The storm that blew through the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday has not passed. What America will be and who we will be in the midst of the storm are always the questions on Martin Luther King Day, but this year the choice will be clearer.
Thunder and Lightning on MLK Weekend
If intelligence reports come to pass, the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, Aryan Brotherhood, and other well-armed White nationalist groups will again storm through the nation’s Capitol to “liberate” their country, as did the Wolverine Watchmen who gathered in Lansing, burst into the Michigan Capitol, and would have kidnapped, tried, and executed Governor Gretchen Whitmer had the FBI not foiled the plot with advance intelligence.
Freedom and the Covenant of Mutual Responsibility
Will we be a people preoccupied by the pernicious insistence on unaccountable individual freedom? “You can’t make me wear a mask!” Will we confuse liberty with freedom from restraint, or will we place freedom where it belongs — within the context of a social covenant, a Constitutional republic — that holds the indivisible tension between freedom and responsibility for our neighbors?
The Blue Note Gospel and the Storm Passing Over
The Black church in America lives out that tension of freedom and covenant, individual liberty and community. It has a history and tradition few others share. The descendants of slavery can teach us about living in the storm while the storm passes over. They neither deny the storm nor succumb to it. As Otis Moss III describes it, the Black church preaches “the Blue-Note gospel” born of the cross of Jesus and can “Shouts the Gospel shout” because it knows the blues.
This morning, we share the soulful sound of resilience in the midst of the storm.
Martin Luther King and the Storm
This Martin Luther King Weekend the storm of America’s original sin will sweep through, and the resilience of the Blue-Note Gospel will carry us through.
The Fourth of July in 2020 is different. You could see it and hear it at Mount Rushmore. The crowd was as colorless as the ones I remember in my childhood. But before they took their seats to sing the national anthem, salute the flag, and look up at the Blue Angels’ aerial display of military power, some of them had heard the chant “Land back!” and seen the fireworks between the police and National Guard and demonstrators whose skin was darker the their’s. On the road to Mount Rushmore they may not have known — or knew but didn’t care — that they were trespassing on stolen property; but they could not remain unaware that some people were not happy. The Lakota had regarded the Black Hills as sacred ground and still does. No one “owned” land before the Nation that celebrated its independence from the British crown saw it as property and stole it by breaking a treaty.
A White Nationalist Revisionist History
Inside the red-white-and-blue bannered stadium, the president targeted the protestors. “If we tear down our history we will not be able to understand ourselves or America’s destiny,” he declared, with no apparent consciousness of longer American history of the Black Hills. “The left wing mob and those practicing ‘cancel culture’ are engaged in totalitarian behavior that is completely alien to American life — and we must not accept it.” Did anyone inside the make-shift stadium catch the irony? Did anyone know that the original proposal for what became Mount Rushmore featured different faces — heroes of the American West, such as Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse? Did anyone in the white Fourth of July crowd shout “Land back!”?
According to Tony Schwartz, the real writer of Donald Trump’s autobiography, Art of the Deal, the president knows a thing or two about desecration and deception. He is a master at tarnishing those who will not bow to him with a brush dripping paint from the can of his own empty soul.
If Mr. Trump had known American history, he would have flown to the Black Hills with Desmond Tutu to announce formation of an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to lead the nation through the healing process of confession, repentance, and reparation instead of a white nationalist campaign rally that trespassed on another nation’s sacred ground.
The Nation of Sheep
Donald Trump may be ignorant of America’s unvarnished history, but he’s not stupid. Those cheering him at Mount Rushmore most likely never read, or had forgotten, William J. Lederer’s 1961 Best Seller, A Nation of Sheep. “We are acting like a nation of sheep — not a vigorous community of bold, well-informed Americans,” Lederer wrote. We are “uneasy, but too apathetic and uninformed to know why — endorsing any solutions which appear cheap and easy and which come from a source better informed than themselves.” Perhaps the president had read Lederer’s book and decided a nation of sheep was ripe for a shepherd.
