Why so disappointed in Atticus Finch?


(Updated October 9, 2016)

Along with “everyone else” I’ve been reading along in the papers about the revelations in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Evidently in our hyper-sensitized society the news that another version of Atticus Finch was a segregationist is, well, shocking.

But should we be so surprised? Southern – or American – leaders as segregationists? May I say confidently at some point in the past we are talking about most leaders? One could naively argue it wasn’t so outside the South, but the degree to which it was so in most places, Southern or not, appears to be one of the greatest revelations for some folk in today’s generation.

There’s plenty to read about the thorough change that has occurred in the general society since, let’s say, the World War II period. The witness of the African-American leaders who led the drive for accountability is most important.  Theirs was a drive to urge, or shame, the Congress and the state legislatures, the Supreme Court and the state courts, to be accountable to the Constitution of the United States and its Amendments regarding equality before the law. Dr. James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality, from the early 1940s onward, were primary examples.

Then what about Atticus Finch and his transformation away from segregationism–at least a brave gesture, anyhow? On this point Nelle Harper Lee’s novels are prophetic – in the sense that she identifies the spirit of transformation and healing needed in her time and expressing that spirit, “speaking forth” the words most needed for the time in our social consciousness and conscience. Atticus was like so many other thousands of leaders whose essential conscientiousness needed a re-baptism in the waters of freedom for everybody — beyond the societal framework that rested on the institution of slavery, that “mudsill of black” and its legacies. If for any of them their Christianity was prophetic enough to draw them out of that slough of racism and help them to represent a better, more truly human way, then they did so, but as a minority, especially in the South. Imagine the way that the non-prophetic but conflicted or sympathetic were overwhelmed in a society that equated the “natural” order of segregation with an equally “Christian” conception of order.

In the city where I live, the story resembles that of countless places across the South and, indeed, the United States. In whatever ways possible, at a certain time, and through the courts,and national and state legislatures, there were leaders of a new generation who recognized that change must come, and who, however hesitantly in most cases, worked through a process of change without waging a second civil war. That remembrance of the War Between the States actually had been responsible for much of the resistance and antipathy to fundamental social change. At a certain point in time, however, change had to occur. School integration, integration of city and county boards, hiring, and courts, were part of the process. The process was not immediate, and its completion is still not in sight, but the essential elements are present. Integration in the churches? Largely no, not even today as it should be.  But most young people in the recent generation refuse to accept the old status quo there.

The younger generations among us already are bringing their own changes to the process, perhaps completing it in some ways, and finding new ways to “go around” the old issues or to change the patterns of discourse about them. You may agree with me that integration of the churches depends a great deal on the acceptability of “interracial marriage”. And isn’t it true that many younger people reject even the use of that language? Habits of racist/racial discourse are basic to the problem and better reformed.

So, Atticus Finch exemplifies members of a generation who found a way to express new forms of enlightenment in a tensely racial atmosphere, even if they were not the vanguard of change. They were in varying degree the majority who decided to get along in order to get along. Many of them made difficult decisions and commitments, often paying a bitter personal price, for the sake of transformation in their communities. We should not be surprised or unduly dismayed, however, when those decisions and commitments were step wise or incremental, and somehow unsatisfactory in view of unperfected possibilities.  Most commonly, our lives by definition are just that way. The stereotype of the person or group that achieves complete transformation is the stuff of mythologies, or of the comic books.

I should not have been surprised that so many folk suggested their possible dismay at Harper Lee, even in advance of reading Watchman, that Atticus was not always the Atticus they admired as an icon of enlightened humanity. People are poor idols, prone to disappoint as societal or ideological icons.  Their life patterns look better at a distance than up close.  We live better by true words, not by ideology, nor by objectification as symbols; we live best by speaking true words and doing true things in a real world, in every present moment of the time we inhabit. If, by some transformative, right decision, a particular moment appreciates marvelously over moments past, then it is by some merciful, gracious process that invites us–calls us–to better ways and a better day.

