I have been meaning to begin a blog for years. Inspired time and again, then delayed time and again. This is the Lansford Reporter, a paper out of Lansford, Illinois which, you will learn at some point, is not a real place. This is going to be a blog of fiction and about fiction. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it.
But not today. And, precedent-setting, not my first entry.
Today as I sit and try to understand all that is happening around me in the light of our nation’s responses to the deaths first of Michael Brown and then Eric Garner, I decided that I needed to begin with this. It is political. It is religious. It’s also about who I am. Most importantly, it’s about who I’m not, and why that’s important to the world.
For years, as a child, my favorite hymn was “Amazing Grace”. I especially loved the last verse- “when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun”. I had no idea what it meant, but it sure sounded beautiful. And that tune lingered throughout my life. I heard it innumerable times at church. It was, in fact, an “unofficial anthem” of a church that I dearly love. I heard it, perhaps most appropriately, at the memorial services of lost family, friends, and loved ones. And someday certainly I thought, when I mistakenly got into the morbidity of the topic of my own service, it would be played at mine.
The story behind the lyrics is fairly well known. Newton was an Atlantic slave trader. This was his “wretchedness”. But in 1748, a storm battered his ship so fiercely that Newton feared for his life. He cried out to God for safety and out of gratitude toward the God who did indeed save him, he wrote the familiar words of “Amazing Grace”. And we love these words because we all know the familiar theology behind it. All of us, since Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, have fallen short of the glory of God. We have fallen short of the expectations that God has for our lives. And we know, thanking this same God, that if not immediately then in due time, these sins will be forgiven and we will cross that ancient divide.
Take the hymnal, take that page, take the old memories that float on those notes, and throw them out. Banish them. And all will be understood if there is a feeling of great sadness that accompanies this action. We have not yet reached the ten thousand years that we sing about. We have not yet shone as brightly as the sun. We still desperately want to shine.
But we will not shine if we retell this old story of John Newton the antagonist converted to the Christian hero. We will not shine if we whistle those notes without a horrible heaviness. We will not shine if we think just of his wretchedness and our own. Not if we think just of his salvation and our own.
The inhumanity and crime of the slave trade is well documented. Chattel slaves upon great vessels. A black body of property stacked upon a black body of property. The slaves starved. They grew sick. They died. They were thrown overboard and drowned in the sea. Ignorant, cruel men took them from their homes. Ignorant, cruel men whose descendants would be us. Ignorant, cruel descendants who too often still find the bile within them stirring enough to yell out “Go back to Africa!” There was John Newton, a cog in the machine of this operation. There was John Newton in his stormy night at sea, praying to God for his safety while below the deck, black bodies whispered to the ones that had fallen on top of them… words that we might imagine, in their own native language to be: “I can’t breathe”.
How can we proclaim: “How sweet is this sound!” Grace! A grace that saved John Newton. A grace that would save his descendants. A grace that would save those of us who look like him. A grace that saved a ship battered by waves but had precious little time to save the cargo who lifted up their own prayers below the deck. The amazing grace of Newton’s song points to a God who only saved the white man.
Of course, Newton was wrong. And of course, the Christian God cannot fit fully within the confines of any theology, much less the one as seemingly self-centered and quite frankly, un-Christ-like, as the slave trader’s. But if we claim Newton’s truth as our truth today, we are continuing a horrible tradition and we are continuing to commit our own crime of eluding the necessary pains of self-examination and hopefully, God-willing, God-guided growth.
As we watch people of color today, tomorrow, and into the days to come publically mourning the wounds dealt to them from before John Newton to now, we have to ask ourselves- what can I do? The answer is different for all, and I know that mine is only a beginning. I will not sing “Amazing Grace” again. And when those notes inevitably play in church, as they inevitably will, I will turn from the song of gratitude to the prayer of repentance.
There have been different responses to the decision against an indictment in the Eric Garner case. This devastates me. While I felt equally saddened by the lack of an indictment in Michael Brown’s case, this one seemed too obvious. It was all on video. I watched it. You watched it. From protests held worldwide, it is clear that people of many nations watched it. There was the first video of the arrest. “I can’t breathe.” And a second video, seven minutes long, of a man down on the pavement while officers occasionally try to check his pulse and while an EMT who comes onto the scene does the same. For seven minutes, we all watched a man, a father, son, and husband, die. We know that a grand jury watched it also. And then we heard the decision.
