God's Open House

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Love Is a Two-Way Street

            When I lived in Memphis, I went to an all-boys’ high school called Memphis University School. My parents wanted us to go to the best schools we could, and for a boy, that was MUS. It was a little bit like the school from the movie Dead Poet’s Society (in fact, we played them in football). Teenage boys in ties and jackets running around old-fashioned buildings that exuded history. It felt like a historic place. It had a seal, and a coat of arms, and custom Ivy League chairs for the headmaster and the student body president to sit in at chapel, and every one of them said “Established 1893” on them. And along the hallway in the administration wing were pictures of every single graduating class, all the way back to 1893, with the oldest ones featuring prominently nearest the headmaster’s office.

            It was fun for us to go and look at all those old pictures and make fun of the ridiculous haircuts, and even some of our teachers who were among the graduates. And I remember looking at the pictures and noticing something weird. There was a gap in years. The picture of the graduating class from 1936 stood right next to the picture from 1956, with nothing in between. The next few times I was in that wing I looked for somewhere else they might be, but I never found them. And finally I asked someone about it, and it turned out there was a reason.

            The school that was founded in 1893 shut down in 1936, most likely because of the Depression. It wasn’t until twenty years later that a new school was founded under the old name. It had a different building, different headmaster, different backers, and different teachers. Everything was different except for the name, and the old pictures on the wall. Now MUS isn’t the only thing in the world that claims to be older than it is, but the timing of this is significant, because it coincides with a rash of new private schools that were all founded around the same time. Do you know what happened around 1956 that would cause someone to found a school in Memphis?

            It was Brown v. Board of Education, the famous Supreme Court case that ended school segregation. The ruling came down in 1954, Brown II in 1955, and MUS was founded in 1956. It was one of many schools that grew up around that time, part of a mass exodus of white families from the public school system, either through private schools or moving out of the district.

            This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the idea of racism or segregation. But it was the first time I had realized that the story of racism and of segregation in America had something to do with me. I wanted to think of school segregation and racism as things that happened long ago. We were decent people who neither said nor did racist things, but the truth is that the fruit of our good intentions was barely any different from the segregationists. When I was there in the late 90’s, in a city that was more than 50% black, less than 2% of the student body was African American. It was no longer the intention to have a school that catered solely to white students, but the effect was essentially the same. The school did make some token efforts towards diversity. There was a running joke among the non-white students that whenever the school wanted to put out marketing material, they’d all get rounded up for a picture. But the system of segregation that the school was and is still a part of is much bigger than a few glossy photos in a trifold. It was built with massive support from all parts of society, from schools to churches to the state legislature. It will take as much, if not more, to dismantle.

            The old racist attitudes are largely gone from our society. But our sin remains in our unwillingness to put the same effort into dismantling racist institutions that was put into building them. We will go to great lengths to avoid talking about race, and the myth of my high school’s founding in 1893 was a key part of that process. In claiming its history as a 19th century college prep school, it enabled parents to pretend that they were sending their sons to a private school on the basis of something other than race. But you can’t repent of the sins you’re hiding. By not acknowledging its true history, the school prevented itself from ever doing anything meaningful to address its sinful past.

            I tell the story also because something similar is going on with statues of Civil War figures. The conversation has been framed around Civil War history. But the monuments in question have only tenuous connection to the Civil War. The vast majority of them were produced generations after the end of the war, far from its events, and by people with little connection to those memorialized. They were installed against a backdrop of Jim Crow, lynching, and state-sanctioned oppression and violence towards African-Americans. Instead of being near places of significance for the war, they were set up in public squares and adjacent to courthouses, claiming those spaces for what they represent. Sometime when we talk about the letters of Paul we’ll talk about how the Romans built public squares and used public art as monuments to their own values. The statues that we build are no different. The monuments in Charlottesville are a case in point. They were installed in 1921 and 1924, more than 60 years after the Civil War, but during the peak of KKK activity in the United States. They were built atop and overlooking what were at the time thriving black neighborhoods. And they recognize no history from the Civil War. There were no battles in Charlottesville, save one skirmish north of the city that was part of a diversion. The site of that raid was never memorialized, until 1988, when it became a shopping mall. Statues like the one in Charlottesville are a fundamental part of American history. But not the part of history they claim. They were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy, and to make heroes of the men who fought for it.

