This month at the NEXT Church blog, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Here’s my contribution–cross-posted here. Check out the whole series!
I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)
Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.
Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.
At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.
Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)
I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”
I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”
As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!
Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.
When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.
Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.
The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.
I was especially interested in his critique of the old Democratic trope that people vote for Republicans “against their economic self-interest”:
It’s a disconnect that’s frustrating to me. They’re not voting against their economic interests; they are voting for their higher interests… The idea that you can disconnect white people from their group position and make pocketbook arguments to them void of the history of their group is folly.
…Who are we to say that they’re voting against their economic interests? If in fact you think you’re losing your country, that’s your higher interest, and how in the hell am I gonna prosper if [I believe] other people are taking my country?
The themes he lifts up reminded me of a passage I was reading last night from Steven Pressfield’s book on creativity, The War of Art. It’s not a book about politics, but this excerpt prompted me to reflect on how potent the Trump campaign turned out to be. I’ve tried to abridge it as much as possible:
Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride.
What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.
It is the state of modern life.
The fundamentalist (or more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.
To making America great again?
Continuing to ponder all of this, and I welcome thoughtful engagement (and respectful disagreement) as I sort it out.
Many of you asked for a copy of the sermon I preached for the Lutherans. I was filling in for a friend of mine who’s on maternity leave. Here is an approximation of it.
May my words be faithful or may the slip harmlessly away.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Peace Lutheran Church
November 13, 2016
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Rachel Martin, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their 40s can get set in their ways.)
One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 8 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.
This morning I want to keep that spirit alive, so, “Here were some of the voices in the news this past week.”
“For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
“I feel pride and gratitude for this wonderful campaign that we built together. This vast, diverse, creative, unruly, energized campaign. You represent the best of America, and being your candidate has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”
“Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country.”
Part of the fun of Voices in the News on NPR was trying to figure out who was speaking and what they were talking about. I will save you that mystery and say we heard words from the Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
I imagine some of you are thinking, “Yeah, tell me about it.” For the second time in less than two decades, we have a president who was elected without winning the popular vote, let alone half of the population that didn’t vote for anyone at all. That’s not to say that the election was illegitimate—it wasn’t—it’s to say that we’re very divided. And to some of us, it does feel like two nations rising up against one another. You can draw the lines of how people voted in a number of different ways, if you’re so inclined to draw lines: Democrat and Republican, of course, but there’s white and people of color, red state and blue state, or perhaps what’s interesting me the most, the incredible divide between urban city centers, highly populated and diverse, and exurban, townships and rural populations, less densely populated and more white, but who have felt forgotten and discounted by a global economy and who rose up to make their voices heard on Tuesday.
To say nothing of the divide between those who are saying “it’s time to come together and unite behind the president” while others are still howling with grief, and in some cases expressing outright resistance to the vision offered by the president-elect.
I don’t know if Pastor Sarah ever admits this to you but there are times when we preachers look at the lectionary texts for a specific Sunday and feel like the Holy Spirit is punking us. How about a little “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” huh? Or a nice juicy “God is making all things new!”?
But instead we get this horror show of violence and pestilence. “Betrayed by relatives and friends?” Yes, many of us feel exactly that way, as we can’t for the life of us understand how loved ones could have voted for the other guy, or gal. The dread over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is building even now.
As Christians, who follow a God who is reconciling the world to Godself, these divisions are painful. They’re obviously painful when our “side” does not prevail and they can be painful even when it does.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I am ordained, we’ve been having a decades-long fight over sexual orientation as it relates to ordination of ministers, and also same-sex marriage. We’ve settled those matters for the most part, taking a stand for inclusion and affirming the gifts and ministries of all whom God may call to serve, or to marry. But with this decision has come a number of congregations voting to leave our denomination. I’m thinking about one particular congregation that went through a months-long discernment that came to a vote. Because separating from the denomination is such a grave matter, the vote had to reach a 2/3 majority, a supermajority, 67%.
When the votes were counted, the congregational vote was 64%.
And my heart broke. As much as I support same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, and as much as I didn’t want that church to leave our fellowship, to have a healthy majority vote to go, but not be able to go, felt like the worst case scenario.
And I have a similar feeling of dis-ease now.