There are those who argue that change for the good cannot happen without revolution, and the record of the past suggests this is often the case. I want to argue, however, that revolutions, especially if they are violent and bloody, carry another lesson for us besides the one that violent revolution is a type of insanity and weakness in the first place.  The lesson is that our use of language, intention, discipline, and grace-filled, active concern and care for our loved ones and our communities are the things that contribute to a slower, preferable revolution. We must take care about what we say, how we say it, and how we act toward everyone–no exceptions–defeating our prejudices.  And so we can contribute to true human flourishing–what these days some are calling The Beloved Community.  This kind of transformation happens when the “Jim Crow” Atticus becomes the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The latter Atticus has at least begun a new way among his contemporaries, even if he is late doing it.


//Copyright Jerry Summers 2015//

. . . to go on speaking – like Al Davis.

The mentor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy wrote a little book of great ideas not long before he died, The Fruit of Lips, or Why Four Gospels.  In the chapter called “The Cross of Grammar” he wrote:

A word may be true as to content; it may be true enough to be verified in its own author’s actions; finally, it may be so true that it compels the next speaker to respond and to go on speaking.

These words came to mind as I read the good words in the Marshall News Messenger about a friend to many and civic servant from Marshall, Al Davis.  Al was a longtime attorney and former assistant district attorney, and husband to Jane Ogden, our university colleague in psychology, now retired.  A faithful churchman and choir member at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Al died of a heart attack this past Saturday.  We shall all miss him.

Rosenstock-Huessy (R-H) wrote of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – that “They are sound as wells of speech.”  He meant that they are all authentic responses to the message of the life of Jesus in relationship to his disciples, Father God, and the World, and that each Gospel contributes uniquely to the same story.  The Gospel writers complemented each other.   R-H writes,

What is the end and the beginning of speech?  The beginning of a human breath discloses the time and place of this particular act of the spirit.  End and beginning bring an inspiration down to earth.  End and beginning of any book declare whether it is true or not.  But this truth is a threefold truth.  A word may be true as to content . . . .

And so it is, and was, and shall be, relating to the life of Al Davis among us.  Our newspaper carries the eulogies – the good words – of Al’s colleagues, coworkers in the community, his friends, and many he helped.  If a man’s life is a book, and his words are text for his life, then Al Davis finished well – he completed a good, admirable book.  We know this because so many already have been inspired to speak further good about him, and in the days to come others will speak in a similar way.

The life and, to us, untimely, death of Al Davis bereaves us but also inspires us.  His life, actions and words should remind us that in each of us, in our communities, we have the resources to overcome the wrong, to organize our efforts so that our intentions and plans succeed, to speak encouraging words to each other so that each person is inspired to contribute his or her own words and book in the time available, to make our relationships, community and society more what they can and should be, and to bring more music and joy into everything we do.  I believe Al Davis would like that!  After all, that was so much what he was about while he lived and served among us.

Now, what about us?  One more word from E-H – a word for pondering:

The Gospels were true enough to compel the next speaker to go on speaking above and beyond the last word of the last speaker.  Each one had to step in where the last speaker left off.  They were imparting the concrete time and scene of their speech so vividly to each other that they touched each other off, to the next move.  They sing, over forty years perhaps, one Gospel, each in his own key, on his specific wave-length, according to his lights, in handing the joyful and arduous task over to the better man, one after another.  In this act, then, the “Four Gospels” became a continuation of Jesus’ life through the minds which were made over by their office of Evangelists.  They were created into the Lips of the Word.

Let’s all be like Al Davis, “the better man.”


References all from pages 81-82, The Fruit of Lips.



Comments and Reflections on the Love Cemetery Project as related to ETBU and the LFN Small Grant Initiative.


During this academic year the Lilly Fellows Network Small Grant Initiative has allowed many of us to become more aware of continuing and new opportunities related to human rights, reconciliation, restorative justice, and many other related themes.


