MLK and Nathan Bedford Forrest: Walking in Memphis

Last week I was in Memphis for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. We had productive time together as we met just up from Beale Street at The Peabody Hotel, famous for its lobby ducks. One thing we didn’t duck was the racial history of Memphis. Bookends to pain are plain to see. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is there. So is the statue and burial place of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK Klansman and Confederate general, was a citizen of Memphis until his death on October 29, 1877 and is buried in a city park. He is depicted on his cavalry horse for all to see. We passed it every day. Picturing the Lorraine Motel and that statue of Forrest was disturbing.

To plenty of people MLK Day is a brief break after Christmas to help us catch our collective breath after a busy Christmas season. In Memphis there is visible evidence that the racial divide in our American experience is still very real. Ours is the ongoing experiment to overcome racism and its main tool: tribalism. Christmas season had http://www.ancestry.com ubiquitous over the airwaves with TV ads and Facebook postings about people discovering their ancestral past through DNA. This may help in verifying some genealogical research, but it promotes tribalism.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Well, tribalism tends to set one group against another. I had a history professor at Carolina that was a member of the Hitler Youth. He dared to teach us to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” “Germany Above All,” in class. We saw the temptation of tribalism this past Monday with the National Championship football game between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson fans booed Steve Spurrier as a new inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame because he coached at their bitter rival, South Carolina. There were plenty of South Carolina fans pulling for Alabama instead of Clemson for the similar tribalistic reasons. It seems to be a part of human nature to form tribes, and think ours is better than someone else’s.

There is evidence to support that Nathan Bedford Forrest repudiated much, if not all, of his racist tendencies as he dropped out of the KKK and sought racial reconciliation. We also know that Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that!

The United Methodist Church calls this Sunday before MLK Day, “Human Relations Sunday.” Its purpose, according to the UM Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 263.1, is to occur during Epiphany, a season manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day “calls the church to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with one another.” How I wish we, as the church, did this better. The most segregated hour during the week is still from 11 am to 12 Noon on Sundays. This coming Monday we are invited to Second Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Aiken, for dinner and a movie. The movie, Selma, will be shown followed by a discussion. The time will be from 4-7:30 pm.

My hope is that we will forfeit our tribalism and give our primary allegiance to God. We all need Jesus desperately. No one has a right to feeling smug. “Except for the grace of God, there go I…” levels elitism to a posture of mutual valuing and collaboration. That’s the essence of the work of The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race of which I am glad to be a member. By the way my DNA testing confirmed family stories and suspicions with a few surprises: Eight percent sub-Saharan African, double digits Native American, a whole bunch of Irish (a shocker for a Scotsman), and plenty of Viking Scandinavian, with a smattering of middle European Jewish. Some would say I’m a mutt. Well, I’m an American who believes more in us being a melting pot than a salad bowl separated into tribes of tomatoes, romaine or iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and bacon bits.

I like praying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” not “my.” I like singing, “When We all get to heaven. I very much like the TV show, The Story of Us. It’s up to me to spread the tent wider and work for the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven so that it comes true. Rev. 7:9a says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

This should be our refrain, something to repeat, which is what a refrain does. Refrains, however, for the preacher, vocalist and the actor do more than repeat things. A refrain is the jazz-like ebb and flow of oratory from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr. that invites us to belong to the play, to own the words. Think of MLK’s phrases, “I have a dream,” until it’s our dream, not just his. Hear his words, “Let freedom ring,” until we all pray for the bells to peal the news that the Jubilee has come.

Walking in Memphis did me some good. Marc Cohn agreed. Give a listen.

 

 

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Humbled in D.C. by Religion and Race

This past week I was in Washington, D.C. to work with a colleague at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race as we were writing legislation in preparation for the 2016 General Conference. We were incorporating GCORR’s ministry model into its legislative mandates: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations about Faith & Race. Too many things in the news demand that we excel at all three.

We finished our work a little early one afternoon so I decided to walk down behind the Capitol and check out some museums. I especially wanted to go to the National Holocaust Museum. I was breath-taken by the solemnity and horror of what I felt and experienced. Walking through the railcar that transported people to death camps was worse than chilling. Seeing the thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from people about to be murdered was overwhelming. Not a soul in the place spoke louder than a whisper, if that. Holocaust survivors were present with tattooed arms. The visit really put my work with the Commission on Religion and Race into perspective. We must say “Never Again!” to all genocide, racism, and murderous atrocities. The Islamic State must be stopped from beheading people. Russia must retreat from Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, and China must be protected from persecution.

We must all do our part, wherever we are, to stop heinous acts that take the lives of the unborn, the elderly, the Roma, and not to forget those innocent Hispanic children at our borders or those African-Americans who have been profiled and targeted. Indeed, Ferguson, Missouri is a tragic reminder of the U.S.’ racial history and a microcosm of the genocidal acts that have been perpetuated across the planet. Turks tried to wipe out Armenians in the early 20th century; Nazis tried to kill all the Jews; and the evidence of hatred goes all the way back to Cain killing Abel. We can say “that” would never happen in our community, but sadly it does every time I look over my shoulder and profile the people around me as I get in my car. When does careful vigilance cross the line into profiling?

