Freedom, Liberty, Justice, and the National Anthem

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Patriotism can be defined differently by different people. A plethora of actions and ceremonies cause a lump in the throat. For me, many ceremonies, sights and sounds can create a catch in my voice and a visceral emotional response. 

Singing “America the Beautiful” (1)

Watching the U.S. Navy Blue Angels paint the sky

Singing the song written by Irving Berlin in 1918, “God bless America, land that I love . . .” (2)

Hearing the stunningly beautiful words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” (3)

Singing the hymn known as the African American National Anthem:

Lift every voice and sing, 
‘Till earth and heaven ring, 
Ring with the harmonies of liberty . . . 
Stormy the road we trod, 
Bitter the chastening rod, 
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died . . .
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast . . . (4)

And finally, watching the flag billowing in the breeze while the melody of the National Anthem floods a football stadium . . . 

While National Football League players stand tall and sing as they gaze at the American flag; 

While other players place their hands over their hearts in an act of honor; 

While still others kneel because they long for America to be better.

The National Anthem should not be the focus of controversy. The American flag should not be a catalyst for divisiveness. Both are symbols of freedom and liberty that inspire deeply personal acts of patriotism. National symbols should never cause us to ostracize any individual whose patriotism looks different than our own. 

CNN’s Van Jones spoke definitively about what we know as the National Anthem controversy:

People who look like me have put blood in the ground, and put martyrs in the dirt for this country, to have it be liberty and justice for all… It is beyond insulting to have people lecture us about patriotism. (5)

   Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy

Approaching the commemoration of Independence Day reminds me to look more intently to see the acts of patriotism all around me. It prompts me to ask myself what “liberty and justice for all” looks like in these troublesome days. It moves me be a more committed advocate for freedom in all its forms. 

As a Baptist for fifty years, I have been thoroughly immersed in the Biblical concept of soul freedom, an all-encompassing freedom that is, by the way, not just for Baptists. James Dunn provides one of the best descriptions of soul freedom

Soul freedom, all freedom and responsibility are God’s gifts to humanity. God created and endowed people to be free moral agents. Soul freedom and responsibility are not invented by government, or devised by social contract. All dignity and respect afforded persons comes from God as revealed in Scripture. (6) 

For me, a part of soul freedom allows me the right of expression — to worship as I wish, to honor my country as I wish, to exercise my freedom to be the person I was destined to be. I cherish the gift of such extravagant liberty and know full well that it is a tenuous and fragile freedom. That fragility is one cause for the unfortunate and unnecessary controversy surrounding the National Football League and the National Anthem.

My heritage compels me to advocate for the right of every person to express his or her patriotism as they choose. As a child of immigrant parents, I will forever honor the American flag and revere the National Anthem. I may do it as I sing. I may do it through my tears. I may stand proudly and face the waving American flag. I may kneel in solidarity. I may cry as I remember my grandmother’s frightening journey to this country with my infant mother. I may pay tribute in various ways, but I will do it in my own way. As should we all.

So let us move forward in freedom. Let us stand fast in the liberty (7) that has made us free. Let us persist in our resolve to demand justice for all humankind. And as we do, let us go forth boldly with freedom-words on our lips:

Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom over me! (8)

Sweet land of liberty . . . (9)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Sweet justice, climb the mountain though your hands may be weary . . . (10)

Lift every voice and sing ‘till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty . . .

God bless America!

Amen.


(1) Lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates; music by Samuel A.Ward
(2) Irving Berlin, 1918
(3) Emma Lazarus, From the poem, “The New Colossus “ 1883; inscribed on a bronze plaque placed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903
(4) James W. Johnson, 1871-1938; J. Rosamond Johnson, 1873-1954
(5) Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy; https://cnn.it/2JxzD36
(6) Jamie’s M. Dunn, Soul Freedom: Universal Human Right in Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, James M. Dunn and Grady C. Cothen, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000.
(7) Galatians 5:1
(8) Traditional spiritual, arr. by Valeria A. Foster
(9) Samuel Francis Smith
(19) Jill Scott

A Prophet Among Us

51D84C45-AF36-41C2-824C-3E29EE93E434Because of the recent opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I have been contemplating the terror of lynching in our history. The Montgomery site is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with police violence.

“Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.” (eji.org)

But racial injustice is not merely art used to contextualize racism and violence. We also have the cold, hard facts. For instance, The Tuskegee Institute reports that 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites, mostly white individuals who tried to help their African American neighbors.

Who were the prophets among us who proclaimed in those days a Christian Gospel of justice?

The NAACP reports that today African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.

Who are the prophets among us in these days? Who is calling for justice, for liberation and freedom for those who are oppressed?

Across a range of human rights issues in 2017, the United States moved backward on human rights issues. The current U.S. president has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. He has emboldened racism by promoting white nationalism. He consistently champions anti-Muslim ideas. His administration has embraced policies that will roll back access to reproductive health care for women and has created health insurance changes that would leave many Americans without access to affordable health care. He has undermined police accountability for abuse. He has expressed disdain for independent media and for federal courts that have blocked some of his actions.

The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in our nation include members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, prisoners and other vulnerable groups, who endure renewed attacks on their rights. Issues of injustice include gender equity, poverty, the right to health care, immigration and the rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, criminal and juvenile justice, harsh criminal sentencing and mass incarceration,.

Where is justice today? Who will call each injustice by name? Where is the prophetic voice among us that will proclaim liberation?

06B7213F-F174-4BD0-9B73-D8AB170F288BWhile in seminary, I immersed myself in the study of liberation theologies. Not surprisingly, my research led me to the writings of black liberation theologian, The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone. I became what some might call a follower of Dr. Cone. I saw him as a Christ-like superhero. Much of my research and writing in those days delved into the history of liberation theology, so Dr. Cone’s books covered my desk for months.

On Saturday, I learned of his death and experienced both sadness and gladness. Glad, because of his enormous contribution to Christian theology’s imperative response to injustice. And sad, because his voice of justice is now silent. By his death, we lost a prophet, a persevering voice that championed racial justice. We lost a voice that gave the world an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that paid attention to the voices of the oppressed.

YES! “A prophet was among us.”

These words from Judge Wendell Griffen honored the prophet, Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, and named him as the central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s. The prophet and scholar was raised in a small Arkansas town, giving him a clear view of the harsh reality of racial injustice. Dr. Cone rose up from his simple roots to become the foremost voice of his day on black liberation theology.

84C76F50-B538-4A1C-91DA-48E4357609E2Google it.

“Black liberation theology”

The first image you will see is that of James H. Cone. And then you will see image after image of him as well as a list of the plethora of books he has written and a list of the places around the world where he taught and preached.

What is my point?

First of all, I want to add my voice to those who are honoring this prophet of justice. But more importantly, I want to own and name the present reality: that there has never been a time in history that needs the message of liberation more than this day. To be sure, the horrific lynchings of African Americans in this country took place many years ago, between 1882 and 1968.BAD8200A-0958-4FBE-9241-F4E2DDEBCA70

And this is a new day, is it not?

It is a new day, a new day that has moved our society to the national shame of mass incarceration of African Americans. Consider this research:

  • By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.
  • On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.
  • The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.

(Valerie Strauss, March 15, 2017; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss/?utm_term=.8d67a553a8db)

  • In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.

(NAACP.org)

TMI . . . Too much information, right? Perhaps it is too much information, but the amount of information here barely scratches the surface of the many ways injustice has gripped our nation in these days. We can turn our backs, stop up our ears, and blind our eyes to it, but that will not change the fact that people are being oppressed, injustice is doing its horrific work, and liberation seems a distant, unreachable dream.

The people of God must be the people of God and accept the mantle placed by God on our shoulders — being a prophetic voice in a land where injustice has its way.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
(Isaiah 61:1-3 NRSV)

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 6:24 NRSV)

We are the prophets among us. Let’s act like it!

 

 

Lynching’s Long Shadow: America’s Shame

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The memorial is inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

Nothing casts as long and shameful a shadow on our history than does lynching. Lynching is a part of America’s history that we want to ignore. As a people, we cringe at the thought of it, yet do not often allow ourselves to think of it. We do not own lynching. It happened in another time in history, with decades separating us from its shame. We secretly hope that if we do not talk about it, we can move forward without acknowleding the depth of its impact. And above all, we cannot admit that such violence is still possible in this day.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a living reminder for us. The Memorial, which opened today on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.

