Interpreting the Present Time

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August 18, 2019

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Forty years ago I entered seminary, after a year at Harvard preparing, I thought, for a career in academia. “The History of American Civilization” was the name of my department, which sounds a little puffed up. Everywhere else they called it American Studies, which is what I had majored in at Amherst College. I took courses like “The History of the South Since the Civil War,” and “Race and Ethnicity.” I wrote papers on immigration and assimilation. My college honors thesis was on busing. I had lived it and was for it academically.

I left all that to be a priest.

At SUMMA last month I was lecturing about our faith as an intellectual tradition. Traditions, by definition, have core beliefs and practices. To illustrate the concept, I asked the class, “What might we say is the core of the American tradition?” I was thinking along lines of some truths we have held to be self-evident. With something else in mind, a bright student raised her hand. “Racism,” she declared. There was a murmur in the room.

There was a wonderful movie out last year called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It was a documentary about Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers’s word to children was “I love you as you are.” He knew that children often feel unlovable. As we all do, in his lower moments Mr. Rogers felt that way himself sometimes. One of his sock puppets was a tiger named Daniel. Daniel, in a low mood, sang of his own un-lovability. But the song was a duet. In a soothing and insistent voice, Lady Aberlin sang back with reassurance. You are lovable, I know because I love you. Back and forth they sang, insecurity/assurance, unbelief, and gospel. The larger truth was clearly in the voice of reassurance but this greater truth was gentle with the insecurity, careful not to drown it out. The whole truth was in that interplay of unbelief and love.

“The History of American Civilization” is a duet. 400 years ago next week a boat with twenty slaves aboard arrived in Jamestown. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, invites us to remember and honor “those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty.” Slavery and liberty: those two counter ideologies shaped our history.

Martin Luther King called them “the two dominant and contradictory strains in the American psyche.” In colonial America, slavery had the head start, as Dr. King points out. “Our democratic heritage was the later devolvement. . . .Democracy, born in the 18th century, took from John Locke . . . the theory of natural rights . . . and imbued it with the ideal of a society governed by the people.” King quotes Thomas Paine: “We have the power to begin the world over again.”[i] Now we were singing a duet.

Reassuringly, King reminded audiences: “the racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always faced it is equally real.” This country “was solidly structured idealistically. Its pillars were soundly grounded in the insights of our Judeo Christian heritage.” We are made in the image of God; brothers and sisters; created equal; heirs to a legacy of dignity and worth; possessing rights the state did not bestow and cannot remove. They are God-given. “What a marvelous foundation!” he declared about those core beliefs of our American tradition. In those beliefs, our forbears wrote the Declaration and the Bill of Rights. In 1865 they outlawed slavery by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The older counter-voice was still strong. After emancipation it roared back with vengeance, denying black folk their new won rights, reinforcing segregation. In the Jim Crow south, the larger truth by far was in the voice of white resistance. The whole world saw that in Little Rock at Central High in 1957. Our beautiful city became the ugly face of racist thought and action.

Writing in 1957, Walker Percy, from Greenville, Mississippi, predicted the south would eventually come around, because of “two traditions deeply rooted in the Southern consciousness: Christianity and the majesty of the law.”[ii] He trusted that the southern Christian would have to acknowledge the sinfulness of segregation as “a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race;” and southerners, a law-abiding people, would see that the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education is “the law of the land and should be obeyed,” however much they may dislike the ruling.[iii]

It was too long in coming but I saw that happen here. In 1970, Federal Courts got serious about requiring public school desegregation. I was in high school. Sophomore year I went to Hall High, where the ratio of white to black students was 99 to 1. Down at Central, it was more like 65–35, black to white. The court decided to even the numbers by shifting blacks to Hall and whites to Central. This was court-ordered busing, year one. For my neighborhood friends and I, it meant goodbye Hall, hello Central, junior year.

For Little Rock, this meant a second chance. As I vividly remember, my friends and I in the class of ’73 said “yes” to racial integration, a yes that still reverberates at Central. When the better angels in southern nature finally did shine through, the result was an unprecedented kind of southern experience. At Central High, we whites existed side by side and face to face with black folk in large numbers, on equal footing, and having fun. I wouldn’t find anything remotely like it at Amherst College, or at Harvard University.

The theory that racism defines American falters on a deeper change that has occurred since my high school days half a century ago. Racism became anathema across the land.

Racism was the deeply held belief in white supremacy: white makes right. Deeply held beliefs can change and sometimes they do change dramatically and quickly. For example, 62% of Americans now support gay marriage. Another example: Episcopalians now take for granted the fitness of women for the priesthood. These are earthquake changes in belief that happened during my career in ministry. The ideas opposing them had been long-held and deeply entrenched. How did these changes happen? In so small part they were advanced on the strength of this analogy: As racism was in the Jim Crow south, so is misogyny . . . so is homophobia today. Those analogies had political force because everyone accepts the premise: racism was immoral. Calling someone a racist now is like calling them a Nazi.

The balance of voices in the American duet has swung to the good in belief and law, if not always in custom. That is my interpretation of the present time.

It comes with a caveat. Obviously, there remains an underground that espouses white supremacy. They bark and they bite. These white killers—Dylan Roof in Charleston, the shooter in El Paso— want to blow up my interpretation and turn back time. Civilizations have to guard against their fringe pathologies.

So, forty years ago I started seminary. Instead of immigration and the south since the civil war, I studied the apostles and prophets, ancient doctrines, modern questions. I have been a curate; and the vicar of a historically black church; and the vicar of a predominantly white church across the river from it; and the founding priest of a new church; and the dean of a cathedral. Along the way, I took a ten-year sabbatical from pastoring to get my doctorate—in theology instead of history. That is what I was doing in New York City, on September 11, 2001, tutoring a class, when the fringes of another civilization came crashing into ours.

A day or two after that attack I was at lunch in the seminary refectory. A student preparing for the priesthood offered his interpretation of the moment: “The world has changed. It has lost its safety.” Another priest at the table and I exchanged looks. I do not remember whether he said it or I did: “You can’t lose something that you didn’t have. It was never safe—not like you mean.”

Even if I had not studied history I would have quickly learned that in the ministry. In one of my first churches, a mentally ill parishioner was threatening to kill me. I moved the chair in my office so he couldn’t shoot me through the window while I was taking my afternoon nap. In my other church across the river, on a pastoral call, I walked into a house where a son was threatening a father, who had pulled a gun. “Pardon me, am I interrupting something?” There are days like that in the life of a parish priest in Arkansas. This job is never boring.

Peace on earth is not the promise.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you . . . three against two and two against three, they will be divided.

So what’s the promise?

During World War II W.H. Auden wrote a long poem with a short refrain. “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” is the title of the poem. This is the short refrain, a chorus to the Christ Child—and an invitation to us all:

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

(Land of Unlikeness: think of the sour grapes in Isaiah’s vineyard.)

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

(Kingdom of Anxiety: think of America today.)

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh,
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

(World of the Flesh: Think of our lives on earth as human beings.)

Follow the way . . . seek the truth . . . and love the life.

Such is life in Christ in an anxious, mixed-up world: adventurous, non-anxious, hopeful. It is a steadying, and civilizing, life. Right now our country needs it from us, needs to see it in us. Our neighbors are frenzied, fractious, insecure. To their Daniel, in Christ, we are Lady Aberlin: empathic, reassuring, strong. That is how attitudes are changed. Our mission is our song. 

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”

[ii] Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 90. The passage cited is from an essay titled “A Southern View,” written in 1957.

[iii] Percy, Signposts, 90.