Dear Friends in Christ,
I am sharing some of my story with you as our nation grapples with the racism, anti-Semitism, and violence of Charlottesville and the continuing turmoil in response. It is where I am struggling, and it is where I believe God is speaking to us as a people of faith. I do not write as offering a “final word” or an attempt to correct anything I see at St. Peter’s. You are amazing people, regardless of any political differences we may have, and I respect each of you deeply. I am writing because I believe silence equals consent, or even, as the AIDS activists of the ‘80s and ‘90s understood, Silence=Death.
I am a child of the South. With that comes a very mixed heritage. In my generation (born 99 years after Lee’s surrender), the Civil War was still spoken of like it was in living memory. Southerners are like that. They tell stories in such a way that fact and fiction blend together and what was a century ago could just as easily have been yesterday. After the Civil War, my family moved West and became ranchers and businessmen. My ancestors who arrived shortly after the founding of Jamestown married newly arrived immigrants from Germany, Norway, and Sweden and built up towns in the Dakotas and Montana, not caring about somebody’s past, their religion, or their color – only how they lived their lives today. My grandfather was even made an honorary brave in the Sioux tribe.
It was only due to the Army transferring my father from Viet Nam to teach ROTC at Clemson University that I was born in South Carolina. Amusingly, I was told by a South Carolinian in an elevator in the State House that I could not be a South Carolinian because my “mama and daddy weren’t born here.” I shut him up by sharing how my great-great-great-great-great grandfather Miles O’Brian farmed in Camden before moving to the Wild West of Tennessee after the War of 1812.
My own family heritage holds stories of my great-great-great-grandmother Lyles running slaves into free territory at the start of the Civil War while her husband fought for the Union army. Her brothers fought for the South in Tennessee. She hid the slaves under hay in her wagon and set her children on top of the hay so they’d be with her if she couldn’t get back home. I still have the handwritten letter one of the daughters wrote in the 1930s telling the story of her childhood.
In elementary school in Clemson, we took field trips to John C. Calhoun’s mansion. Unlike Virginia, we didn’t have Robert E. Lee. We had Calhoun, who was a secessionist before secessionism was cool. Lee at least had the sense to know that the rebellion was a lost cause from the start. South Carolinians can be thick-headed.
Calhoun’s home was in the shadow of Tillman Hall at Clemson University. Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a founder of the school and one of the most virulently racist men on planet Earth. Peak lynchings occurred under his leadership as governor and he was instrumental in disenfranchising blacks in the 1895 South Carolina constitution. Economically aggrieved farmers loved him because he stood on their side. His nickname Pitchfork Ben came about because he threatened to ram President Grover Cleveland with a pitchfork. He lost his own bid for the Democratic presidential nomination due to his disastrous, hate-filled convention speech.
While I trash Tillman, let’s not forget that Brown University in Rhode Island exists because the Brown family got rich in the slave trade, when Bristol, Rhode Island was the northern point of the slave trade triangle. The movie “Traces of the Trade” tells the story of a prominent Episcopal family coming to terms with their family’s influence and wealth originating in the slave trade out of Rhode Island.
I graduated high school in 1983, the first public school class in South Carolina to be fully integrated for all twelve grades. For the most part, there were good school-friendships between blacks and whites, but after school everybody went to their segregated neighborhoods.
I worked in college at the State House where bronze stars marked the scars left by Union troops shelling the building. The statue of George Washington on the State House steps has only the top half of his walking stick. During the siege, Union troops started to tear the statue down before they realized who it was. A century and a half later it remains unrepaired as a sign of the extent Union troops sought to punish Columbia.
In the 1980s, people still talked about why First Methodist on Sumter Street had a shiny, newer building while its neighbor First Baptist, a block away, still had an antebellum sanctuary. Union troops asked the gardener at First Baptist where First Baptist was so they could burn it down for being the place where a state convention first proposed secession. The gardener pointed to the Methodist church a block away, so the Union troops burned the Methodist church instead. It’s very important to have church signs to prevent this kind of thing from happening!
My church, a couple of blocks further up on the same street, had communion silver that dated to the end of the Civil War. A new set was needed after the War because an Altar Guild member had “hidden” the silver in her attic prior to the Union troops entering town and it was never seen again (except perhaps on fine dining occasions in her home . . .) One Sunday during Reconstruction, the priest asked everybody to donate for a new set, so they all pulled out their jewelry, put it into the offering plate, and it was melted down and fashioned into a stunning chalice and paten.
After the War, my church started a school for freed slaves knowing that education would help them build new lives. But they didn’t worship together. As late as the 1970s, ushers stood on the steps to guide any potential black worshippers to the nearest black Episcopal congregation. When I worshiped there in the ‘80s, I saw three black families out of 3,000 members – all of whom had moved from the North. They called their first black cleric in the ‘90s.
In 1983, the Rev. Isaiah DeQuincey Newman was elected the first black state senator since Reconstruction. My boss, a senior senator and Baptist deacon, was the first to welcome him to the Senate. My boss was a hero of mine, a World War II flying ace shot down just before D-Day, a truly honorable man who treated everybody with grace and dignity. He was first elected in 1966 and like many Southern Democrats never voted democratic for President except for FDR. He also strongly supported civil rights legislation throughout his career while telling me privately he just couldn’t see how a black person and white person could ever be married. To him, Scripture was clear on that.