On Monday, April 7, at the invitation of Professor China Galland, I took part in a mid-day meeting of individuals who would discuss Love Cemetery and the “Writing History Project”—an initiative at Wiley College involving Lisa Taylor.  The ongoing Love Cemetery initiative is the subject of Dr. Galland’s book, Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves (HarperOne, 2008); a documentary film, “Resurrecting Love”, also is in production.   The persons present were:


Professor China Galland–Affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, formerly Professor in Residence at the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education, and occasional adjunct faculty member; author of multiple books; member national Alliance for Truth and Racial Reconciliation.


Mrs. Doris Vittatoe—President of the Love Cemetery Burial Association; from Waskom/Scottsville.


Ms. Cristina Balli—Team Member, Texas Folk Life, Austin.


Mr. Archie L. Rison, Jr.—Cemetery restorer, amateur archaeologist, Nacogdoches, Texas.


Mr. Estrus Tucker—International consultant, speaker, storyteller, poet and master facilitator; board of Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at U/Mississippi; Tarrant County (TX) Workforce Development Board; International Association of Human Rights Agencies Board; the National Center for Courage and Renewal Board; Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and the Brite Divinity School Board of Visitors; ordained minister; Vietnam-era veteran; 2012 recipient, International Association of Human Rights Agencies Individual Achievement Award “for his work and leadership in support of creative civic engagement and transformational leadership in Mississippi; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Cape Town, S. Africa, and Texas.  Native and resident of Fort Worth, with three generations before born and resident in Marshall, Texas.


And I, Jerry Summers—The Sam B. Hall Jr. Professor of History, and Dean, School of Humanities, ETBU.


My purpose in attending the discussion session was to honor an invitation that came as a result of East Texas Baptist University’s Lilly Fellows Program Small Grant initiative, “Human Rights, Reconciliation and Restorative Justice: East Texas and the World.”  That initiative for the academic year was to give opportunities to evaluate further involvement in or attention to the broader range of human rights issues locally and worldwide.  The initiative resonates strongly with the mission and purpose of our university.


The involvement of ETBU in the Love Cemetery cleanup and celebration day in April had begun in the previous academic year when our director of the Great Commission Center, Dr. Melody Maxwell (now at Howard Payne University), had organized student, staff and faculty participation in the event.  Wiley College students, including the Wiley College choir, and faculty also participated, along with townspeople and visitors, some who came great distances in order to take part.  Others who were responsible at that time are unknown to me.  The program was held again on April 5th this year and featured Ysaye Barnwell of Honey in The Rock, the Wiley Choir, students from Wiley and ETBU, and others.


The April 7th meeting about Love Cemetery and the Writing History Program was, in China Galland’s words, to be informal and a discussion of “our work to preserve this fragile, potent history and build a stronger, more resilient community around Love.  This 1.6 acre cemetery is emblematic of a history almost lost, paved over or denied all over the United States.”


Our discussion, which was being filmed for possible inclusion in an updated documentary, ran for approximately an hour.  My singular impression was that the discussion and the themes it addressed connected vitally with those of the ETBU grant initiative, with the work of many people and organizations on our campus and in the community, and with my own teaching and research.


The efforts surrounding Love Cemetery help us to focus on the theme of past, present and future, where interethnic relations and the need for reconciliation are connected so strongly to our society’s segregated past.  An African-American cemetery typically reflects the segregation of black from white both in life and in death.  It is the surviving evidence of that segregated past.  Yet that same cemetery can be the focus of efforts to remember a broken heritage and to mend relationships among the living descendants of a divided society.  The point of Love Cemetery and others like it is that its potential as an instrument to evoke memory and provoke reconciliation is lost if it is inaccessible and forgotten.  I need only  mention that Love Cemetery is but one emblem of the same problem around the world, where the first tendency is to avoid the pain of remembering and thereby to pass by the prospect of healing.


