preachsirmons

Why an “evil” Atticus Finch is good for us

In Discrimination, Education, Multiculturalism, Prophetic, Racial Justice, Radical Welcome on July 12, 2015 at 12:26 am

by Ryan P. Sirmons

I’m glad that Atticus Finch turns out to be less-than-ideal in Harper Lee’s upcoming sequel to her 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Go Set a Watchman has revealed that the sainted Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a segregationist. The man who counseled his children for racial justice and humanity shifts in his old age to a Klan-rally-attendiatticus-finchng person who is concerned about ‘Negroes’ attending the same schools as white children. This revelation has caused outrage around the internet, coffee shops, and living rooms. Careers, sermons, moral certitude, and high school inspiration have all come from Atticus Finch. Even a clothing line is named after him. But because we’ve grown up and become disillusioned with our former hero like Jean Louise (known to us as Scout), we can now have the conversation about whether it is truly best for the white, male, and debonair Atticus Finch to be the portrait of racial justice. We can discuss who really should be representing those who have been historically oppressed in our society.

Nobody likes being disillusioned. We were told as children to look up to certain people in our lives and try to model our lives on them. People like George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong were heroes of my childhood (not to mention Robert E. Lee, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Finding out that these heroes have character flaws excites an existential crisis in our own lives. We ask, “Why did I follow that person all my life if he or she turned out to be wrong about this or that?” Yet becoming disillusioned helps us to see the very human nature of a person, with gifts as well as flaws, that we all have. Facing head-on an existential crisis and seeing the good and the bad, the flaws and the gifts, helps us develop empathy and courage to act despite not having the qualities we think we need in order to act. It might remind us that we, too, are capable of leading things despite our own flaws.

Atticus represented a type of benevolent moral dignity that powerful white men could exhibit in the twentieth century American South. He was strong, certain, and used his authority as an attorney for the good of racial equality and the emphasis of mental illness. Yet we forget that the book is told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who is entirely smitten with her father. Everything he does is cast in a righteous light. Shouldn’t we have been surprised during our ninth grade reading of this book that in Atticus we have no real moral failing? He’s just too good. He’s the scandal-free George Washington. He’s akin to a high-brow comic book hero, but without a mortal flaw that almost stops him from doing good. It is no wonder that Harper Lee waited so long to share this story with us: she needed to wait until America grew up so it could, like Jean Louis, deal with her disillusionment about her parent. The backstory of Atticus presumably reveals, if Kakutani’s review is accurate, that he was a white Southern man who held typical views of other men of his generation. Of course those men did good things, too. But to try and maintain them as saintly good men today is folly. America needs to wake up and realize that Atticus cannot be our hero. Atticus cannot be the agent of change we need to include all our sisters and brothers in a united country. The old South from which he came is a figment of our imagination, idealized in a childlike light out of which we need to shake our national discourse.

Of course change is certainly helped along by allies of those oppressed who are in the majority. I’m a straight white male; almost any cause to which I lend my voice is as an ally. Yet it would be problematic if my voice was still in the leading position of authority after the initial work is done. The voices that do not represent the (white male) voice of the majority need to come out of cultures and norms formed differently than mine, using words, language, and music I don’t understand and wearing clothes I never would consider “respectable.” It’s possible I might resent this, not accepting it as responsible. In some ways I already resent this, as I begin to recognize that I may need to sit on the sidelines of political and moral leadership because I am a white male who knows other voices need to be heard. Based purely on speculation as the book doesn’t come out until Tuesday, I think this is what happened to Atticus. He becomes embittered as the people he once championed find their voice and no longer need him to be their savior. I think this is happening across America as we grow up.

  I feel that the dream of America is one where diverse cultures and voices can share in leading our people. We need new immigrant voices, the voices of black and brown people, women and LGBT people, to be in positions of leadership. Atticus Finch, and those of us from his background, cannot be the voice of a new America in which cultural difference is a symbol of our unity. An “evil” Atticus is the person who resents this change and challenge to his authority. An “evil” America is one that attempts to preserve this privilege, just as a child attempts to preserve the sanctity of its hero. It is the child who, like me, clung to a Confederate flag at eight years of age because I truly thought it was a symbol of my heritage. Its racial past never crossed my little mind. I even declared gray my favorite color because it was the uniform color of the South’s noble heroes who I grew up hearing and reading about. I’ve grown up now and see that the romantic dream of the South never existed, and that battle flag I bought in a gift shop in Michigan was revived mid-twentieth century as a symbol of privilege and hate. Even Robert E. Lee learned to get over it and advised a Confederate widow to “[d]ismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.” It’s been disillusioning for me to grapple with my own inherent racism, sexism, and privilege. But in doing it, I am able be part of a new way for America.

