Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, June 29, 2015

Mother Emanuel AME Church shows the way

"Someone should have told that young man. 
He wanted to start a race war but he came to the wrong place." 
John Richard Bryant, senior bishop of the A.M.E. Church
A sign at the funeral for The Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney declared, 
"Wrong church! Wrong people! Wrong day!"  

At the Karl Barth conference in Princeton this week, I preached a sermon on the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins ( aka "bridesmaids") which I'd been working on for two weeks but had not finished to my satisfaction. The massacre in the AME church in Charleston happened four days before the sermon was due to be preached and, in the end, the members of that church preached the sermon for me, so to speak. The sermon, "What's In Those Lamps?" is posted on this website (see right sidebar on the home page, or click on Sermons).

The drawing on the cover of The New Yorker this week depicts the AME church steeple and facade with a cross clearly affixed to the front as it is in real life. The artist did not need to include the symbol of the cross in order to make the drawing, but he did. Above the steeple, nine birds are winging their way heavenward into a blue sky.

The last time I remember a New Yorker cover with a Christian theme was an Easter cover, probably during the Tina Brown days, with a scurrilous drawing of a rabbit. I forget the point of the joke it was making, but the mockery of our faith made me so mad at the time that I wrote an indignant letter to the magazine (not that Tina would have cared). One of our best-known New Yorkers is Brian Lehrer, who has a two-hour program five days a week on the local NPR (WNYC). I admire him greatly and listen to him regularly. The only time I have ever been upset with him are the times (rare) when he is doing an interview that touches upon Christian faith. He doesn't even try to understand it (as a couple of significant exceptions we might contrast David Brooks, also a Jew, whose column appears in the New York Times along with that of Ross Douthat  -- the house conservative and practicing Catholic). I have written to Brian Lehrer about this twice and he always answers very politely but does not seem to understand what I am getting at, which is so unlike him in his interviews that it's startling.

The degree of disdain directed to Christian faith and worship by the intelligentsia and the commentariat, especially in the Northeast where I've lived for 45 years,  has been growing and swelling for decades. I am still disconcerted by it; having known so many highly educated, socially adept Christians in my life, it seems extraordinary that we should be regarded as marginal. In the secular circles where I operate part of the time, my Christian faith is tolerated along a spectrum from indifference to mild amusement to patronizing sufferance to something more like contempt. Only the African-American church seems at least partially immune from this syndrome, and I don't think that's entirely because the bien-pensant contingent wants to give them a pass -- though obviously that's part of it. I think it's also because the sincerity, humor, and charm of their faith, and its rock-solid breadth and depth throughout all trials commands respect. Their Christian communities have endured so much for so long that the mockery of outsiders means nothing to them. They take no account of belittling from others.I have seen this up close and in depth in my frequent visits to my native South, but it is also true in New York. The Christian gospel is close to the surface of these churchgoers' lives, and wells up from a deep spring. It doesn't just get brought out on Sunday morning.

Therefore the response of Mother Emanuel to the racist horror in their beloved church building was not coaxed out of them by the pastors. It was there all along. My sister heard someone say, that the AME nine were not ready, but they were prepared. Their families and their fellow members in the congregation were not ready, but they were prepared. They had that extra oil with them when, in the darkness of hatred and violence, they were prepared to light their lamps of love and peace. We will see no greater witness to the conquering righteousness of God in our time. May we rise to honor it, and to carry it forward.