August 13, 2017 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha D. Kearse, DMin
Sermon Series: Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century: The Calling of Wisdom
Sermon: Southern Gentle Lady, Be Good
Scripture: Exodus 20:16; James 3
We all know the answer to this one question—no matter what the circumstances under which it is asked: “Do these pants make me look fat?” The answer, of course is, “No! You look great!” Right? There’s no world in which someone says, “Sorry, but you look like an advertisement for a sausage factory in those things.” And, when we come to this next to the last commandment in our decalogue, we tend to think of it as being about honesty, don’t we? Brutal honesty, where we say things like, “Yes, you look fat in those pants.” As it is stated, both in Hebrew and in English, the actual commandment is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The wording involves legal language: “witness” or “testimony,” words that would be used in a court of law. And the last phrase: “against your neighbor;” in other words, testifying, falsely, in such a way that it harms your neighbor.
Now, Jesus made very clear who our neighbor is, didn’t he? Who is our neighbor? Not just everybody—not just a general “be nice to everybody,” but a very specific task of actually reaching out to those we would regard as strangers or aliens; those we would ordinarily call our enemies. As usual, it is so much easier for us to attend to minutia, such as the petty lies we tell to get by in a single day, than it is for us to address the actual truth of what we have done, that this commandment is almost always lost in translation. Jesus, as always, is absolutely correct in the assessment of us which involved splinters and logs—we would so much rather deal with splinters. This penultimate commandment does not say, “Don’t lie;” it is not about politeness or social niceties at all. It’s not about who took a cookie or who broke the lamp. It is about justice—the thing we seek when we go into a court of law. The thing God is about. The vital component of righteousness which makes God a God of love. Justice.
Let’s say, for example, that a person is witness to a crime. She has seen a man attack another woman, beating her, taking her money, and leaving her for dead. Let us further say that she is subpoenaed by the court to tell what she saw. What if she doesn’t go? Well, she is then in trouble with the law. So, what if she goes, but she pretends that she didn’t really see anything, or that she doesn’t remember? What if the man who did this crime, who was caught by the police, and whom everyone knows is guilty cannot be convicted of the crime because the woman will not testify to what she saw? That is what it means to bear false witness. She caused harm to her neighbor, denying her justice, by falsely ignoring the truth, whatever her reason for doing so might have been.
I have been thinking about this sermon all summer, because I knew what it had to be. I never know, until I hear it, what God will give me to say about a certain passage, but this one came early and I did not want to do it. About a month ago, I read about a book by James Cone, the wonderful theologian from Union Theological Seminary in New York. The book is called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As you might imagine, it is a difficult book. I had already been thinking about a poem by Langston Hughes, which I have quoted in the title of the sermon. The poem is called “Silhouette” and it reads:
Southern gentle lady,
do not swoon,
They’ve just hung a black man,
In the dark of the moon.
They’ve hung a black man
To a roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.
Southern gentle lady,
I used to teach this poem when I taught American literature. I understood it to be about lynchings, which in my mind, were rare occurrences when mobs got out of hand, as in the incident in To Kill a Mockingbird. I never really tried to find out the truth about those lynchings—I assumed I knew. Cone’s book would teach me otherwise.
In truth, lynchings were systematic, with over 5000 lynchings in a 50-year period between 1880 and 1930 in the United States. They took place in just about every state in the nation, not just in the South. And they were known about at every level: senators, congressmen, ministers, bishops, supreme court justices—they all knew that these lynchings were happening and they approved of them as a necessary method to keep down people who were dangerous just because of the color of their skin. Cone says, “To be black meant that whites could do anything to you or your people, and that neither you nor anyone else could do anything about it.”