Scout grows up and becomes Jean Louise. She leaves Alabama and moves to New York City. No doubt she encounters different cultures and racial empowerment in the heady 1960s. Upon her return to her roots she recognizes that her father fails to be the hero she may have thought the South needed. This suggests a realization we as a country need to have. Jean Louise, and women like her, will need to become the leaders and the voices for change. Tom Robinson’s children need to be the new leaders, using their language and customs to have equal ownership of the country they change. It’s sad but true that we need a real, rather than idealized, Atticus Finch to remind us of our responsibility to empower those who are oppressed. It gives me a hopeful joy that Ms. Lee thinks we have the maturity and capability to be disillusioned with Atticus. It’s a vote of confidence from the writer of our (dare I say it) former “national novel” that we can begin to write a new chapter for equality in our country. Ms. Lee has, most likely, signaled that we can pass the torch of national leadership from Atticus to Jean Louise and Tom Robinson. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we grew up knowing Jean Louise as Scout. She can’t be lionized as Atticus was. We know her faults and her prejudices. Despite this she can now be a national leader, imperfect, but herself. This can pass to all new leaders and free us from hero-worship to empathy and camaraderie. This gives me hope for the children I see, and the child my multiracial wife is expecting, for an America that can be free – free from hero worship, free from monoculturalism, and free to have a voice to be heard.

With thanks to the Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear. Our conversations on the need for leadership from underrepresented people, and that those in the majority should step aside to help this happen, helped fuel this thought.

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I am . . . Free

In Grace, Matthew, Romans, Sin, St Paul, UCC Annapolis on June 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39

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Friends, I have a confession to make: last week, I broke the law of our city by jaywalking. That’s right, you now have a minister whom you know if a lawbreaker. And not only that, but one who broke the law consciously and without regret. But I did have a reason: You see, it was one of those intensely hot days. I was wearing my clerical collar, which does not lend itself to comfort in the humidity of Annapolis. On the other side of the street, there was a long, long stretch of glorious shade, and I just had to get over there. Just had to. So, not seeing any traffic on Duke of Gloucester, I crossed. Not that far from the offices of the City Council. And so – I broke the law.

Now, while I’m willing to confess along with St. Paul that “I am chief amongst sinners,” (1 Tim. 1:15, attr. to St. Paul) I suspect that I am in a sanctuary full of people who have broken laws. Raise your hand if you have never transgressed a law, ever. So: let me reiterate what we share in the beginning: God has loved you, God loves you now, and God will love you always. The parking ticket will be OK. All laws that you have broken will be forgiven. The grace of God is with you!

This is what St. Paul is saying in the beginning of today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. We are a people living in grace – we have already “died to sin.” What does that mean? Well, obviously it doesn’t mean that we don’t break laws anymore, and it doesn’t mean that we live lives where we don’t hurt one another, either. After all, we begin each worship service confessing that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We do this because, rather than struggling hard to say that we’re living perfect lives, we confess that we all make mistakes, but that we gather together nonetheless and we share in the joy that comes from laying down those burdens, together, free in the knowledge that “sin” is not that which defines us. Therefore, when Paul says we have “died to sin,” he’s saying that we are not a people defined by our sins and everything that has caused us hurt and to hurt one another. So if we are not a people defined by what holds us back, what are we defined by?

There’s an old saying that there are two certainties in life: “death, and taxes.” Paul focuses on the certainty of death in this passage: we all will die. That’s a universal law. I was once asked in this very church by one of our children, James, “why did Paul write to the Romans?” I think this very passage is the reason – to explain to us that we have to die. But Paul doesn’t see our death as the death that happens when the county issues a death certificate. Not at all! Paul, instead, sees that death as something we choose to make happen when we decide to live in the Jesus Way. When the first Christians felt called to be baptized, they decided to DIE to the way that they once had lived their lives, and now instead be resurrected to LIFE in the radical, subversive and alternative way that Jesus had exemplified for us. That’s the universal death that Paul talks about here.

