Of Monuments and Morals
September 10, 2017
Numbers 14:18; Mt. 28:19, 20
The Bible has a profound observation of moral fact in our first scripture this morning. It says ‘The Sins of the Fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It suggests that the consequences of our actions not only have implications horizontally, affecting those around us, but also vertically, down the generations. Think of war trauma, so normative in human history like present day Syria. Think of family dysfunctions. Think of institutional racism from yea long time ago. Think of the shame and stigma that gay people internalized socially until this generation. They have lingering, sometimes ironic effects, sometimes in ways that we aren’t even consciously aware of.
As the great Southern author, William Faulkner, once put it, “The past is never over… in fact it is not even past.”
I want to speak about race, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville march, because it got me to thinking who we need to become as a spiritual community that is becoming more intentional about living in a diverse community for the future.
For us watching the events in Charlottesville, from the muliti-cultural world of New York, you may have found yourself wondering exactly what causes those young white fascists that were marching shouting Nazi slogans to inspire fear and hate, to be so filled with angry grievance. What are these boys so angry about? Even with our problems, our world is not that bad. Where does that anger come from? It is a good question that no one in the media actually asked.
But I couldn’t help thinking about it since I could have grown up to become one of them when I think back to my early childhood in a family from Memphis, Mississippi, Louisiana- the deep South.
That march of angry white torch bearers began as a sad and pathetic protest over the many, many monuments to Civil War confederate leaders that adorn the town squares throughout the South illustrates the irony of American history in a way that you would not know living here.
In the middle of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant won two major battles at Shiloh and Vicksburg in Mississippi that we would later see as the turning point in the war. 33,000 soldiers died, a staggering number, in some cases cousins literally killing their cousins.
The Confederates lost both battles and after surrender was all but assured, the women of Mississippi sent a delegation to see General Grant to ask for a ceasefire so they could identify the dead and bury them.
In a case that I am sure has been studied many times at West Point and Annapolis, Grant denied their request and would not give the women of the South a simple honor bound ritual of grief, identifying and burying their dead husbands and sons. He thought that he needed to break the will of the Confederates. No memorials to the Rebels. Just crush them.
It was a Civil war, an internecine conflict as they say. Sometimes family conflicts, conflicts in the tribe can insult and injure like nothing else.
So today, if you go to these Civil War battle grounds, you will see all of the Union soldiers buried by the State that they come from, Iowa over hear, New York over there in neat rows. By the way, they cover hillsides. It is just sobering to see how big they are, to think about how many people died there.
When I was a child, it was part of the ritual of growing up as a boy in the deep South. I went with my grandfather, my uncles to see Shiloh near the place that we went fishing. You hear a story about tragedy, about loss, about how awful Yankees were. You hear a story about identity.
You look out over these neat rows of graves of the victors, but you empathize with the vanquished, and it stirs up this well of subterranean bitterness, vengefulness, a fierce pride borne out of loss. Before you are even old enough to know what is happening to you, you tap into this collective subconscious pool of anger that has been stewing and brining for the past three generations before you. Honor, vengeance, people, place.
You look out and see the neat rows of the victors. But then you follow this well-worn path that goes back into the woods. At the end of that path are the mass graves of the Confederate soldiers. And you will see these people standing there paying homage. They take off their hats. They stand in groups of three here, five there. They stand in reverential silence. But that homage is rinsed in grievance. It is soaked in honor and vengeance.
I went to see those sites in the 1960’s, one hundred years after the war was over, but you would be forgiven for thinking that the Civil war had just recently ended if you talked to my relatives.
The Sins of the Fathers are visited upon the children and their children unto the third and fourth generation. The psychic trauma of war, the endless cycle of vengeance and honor echoes down the generations and it shapes our identity in ways we aren’t even aware of when we are young and may not even want. But it is profound.
That is what I thought of first when I watched the Vice News video of the leaders of that protest march in Charlottesville, Virgnia. They interviewed these young men, most of them outright Nazi’s. They were so full of anger and grievance, so ready for violence that they think is some kind of retribution in their minds. It washes over us and sets the parameters of our world view before our rational capacity has really kicked in. It is primordial. I couldn’t help but remember that watching the faces of those young men contorted with internal rage, venting hate.
If you viewed their protest from the outside, I’m not sure you could ever understand what would justify that kind of rage. Their life is pretty good, what is all that anger about?
They are living out of these identities that they inherited, fiercely proud of them, even though it is killing them with all this introjected anger. It is but one of the ironies of our complicated history.
And they were marching to protect these monuments that were erected to feed this angry sense of grievance that their great grandfathers felt before them. The University of Mississippi is affectionately called “Ole Miss” that harkens back to the days of yea old Dixie. They call their football team “The Rebels”, a name that means that the children of the confederacy that still aren’t going to join the Union without a fight. You need that subterranean emotion to get pumped up on a football field.
Never mind that over 40% of the white population of Mississippi in 1860 actually fought on the Union side of the Civil War- a statistic I bet you find surprising. Over 40%….
Never mind that 100% of the black population during the Civil War would have fought on the Union side; Never mind, in other words, that the actual Rebels from Mississippi during the Civil War Rebels were in the minority.
This is the identity that they were given from the previous two generations and one they will defend violently if necessary because these are my people dammit. Another irony of American history.
