerson

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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.

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.

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]

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

Why Seek a King Cyrus When We have a King Jesus?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart writes of what she has been discovering among many right wing, Christian Nationalist groups.  [See Katherine Stewart, NY Times.]  Having read her thought-provoking report, I can’t help but wonder why Christians would seek the re-emergence of a King Cyrus when we have the far more appropriate witness in life, death and resurrection of King Jesus, as our guide?  

I also stop and consider what recent socio-cultural trends mean for the church.  While United Methodism has been distracted by folks seeking a heretofore undesired “doctrinal purity” on issues like “homosexuality,” our core message of multiple ways for faithful disciples to “Know God in Christ” has languished… and in some places nearly disappeared. All the while, our distractions have kept our attentions from the deeper cultural realities. Basic assumptions about liberty and faith provided by folks like the Niebuhrs, ML King, Jr., E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been undercut. A profound shift in understanding of the nature of Christian citizenship has eroded beneath our feet.

This, I believe, was (and continues to be) a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed effort by persons who have little or no interest in encouraging a Wesleyan spirit. I don’t believe many of my sisters and brothers caught up in the so-called “Good News” movement or the so-called “Wesleyan Covenant Association” intended this. Even so, they are in my view the seminal actors in this tragedy. I do also wonder, at the same time, if they (and we) haven’t “been played” by nationalistic and anti-democratic forces over the past several decades. Have we unwittingly made space for some to suggest that POTUS is a modern “King Cyrus?” Alas.

I believe our foolish warfare over welcoming our gay brothers and sisters has contributed, in some significant measure, to the current season of intolerance and authoritarianism that passes for Christianity. Can United Methodism recover it’s voice? Can we move back to a focus on living lives based on the teachings of Jesus? Can we again practice basic democratic, respectful and honorable civic dialogue? This was once a part of Methodist annual conference sessions — in many places in recent years it has been lost.  Can we mend the soul and witness of our church?  The soul of our nation may stand in the balance.

 

Let Caravans of Hope Be Our Response

Caravans of Hope — Our Response

“CARAVAN” it is a word being used to stir up fear among the good people of the United States.  You can hear it daily — the underlying message is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Those of us who follow Jesus need to respond. We need not accept the false dichotomy being offered. 

There are humane and Christian alternatives we can choose.  It is not the either/or of “barbarians at our gates” versus “wide open borders.”  As a nation we can respond with safe and honest practices of processing those who seek and deserve asylum and those who don’t.  There are many constructive ways to offer hospitality and security at the same time.

Those of us who claim to march with the Prince of Peace, who came to earth surrounded by the message “Fear Not,” must respond.  How?

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One possible response is to form our own Caravans.  Let’s make them “Caravans of the Spirit,” “Caravans of Hope and Love,” “Caravans of Compassion.”  Might we join together and march in another direction?  All of us can actually move toward the borders of our nation or at least to the borders of our daily routines to welcome, to send a message that we stand with those who suffer from FEAR — all of them — those brothers and sisters looking for asylum from terror in their home countries, AND those in the United States who are being misled by the deceits of some who seek to divide us and leave many to dwell in a muddle of fear.

Might we substitute HOPE for the HATE that is being encouraged?  Will you join in making today a day when you participate in Caravans of Hope?  From Eastern and Southern Europe, across the British Commonwealth and along the borders of the United States, in our hometowns, in our shopping malls and public spaces — 

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real people are facing the tragic reality of being demonized by those who seem to have no ethical or Biblical moorings. 

Let’s recommit to forming and joining our own caravans — ones that welcome and offer Biblical hospitality to the stranger and sojourner.  The time for a new direction can begin today through simple acts of including others with a smile, a kind word, a gift to those who work with refugees and a VOTE in the coming elections.   These acts indicate we are part of the LARGEST CARAVAN EVER — a Caravan of Hope.

 

 

 

Pentecost Lost… and found

Pentecost Lost… and found

Light the candles, sing the songs, cut the cake, burst the piñata — it’s a birthday.  Laugh, dance, tease, shout out “Many Happy Returns!!”  WAIT A MINUTE… Which Birthday is it?  PENTECOST?  Where?  What if the gifts of Pentecost go missing this year?  Shouldn’t we send out a missing feast day alert?

