The Moral Universe – Repent and Mourn


Sermon delivered on 6/29/15 at Christ Trinity Church, Sheffield, Massachusetts, a conjoined Episcopal-Lutheran congregation.

Repent and mourn, that is what ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has called us to do today. Repent the sin of racism and mourn the most recent victims.

In one of God’s amazing ironies, today is also the anniversary of the kidnapping of Cinque, the slave who led the revolt aboard the Amistad.

Both the Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons were graduates of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, and their alleged murderer is a member of an ELCA congregation. So the killing of nine beautiful souls in Charleston, SC, has taken on what Bishop Eaton calls “an intensely personal tragedy. . . One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”

We can understand that our country is still mourning the deaths of those souls on June 17. Their murders sent a shock wave through the country and throughout the world. As we learned more about them and the alleged shooter, our horror grew. Here were nine faithful people, having spent time at a church meeting, who elected to stay even later on a work night to study Scripture together. Here was one young man who drove a couple of hours to this particular and famous church, and sat an hour with them, all the while planning to kill them.

But repent? What do we need to repent? We didn’t cause this tragedy.

Did we?

Can silence cause a tragedy? Is silence something that one needs to atone for?

Yes, I answer to both questions. Especially silence that is caused by indifference or fear, by not caring or daring to stand up and say no, these things will not happen in my name. Look at Nazi Germany. Do we think that every single German person alive at that time was an anti-Semite? Probably not, but those who weren’t were afraid, and they were silent. Hitler didn’t come in overnight and take over. But at every step of the rise of the Nazi party, good people were silent.

I cannot be silent, and I offer no comfort to you today; repentance isn’t comfortable. What I say may offend some of you, but here is what the Spirit’s whispering in my heart is telling me:

Mother Emanuel African-Methodist-Episcopal Church has been known since its founding as a place where African-Americans worked hard and often at great risk to themselves to build God’s kingdom on earth. In Charleston and throughout the South, there were many and often secret gatherings of enslaved people to worship Jesus Christ, whom they could only have known about through their white masters. How did they come to adore the God of the people who had enslaved them? I think it must have been God’s way of relieving their bondage, to ensure that they heard the Good News and to let them know that, despite the free will of the humans who enslaved them, they were no less beloved than anyone else.

And from what I have studied on the subject, I believe that they took that solace to heart, and believed absolutely in God’s love for them, in Jesus’s death for them, and in Jesus’s rising again for them, so much so that they risked their very lives to worship Him.

Have you ever listened to real old-time gospel music? Not the fancy stuff that’s recorded in a studio with professional musicians, but the music that was recorded in some hidden-away church in the South and played by Sister So-and-So or Brother So-and-So, who just had to express their faith. A genuine, no-holds-barred faith, that endured despite slavery, despite Jim Crow, despite lynchings and beatings and beheadings and being dragged behind vehicles and being shot by policemen and being shut out of the marketplace, and being shut out of decent housing, and being shut out of decent education.

Listen to these words of James Weldon Johnson, in what has become known as the African-American anthem: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” Did you know that Johnson was introduced to Great Barrington by WEB DuBois? That he had a writing cabin off Alford Road? One of the most famous black composers worked right here among us. At the same time, in the early part of the 20th century, a traveling black person couldn’t get a room at a “white” hotel in Great Barrington.

Faith and hope defines the history of the black church in America, evolving into the most complete and genuine faith I’ve ever witnessed. And genuine faith brings freedom of the mind and spirit, if not always of the body.

Do we have that kind of faith? Do we know that kind of freedom? Do we really believe in the vastness of God’s love for us, that we could never earn and never deserve? How do we express it in our lives outside of church? Do we take risks to fulfill Jesus’s commandment that we love one another as much as He loves us? Or do we remain silent?

Racism is not just about flagrant acts of hostility or inequity toward people of color. It is about accepting, ignoring, or being complicit in all of the institutions of society that, despite the Civil War, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, despite the 13th Amendment, have continued to treat black people as though they were not our brothers and sisters, as if they were not also heirs to the kingdom, as if they too were not beloved of God.