And make no mistake. These monuments were never subtle. They were erected from 1900-1930 all across the public squares of the South at the precise time white Southerners were regaining political control of the South, erecting the segregation laws of Jim Crow.
We limited where blacks could live; we limited their education; we denied them the right to vote; we severely limited the loans they could get. We limited the jobs they could get; We made them perpetual second-class citizens. And we symbolically reinforced those Jim Crow laws of segregation by erecting monuments in the town square of hundreds of cities across the South of a White Confederate soldier on a horse. The Overseer…. Who is in charge here!
This lacked subtlety. You couldn’t miss this point as a child in the South. I couldn’t help but remember that world from my childhood…
Angry, grievance fed, suggesting to us that we need to go back… back… back.
But we aren’t going back. We don’t want to go back. It wasn’t so great back in yea olden days.
No, it is past time for these monuments to come down. It is important to know our past but we aren’t beholden to symbols of our racist ancestors either. This may be where we all came from, but it is not where we want to head next.
We actually want to transcend that racist past. We don’t just want to tolerate one another, we want to celebrate our diversity. We want to be pulled forward by the future, following where the Holy Spirit will lead us. We need symbols of the future. Our generation needs to be pulled forward by the future. We are surrounded by New things pulling us forward.
The last lines of the Gospel of Matthew give us just that universalism of the Christian message. Jesus says “Go ye unto all the world, go ye to the four corners of the world, and proclaim the good news of God’s love to all people”. To the ends of the earth, to all people everywhere.
We are displacing the anger, the vengeance from our identities rooted in the traumas of the past, with God’s love that pulls us forward towards a new day, towards a beloved community where everybody has a place, where everyone is accepted as a child of God. We “would be” Christians have been given a universal message that we hope will bring the whole world together through mutual respect, through compassion and understanding, through forgiveness of past wounds, through grace and reconciliation. We want to heal each other.
Especially here, the world that is all around us at Christ Church.
Just think about how the future has come to meet us. I think back on my childhood, photographed in black and white; it was a simple world of black and white.
So quaint in comparison to the world we actually live in now. Metropolitan New York has 23 million neighbors that live in a rainbow of many cultures from literally all over the world that have come here for a life of freedom and opportunity. What a richer, more interesting world to live in. How much more complicated and interesting when we have extended families from different cultures.
In metropolitan New York, we speak over 800 different languages and nearly 40% of the people that live here were born outside the United States. No one ethnic group is a majority anymore and we are becoming more diverse with every generation. We don’t have to go to the ends of the world to preach the gospel of God’s love… In New York… the ends of the world have come to us.
What a great place to be. How interesting to have neighbors from India, from Southeast Asia. How much richer it is to see our children grow up with our new neighbor’s children from different cultures with different traditions.
This is where we live, this is our world… So we want to intentionally be inclusive as a spiritual community at Christ Church. What does that mean? We don’t really know yet, because this is an experiment that largely…. Has yet to be tried! We don’t want to go back. We wanted to be guided by the future pulling us forward towards something new, something different.
We lift up the legacy of race, not because it is some liberal cause. It is a basic recognition that our social history is like those moving conveyor belts that you see in the airports that get you out to the end of the terminal. They are already moving when we were born. Left on default, the conveyor belt from the past in our society would have taken us in the direction of prejudice, in the direction of segregation. That was the way it was way back when.
At some point, you wake up enough as a young person to realize that If we do nothing, we are still passively moving with the rest of our society in the direction defined by our racist past. At some point you wake up and realize that what we need to do to actually change things is turn around and start actively walking in another direction.
The Spirit of God blows in a new direction. It becomes intentional.
Back in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Dr. King was right. He said that too often, Churches have just been thermometers, registering the temperature of the society they lived in, reflecting the social mores and attitudes of everyone around us.
But, he said, what God is calling us to do is become thermostats, setting the temperature for our society with a positive influence, values that will cultivate the higher reasons for which we were born.
Gandhi said, we want to become the change we hope to see in the world. We try to do that in our families, in our neighborhoods, through our churches.
We are headed in a new direction. We don’t really know what we are doing. We’ve never lived in a diverse world like this before. We are an experiment in the making. And we need you. We need your family.
We need your leadership. We need your vision. Conservatives and liberal families, Gay and Straight families, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Europeans, families born abroad and families that have lived here for many generations. We need all of us.
The Truth we seek to embody is not one that will come from on High. It is going to come from many voices among us- all of us living together, praying together, serving others together and modeling for our children where we hope to go and what kind of community we hope to become.
And if we don’t do it, with our diversity, with our freedom, with our gifts and talents that abound among us, living in this generation where people have come here from literally all over the world… who will?
You are more powerful than you know for the Spirit of God has anointed you to change your world for the better. You will shape not only those that live around you, this is your time to set a new direction for your people and change what is possible for the future of your people in ways you literally cannot imagine from here. And without ever even being conscious of it most of the time, you just might redeem and heal some of the trauma that your ancestors went through. You just might become the leaven for a fresh, new loaf of healing spiritual bread.
“Be ye reconciled” said St. Paul. And may you become agents of reconciliation. And may you have a vision of the hope filled future, even in the midst of our wider social conflict. The power of the Spirit is upon you.