            In both of these cases, a new myth has been written to obscure the same ugly truth: racism is one of the major driving forces in American history and it continues today. We allow those myths to grow because we would rather not talk about some difficult truths about life in America: racism was a major factor in the shaping of the public school system, and the belief in the white racial superiority was not eradicated long ago but common in living memory and is still present in some circles today. I have benefited, and likely continue to benefit from both of these realities. What we cannot hide from is the fruit that those truths have borne.

            We have seen some of that fruit this past week, in a series of horrifying displays that culminated in an act of terrorism. And we have, for the first time in a long time, been forced to acknowledge them. The good news is that for almost everyone, it was not difficult to condemn white supremacism as morally repugnant and beyond the pale. But Jesus asks more of us than that.

            Our Gospel passage for today comes from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon begins with the Beatitudes, and they set the tone for his teaching. Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, and he begins with blessing. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the peacemakers. By the time we get to our passage, we are nearing the end of the sermon, and Jesus isn’t passing out blessings, but warnings. Jesus warns us that following God will not be easy. Enter through the narrow door, he says, for the path is wide and that leads to destruction.  Jesus warns us about false prophets and tells us how to discern for ourselves whether we are following God. “You will know them by their fruit,” he says. There are no good trees that produce bad fruit, he says. The thrust of Jesus’ argument is simple. The best way to tell a good teaching from a bad teaching is to determine whether or not it bears good fruit.

            The myth of my school’s founding, and the myth of Confederate statues a memorials to noble figures are both intended to suggest that our history of race is made up of good trees. But a look at the results tells us with no lack of clarity that these trees have produced bad fruit. The median wealth of a white family is 13 times that of an African-American family in the United States. African-American children are more likely to be suspended or even arrested in school for misbehavior. And African-Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of the white population. This fruit is not the result of a good tree, but a bad one.

            Unfortunately, it takes far more than just self-awareness to produce good fruit. The efforts to create and maintain inequality in the United States were massive, and took the whole effort of white society to create. They will take as much, if not more, to dismantle. We have come to one of the rare moments in history when America has come to a meaningful agreement on race. White Supremacism and Nazism that it associates with has been almost universally condemned. But to stop there is enter through the wide gate. Obvious villains are easy to condemn. The narrow gate looms before us, in which we acknowledge that we too have had a part in the painful history of race in America, and we start doing the hard but necessary work of dismantling the structures that disproportionately benefit ourselves based on skin color. Much harder is the work we must do on ourselves and our country, to hold it up to the standard set up in Scripture and ensure that we bear good fruit for the next generation. It begins with confronting the ideas of white supremacy and ethnic nationalism, but in continues in challenging the myths that allow those ideas to flourish. And it must go even further, in confronting our own participation in the system, and doing hard work and making sacrifices to repent and reconcile of the damage it has done. But this is what Jesus calls us to do. If we want to be a part of the Kingdom of God, we cannot just show up with words or intentions. We must bear good fruit.

            Our passage from Isaiah gives us an incredible glimpse the Kingdom that Jesus talks about. “Maintain justice and do what is right, Isaiah says, “for my salvation will soon come.” Then Isaiah paints a picture of God’s Open House. In the Kingdom, God will bring in anyone and everyone who hears and obeys God’s call. God will bring in the foreigner joined to the law. God will bring in the eunuch who keeps the Sabbath. God will gather the outcasts of Israel, and others besides.

            Between this passage and the Beatitudes, we have a profound image of what the Kingdom of God will look like. It will be filled with people of all colors, nations, sexual orientation and gender identity. They will be meek, but they will hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will know sorrow, but they will be filled with joy. They will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but they will be called children of God. “People will come from east and west and from north and south to take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29).

I can only hope that I will be brave enough to enter through the narrow door to get there.