Not only that, but these lynchings were not spur of the moment events. They were announced in papers—hundreds, sometimes 10’s of thousands of people, showed up and treated the event with a fair-like atmosphere. There was often a photographer, who would take pictures of the cheering crowd, making the pictures into postcards and selling them for $.25 a piece the next day, so that people could send them to their relatives who could not attend. And as we sit here, and take that in, I know you understand that no one in this room is being asked to atone for the sins of those people—no one in here was there—there is a very good chance that none of our parents participated in anything like this horrific event either. No. We are not addressing that today. Today, we are talking about bearing false witness. And there, the white Christian church has an enormous problem.
Because although our particular church never housed ministers who called for hatred from the pulpit, although we have not been guilty of violent language or hate speech, we have also not believed our African-American brothers and sisters when they told us what was happening to them. We have not taught the truth of our history in our schools, nor have we insisted that it be taught to our children. We have not protested the egregious discrepancies between schools which are primarily white in Charlotte and schools which are primarily African-American. We have not borne witness to truth in search of justice.
Cone quotes several other theologians in his book. He quotes Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German refugee to the US, who said, “When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime…the most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent and most disgraceful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem is silence.” He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, his predecessor at Union, who said, “I do mean to say this: that the bulk of the white…Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of hands, you know…I don’t suppose that…all white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself.” He quotes James Baldwin who said that most Americans “have been for so long, so safe and so sleepy, that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by. I think they really think it might be Coca-Cola.”
The point of Cone’s book is that Christianity is a faith of the cross—the symbol of a first-century lynching. And while African-Americans have for centuries now understood, deeply, the meaning of the sacrifice of the cross, because they were living it through oppression, and through these horrible, systemic lynchings, white Christians have ignored this truth of the faith, actively participating in the false witness that our systems were not harming our brothers and sisters in ongoing, and unconscionable ways. Cone quotes the black historian Lerone Bennet when he said that African-American people understood, “at the deepest level…what it was like to be crucified…And more: that there were some things in this world that are worth being crucified for.”
In the book, Cone tells the story of Mamie Till Bradley, the mother of Emmet Till, who, as a 14-year old boy visiting family in the South, was tortured and murdered and thrown in the river with a heavy piece of machinery on his body. Mamie insisted that her son’s body be on display, with an open casket, for three days, exposing “his battered and bloated corpse” so that “everybody can see what they did to my boy.” She spoke of a voice that came to her and said, “Mamie, it was ordained from the beginning of time that Emmet Louis Till would die a violent death. You should be grateful to be the mother of a boy who died blameless like Christ. Bo Till will never be forgotten. There is a job for you to do now.” She told the press about her prayer: “Lord, you gave your son to remedy a condition, but who knows but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.” And, in fact, the images of Emmet Till’s face brought national and international attention to the problem, the pressure of which and the TRUTH of which served to facilitate an end to that horrible period.
This is the power of truth. It is in this way that truth makes us free. It is not painless, it is not comfortable. It requires that we sacrifice our apathy and our misguided attachment to our own “rightness.” Mamie Till Bradley bore witness to truth. Friday evening, as I drove home from delivering my son back to UNCG, I listened to the Radio Lab podcast. It is not the first time that I have been given the gift of a story before I was called on to preach. The story was about a newspaper in Tampa, FL which spent 2-3 years finding all the data on arrests and shootings in the state of FL. In many ways, their findings were grim—throughout the state of Florida, which is 17% African-American, 40% of those who are arrested or who have violent encounters with law enforcement are African-American. Part of the story, though, was the good news about one police chief who has chosen to bear witness to truth.