I should not say much more.  The Love Cemetery discussion came during late winter and early spring when several campus and community organizations and churches sponsored programs that emphasized our shared interethnic and faith heritage through traditions, food, music, worship, and community service.  Evidently there is considerable good will among and around us.  That same good will is and should be gathered and directed toward more comprehensive, intentional acts of caring, attention, reconciliation, and redemption.


Here are some related links:


http://www.etbu.edu/spiritual-development/gcc/ –Great Commission Center

http://guides.etbu.edu/lfp-humanrights  and  http://www.etbu.edu/school-humanities/lilly-small-grant-initiative/

http://www.resurrectinglovemovie.org/ — Wiley and ETBU students at work at Love Cemetery, 2013


In Search of Liberty

Yes, Barton is forceful.  He saws heavily on the “Judeo-Christian principles of our Founding Fathers,” and in that he is right, but less so because he ignores the equally, perhaps more important founding principles based in Enlightenment rationality and the then truly liberal economic and political principles (having no king is radical as is equality of all before the law) that undergird our Constitution.  And no, I do not discount but do recognize the strong influence of Christianity that helped to shape those principles, as for example in Puritanism–yes, Puritanism (John Locke was a Puritan, for one)!  And yes, Jefferson and Madison and other leading Fathers saw reality both through the Enlightenment rationalist lens that recognized either a Deistic God (Jefferson, Franklin) or the God of orthodox theism and trinitarianism (Washington may be there, for example, but he is truly hard to gauge as to his churchmanship). That is different from the contemporary lens through which many leaders, even some Christian leaders and scholars see reality, that is, through a modern, naturalistic lens, dismissive of the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition. Thankfully, many do not. Most do not see sharply enough the implications of their own fuzzy thinking about the relationship between public life and policy and biblical faith.  Beyond that, to say that America is a Christian nation is a statement that always requires explanation:  does that mean cultural Christianity, or does it refer to a vibrant biblical, orthodox (that is “right teaching”) Christianity that dominates the thought life, moral and ethical way of life, and our relationships domestic and international?  How do most Americans live?  There’s quite a range, there!  I wonder whether Barton is to the point of admitting that despite the Judeo-Christian influences on our Constitution and civic life in the Revolutionary Period, the Founding Fathers decided it was best that our founding documents and government constitute a secular establishment and that the government would have no sway over religion in the nation.  That would be the citizens’ responsibility, individually and corporately, and initially that was left to the states.  The First Amendment religious liberty and free exercise clauses were the product of the citizens holding out for protection from the interference of government in religious matters.  I think knowing the distinction would help to solve confusion about whether America is a “Christian nation.”  If nation refers to the society, even there we have plenty of evidence to the contrary, and that kind of evidence has always been present to varying degrees (major instance–institutionalized slavery); if it refers to majority opinion or identification, then even there I have some questions–it seems that so many professing Christians do not understand their responsibilities and obligations actually to live as Christians; many actually live contrary to Christian principles and convictions.  Christianity is divorced from actual lifestyle and commitments. Perhaps our president is in that camp; uncomfortable as it is, there are many who profess Christianity whose values and political identification are indeed “liberal” in that sense–that is, modernist, naturalistic, pragmatic, anti-faith and unevenly tolerant in practice.

Yes, before we tout America as a Christian nation, I think we need to take a deep look at what it is to be Christian and begin the comparisons.  I’ll end with this challenge:  we criticize Mr. Obama, yet it is likely more fruitful to look at the pressures, the interest groups, the political forces that support a liberal-democratic presidency, see how powerful they actually are in America, see how many Americans support that influence either directly and indirectly, see how deeply entwined in our economy and common life these forces are, see how interest groups, PACs, lobbying organizations, corporations hogtie any president, and then ask how it could be otherwise.  It’s important to recognize because those forces do not change just because the president and the Congress are Democrat or Republican.  I choose to say that there are so many forces influencing our government that in order to make things different, Christians must be part of a foundational social and cultural reorientation in our society, the kind that involves a true change of commitments and priorities.  Once that happens, then we can claim honest identification as a Christian nation.  But it needs to happen first in our communities.  With us.  We and our neighbors.  Churches and their neighborhoods.  Workers and employers. Communities to capitals.  You get the idea.  Let us, then, love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Let divine goals lead us.  That’s not liberalism, that’s liberty as intended.

