What are we missing here? PROLOGUE For the prayer on confession last Sunday, I offered a prayer by Flannery O’Connor, the celebrated fiction writer from Milledgeville Georgia, who, I learned the next day from a church member, was also a racist of very standard southern issue. This was a surprise to me, and I was ashamed I was not more informed or I probably wouldn’t have used her prayer on a Sunday devoted to African-American oppression from the racism in all of us. On the other hand, she prays to lose her blind spot, even though she didn’t recognize the particular one we are focused on. By the same token, blind spots were a concern of Jesus, as you will be hearing in the scripture lesson and sermon later. So I think it is very appropriate to repeat Flannery O’Connor’s prayer this morning and the assurance of pardon I wrote for it. Prayer of Confession—Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self-shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and I will judge myself by the shadow which is nothing. I do not know you, God, because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside. Please help me get down under things and find where you are. Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me. Amen. –Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964).
Assurance of Pardon—The forgiveness of God is perpetual. God’s forgiveness inspires humility, honesty, repentance and reform—let it be so for every one of us and for every American citizen today. Amen. What are we missing here? Matthew 7:1-3“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? I. Over the years of reading history, I can remember my silent reaction when encountering the account of some particularly egregious inhumanity. Romans crucified thousands and thousands of people for robbery or sedition, as Jesus was himself—a barbarous cruelty that absolutely defies belief. The church gave Joan of Arc over to the secular authorities to be burned at the stake—how could they possibly burn anyone to death, least of all her?? They dunked women they thought were witches to see if they would live—what on earth kind of logic is that? People were stolen from their peaceable lives and after a perilous passage across the Atlantic sold into slavery—who could possibly conceive of human beings as property and treat them that way? Lately, the American military would torture captives nearly to death—how could they possibly abide by what they were doing to another person with their own hands? The few objections to these practices went unheeded at the time, if they were even heard. II. I do not judge that there are satisfactory answers to excuse those behaviors today, and nobody does—but what I probably ought to be more worried about is, what could there be that is comparably barbarous, cruel, inhuman, and illogical that we are overlooking in our front yard today? Jesus not only was preaching a commonplace ethic of his time—judge not that ye be not judged; he was making a particularly Jewish point—that God is the ultimate judge, not you or me. But Jesus characteristically added a little dig at our hypocrisy by using the wildly exaggerated analogy between the speck in other person’s eye and the log in our own to put our own sin in correct proportion to its real importance. It is to our great shame that the Kerner Commission Report in 1968 got it right—poverty and institutional racism were driving inner-city violence. But nobody in power gave heed, and we continued living our precious lives while African-Americans continued dying—. It is to our great shame that Americans to this day will make points out of “welfare queens” so-called and poorly educated blacks and unstable families without seeing our direct role in their existence. It is to our great shame that we could not get a clue, neither from plain common sense nor all the sociological data, until people had to pour out into the streets last month in 99 cities in the midst of a pandemic to express the heartbreak of life in America for people of color. What are we missing here, like those people in past centuries who condoned barbarity, cruelty, inhumanity, and lethal illogic? White flight to the suburbs has baked into our living habits a casual insouciance. What are we missing here? American self-reliance has baked into our living habits a malignant stinginess. What are we missing here? What are we looking straight at and not seeing? An axiom of urban studies is that people in every age and culture want safety for their families and education for their children. Safety and education—for lack of which cultures must endure high anxiety and ceilings to their aspirations. Safety and education—everything I got growing up white so I have wealth that isn’t even measured in dollars. The promise of safety and education for our children populated American suburbs with 10s of millions of white families. Here is what I know we are missing: it’s the barbarous, cruel, inhuman and illogical way we fund education on the basis of local real estate taxes. We fund public education on the basis of taxes on local real estate values. Seems obvious, but we don’t see the mistake here—or, if we do see it, we don’t and won’t do anything about it. Germany saw it. They fund all national education from the state level with state-wide taxes—not municipal real estate taxes—so school quality does not vary significantly between rich and poor towns and cities. Maybe in 50-100 years down the road, people will read about us in their history books and say, “How could they possibly have missed seeing the barbarous, cruel, inhuman and illogical way they funded public school education??” III. But let’s take this analysis back to the personal level where Jesus had pointed us. For lack of practicing at the personal level what Jesus preached, we persist in habits of judgments we call “opinions” on how other people dress, about their decisions and mishaps and, worst of all, we form ill-considered opinions that form the substratum of political positions we take on public issues. How qualitatively different opinions are from wisdom! Opinions are judgments not substantiated by positive knowledge—not thoughtful discernments. (“In my opinion. . .”, “Well, if you want to know my opinion. . .”.) How destructive opinions are when people live on an exclusive diet of them. This is a distinction I was trying to cultivate last fall with my “Soundings” program, where I urged us as we entered our Transition phase at Eliot Church to get beneath or around or over the mere opinion level into a more discerning faculty. Opinions are born from our judgmental reflexes, our vested interests, our blocked emotions, and the imperfect vision we have of God. We hardly know ourselves, let alone others, because we are always batting around opinions we wish others would come to their good senses and concur with. Before you judge a man or a woman, walk a mile in his or her shoes, goes another proverb. See what walking in George Floyd’s shoes for only 8 minutes and 46 seconds did for this country. All this applies to us in our Discernment phase at Eliot Church as we seek to make a path forward in 2020, just as much as it applies to developing sound political positions in a country in a racial crisis. To ask God for us to remove ourselves from our line of vision of God, is not a bad prayer, it’s a very good prayer that O’Connor prayed. In fact, it certainly meets my definition of prayer as a moment of honesty before your God. Flannery O’Connor probably didn’t even know she was racist, but her prayer asked for the honesty to find what she didn’t know about herself. Well, it’s up to her to find the speck in her eye, and up to us to find the log in ours. Will people continue to value her books and stories? Should I? Of course she will be read, but with the additional awareness of her fallibility as a human being. Because, as a matter of literary fact, Flannery O’Connor was a mordant critic of white people, especially of religious white people. IV. Besides missing the barbarous, cruel, inhuman and illogical funding inequities that are right in front of us in our educational system, there’s one more thing we might be missing, which we don’t want to be caught without—heart, a heart. I have to think what that Minneapolis officer was missing was a heart; what Mitch McConnell is missing is heart; what Kelly Ann Conway is missing is a heart. We don’t want to be caught missing a heart and funding public education through local real estate taxes. This would be a fitting chapter in a study on what reparations to the African-American community might look like, if we dared to look that closely. --Rev. Richard Chrisman, 6/28/2020