Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Mystery of Iniquity

Today, on the penultimate day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we spent some time in the Archives at the University of Mississippi library.  We’re here in Oxford because of the James Meredith story.  He was the first African American to attend Ole Miss (1962) and it took a federal court order and military support to make it happen.  Since those days, Ole Miss has made significant strides in leading for racial reconciliation.

The director of the archives gave an informative presentation, using lots of primary source documents from the archives.  One piece particularly caught my attention.  A mimeographed biblical “exposition” from the Klan about why races should be segregated, i.e. “what the Bible says” about race.”  The paper listed several scriptures from the Old Testament.  As I scanned the verses, I thought about how it is possible for people so badly to misread scripture.  The history of the use of the Bible in antebellum arguments is a complex one in itself.  Mark Noll, well-known historian of Christianity, has written has written extensively on this point.

Reading these verses today reminds me of how our own current particular contexts strongly help to shape the way we read scripture.  It is no secret that even among Christians who take the most traditional view, there can be wide disagreement on particular passages, even when everyone believes fully that the Bible is God’s Word.  I am not engaging in a counsel of despair.  I’m simply acknowledging that biblical interpretation is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That point acknowledged, I’m still amazed at how segregationist Christians could read the Bible as they did.  Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3 about tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ.  In 2 Thessalonians 2 he refers to the “mystery of lawlessness,” or, as earlier English versions had it, the “mystery of iniquity.”  Off and on I ponder these phrases for what light they shed on the brute fact that sincere people can be sincerely wrong and sometimes in truly chilling ways.

The more distance we have between our own feelings and values and whatever topic of discussion we’re engaging, the more “rational” and objective we can appear to be ab.  The more our own feelings and values are caught up in the issue – the more at stake we have – the harder it is to be detached and “rational.”  And here the mystery of iniquity enters.

I come to the end of this day of the pilgrimage thinking about the mystery of iniquity that twists otherwise good people into upholding certain ideas and convictions that are truly reprehensible.  As I think about what the archivist showed us today, it’s easy for me to put extreme distance between myself and the segregationist Christians who thought the Bible really taught what they thought it taught.  And then I remember that that same mystery works in me as well, not on race, but on some other issue on which I perhaps feel vulnerable and threatened.  We must always remember this propensity in the human heart.  Lord, have mercy on us.

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March 12, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Risk of Change

After spending the morning in the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery (a terrific visual display and a wealth of information), we loaded the bus for Philadelphia, Mississippi.  On the way we watched a movie, “Murder in Mississippi,” telling the story of three slain civil rights workers in 1964: James Chaney, Micky Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, killed by Klan members.  Chaney was an African American man from Meridian, MS and the other two were white college students from New York.  These men were helping black people register to vote.

One of the key scenes in the movie takes place at Mt. Zion Methodist (now United Methodist) Church, an African American congregation east of Philadelphia and up a winding country road.  James Chaney knew the area well and had been often to the church to encourage members to risk attempting to register and they agreed.  They then were targeted by Klan members.  One night, as some church members attended a finance meeting, the Klan set up an ambush and several members were beaten.  The mother and brother of Ms. Jewell, whom we met at the church, were beaten severely. Forty plus years later, her eyes still well with tears as she tells the story.  Many of us did, too.

Before Ms. Jewell spoke, we met the Honorable James Young, Mayor of Philadelphia, the city’s first African American mayor.  He had many interesting things to share, but in response to my question about the racial mix of the city (56% white and 42% African American, with a sizable percentage of Native American [Choctaw] as well), it became clear that he had won the election because he carried two of the three predominantly white-populated election districts.  Big change.

Mayor Young made very clear that he intends to be and is everybody’s mayor, white, black, Native American or otherwise.  He serves all people.  He also made clear, however, the challenges involved.  In response to one student’s question about trying to help people of his race, he asked in return (the student is African American), “If you own a company and 75% of the employees you hire are African American, are you helping your people?”  And the question tagging along, but not spoken: would doing so be right or wrong?  That’s a tough question.

Much of the talk at this gathering was about how Philadelphia is changing.  To make changes, people have to make prior assessments of current conditions.  How much has actually changed?  How does one tell?  What still needs to be done?  What criteria will we use to decide?   It requires careful interpretation, which has its own risks.  President Obama as Candidate Obama, for example, had to make strategic decisions about to what degree would he permit race to play a role in his campaign.  Not that he would raise the issue (imagine the risk), but he had to know that people would ask him about it, and how he responded would be telling.

God bless the folk in Philadelphia.  A citizens group of all races in the county have been working for years to bring the perpetrators of the murders in 1964 to justice.  And they have been successful, even though it has taken a long, long time.  They fully admit that they still have work to do, but they want us to know about the good will of the majority of the citizenry.  We’re listening.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | General, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rainy Day, Sunny People

It’s a sappy title for a blog, but it just seems to fit.