The Sheep and the Shepherds
It seems less likely he has read the Parable of the Good Shepherd in the book he hasn’t read –the one he displayed in front of Saint John’s after clearing the demonstrators from Lafayette Square. “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (Gospel of John 10:1-2, NRSV).
The Fourth of July entertainer at Mount Rushmore knows about thievery and sheep. He senses we are uneasy. He is well-schooled in the skill of shearing sheep too apathetic and too uninformed to know why they are uneasy. He knows how prone hungry sheep are to feed on quick and how easily we fall for the illusion that ours is the only sheepfold and that we are exceptional to all other sheep. One need not believe The Art of the Deal‘s ghost writer Tony Schwartz’s claim that Mein Kampf was the only book in Donald Trump’s bedroom to recognize in his bellicose language and behavior the political philosophy of the Strong Man who climbed into a sheepfold by blaming the nation’s problems on black sheep, the unpatriotic “left wing” non-Aryans whose color and history threatened the ideology of racial superiority and national manifest destiny.
Nations which no longer find any heroic solution for such distress can be designated as impotent, while we see the vitality of a people, and the predestination for life guaranteed by this vitality, most strikingly demonstrated when, for a people’s liberation from a great oppression, or for the elimination of a bitter distress, or for the satisfaction of its soul, restless because it has grown insecure – Fate some day bestows upon it the man endowed for this purpose, who finally brings the long yearned-for fulfillment.
Adolf Hitler, “The Strong Man,” Mein Kampf, an autobiographical political manifesto, 1925.
Last night — the Eve of July Fourth 2020 — I thought I saw in the Black Hills a flock of sheep, restless because it had grown insecure, and I heard the distant sound of clippers fleecing an earlier flock.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I closed the Bible, grabbed my COVID-19 mask, and ran out for a Fifth for the Fourth –a fifth named Redemption.
Behind every Moses is an Aaron. John Lewis was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Aaron. If Dr. King was the face and voice of the civil rights movement, John Lewis was, and still is, its soul.
PANCREATIC CANCER AND A MEMORY OF SELMA
News of his Stage IV pancreatic cancer was a sad day that calls for national reflection, thanksgiving for his witness, and prayers of intercession that “his suffering be minor and his transition easy.”
Pancreatic cancer is no stranger to the seven old seminary friends who gather annually for friendship and study. Steve Shoemaker and Wayne Boulton pancreatic cancer diagnosis preceded John Lewis. We are down to four and counting, but the memories of walking from Selma to Montgomery in March,1965 did not pass with Steve and Wayne; they are alive and fresh among the busload of seminary students who rode the bus from Chicago to Selma, AL to walk with Moses (Martin Luther King Jr) and Aaron (John Lewis) across the Pettus Bridge to Montgomery.
CANCER, CALENDARS, AND CLOCKS
John Lewis knows that some cancers metastasize. America’s “original sin,” i.e., deep-rooted and omnipresent, never quite goes away. It may appear to be in remission. It may hide awhile, but it is always there.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?”
Day after day — hour by hour, now — the calendar and clock are turned back against the dream. But there is different calendar and clock beyond the control of white nationalism. Until his last breath, John Lewis will bear witness to a better life on the other side of America’s original sin. It falls to all of us afflicted to walk across the bridge Pettus Bridge with confession resistance, and joyful hymns of praise.
BE THOU OUR GUARD WHILE TROUBLES LAST
Thy Word commands our flesh to dust, Return, ye sons of men: All nations rose from earth at first, And turn to earth again.
A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone; Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.
Like flowery fields the nations stand Pleased with the morning light; The flowers beneath the mower’s hand Lie withering ere ‘tis night.
O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Be Thou our guard while troubles last, And our eternal home.
— Isaac Watts
“What did you do?” – Congressman John Lewis. “Come on, now. We can do better than this!” – Congressman Elijah Cummings (RIP), Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Seeing more clearly takes time. It takes experience. It demands patience — with myself and with others — and it takes courage. Courage to let go of ideas we took for granted: who we are, what we aspired to become, our place in the cosmos.