Right when I left Columbia after college in 1987, a Fortune 50 tech company canceled its expansion plans in South Carolina because its black project manager was denied membership in the same country club his predecessor attended. Columbia now has a black mayor in his second term on office who is also Vice President of the US Conference of Mayors. More remarkably, he was born in New York, but his folks came from South Carolina!
Just in the last decade, a black South African I met on sabbatical was denied entry to a private club in the New York suburbs. He was invited to be the honored guest at a party hosted by a major national bank CEO to raise funds for a racial reconciliation project in South Africa. Now, think about the irony in that. They worked it out so that he could attend and speak, but only after his white vicar had the NY Times on the phone. This is why Southerners bristle when singled out for racism.
I look back on my story with mixed feelings, particularly in light of Charlottesville. If you read my narrative above, you’ll see that I carefully crafted it to show that my family and friends weren’t “like the others.” Yet, the hard truth is we owned slaves. It doesn’t matter that they were taught to read or were freed at great personal risk before the Emancipation Proclamation. We achieved a status in society that allowed us to be beneficent because we owned other human beings. We had the resources to move West and rebuild our lives because we owned other human beings. We were able to settle in the West because our nation had subjugated the Native Americans and isolated them on reservations, making sure they had the worst land so we could get the better land. We survived because of our own sins and the sins of others.
This is why I have us say the alternative confession that includes repentance of the “evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” As painful as it is to hear, the hard truth is those white nationalists and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were acting, in their opinion, in the best interests of every white member of St. Peter’s Church and white Christians everywhere. They have committed evil on the behalf of whites everywhere, whether whites wanted them to or not. Though I’m convinced it would never happen, were they successful, I would not be in nearly as much danger as others I know and love who don’t share my skin color or faith.
My own personal repentance is to be very aware of the privilege I have, even though I’m middle class, even though I’m gay, because I am a white male. It includes embracing fully the baptismal promises to “respect the dignity of every human being” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” It shapes my theology of what being Christian is about – being a part of a community created by God for the purpose of drawing people together into friendship with Christ, who said on the night before being crucified that he does not call us servants, but friends. Friends do not treat friends the way we have witnessed this past week. Friends also stand up for friends.
The marches, slogans, and purpose behind the events in Charlottesville are repugnant to every fiber of my being and I cannot see how they can be anything but evil in the eyes of God. Attempts to minimize, relativize, or even justify them only abet the evil that has been done.
There is no Southern pride that legitimizes hate-filled processions using symbols of oppression, power, and death while chanting anti-Semitic and white supremacist slogans. There is no moral argument for the use of symbols that have become synonymous with genocide. There is no moral justification for hesitancy to denounce such actions. There is no moral support for equivalency with counter-protestors who seek to call out such attitudes for the evil they are.
There is no opportunity for silence, either. It has been said “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing.” Pastor Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor who first supported Hitler’s rise to power because he was anti-Communist and then became a resister to national socialism, was held in concentration camps from 1937 until he was freed at Dachau in 1945. After the war, he was a leader in German repentance. His most famous words are in his poem “First They Came,” quoted here:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It has been said slavery is the original sin of the United States. It no longer legally exists, but its stain permeates to this day nearly every aspect of our national life. It is our experience of slavery that helped me understand the Biblical warning that the sins of the father will be visited upon future generations (Exodus 20:5). It not a curse or punishment. It is a reality of the insidious ways of sin. When left unchecked, unnamed, unrepented, it weaves its way into every fiber of our being and touches everything we do.
I do not believe we as a nation have adequately repented for this sin. We stopped it. We try to correct for it. We try to move on from it as something so long in the past it doesn’t matter anymore. Yet, here we are in Charlottesville, 154 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
We have made tremendous progress. I give thanks that so many political, business, and military leaders have spoken strongly, quickly, and succinctly to name the evil that we are facing. This is not a partisan challenge. This is an American challenge. Indeed, it is a human challenge. And if left unchecked, it can become a challenge that engulfs us.
As Christians we are called to prayer, not just for Charlottesville, but especially for our own communities, where we actually live and work among one another every day. We are called to engage with the lives of others who are different from us to learn about their realities and understand their challenges and their gifts. We are called never to leave evil unchallenged and unnamed. We are called to pray and to be firm in our mission to be the community God has called us to be.
The great gift we as a congregation can offer this hurting world is to model what being a God-called people looks like, to be an example of unity because of our differences, not despite them. As we live our faith, I’m convinced that the witness we bear and the lives we touch become transfigured into the new creation begun in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We each may respond to these challenges in different ways, but we can never be passive as Christ’s hands, heart, eyes, and ears.
I leave you with St. Teresa of Avila’s poem:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
I give thanks every day that I get to be part of the Body of Christ with each of you, my beloved friends in Christ in Freehold. May God bless us, strengthen us, and guide us to be Christ’s body for our community and this world. Amen.