We’re in the midst of a major anniversary this week, the Marches in Selma. It began 50 years ago with Bloody Sunday, March 7, and ended when the marchers finally reached the Alabama capitol on March 25. They marched for the right to vote. They were met with scorn and violence. But by their courage, our country came to see the justice of their cause and the fullness of their humanity.
Last Saturday, President Obama spoke to the nation, connecting the march across a bridge in Selma to the long arc of all our struggles for freedom, to both the progress we’ve made and the work yet to be done. He said,
“If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
Obama spoke to what is best in America and reminded us of the struggle for justice which remains. The President called it “our long journey toward freedom.”
Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the baptismal promise we make to live lives of integrity, compassion, and justice. These are the very skills we need in order to make “the long journey.” Being true to our baptismal promise will sustain us in the journey toward freedom. We could say with Frost, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
One could think of the promise to live with integrity, compassion, and justice as relating to our past, our present, and our future. Living with integrity can mean honestly naming what has happened. Compassion demands the clarity of sight to see what is happening now. And justice involves the determination to bring about what needs to happen, both immediately and in our future. Our baptismal promise commits us to speak about what happened, to ask what is happening, and to work for what needs to happen.
Integrity pushes us to talk about what has happened. And yet, it’s hard to do, even long after the fact. This came home to me watching President Obama speak about progress on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a brigadier general in the confederate army and after the Civil War, a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. 50 years on, why can’t we rename that bridge?
That the bridge remains named for a Klan leader reminds me how hard it is for us to talk about our past. We have come a long way; and yet how much farther do we need to go before we can talk honestly, confessionally about what happened?
Recently the Introduction to Theology class worked its way through a book by James Cone on the Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone wrote about the lynching of African-Americans in the antebellum period up through the Civil Rights Movement - people Marched in Selma because men like Edmund Pettus lynched African-Americans. Lynching - whether by hanging, shooting, stabbing, or beating - served as a way to assert white supremacy. And yet, Cone wrote, we don’t talk about it. As he said, “white Americans would prefer to forget” and “for African-Americans the memory … is so painful that they, too, try to keep these horrors buried.” It’s true of much of our history of racism; we draw a curtain between now and then, preferring to see the distance we’ve come instead of our connection to the past. James Baldwin once described this as “willful naivete.”
My reading of James Cone on lynching in America came during a time of new learning about my own family history. My brother John had been doing some genealogical research. From my father on back 5 generations, the men share some version of the name Edwin Forrest. The eponymous (e-pan-ne-mus) Edwin Forrest, my brother learned, was a famous actor in the 19th century. An old photograph of him actually looks eerily like my brother John. Forrest used the wealth he earned to build a retirement home for actors. A theater in Philadelphia is named in his honor because of his generosity. And yet, I learned, too, that Forrest earned his wealth and fame through blackface routines - performances which played off racial stereotypes, demeaned African-Americans, and cemented in the white psyche awful notions of what it meant to be black. One source even credited Edwin Forrest with inventing the genre of blackface in a Cincinnati, Ohio, performance in 1823.
Once I started to pull back the curtain on what happened in my own family story, I looked at more details in another light. As a twelve year old I visited San Saba, Texas, to see the old homeland of my mother’s family. There we toured the crumbling Fort McKavett. And I heard a tale of my ancestor Humpy Jackson - my grandfather’s great-grandfather. Humpy Jackson settled a farm and prospered. After the Civil War a regiment of black union soldiers came to San Saba, the Buffalo Soldiers. Around 1870 a soldier named Jim wrote Humpy Jackson’s daughter a letter; Jackson killed Jim because of it. He then evaded arrest because his neighbors warned him anytime the soldiers came to arrest him. I hadn’t thought about Humpy Jackson in three decades, but reading Cone this Spring it came back to me - the murder of a black man who resisted the confines of white supremacy, the protection by fellow whites. Digging into the story, I learned he killed not just one soldier but three, not just alone but with a posse. And after the soldiers left San Saba, Humpy Jackson turned himself in to the sheriff. A jury of his peers found him not-guilty. It was a lynching in San Saba.
This Spring, I’ve been pulling back the curtain in my own family history between now and then, looking at what really happened. It’s hard to look back to see what was done, and how one’s ancestors did it. And yet, living with integrity requires us to look back with honesty, to not forget what happened in our past, to see what happened without a willful naivete. There is a kind of progress we only make in America if we look back in honesty.
If integrity causes us to look inward and to our past, then compassion causes us to look outward and at the present; that is, to look with clarity at what is happening now.