Paul Tillich knew about courage and patience. The first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position during the rise of the Third Reich, Tillich came to see faith as “the courage to be” — and “to be” means being in motion, growing, changing, dying, leaving parts of ourselves behind. Neither courage alone nor patience alone is the courage to be.
Which leads me back to where we began. If you now see homophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and climate change-denial as offensive, what do you do in relation to a homophobic anti-Semitic white nationalist climate change-denier?
SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-CRITICISM
I have never been a white nationalist. Neither have you, I suspect. But, looking back, I see that my classmates and I drank from the well of white nationalism. Every school day began with our hands over our hearts, facing the flag.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Although we might have wondered why we were pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, we didn’t give it much thought. We took it less as a statement of national aspiration than as a statement of national exceptionalism, a statement of fact.
But it wasn’t a fact. We learned that America was deeply divisible — between slave traders and plantation owners, and the African slaves they kidnapped, bought, and sold on the slave blocks; between the European settlers and the North American continent’s first people, cheated of their treaty rights, stripped of their land, religious practices, sovereignty, and civil rights; between professing Puritan Christians and the “witches” of Salem, burned at the stake as people “unfit for our society”; between the real Americans — the Christians — and the Christ-killers; between the straight majority and the LGBTQ minority who suffered alone in silence; between the landed aristocracy of the founding fathers and the laborers who bled picking cotton in the cotton fields in the south and worked without labor protections in the factories of the industrial north.
That was the “world” in which I lived, and that was the world that lived in me. As I continued through the years, I did my best to replace naïveté with consciousness, challenging the myth of American exceptionalism as a reformer, social critic, and activist.
I learned in time that unless I wanted to be a pompous ass, patience was required with others and with myself. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation” is the Bible’s version of Plutonium-239’s half-life of 24,000 years. It describes the toxic waste passed down river from one generation to the next.
BALANCING COURAGE AND PATIENCE
Nuclear waste doesn’t disappear. Neither does the sin of exceptionalism in its racial, economic, gender, religious, and national manifestations. The toxic waste of exceptionalism — the conviction that one’s nation, race, culture, creed, gender, class . . . or species . . . is the exception to history and nature — is the unacknowledged original sin we manage to make original every day by exalting ourselves over others and over nature itself.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REPUBLIC
As the climate change clock ticks toward midnight, patience seems less of a virtue than courage acting now. We who pledged allegiance to the flag “and to the Republic for which it stands” are losing patience with each other. We are ‘indivisible’ only if we decide we are. If we and those we elect place our flawed understandings of our personal interests above our responsibility to honor and maintain the Republic, our not-so original original sin may be our last.
It takes courage to confess one’s participation in the evils we deplore. And it takes patience with those who seem to have logs in their eyes.. “If we say we have no sin,” declared the minister Sunday mornings in the church of my childhood, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The minister who invited us to own up to sins of omission and commission was the man I knew at home as Dad. I wonder what Dad would do if he could see us now.
According to the New York Times, the Trump 2020 re-election campaign has run 2,000+ Facebook ads framing the national conversation by calling the migration at our southern border “an invasion”.
Introducing an exercise
It gets harder every day. The carnage is in full sight. So are the tweets. It’s depressing. In times like this a Psalm sometimes comes along that expresses the emotions. They laments. The anger at cruelty. Hope for something better beyond what we can see as possible.
Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?
O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
America today is not the sweet land of liberty of whom we sing. We grieve amid the latest ruins in El Paso and Dayton. We lament the human sacrifice that defile the good green Earth,Your holy temple, the inheritance of global grace.
They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.
They trade doves for vultures, and olive branches for military materiele on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, El Paso, and Dayton, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Burlington, Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Sandy Hook . . . . Mankato and Wounded Knee.
They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.