Choosing to die to how we have lived is not easy – in fact, it’s excruciatingly painful. Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Letting go of all that which we know causes harm and pain to others, but gives us immediate satisfaction, is extremely painful. It is, I think, as painful as a crucifixion, which is why we don’t readily do it. It’s why we fear doing it, letting go of our “fictions of control.”

One such thing is our approach to stewardship of the earth. In that litany of praise to a God woven into the very fabric of the universe, Genesis 1, humankind acknowledges that it has been given “stewardship over all the earth.” And yet, as I write this, I know we continue to perpetuate a throw-away culture that fails to see the earth’s resources as finite, and our usage of them as damaging not just in the immediate time, but for the lives of ancestors we will never know about. A styrofoam cup takes at least 500 years to biodegrade; most plastics, if they can and are recycled, can only be recycled once before they, too, take 500 years to biodegrade. Yet, we accept excess packaging and one-use food containers as a “necessary evil” for delivery. If we accept them as a necessary evil, however, we are accepting these materials as a “sin.” How can we make aware the grace of God’s love if we are contributing to the sin of our negligent, if not willful, harm to the environment of our world? If you begin to even picture the scale of a societal shift that would be needed to create a change on this, you can see how changing this would be a painful societal shift. Think about our dependence on oil and gas, even to come here this morning and power these very lights? But the result of dying to that damaging, sinful ways of living, and being resurrected to a life in harmony with the world: Abundant life. Less air pollution in the creation of one-use items, less toxicity leaching into our waterways, less damage to our world. Is it doable? By all means! It must be. But we must have faith that we can do it, and work through the fear that we cannot. This applies just as much to War, Gun violence, and a myriad of other issues that plague us.

Every time we turn away from that which harms each other, we die a little more to that way of life. And it feels like a death because we’re not sure what we’re going to do in its stead. Our old way of life, marked by excess stuff, selfish desires, or whatever it might have once been, dies a little more. That could cause us fear. Though it seems trivial, we are overwhelmed by the question of how are we going to get drinks to people in fast food establishments without styrofoam containers. The fear of an alternative that might cost too much has kept us from doing it. Yet we must die to that way of life, and have faith that we will be resurrected to a new way of doing things.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It’s one of the greatest paradoxes in the Christian faith, and it’s repeated by Jesus again in Matthew 16. God’s grace, woven into the very fabric of the universe, will be experienced when we let go of all those things that we’re afraid we cannot do without but yet cause harm and divisiveness: when we die to our old way of life, regardless of how much pain it causes to do so, and we live in the Jesus Way, a way that depends on faith, hope, and love. How much fear is in your life? What motivates you every single day – fear, or love?

For much of our lives, it has been laws that have helped keep us on the straight and narrow. But a law on its own motivates primarily negatively – fear of punishment if we don’t do what it says. Fear hardly inspires us to give up that which we are already living by. In the case of environmental change, no amount of fear mongering to date has yet prompted a real and visceral change in how the majority of our world is living its life. Same with our criminal justice system: tough punishment for crimes has resulted not in a decrease of crime, but a 500% increase in the population of incarcerated people over the past 30 years in the United States. The regional body of our denomination itself just voted to end “the New Jim Crow”, which has seen a disproportionate number of African American people placed in prisons on maximum sentences for crimes that other demographic groups receive little if no punishment for in that same 30-year-period. Punishment and fear do not, alone, motivate us.

So what do we turn to? No laws? When we die to the old way of doing things, having engaged with and worked through our fear of what it means to dispense of those old ways and live in an entirely new way, we live by three things alone: faith, hope, and love. We are resurrected from the deathliness of our old ways that were ossified and fixed into place by fear and brought with Christ into a way of living that is motivated primarily by love of the other, love of that which is different. To be free, we cannot be motivated by laws or fear, but by love.