Compassion involves the ability to accurately see a situation. But often we fail to notice, and therefore, fail to be compassionate. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, once described a study of Princeton Seminary students. In the study the seminarians were to preach a practice sermon; they were divided into two groups, one group preaching on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the other preaching on a random Bible story. The students received the assignment in one building and then had to go outside, across the campus, and preach in another building. Along they way they passed a man begging. The study documented who stopped and who didn’t. Now we might think that a preacher, planning a sermon on the Good Samaritan, would stop to help someone on the side of the path. But it turned out the text didn’t matter. Instead, the determining factor was the sense of hurry; whether or not the student thought they were busy.
It’s our sense of busyness which often keeps us from seeing the vulnerability around us. We worry about people who text while driving. But what do the distractions of modern life keep us from seeing all the time? Goleman refers to it as our ‘urban trance,’ the busy-ness, the digital connectedness, the insularity of living in a large city: all of which keep us from a mindful attention to the dignity and the humanity of people around us.
The work of compassion is to break through our ‘urban trance,’ to become mindful, to notice and to see what is happening around us, to see the beauty of those cast off.
What do you see when you look around our city? Where do you see the vulnerability, the need, the desperation?
Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the problem of human trafficking. It began through my involvement with Pathfinders. I heard a statistic: 1/3 of the homeless youth in our city are sexually exploited within 72 hours of becoming homeless unless they can find safe lodging. And Milwaukee, our city, has been called the Harvard of Sex Trafficking because of the number of young people caught in it and the sadistic skill of pimps here.
It’s a situation most of us don’t want to see; and yet, 150 years after the Constitution outlawed slavery, the institution remains, covert but powerful. World wide, human trafficking is one of the largest illicit businesses. President Obama once called attention to the problem of modern slavery, trafficking, by saying, “the bitter truth is that trafficking goes on right here, in the United States. It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker. The man, lured here with the promise of a job, his documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen. The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets.”
The awfulness of modern slavery came out this month in the story of the rescue of two girls in Racine - 13 and 16. And we heard it last summer in the case of Kennard Weatherall. He exploited, pimped, trafficked young girls, using their bodies for his income. Like other Milwaukee pimps, he branded the girls, marking them as his property.
Weatherall’s manipulation and threats of violence came out at his trial; such as the moment he threatened to kill his own mother if his brother testified against him. Or when he tried to convince the judge he was just ‘caring’ for the girl, trying to keep her off drugs and make sure she went to school. But we can see this for what it was: a 45-year old man controlling a 15-year old girl, making her a slave of his own needs.
Compassion awakens us to what is happening; as integrity ends our willful naivete about our past, compassion ends our naivete about the present. Then the desire for justice moves us to make change happen, now and in our future.
Kevin Bales, in a talk on human trafficking, once rightly observed that we need to do more than just rescue people caught in the snares of human traffickers. Speaking of liberation, he said, “[liberation] is not an event, it’s a process … [it’s] about helping people build lives of dignity, stability, economic autonomy, citizenship.”
What he said of human trafficking remains true of all the vulnerable situations compassion causes us to see. Our work is about more than fixing one crisis, about more than just one event, it’s about creating a world where all people can live and thrive with dignity.
One victim of human trafficking reflected on her experience. “At first it was terrifying,” she said, “and then you just kind of become numb to it.” Justice - in all its many forms - means working not only to rescue but to liberate, to not just save but to dignify, to not just help but to unlock someone from the chains of numbness and desperation.
This Sunday, we heard one of my favorite lines from the Apostle Paul. “For you are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.” Justice, to me, means creating a world where everyone knows they are God’s work of art. This was what my ancestors Edwin Forrest and Humpy Jackson couldn’t imagine saying. This is what the girls held captive by Weatherall needed to know. It’s the work of justice; to make sure every person feels in the depths of their being, “I am God’s work of art.”
Years ago, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer discovered her voice for justice. Her issue, like the marchers in Selma, was voter rights. But her words apply to all the issues integrity and compassion press us to pursue. She linked her justice work to the Cross, saying, “When Simon [of] Cyrene was helping Christ to bear his cross up the hill, he said, "Must Jesus bear this cross alone? And all the world go free?" He said, "No, there's a cross for everyone and there's a cross for me. This consecrated cross I'll bear, till death shall set me free. And then go home a crown to wear, for there's a crown for me."
We lift the burden of others to bring about a world where all know they are God’s work of art. Like Simon of Cyrene, like Fannie Lou Hamer, like marchers in Selma, we make the long journey to freedom by the light of integrity, compassion, and justice. Amen.