Our trip’s leaders asked us to notice and ponder the contrast between Selma and Montgomery, only 54 miles apart.  Beyond size (Selma is about 20,000 and Montgomery, 200,000), Selma visibly struggles while Montgomery fairly shines.  It’s the State capitol, but other factors play into the picture.  Although today has been gloomy in terms of weather, the people we have met, colleagues of Dr. King and leaders in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, have been testaments of grace (divine and human) and courage.

Last night we met Mrs. Harris and her daughter Dr. Valda Montgomery.  Mrs. Harris’ husband, a pharmacist, owned and operated Dean’s Drugstore, the command center of the Bus Boycott in 1955.  The Graetz’s – Rev. Robert and Jean –  were the white clergy family for an African American Lutheran congregation.  Their house was firebombed during those violent days, but they stood alongside Dr. King and the others.  We heard, naturally, a good deal about Rosa Parks today and we went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the one congregation Dr. King pastored before going full-time as leader of the movement.

I was most taken with their descriptions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, although they also talked about housing the Freedom Riders in 1961.  The Boycott took place in 1955 and is considered one of the absolutely central events in the formation of the modern Civil Rights movement.  The story is well-known.  Rosa Parks would not give up her seat to a white man and got arrested for her action.  She was removed from the bus and taken to jail.  The boycott ensued.

Almost 50,000 black people lived in Montgomery at the time and, through the network of churches and pastors in the city, they agreed no longer to ride the busses.  Imagine the risk of losing one’s job of committing to such a daring move.  The people organized themselves.  Those with cars volunteered to chauffeur people to and from work.  Many people simply waked to and from work.  The people gathered and collected funds to help with gasoline costs.  They even raised enough money to buy some station wagons to serve as taxis.  With the command center at Dean’s Drugstore, the boycott leaders created a network of transportation support and for over a year the people stayed off those busses.  It worked in dramatic fashion.

An amazing feat pulled off by some amazing people and not without some seriously fearful moments.  We heard of hateful phone calls in the middle of the night, of threats and firebombings.  The people we talked to shared how, in spite of feeling understandable fear in the worst times, they also felt the strengthening, providing presence of God.  And each other.

One nostaligic side note for me: I’m a preacher’s kid who grew up in parsonages.  When we stepped into the home that had been the Kings’ parsonage for Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, I felt as if I had stepped into some place I had once lived.  A small frame home tastefully furnished with 50s era pieces, most of which had literally been in the house when the Kings had inhabited it.  I laughed to myself at the Melmac table settings on the kitchen table.

It was a most enjoyable trip down memory lane.  But what sticks with me the most at the end of this day is the courage and grace of the boycotters.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meeting Joanne

Probably the key feature of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage is to put human faces on “issues.”  Joanne Bland is one such face.  She led our tour of Selma with drill sergeant-esque precision (she actually had a career in the military).  She was gruff and blunt and intimidating…and then she would smile a kind of wry smile and give us a kind of sideways look.  One of the women in our group had lots of questions on the walking tour.  Joanne started saying, “Where’s that nosy woman?” and then take her off for a brief sidebar explanation.

It would be easy to wonder at first why Joanne still seems angry.  After all, she fully acknowledges how much better things are for black people, even though she knows there’s much more to do.  But then, it doesn’t take long to understand why.  The Voting Rights Museum showed, among numerous other things, the African Americans who served in the U.S. Congress after the Civil War and before states began concocting legislation to prevent black people from sharing in the political process.  (Dennis Simon told me that roughly twenty such persons had served in Congress between 1876 and 1900.)  Real progress and then horrendous setbacks that lasted two generations.  Numerous other such moments happened during the day.

We also learned that Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) didn’t stop once the marchers were beaten back across the bridge.  Joanne told us that the beatings lasted all night long.  People huddled and hid in the two churches (Brown Chapel and First Baptist) where the organizing had been done.  If I remember correctly, Joanne said that she was 11 years old at the time and she was one of the marchers on the bridge.  In 1963, two years and more before the Voting Rights Act was passed, people in Selma made regular trips to the courthouse to register to vote, only to be turned away and often arrested (there were city ordinances about the number of black people that could congregate publicly at one time).

I had been forewarned about Joanne.  She brooks no fools and she’s clearly in charge of the tour.   Sometimes she rubs people the wrong way (she knows it and doesn’t much care).  But she also said more than once, “I’m not where I was, but I’m also not where I need to be.”

In free moments yesterday I found my mind returning to the same set of questions.  I’m white, but a “northerner.”  I grew up with parents who taught us not to be prejudiced – all people are created in God’s image.  By the time I went to college, I had very little experience in racially mixed settings (except those 6 years in Texas as a boy).  I didn’t want to be prejudiced, and wasn’t, in a sense, but still had some of the goofy stereotypes.  All that to say, as I listened to Joanne, something inside me wanted to insist, “This problem was not my problem.  Bad white people did this, but not all white people did it.”  I felt myself wanting to distance myself from the problem.  Which is part of the problem.  And a typical one for white people.

