How can it be? Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames? And, early on Holy Week no less. There are not words to capture the sense of our world’s spiritual and cultural loss. Serge Schmemann, comes close when he writes “beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded” (New York Times, 4/16/19).
In response we hear brave words about rebuilding. Good. Yet, we know some things are forever gone. Amidst the rubble and ashes lies an awareness that all our desires for permanence are ephemeral. Constancy and immutability are never fully within human grasp. Great Cathedrals serve as pointers to something more eternal yet even they come with no guarantee-of-forever. Small rural African-American churches, like those destroyed by fire in Louisiana recently, served as miniature cathedrals, for their faithful. They too now grieve irreplaceable loss. Our call is not to believe we hold a final word or permanent design as to what God is about. At our best we point the way, catch a glimpse of something better, and share what we have seen with others. We offer our best, our highest aspirations, mixed in with our frailties, our vulnerabilities. How then shall we proceed? In the places we live and work? In Louisiana? In Paris?
This Easter, with Notre Dame in view, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Closing lines include these delicious words:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest…
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice Resurrection — My prayer is that you, that we, will practice our Easter prerogatives and that the practice of resurrection will become routine. May it be our habit, our nod to that which is indeed eternal.
It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory. These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries. And what can be seen in these images? There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism. Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians. It is painfully clear.Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify.
The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states. He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters. Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist. In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.
Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama? Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.
Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States. It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite: Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism. Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…
Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism. Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness. If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage. But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.”(Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015. See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.
I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States. During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi. Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008. However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!
I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists. Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe. I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama. These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics. I have known them for years. As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president. The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections. It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement. In hindsight, I wish I had said more. In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.
In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth. Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.” (Kruse, p. 68) Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.
The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ. In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer.
I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.” The damage, the identity theft, has been done. Such a project belongs to others. Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss. As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage. This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology. Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.
What are we to do? What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer). Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism. In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms. The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?
We learned three important things:
The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism. That which is obvious and that which is more subtle. I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since? One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors. (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.) However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible. We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended. In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism. Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!
Silence. Vague content to our faith. Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets. These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.