We’re taught to be “tolerant,” and I’m sure we are. I hate that word, “tolerant.” To me it means putting up with, being patronizing, acting as if we are bestowing a favor on black people we accept into our midst. How arrogant it is to be “tolerant.” Is it not we who should be tolerated? Is it not we who should be humbled to be tolerated by people whose forbears endured the worst that human beings can endure? And don’t forget, what they endured was the law of the land, the law of the white power structure, and upheld by churches for hundreds of years.

When I went off to Washington, DC, to college in 1970, I brought with me my northern liberal, “I’m a sister!” attitude. I had befriended black children in school after all; I had talked about civil rights; I had even had an all-out screaming match with a member of the John Birch Society for which I was applauded in a high school history class.

Well, my arrogance was slapped down right away because, in 1970, black college students didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I was white, period. The Black Power movement was in its adolescence, but maturing quickly. The Resident Assistant in my dorm, an African-American woman, told me one night that she would respect me, but would never be my friend. That hurt, oh it hurt, but I grew to understand where she was coming from and, you know what, I didn’t blame her.

Across the hall from me in my second year of college were two rooms in which African-American women resided. Almost every evening they would gather in one of the rooms and sing and, oh, how I longed to join them. But they didn’t want me to join. One of them, Carol Maillard, went on to become a founder of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Two years ago, when they performed at Berkshire Choral, I had a chance to talk with Carol. It turned out that she remembered me and she had recognized even at that time that I was mooning around outside the door wanting to be let in. And she apologized! To me! For not letting me in! What did I say? Well, I can tell you what I didn’t say. I didn’t say, “I’m sorry that I thought my presence in your group would validate you.” Because I do believe that, if white people reached deep down into their souls, they would admit that we feel or have felt that our white friendship, our white patronage, is something that legitimizes African-Americans.

How often do we feel that our existence has been validated by the friendship or patronage of an African-American?

Racism takes many, many forms, and no matter how liberal, how forward-thinking, how open, there is not a white person in this country who can escape one of its forms. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it must be learned, it must be acknowledged, and it must be repented. We cannot truly reap the freedom of faith without doing so.

Here’s the good news, a script for repentance: The reading from John’s beautiful letter tells us that “if our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts.” So God does not condemn us, but over and over again invites us to love one another “as he (Jesus) commanded us.” How? “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. . . This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.”

“Actions and in truth”! Hallelujah! Thank you, God! Thank you, Jesus! We have been given a way out of the murky waters of our racism past and present. With all humility, with all love, with all hope, we can take action so that we will know we belong to the truth, the Truth with a capital “T,” Jesus Christ, our Lord and our redeemer, and that truth will set us free.



How to Celebrate Juneteenth in a Week of Woe?


I had planned to write a joyful blog about the celebration today of Juneteenth, the 150th anniversary of when the news finally reached Texas that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved people were free.

I’m not feeling particularly joyful, though, in light of the murders of five beautiful souls Wednesday night in Charleston.

juneteenthJuneteenth is the oldest African-American celebration of the end of slavery. Of course, slavery should have ended in Texas at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but Texas was not a state to abide by any proclamations from President Lincoln. It was Major General Gordon Granger who finally brought the good news to Texas on June 19, 1865, with General Order #3:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Tonight I will be joining fellow members of the Berkshire County unit of the NAACP for a Juneteenth celebration and viewing of a documentary about James Baldwin. I don’t know how much we will be in the mood to celebrate, though.

Sunday is Father’s Day, and there are nine families who will have trouble celebrating that as well, I think. The Roof family will not be celebrating either, I have no doubt, but I do hope that Mr. Roof will be thinking in remorse about the gun he gave his unstable son for his birthday.

I’m keeping this short because if the words of my mouth do match the mediations of my heart, they will not be acceptable to God. Because I’m angry and sad on so many levels. I tried to organize a vigil last night in honor of the victims; through social media and e-mail, I reached out to at least a hundred area people. Three people came. At first I tried to excuse the others; well, 8:45 on a Thursday night probably isn’t a good time for people to come out. And then I thought, damn it, 10 or 10:30 wasn’t a good time Wednesday night for families to have to come out to identify or claim the bodies of their loved ones. Damn it, if we can’t sacrifice a half-hour to respond to a tragedy, how the hell are we going to begin to address the issues that lead to such tragedies?

The church bell tolled with a vengeance at 9 pm. I hope all who heard it were at least curious to know why it was tolling. It was tolling for Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Daniel Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor.

