Novelists Explore Internalized Racism

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I recently read two books in a row by African-American authors that address the state of internalized racism in America through deep satire.

Paul Beatty’s book, The Sellout, was written in 2015; Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s book came out earlier this year.

We often think of satire as having a humorous element, but in both of these books, I found that every time I was tempted to laugh, something pulled me back as I reflected on the reality behind the author’s words.

The Sellout is about an unnamed California man who owns a farm in a small town called Dickens on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was home-schooled by his radical sociologist father, but it’s not your average home schooling. Hearing gun shots while having tokens of white supremacy put in your bassinet is traumatic, but certainly teaches a lesson.

Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty

Yet, as an adult, the narrator agrees to take on Hominy, Buckwheat’s understudy in The Little Rascals, as a slave. Yup, Hominy – after a youth spent being filmed portraying all the worst stereotypes of white audiences – insists on being enslaved, and the narrator obliges. He goes further and, with a little help from his friends, decides to re-create segregation in order to attract white people with money back to his hometown, which has been taken off the maps.

He winds up being arrested for violating every civil rights amendment and law and his case goes to the Supreme Court.

In his 2015 New York Times review, Dwight Garner calls the first 100 pages of the book “caustic and . . . badass.”

“What I mean,” he writes, “is that the first third of The Sellout reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.”

We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s satire, is more on the order of Key and Peele at their best and also more poignant to me. Again, we meet an unnamed man in a not-too-distant New Orleans who has married a white woman. Their son is very light-skinned and could pass for white except for patches of dark skin on various parts of his body. The father is obsessed with his son having all the advantages of being white to the point of subjecting him to various “demelanization” treatments, which the boy does not want and finds painful.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The narrator himself could be called a sellout. He has separated himself from his roots to the extent that he dresses “white” and does everything he can to align himself with the white higher-ups in his law firm in order to win a promotion and the bonus that will help him pay for his son’s whitening treatments.

How much of what he does is for love of his son or hatred of himself? He has father issues himself, as his father is serving a life sentence for assaulting a police officer who assaulted the narrator’s mother. He blames his father for resisting, even though they live in a project that is being more ghettoized every day and eventually is cordoned off from the rest of the city. In the next state over, presumably Mississippi, African-Americans have to wear tracking devices, so the narrator’s fears are very real.

All of it, however, comes down to white supremacy and the expectation by even liberal whites that black people just need to “get over” slavery. Just “get over” the fact that they’re only barely American citizens now because of what their ancestors endured in the Middle Passage and on the farms and plantations and building sites of the territory that eventually became the United States of America.

I noted above that every time I was tempted to laugh while reading either of the books, something held me back. More to the point, I had to wonder whether I, as a bleeding-heart liberal white woman, had a right to laugh. In Ruffin’s book, in particular, there were more moments where I was tempted to cry.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah ends his NYT review of Ruffin’s book this way:

“How does racism shape our ability to love?

We Cast a Shadow churns fresh beauty from old ugliness. What injustices have we as a culture come to accept as normal? What are the pitfalls of our complacency? And how can anyone survive this? These questions are essential to America’s growth, but rarely do we see them posed so sharply. Read this book, and ask yourself: Is this the world you want?”

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James Lawson, Pioneer of Nonviolence

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James Lawson’s name is one that is probably not familiar as a civil rights hero among those who haven’t especially studied the movement.

Yet John Lewis says in his memoir, Walking with the Wind, “Little did I know that the man who would truly turn my world around was waiting for me in Nashville. His name was Lawson, Jim Lawson.”

It was from Lawson that Lewis first learned the depth of the philosophy of nonviolent action. Lawson was a field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR); he traveled around the country giving workshops until he settled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where. Lewis was a theology student at Fisk University.

lawson2Lawson had grown up in Ohio. As a conscientious objector during the Korean War, he served 14 months in jail. After serving his time, he went to India as a Methodist missionary and became profoundly obsessed with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

Lewis and his best friend, Bernard Lafayette, attended the workshops that Lawson offered. It was also Lawson who introduced them to the Highlander Folk School, where founder Myles Horton, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, and others taught both citizenship classes and nonviolence as a means to ending segregation and acquiring the vote.

