Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Klan and the Shadow at a Christmas Parade

I was in Wildwood last week to attend a school board meeting at which a resolution honoring my late father was being presented. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the board whose superintendent and chair were both former students of my Dad’s.

After the meeting I drove down US 301, the main drag of this town 60 miles northeast of Orlando where I-75 and the Florida Turnpike converge. It was clear that this was a mere shell of this once vibrant little railroad town. For years the largest town in the county, Wildwood was always bigger than my hometown of Bushnell and its high school sports teams were perennially a force to be reckoned with.

Wildwood was a hub on the Seaboard Coastline railroad where the rail lines split. The depot had a dingy waiting room where people waited to catch trains going southeast to Miami or southwest to Tampa and to Jacksonville going north. The Tampa bound leg of that track ran parallel to the highway just in front of our home 15 miles to the south in Bushnell and I can still hear the sound of train cars crossing over the tracks nearby, their rhythmic clicking noise lulling me to sleep.

When the railroad scaled back its operations, deleting most of its passenger service in an era of interstate highways and cheap flights, Wildwood simply withered on the vine. Its once proud football team has not defeated my high school alma mater in the south end of the county in years and actually had to drop out of high school competition last year because its student population was too small to support a team. Wildwood students now attend a combined middle-high school dwarfed by its larger county rivals in Bushnell to the south and the high school for the children of employees at The Villages, the sprawling retirement community that has swallowed up much of a once rural Sumter County, to Wildwood’s east.

As I drove down the shuttered main street, my mind flashed back to a time of being in Wildwood long ago which resulted in a quite unexpected learning opportunity.

Threatening Demeanor and the Smell of Jim Beam

It was Christmas of 1970 and our high school band had been invited to participate in a Christmas parade in Wildwood. It was a Saturday and a cold front had just come through making the march down the main street breezy and cool, a welcome relief for those of us in polyester red and black uniforms we often broiled in. A few cirrus clouds were being blown around an otherwise brilliant sunny sky. It was a good day for a parade though chilly by Central Florida standards.

There weren’t a lot of people who turned out that day. The decline of the railroad industry which had already begun meant that a number of the residents didn’t have a lot of money to spend on Christmas presents that year or a lot of time to waste on parades.

Truth be told, I never liked being in Wildwood to begin with. The little farm town of Bushnell where I was growing up was pretty redneck – a description its predominately beef rancher and truck farming residents celebrated - and it was clear to me from my very first day there that I would never really fit in. But Wildwood took redneck to a whole new level.

Most people describing the Wildwood of my childhood called it “a rough town.” That was undoubtedly an understatement. Legend had it that when a male child was born in Wildwood, they brought him to the stadium and put a football in his hand. If the baby dropped the ball, they killed it. In any case, I knew I wanted to spend as little time in Wildwood as was absolutely necessary. 

About halfway down the mile-long parade route along a newly four-lane US 301, a group of white men stood on a corner passing out literature of some kind. As our band passed their corner, we were simply marching to a drum cadence, having already played our last round of “Merry Old St. Nicholas” set to a march tempo.

Suddenly, one of the men ran up to us and began handing out handbills to band members. One of them offered a flyer to me. His threatening body language and the overpowering scent of BO cut with a healthy dose of Jim Beam (this at noon) suggested that I probably should take the flyer if I knew what was good for me. This was Wildwood, after all.

So I took it and the man ran laughing back to the corner with his inebriated buddies. I folded up the flyer, put it in the voluminous front right pocket of my band uniform and promptly forgot about it, filing the whole incident under the “Gee, that was just a little creepy” category.

When I got home, as I was putting my band uniform on a hanger to hang in my closet I felt the flyer in the pocket. Oh yeah, I said to myself, what was that all about?

I almost stopped breathing when I unfolded the flyer and looked at it. There on the front cover was a headline which read “N****rs are Monkeys.” (editing mine) Below the headline a caricature of an African-American man appeared.

Inside the flyer was a chart comparing yet another caricature of an African-American man with the image of a gorilla and numerous arrows connecting supposed points of comparison. It was immediately clear to me that this was toxic propaganda like none I had ever seen before. What I didn’t know at that time was where it had originated.

