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What if …

May 22, 2015
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The painting is called “His Supreme Moment,” and it depicts Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee being cheered as a conquering hero while riding past his troops following victory over the Union Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville.

The framed Mort Kunstler print, commemorating the May 1863 battle, was a birthday gift, and it hung prominently above the desk in my study.

This was a gift I had insisted on having, a culmination of my many years as a Civil War enthusiast who has visited battlefields and compiled a somewhat extensive library on the bloody All-American conflict.

But a few years ago, I began to see the painting in a different light. What had at first seemed like a friendly guest in my suburban home gradually became unwelcome.

I came to a decision then: It had to go. So, as we began to pack up our house to move to a new community where I would serve as a pastor, the print was boxed up for either sale or storage.

It has remained in storage for nearly three years now.

In case you are wondering, no one made me put it away. There was no discussion with anyone about it, ever. No great debate – other than a lingering conversation within – led to it being put out of sight instead of re-adorning a wall in my new home.

There were some factors, however, that seemed to contribute to the ultimate decision that I no longer could share living space with the print.  One was the night my African-American brother-in-law slept on a couch in my office while Gen. Lee, surrounded by Rebel flags, stared down at him throughout the night. He never mentioned the painting, and I never asked. But I kept returning to the thought: How did it make him feel? How would it make me feel, if I were him?

I also thought about a conversation with a colleague at The Associated Press, where I worked for 13 years. The conversation centered on a then-hot topic: “racial profiling.” We talked about our individual encounters with police. Both of us were college educated. Both of us were writers. Among our differences – besides the fact that he was black and I am white – was that I had never been stopped for simply driving in the wrong neighborhood, and I learned it happened to him many, many times. I heard then of an expression that is well known in the African-American community: DWB. That is, being pulled over or arrested for Driving While Black.

Many of us have no idea what it would feel like to be constantly reminded we  live in a society in which we are a minority and in which the ancestors of the majority once held our ancestors in brutal bondage. And what if those who held our ancestors in servitude were honored with statues on the courthouse square, or their banners were waved from pickup trucks or even in the annual Fourth of July parade? Or maybe the era was heralded in an article in the paper every Sunday. Could we join in celebrating this heritage?

If we are honest, we have to admit that even though it is no longer enshrined in segregation laws, racism still exists, only in different ways. Not to say that vast progress has not been made. Yet in the small community where I live, we remain segregated by race and class. There is a polarization – a deep line of demarcation – that is ever-present, yet almost never talked about. Isn’t it easy for many of us to simply “back the Blue” in the wake of our nation’s recent civil unrest while disregarding the idea that some people might be very frustrated and angry with civil authority for legitimate reasons? We prefer simple solutions, but they will not lead us to justice and reconciliation. We have not yet even begun, it seems to me, to deal with root causes of our tragedies. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring just as true today as they were during the civil rights movement:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

In my childhood, I bought Confederate flags at roadside stands and displayed them in my bedroom, and I regret to say that in my zeal for that period in American history I have done my part to contribute to the glorification of slaveocracy and the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. As a son of the South and the great-great-grandson of a slaveholder, my wish is to seek repentance and chart a new path.

This morning I was reading First Corinthians 13 – the love chapter.  You probably remember some of the words: Love is patient … love is kind…love never ends. This passage is often read in weddings, but we should remember that this is about something much stronger and deeper than the excitement of a new relationship or the warm sentiment of a Valentine’s Day card. Scripturally, love is action – action on behalf of the other, modeled after the greatest act of love, God’s self-giving sacrifice in Jesus.

Verse 11 says this: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

I have not put an end to all my childish ways, but I am trying. I do not want to live in a way that is offensive and oppressive to my neighbor, and so I not only want to put away Confederate flags and vestiges of institutional racism, I also want to move from attitudes that have been engrained within me simply by being born into the dominant culture and playing a part in upholding it throughout my life.

I want to stand for justice for all people, which is what my Bible teaches me to do. (And yes, that includes police officers, whom I respect and realize have a very difficult job that I would not want to have.)

I talked recently with representatives of a social service agency about how we might listen more to the people in our community who are not ordinarily heard. Our conversation seemed to immediately turn to what they should do to live into our expectations. And so we failed from the start: We were just listening again to ourselves, and none of the people whom we were talking about were even in the room. I understand that people of color are more than familiar with this phenomenon.

What if, though, we who are in the majority put away our childish things, voluntarily, out of our love for our neighbors who might be harmed by our careless and dangerous playthings?

What if we began to realize that we live in a different world than some other members of our community and tried to find ways to see them, hear them and even walk in their shoes?

What if we started simply by seeking to get to know our neighbors and listening to their worries and their dreams? They talk. We listen. (In Presbyterian churches, we commit ourselves to doing this every Sunday morning in which we recite our Brief Statement of Faith, which says, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”  How are we doing on living that out?

What if, as a community, we quit romanticizing an idealized past that did not really exist and started working toward a common future based on dignity for all God’s children?

What if, in doing these things and more, we discovered that there is not only much that separates our community, but much that unites us as well?  Could we not then begin to walk a path to a place where we could all equally mourn the injustice of a black life lost, or the loss of a police officer killed in the line of duty?

Could we not begin, as hearts are changed, to change our community and change the world?

Thy Kingdom Come.

Thy will be done.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. P A Clore permalink
    May 22, 2015 5:33 pm

    As I have heard you say, there are some parts of our heritage we may choose not to either recognize or to live into. Having recognized the error of part of your heritage, you seem to be choosing to begin a new heritage for your children, and your children’s children. Not condemning what was before, but learning from it, and transforming it into something new. May we learn from your example.

  2. Brent Rutan permalink
    May 25, 2015 9:57 pm

    Great article, Matt!! Thanks for your words of thought and action. This is a topic often thought about but not acted on. I’d love to see us as a congregation do more action. 

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S® 5 ACTIVE™, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

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