To you good people, my faith tells me that you are resting in peace and probably carrying on your work of building the kingdom. I honor you and rededicate myself to standing up against racism at every point in every place. I pray for your families, your church, your community, and your country. You did not intend to be martyrs, but martyrs you now are, and I pray that your martyrdom will be redeemed by right actions at the city, state, and national levels to wipe out the evil that took your lives.

A Ramble from R.E. Lee to Authenticity


Having just finished reading Crucible of Command by William C. Davis, a biography of both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant during the same time period, I recaptured a bizarre memory.

When I was young, every schoolchild knew the name of Robert E. Lee’s horse (Traveller) and that Lee was the son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero.

All I remember being mentioned about Ulysses S. Grant was that he had a drinking problem. I don’t know that we even actually studied him in history classes, even though he was a two-term President of the United States.

It took until I was in my late fifties to learn that his favorite horse’s name was Cincinnati and that his father, Jesse Grant, had as a young man lodged with the father of John Brown.

So the man who brought Lee to his knees was one degree of separation from the man who many thought caused the Civil War. That is history!

I was a bit afraid that reading a biography of Lee would introduce something about him that I could admire. I’m glad to say it didn’t. The many, many quotes from letters portray a man given to whining, a man who didn’t treat his wife very well, and a man who never seemed to question that God may not, in fact, have been on the South’s side.

His letters are full are perorations about accepting God’s will, but he didn’t seek to know what that will was and it never, ever occurred to him, before or after the war, that perhaps God’s will was for all people to be equal and free. After the war, he continued to believe and propagate the belief that formerly enslaved peoples had no right to be part of a civil society, much less vote and take their place as political equals.

For all of the devoutness expressed in his letters, there is no trace of any authentic relationships between Lee and his God.

Authenticity is what has really been on my mind lately. In the 1990s, I went to a youth conference on diversity to write about it for my newspaper column. The keynote speaker was Dr. Deborah Protherow-Stith, at the time the youngest and first female Commissioner of Public Health for the state of Massachusetts. It was Dr. Protherow-Stith who first declared youth violence, and particularly violence committed by and against young black men, to be a public health issue. It was a visionary stance; she created a whole state department around prevention of youth violence that transformed Boston.

protherow-stithDr. Protherow-Stith also talked that day about the need for authentic relationships between black and white people, and it’s something I’ve always remembered. The word “authentic” comes from the Greek through Old French and late Middle English. The Greek meaning was “principal” or “genuine.”

I heard a similar message around the same time at a Convocation of the Episcopal diocese to which I belonged. The keynote speaker, in talking about developing authentic relationships with God, told a joke about a Jewish grandmother who had taken her grandson to the beach togged out in a brand new bathing costume complete with hat. While he played at the water’s edge, a huge wave came and took him out to sea. The grandmother raised her fist to the skies and bellowed at God to return her grandson right now. Sure enough, another wave plopped the boy back on the beach at her feet. She took one look at him, raised her fist again, and bellowed, “And his new hat too!”

I was shocked when an African-American woman who has known trouble in her life told me that when she dies and goes to heaven, “God’s got some explaining to do!” We were on the phone, but I still looked around for a lightning bolt to shatter such blasphemy. God explaining God to us mere mortals?

But I pondered it in my heart.

I read Irish literature where so often the characters say “Jaysus!” all the time, and it took me awhile to understand that this wasn’t blasphemy, but the characters calling on their best friend. I began to see it as the true cry of the believer.

I listen to old Negro spirituals and was surprised one day to hear a woman sing, “Don’t worry ‘bout what your granddaddy and grandma said; God don’t mind that ignorant shit, and they was well blessed.”

The word “shit” in a Gospel song? Oh my! And the song was no less powerful and holy for that.

As I have pondered these things over the years, I have begun to see that there are certain types of white people who have no authentic relationships at all, not with their colleagues, not with people of other colors, and certainly not with their God. Their interactions are at arm’s length and seem to me arid. These people are not necessarily WASPs, but descended from ethnic groups that were not tribal. By that I mean that they were not groups that identify strongly because of being ghettoized and/or under another political entity’s subjugation.

