Spirit Alive: Whose America Is This?

Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.
August 22, 2017

Food for the Soul:

It's Time to Wrestle with Our Demons...and Let Our Angels Sing

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Sometimes we assume that because we are moving into the future that somehow we are able to leave the past behind. Sometimes we think that once we confront an issue, such as racism or hatred, that it is finally put to rest once and for all. Sometimes...sometimes...we don't realize that this time it is up to us to step up and make a difference.
In recent days, we have been reminded yet again that if we are not vigilant, if we are not well-grounded, if we are not able to discover and bring to life our best selves that suddenly we will be confronting old ghosts and fighting former battles yet again.
The events surrounding Charlottesville, Virginia remind us that things are more fragile than we'd like to believe. Hatred and bigotry are alive and well, and violence is as ugly as ever. Neither one of them has been put to rest once and for all.
Many within our United Methodist family have already spoken out with clarity and eloquence on these matters. Our own Bishop Elaine Stanovsky and Bishop Bruce Ough, the President of the Council of United Methodist Bishops, have both added their voices to those concerned about what is taking place within our country. But other voices have spoken on such matters over time as well.
On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a letter to the Christian community, challenging it to embody the tenets of Jesus' teachings on love and justice and find its voice and use it for higher purposes. In the process, he expressed his deep disappointment that the Christian church had not stood up and spoken out about the injustice of that time.
Today, we face our own version of this challenge in the aftermath of Charlottesville. And while the road ahead will require something from all of us, like Dr. King, "let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." But this will not happen unless we are grounded firmly in our faith and are willing to stand with those who need our voices to be heard.
In the midst of so many disturbing and sad events, I have found myself in the middle of reading a very helpful, powerful book called The American Bible: Whose America Is This?-- How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.
It is written by Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and a senior fellow at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This amazing resource reminds us that words matter, and that while "there is no American creed, what brings us together is a common practice. To be an American is not to agree with your fellow citizens about a set of propositions. It is to agree to argue with them, and to argue passionately," but as a conversation, not expressed as acts of violence predicated on hatred or bigotry.
Prothero's book says that we are not of one mind on the matters that make us one nation, but that there are words that bind us together in ongoing discussion and debate. Spending time re-examining our rich national resources, expressed in speech, song, and story, can ground us in our nation's history and provide us with a path forward that touches deep within the American spirit.
The American Bible is able to do this by pulling together a vast array of public documents from The Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to President Eisenhower's Farewell Address, from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And it does so by framing these works in the format of a Bible, beginning with what Prothero considers the American Genesis documents and concluding with Epistles. Each entry is followed by a series of commentaries from a variety of sources that add to the mix, much like the Jewish Talmud.
In Prothero's view "the way forward...is not to anathematize as un-American those who have different interpretations, but to return together to the sources of our national life, and to do so with the recognition that Americans have never been united in our views about key issues or in our interpretations of our saints and scriptures. What has united us in the past and could bring us together again today is a chorus of voices telling us where we have been, who we are, and where we are going." But this cannot be done through the lens of hatred nor through acts of violence. We must find a publicly peaceful, powerfully prophetic, but personally probing way to move forward as a people. And the church has a role to play in this process.

Now it is our turn to respond. Now is the time for us to decide how our faith is to be activated within our current context and come to life today. Those who fought Nazism in World War II depend on us to do this. Those who have experienced racism depend on us to do this. Those who have sacrificed their lives for higher purposes depend on us to do this.
Much of the violence that we see unfolding before our eyes today is not just about politics, it is first and
foremost a reflection of the condition of our hearts, the state of our inner lives, and on our ability to love others as we would love ourselves. So at a time such as this, when our attention is fixed on the aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, perhaps it would serve us well if we paused for a moment and turned our attention to the wisdom of August Wilson . August Wilson once said: "Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing."
We are living in a time when we truly need our better angels...all of them...to sing. In fact, it will not be easy to move into the future, if we haven't successfully wrestled with our own demons around racial justice and violence and hatred. And we can't discover our "better angels" nor let our angels sing, if we find ourselves listening to lesser voices and the dark parts within us.

In many ways, it is as if we have been transported back in time to Birmingham, Alabama and that jail cell where Dr. King composed his remarkable letter. But the Civil Rights struggle did not end with this letter nor in a single action. Countless people had to stand up in faith for what they believed. In fact, two years after Dr. King wrote his letter that has been called "the manifesto of the civil rights movement," he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He did not do this alone.
And we cannot cross over the bridges that lead from Charlottesville nor any other place else where hatred and violence surface without marching together, which means that all of us must wrestle with our own inner demons and banish them with illumination and forgiveness in order to let our angels sing.

It is our turn to show up and live out the Way that Jesus taught in our own lives. Now is the time to embody what the Apostle Paul considered to be the marks of the Christian life when he said, "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5: 22-23)
It's hard to know if we are at a tipping point, a turning point, or a window of opportunity, but what we do know is that until we wrestle with our demons, our angels will not sing.
Let us walk in the light of God's love,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.



Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org