Sunday, October 13, 2013

sistine chapel

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all.

-- Mk 9:35 (REB)

I’m looking at an artifact of my father’s, hanging on the wall, a triptych of scenes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the center panel, God reaches out toward the inert hand of Adam, about to transfer the spark of life. On the right and left, God has his closeups, his one-shots: creating the sun and moon on the left, separating heavens from earth on the right. For some reason, the face of God creating the lights of heaven, the one on the left, seems angry.

He rendered those scenes in black and white, no grays, printed from linoleum blocks whose surface he cut away with special tools to reveal the figures. So the lines and shapes have no modulation; the terminator between dark and light is absolute, like shadows on the moon.

These majestic shapes of God, rendered by my father, are inseparable for me from my father himself. He still floats in featureless space with no visible support, ordering the firmament with his gestures and moods.

He was more than this forbidding majesty. My children never knew that he had once been a goofy man, clowning and punning, pranking and cracking wise -- a six-foot-four elf, gangly and awkward, who made my mother and me laugh till we could not breathe. Addicted to language, he initiated me into word games that left the rest of the family behind, sometimes in tears.

In his study I saw my first brick-and-plank bookcases; in no other home did I see so many books, too many for a polite single cabinet. They towered over me in various languages ancient and modern; but because they belonged to him they were my friends. I could not meet them all on their own terms, but was sure that when I got older they would speak to me.

He wrote his sermons the night before, until two or three in the morning, and while he wrote he would play Beethoven or Wagner, Bach or Brahms, Marian Anderson or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, at penetrating volume. And when the music woke me I would turn and go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the shepherd was awake and vigilant below, a man of God in the midst of God’s work. Schafe k├Ânnen sicher weiden, wo ein guter Hirte wacht.

But the faces of God in his triptych, suspended in darkness, are forbidding. Under each panel an inscription in Greek. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh. He made his home among us.

These were his Christmas cards to his congregation. Stern faces of God floating in darkness. Texts in an ancient language. He might as well have gone on to say, The world did not recognize him. It’s the perfect summation of his love and disdain, wisdom and folly, vision and blindness.

I imagine myself receiving this opus from my minister. What a downer. What are these letters at the bottom? What’s he trying to say? Who does he think he is? Does he even care whether we understand him? Some of those who admired him would say to me, he’s so much more than a parish minister. Now I think he was so much other.

I once asked him why he sent the verses in Greek. How would the congregants understand them? “Maybe it’ll make them curious,” he said. “Maybe they’ll read the Bible for once.” Every pastor suffers in the ministry, and he suffered exquisitely.

I could never get rid of this triptych, and now it hangs in my parlor. So well done, so severe, so sophisticated, so learned, so good for my wall, so bad for the purpose intended. I could never get rid of this triptych, so eloquent of him and speechless to the souls in his charge, because it speaks to me, and of me. I too love my books, and grieve for the loss of them. I too feel their call when I am too long away from them. I’ve been too long away from them.

No one compelled him, in his generation of ministerial formation, to take on the work that I have taken on. Nowadays there are requirements -- but then I suppose it was understood that if you knew the Bible, you knew how to give counsel. The thing we begin to learn on the first day, and continue to learn on the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth and again tomorrow morning, is that I am not in the center of it all. My knowledge is not the good news that might come today. My stuff is not the thing that is to do. I’m supposed to do my homework, then put it away and go to work.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

foot soldiers

photo: Richard Apple

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!

-- Sabine Baring-Gould

“We are soldiers in freedom’s army,” we’re singing; “we have to fight, sometimes we have to die.” We stand by the side of an Alabama highway, at the gravestone of a martyr.* Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and mortally wounded by an Alabama state trooper in February of 1965, because he and other black citizens had attempted, on many occasions, to register as voters. His death incited events in the following month that became known as the March from Selma to Montgomery.

“Every morning they thought they were going to war,” says our songleader. And we sing some more: “You’ve got to hold up freedom’s banner; you’ve got to hold it up till you die.” And many died.

