October 27, 2019
Growing up, our family dinner table was a forum, no holds barred and no topic out of order. School, politics, religion, war, sports, race: you name it and we would argue it. The table referee was Dad, who mostly listened, but would throw a flag for two infractions: (1) bad grammar and (2) self-righteousness.
“Me and Charles are going camping.” Stop. “You mean: ‘Charles and I are going camping.’ What about Fred?” “Eddie and him got mad last time because Charles wouldn’t let us go to sleep.” Stop. “You mean ‘Eddie and he got mad.’” Those were five yard penalties. Changing the subject, I complain about a girl at school “Barbara Melvin is a stuck up snob.” Stop. “So now you’re too good for Barbara Melvin?” Fifteen yards for a personal foul.
Bishop Keller seldom quoted scripture to his children, but Jesus was his guide, who also called fouls on those, I quote: who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
The Pharisee prays “thank God I’m good,” while Jesus approves the other man, a remorseful tax collector. This is the story of the prodigal son in miniature.
I would like to say a word on the Pharisee’s behalf.
Where would we be without the righteous? If right-doers, feeling disrespected, went on strike worldwide, the world would come unglued and so would churches. I remember a Mother’s Day sermon at the Fort Smith Ninth Street Baptist Church, an African American congregation. My friend, their pastor A.J. Parish, preached the story of the prodigal son, but with a twist. For Mother’s Day, he praised the older son, the boy scout. He showed up on time for work, said his prayers, and paid his bills. True, he sulked when his bad boy little brother came home broke and was welcomed back with open arms. Let’s not be self-righteous about that. “Thank God for that older brother!” Rev. Parish shouted, “who didn’t waste his father’s heard-earned bread and give his poor mother sleepless nights for years.” The church house resounded with laughter, claps and loud “Amens.”
Let’s stay with that point for another minute. There is a grammar to good living in society. It’s how we solve Freud’s problem of the id. I love repeating C.S. Lewis’s description of that problem as he met it in the demons of his own psyche. I looked inside myself, he said, “and there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”[i]
Those demons are cruel masters if we let them take charge.
Our parents quickly train us not to give these instincts full expression—we learn that grammar of good living at the dinner table––and if our parents fail our neighbors or the law will try to teach us. In Freud’s terms, we fold our primal id into a law abiding ego, for our personal safety and the public good.
Then comes life. We grow up, leave home, and drama, tragedy, and comedy ensue. Some never learn the grammar and are constantly in trouble. Some know it, keep it, then rebel midlife. Some get tired of pushing that big old rock up that same steep hill. Some think it is a rigged game and refuse to play, self-righteously.
These ungrammatical rebellions often end in train wrecks, and remorse sets in. Mine was a rebellious generation and I went along for the ride, without getting caught and mostly without remorse—but there was a moment. It was October 29, 1975, my junior year at Amherst College. Frank Zappa was playing the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut. It was a rowdy crowd in a Halloween mood and Frank was also feeling feisty. The back and forth between stage and crowd felt almost like a riot. From a Warehouse in New Orleans to the Hideaway Lounge in Hadley, Massachusetts I had been to lots of rowdy concerts. That night something in me changed.
“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” sang Zappa. That was the title of the song.
What’s the ugliest part of your body?
Some say your nose, some say your toes,
But I think its your mind.
The crowd roared approval, but not I. I decided, with detachment rather than emotion, “I have had enough of this. There is more to life than this. I’m made for more than this.” The prodigal son was me.
(Excuse me: “The prodigal son was I.”)
We find two moral implications in our gospel story. One concerns failure, the other success. Moral failure, we infer, is sickness not death. We can recover from it, sometimes quickly, though there may be scars. Or, to think of it another way, we might fail a test, a term, a decade, a marriage, or a vocation—but in faith we don’t flunk out of school. There is another test, another term, and last year’s dunce may be next year’s valedictorian.
In Dallas, there was a cop who failed because she was afraid. You know the cop I mean, who shot and killed a good man in his own home. Now she goes to prison for it, as she should. But with mercy for the guilty woman in his heart, the good man’s brother offered her a warm embrace, with words of encouragement. The woman felt lost. “I don’t know where to start. I don’t have a Bible.” The trial judge fixed that. After hugging the woman she had just sentenced to prison, the judge went back to her chambers, picked up her own bible, returned, and said “here, take mine.”
In that gift the prisoner can see herself in this morning’s tax collecting sinner, and dozens more sinners just like him Old Testament and New, and in grace find strength to carry on. That is the gospel truth concerning moral failure.
As for moral success, we learn that it is like milk. Self-righteous pride will sour it. Love has no need of moral pride. Love “vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up” said St. Paul, in King James English.
There is more to life and love than good grammar. There is a spirit to it—a music. God wants us to sing his tune. That is the gospel truth concerning righteousness.
Across America, and here down south especially, we live in a season of moral reckoning for the sins of our society against black folk. Speaking for southern whites, we failed at both secular and sacred grammar—the laws of liberty and love. By either measure, southern history is disgraceful. Literally, disgraceful. In homes like mine we sinned politely. On Little Rock streets in 1957, the sin was riotous. One hundred years ago in Phillips county, it was murderous. If historians were wildcat oilmen, drilling the southern past for ugly facts, they would never drill a dry hole.
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying God be merciful to me a sinner.
A long time ago in one of my churches a man was cheating on his wife, which she and everybody knew. His wife was sweet, smart, pretty, and his cheating made me mad. The man asked if he could come to see me. He made no excuses. “Chris, I know what I’m doing is wrong, I know who it is hurting, and I know everybody’s talking. I am ashamed for the wrong and regret the hurt, but I don’t worry about the talking. They’ll talk about me until someone else does something else to entertain them, and they’ll move on.” That made me laugh. In faith, even sinners keep a certain dignity. It is in the book: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
On those grounds, I’ve never felt inclined to repudiate my southern-ness. I love Neil Young, but turn it up for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I know that if you drill into the history of the south you will also strike gold. For example southern women, white and black, generation after generation, are uniquely wonderful. Yes, that is the myth—and it is the truth. The Beach Boys bragged on California girls. They can have ’em. If you think I am talking about beauty you are only half-right.
As for southern men, speaking as their priest, when they are not being naughty they still live by an old noble stoic grammar, a legacy of decency and bravery, a pride in keeping your word and shouldering your burden. To their friends they are as loyal as Labrador Retrievers.
And our music! Julie and I are catching up with Ken Burns history of country music, which is southern to the bone. The blues, gospel, jazz, and rock and roll were born here.
Evil is “privation of the good.” Racism is always evil, but the southern good is beautiful.
Here is something that I know. Little Rock today is not Little Rock in 1957. That truth is certain. How deep is the difference between then and now? That question is debatable. Some say the change is cosmetic: racism now is more often polite but still pervasive root and branch. I disagree. I think the changes—not only in law but in hearts and minds—are real.
Playing it safe, people will say “Yes we’ve made progress but have so far to go.” I can’t argue with that, but I believe it understates the change that has actually occurred. I read southern grammar now as a different set of rules than I was born with. That south doesn’t want to rise again. If it did I’d fight it—and we all would.
That is my sincere opinion and it won’t surprise you because you’ve heard me say such things before. I repeat it because it is widely and influentially contested. In this disagreement there is much at stake. How we read the requirements of the present, in relation to the past, will affect the future. We face problems galore in Little Rock today and if we are mistaken with the diagnosis we may compound those problems with our cure.
If we diagnose the problems, and sing God’s tune, we can change our city for the better, and heal old wounds.
[i] From C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.