Mike Chitwood, who is now the Sherriff for the entire county, was then the chief of police in Daytona Beach. Daytona Beach is a city of 62,000 people, which is often home to things like Bike Week, with over 500,000 motorcyclists, or the Daytona 500. In a six year period between 2009 and 2014, the police in Daytona Beach had only 2 police shootings. Furthermore, annually, their breakdown of arrests and tickets matches their population; in other words, the police in Daytona Beach arrest and ticket people the same regardless of their race or skin color. When the interviewer asked Chief Chitwood how they managed that in so short a time period he said, and this is a direct quote from the show, “When all these incidents were occurring in Ferguson and around the country, we did a mandatory training on race in policing for the entire PD. And basically, what we wanted all the officers to do was, number one, learn the history of the country. Because the history of the country is that we are a racist nation, no matter how you want to look at it. It started with moving the Indians off of their land with Manifest Destiny. When you look at Jim Crow laws, when you at the Civil War and slavery, when you look at Bull Conner, for example, turning dogs and fire hoses loose on Civil Rights marchers. So it’s important for officers to understand that. When you go into an African-American community, you may think you talk and act in a way that is respectful and understanding, but in reality, you’re not. But let’s not think for a moment that -there isn’t bias in policing. Because there’s bias, we all have bias in us…How do we stop that bias from coming when we make a decision?”
Chitwood’s tactic was acknowledgement, then training. He doesn’t hire 19-year olds—he hires veterans, who have a cooler head and experience with extreme circumstances. He trains his people to keep distance between them and those who seem dangerous, giving the officers time to position themselves and to assess the situation. He has his officers get involved with the community—learn their names and know who they are. In the last year, since he became the Sherriff for his county, Chitwood has also been part of forming something called PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, which published 30 Guiding Principles for the Use of Force. The first of their guiding principles is the sanctity of human life. Since that time, the ICP and the Fraternal Order of Police have both adopted some of those guidelines for use throughout the country.
The point is that the truth does not deal in false dichotomies: it is possible to acknowledge wrongdoing without abandoning other truths. It is possible to defend one group of people without condemning another. To be people of truth, to be the people of the God of truth is neither simple, nor is it always pleasant. And, to our credit, we come back, week after week, to submit ourselves to uncomfortable and challenging words. This past week, I had the chance to meet with my Circle of Hope group. We have a wonderful group, and met at the lovely home of Ken and Wanda Hungate, where we were all met with gracious hospitality. And I have to admit that I stole the conversation—I had to hear what my friends from Friendship had to say about this topic. Fortunately, they offered me no out. There was no world in which they excused me from the task of broaching the topic of the way white Christians have borne false witness, both to our own complicity and to the realities of what was happening to our brothers and sisters. Our friend, Timothy, said this: “What if you tell them,” he said, “that they can be part of another person’s salvation? What if you tell them that by acknowledging this truth, by speaking up, white people can be a part of saving us?” He invoked Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whom James Cone also spoke of. Cone quotes Bonhoeffer as saying this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We wear these crosses around our necks, these symbols of an innocent man, lynched by the authorities because of pressure from a mob. Before we put them on, we should go cold with the fear that we would wear them under false pretenses, that we would bear false witness to who Jesus was, to what Jesus did.
I cannot tell you what to do about this truth of our history and our present. What I can tell you is that the next to the last commandment forbids us from bearing false witness against our neighbors. I can tell you that 100’s, if not 1000’s of KKK members rallied in the town of my birth, Charlottesville, VA yesterday, and I was not there to stand against them. The poem, “Christ Recrucified” by Countee Cullen, sums up the theology Cone is trying to share:
The South is crucifying Christ again
By all the laws of ancient rite and rule:
The ribald cries of “Save Yourself” and “Fool”
Din in his ears, the thorns grope for his brain,
And where they bit, swift springing rivers stain
His gaudy, purple robe of ridicule
With Sullen red; and acid wine to cool
His thirst is thrust at him, with lurking pain.
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women, too,
Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.
We are not guilty of the sin of murder. We did not do this killing. We did not ask for it. We were not consulted. But we let it stand. And we ignored its systemic nature. And we ignored its lessons. And we have stayed silent. We have borne false witness, and have the chance today, to turn aside from that sin, to lay it down, and to move forward with a scathing commitment to truth. And, incidentally, to also be ready to tell our very best friend, “Yeah, honey—those pants would probably look better on a cow than they do on you.”