The Campaign required training, discipline and courage. Large groups, or individuals alone, advanced on cue into mortal danger. Amidst mayhem and temptations to revenge, they behaved by strict protocols. Their actions of resistance sometimes required a quartermaster’s grasp of logistics: the Montgomery Bus Boycott depended on maintaining an alternative transportation system for a year.

“Troublemakers,” they were called, if they were local; or if they came from somewhere else they were called “outside agitators.” They disturbed what had passed for peace.  But there was no peace, and those who defended the phony peace were false prophets. The state was at war with its people.  

Foot-soldiers, they called themselves. Now they call themselves veterans. They were in the army, fighting a war. They were, in the best sense of an old hymn not included in the hymnal of my church, Christian soldiers, with the cross of Jesus going on before them.

Lions do not naturally lie down with lambs, and non-violent resistance does not make the enemy become peaceful. Over and over again, the lions responded with greater levels of violence. The foot soldiers were told that they would be attacked, injured or perhaps killed. There was no hope that the forces arrayed against them would dissolve; the purpose of the campaign was to draw out and expose the violence that lay hidden, camouflaged by a culture of repressive civility. The foot soldiers were there to display the phoniness of peace.

The campaign was a power-play. At Little Rock, at Selma, at Oxford and many other places, the hearts of the oppressors did not melt. Victories were secured only when the greater power of America was brought to bear on local outrages, when the war between states and their people was transformed into a war between the United States and the most barbarous of its states. The lions would not lie down with lambs until humbled by hosts of the Prince of Peace, a role played reluctantly and provisionally by three presidents. The humbling of the lions would take place not over weeks and months but over years and decades, and is still incomplete. There are bullet-holes in Jackson’s monument; and the monument of James Chaney, murdered in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, is supported by a steel brace to keep it from being knocked over again.

There is another song, whose words were written by a woman of my faith. This song, during the time of our greatest influence in America, became an anthem for the end of slavery. It is a march, sung by soldiers as they went not to metaphorical war but to the actual slaughter of the Civil War, a war made necessary by the aggressive barbarism of slaveholders. It describes the coming of God into the world on behalf of the enslaved. The first twelve words of this song were the last twelve public words of Martin Luther King. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” he said, and stepped down from his last podium. In respect for King and for those whose hopes he expressed, in solidarity with the long liberation struggle of enslaved Americans, we might preserve that song and pass it on to the future. But the song is not in our hymnal. Are our stomachs too delicate to tolerate God’s participation in justice, by tenderness when possible but by power when necessary? If so, we are bowdlerizers of Dr. King.

Middle-class white folks like myself, half a century later, trying out our expressions of solidarity from seminar tables and from the multi-purpose rooms of churches which do not expect to be bombed or burned, must keep clearing our spectacles of romance. Though the people we commemorate were peaceful in their tactics, the terror did not stop through any softening of the oppressors’ hearts. As his sin was exposed to the world, Pharoah became more outrageous. The strategy of the non-violent campaign was to call in the cavalry before mass slaughter could occur. That was the great wager: no one could be sure, until it happened, that the cavalry would come. The movement was always aimed over the heads of the oppressors; we must rejoice that the leaders’ assessment of national character was correct. The oppressors only changed their minds when new laws were declared, and the nation’s powers and principalities showed themselves willing, on occasion at least, to enforce such law. We should feel remorse that our nation colluded with violence toward its people for so long; we should rejoice that our powers dismantled those systems of violence when they were brought so far into light. Our minds must contain both these passions.

Let us honor non-violence but not romanticize it. They didn’t stroll, or meander, or dally or hike from Selma to Montgomery. It wasn’t a peregrination, or a wandering, or a waltz on Washington. It was a march. They were soldiers. If we hope to be solid with them, we have to be OK with that.

*This is a station on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage (, which I followed from Sept. 21 to 28.