Buoyed by Lawson’s continued teaching and encouragement, the young Lewis and Lafayette along with James Bevel, Diane Nash and others went to a conference in Atlanta that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Lawson was instrumental in the writing of SNCC’s Statement of Purpose in 1960. Yet just two years later, at the April 1962 anniversary  conference, he was not invited. The membership of SNCC was changing to more radical voices who advocated revolution rather than integration and argued for violence in the name of self-defense. Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, and Tom Hayden were among those new voices. While Lewis was elected to the executive committee of SNCC and was also asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be on the board of the Southern Baptist Leadership Conference, it wouldn’t be long before he was sidelined from SNCC also because his heart and soul were with Lawson and King.

Though Carmichael directly attacked Lawson, saying that “deliberate self-sacrifice [was] an unnatural philosophy,” he continued to teach nonviolent resistance as an instructor at COFO (the Committee of Federated Organizations) in Oberlin, Ohio, which was training volunteer students, many from the North, for the voting rights drive of Freedom Summer. He also was active in trying to get the Methodist Church to abolish its principle of Central Jurisdiction, which meant that while many African-Americans served as bishops, pastors, and missionaries, there were many segregated Methodist churches.

A year ago April, I watched the CPAN coverage of the day-long gathering in Memphis that marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder. I watched all the wonderful speeches from the modern-day civil rights icons, but what really made me sit up was the voiceover saying that James Lawson was to be the next speaker. I hadn’t known he was still alive. How glad I was to see and hear directly from this man who had such a powerful effect on the nonviolent movement and on John Lewis in particular.

Dr. Lawson, who is 90, established The James Lawson Institute (JLI) in 2013 to educate organizers and leaders about nonviolence. A documentary about Dr. Lawson may be seen at https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/witnesses/james_lawson.html.

 

Atlanta’s First African-American Cops

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In the accompanying photograph, the first African-American policement in Atlanta are, from left in the front: Henry Hooks, Claude Dixon, Ernest H. Lyons; back: Robert McKibbens, Willard Strickland, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, and John Sanders.

I recently read Georgia author Thomas Mullen’s first in a series of mysteries featuring the first African-American policemen in Atlanta.

After the first book, Darktown, appeared in 2016, he wrote an article for the Atlanta magazine about the history of the eight men who took the great risk of doing a job neither white people nor many African-Americans wanted them to do.

The second book in the series, Lightning Men, is newly released.

Mayor William Hartsfield was perhaps not considered progressive, but he was looking to bring Atlanta into compliance with mid-20th century civil rights laws. He met with religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Sr., about ways in which African-Americans could progress in their native city. He and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins (himself a member of the Klan) initiated the young men into the police force on April 3, 1948.

In his speech that day, Mayor Hartsfield acknowledged that 95% of the white police did not agree with the idea of having African-Americans on the force. That 95% would make life very difficult for the black officers in the years to come. In fact, they were not allowed to work out of the white police headquarters, but were consigned to a basement in the Butler Street YMCA for five years.

They were also not allowed to arrest white people, drive squad cars, or wear their uniforms to and from the Butler St. Y. Their beat was the Sweet Auburn area, consisting of black middle class and underclass neighborhoods. The area was called “Darktown” by white folks, and God help the black cop who tried to do anything to solve a crime that would take him out of that neighborhood.

Darktown fictionalizes two of those first recruits. Lucius Boggs is the son of a respected minister. He has a college degree and had lived a fairly privileged life for an African-American until World War II when he enlisted and was kept at the South Carolina training camp for the entire war because of superiors not wanting to send men overseas who might be inclined to tell foreigners what being black in the US was really like.

Boggs’s partner, Tommy Smith, comes from the underclass neighborhood of Sweet Auburn. He was on active duty during the war, in a tank division. He is muscled and has never been able to afford the sensitivities that define his partner.

One night they see a white man hit a lamppost on their beat. When they go to investigate, they find a young black woman with him. She has a bruise on her jaw. A couple of days later, they are called to the scene where her body has been disposed of, a bullet through her heart.

It is clear that the white force couldn’t care less about who had murdered her. Boggs takes it upon himself to investigate and begins to break every rule laid down by white supremacy of what he can and can’t do as a “Negro” police officer.

Thus begins a harrowing tale of the injustices heaped upon the African-American community of Atlanta by Klansmen in the police force, of ex-cops who form a group called the Rust Division who come in to help out the white cops when things need to be cleaned up, of the efforts by the white cops to undermine their African-American colleagues, and the almost superhuman effort by the black cops to continue in their jobs when they realize what they’re facing.