Pentecost is said to be the birthday of the church.  Why celebrate the Spirit first unleashed two millenia ago?  Should I wear red on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 as in other years?  Perhaps not.  Scanning the international, national and ecclesial horizon, there is little evidence such celebration is in order or that Pentecost will have much of a season in our world today.  Pentecost has gone missing.

The Pentecost Season in the church is to last several months.  It is when we read some of the greatest chapters in Christian scripture —  Acts 2, Ezekiel 37, Romans 8, Psalm 104, Galatians 3.  And, the most reiterated word (and theme) in these passages? It is “ALL,” as in “EVERYONE,” “EACH TOGETHER.” 

Here is the core identity of church, the basic DNA of God’s people.  In these texts it is made clear — God includes all persons.  Further, we are to love and protect ALL of creation.  Francis of Assisi had it right — we indeed are relatives to brother sun and sister moon.  Pentecost is about including, renewing, accepting, out-reaching.  It is about creating community and not simply talking about community. In Pentecost we learn the meaning of neighboring with God and with one another.

Romans 8 speaks of all creation groaning in B+Pentecost+Acts+02_17+No+2new birth.  The work of the Spirit is about new life, addition to our social fabric and our communities of friends.  It is not an excluding or dividing.  Rather, Pentecost passages include, extend, restore.  Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, this is a focus on that which has been separated or torn asunder being made whole.  God’s heart in any Pentecost celebration is about inclusion. 

If the word “All” were to be left out of these passages, they turn to gibberish.  Or, if words like “everyone,” “each,” or “every nation,” “every tongue” or “all flesh” were to be omitted, Pentecost vanishes.  No need for celebration, no call for many happy returns — Pentecost would drift away, vaporize, disappear.circle-312343_960_720

At a national level, in the U.S. today, Pentecost may have gone missing.  The preachers who affirm the mean and divisive ways of this president, have missed the story and meaning of Pentecost for our world.  Instead of a Pentecost vision we are offered border walls, white nationalist rhetoric, the separating of children from undocumented parents, thinly veiled racism that smoothly falls from the lips of national leaders.  Pentecost seems hidden by ugly bigotries.  On so many fronts the vision of Pentecost seems erased. 

Racism and Patriarchy continue to plague our nation and blind us to the story of Pentecost.  We are still discovering the enormity of these curses on our national psyche and our people.  Racism and sexism is baked into all we do and who we are as a nation — it masks any signs of Pentecost among us. 

Take for example the tragedy of the maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States.  These percentages are growing and are almost exclusively due to the increased percentage of deaths among African-American mothers and their children.  “We are the only developed country the [mortality] rate is going up.” (https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily.  The Daily, New York Times podcast, May 11,2018).

Our “infant mortality rate is high…  It is 32nd out of the 35 most developed countries… A black woman is 2 to 3 times more likely to die in child-birth than a white woman and a black baby 2.2 times more likely to die than a white baby… This racial disparity is larger now than it was in 1850!” (Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily).   

Today there is now overwhelming research that demonstrates this disparity in mortality is grounded in the racism of our institutions and cultural life in the United States.  Such disparity does not exist to this extent in other countries.  One of the most astonishing discoveries has been named the “weathering” of African-American women.  (Again, Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018.) Weathering is language that speaks of the results of chronic toxic stress on African-American women.  This is the impact of racism on the body of women facing day-in and day-out challenges and diminishment in this society due to their racial identity.  Put simply, our racism damages the bodies of our sisters.

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Or take, for example, the patriarchy that still distorts the church from genuine expressions of the gospel — from the meaning of Pentecost.  Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has finally apologized from insensitive and dangerous remarks about women needing to stay in homes where they are being physically abused so that “they might be a witness” to abusive husbands.  Patterson only recently also acknowledged that some sermon illustrations about young women were “hurtful.”  It is tragic.  Still this denomination and many others exclude women in leadership in multiple ways.

In my own denomination, United Methodism, we live under our own distortions of Pentecost.  Jeremy Smith has argued that “the Gay Panic” has also harmed women and equality throughout the denomination.  In his most recent posting Smith outlines the ways the United Methodist Church is damaged by an inability to welcome all people. (Gay Panic Harms Women and Equality, Jeremy Smith, May 11, 2018.)

In a stunning, dispiriting outcome this past week, United Methodists learned that a constitutional amendment stating that woman and girls were to be equals in the church, narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds vote from the world-wide denomination necessary for its approval.  A re-vote is scheduled due to some mistakes in the original stated language of the amendment.  Still, no matter.  Damage done.  Patriarchy clearly asserted, riding the coattails of Gay Panic in the church.  Where is Pentecost in this?

