Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
(This appeared in The Citizen on Saturday, April 16, 2011)
As a minister, one of the ongoing challenges that our religious communities face is racism. In spite of all our efforts, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. When I discussed this with an interracial couple in one of my congregations, the white wife remarked that her black in-laws said that "Sunday morning is the only time we don’t have to be with white people." I cringed when I heard that. I felt as though I, and my congregation, were being lumped into the same category as blatant racists such as the Ku Klux Klan. I also accepted it as a challenge and responsibility—to make each congregation that I serve as open and hospitable to people of all races, sexual orientations, cultural and religious perspectives as possible
This has been on my mind recently because this past week marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. It has also been 43 years since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King told of his dream of a world where children of all races would eat together at the same table. Although we now have an African-American president, there are times when I feel as though we are not much closer to Dr. King’s dream than we were at the time of his assassination.
I say this because racism often makes subtle appearances, such as the spurious charges that President Obama was not born in the United States. There is no way that such ignorant remarks would be made, let alone tolerated, about someone with a father of European descent. It is his name, and the fact that his father came from Kenya that makes such racism seem "softer." Ironically, President Obama’s "eight-great grandfather" on his mother’s side was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640! I wonder how many of the men and women who are lining up to oppose him 2012 can claim such a long American ancestry?
Last year, Virginia’s governor, Robert O’Donnell, called for a celebration of the Confederacy. His arguments that the Civil War was not about slavery, and his actions were not racist, were absurd, at best. It reminded me of George Wallace, who knew what he was doing when he used the term "nigra" rather than "Negro" during the sixties.
Another recent example took place in Charleston, South Carolina. It was billed as a "Secession Ball." As every schoolchild knows, the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor. This gathering was a celebration of their state’s decision to be leaders in the move to secede from the union. Again, arguments were made that this was not a racist celebration. It should be pointed out that there were no blacks in attendance, at least, not in the period costumes of the white gentry, who sang "Dixie" in full voice.
The Civil War remains the bloodiest war fought in our nation’s history. Approximately 2% of the population at that time died, either in battle, or from war-related illnesses, such as dysentery. (Similar carnage today would leave approximately six million dead!) Some of the dead were slaveholders, fighting to protect their rights to own slaves. Many more were poor whites, on both sides, drawn into the maw of battle through conscription, a sense of duty, or an illusion. Some of the Confederate foot-soldiers undoubtedly lived and died with the hope that they, too, would someday become slave owners. Isn’t this how most wars are fought?
One of the central themes in theology is that of "repentance." Holding "Secession balls" and commemorating the Confederacy do nothing for repentance. They are as wrong, divisive, and corrosive to our nation as the birthers’ repeated challenges to the legitimacy of the Obama presidency.
This coming week, we will remember the life and death of one whose capacity for forgiveness exceeded any of ours. I have to believe that Jesus would find it in himself to forgive such mean-spirited racist behaviors. John Dominic Crossan, one of the leaders of the Jesus Seminar, who has written extensively on the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, points out that one of the hallmarks of Jesus’s teachings was what he called "open commensality." It was the belief that all people should join together at one table, regardless of race, gender, or belief. It is a dream that I aspire to when I look at who is in my congregation, and remind myself who is missing. I believe that Jesus would have found a willing and smiling dinner companion in Dr. King. As for the birthers and celebrants at the Secession Balls? God only knows.