We don’t want to call it discrimination or racism but we really do cling to what our differences are as human beings. Being unique is cause for celebration most of the time – until you’re the only one who thinks differently or doesn’t look like the majority. What a challenge for the church! We believe and preach Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:26-28 that in summary say that, in Christ: skin color, gender, and social status don’t matter – what matters is Jesus! Unfortunately, however, churches are mostly homogeneous like-minded clubs of similar people. Even with the rich diversity of the United Methodist Church, one of the most diverse denominations in the world, we are 92% white in the U.S. and 60% white worldwide. How do we create community when we would rather separate into different ethnicities? It begs the question of whether it is in our DNA to be prejudiced and want to be with own kind.

In D.C. I also went into the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Talk about mistreated. I was hoping to find a T-Shirt that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” but I didn’t. It was a somber place to me. If the majority of this country doesn’t “get it” about the Washington NFL team that has a nickname that American Indians NEVER call themselves, then we’re in serious trouble. I am even more offended by the Cleveland Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” whose cartoon-like features are blatantly insulting.

 I have other questions in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wonder why most persons of color assume the police have an agenda of targeting them, and why most persons who are white trust the cops. I’m torn, too. I want to believe that the authorities are just doing their job, aren’t racial profilers, and want to keep the peace. Unfortunately, our experiences differ when it comes to the color of our skins, the neighborhoods we’re from, and the accent of our voices.

People assume Southerners are ignorant because we speak a drawling version of Elizabethan English. Others assume Yankees are rude and impatient with their fast clipped dialects. Why do we assume that Asian kids are better at math, black kids are better at sports like basketball and football, and white kids are football linemen, the occasional tight end, fullback, or quarterback and little else?  Why in the world do we somehow think that Latino/Hispanic persons have a corner on the landscaping market? Are these facts, or are we racists of sorts?

We have turned the American melting pot into a salad bowl where we do our best to keep the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lettuce separated. With that kind of attitude we don’t need to wonder why Ferguson, Missouri happened, Wounded Knee, or the Holocaust. Look at the facts and know that out of nearly 3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. 38% are African-American and that 1 in 3 African-American males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. What makes these stats even more disturbing is that African-Americans only make up 13% of the U.S. population. Why is there such a high rate of incarceration? Is it due to a lack of opportunity? Are African-Americans somehow ill-equipped by nature or nurture to break the cycle of poverty? Is it because of the lack of a male presence in families? Is it institutional racism?

By the way Hispanics are 17% of the U.S. population and 21% of the prison population. Asians are around 5% of the U.S. population and 2.5% of that of prisons. Whites comprise 78% of the population and 35% of prison inmates. What are we to make of all this when thinking about Ferguson, Missouri and the museums on Constitution Avenue in D.C.? Have you ever heard of the phrase “white privilege?”

Privileged or not, the U.S. is made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and I am not ignorant of the fact that there are millions of white people who are poor and marginalized, too.  The bottom-line for me is that we must take individual and corporate responsibility for the ways that we treat people. We must look critically at systemic causes of poverty, discrimination, and racism. There is no easy answer to any of the questions raised. We live in a complex world where people learn early to discriminate between themselves and others. Maybe God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, and gave us the words to combat racism and genocide in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Holocaust Museum

 

 

Palmetto Pride

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My last post showed me doing sgraffito-carving on a leatherhard vase. I like to free hand palmetto and crescents – the symbols of South Carolina. Our state is infamous for too many things. Someone said about SC when the state seceded from the Union to start the Civil War: “What! They’re too small to be a republic, and too large to be an insane asylum.”
Well, I wonder sometimes. Our cigarette tax is one of the lowest in the country. Our legislature is often out-of-touch when it comes to medicaid and benefits to the poorest of the poor. Our unemployment rate is worse than anyone else’s, but our tuition at our colleges is highest in the Southeast. Plus, don’t get me started about our governor, lieutenant governor, or a Confederate flag flying in our faces in front of the Statehouse.
 
That flag alone is enough to make me sick. It is so hurtful to so many people. Our history is replete with innocent blood on that flag. That may be my history, but it’s not my heritage. History is something you learn from, and heritage is something you pass on to your children. But we haven’t learned, have we? How many of us would be offended if the German B.M.W. plant in Greer flew a Swatiska over its buildings? We all would!
We need to put the shine and lustre back on the Palmetto and Crescent. That’s a symbol worth standing up for. It’s up to me and you to do it. I have spent a few days before calling legislators. I need to do it more than that. Apathy gets us nowhere. It may be summer recess for our legislators so we might think it’s no time to call them up. Actually, summer recess is the best time. They work for us! Pick up the phone!