At the center of the Memorial is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.

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Bryan Stevenson and a small group of lawyers spent years immersing themselves in archives and county libraries to document thousands of lynchings.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

 

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk:

Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman;

Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”;

Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

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A 2017 sculpture by Titus Kaphar, “Doubt,” sat amid accounts of slaves and former slaves at the museum.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

A grassy hill rises in the middle of the memorial. From there you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold, and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy. It is a striking view.

The striking exhibits and sculptures in this Memorial exist to remind us, to challenge us, to create in us a determination to always fight injustice.

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Jars
Hundreds of jars of soil from the sites of documented lynchings, collected by families of victims or community volunteers, are on display at the museum.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

May we more deeply understand our tragically unjust and violent history. May we vow to make peace and demand justice. May we never forget what happened in this nation so that it will never happen again. It is very real that our history of lynching innocent people casts a long and dark shadow upon our existence. May we intentionally work for justice so that we will no longer live in that shadow.

This blog post is words, just words. But our words are not enough. Our declarations are empty and meaningless if we do not also immerse ourselves in the hard and grueling work that makes for justice. God does not care about our words and promises. God does not accept our carefully planned events — filled with flags and crowds and songs — held in American cities and counties and town squares to commemorate our history. God demands pure and genuine righteousness that vows to do whatever it takes to create justice in our nation and in the world.

May God lead us in making it so. May God help us to step out of lynching’s long shadow and walk in the light of justice and righteousness.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

— Amos 5:23-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Broken, Waiting World

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Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ― L.R. Knost

When I was in seminary so many years ago, I worked part time in the Development Office, that extraordinary place that dreamed up words designed to gain support for the seminary and to tell the world what we were about. The one creative theme I most remember, because we made it our catch phrase and printed it on everything, was “We’re out to change the world!”

Some students left the seminary, degree in hand, and did just that. The rest of us labored mightily and did everything we knew to do to change a world that most assuredly was waiting and broken. What a mission!

I must admit, that short statement from seminary days became my personal quest. In every ministry position, I tried to change the world, much to the dismay of my parishioners. I took on every worthy cause as my own challenge to change the world. I committed myself to justice and set my face toward hope and healing for every person suffering injustice and indignity. It became a life-long quest, a personal commission. And what’s more, I sincerely believed I could do it, at least for the first few years I spent banging my head against various walls.

The song lyrics “to dream the impossible dream” come to mind. For those of you who may be too young to know about the magic of the 1964 Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, I must give you the lyrics of the song that was the pronunciamento of the primary character, Don Quixote, and that almost instantly became the credo that many people of God embraced in trying to change the world.

To dream the impossible dream …
To fight the unbeatable foe …
To bear with unbearable sorrow …
To run where the brave dare not go …
To right the unrightable wrong …
To love pure and chaste from afar …
To try when your arms are too weary …
To reach the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star;
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far:
To fight for the right, without question or pause;
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause.

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable star.

— Lyrics by Joe Darion

Today, as I watch military strikes against Syria and know that our country has not welcomed desperate Syrian refugees, I am painfully aware that I did not change the world. I worked in Uganda after the devastation of Idi Amin, but I did not change the world for millions of Ugandan widows and orphans.

I worked with persons who were sick and dying in hospital ministry, and I did not change their hopeless world of suffering. I have written letters, contacted government officials, participated in demonstrations, and signed hundreds of petitions, but I have not changed the world.

It has indeed been an “impossible dream.” And yet, I believe that I lived into my call from God and followed every path God placed before me. I faced off against what I viewed as evil many times and was deeply, demonstrably angry many times. But always, my mission remained in the center of God’s gentle grace and love. How?

I learned along the way — finally — that changing the world God’s way means holding tightly to lovingkindness, compassion, love and gentleness. The Scripture in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) says it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“Change the world with gentleness,” God might say to me.

While others stand for bigotry, racism, violence and war, change the world with gentleness. While leaders refuse to welcome refugees who long for a safe haven for their children, change the world with gentleness. While the highest positions in this country are embroiled in collusion, corruption, lies, greed and unkindness, change the world with gentleness.