Close to, but not always on, Tornado Alley

There is a Dear One who lives in Washington D.C. and who would move back to Texas but for a few things, two of them being “Texas has tornadoes” and “D.C. has lots to offer.”  True, very true.

Surely there are many delights for folk who live inside the Beltway.  But one of them, certainly, is simply that there are many delights Beyond the Beltway, in many most sociable and historic locales, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, just to start a list, one rather long as you know.

Far from the Beltway, perhaps far enough to gain treasured perspective about matters within and without the fabled, enchanted, fantastical Beltway, lies the Great State of Texas.  As Mr. Tubb used to sing, “There’s a Little Bit of Everything in Texas.”  Yes, more and more, I say, a little bit of everything for most everyone. Again, as Ernest Tubb put it, ” . . . and a little bit of Texas in me!”

And, yes, even tornadoes, twisters, cyclones, what have you.  But is there one for everyone?  I think not; no, not enough tornadoes for everyone.  Why, a fella or a gal might live to be ninety-nine in Texas and never see, or hear, a tornado, at least not “up close and personal” as some like to say.  It’s true most folk want to avoid that type of encounter.

The topic brings to memory a story about a Kansas girl swooshed up in a tornado to the land of Oz.  Oz was L. Frank Baum’s fantasiacal, allegorical double for the Good ‘Ol U.S.A., and the Emerald City for Washington, D.C., the enchanted capital where the Yellow Brick Road ended.  I refrain from recapitulating the adventures of Dorothy and her companions in Oz, and her disenchantment upon learning that the Wizard of Oz was just a man like any other.  Baum’s Wizard stood in for the Gilded Age American presidents, according to one interpretation.  I agree with it.

We have a love-hate relationship with our capital and the doings in the Capitol chambers, the presidential and congressional politics, and the profound weight of bureaucracy in service to our Republic.  Asked how much of the bureaucracy we would like to keep, we would have to admit that much of it seems to meet more than a few of our needs. And asked whether we would do away with our government, we might pause long enough to ask how we could replace it. We will settle for improvements.  And we will accept that our government is as humanly limited as any other institution, it’s just bigger.

From the founding of our republic, indeed before that, presidents, congressmen, civil servants, students, interns and others have come to the point in life’s journey when they know it is time to “go home,” to “come home.”  Their work is done, able to do no more, they leave what is yet to be done to others.

Dorothy, once delivered to OZ by tornado, finds her way home (after having helped others out in her sweet, Kansasy-American way) by clicking her silver shoes together (in Baum’s reference to the Silver Crusade of the late 180os).  In the cinematic version, her heart’s deepest desire does the real work while she clicks the heels of her ruby red slippers together; no balloon ride for her!  She wakens as from a dream and finds herself at home, among her loved ones.

Such is the allure of the Emerald City, but no match for the allure of home.  It cannot replace the thousands of other places that Americans call “home.” Yes, Dear One, Jen, there’s no place like home.  Home is where one’s “people” are.  That being so, the real question becomes who one’s people are, and the where can become secondary.  That’s more the truth among us Americans wherever we land in the world.  Or, as is the case, wherever  the peoples of the world land among us!  At the end of it all, we are all sojourners in far countries.  We may not actually be far from home, for even our home can be for someone else a foreign land, a far country.

In reflection on Jim and Cathy’s experiences lately, I have been reminded that our own communities hold and keep great distances between individuals.  Economic status, religious groupings, social identity, ethnicity, in-group traditions and settled attitudes make it seem as though our neighbors live great distances apart from us, and we from them.  There are all kinds of distances. Some of them we should be impatient to do away with; it should not be that way among all us locals.  These kinds of things make it hard to feel right at home.  What could be more important than that?