Montgomery is quite different from Selma. More to come.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jubilee Bridge Crossing

The T-shirt said, “Rosa sat so that Martin could walk.  Martin walked so that Barack could run.  Barack ran so that our children can fly.”  I’m almost never a fan of T-shirt slogans, but this one really hits home.

We stood in a crowd outside Brown’s Chapel AME Church waiting for the commemorative walk to begin.  This is where it had all started 45 years ago on March 7, 1965.  The first march didn’t make it very far.  The third march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., did.  Today, when all the congresspersons and other famous people (Terence Howard) had made their way to their places, the walk began.  We left Brown’s Chapel, headed south a block, turned west to downtown and south on Broad Street.  The bridge over the Alabama River loomed in the distance.

It took awhile to get there, but we walked across the bridge, remembering how the marchers had eventually made that walk all the way to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights.  Life Magazine and the evening news caught the shocking images of people being beaten, even killed.  Bloody Sunday. 45 years ago, March 7, 1965.  Today, maybe some 10,000 or so walked across the bridge.  People from all over the place.  College groups like ours.

The day’s activities were part ongoing struggle for justice, part reunion, part state fair carnival.  After the walk across the bridge, people enjoyed foods and music at booths set up for the occasion: polish sausage, funnel cakes, chicken on a stick, lots and lots of CDs available for purchase.  One man offered a new documentary CD of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement.  But what caught my attention were the little clusters of senior citizens or near that age, white and black, talking like old friends.  Some of them had marched together in the original event.  They were reminiscing and catching up all at the same time.

Months after the march to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Acts did pass.  A Federal law guaranteed that black people, properly registered, would not only have the theoretical right to vote, but they actually could vote and did.  Forty five years later, we are into the fifteenth month of the presidency of the first African American president.  Considering where our country was in 1965, this is a staggering change.

Earlier in the day as I stood in front of the chapel, a man walked by me in bib overalls and a yellow vest.  I noticed the name hand written on the vest: John Rankin (my paternal grandfather’s name, by the way).  For the third time in my life, I had encountered an African American who shared my surname.  I couldn’t resist.  I spoke to John and asked him if he knew where his name came from.  He had done some checking, he said, and he thinks that his family had come from South Carolina originally (well, not originally).  Since Rankin is a Scottish name, I surmise (as I have done before) that some Rankins back in the day were slave owners.  This John Rankin had been on the original march to Montgomery.  He took off his hat, rubbed the top of his head and said, “And I’ve still got the knot on my head to prove it.”

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Just time for a quick one.  I hope you friends and colleagues who attended the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting had a most edifying experience (Kevin, I hope your paper went well!).

I’m in Montgomery, AL, at the beginning of a Spring Break Civil Rights Pilgrimage.  SMU has been taking this trip each year for several years, so I’m playing catch-up.  The bus left Friday afternoon, but I could not leave until Saturday evening.  Flew into Montgomery last night.

As I prayed with the group Friday afternoon, I spoke about how this trip will challenge us in particular ways.  I had shared with the class earlier that, because I was a boy of 13 when Dr. King was murdered, I grew up watching the Civil Rights movement on television.  I lived in rural, racially homogenous Kansas.  Actually, not true.  Part of that time I lived in Texas and it was not racially homogenous.  Pete Chapa (Mexican) was one of my boyhood baseball teammates and friends.  Paul and Manuel (Mexican) were friends to me during a very lonely 5th grade year in a new town. Later, in junior high, it was Oscar Guerra the star running back and Leonard White (African American) the star on our basketball team.  Still, the Civil Rights movement was something psychologically remote for me.

It was not until years later, as a man with children of my own, that I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Dr. King wrote it in response to clergy in Alabama who wanted him not to engage in direct – even if peaceful – action.  His reply, written on anything that could be used (toilet paper, margins of newspapers), is nothing short of agonizingly eloquent.  He asked his clergy colleagues to consider how it felt to be the man who had to tell his young daughter that she could not go to the local amusement park because it was not open to black children; how if felt to watch the dark clouds of racial prejudice hang over his kids and to witness how it was shaping their young mental worlds.  That letter put a human face on the Civil Rights movement for me.

Over the years, of course, partly because of interest and partly because of my work, I’ve studied, at least in superficial ways, parts of the story.  This trip will be rough in some ways.  The church was on both sides of things (as it often is) back in the 50s and 60s.  Some of the story is just plain ugly.  But some of it is glorious.

I have a feeling I’ll learn a lot on this trip.  I’m going to try to blog each evening during the week, if you’re interested.

March 7, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , | Leave a comment