This is a broken, waiting world that yearns, not for my righteous anger toward the world that is, but rather for my gentle hands of healing for the world that can be.

Change the world with gentleness? How? Why?

Because “Gentleness is not weakness. Just the opposite. Preserving a gentle spirit in a heartless world takes extraordinary courage, determination, and resilience. Do not underestimate the power of gentleness because gentleness is strength wrapped in peace, and therein lies the power to change the world.”

― L.R. Knost

May God lead us all in the paths of righteousness and gentleness. Amen.

Dear Students Marching for Our Lives,

5C1D4656-F263-49DD-8CC3-44E1AA6A3695Let us pray with our legs, let us march in unison to the rhythm of justice, because I say enough is enough.”

— A Parkland shooting survivor.

Dear students,

Yesterday you sat in classrooms all over this country. Today you are marching all over this country, all over the world. Teachers, parents and other supportive adults are marching with you. We older folk marvel at your commitment and your resolve. We are proud of you. We cheer you on and pray that your efforts will bring positive change.

You are marching to demand that your lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools. You are relentless and persistent in your quest to end gun violence. You are standing tall, lifting your voices to proclaim “Enough is enough!”

Every day, 96 Americans are killed with guns. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children between six and seven years old were killed by a gunman, 7,000 children age 17 and under have been killed by guns.

Today, thousands of you have gathered to call violence by its true name. You are calling out the adults. You are confronting the NRA. You are challenging all who put their own self interest above the safety of our children,You are marching today for those who died and those who live. You are marching for the children who will be in classrooms in years to come, little ones who still have the joy of innocence. You are marching for their lives. You are marching for them. You are marching for all of us, and we thank you. Our hearts are with you,

For each of you, I offer this prayer.

God who holds ouryoung in your arms of grace,

Make of us a people who hold our children in the highest esteem, who give them respect and encouragement, who take their fears seriously, who commit ourselves to their safety and protection.

Protect them, God, as they march for their lives today.

Help them to know that their resilience and persistence might just change the world.

Make every city where they march a welcoming place, filled with people that open their hearts to the message our children speak.

Assure our children of the love that surrounds them and of the support that enfolds them. Assure them of our love and respect for them.

Continue to embolden them to demand change.

Infuse them with the courage to stand and the strength to speak truth to power.

Grant them an extra measure of perseverance.

Guide their steps. Ennoble their conviction.

Calm their fears and soothe their anxious hearts.

And may their reward be a world free of violence, communities infused with peace, classrooms that surround them with understanding, acceptance, protection and learning.

For your deep love for our children, O God, we give you thanks.

For your compassion toward our young who have been so deeply harmed, we give you thanks.

For your comforting presence with friends and families who have lost people they love, we give you thanks.

For your tears mingled with our own as we mourn the loss of innocence our children have experienced, we give you thanks.

For your abiding protection and mercy in our violent and frightening world, O God, we give you thanks.  Amen.

*****

Fast Facts

  • Organizers of March for Our Lives expect millions of people to participate in today’s marches.
  • Acting out of their profound grief, students from across the country are fearless, empowered and motivated to speak out today as part of the March for Our Lives movement that was born out of the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 students and staff members.
  • President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sent a handwritten letter to the students of Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School commending them for their “resilience, resolve and solidarity in helping awaken the conscience of a nation.”
  • Today, there are marches in over 800 sites across the country where students are still “calling BS.”
  • Marches are also taking place all over the world.
  • Florida students have planned a voter registration effort as a part of the march in Washington, DC.
  • The message of these students is “never again,”

 

A Change Is Gonna Come

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Emma González … ‘These young people will not sit in classrooms waiting.’ Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

Half a century ago, on March 7, 1965, state troopers beat down men and women who were participating in a peaceful march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. That same day, radio listeners around the country might have heard Sam Cooke singing a song he had written and recorded several months earlier, but which could have been describing the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

In “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke moves from bigotry and bloodshed to hope and beauty in barely three minutes. If you listen to the record today, you will hear a story that continues to be relevant. (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wEBlaMOmKV4)

Sam Cooke’s rough, sweet voice — a voice that is blues-born and church-bred, beat down but up again and marching — still rings.