We are divided. And the gospel doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that division will happen. It’s been said that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated phrases in all of scripture. For good reason—fear paralyzes us, turns neighbor against neighbor. Fear suppresses our creativity and our empathy. But even Jesus seems to sense that the picture he paints here are even more intense than usual, because instead of saying “do not be afraid,” he says, “do not be terrified.”
It’s as if Jesus knows that living in tumultuous times doesn’t just make us uneasy, doesn’t just make us jumpy, doesn’t just make us afraid. We’re talking about a bone-chilling terror. And Jesus says, Don’t. Don’t be terrified. And not because I’m going to calm the waters, or make wars cease, or deliver you from the shadow of death. I’m not. Not here, not right now.
Jesus says don’t be terrified—because sometimes turmoil is the thing God works through. Don’t be terrified, because turmoil turns out to be one of God’s specialties. Turmoil is the raw material God used at the foundation of the world, the chaos that God scooped up and fashioned into order and goodness and light. And God can do it again.
Don’t be terrified—because God’s determined to use us in that vital, creative, gospel work. God needs us all to be ready and willing to step into places of pain and loss and vulnerability, and testify with the words that God will give us.
We’re hearing reports this week of harassment, and unrest, and in some cases outright violence, in the wake of the election. Some of it has been directed toward people who supported Donald Trump. But much of it has been directed at immigrants. At gay people—a friend shared a letter that was placed on a car windshield filled with slurs and hate. At Muslim women, having their hijabs ripped off. At women, who are harassed on the street. An elementary and a middle school near where I live in Fairfax County were vandalized this week, with the words “Illegals Go Home” spray-painted on the side—and windows broken out. That’s in Northern Virginia. These are our neighbors.
It is not partisan to call those incidents appalling and contrary to the gospel.
So what is our call as a church in this time and place?
Some of you have probably heard about the safety pin campaign. It began after Brexit, when anti-immigrant sentiment started bubbling. People started wearing safety pins on their clothing as a message to immigrants, Muslims and other vulnerable populations: You are safe with me. I will stand with you.
Now the ugliness has flared up on our shores, and with it the safety pin campaign. And there’s some conversation about whether the safety pins are helpful, or helpful but not enough, and so on.
But what’s concerning me right now isn’t the safety pins. What’s concerning me is that vulnerable people look at the cross around our neck, or the bumper sticker on our car, and don’t see that as a sign of solidarity. Do people see us as safe people, not because of a pin, but because we are followers of Jesus Christ? If they don’t, then we have lost our way, and that is our most urgent issue to address.
These are tough times for many people. And sometimes I just want to hide. I want a different set of challenges. I want a different text. I don’t like this image of the world in the balance. When I think about our warring and warming world, I feel so often like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, this little hobbit who’s given this incredible task of destroying the ring and its destructive power:
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.
I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” We are called to endure. We are called to do the hard work and let God guide the outcome. We are called, not to be successful. Not to prevail. Not to win. But to endure. And to trust that God will give us the words and the actions. As has been quoted in the Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
I’m going to take a guess about something. I’m guessing that as thrilled as you are that Pastor Sarah had a healthy baby, that you wish she were here today. It feels uncomfortable to have someone you don’t know in front of you, especially those of you who are feeling lost and adrift. Well, she’ll be back soon enough, but I’m sorry to say that now is not the time for comfort. We do need to be sanctuary for people who are afraid and vulnerable. But I think one of the problems we face as a Christian church is that our comfort has led to complacency, not competence. I return again and again to the book Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deveare Smith. She talks about writing workshops, where people who are studying writing share their work and receive critiques from their professors and fellow students. Deveare Smith warns against writing workshops that are too cozy and comfortable: “I don’t believe in promising students safety. The world is just too rough for that at the moment. I think we should teach resilience.”
And so we shall.
It feels sometimes like the world is coming unspooled. But as singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer said in an interview recently, “The good news is that the things that have always saved us are still here to save us. Generosity, compassion, hospitality, a good sense of humor, good parenting… these things did not go away because of a rancorous election. They’re still here and completely accessible to us.”
A friend of mine is pastor of a church that’s across the street from the elementary school that was vandalized. She tells me that the church is creating a banner, a statement of support from the church to the school. They are community partners, and I have no doubt they will find tangible ways to stand with the terrified in the face of hate. Because what’s always saved us is still here to save us. Neighborliness, grace, courage… and the spirit of Christ, who was hated and reviled, and put to death, and who rose again, and is with us in the struggle.