Skeptics in our room will say, “I cannot love our way out of the homelessness crisis.” Love requires action, both individual and community-based action, and the development of structures and values that are developed in love and can change as the need requires it.  If we shrug our shoulders, though, Paul has assured us that grace cannot be seen. If we, those who purport to have been baptized into death with Christ and therefore dead to that which denies thriving and abundant life in the world, refuse to change our way, then we are not living as resurrected people through whom flows the grace of God. We must be the ones motivated by love to transform our world, co-creators with Christ, unveiling the freeing grace which heals all wounds, which heals all divisions, which unites us together.

Jaywalking was invented in the early twentieth century in the United States. It was developed by the automobile lobby as a way to ridicule anyone who was not driving and helped to fuel the transition of our culture from one reliant on walking and public transportation to one reliant on the individual automobile. It dressed itself up as a public service good, as the lobby funded social organizations such as the Scouts and Kiwanis to promote “safe” crossing alternatives in the rising wave of automobile crossing. Their announcements derided pedestrians as uncool: the term itself is derogatory: a “jay” was an uneducated, backwards bumpkin new to the city. To not be a “jaywalker” was to be someone who was a sophisticated urbanite, one who was dead to wonder and probably drove a car, because that was “the thing to do.” It’s a law only in a handful of countries, places where automobiles have primacy over people. The lobby behind it helped shape America’s twentieth century development such that public transport has become infeasible for so many communities. So yes, I broke a law this week when I crossed the street. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an act of civil disobedience, but perhaps it was. Perhaps it was meant as a repudiation of a shift in our lived architecture from walkable distances to spread out ones linked not by shared transport, but by individual ones. Perhaps it was a statement to all and sundry that what matters most is the people themselves who inhabit a place and not the machines that move within them.

And so, take it from this sermon and keep moving it: live by love first. Engage with that which you know is sin in our way of living in the world, and work through that fear that seems to freeze it in place. Know that God’s grace is with you, and that in dying to sin and resurrecting to life, it is illuminated for us and others. And, know too that you are never alone: Christ is with us, in this Body of Christ, in our prayers, and everywhere we gather to intentionally die to the old, harmful ways of living and be resurrected in the new ways of living in the world.

 

God as Father

In Father, Jesus, Matthew, Relationality, Trinity, UCC Annapolis on June 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

A sermon reflecting on the idea of God as Father, existing within the Trinity. For Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day. Delivered June 15, 2014, at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Text: St Matthew 28:16-20

Lilian Daniel, a UCC minister known for her sharp witticisms, recently wrote about the approach of Father’s Day:

If all you did was watch the news in these weeks leading up to Father’s Day, you’d think that when men hit middle age, they suddenly become twittering twits with the self restraint and judgment of a starving cobra at a rat convention. Lately in the news, we’ve seen tale after tale of men behaving badly.

We are well aware of the idea of fathers bumbling about, or being deadbeats, or missing in action, and so many other things. The behavior of these non-restrained middle-aged people does not reflect fathering so much as individuals who have forgotten that they live in relationship with each other. Fathering does not exist without something to father in the first place.

In addition to being Father’s Day, the church also celebrates “Trinity Sunday.” The Trinity reflects the dynamic that God exists in active relationship. The historic formulation of this is “Father-Son-Holy Spirit.” Rather than see these as locked terms, however, we can dig into the relationship between these “names of God” that the ancient church, a product of a patriarchal time, might have been trying to convey:

-”Father” is the historic understanding of the aspect of God that calls to us. It’s not a gendered term.  . . . . The LGBT community is opening up what it means to be a father-figure, making us all aware that we each have, at times, a responsibility to be father figures.

-”Son” is the historic understanding of that aspect of God that responds to the call. Jesus came and showed us what this response looks like. His response continues to encourage us to respond today. And today, we understand the church to be not just a gathering of people on Sunday mornings, but the “body of Christ”, real and present in the world each hour of every day – and you are it – responding to the call of God that comes from the world.

-”Holy Spirit” is the awareness of that call from God and response from God moving all around us. We awaken ourselves to the real presence of God in the tension of these relationships, calling and responding in all corners of the world, as thick as birdsong in the morning hours.

At different times in our lives, we experience and participate in these aspects of God. At times we will be the ones who call others, whether it be the people in our household or around the world, to use their gifts and talents and be held responsible and accountable for their actions and behaviors. That call may not always be an explicit one, of course – it may be a slow, quiet call that emerges as a father cares for a child. How this is done can be very different. The voice of the father can be distant, cold and far away; or close, near, and helping in life.