A changs IS gonna come . . .

That message of hope rings out still in these troubling days through the passion-filled voice of Emma González, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as she addresses a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale just days after a gunman entered her school in Parkland and killed 17 people.

A change IS gonna come . . .

We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because . . . we are going to be the last mass shooting. We are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students. The students who are dead, the students still in the hospital, the student now suffering PTSD, the students who had panic attacks during the vigil because the helicopters would not leave us alone, hovering over the school for 24 hours a day.

If the President wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and how it should never have happened and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association. You want to know something? It doesn’t matter, because I already know. Thirty million dollars.  — Emma González

A change Is gonna come . . .

Just hours after the mass shooting, other students turned to social media to discuss gun control.

Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns.  — Carly Novell, a 17-year-old senior; editor of the school’s quarterly magazine.

We need to do something. We need to get out there and be politically active. Congress needs to get over their political bias with each other and work toward saving children. We’re children. You guys are the adults.  — David Hogg, 17, a senior; Stoneman Douglas student news director

Wherever you bump into someone, there is the fear that they’re the next shooter, and every bell is a gunshot. I feel like some change is going to come of this.  — Daniela Palacios, 16, a sophomore at another Broward County High School at her first protest.

A change IS gonna come . . .

And it will be our bold and compassionate children who will lead this nation into that change. Like so many Americans, I was disconsolate when watching the TV news of yet another school shooting. But then I started watching the students, and I saw the girl with the buzzcut, Emma González, wiping back her tears, mourning her dead classmates while demanding change.

Like her schoolmates, Emma is in trauma, but she is organizing. She and many of her classmates are directly challenging the donations of the National Rifle Association to Trump and other politicians. There will be school strikes. There will be organized resistance. These young people will not sit in classrooms any more. They refuse to become another tragic statistic. “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” said a weeping González.

As I remembered this week what happened  at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, at Westside, a school in my own state, I remembered feeling anger and despair. But today, for first time in a long time, I feel hope. I see true leadership as kids are standing up for one another and fighting for their lives.

Let us stand courageously beside these children, our children, and do what we can to create change . . . letters to Congress, phone calls, posts on social media, marches and demonstrations, hand-lettered signs, letters to the editor, VOTING for change. What can you do?

Emma González, Daniela Palácios, David Hogg, Carly Novell . . . and thousands of other children who are crying out, ENOUGH!

They give me hope.

A change is gonna come!

May God ennoble each of us to make it so.

 

Out of Africa: White Supremacy and the Church’s Silence

D4B59064-1AD6-4121-B934-261EB10546E6I invite you to read “Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence,” a provocative opinion piece by our guest blogger, Dr. Bill J. Leonard. Many thanks to Dr. Leonard for prompting us to more fully commemorate the day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you are willing to challenge yourself, these words will shed the light you need to do so.

Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence

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Dr. Bill J. Leonard

OPINION | BILL LEONARD | JANUARY 15, 2018

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled [Caucasian?] masses, yearning to breathe free.”

Three days before the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. memorial observances, and in the 50th year after Dr. King’s assassination, the plague of racism in America continued, even as white supremacy, long lingering just below the surface, reasserted itself with a vengeance.

On Jan. 12, the president of the United States, at a White House meeting on immigration, allegedly asked why “all these people from shithole countries,” specifically Haiti and Africa, should be admitted to the U.S. He was also said to have wondered aloud why the U.S. could not secure more immigrants from countries like Norway (83 percent Caucasian). Confirmation of his remarks vary from those in attendance. Some confirm the alleged statements; others deny them. Somebody’s lying.

The mere report of the comments was immediately celebrated across the country’s white supremacist network, much as when Trump affirmed “good people on both sides” in last year’s violent neo-Nazi-led demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. White nationalist Richard Spencer chastised Trump’s defenders for suggesting the statements were related to law or economics, since they were actually “all about race.” Spencer was, of course, delighted. The Neo-Nazi blog, the Daily Stormer, hailed the President’s words as “encouraging and refreshing” since they indicated that “Trump is more or less on the same page as us” regarding “race and immigration.” In America, 2018, white supremacy is now apparently “refreshing.”