I took the flyer into the kitchen where my Mom was cooking our Saturday evening supper. The room was full of the smell of pot roast and my Mother’s ever sunny presence. That all changed in one split second when I handed her the flyer.

“Look what somebody gave me, Mom.”

My Mother was not one to get angry and I rarely saw her lose her composure. But one look at her face and I knew this moment would be very different.

“Where did you get that?” she said, the color draining from her face.

“From some guy at the parade in Wildwood.”

“Don’t you know what this is?”  The words were almost spat from her mouth.

In all honesty, I didn’t. Truth be told, I was a naïve kid generally. I had no idea why someone would take the time, effort and resources to create such a juvenile expression of ignorance and mean-spiritedness. I also had no idea what a Grand Wizard was.

But my Mother did.

Torches Lighting Up the Tropical Night

Back in the 1920s, when my mother was a very young girl, Florida was changing. Small towns like her own Homestead and the nearby city of Miami were undergoing  major growth spurts. Stucco houses like the one in which she lived were springing up in subdivisions newly carved out of former swamps and sand lots. People from all over the country poured into Florida to speculate on a land boom that would go bust after a killer hurricane a few years later foreshadowing the major Depression that would soon engulf all of America.

Soldiers were coming home from the Great War, as World War I was known, returning to their hometowns with hopes of getting on with life. Among them were African-American soldiers who had become accustomed to being treated if not completely equal to their white counterparts at least a lot more equal than the subservient places their racist hometowns intended for them to resume.

As African-Americans began to demand to be registered to vote in states across the country, a wave of lynchings swept the nation. Lurid photos like the infamous one from Marion, Indiana, (pictured below) revealed these events to be times of ghoulish entertainment for local populations seemingly oblivious to the atrocities they had just committed. Florida, struggling to come to grips with a tidal wave of change, led the nation in lynchings per capita, most of them carried out by a newly reborn secretive organization called the Ku Klux Klan.

As her hands holding the flyer trembled, my Mother recounted how the Klan had come to her family’s home in the late 1920s, within a few weeks of deadly massacres of black neighborhoods in places with names like Ocoee and Rosewood. Men like those on the corner in Wildwood had come in the dead of night hidden behind white robes and pointed hoods with torches ablaze to stand in the front yard of her family home. They had come to inform my grandfather that it was his time and duty to join the Klan.

My grandfather was always a man of conscience and ethics. I admired him greatly. He was always well informed and could tell you what he thought about any given current event but more importantly he could tell you why he thought that. Though he was no liberal, I clearly remember his mourning the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy with the assertion over our breakfast table that “You stop people with ballots, not bullets.” He had little tolerance for ignorance and even less for mean-spiritedness.

“So, what did he do, Mama?” I asked.

“He told them no. No, no, no and furthermore, hell no!  Now get off my property!”

At that moment she ripped the flyer into pieces and informed me “You will NEVER bring anything like this into this house again. EVER.” And I knew she was deadly serious.

Shock Over a Dial-a-Hate-Message

It would not be until a few years later when I studied the Jim Crow era in America as a history major at the University of Florida that I would realize just how daring my grandfather’s response had been.  I would also come to understand what caused my Mother’s unexpected reaction to that reminder of her own life history.

The Klan often did not take no for answer. They were known to come back repeatedly to intimidate those who turned down their recruitment efforts. Indeed, those who said no to the Klan were often viewed as sympathetic to the people the Klan had targeted and could become targets themselves. Even in my childhood in Central Florida of the 1960s, one of the worst slurs one could level at one’s fellow white person was “n****r lover.”

Fortunately, I’ve had only one direct encounter with the Klan since then. In the late 1980s, one of my students at Valencia revealed in a writing assignment that he was affiliated with the Klan and included a brochure complete with a telephone number at which you could hear a recorded hate speech message. With his permission (indeed, perhaps his glee) I created an assignment to have my US Government students call the number and then report what they heard, critically analyze the message content and point to the parts of the Constitution that were implicated by that content.

Not surprisingly it made for an intense class discussion. What I heard in so many of their responses was the fear and anger in my Mother’s voice of so many years ago, echoed in the voices of young students shocked by what they had just experienced.

