Archive for the ‘Radical Welcome’ Category

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.


Lead us from death to life: a re-orienting faith

In 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Fear, Matthew, Progressive Christianity, Radical Welcome, Relationality, UCC Annapolis, Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Texts: Deut. 30:15-18; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; St Matt. 5:21-37

I can imagine the people wandering the desert having listen to Moses. There he is, telling them about this fertile land that they’re supposed to be heading for, and he gives them all these stiff rules that they have to follow. They’ve been slaves for a really long time! They know how to follow rules. Wasn’t this Moses guy supposed to lead them to freedom? And yet here he is, handing down commandments and telling them how to act. It really is not cool. Plus, they’re stranded in the wilderness anyhow, right? So why would they actually want to listen to this guy about life right now?

Moses is telling the people traveling in the wilderness to follow the commandments which he has handed on. This comes as no surprise to us, really: in our lives and our work we are always told to “follow the rules”, and the fear of death used as the reason is surprisingly common. Or some sort of threat is given as to why we must follow the rules. A “Do Not Enter” sign on a road, for example, motivates you by fear of death and an accident to not drive down that road. The IRS threatens penalties and taxes for breaking the rules. The great thing about such rules is that normally we have no trouble following them. We comprehend them, and we therefore obey them in part because it is in our self-interest to do so. Making decisions about which rules to follow becomes all the more difficult, however, if what we should be doing is not in our own immediate self-interest.

Moses is making a hard case saying that “you will live and thrive and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering” if you “command the commandments I’m giving you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws.” I suspect he’s making a hard case because “loving the Lord your God” and obeying God’s commandments are not actually in one’s immediate self-interest. And indeed, if we were to study the Jewish Torah, which is loaded up with protections of widows, orphans, respect to neighbor, respect to illegal aliens, Jubilee years where all debts are forgiven, prohibitions against garnering up an excess of wealth, and so forth, we might have to agree: this book is NOT in our self-interest. The people are about to enter a land which is fertile, a land in which a person can make a really fantastic amount of money. They’re crossing the threshold of death – which is represented by wandering the wilderness to the East of the Jordan and where they’re entirely dependent upon things like manna – to life, a fertile land “flowing with milk and honey” that can be sustainably developed for life to continue peacefully in community forever. And yet, Moses warns that even this bountiful place of beauty can be overcome with greed and destroyed. The place of life can become a place of death. The “other gods” he warns about don’t have to literally be other gods – they are anything in the lives of the people that focus them away from God’s own beloved community, a community with rules that don’t protect the privileges of private citizens, but instead focus upon justice for the poor and the oppressed. Moses is convinced that the only way possible for the already fertile land to remain a place of life, and not a place of death, is if the people follow the commandments which prevent them from privileging themselves over the needs of a neighbor.

Moses makes it look clean and straight-forward. But we in this very church know that life is not clean and straightforward. Even the very best of intentions can become exploitative of our neighbor. However, in a community that practices neighborliness and keeps on practicing it, trying to be “good” regardless of how difficult, trying to “obey the commandments by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and keeping God’s commandments of justice and peace, it might be possible to cultivate an ethos of being good that is not motivated by immediate negative fears, such as death or a penalty.

In 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small Protestant village in the middle of France, began saving about 5,000 Jews. To borrow one quote, “never was a Jew turned away or turned in” in the course of the war. The people of this community had routines and they had ways of hiding the the refugees. They helped their refugees garner false identification papers. Their community, tightly knit, welcomed in the strangers who came and stayed united despite the obvious threat of death looming over their heads like swords of Damocles. They interwove their lives with them; some were killed for the mere suspicion of harboring Jewish refugees, including one clergy person. They heard stories of nearby villages that were completely destroyed by the Nazi SS for sheltering refugees. Yet they continued to patiently harbor and shelter and assist refugees in escaping. After the war was over, no one outside of the community spoke of it nor did they speak of it. I was not until the late 1970s that a man who as a child had been harbored there began to inquire about it. The response he received was different: “How do you call us ‘good’,” they said. “We were doing what had to be done.” You can see them shrugging their shoulders as they return to the task at hand.

