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…

 

Standing Behind the President?

Standing Behind the President?

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Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation.  Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17.  He spoke his mind.  In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished.  It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.

Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings.  He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally.  His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing.  My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him. 

It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday.  There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.

The question before us all now is where do we stand?  Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday.  However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?

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White House “leaders” playing Musical Chairs — Who will be left?    Photo by USA Today,
February 17, 2017

We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House.  Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters.  They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.”  The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”  As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”

Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  How then shall we live?

Is Mr. Trump redeemable?  Yes, of course, as a person.  I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion.  However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?”  To that I would answer “NO.”  We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration.   I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.

What then to do?  Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there.  If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do? 

Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?”  As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place.  I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures.  We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities.  We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness.  We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)

We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems.  For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources.  We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.

And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions. 

We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council.  In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away.  Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass.  Encourage and support him or her. 

Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.”  I believe our democracy is up to it.  I pray our democracy is up to it.

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Post Script — Why My Strong Words:

I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday.  After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency.  My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect.  However,  I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world.  I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below.  It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists.  So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.

Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength.  Sad.  He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday.  Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.”  No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.

As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters.  The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke.  Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency?  I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO.  This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events.  Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE.  He is, after all, the president of the United States.

There are multiple sides to our nation’s story.  Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that.  However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.

Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left.  All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally.  The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it.  White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years.  Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House.  When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.

 

Will, Warren and the Klan

Will, Warren and the Klan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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