The shock over suddenly encountering such blatant racism is fairly common among white Americans. One of the aspects of privilege in a racist society is the luxury of naivete among its beneficiaries. 

But that is hardly to say that our unawareness of racism means it has gone away. Contrary to the many self-congratulatory assessments by my fellow white countrymen and women, America has hardly “dealt with its race problem.” Indeed, while the original flyer referenced above was ripped to pieces by my Mother and thrown away, the images shown here came from a simple Google search. 

As I see it, the Klan is but one tangible aspect of America’s enormous Shadow that emerges periodically to remind us of its existence. It reflects one of the many repressed, unacknowledged and disowned aspects of America’s 500 year history which haunt us to this day and prevent us from evolving into the nation our noble ideals would suggest we are capable of becoming.

This aspect of our Shadow began with the importation of the first African slaves into Jamestown, VA in 1619, a trajectory that would eventually lead to a Civil War that nearly doomed the country. The loss of that war directed by the slave holding Southern aristocracy but fought by its working class whites would only drive that racism out of America’s immediate consciousness into its collective unconscious.

It would periodically emerge in thinly veiled forms in Jim Crow laws and states’ rights arguments. By the 1960s, “law and order” campaigns with racist dog whistles would provide an effective means of pimping the fragile sense of masculinity of working class whites and stoking the fears of white flight suburbanites.

Yet the powerful Shadow behind all these efforts would remain largely unconscious for most Americans. Until now.

A Celebration of Shadow Provides an Opportunity

As I drove down the main street of Wildwood last week, its dime stores, cafes and second hand stores now mostly boarded up, memories of my youthful, naïve encounter with the Klan dancing in my head, I listened to the NPR newscast. The announcer was relating stories of desecrated Jewish cemeteries, Muslim mosques and violent conflicts in urban centers where Trump rallies are being held.

In the past election cycle, America’s white population voted overwhelmingly for a candidate writer James Baldwin would have readily identified as a “moral monster.” Reflecting a backlash against eight years of an eloquent Ivy League educated mixed race president, it has not been unusual to see Confederate flags and “Sieg Heil” Nazi salutes regularly displayed at Trump rallies. Occasionally Klansmen come out of their racist closets in full Klan drag complete with pointed hoods bearing almost invariably misspelled signs with racist messages. The once firmly repressed Shadow of America’s racist past has been called out to play with an abandon not seen in a very long time.

For many of us, it is painful to watch and frightening to endure. I can still see my Mother’s trembling hands and ashen face as she told me her story of close encounters with the Klan. Yet, like that unpredicted encounter spawned by a Klan flyer nearly a half century ago, this turn of events in America’s history provides us with an unexpected opportunity for learning sorely needed lessons in order to evolve as a society.

America will never be able to come to grips with the racism that informs everything from the world’s largest prison-industrial complex to the increasingly explosive dealings between its police and its youth of color to the enormous gaps in all measures of social well-being between whites and black in our culture until we own that aspect of our collective Shadow that began in 1619 in Jamestown. Slavery and the racist culture it spawned is hardly the only elephant in the inner room of America’s psyche but it is a major one. Indeed, as Sojourner’s editor Jim Wallis says, it may well be America’s original sin.

This moment in American history provides us an unexpected opportunity to acknowledge this aspect of our collective Shadow and to come to grips with it. How we respond is critical. Deepok Chopra recently observed, “Denial is when you ignore the shadow; disaster is when you totally surrender to it.”

Neither the denial of that history which has marked our response historically nor the current celebration of its Shadow - in all its misanthropic expressions - marking the rise of Trumpland can provide America the opportunity for healing it so desperately needs. We must be willing to let go of our collective persona of American exceptionalism, the City on the Hill,  which admits to no darkness at all long enough to see all of who we are and to own all of who we have been. As Carl Jung reminds us, the brighter the persona, the darker – and thus the more potentially destructive - that Shadow will be.