I’m going to go far out on a limb here, and I have no statistics to back up this thought, only observation, but it has seemed to me that the lower the economic scale, the more authenticity there sometimes is between white and black people. I would put the cause as proximity. The higher up on the food chain, the more isolated one becomes from people.

I used to swim daily at a glacial pond in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod. It was one of the few places in town where you saw white and black people mixing. I was told that many other white people wouldn’t swim there because of the “class” of people who used the pond. And yet it was a place where I had some of the most delightful encounters with people whom I would never have met otherwise until I got more involved with social justice issues in the town. Aside from the fact that you could swim for miles there without ever touching a weed, you could be yourself and be accepted. It was like a little community of its own.

I have seen the same phenomenon working in the field of human services, which are notoriously low paying and where the staff who do the really down and dirty work have mostly been black and Latino in places where I have worked. When you’re all in the same boat, you don’t worry about the color or ethnicity of the person whose turn it is to paddle; you’re just glad they’re there.

I don’t have any conclusions; I’m feeling my way here to ideas about how as a society we can build up authentic relationships between people of all stripes. How can we be genuine at all times and in all places? I welcome any thoughts on this.

The Moral Universe – Ubuntu


A recent Facebook post introduced me to the word “ubuntu.”

In an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, the Rev. Mpho Tutu, ubuntu is explained as an ancient southern African belief that individuals exist only in relationship with other living beings: I am because we are. (Sarah van Gelder and Fania Davis, Summer 2015 issue of YES! Magazine)

John Donne described the same concept as “no man is an island, entire of itself. “ If a piece of the island breaks apart, the island loses integrity. It is not the same island and it suffers for the loss.

Interestingly, Donne’s poem was inspired by funeral bells; the loss of a member of the community is a loss to the community as a whole.

James Byrd Jr.

James Byrd Jr.

Tomorrow, June 7, is the 17th anniversary of the lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in 1998 If ever we actually were in a post-racial society, Mr. Byrd’s murder ended that notion and was the first such murder of an African-American in recent times to be reported widely.

We know too well the stories of many more African-American men and women by police or people who thought they were above the law since that day in Jasper. Yet white people as a whole in this country still do not understand that the loss of these people diminishes all of us; these losses not only stain us as a society and detract from our humanity, they drive a wedge further into the dream that there ever could be a post-racial society in the United States.

Neo-cons and Tea Party ideologues just cannot see this. They divert the conversation of police-on-black crime to black-on-black crime, as if the latter (the high statistics of which are a myth) excuses the former. They spout the philosophy of too much government, but what they really mean is too much of the watchdog federal government and not enough state government. So they have taken to introducing too much state government that rules over African-Americans and Latinos voting rights, women’s bodies, gay people’s bedrooms, and everyone’s right to earn a decent living.

I have written before that I believe we are all children of one God and therefore all brothers and sisters who are here to help one another build the kingdom of justice on earth as it is in heaven.

But those in our political and social world who talk the loudest about their Judeo-Christian zeitgeist are the very ones who ignore anything in Scripture that commands us to leave judgment to God and to love one another as much as we are loved by God.

A recent article in The New York Times described a study that suggested that people who do not feel awe tend not to look outside themselves.  Professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner wrote about their research into Professor Keltner’s hypothesis that “awe is the ultimate ‘collective’ emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. . . .awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.”

Their experiments found that people who reported feeling awe on a regular basis were more generous than “awe-deprived” people. In an experiential experiment, they found people who were awed by Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees were more helpful when a passerby “accidentally” tripped and fell.

Awe is transcendence, and transcendence is reaching out to something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something that brings a feeling of connectedness.

The transcendence of gospel music is a direct outgrowth of negro spirituals and the ability of a people enslaved to rise above de-humanizing situations to experience awe. I would guess that in every culture that is or has been subjugated by white Western culture you will find examples of rituals and totems and beliefs that binds its followers together in expressions of awe. It is not just a matter of religion, for I know fundamentalists Christians who are so certain of their salvation that anything awesome here on earth is unseen, and I know humanists and non-religious people who experience plenty of awe in their daily lives.

The phrase “shock and awe” is usually used in a military sense, but what if racists could be shocked out of their prejudices and awed into seeing themselves as part of the whole? One might hope that the convulsions in Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland would at least have the redeeming factor of providing that shock. What would it look like if they did?