Growing up, when I thought about forgiveness–which is ever present in a practicing Fundamentalist Christian’s life–I thought first about God so loving the world that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. For our forgiveness. When I thought of forgiveness apart from the Cross, I thought about Jesus’s quip to Peter about forgiving an offender 70 times 7 (Matt 18:22). I remember calculating it in my mind, which Peter probably also did.
This semester I took a class with Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, whose new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation, brings Womanist Wisdom “to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us work toward it” (https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/my-book-is-coming/). When you stop and think about it, each of those concepts–forgiveness and reconciliation–are huge. So full of meaning and implications that it was and continues to be daunting to me. My classmates and I spent 15 weeks grappling with texts and ideas; now I find it less daunting than profound. What I mean is that it is important to put forgiveness and reconciliation in practice and help others to do so, too. I know it was a good class because we are leaving it with more questions than when we began. Success is often measured by knowing enough to know what you don’t know. Our final project was to create a curriculum on forgiveness and/or reconciliation.
From the time the project was assigned, I began to have trouble with it. I had writer’s block for curriculum development. I realize I still have some sorting out to do with the two-in-one concept, since, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I red what I say.” In this post, I will briefly sketch an overview of an introductory segment on the concepts Forgiveness & Reconciliation. Should spaces for dialogue ever come up, here is where I would start.
First, it is important to note that Forgiveness & Reconciliation is a whole field of study with a growing body of literature. Typing in the words, “Forgiveness & Reconciliation” on Amazon, for example, yields 437 results. Type in those same words in Google, and more than twelve million results pop up. To be fair, “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” by themselves are intermingled with results for the pair. I found this to be the case in our class, too. The topics overlap, bleeding into each other, as it were, to the point where it is hard to see where one stops and the other begins. Entangled, jumbled. This is not inappropriate.
Dr. Walker-Barnes organized the course into engaging topics, and you can see the intricate threading throughout: Theologies of Forgiveness; Theologies of Reconciliation; Remembrance & Repentance; Power, Apology, & The Limits of Forgiveness; Trauma, Anger & the Failure of Reconciliation; Reconciliation or Liberation?; Reconciliation as a Spiritual Journey; and Psychological Perspectives on Forgiveness. We read texts by Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis; John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians, and Everett Worthington, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. There was a lot to read and talk about. If I were guiding a book talk on the subject, I would use some of the helpful strategies and models from these texts, developed by peace workers who walk the walk. Dr. Walker-Barnes’ book was published after our class had begun, so we only had a teaser chapter from it. It’s now on my Christmas break reading list!
The semester was spent painstakingly unraveling meanings. Here are some key points.
- Christians not only have an obligation to practice forgiveness, we also have a model. God forgives us.
- There are distinctions between forgiveness and reconciliation, even though they are a good matched set.
- Both forgiveness and reconciliation have important and often frustrating limits. If we know them going in, we will not have our expectations dashed.
- Historically–both within Christianity and without–forgiveness and reconciliation have been abused, misused, oppressive, and suppressive. Survivors of interpersonal and/or systemic trauma/conflict narrate the journey to forgiveness and reconciliation. Survivors remind us of the high stakes involved in forgiveness and reconciliation; their voices are critical to how we practice.
To further muddle my thinking, you have to consider forgiveness according to its various levels. Are we talking about forgiving another person? Groups of people? A whole country? What about reconciling? Couples reconcile (or don’t). Friends can too. Different cultures can reconcile–like in South Africa. People can be reconciled to God. I have to reconcile within myself. The scope is incredible.
I will end my overview with this: our participation in the divine life, that is, how believers exist in the world, is wrapped up in the tremendous Mystery. The gift and responsibility of forgiveness–and yes, reconciliation, too–are part of that mystery. And it is part of most believers’ theology. For example, while there are many subjects Jesus never mentioned, he was explicit about forgiveness: do it. So, as complicated and perplexing as forgiveness and reconciliation can be, it helps to approach them as sacred process.