We must be willing to look at our history in places with names like Ocoee and Rosewood in all of their blood-sodden darkness. We must be willing to look at the inequality and injustice that has flowed and continues to flow from that history and own it. And we must be willing to see the privilege that legacy has provided those of us who happen to be winners of a genetic lottery in a deeply racist culture that comes at the expense of those who were not.

Only then can the healing America’s soul so desperately needs begin.

It is essential to note that in any attempt to gain reconciliation within divided, conflictual societies around the world from South Africa to Canada, that reconciliation has always come only after a period of candid, painful truth-telling. With the eruption of America’s Shadow to the surface so that it can be seen for what it truly is and always has been, the time for our truth-telling has finally arrived.

Whether America is able to meet the challenge this opportunity provides may well determine whether we are able to hold together as a nation-state and remain a single people.  What is clear at this moment is that it is our very soul which is at stake.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Monday, March 13, 2017

The Patron Saint of the Curious Meets a Dangerous Jesus

Sermon Text: John 3:1-17  (RCL Lent 2A)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?...

 ...“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There is a lot to consider in our Gospel lesson from today. Any given piece of that pericope -  the fancy word we were taught to use in seminary to refer to the excerpts of the scripture we were studying -  could be a full day’s lesson in itself. 

                               "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus," Henry Ossawa Tanner

It begins with a secretive night visit from a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus. There is an exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in which Jesus speaks about being born anew, born from above, or, the common translation, born again.

The lesson ends with a rambling theological reflection by the writers of John’s Gospel telling their readers what they believed was G-d’s purpose in sending Jesus to the world and what it was not. The writers tell us that G_d has sent Jesus out of love for the world, not to condemn it but to save it. All that is required for anyone to be saved, they tell us,  is to simply believe in Jesus. Indeed, it’s this focus on beliefs that tell us that it is probably the writers of John’s community of the late 1st CE speaking to us here and not Jesus. For, as we will see, Jesus was asking for a lot more than mere belief.

Let me begin by telling you what I think this lesson is NOT about. The first thing it is not about is being born again as a condition for being a child of G_d.  We Franciscans have long held to an alternative orthodoxy which asserts that everything that exists comes from G_d, that it finds its ground of being in G-d and ultimately returns to G_d. 

That includes us. We come from G-d, we exist in G-d, we return to G-d. 

Although our prayer book refers to us as adopted children of G_d, a statement taken out of context from the writings of St. Paul, every created being is a child of G-d simply by fact of our creation. In truth, G-d really doesn’t need to adopt us. We were all always G_d’s children from the very beginning. And nothing we do or fail to do can ever change that - including the failure to buy into the right set of beliefs about Jesus.

Second, I think the belief that having a once in a lifetime born again experience as a requirement for being a follower of Jesus is problematic on a good day. I am always amused by the joke in which a Baptist pastor is ribbing his Episcopal priest buddy saying “How can you say you’re Christian? You all don’t even have altar calls!” to which the Episcopal priest responds, “Nonsense, we have one every week at the communion rail.”

It has been my personal experience that conversions are not a once in a life-time, one-size-fits-all event. As I see it, conversions happen all the time, often when we least expect them. They happen when we find ourselves suddenly feeling immensely grateful for an unexpected goodness we have experienced in our lives, for the love we have been given despite our worst behaviors, for the beauty which suddenly overwhelms us even as it has been all around us all along.

 Conversions happen when we realize some of our most cherished ideas and understandings about ourselves and the world we live in are no longer tenable and we repent and reconsider our lives. Conversions happen when we bottom out and realize our addictive behaviors are killing us only to discover there is still hope for a new life. In my view, a single emotional experience often a response to extended periods of pressure  from the pulpit and group pressure from the pews - is a poor substitute for a lifetime of ongoing conversion experiences in which the followers of Jesus are born anew over and over again. 

Conversion experiences can also happen when that unexpected person crosses our paths and our lives change forever. Nicodemus knew that experience only too well. He appears three times in our scriptures, all of them in the Gospel of John.