Education, revelation and wisdom

A “must-quote” here in connection with current investigations.  Leo Strauss has been discussing the challenge of the literary expression of truth in “a society which is not liberal,” such as we find in many countries today and in the past.  He writes about “exoteric” writing–attractive and accessible to the reading public on the outside, but containing truths that have to be dug out through hard thinking or reading between the lines:

The works of the great writers of the past are very beautiful even from without.  And yet their visible beauty is sheer ugliness, compared with the beauty of those hidden treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never easy, but always pleasant work.  This always difficult but always pleasant work is, I believe, what the philosophers had in mind when they recommended education.  Education, they felt, is the only answer to the always pressing question, to the political question par excellence, of how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom that is not license.  [Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Free Press, 1952, 1980; University of Chicago Press, 1988), 37.]

By philosophers he means Plato and Aristotle, primarily.  The education he mentioned produces discernment, prudence, and wisdom, and presumes a level of intellectual and moral maturity as evidence of its effectiveness.  That reminds me that Jesus did say, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Perfect: “fully made or formed”, “mature”, “grown-up”, but like God.  Jesus was teaching–this is the Sermon on the Mount, not just some offhand comments.  But be like God?  Who were his hearers?  Beyond his disciples and a nameless crowd at the time, or intervening generations of people, most certainly you and I are his hearers today.  We are to be like God in some specific ways.  But he pronounced two key things, one at the start, one at the end:  do what you know to do and profess to believe in order to show that God’s truth really lives in you (Matt. 7:26), and be sure you know you get nothing unless you see yourself honestly as spiritually impoverished, and needing clean intention, and so forth in the “Beatitudes” (Matt. 5:3, 8).  Jesus customarily spoke in ways that required long, hard thinking and personal honesty in order to know personal liberation.  Socrates probably would approve.

What about that “order which is not oppression”?  I hasten to wrap up the present thought by quoting James Schall on the Trinity:

The trinitarian life of God is reflected in what is not God on the vastest of scales, the scales both of cosmos and of history.  But the paradigm of the order that we encounter in the world is already found in the Trinity of Persons and their inner relation to one another.  We are to imitate the divine order in all ways that it can be imitated–in making, in living, in thinking, in loving.  But ultimately the point of contact is where Gift meets gift, where what proceeds out of the inner life of the Godhead meets the inner life of the finite persons who have, in the end, nothing higher to do than to accept a gift, the gift of revelation with its description of the inner life of the Godhead, that which we call the Trinity of Persons:  Father, Son, and Spirit.  [James V. Schall, S.J., The Order of Things, Ignatius Press, 2007].

I understand the Trinity much better from having read Schall’s chapter “The Order within the Godhead” and his book.  Cannot recommend it highly enough.  Blessings on you.


Preoccupation with the One Nearest

Dr. Watkins preached on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 this morning–the Shema (Hear O Israel!) and on Jesus’ midrash-in-the-flesh-and-word about it in Mark 12:28-31.  Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the Scriptures don’t hang together, for they do so beyond normal vision and comprehension.  This was a reminder–actually a dawning recognition for me–that whatever the overall Christian analysis and response to the challenges of modernity, the Jewish philosophers of the early twentieth century have more to say to us than most of us have imagined.  They offer at least as trenchant and provocative a challenge to all of us to look at the terrifying realities of our modernity-postmodernity.  They ask us to be honest in our thinking and living.  (No, Wallace didn’t bring that up; but the theme of his sermon made me think about these things.)

Paul Mendes-Flohr gives some insights in an article where he quoted Jacques Derrida in a eulogy for Emmanuel Levinas:

The Torah is transcendent and from heaven by its demands that clash, in final analysis, with the pure ontology of the world. The Torah demands, in opposition to the natural perseverance of each being in his or her own being (a fundamental ontological law), – and Derrida emphasizes [Mendes-Flohr]  – concern for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and preoccupation with the other person.