For the people of Le Chambon there was no dramatic interpretation of Scripture or theological explanation for what they did. They did what they did because it “had to be done.” But what compelled them to do it, risking life, limb and community to save complete strangers who were not held in high esteem by the majority of Europe at the time? For them, it was out of a habit of neighborliness – a sense of being and doing what God required of them every single day, as a community. They had been doing this for a long time, never dramatically, but always because it “needed to be done.” Becoming a community is not something which happens quickly. I say “community” as while I know that many see this church as a family, I like to think of it as a beloved community, with people from all walks of life that lays out a extravagant welcome, and can talk openly and safely with one another without threat, jealousy, harm or pain.

But: This is not a point at which we can arrive quickly. It takes years of patient growth, practicing welcome and developing as new people come in, former people leave, and approaches to issues evolve. When St Paul writes to the Corinthians, he refers to them as “infants in Christ”, a newly-formed community that was still exploring what it meant to be a church. Yet whatever prompted the letter to the Corinthians convinced him that they were not a growing congregation: they had not matured, and were still plagued with in-fighting and jealousy and strife. He does not give up on them: he prays for them without ceasing, and gives thanks for them. He urges them, however, to change their ways, and to re-orient themselves in the spirit of the good news to love and serve God, rather than be slaves to their own self-interest.

This is the crux of the Jesus message. The citizens of Le Chambon knew this message, and had been living as the beloved community for many years. They had matured into “spiritual people” whose values moved away from themselves and toward God: that is, God’s world and God’s people (who are all people) who were in need. They disobeyed the human laws of Vichy France and put their lives on the line for complete strangers when others like them were dying, and the vast majority was fearfully cowering for their own lives. The people of Le Chambon lived in such a way for such a long time that they no longer even needed to be told to obey the commandments in the didactic style which Moses employs in Deuteronomy, or the disappointed pastor in St Paul does when he enjoins the Corinthians to cease being vindictive to one another. Their long-term faith journey re-oriented them away from the selfish concerns of avoiding death to focusing on fostering and flowering life. It only became noticeable to the world when a crisis fell upon them: but before that, it had been there, being practiced in the ordinary everydayness of life. It did not require a crisis to happen.

In order for us to be a people of faith, we must put away those relics of our selfish times. In the beginning, we will need rules and regulations to help guide us. But as we evolve and grow as a people of faith, we become more confident of how to navigate the path in front of us and assure a just and peaceful and welcoming community that knows, implicitly, the right thing that God is calling us to do in that time, in that place. We need to do it as a community: it cannot be done alone. This again is why I so strongly believe we need a church, even against those arguments that one can “find God on a morning stroll through the woods.” True, divinity is present everywhere, as a Unitarian prayer goes, but as it continues: “but in certain places and certain times we feel a speciality of presence: may this be such a place, and such a time.”

In our gospel reading, Jesus tells us what happens when we go beyond the structures that held us up in our faith infancy. We no longer just say “killing is bad”; we say “anger is bad,” and saying terrible things about one another is bad, just as bad as killing. It is so bad that if you come to worship with anger in your heart, Jesus tells you to get up, and go back to the person with whom you are angry and be reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and be able to worship God in the sanctuary with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and indeed, with your entire being. How many of us came into worship with hatred in our hearts for someone, something? And yet, who here is ready to leave? You may. There is no shame in following the teachings of Jesus. Come and worship God reconciled with one another. This is what it means to pass the peace: we remove anger from our hearts, and take away hard feelings.

Living in a community and growing in faith together will make it possible to not even need to rely on the basic commandments, but will make it possible to go beyond the commandments. Our Scripture readings, though from old documents that have lived with communities in very different times, continue to help guide us, calling to us to live out the good news of Jesus. We have received the commandments, but we can hear in these Scriptures where Jesus wants us to go: beyond the commandments. We move from the self-interest that exploits our fertile lands and brings death and re-orient our community to the sharing in the journey that leads to life. We pray for our communal faith to so occupy our bones that we find when a crisis DOES happen, we can respond in the same manner as the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne: “We were doing what had to be done”.


Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

8 Carvel Circle

Edgewater, MD 21037

(410) 266-8596 x200

Radical welcome and “take up your cross”

In Authenticity, Grace, Jesus, Matthew, Prophetic, Radical Welcome on June 6, 2013 at 10:28 am

For Morning Chapel at Westminster College, 6 June 2013.

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” So goes one of my most-loved mottoes from my denomination, the United Church of Christ. If I am engaged in trying to radically welcome a person to a church. It goes well on flyers and billboards, or spoken at some point during the service when people are invited to stand up and make themselves known so that they can be accosted by the diaconate at coffee following the service. It is far better than the ubiquitous “All are welcome” sign that I suspect comes with the rejoinder, “All are welcome: to become just like us.” It brought me through the church door when I was a teenager, and the concept kept me going back throughout my adult life. No matter where I was, I could always come back to the church. It is a message we need to hear in more than just a church concept; it needs to be a part of our cultural community fabric.

But it is only a partial concept. It stops short of any radical change demanded either of the church or the person coming in. Nor did Jesus say “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This places the locus for action no longer on coming into a place, but going outward. This is about being a people of action. It also challenges us: if “no matter who we are, we are welcome here” is to be our motto for church, then we are also implicitly saying that we are content with whomever we are and whomever anyone else in. Gone is the radical nature of church which challenges people to get engaged, viscerally and without limit, to the work that the church is called to be in community. Church is, as far as I can tell after three years of training in this College, this Federation, this University, a place for challenging. Without challenges of self-denial, we create an atmosphere of entitlement both within the church and in the individuals. I suspect this creates many sort of issues.

This passage of self-denial serves as the crux of Jesus’ theology. For Calvin self-denial stands in radical opposition of every shrewd Christian adjustment to the circumstances. The commentator Ulrich Luz says this: “The contradiction which arrests [this biblical passage] is that [hu]man[kind] is required to make the greatest possible sacrifice to dedicate [its] whole life as a sacrifice – and wherefore? There is no wherefore. “Then it is madness,” says the understanding. There is no wherefore, because there is an infinite wherefore.”

This self-denial lies at the crux of what I have learned in this place. It is a self-denial that is undertaken not for any reward or wherefore, but because this is what it means to follow Christ. It is a self-denial that allows for the formation of communities that can be truly inclusive in actions so vibrant that no poster boards are needed to advertise it, no slick websites, but because we are shaping ourselves toward that cross, Christ-like to one another. But we also live in an entitlements society, where we deserve this and that. I’m no saint in this regard: I have far more self-denial to learn. Nor am I arguing for Christian asceticism for the sake of asceticism. I am saying that self-denial is about all having enough, just enough. As I look at statistics about which children perform the best, I cannot help but see a resonance with those that are neither rich nor poor but who live on just enough.

This culture of enough is catching on, and I hope in our self-denial as Christian leaders we can harness some of this energy. “Join Wall Street. Save The World,” a recent article in The Washington Post, details how young people are living on just enough – which their contemporaries might call ascetic, while giving the vast majority of their inflated salaries to charities around the world. The people doing this want to impact their world, and make good things happen. I think the world is looking for our message, looking for this challenging message of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Without wherefore or why, beyond reason itself. These young professionals are not doing this out of a professed faith, but because they know that they need to do something positive in the world. What we as people of faith bring is the grace of God, something that can resonate with the experiences that they want and desire to share. This is good news both for the church, her ministers, and the people.

The journey, a word I use hesitantly because it is too linear to describe the process by which we follow Christ, is indeed a long one. But as I prepare to leave this place now, I look forward to it. While I think we have started here, there is still much that needs to be done in order to pick up the cross.