Thanks be to God.
Image: “You are a cherished part of our community,” a chalk message outside a mosque in Springfield, Illinois.
I have been so focused on the book lately that I’ve done no meaningful blogging for a few months now.
The events of last week have convicted me that, book deadline or no book deadline, I need to be writing publicly again.
I have no illusions that a blog is some courageous stand for justice. But what I have to offer are my words and my tiny platform. They will not be enough, and they will not be where I stop. But here is my first attempt.
Today I share two quotes. The first is from Matthew Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, written on Facebook last week:
This number has haunted me over the last day: 60. Sixty percent of American voters who call themselves Protestant voted for a man who boasts of committing sexual assault repeatedly and with impunity, a man who harnesses vile undercurrents of antisemitism, a man whose words and proposals are the very definition of Islamophobia. Sixty percent.
Those of us who teach and lead in Protestant communities don’t necessarily need to wade into the unfamiliar world of political and economic philosophy. We might stay closer to home and simply ask: What one thing am I going to do today to chip away at the theological assumptions that continue to sow misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and exceptionalism in our “mainline” and seemingly respectable institutions, practices, rhetoric, and confessions? Start with one thing. Then try for two tomorrow.
Second: The other day a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook (disclaimer: haven’t read it) and highlighted the quote:
We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides.
I’m sitting in between those two quotes as I think about my role as a free-range pastor, whose “parish” may be anyone I happen to come in contact with. I’m discerning my call as a flawed and faithful follower of a brown man who stood with the vulnerable and the despised and was killed for it.
How do we cross the ever widening social divides?
I’m not talking about finding common ground with the white supremacists who have felt emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and are now painting swastikas. Maybe someone can do that work, but it’s too unsafe for too many people to wade into that.
But I am interested to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to those who do not march in KKK parades or rip off hijabs. I’m interested in the people who sit in Presbyterian pews and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ preached every week. What did they find compelling enough about his message and plan that they were able to dismiss the very real and very disturbing rhetoric he proffered? It had to be way more compelling than I am capable of grasping.
Some of my friends on the left are not interested in the answer to that question. They say these Trump votes (even lukewarm ones) aided and abetted racism, therefore the people who cast them are racist. (Sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, etc.)
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the
experiences of others.
Shame suppresses empathy. And empathy is the goal right now.
Which brings me back to Skinner’s quote. I’m more and more convinced that the divide in our country isn’t red state or blue state, or black and white, it is urban and rural. The map of the 2016 election makes this clear. (Disclaimer: this isn’t the final 2016 map, but it illustrates the point. Source)
I don’t know very many people living in rural America. And they don’t know me.
But my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has connectional structures in place that can bridge the divide. I have friends I went to seminary with who serve churches in rural areas. We don’t even need to go far—our synods (multi-state jurisdictions within the PCUSA) encompass big cities and small towns and tiny hamlets. We’ve talked for years about whether synods have a purpose—maybe this can be part of their purpose.
The structure is there, but it needs some tweaking. I’m not talking about Suburban Presbyterian Church swooping into Appalachia and building houses. Nor am I talking about Small-Town Pres trucking into the inner city to provide a day of labor at the various soup kitchens. Yes, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “Doctrine divides, mission unites,” but I don’t think unity is the right goal. Not right now. Things are too fragile. Empathy is the goal. Love of neighbor is the goal.
So I’m talking about cultural exchange. I’m talking about sitting at tables. I’m talking about sharing and bearing witness to stories of painful loss and soaring resilience. I’m talking about the kind of work Columbia Seminary does in its Alternative Context program, in which seminarians visit other parts of the world, not as helpers, not as tourists, but as pilgrims sent to listen and learn.
Advocates for justice movements talk all the time about “peopling” issues. It’s harder to take a stand that hurts LGBT people when you know and care about a specific queer person. I don’t expect the great honor of my friendship to move a Trump voter. But maybe when people start talking about the evil elites on the “Least Coast,” someone who’s met me or people like me will stand up for nuance and understanding. And when someone makes a joke about “flyover country,” I will intervene and say “Not that simple. Never that simple.”
I don’t know who’s willing to undertake such an experiment. But in the PCUSA at least, the structures are there. And the call is urgently clear.