Below is a picture of our white board from the last day of class, where we summed up what we had learned. In my next post, I will summarize them in talking points.
I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.
Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:
This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.
He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.
Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?
What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.
A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.
White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.
So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.
My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.
That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.
White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”
At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.
Today is June 19th, Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when news of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier finally reached enslaved persons in Texas. It coincides with the National Gathering of the UCC Open & Affirming National Gathering and a Race and Religion course assignment on whether the Lost Cause still exists in the South today. All things work together, and it is fitting.
When I was a kid my parents took my little brother and me to Shiloh National Military Park. This began and strengthened my fascination with the Civil War. Other Southern writers have written about how prominently Civil War lore figured into their childhoods, how it shape their psyches as Southern men. No major battles took place in Alabama like in Virginia and Tennessee, so my parents—who took exactly one vacation in their lives and it was NOT to the beach—hauled us on a day trip to Shiloh. We saw the exhibits with artifacts from the battlefield: bullets, bayonets, buttons. We saw a film that mapped out the two-day fight from April 6-7, 1862, the bloodiest battle until Antietam five months later. It remains the sixth on the top ten list. We walked around sites so horrific they had been named: Hornets Nest and Bloody Pond, water colored red by soldiers’ blood. At the end of the day, my parents took us to the gift shop, where we were each allowed one souvenir. My brother and I got the same memento—a confederate private’s cap. We did not even consider the Union blue cap of the yankees.
I think perhaps the Lost Cause takes on a different meaning for working class Southerners than it had for the old plantation class that evolved into wealth obtained from industry and later, investment. For us, the Lost Cause equated with the tragic romanticism of the lost war. The South is a contested place; it is a place looked down upon by those outside—and sometimes inside—of it. During the tour, my brother and I cheered for the Shiloh story of Day 1, that went to the confederates. On the second day, Grant’s reinforcements arrived, Albert Sidney Johnston was shot, and the battle went to the Union. The feeling I had then is similar to the physical and emotional drain I feel after the University of Alabama loses a big game to Auburn. It is real disappointment that I feel for the rest of the day. Our land had been invaded and we had lost. That was my lost cause, and its symbols took on religious meanings—the Stars and Bars battle flag, the gallant General Lee upon his steed Traveler (yes, I know the horse’s name), and of course, Dixie, our hymn.
Constructing the Lost Cause narrative so strong that is part of the psyche of Southerners who have no discernable connection to the Old South other than geographic location required a national comprehensive campaign. So the question to consider is, in whose interest was it to create the Lost Cause as an organizing theme? The white plantation class, supported by southern newspapers convinced poor whites that they were whiter than they were poor; thus, they allied with the people who looked like them. We continue to do this today, voting and allying against our economic interests because they are white. Northern and Southern Protestants turned defeated confederates into defeated Christians as the Lost Cause became a vehicle for Southern Redemption—redemption that was religious, social, and political.
Yesterday, I attended a session at the UCC Open and Affirming (ONA) National Gathering in Milwaukee, called Offensive Faith: Queering the Playbook for Religious Engagement. Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, of the National LGBTQ Task Force stressed the intersectionality present in dismantling systems of gender and sexuality oppression. People of color are disproportionately affected by violence in this country; the same is true for gender violence. One of the pictures she shared prompted my reflections here, connecting religion, the Lost Cause, and racial (and gendered) violence. I look at it now and am offended, yes, but I see it and know that the stirrings of nostalgia I also feel seeing the old black and white photo that could have been taken at Littleville Elementary School, where I grew up a confederate child. My nostalgia is a fruit of white privilege, and so too is offensive.
The second photo Rev. Leapheart shared will likely offend Lost Causers—not only them, it will offend many other white people. I think when we as a people can be offended by both images because they stand for a history of racial violence in which religion has been complicit—then we might hope for redemption.