(These guys are/were philosophers, so forgive the lofted language, but Derrida is simply talking about the “way of being” in the world and the “natural” self-interest of all people.)  Anyhow, I thought immediately of I John 4, particularly verses 7-8.  Beloved, let us love one another, . . . . I have thought of the type of love in I John as a “dynamic other-interestedness” that describes the Spirit-motivated and empowered interest of the believer in the welfare of others.  Derrida’s “preoccupation” rings true in the same way, and against self-preoccupation.  And isn’t that the illness we all share?

Mendes-Flohr actually was discussing a little book that Martin Buber got by the Nazi censors in 1935.  The book was titled “The Neighbor” or “The One Nearest” (Can’t get the umlaut “a” in, so no German title here), but not just in the sense of being close by, but in the sense of persons living in the same space, what you might call an “existential” space.  Buber presented the teaching as it came from Jewish sources.  His book was subtitled “Four Essays on the Conduct of Man to Man (Person to Person–Mensch, “human being”).”  By 1935 Hitler had seized power, and the repression of German Jews suggested greater oppression and persecution to come. So Buber’s appeal was an appeal for humanity in a context where the government seemed to threaten it.

Mendes-Flohr restated Buber’s assertion that “the neighbor is one whom destiny places next to oneself, face to face, as Levinas would later put it; at a particular hour, one is confronted by another human being in need – and the need may not only be defined by material want and political oppression; and to whom one is beholden by biblical decree to love, to love as oneself.”  Mendes-Flohr sums it up, saying that by extension the neighbor represents all of humanity, that the Nazis desperately worked to destroy Enlightenment concepts of humanitarianism, and that Buber, among others, wanted to affirm a “post-modern humanism”.  Its foundations were biblical, Jewish.  That is of interest for Christians, too.

Buber, Mendes-Flohr and many others could tell us that the point has everything to do with the character of our private and public lives.  It is a point that appears in all the “axial” civilizations (those whose great religious and philosophical foundations were set by about 2,500 years ago, and none more so than in the Hebraic/Jewish tradition, and so also in the Christian tradition.  In Mark 12, Jesus prompted the expert in the law to repeat the Shema; the expert affirmed that it was the ultimate commandment.  When the expert did this, he was calling the entire Law back over himself and everyone who was listening.  And so the expert showed everyone that what they thought was contention with Jesus was actually beyond contention.  It was the “one thing,” the central concern of Yahweh and Moses at Sinai, and the core of the Deuteronomic revival.  I believe that goes for the “rest of us” who read and discuss this matter a long time after the encounter in Mark 12.  What do you think?

In my city many people in civic, educational and governmental organizations are serving for the public good, including service to the poor, the orphan, the widow.  Many are church members.  Big-hearted people in many organizations–the Boys and Girls Club, the Lions, Optimists, Kiwanis, Rotarians, and others; and special programs such as Habitat for Humanity, Backpacks for Kids, My Friend’s House, the Twelve-Step Foundation.  They give money, hours, and hard work to help out.  There can be a certain weariness to it all.  But these people don’t quit.  There exists the sense there’s never enough, but servants continue to serve.  These people vary in their “preoccupation” with the welfare of their neighbors, but they are worthy, consistent models.

The model could use some more implementation in our churches–all around–and more broadly in the community.  Isn’t that true across the country?  I am hearing about programs and proposed programs to help kids and families most at risk.  Not with government programs alone — they’re not enough, but with intentional, planned and sustained community “preoccupation” with doing what government can do only in part, besides, that is not the primary purpose of government anyway.

This is one of the things we can do to build our own “human capital,” to build real character and strength into lives where hopelessness and weakness seem to have a stranglehold.  This is what can be done to develop leaders out of the most unlikely candidates in our communities–kids from families that don’t work out well, hungry kids, kids who have no healthy models except by accident, kids who need help beyond what the public schools alone can provide.  Some people discount these kids and their families, failing to see that these people are assets to whole, healthy communities.