Dallas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress defended the president, noting that “apart from the vocabulary attributed to him,” Trump’s comments were “right on target” with his presidential responsibility “to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.” That’s unlike Christians’ “biblical responsibility” to “place the needs of others” above themselves. (Racism’s OK; it’s vulgar language that’s the problem.)

Amid debates over the veracity of witnesses to the White House event, the fact remains that the dogmas of white supremacy lie at the center of America’s long night of racism, in politics, social structures, and racial stereotypes. At this moment in history, how can American Christians, themselves deeply divided over scripture, doctrine, sexuality, abortion, and other culture war accoutrements, foster a common compulsion to speak out against white supremacist fiction before it gains an even stronger implicit or explicit influence?

Even if President Trump did not use vulgar words to highlight his views on immigration, did he in fact wistfully promote a 21st century America where Aryans (remember the history of that word?) are preferred to immigrants of color? Surely it is time to break the silence, not simply because of those shameful remarks, but because they are part of a larger litany of racial dog whistles from Trump’s birther campaign, to attacks on a “Mexican” judge and a Gold Star Muslim family, to the infamous Charlottesville slurs.

We have many reasons to break the silence: First, because white supremacy itself is an inherently evil yet an enduring vision of the nature of humanity, and must be resisted for that fact alone. It has polluted our national psyche long enough!

Second, we break the silence on this matter because we hear again Dr. King’s words from that Birmingham jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Third, we Aryan Christians cannot be silent because it’s our racial ancestors who first planted the banner of racism in our laws, our institutions (churches included), and in our hearts. And some among us still won’t let it go. We need to get “saved” from it.

Fourth, we speak out now because American churches, at least many of them, remained silent for too long. Indeed, Trump’s only a symptom; we scapegoat him at our peril. When his remarks hit the fan, I returned to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a book that has taught me, shamed me, blessed me, and broken me for decades. Baldwin writes: “It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible) must first divorce him[her]self from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has had any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (Whatever God is, it damn sure isn’t white supremacy.)

Mercer University professor Robert Nash illustrates Baldwin’s point in a superb essay entitled, “Peculiarly Chosen: Anglo-Saxon Supremacy and Baptist Missions in the South,” documenting that ecclesiastical collusion with the case of James Franklin Love, corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1915-1928. Nash notes that Love “was profoundly influenced by the concept of Anglo-Saxon supremacy … that white races possessed a superior intellect, religion, and civilization.”

Love’s mission strategy focused on evangelization of Europe since white Christians could more readily convert the darker races. He wrote: “Let us not forget that to the white man God gave the instinct and talent to disseminate His ideals among other people and that he did not, to the same degree, give this instinct and talent to the yellow, brown or black race. The white race only has the genius to introduce Christianity into all lands and among all people.” (In 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention went on record condemning white supremacy then and now. It’s about time.)

Finally, we break the silence, confronting white supremacy and its accompanying racism at this moment because we will neither deny nor sully the African heritage of our African-American sisters and brothers, who as W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “would not bleach … [their] Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism,” since they know “that Negro blood has a message for the world.”

On what would have been his 89th birthday, Dr. King retains his prophetic voice for black and white alike, declaring from his jail cell then and now: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [women] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

Today, we read again Matthew’s haunting assessment of the Holy Family’s immigration from Herod’s not-so-holy-land:

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Sweet Jesus, Egypt’s in Africa! Amen”

 

Bill J. Leonard is the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies, Professor of Church History, School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.

 

 

 

Me Too: Wounds of the Spirit, Scars of the Soul

95CD73CB-3B8E-44AB-B1F4-4057D76D838FFor weeks now, women have been making heart-rending declarations — “Me too,” they cry, as they reveal their experiences of past sexual abuse. As for me, I say, “me too.” Add my name to the mournful list of women who have endured the pain of sexual trauma.

I was sexually abused literally dozens of times, by many men. The abuse began when I was about four years old and continued throughout my years as a young child. Sexual abuse did not stop through my teenage years. And even as an adult I faced sexual violation. Never, not one time, was it consensual.