Please also take time to visit the National LGBTQ Task Force web site and read about their All of Me. All the Time campaign for the Equality Act. They have this description:
The National LGBTQ Task Force educates federal policymakers about the need for non-discrimination protections that ensure the whole person is able to advocate for themselves when discriminated against, wherever that discrimination takes place. We work with a wide range of progressive partner organizations across the country both at the state and federal level, like the National Black Justice Coalition. The Task Force shifts the conversation from a political and technical one to a national and inclusive conversation based on morals and values.
Here is a prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas, addressed to Mary, whom he called on for inspiration and strength in school. Thank you to my McAfee Classmate Benjamin Smith for sharing it:
O Mary, Seat of Wisdom,
so many persons of common intellect
have made through your intercession
admirable progress in their studies.
I hereby choose You as
guardian and patron of my studies.
I humbly ask You to obtain for me
the grace of the Holy Spirit,
so that from now on I could
– understand more quickly,
– retain more readily, and
– express myself more fluently.
May the example of my life serve
to honor You and your Son, Jesus.
It should come as no surprise that they’re coming for Pete Buttigieg. He’s smart, frank, funny, personable, courageous~~everything in a politician that would constitute a threat to the one of the least popular incumbent presidents history. Strategically that’s why he’s already under attack. How he’s under attack represents low hanging fruit politically. Pete Buttigieg is a gay man. It’s low hanging fruit because this fact inflames–really inflames–the roughly 25% of Evangelical Christians in America who make up the president’s strongest base.
On April 25, 2019, Franklin Graham Tweeted (naturally) a response to Buttigieg’s candidacy, “God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards. Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized….”
Earlier in April, an NBC report suggested that Graham’s view is out of sync with that of most Americans. Polling data indicate that almost 70% of Americans would be either “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” voting for a gay or lesbian candidate (USA Today). The remaining 30% is Trump’s hard core base and includes the 25% Evangelicals who enthusiastically support him regardless of evidence of impropriety. The Fox News/fake news true believers. My people.
I come from generations of Fundamentalist Christians, growing up in the Church of Christ~~a denomination that historically refrained from political engagement beyond the civic duty to vote. But even voting was private~~between you and God. We believed that “rendering unto Caesar” meant that our faith was personal and would come full circle on Judgement Day. All of that began to change with the campaign of 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged the Son of a so-called New South, Jimmy Carter. Precisely because our denomination had not been political, the shift was very noticeable.
On April 26, David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, and Director of its Center for Theology and Public Life, spoke with CNN’s Don Lemon in response to Graham’s Twitter attack. Gushee’s book Changing Our Mind traces his personal and theological journey toward inclusion of LGBTQ Christians (it’s in my Kindle as we speak!). (Franklin’s remarks, incidentally, make Changing Our Mind doubly applicable in light of the United Methodist Church’s February 2019 decision to exclude LGBTQ members from ordination and marriage.) A disclaimer: I am a student at McAfee working toward an MDiv and certificate in Christian Ethics, and I will take Christian Sexual Ethics with Dr. Gushee in the spring. His ethics are grounded in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and outlined in the seminal book on the subject: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (2016), co-written with the late Dr. Glen Stassen. Although he wouldn’t do it because of his ethical convictions, I would put David Gushee’s understanding of Jesus’s teachings up against Franklin Graham any day. But again, I have a dog in the hunt.
I had an “ah-ha!” moment as the CNN interview concluded:
LEMON: ...I think it’s interesting that you say that the Christian right has been in the grip of the Republican Party for 40 years now and it’s getting worse….