I live in one of four Texas cities judged by a recent MIT national study to be “forgotten cities.”  (Galveston, Waco, Marshall, Sherman).  Here’s the link to their report:

http://web.mit.edu/dusp/dusp_extension_unsec/people/faculty/lhoyt/Hoyt_Leroux_FC.pdf They couldn’t study or list them all; surely there are many more.  Industrial and economic development have passed them by for decades.  This kind of study has its uses beyond the original intentions.  It helps us to know the general conditions more clearly and to identify not just specific personal and organizational needs, but how all these fit together in a community.

Paul Mendes-Flohr related the story told by the Hasidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov:

How to love [others] is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn along with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him: ‘Tell me do you love me or don’t you love me?’ The other replied: ‘I love you very much.’ But the first peasant replied: ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’ The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who put the question to him fell silent again. [And Rabbi Moshe Leib adds]: But I understood. To know the needs of [our fellow human beings] and to bear the burden of their sorrow – that is the true love [of others].

I really do not know my neighbors well enough, either literally next door or in other parts of town, preoccupied as I am with other matters, even rightly those of my family.  Somehow I must broaden my preoccupations!

Citations:  Mendes-Flohr was quoting from Martin Buber, The Tales of the Hasidim, 1948.  His article:  Paul Mendes-Flohr, “A Post-Modern Humanism from the Sources of Judaism,” in Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 62:2/4 (Apr. – Dec. 2006): 59-67.  Accessed at stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40419468 .

Randism contra the Real Norm

There may be more provocative statements in a recent Christianity Today article on Ayn Rand and “Randism,” but not by much:

Those who spend a lot of time and money on books and videos speculating about the antichrist can devote themselves to more immediate concerns. As I have explained elsewhere repeatedly, key candidates for the job have been running the American economy the past 30 years with our unwitting assistance.

That’s Gary Moore, “Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Great Recession,” online at:  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/september/2.36.html?start=1

Moore’s article is part of a current wave of awareness of the kinds of conservatism and libertarianism (well, yes, and liberalism!) that not only run against Judeo-Christian teachings and ethics, but against the general welfare.  These speak, too, about the varieties of spiritual and functional disabilities in the churches–the dark underbelly of popular Americanism combined with Biblical ignorance or disregard, hostility to God, and selfishness.  Selfishness with respect to the neighbor whether next door or next day in our globalized world.

I tried to read Atlas Shrugged and Ship of Fools too young, in the sixties, and am surprised now (or should I be) that Dad brought them home from his job at Vandenburg along with None Dare Call It Treason and some John Birch Society titles.  I never talked with Dad about his reading, and I’m not sure how it influenced him–maybe it was just reading to kill time, borrowed from a co-worker at Convair or GDI.  I could not get into those books, and maybe it is just as well.   Whatever their influence on Dad, I think he turned in several ways from the past when he entered full-time Christian ministry in his late thirties.  I’ll never know how completely he changed, but he and Mom paid too much into the lives of others in tiny inner-city and rural churches, sometimes rebuffed and ill-used, but the evident truth of servanthood, even at times in brokenness and bad judgment serves vindication.  They received a lot of good in turn, too, but doesn’t that show the virtue of lasting communities where real caring and sacrifice are normal?  I don’t think Rand would understand.

The Sam B. Hall Jr. Lectureship for 2010

The Sam B. Hall Jr. Lectureship has been a feature on the ETBU campus since 1993 when it and the professorship were started.  This year we will have a banquet and guest lecturer from The University of Mary Hardin Baylor, Dr. J. David Holcomb.  His talk on the implications of recent Supreme Court decisions for religious liberties will capture some attention and provoke discussion.  The event is on February 22 at 7:00 p.m. in the Heritage Room of the Jarrett Library.  Call 903.923.2083 for ticket information.