Mullen, who is white, started his research in 2012. He says in his article, “I learned of these officers when I read former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Gary Pomerantz’s 1996 history of Atlanta, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. He devotes just four pages of his 545-page epic to the city’s first black cops, whose swearing-in prefaced the coming victories of the civil rights movement. But I wanted to know more. As black people in the Jim Crow South, they were second-class citizens, barred from the front of buses, most restaurants, and public parks, and constantly at risk of state-sanctioned or mob-rule violence. Yet they were also authority figures, charged with enforcing laws that often oppressed them and their families.”

A transplant from Rhode Island to, eventually, Decatur, Mullen was fascinated by this bit of history. He saw it as a vehicle for depicting larger social conflicts. At the time of his research, Michael Brown and so many others were still alive, but Trayvon Martin had been murdered by George Zimmerman and a united effort to undermine the first African-American President had begun. Police violence against African-Americans was not yet country-wide news, yet certainly those in Atlanta knew only too well what police violence was like.

Mr. Mullen also acknowledges that, as a transplant from Rhode Island, might seem to be trying to muscle in on the work of native Southern writers. But, he said, “My past work has wrestled with what it means to be American and how the various tangled threads of our past have combined to weave us into who we are today. To write about American identity in the South means writing about race.”

The full article can be read here: Thomas Mullen talks about Darktown

The eight men came from a variety of backgrounds. Ernest H. Lyons had seen a woman stabbed when he was 7 years old. No police came to help. The incident made him want to be a cop. John H. Sanders was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Booker T. Washington High School, but he could only find work as a janitor. When they plus Claude Dixon, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, Henry Hooks, Robert McKibbens, and Willard Strickland began active duty, they were called “YMCA cops” by some black people who resented their authority. White cops made false reports of wrongdoing by the black policemen and even tried to run them over as they crossed the street.

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Officer Claude Mundy (far right), the first black officer killed in the line of duty, in front of the Butler Street YMCA.

Mullen’s novel is well-written and certainly atmospheric, to the point where I could say it should probably not be read by everyone. For me, as a white woman, I read such books in order to bear witness to the victims of racial violence wherever and whenever it occurs. It’s often not easy for me. There were many times while reading Darktown that I had to close the book because of its relentless realism.

But if reading such a book is painful to me, I have to always remind myself of the pain suffered by the victims themselves, throughout our tortured history. It is, in part, my way of atoning for America’s original sin.

Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

The Cross & The Lynching Tree

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I didn’t know anything about James H. Cone until the day he died, April 28, 2018.

I was at a “Dismantling Racism” training in Georgia. His name was on the syllabus. When I went online at the end of the training, the first thing I saw was Dr. Cone’s obituary.

I subsequently learned that he was considered one of the fathers of Black Liberation Theology. It was recommended to me that I read his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).

As the title suggests, Dr. Cone makes the case that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Others have written about the nexus between Christianity and the avid way in which the oppressors’ religion was taken up by slaves. But Dr. Cone is the first I have come across to directly identify the broken body of a lynched person with the broken Christ on the cross.

He says that the cross has always been central to African-American worship because “the cross inverts the world’s value system” when it turns death into hope. Death doesn’t have the last word.

Enslaved blacks seized on the transcendent power of the cross; the cross is God’s critique of white supremacy, he claims.

This may seem like cold comfort at first, but for people whose lives were made to seem meaningless, the cross gave meaning to life and promised a life after death. And it did give hope. Dr. Cone quotes Richard Wright as saying, “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope.”

Dr. Cone gives a long chapter to discussing how black artists were often able to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree better than theologians and pastors. The blues were another way to transcend suffering, he says, and the poets, particularly Countee Cullen, who wrote about the “Black Christ” recrucified are many (see a portion of the poem below). He also writes about the famed Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” written ironically by the Jewish Abel Meeropol many years before the Holocaust. Mr. Meeropol and his wife were the couple who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A long chapter is given to the most famous theologian of the lynching era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was well-known as a social justice activist but who never spoke out personally or theologically about the sin of lynching. Many white supporters of equal status for blacks still used the argument at the time that “their day would come.” Martin Luther King Jr. would later say, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Of course, a whole system of theology cannot be explained in a one- or two-page blog. I hope to give readers a curiosity to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree for themselves. But as Dr. Cone says, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. . .We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy.”

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Let the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

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(Sermon preached on 6/3/18 in Great Barrington, MA)

Did you hear what I heard when Pastor Randy read the gospel? Did you?

Well, here’s what I heard! (I knocked over Lego towers on the altar.)