Forty years. Reagan, the Moral Majority, Trickle Down Economics, strengthening the military-industrial complex, unregulated capitalism, corporate tax cuts~~the most significant political and economic ideological shift in U.S. history~~and I was there. I saw. From the pews of a little country church in North Alabama. My people~~those 25% die hard Trump supporters~~were the strategic targets of the Republican machine in 1980, and we remain in its grip today. I am not suggesting we are absolved of our complicity; we have not yet repented of our collective sin of racism, for example. I’m saying the Republican Machine (not persons who vote Republican, whom we love as Jesus loves) is like a crooked preacher: it knows the Bible well and uses it to sway the sheep. It uses cultural context or insists on literalism, whichever best advances its agenda–which is, again, to inflame good people to vote. Over nearly half a century, it has accomplished an astonishing goal, really: creating god in a Republican image and we, my people, worship at its feet. That’s called idolatry, y’all. Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics suggests a different way, a Jesus way, to do politics together as a people, but to see it we will have to melt the Golden Calf of the Republican god.
My people believe~~really believe~~that electing a gay man as president will doom the U.S. as God turn’s His (no gender free God here!) back on us. In fact, we see plenty of examples of how He is already exacting His punishment on us as a call to repentance~~a call to return to being a Christian Nation, God’s U.S. chosen people. I know a good man~~a Godly man~~who believes God is sending a meteor toward Earth as retribution. “We better turn back to God,” he says, “or He will destroy this sinful nation!” When Franklin Graham reminds Evangelicals that God’s “laws, commandments, and standards” supersede political parties, he gives them no option save worshiping the carefully crafted Calf. And yes, he precisely politicized Buttigieg’s sexuality. I know what my people will say to an interpretation of scripture toward a new Christian Ethic where Pete is evaluated as a candidate by his qualifications rather than as a person based on his sexuality. They will say, “Even the demons believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). They will be suspicious; they will believe they are being tricked by fast talkers and twisting scriptures. They will gather more closely around the Calf.
In a speech in early April, Pete said his relationship with Chasten had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.” He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, “as one man of faith talking to another,” the New York Times aptly puts it: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”
That’s my favorite part because I identify with it. My relationship isn’t just a good fit in which I found a life companion~~it has brought me, in-relation, closer to God. It is in my relationship that I can feel the kind of love that God pours down on us, the kind God expects us to pour on each other. Not only that, it inspires me to act with love and compassion to others~~that’s pretty big! Jesus Ethics can be planted and take root in places where we talk to one another about compassion and decency and relationships that bring us closer to God. We can change our minds and decide to love.
I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.
Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.
Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.
This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.
Update: CBS News confirmed that an Islamist extremist group claims responsibility as retaliation for the NZ Christchurch bombing. Seems ISIS and the locals are vying for top spot. So my musing is this: if “Islamic Extremist Groups” are terrorists, then are white nationalists who wear red MAGA hats also? They’re playing with and off each other right now. Endgame is the same.
Earth Day 2019
Warrior God. God of the victor David. It is with humble defiance I approach you, calling in my part of the covenant you have with your people~~all of us. Yesterday, at the moment 31% of the inhabitants of this planet shouted Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!, 290 souls on a tiny speck of it were blown up as they worshipped you. Five hundred more were wounded in this execution, 2,000 years after the one we remember. Terrorists, the news tells us. A local Sri Lankan group who couldn’t figure out how to coordinate and carry out a mass murder were provided resources by an international group who made suicide bombers out of them. The local attackers learned well; Sri Lankans know terror today—right at this moment—terror in the dreadful feeling, in the knowing, that it might not be over. Terror leads to terror and death to death. The story is familiar.
Loving God. David’s Good Shepherd. In the cruelest irony, today is Earth Day. This is the day that activists and poets alike remind us that we are destroying the very ground we live on, the very air we breathe. We are indiscriminate in our destruction, though, for we also kill each other. Christ is risen, indeed. So I will repeat the words of the prophet, How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab 1:2). And I ask all of us who praised the Cosmic Easter Bunny yesterday, just what in the world has Christ risen for? Grant us peace on earth, or at least grant that we may want to want it, for peace leads to peace and love to love. I trust you from the depth of my soul. When it comes to this, I do not really have a choice. Amen.