Wednesday, October 12, 2022

REFLECTION: "Blush, Christian, Blush!

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
Wednesday, October 12


It was Ida B. Wells, journalist and resister, who said of lynching in the post-reconstructionist era: "This was wholly political, its purpose being to suppress the colored vote by intimidation and murder."  And it was Bryan Stevenson who imagined a memorial in the American South, an invitation to remembrance and truthtelling, and an urgent call to democratic engagement and activism.  Walking through that memorial today, I can't help but think of lawyers, reactionaries and Supreme Court justices intent on dismantling voting rights acts and democratic protections.  Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett.  Do they fully understand the history they're embracing?  Or the project in which they've been enlisted?  And what of the senators that picked them out?  They can say that all this didn't happen "on their watch"--but is that honest?

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery

Each of the steel boxes here represents an American county (800 of them in all), and each is inscribed with the names and dates of lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Thousands and thousands of them.  Stevenson's memorial (and the Legacy Museum blocks away) reminds us all that this violence was not random or nonsensical: it had purpose, and that purpose was terror and disenfranchisement.  Rather than embracing the liberation of American slaves as an opportunity for democratic renewal and social healing, forces within us and around us chose terror and violence.  We chose to protect our political, economic, social power and privilege by any means possible.  And that awful, hideous, brutal terror hangs above us--as we walk the strange paths of this National Memorial.

All day long--from the Legacy Museum downtown to the Memorial here--I've tucked a small cross, handcarved from a California redwood, in my t-shirt.  I'm not sure I could have told you why this morning, when I dressed for the day.  Instinct, perhaps.  An openness to struggle and discomfort, and the complicity of American Christianity in the very cruelty and violence that cries out in these now sacred sites.  As the day unfolds, beneath my feet, within my heart, in the tears and anger of those around me, I'm struck by the contradictions tucked within me, and my fingers keep reaching for that cross, running up and down, side to side.  On the one hand, American Christians were (and continue to be) partners in the enslavement and lynching and oppression of peoples of color, migrants and oppressed communities the world around.  It was our blessing, our theological language and culture that offered daily blessing and moral protection to slave traders and the economic apparatus that developed through them over generations.  All that wealth and power, the cotton and manufacturing industries...the fruits of orchards tended by Christian hands.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Why stands she near the auction stand?
That girl so young and fair;
What brings her to this dismal place?
Why stands she weeping there?
Why does she raise that bitter cry?
Why hangs her head with shame,
As now the auctioneer's rough voice
So rudely calls her name?

But see! she grasps a manly hand,
And in a voice so low,
As scarcely to be heard, she says,
"My brother, must I go?"

A moment's pause: then, midst a wail
Of agonizing woe,
His answer falls upon the ear,
"Yes, sister, you must go!"

No longer can my arm defend,
No longer can I save
My sister from the horrid fate
That waits her as a SLAVE!"

Blush, Christian, blush!  For e'en the dark
Untutored heathen see
Thy inconsistency, and lo!
They scorn thy God and thee!

W. Craft (reproduced on the walls of the Legacy Museum)
And of course, on the other hand, the museum bears witness to another Christianity, inscribed in the hearts of those torn from their families, resonant in their voices and hymns, animating protestors at lunch counters, shaping a practice of nonviolent resistance and drawing communities of disciples into intentional circles of mutual aid.   

It's this contradiction that beckons today, at every turn.  What are we to make of it?  What kind of sense can I make of my own participation in such a tradition, such a world?  Is it possible that I live in both worlds--a privileged child of the colonial line, complicit in American injustice at every turn AND a determined ally and friend to those seeking justice, pursuing truth, anticipating liberation and reconciliation?  Again, I reach for the redwood cross, lying flat against my heart, and I wonder how.  How to live in the many ambiguities of all this?  How to lean into joy even as I bravely bear witness to these strange truths?  How to follow the Palestinian Jew I think of as Teacher, so joyful, marginalized within a terrible empire, a generous host at every feast, and a grateful guest at the same time?

The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.

The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
I want to be brave enough--within my own heart, yes, but also in my Christian community--to place the cross "alongside the lynching tree."  I want to see "Jesus in America" in that new light: returning with poor and wounded veterans from killing fields in Iraq and Afghanistan; priced out of American cities and unable to feed their children; shackled in immigrant detention and separated from families in places like El Salvador, Cameroon, Kabul.  And then, seeing, following, I want to take a stand--with you--"against white supremacy and every kind of injustice."  And I want to do all that with joy.  Jesus' kind of joy.  Wanda Battle's kind of joy.


Yesterday, a guest mentioned to us that the question "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and confessed to him your sin?" no longer makes much sense.  And he just can't answer it as cleanly and assuredly as he did as a younger man.  He noted that an older friend, near the end of his own life, has posed the question, several times, seeking confirmation of their shared eternal journey.

I was struck by his reflection--quite deeply.  As a white man, raised in the bosom of that particular version of American Christianity, he experienced religion as freedom and consolation.  And his church offered religion as a balm against the tremendous traumas of contemporary life and collective history.  The trauma of the slave trade, and the Jim Crow culture that replicated its oppression and violence.  The trauma of participating in that kind of evil and terror.  The trauma--farther back--of oppression in places like Scotland, Ireland and northern Europe: places their ancestors had suffered to survive, endured through hatred and oppression (perhaps) and fled for the American South.  All of that pain lives on in our hearts, and in our bodies, and (I think) even in our churches and pieties.  And so the question "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and confessed to him your sin?" offers clarity, maybe comfort and certainly a path to some kind of psychic validation (if not liberation).  

Marker: The Selma to Montgomery March of 1965

But our guest--who's spent most of his life piecing together the story of his family, and bearing witness to his own complicated truth--seems to recognize now that superficiality of the question.  And any simple, smug answer to it.  Even so, he's able to keep a open heart, a compassionate heart, for friends who experience faith and life so very differently.  And this, perhaps, is the gift he's given me this week.  The possibility of keeping an open heart even among those whose lives reveal habits and commitments that frighten or offend me.  

If Christianity means anything now, if the Teacher's path still shines before us--it's a path into these questions themselves, into the collaborative spirit of history and its telling, into the shared project of collective liberation and neighborliness and healing.  "What is redemptive," writes James Cone, "is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair."  And this 'snatching' is not about my salvation, but our redemption, not my "personal" protection, but our collective celebration of shared humanity and purpose.  This seems to be the genius and radiant faith of a Rosa Parks, a John Lewis, a Wanda Battle.  And it's this Christianity -- radically available to siblings of all kinds, and the ambiguity that shapes our many lives and communities -- that I'll carry in my heart (and in my pocket) tomorrow.


It is in this way that I am both: the slavetrader and the abolitionist, the privileged white man and the ally seeking to turn white supremacy on its ear, the one who inflicts trauma and the one whose absorbed it over generations.  It's a complicated, contradictory thing, this life; and so too my faith.  "I am still arriving."  
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

It makes me blush.  Open to it all.  Broken by it all.  Awakened to it all.

The Compassionate Listening leadership team, Montgomery