Still I confess to being a prisoner of hope.  Just when I believe Pentecost has been lost or gone into permanent hiding, there are experiences that renew and restore.

As in so many other places in my life, I have discovered that I was looking for Pentecost in all the wrong places.  Our nation and our churches seem to be drifting away from the SPIRIT BEING A GIFT TO EVERYONE.  Still there are Pentecost tracks and genuine sightings all around.  Last Sunday I saw evidences of Pentecost at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chicago.  And, I know that such signs are bubbling up in churches like Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis and St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington Indiana (where I worship).  I see it there — almost weekly.  There it is — the Spirit given to ALL.

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Then today, I caught what will be an enduring glimpse of Pentecost for me.  It was the dedication of two Habitat for Humanity Houses in my town.  Two homes — one for Colleen and her daughter Juliana;  another for Rachel.  Two houses — built by women and for women.  There were women crew chiefs and three-hundred-and-forty (340) local women working on these builds!  These women raised the money, hammered the nails, put on the roof, painted the walls and finished these homes.  They completed two homes in two weeks (take that Paige Patterson)! 

I watched as the crew leaders passed the keys along a line of celebration — each one a contributor — and then to the new owners.  I watched Colleen and Juliana accepted the keys to their home.  They have worked hard to get to this point — their own homes, their own mortgages — after years of living it difficult, counter productive situations. 

Then keys were passed to Rachel.  When I heard Rachel say “I have worked hard but you women have taught me more than building, you have taught that we need each other.  Hey, this is MY House but your love is in every board,” I caught a glimpse of Pentecost.  It has been in hiding for me, but I might see it more clearly yet.  I may even wear red on May 20, Pentecost Sunday!

 

 

 

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

I have come to understand that there is a rather simple human choice each of us can make.  It is this, will the generosity of a loving God be reflected in our lives?

In the past week two such difference makers for me, died.  Their names, James Cone – renown theologian, faculty member at Union Seminary in NYC and author of ground-breaking work on Black and Liberation theologies, and Gaye Hudson – elementary school teacher, musician and supporter/surrogate parent of students at Indiana University both passed away.

Gaye and James were in many ways different, and yet, in essential ways they were similar.  It is this — though both of them had reasons to live otherwise — they turned toward hope and healing as they lived their lives.

I remember the joy it was for me when James Cone would visit during my time in the administration at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary or when we were attending various academic meetings together.  I would argue that more than any other writer in the last century, James Cone named the racism that constrained and corrupted the church in the United States.  James understood the way all of our institutions, including his own alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical, were diminished by the toxins of racial bigotry and discrimination. 

Still I knew him as a man of hope and… wait for it… JOY.  I can see that smile and loved the ease with which he shared a small laugh, a riddle, a pun, that betrayed an underlying sense of hope.  On more than one occasion, he expanded my ability to see past the fear-filled static and toxins of our society.  Even when his words began in anger, they found their way to the gift of transformation. John Robert McFarland writes meaningfully and beautifully of memories with his seminary  classmate James Cone — the difference maker (see: http://christinwinter.blogspot.com/).

Gaye Hudson was a member of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.  This is a church I served as pastor for almost a decade.  It was, and is, a congregation filled with remarkable folks — few more remarkable than Gaye.  For over thirty years she sang in the choir and for all of this time she was a friend to many.  Hundreds of students knew of Gaye’s care while in school.  She fed them, provided transportation, encouraged them, attended their recitals and on occasion slipped a little extra cash their way.  Some went on to teach; some became opera or recording stars; many were choral conductors, some wrote music and published books — ALL of them were in debt to their “dear friend Gaye.”

Gaye was the choir-mothercaring, challenging, sometimes lovingly disagreeing, anticipating the needs of others, and, yes, difference making.  At her funeral service on April 29th, the choir loft was overflowing with her “children.”  My, my, the music they made in her memory!  I suspect that nowhere in American — or the world for that matter — was music of praise and generosity more gloriously sung than yesterday in that sanctuary.

In a world too full of anger and blame, fear and shame, I give thanks for James Cone and Gaye Hudson, two folks who didn’t know one another, two who knew injustice and burdens, but they knew more, they knew the joy of living with generosity toward others.  I give thanks for these two who make a difference in my life.

 

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…