Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Zimmerman verdict: black church, white church

Every context-sensitive preacher’s nightmare is the Saturday night special: i.e. the huge news story or local event that knocks the just-finished sermon into a cocked hat. My sympathies go to all the preachers this morning who either went to bed with or woke up to the Zimmerman verdict. 

The preachers I really admire are the ones who stayed up half the night reworking their sermons. I’d like to think that’s what I would have done had I been preaching. I don’t want to sound overly self-satisfied there, but on the other hand I do think it is a preacher’s responsibility to face up to the important events of the day and allow the Word of God to speak directly into the current situation. I doubt if there were many churches anywhere on the Sunday after 9/11 that failed to address the atrocity and its effects. The pulpits of New England surely rang with biblical wrath and sorrow after the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing. But how many white churches, this morning, gave up a significant amount of time for prayer and preaching about the continuing struggle for racial justice and the pain of African-Americans following the verdict? Or was it just business as usual?

It is a certainty that the African-American preachers of the US were primed to preach on the Zimmerman verdict, whichever way it had gone. The proceedings have absorbed the attention of large percentages of the black community for several weeks. The receptionist in my erstwhile office suite, a spirited black woman, was checking out the trial on the office TV at every break she had. Al Sharpton devoted most of his nightly program to the subject for months. The problem with so many white Americans is that we simply don’t understand, and often don’t even try to understand, what this sort of thing means to the black community.

It seems to me that the white church owes it to the black church to try to understand. Early this morning on WNYC (NPR), the host interviewed a black pastor who was getting ready to preach to his congregation later in the morning. The pastor spoke of “healing” and “reconciliation” in the name of “our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”  On WNYC, no less, where this devoted listener has never heard a single appreciative or even tolerant word said about Christian faith  (I have had several exchanges with host Brian Lehrer about this, to no avail). So there are two important things to note in the testimony of the black pastor: 1) his unabashed evocation of the great Name, and 2) the traditional and continuing emphasis in the black church upon reconciliation even in the face of great provocation. The witness of the black church to the transforming, universal power of our Lord never fails to astonish.

What white people just don’t seem to get is the great difficulty that black parents have in raising black children, especially boys, in our communities. They have to be taught things from an early age that white boys never have to worry about. Walk, don’t run. Keep both hands in sight. Look purposeful, not shifty. Be excruciatingly deferential to the police—they are not your friends. I heard about a survey of  a large group of  young white men and young black men, who were asked if they had been stopped by the police for no obvious reason. Every single black men said they had, every single white man said they had not.

I have always regretted that I have not had the opportunity to lead a congregation to be a partner with a black church—not as in “let us help you in your need out of our great bounty,” but as in “we need your help to explain to us what we can do.” We need to let the black church help us. What a tragedy that even after all the progress,  we are still so separated. May the Lord help us to rise to this occasion.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Edmund S. Morgan 1916-2013

The obituary for Edmund S. Morgan, Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale, pulled me up short. I had no idea that he was 97, since he was continuing to write as powerfully as ever until very recently. I don’t really have very many intellectual heroes, but Morgan was certainly one of them together with his towering Doktorvater, Perry Miller of Harvard. When I read Miller extensively as a seminary student, I was bowled over not only by the extraordinary power of his writing but also by his understanding of the Puritans, who had always seemed to me to be misunderstood. Miller almost-but-not-quite grasped the heart of the Calvinist project, more so than many in the Reformed tradition today.
I knew Miller was an atheist, but it surprised me that Morgan was, also. How curious that these two men at the very top of their profession should spend their lives digging into, and sympathetically interpreting, the most religious people in American history! Morgan’s obituary helps to explain it: 
Like his mentor and fellow atheist, the Harvard historian Perry Miller, Professor Morgan found his richest material in the religious thought of Puritan New England and endless fascination in the theological debates and spiritual struggles of men like John Winthrop, Roger Williams and Ezra Stiles. 
“I think that any group of people who have a system of belief that covers practically everything, and who act upon it, are bound to be interesting to any scholar,” he said in a 1987 interview with The William and Mary Quarterly
That’s a rather chilly description of a Christian community, but at the same time one could wish that more Christians “acted upon” their comprehensive beliefs. Morgan’s own writings about the Puritans are anything but chilly. A recent collection of his essays,  American Heroes, has a lovely chapter on the Puritans’ ideas about sex, which almost entirely contradicts the popular impression. (There is also a splendid tribute to Perry Miller, who was famously alcoholic. Morgan writes perceptively that his jealous colleagues seemed to relish the idea of his drinking himself to death.)
I loved Edmund Morgan for his rich humanity, his dazzling skill with historical writing, and his interpretations so entirely free from current “politically correct” ideological trends. I always thought I would write him a letter, and perhaps I did, but in rummaging through my e-files I don’t find one. I discover, however, that I did write a fan letter to Gordon Wood, whom I now learn is a Perry Miller “grandson,” having studied under Miller’s other famous student, Bernard Bailyn of Harvard.  Thus the reach of great teachers extends into generations yet to come.
Being from Virginia, I look forward to a time when I can investigate Edmund Morgan’s second field of expertise,  slavery in the upper South. My letter to Gordon Wood, I now realize, shows how Miller’s students and their progeny absorbed the master’s ability to understand from the inside. Here’s a paragraph from my letter to Gordon Wood:
I am a Virginian of the old school and your analysis of the “natural aristocrat” helped me to understand myself and my family. The breed is dead as the dodo now, I’m afraid, but I still think of myself in exactly that way, and it was amazing to read your account of the phenomenon. It helped me to realize that I was not as bourgeois by today’s standards as I had feared! 
Here is the link to the Morgan obituary: