How can we bring healing to our angry, polarized nation? As an Episcopal clergyman, I have come to believe we need to combine Jesus’s teaching on love and forgiveness with the wisdom of Amos, the Old Testament prophet who foresaw the destruction of Israel.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to quote a passage from Amos as he attacked the racism that disfigures our nation: “I hate, I despise your festivals. . . I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24.)
When we read of the 300-plus Roman Catholic priests who, over decades, abused a thousand or more children in the Pittsburgh area alone, we need to confront and condemn such an atrocity as Amos would have. When Episcopal leaders claim that we live in a “post-racist” society, we again need to summon Amos’ fury and denounce their ignorance and naïveté.
And while we’re at it, we must also confront, as Amos would, President Trump and all of his devotees, including evangelical Christians on the far right. A modern Amos might use these words: “I hate and despise what you are doing to our people with your narcissistic, self-righteous, fake news, making the wealthy more wealthy and the poor, poorer than ever.”
But along with invoking the spirit of Amos, we must also support people who try to practice the love and forgiveness taught by Jesus, even if their political agendas seem rooted in fear and hatred. In the words of the esteemed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “moral man” can help change “immoral society.”
As I watched Democrats and Republicans come together recently in celebration of the life of Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, I glimpsed at least the possibility — as McCain had — that men and women who presume to lead the nation can learn how to set aside their differences in order to build on common values. How sad it was that the president could not overcome his own spiteful partisanship long enough to pay proper respect to a war hero.
So how can we become more moral? How can we bring healing to angrily divided churches and communities, in the hope that our actions will, as Niebuhr envisioned, help change society?
Over the past 50 years of ministry, here is what I have learned about ways to heal those caught in angry conflict. Some lessons are so obvious that many of us have forgotten them.
First, look for common ground. People of faith, whatever their creed, can learn from Jesus that we must love God, love our neighbor and, while we are at it, love ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). For our nation, in spite of the ferocity of our ideological battles we need to honor the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the credo we share and on which our democracy stands. And we need to freshen and hold in common the living memory of those who died — for us — in foreign wars and at home. Again, I’m thinking of the Rev. Dr. King.
Second, I ask people in and outside the church to listen — really listen — to those with whom they disagree: listen to their stories, as they tell us who they really are, how their backgrounds and present lives help define them.
For most of the past 25 years, I have been a volunteer with the Kairos Prison Ministry International, now serving nearly 500 prisons and communities in 37 states and nine countries. In their three-day in-prison retreats, Kairos brings peace and fellowship to both inmates and volunteers, groupings that are diverse in every way.
Participants practice the Kairos mantra: “Listen, listen, love, love.” We listen to one another’s stories and learn to understand and then appreciate those that are quite different from our own. If this listening and love can bring people together in maximum security prisons — many of them inmates who have violent backgrounds — surely such listening and love can help bring angrily divided neighbors together.
In my home church, Trinity Episcopal here in New Orleans, we are working hard to overcome racism, first among ourselves, and, as we can, in our racist city. Telling our personal stories helps. Here, a beloved Trinity member, Pat Corderman, tells some of her story:
Coming of age in the 1950s in a small town in Mississippi, I did not know what Jim Crow was, but I lived it every day with “white” and “colored” bathrooms, drinking fountains, waiting rooms, churches, schools, parts of town. My spiritual journey began when I was in high school, when I found the Episcopal Church. With all of the page turning, different songbooks, the sitting, standing, praying on my knees, I could not daydream my way through the service, as I had before, and eventually I discovered the love of God for all people.
Years later, my youngest daughter called from West Africa, where she was working in the Peace Corps, to tell me she had found the man she wanted to marry. Her chosen one was African, not white. I was deeply grateful to welcome my wonderful son-in-law with an open heart and genuine love. I had learned from our TURN program (the Trinity Undoing Racism Network) how racism works and how it is sustained. It represents the very opposite of Christian values.
In many ways, my family is just like yours. Our grandchildren are incredible. Our children are wonderful parents and people. The collective shades of their skin color alone, from the darkest of brown to the fairest of fair, tell little of who they are and what they will become. They are all part of a wonderful family.
Pat’s testimony is a story even some of the most conservative people at Trinity can appreciate, just as we appreciated the bi-racial marriage of Joe Butler and longtime Trinity leader, Nell Bolton. They named their son Atticus, and at his first Christmas pageant at Trinity, Atticus was the Baby Jesus.
My third way of bringing healing — and now I am preaching to myself — is this: We can know enough of God’s truth to live by and devote our lives to it, but we can’t know truth the way God knows truth. We are after all sons and daughters of Adam.
In the parlance of the day, we like to think of ourselves as “woke” — awakened to the injustices of our time. But woke or non-woke, we must bring humility to our struggle with the issues that engender passionate conflict. Yes, humility! Are you listening, Trump supporters? And you who scorn and hate Trump: Are you also listening?
Finally, we can still learn from TV’s Mr. Rogers, who taught a generation of children (and their parents) that everyone is, or can be, our neighbor. My way of saying it: Every one of us is precious to God. God loves each of us with the ardor of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to search for the one that is lost. God loves us with the joy and delight of the father who welcomed home the prodigal: “Let us celebrate. This, my son, was lost and now is found.” (Luke 15:3-7 and 15:11-32.)
Is it merely naive to think that Donald Trump might someday be found? After all, even Paul, who as a Pharisee persecuted Christians and abetted the murder of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, (Acts 7:54-8:1), had a turnaround experience on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22) and became an apostle. We can at least pray that our president will someday see the light and turn his life around.
The woke and the non-woke can both contribute to our badly-needed healing. Like Amos, we need to point our fingers and demand that “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Just as urgently, we also need those who — whatever faith they profess — grasp the essential meaning of Jesus’ life: that for love of us all, we the fallen, he accepted death on a cross.
Senator McCain’s passing does not end an ugly moment in our history, but it renews my hope that we may one day find ourselves on a Road to Damascus. Then, in deep shame, we will turn away from the course we seem to be on right now.
The Rev. William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, is the author of numerous books tracing his evolution as a Christian, from boyhood in segregated Charleston, S.C., to the continuing struggle against racism in New Orleans today. His latest is “Angels in the Wilderness: Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond.”
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