The invaders call the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free; the homeless, and tempest-tossed “invaders” — caravans of an invasion crossing the southern border. The vultures prey on fathers and daughters drowned and lying face-down on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande. In the name of national security they take nursing children far from their mothers’ breasts, separate families, and forget where they have placed the invaders’ children, while the authorities retreat to golf courses and sent their children to fancy summer camps.
Let the groans of the prisoners come before You; according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die!
May the groans that hurt Your ears rouse the nation’s conscience to close the prisons and preserve all those White Nationalism dooms to die.
“National extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. . . . Idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as ‘the other’ while flying ‘the sore point’ in ourselves that we conscious animals seek to avoid.”
Return sevenfold into the lap of [their captors] the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord! But we Your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to You forever; from generation to generation we will recount Your praise.
“I’m ninety-six,” wrote Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, introducing his last book, “and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, a search for God as real.”
“The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” — Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).
The National Lie of white supremacy may lie silent for a time, but it doesn’t die easily. It was the unspoken lie behind the invasion and slaughter of people it called ‘savages’ to justify stealing America’s indigenous peoples’ continent and herding them onto federal reservation. The conquerers were white. The indigenous peoples were ‘red’. The invaders spoke English. Those they conquered did not. The same colossal National Lie rationalized the invasion of “the dark continent” to capture men, women, and children as slave labor to work the plantation owners’ cotton fields. The faces of the Lie wore white hoods, lit crosses on lawns, and hanged their former slaves from the lynching trees. And on and on it goes. It lives on in 2020, no longer silent, branding brown, Spanish-speaking migrants fleeing for safety “invaders” who must be stopped.
It’s a long way from El Paso TX to Dayton OH — a 22-hour drive through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. It took less than 13 hours for El Paso and Dayton to become twin cities suffering together “all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that inflict the people” while the lie of White Nationalism carries on.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” — Mark Twain.
Llightning struck down 50 worshipers and injured another 50 In Aotearoa — the Land of the Long White Cloud — the Maori name for their home before foreign invaders re-named New Zealand.
The mind of western white nationalism makes few, if any, distinctions between Muslims and Jews. Although we rightly think of anti-Semitism as responsible for the gas ovens of Nazi Germany and the long history of anti-Jewish pograms, the term ‘Semite’ applies more broadly to the Hebrew- and Arab-speaking people of the Middle East. Whether gathered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or in the mosques of New Zealand makes no difference. Their existence is a threat to the mindset of white superiority and, more lately, western nationalism.
A 72 page white nationalist manifesto did not know, or chooses not to know, that the original invaders were not dark skinned people. They were not Middle Easterners. They were not Semites. They were not Muslim. It was the Dutch and English colonizers who “discovered” and then invaded the Maori “Land of the Long White Cloud” (English translation) that turned the Maori homeland into the land of their own displacement, subjugation, and long-suffering. The invaders were white Europeans who considered it their right and calling to spread their religion and culture around the world.
Judaism and Islam claim a common family origin in Abraham, but they do not same the same maternal lineage. They do not claim the same mother. Jews and Christians see themselves as the children of Sarah, the mother of Isaac. Muslims claim Hagar, Sarah’s banished slave woman, the mother of Ishmael, as their mother. Neither Sarah nor Hagar, nor Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Ishmael was “white.” The predominant religion of the western culture is rooted in Middle Eastern people and cultures. And, the scriptures Jews, Christians, and Muslims share in common the memory that the estrangement between the Isaac and Ishmael ended when the re-united to bury father Abraham.
One can suppose with near certainty that yesterday’s attack on mosques in New Zealand, like the bombing of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh arose from the cauldron of anti-Semitism, hatred toward the children of Abraham — Isaac, the son of Sarah, and Ishmael, the son of Hagar. So apparently different, and yet the same.
Ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge that feigns ignorance is a fools’ paradise that turns long white clouds of an otherwise blue sky into dark clouds of smoke, dust and smog.