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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How to Handle the Trumps in your Life!

Christians haven’t been very consistent in handling disagreements for a long time. We swing between Crusader vengeance and Quaker pacifism. Tensions within families, distrust between races, disagreements between political parties, international distrust over the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea’s saber rattling, arguments between scientists over climate change, Women and men who are either repulsed or enthralled by Donald Trump, workplace jockeying, and road rage are all examples of conflict. What do we do?

Interpersonal conflict is nothing new. We need to be careful with those folks and their comments that are right on the precipice of indecorum or worse. I remember preaching a sermon on conflict that promoted three ways to deal with it: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away – nice alliteration but inadequate advice! Today I think that sermon and its methods are way off the mark. I have encountered too many self-centered narcissistic people who take advantage of the Christian aversion to confrontation.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s posture of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was totally ineffective. If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Britain and the Allies, we might all be speaking German right now. Sometimes you have to be a bulldog, a.k.a. Winston Churchill. We should all value making peace, but doing it through appeasement enables more misbehavior and forestalls inevitable conflict. Instead of salvaging a relationship, appeasement increases the explosive magnitude of our angry silence until a later date.

So what’s wrong with laughing off conflict? I’ve seen people who are masters at using an ironic story to get someone’s goat and the people walk away smiling. About halfway to their destination, and at a “safe” distance they figure out what the humor really meant. This may be a good method, but it may not be direct enough to get the point across, and you’ve passed the hurt on to innocent bystanders.

I’ve been in a lot of repartee where people will laugh along with our subtle but ineffective chiding. They know our attempt at humor is a way to confront them, but since they know what we’re up to they just laugh right back at us under their breaths. They know they have gotten away with their misbehavior, and they know that we would rather go-along-to-get-along than carefully and specifically confront. Laughing things off may lighten the mood and defuse some of the tension, but it rarely deals effectively with the issues. It merely suppresses them and represses us. We end up with an ulcer and the offending party gets away scot-free.

Laughing things away is a stopgap method at best, but sooner or later truth-telling in love must replace this ineffective method of accountability. At some point, there must be evidentiary validity in our confrontation. Matthew 18:15ff is instructive: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Wow, private one-on-one discourse comes first. It’s my belief that most of us would rather tell everyone else, triangulate others, and marshal our allies rather than directly confront privately. Evidentiary proof comes next with caring accountability by two or more witnesses and, at last resort, the church. It’s like calling for back-up or making sure that you have a witness so that your words aren’t twisted later, and so that the witnesses can hold you accountable, too! So rather than laughing things away, we should take them seriously and work the process to attempt to restore harmony, or walk away. The point of the whole process is to “win them over.” Think about the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors and you really get the purpose of confrontation. It’s about restorative grace, but that’s not cheap grace.

Next, is letting things go, and it’s not the same as walking away. Walking away is getting fresh air, perspective, and time to think. Letting things go is selective forgetfulness and, like laughing things away, actually creates more problems down the road. Letting things go doesn’t care enough to confront and gives carte blanche to people. They are really glad when we decide to let things go because they get to keep doing them.

They almost dare us to say anything negative. They pull the “Thou shalt not judge!” card. This is a form of bullying; i.e., “If you are as Christian as much as you say you are, you would understand me and just let it go!” But, if we let it go when a dear friend uses inappropriate language, epithets about people, or blanket statements that are beyond off-color, then we’re not doing them or anybody else any favors by letting it go. It’s time to step up and speak the truth, “You know I love you, but I need you to think about what you’re saying. It bothers me. It’s not right.”

Lastly, loving away someone’s faults seems like the route to go, at least on the surface, but cheap grace and a quick, “I love you,” puts a painkiller on a wound without really healing it. Grace isn’t cheap, and neither is love. Love cost Jesus his life. Loving our enemies without forthright confrontation cheapens the pain of being wounded, and, worse, makes us appear to be “martyrs.” Martyrdom and pouting look a lot alike if forgiving someone makes us out to be better than they are. The transaction becomes more vertical than horizontal.

If we really love someone then we are compelled to do everything that we can do to help them become a better person. Instead of writing them off, telling them off, or brushing them off, we should care enough to confront. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many confrontations with the offensive Pharisees. If He truly cared less, we would have heard less. Jesus did some hard loving and so should we.

It appears to me that we need to do better than pretend away conflict by laughing it off, letting it go, or half-heartedly loving it away. If our efforts to make peace don’t include a cross and hard work then we have missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. I am struck that Jesus only called a couple of people “friend” in the Gospels. More fascinating is that Judas was one of them (Matthew 26:50), and it came as he gave Jesus the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane.

So, what am I going to do with the troublemakers in my life? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m conflicted myself. I pray for the right words at the right time and to act like Jesus. By God’s grace, I pray for the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation. I’m also reminded of John Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Can today be a new day for making peace?

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