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980

Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Inside the cracks between the words of this poem we hear echoes of anger and dislike. This is a father who wakes up in the blueblack cold and makes the world habitable – who polishes shoes so that the family can go out into the world beyond the walls of the house. Yet, the father is so disliked that no one says, “thank you.” It is doubtful whether the words “I love you” have been shared with him or by him.

Yet, this father still calls his children into the household and equips them to face the world. This father calls them to deal with the “chronic angers” of the house. We share this cold and distant fathering image of God, too – a God who does not feel a “very present help in danger,” as in Psalm 46. This is a distant God who demands of us to become ourselves in a world full of angers and hurts, of woundedness and trauma, death, disease, pestilence: a habitable world, but very inhospital. We’d rather that this God did not exist at times: we don’t want to praise the creator who pushes us into the fray. We don’t even like that there is a fray that we have to respond to! {{In the past we’ve tried to blame ourselves for this state of the world, saying we were the cause of the fall and sinfulness.}} Our feelings toward God in this case are nearer to Psalm 88: “you have caused my friends to betray me, my companions to shun me.” We’d rather not have to hear the call of this God demanding us to rouse ourselves and go into the world, giving up our own comfort to meet the needs of the world.

And yet, this father still calls us: and the writer, though harboring rebellion, still responds. Even by ignoring the call of God, we are responding to that call and affirming that a relationship, even if not a good one, exists. The story of Jonah, infamous for being trapped in the belly of a fish, is the story of a prophet called to share judgement on the city of Ninevah. He doesn’t want to do it – he would need to go outside of his comfort zone, outside of where he wanted to be. Granted, in trying to escape his responsibility of the call he goes all over the world, only to discover that God’s call is still reaching to him.

We can respect that distance. Psalm 8 praises a God who seems far away, but has earned that respect.

Fathering, as I said, comes in many different ways of being in relationship, however. It does not always come from a cold and distant God who calls us to respond to an angry world. Often, the father image of God calls us to respond by guiding us in ways to celebrate life despite hardships. Out of poverty comes this poem by Suzanne Rancourt, called “Whose Mouth do I speak with.”

I can remember my father bringing home spruce gum. He worked in the woods and filled his pockets with golden chunks of pitch. For his children he provided this special sacrament and we’d gather at his feet, around his legs, bumping his lunchbox, and his empty thermos rattled inside. Our skin would stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing and we’d smell like Mumma’s Pine Sol. We had no money for store bought gum but that’s all right. The spruce gum was so close to chewing amber as though in our mouths we held the eyes of Coyote and how many other children had fathers that placed on their innocent, anxious tongue the blood of tree?

Here is a father so close to the children that their skin “stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing.” When Jesus prayed what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he used the Aramaic term “Abba,” which we have called “Father,” but more accurately is “Daddy.” It’s a closeness in relationship, a relationship which does not distantly call, but is right there sticking to us, forging that relationship intimately by placing the “blood of tree” on our very tongues and helping us to taste the world and learn not to fear it.

We need both of the figures of the father image of God: a distant call that draws us out of ourselves, and a closer call that journeys with us as we traverse the boundaries of the known (store-bought gum) into the unknown (blood of tree). In doing this, we can develop a whole image of God as Father that is both present, and distant.

As children we need this sort of development – a distant call as found in Psalm 88 and Psalm 8, and a closer call, such as in Psalm 46, to guide us. We won’t always like what we receive from those calls. But when we respond to them, as the Body of Christ, we find that we are able to mature and grow up into the people we are called to be. Jesus has been partaking the role of the “Son” in our gospel accounts, responding the the parent and showing us how we could respond, too. However, through response Jesus grows and matures, too, until we get to that final chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. Here, Jesus has now been “given authority” by God. He now gives the disciples the Great Commission to go and share his love through that relationship to all peoples. In responding, they too will grow and mature to the point where it will be them issuing the calls, and another generation acting in joyous response. Today, we are all called to respond: some of us will be the ones making the calls into our church, community and world; others will be responding; some will be doing both. And in that dynamic of call and response, we can feel the presence of God surrounding the world and engaging with its chronic angers, taking joy that we can taste the world and be fully awake and alive to it. Amen.