The first of these appearances is recorded in today’s lesson when he comes to Jesus under cover of night to try to make sense of why this Judean prophetic figure of the hundreds of would be Messiahs in 1st CE Judea has turned his life upside down. He will reappear in Chapter 7 when he begs his fellow Pharisees and the chief priests on the Sanhedrin not to simply write Jesus off without considering what he has to say. They will respond smugly, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” Finally, Nicodemus will accompany Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ crucified body bearing aloe and myrrh to embalm what is left of their beloved rabbi.

In today’s lesson, Nicodemus, the patron saint of the curious, whose Greek name means “victorious among his people,” comes to Jesus just after Jesus has cleared the Temple. We need to understand the gravity of that action to put this into context. The Temple is the site for both the ritual cult of Judaism with its sacrifices as well as the administrative center of the Roman imperial bureaucracy where taxes are extracted from the conquered Judean people. Shutting down that center of business, both sacred and imperial, would have brought the Judean colony of Rome to an immediate halt.

Consider what would happen if someone came into the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow, set off a small explosive device and then in the resulting confusion infected its computers with a virus shutting down online trading. How would the American empire with its worship of material wealth and the power it brings respond to such an attack on its free market holy of holies? And what would we think of the brash figure who would dare to pull off such a venture?

So perhaps we can empathize a bit with Nicodemus who comes under cover of night because he recognizes this Jesus is dangerous. Jesus draws into question the imperial values of the Roman Empire as well as the legitimacy of the Judean Temple cult. 

It’s important to note here that Nicodemus is a beneficiary of this status quo. He has a lot to lose if it should change. Early 20th CE author Upton Sinclair once remarked that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" And yet, like every follower of charismatic leaders historically, Nicodemus knows there is something about this person that is different, something that inspires him to go seeking answers: Who are you, Jesus? What are you up to? And what is it about you that makes you so different?
The key line in the exchange between the two is the following statement by Jesus: “No one can see the kingdom of G-d without being born [again] from above.” Nicodemus tries to deflect Jesus’ challenge with a joke about the impossibility of returning to the womb to be born a second time. But Jesus is having none of it. He comes right back at Nicodemus with a questioning of the depth of his understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In other words, Look, Nicodemus, seriously. You know better than this. You’re intelligent and well educated. You know how to think. Dig a little deeper. I know you are capable.
Perhaps Nicodemus does not want to see the picture that Jesus is presenting him. The Kingdom of G-d that Jesus has been preaching and modeling is radical in its implications. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation….” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus eats with tax collectors and other sinners, a flagrant violation of Judaism’s purity code. Jesus teaches his disciples to give to those who beg, to love one’s enemies and that those without sin are the only ones who get to punish their fellow sinners. What implications might such teachings have for folks like Nicodemus, much less their Roman overlords? 

What implications might such teachings have for us?

You see, Jesus is not asking for Nicodemus to believe in him. He’s asking for something much more. He’s calling Nicodemus to follow him in the Way of Jesus, a way of living that brings life in abundance, a way of living that helps to bring about a Kingdom of G_d on earth as in heaven, as we will pray very shortly. But it is also a way that can lead to a cross.
We need to remember here that Jesus was not a Christian. He was Jewish. Judaism is an ethical tradition that is defined by the way one lives, not what one believes. Indeed, as my friend from college who is now a rabbi in New York is prone to say, “You ask two rabbis a question of faith and you come away with three opinions.”  

Truth be told, it’s fairly easy to buy into a set of ideas especially among a group of people who will readily affirm you for sharing their views or pressure you to share them should you refuse. But, our souls’ return to the G-d who made us at the end of our lives does not depend on getting the right set of beliefs down. And today’s lesson suggests that that is not what Jesus was calling Nicodemus - or us - to do.

We are called to a lifetime of conversions, of openness to Spirit to show us ever more clearly who we are, what we are about and what we are called to do. Jesus calls us to trust G_d with our very lives and with what happens when we die, to focus instead on how we should live, here and now, and then models what that calling looks like for us. 

The Way of Jesus revealed in the Gospels provides us with a pattern to follow in that undertaking. And Jesus promises that the G-d who created us and sent Jesus to us out of love for the world will be with us every step of the way. Following the Way of Jesus will always be a lot more rigorous than simply buying into a set of beliefs. But, like Nicodemus, Jesus calls us to nothing less.  AMEN.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017