I heard walls coming down!

So in these two incidents in Mark’s Gospel, what were Jesus and His followers doing wrong that so bothered the Pharisees? It’s difficult even to count the ways in which they were breaking the precious law that the Pharisees hugged to themselves as if the law alone were salvation.

First, we have to understand that, according to the scholars, it was actually corn that they were making their way through and the ears of corn that they were plucking.

Making a path on the Sabbath? Unlawful; it was work.

Plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath? Unlawful; it was reaping, which was also work.

Shucking the corn? Unlawful.

Plucking the kernels? Unlawful.

Do you notice what Jesus does when He tells the Pharisees about David and his companions? He’s really chiding and mocking them. They were supposed to be the experts on Scripture.

Try to hear Jesus’s voice: “Did you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”

In other words, you’re the experts yet you ignore that story? What’s wrong with you?

We’re not given the Pharisees’ response, but I’m sure they were very angry at being outed as hypocrites by this man Jesus.

In the next instance, he comes upon a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew he’d find that man there and also that the Pharisees would be watching him. This time, we know the Pharisees’ reaction; they were silent. They could not in public answer Jesus’s question about whether it was lawful to save life or to kill it on the Sabbath.

Why?

walls coming downBecause “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

We’re told Jesus was angered by their hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart, but a wall a person puts up in order not to have care about other people?

Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, I hear walls coming down all the time. The biggest wall that came down was the wall between God and God’s people manifested through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

In everything Jesus did, He broke down a wall. Whether he was feeding the five thousand and teaching a lesson about sharing; talking to a Samaritan woman at a well; healing a Samaritan man who had leprosy (and was the only one of several men Jesus healed who came back to thank him!), or healing a woman’s tumor that was causing internal bleeding because she had the courage and faith to think that if she just touched his robe, she could be healed!

And what about the woman taken in adultery? Two walls were taken down that day! First was the wall of the draconian codes that said a woman should be stoned to death if found to have committed adultery. But notice, not the man! So the other wall taken down was the one placed by men between them and women, to treat women as if they were not also human. And Jesus said, Okay, if you’ve never committed a sin, go ahead, stone her, kill her.

So if Jesus spent His ministry breaking down walls that were preventing peopIe from receiving the grace of God, what does that tell us our job on this earth is? Is it not also to break down walls? Is it not that the Kingdom of God has no walls in it?

Because, He’s telling us, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” his narrator begins:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;”

He’s talking about nature, of course, which is really the Divine Order of things. The narrator’s companion, intent on picking the stones up and putting them back in place on the wall, will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this, the narrator says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

That darkness is the darkness of a hardness of heart wrought by a tradition that the man could not go against, just like the Pharisees. If you’re a gardener, you know that fences throw dead shade, as opposed to shade that trees provide with sunlight filtering  through them. There are flowering plants that just won’t grow in the dead shade, but will grow in tree shade.

This rejection of walls and darkness can be found in other religious denominations and traditions. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky, day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

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English mystic Evelyn Underhill knew it too.

“I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust, and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.”

Why?

Because something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.

Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about walls in Jesus and the Disinherited, referring to the oppressed and marginalized African –Americans who have been pushed by white society to a point where their backs are against a wall. It was true when Thurman was writing that book in the 1950s and it’s still true today.

I recently had an opportunity to be part of two wall-breaking  events in Georgia and Tennessee. The first was a “Dismantling Racism” training in Griffin, GA. I watched shutters be lifted from people’s eyes as we talked about our white privilege.

I’ve been going to such trainings since the 1990s, and I have come to the realization that I don’t even know how much privilege I have until a news story comes out about police being called because of African-Americans who wanted to use a restroom or were golfing or were taking a nap in their dorm or were just enjoying a barbecue. I’ll be learning about my privilege the rest of my life.

The second event was a retreat at a most beautiful cliff-side spot called St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, Tennessee. About thirty-eight of us were gathered to learn how to use contemplative practices to foster energy and intent for compassionate action in the world. Using contemplative prayer to break down the walls of what Father Thomas Keating calls the false self that has all the ego mechanisms that keep us from truly experiencing the presence of God is a means by which we can go out into the world to help break down walls that keep other people bound.

Next fall, I will move to Georgia to join others in our common pursuit to break down walls and dismantle racism. My even considering such a move from my rural, settled life in Massachusetts indicates that God has helped me break down walls within myself.

Why?

Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

That something is God.