Questions always bombard sexual abuse victims:

Who was the man who sexually abused you?

It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t believe me. You would refuse to believe that I was sexually abused by more than one teacher, by a coach, by a Baptist deacon, by a Baptist missionary, by an employer, by my father and several of his poker playing friends. You wouldn’t believe it because you know them to be “moral, upstanding men” who are a part of your community.

Why didn’t you tell anyone?

I did tell. I told many people about every act of sexual abuse I endured, naming every man who hurt me. But I knew all the while that people simply would not take my accusations seriously.

Didn’t you believe that telling might have brought these men to justice and have prevented them from abusing other children?

No, I did not believe those men who caused me suchbdeep hurt would ever face the consequences of their crimes, because most of the people I did tell simply did not believe me. The men were known and respected and no one wanted to challenge that.

Why did you wait so many years to tell?

There are several aspects to this question. First of all, as I said, I did tell certain people who didn’t believe me. Not being believed serves to silence a victim who just doesn’t want to be labeled a liar, an attention seeker, a trouble maker, or worse, an emotionally unstable person.

Secondly, and most importantly, the passing years never take away the pain for someone who has been sexually violated. Sexual abuse is something you never forget. After 55 years, I still remember the time of day, being called into the teacher’s office next door to the classroom, the way he smelled, everything he said and did, and exactly what I was wearing. He was a person I had looked up to and admired. But on that day, he inflicted a permanent wound of my spirit which would become a scar on my soul. Once again, I mourned the loss of my childhood, of the innocence of a young child.

In these days, newsfeeds are constantly reporting the allegations of victims coming forward to say “me too.”  The women have named their abusers — Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck, Roger Ailes, Lockhart Steele, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, John Besh. Roy Price, Chris Savino, and the list goes on to name perpetrators in present time and perpetrators from the past. I do not say this lightly, but I have wondered just how many men might be holding their breath, hoping beyond hope that their victim(s) won’t expose them.

Wounds of my my spirit, scars of my soul

The unspeakable wounds heal in time, but the soul’s scars remain. And every reminder through these many years — a smell, a memory, a color, a song, and the cries of the women who are saying “me too” and telling the stories of their abuse. All of these are triggers that bring back the sharp, stabbing pain of the old wounds from long past. That’s what I have lived with throughout my entire life— multiple assaults, multiple times, multiple men.

We can come forth and tell our stories. We can give voice to our spirit’s wounds, no matter how far in the past they may be. We can speak of our soul’s scars. But the reality is that we will be judged as women who have fabricated a false story of sexual abuse for some sort of personal gain.

How dare we ask why a woman would wait forty years to bring light to this kind of story! For since the day it happened, she lives with vivid memories, feelings of shame, fear of relationships, the disappointment of betrayal by someone she may have admired. There is a catch in her throat when she speaks of it, and there are tears, lots of tears along the way.

Wounds of the spirit, Scars of the soul

The writing of Saint Francis de Sales describes the depth of this kind of pain with this thought:

The soul is aware of the delicate wound . . . as though it were a sharp point in the substance of the spirit, in the heart of the pierced soul . . . This intimate point of the wound . . . seems to make its mark in the middle of the heart of the spirit, there where the soul experiences . . . feels.

– Living Flame of Love 2.1

So is it any wonder that this kind of wound would leave a permanent scar on the soul?

I am deeply saddened, but also gratified, that so many women are speaking out. I hope beyond hope that their courageous stories will give light to a dark, dark sin that has destroyed so many people for so many years. I pray that we will have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to crush the societal culture of abuse and violence and in its place create safe spaces free of fear for every person, every child, every young girl, every woman.

At times, I really want to expose every single man that abused me. But I want peace more. I want a serene spirit and a quiet soul. I want to rest in a prayerful place where my heart can call out to a God that desires for us a world of peace, communities of care, homes that are havens of safety. I want to see God ennoble people of faith to wrap their arms around the hurts, pray for God’s light to dispel the darkness, and live out their sacred calling to be agents of a better, more excellent way. May God make it so.

 

A Perfect World?

IMG_5924When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.