And then, for some reason, people were surprised, even agitated, even horrified, when the protests took to the streets. In the best light, they were saddened that a supposed post-racial America seemed to explode into a divided reality thought long gone.
Because a man is dead. Two men, representative of many more. Because there is no accountability. Because the justice system is flawed. Because the prison system is overwhelmingly occupied by people of color who are then taken as commodities of privatized industries. Because blacks and people of color were, by arbitrary and unnecessary laws, kept away from polls in 2012. 2012! Because Elvis took black music and bought Graceland. Because the inner cities are left alone until they are gentrified. Because there’s a website called “People of Walmart”. Because we worry about Wall Street and Main Street but not Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Because someone always says, ‘But what about Obama?’ Because, for some reason, the idea of reparations is laughable. Because, for some reason, the need for affirmative action is laughable. Because when a Johnny Cash song is about drugs and murder it’s a country classic but rap is ‘glorifying a violent culture’. Because diabetes, heart conditions, breathing problems are called ‘results of poor nutritional decisions’ and not the ‘most inexpensive food at the store is the most unhealthy’. Because whites can use the n-word while wearing Jordans and a retro Jim Brown jersey. Because welfare is often called a handout. Because Clinton, the recent presidential hero, hacked welfare. Because, we say, black kids are always angry. Because, we say, black fathers are always irresponsible. Because, we say, black mothers are always thoughtless bearers of the fragile gift of motherhood. Because, we say, the Black Panthers were a menace but the NRA is a-okay. Because someone saying, ‘reverse racism’ always ends an important conversation. Because wearing sagging pants makes you a “thug”. Because winning a Super Bowl Championship makes you a “thug”. Because Shaniqua and Jabari are somehow “funny names”. Because someone always says “Slavery is over.” Because someone always says, “The Civil Rights Movement is over.” Because the Civil Rights Movement is treated like ancient history. Martin would be 86 this year. Medgar and Malcolm would both be 90. Emmett Till would be 74. The four girls in the Birmingham bombing would be between 62 and 65. Because this list is long and will never be finished.
Because when we are white, we can feel just like John Newton, assume that the God who showed us grace has done the same earthly good for all, and know that white knowledge is the chorus that will echo down through centuries.
I recently read Tavis Smiley’s The Death of a King, focusing on those tumultuous, and now often sanitized last 365 days of the man’s life. While King remains the often default hero of racial justice and equality, he is far from the only voice within his own movement much less within the incredibly wide range of prophetic voices that have helped create a talking space for conversations about race should we all, and especially we whites, be bold enough, vulnerable enough, and human enough, to enter in. While my knowledge and appreciation of protest movements extends far beyond King- it is King’s life, letters, words, and actions that originally allowed me to step behind the pulpit of a faith that was often too much John Newton and not enough Moses.
What struck me most was how King’s familiar idea of an “inescapable network of mutuality” and a “single garment of history” became, with much heartache, increasingly global. The SCLC and many of King’s supporters pressed King to remain a minister centrally concerned with matters of race in the United States and to stay away from Vietnam. King kindly pointed out the network. These two things aren’t separate. The money that was spent on the ongoing war campaign was being taken from the black community. Furthermore the black bodies who took part in the war would hopefully soon come home but to a hopelessly still impoverished place of body and spirit. Because an impoverished spirit is tragically nearly without exception, a result of an impoverished body.
During this past July, the month when Eric Garner was killed, other Americans stood at the border yelling at children, often refugees fleeing violence, and demanding that they not come into “our” country. In the fall we faced an Ebola scare that led to a national question of how to keep the disease away from us and much less of a discussion about how to care for those who suffered in East Africa. For years, we have struggled through the morality of an ongoing war on terror- a war that perhaps justifies many tragic measures, but to many has falsely justified the killing of children and ongoing practices of torture. And our conversations also turned to Garner, Brown, Trayvon Martin, and so many others.
Our global discourse has been set with the fundamental rule that people of color are not just the “other” but the “lesser”. And so we who are white have the high immutable claim on the fruitful land that was in no way God-given to us. And so we who are white can prioritize the dissipation of our fear over the dire need of the suffering. And so we who are white can live as the moral exemplars who both wrote the Constitution and held our hands over our ears outside the doors at Guantanamo. And so we who are white can watch the video of a man dying for seven minutes and still, many of us, turn and accept that grand jury’s decision.
I am not Eric Garner, nor do I ever need to fear that my fate will mirror his. Because he is black and I am white. And because we are all willing to save wretches like me.
Rev. Jonah K. Smith-Bartlett