– Buddha

Perfect is not a word I would use to describe the world. Ominous storms, wildfires, demonstrations of hate, violence, terrorism, threats of deportation, leaders devoid of compassion, homelessness, war, refugees seeking safe haven and shelter . . . This is just a partial description of the world we call our own. So perfect is but a dream. And yet, it is perhaps our calling to expend ourselves creating a more perfect world.

Today, my friend Elaine posted this passage on her wonderful blog, “The Edge.”

Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, so that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days, and life, where there is light for the eyes, and peace.

– Baruch 3:14

The wisdom in these words prompted a time of contemplation for me. I pondered the refreshing possibility of finding “length of days, life, light and peace.” Sounds like getting closer to a perfect world.

In these unsettling days, that is the kind of world we long for, the kind of life we desperately want. And yet we find that at times we are crying out for peace, and there simply is no peace.

Baruch’s words present us with a task, a rather difficult task to be sure, but one that leads to the goodness of life we seek. Baruch’s wisdom calls for us to learn, to increase our ability for discernment. And most importantly, Baruch proclaims our critical need to discover where we might find wisdom, strength and understanding.

My world is filled with incessant voices — politicians, governmental leaders, media personalities, newscasts that include everyone who has an opinion on every possible subject. Certainly, I have the choice to turn off the news and listen to soothing music on Pandora. And I do that frequently.

But the state of the world is so volatile that I am compelled daily to be aware of what is going on. In fact, that is a part of my personal mission — to know what is going on and to respond by making my voice heard advocating for justice and compassion. Which is exactly the reason it is so important to “learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding.”

So may we all create moments when we can silence the incessant voices and instead enter into quiet times of solitude, contemplation and prayer. That is what we can do for a very imperfect world that seems to be falling apart. In the process, we will more clearly hear the voices that lift hope high before us. In that holy space where hope abides with us, we will find “length of days, and life . . . light for the eyes and peace.”

Tikkun Olam is a lovely jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to heal the world, to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah and is often used when discussing issues of social justice, insuring compassion and care for persons who are oppressed.

Tikkun Olam! Heal the world! This is our highest calling.

Is it even possible to create a perfect world? Maybe not. But shouldn’t we envision it, work for it, pray for it, ennobled by God to return our world into the perfect creation of God?

May God guide us in making it so.

 

(Visit my friend Elaine’s blog at https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/09/08/contemplative2017-wisdom-4/)

 

 

The Promise of Daybreak

IMG_5911

Pierce Creek Public Boat Landing, Mayflower, Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

– Ephesians 6:13 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

– Isaiah 58:10 New International Version (NIV)

—————————————————————————————-

A friend recently described this time in history as “days of despair.” She talked about “a veil of darkness” that has covered our world. I have thought a great deal about her comments and have spent time pondering the kind of fear people might be feeling. Certainly, the natural disasters we are experiencing are causing feelings of great unease. Floods and fires, mighty winds and life-changing storms have left millions of people despairing. They have experienced loss of life, loss of their homes, loss of belongings, loss of their place in community. Perhaps some of them doubt the promise of a dawning day that brings back hope.

Add to that the far too frequent expressions of hate, xenophobia and racism that exacerbate distress. Clearly, there is enough fear and despair to go around in these unsettling days. After many years of acceptance and belonging, the young people we call DREAMERS suddenly feel the fear of losing all that they have worked for, including the country that has been “home” to them since they were children.

So how do disconsolate people move forward when a sense of despair holds them captive? How do people in the midst of fear and grief believe that a new dawn will break their current darkness? How do they hold on to their faith in the God who cares deeply for them, protects them, holds them close?

Can we join hearts and hands and stand courageously against injustice, standing with those who have been marginalized, believing that we will overcome the “evil day” that threatens us?

One voice throughout history declares with certain, living faith that, whatever we face, we shall overcome. I do not even need to mention his name because we hear his voice clearly during every trial. These are his words:

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. “No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right. “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind them unknown stands God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”

We shall overcome because the Bible is right. “You shall reap what you sow.”

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966

These days of darkness and division will pass. These days of dim uncertainty will pass. We shall overcome despair. As it always has, the breaking dawn will drive out the darkness of night. Hope will again rise within us as we embrace the promise of another glorious daybreak.

Amen. Thanks be to God.