When I was in high school–I think this was in my senior year, so it would have happened in 1967 or 1968–I saw a cross on fire. My friends John, Joe, and I happened to be out one evening, driving around town, and there it was: a burning cross, at a drive-in theater on the outskirts of our community.
A burning cross surrounded by men, women, and children wearing white robes with peaked hoods.
The ultimate symbol of my Christian faith, of the Christian faith I shared with John and Joe, with whom I had attended Sunday school from the time I was 9 years old. Joe, whose parents were influential members of our Southern Baptist church, and who would choose, some years down the road when their son died of AIDS, to emblazon the program for his funeral (in their First Baptist church) with the words, “The wages of sin is death.”
John, whose father was also an influential and highly regarded member of the same church, a lawyer like my father, and who instructed his son simply never to come home again if he contracted HIV.
The Klan rally was, in some respects, a shock for us to happen on. I remember being particularly shocked at the children’s presence there. The tiny robed bodies ringing the burning cross with the adults.
In other ways, though, the rally was not particularly a surprise. Several years before this, after all, when our Sunday school sponsored a series of vocational lectures in which it brought in people from different walks of life to talk to us about the vocations they had chosen, the Sunday school superintendent chose to bring in a Klansman.
A Klansman, to talk to us about the possibility of a vocation in the Klan. A Klansman, who answered our polite questions, questions we’d asked the week before of the banker, about why he had chosen his vocational path. And how one might bump into Klan members in our community, given the secrecy of the organization. Where Klansmen tended to congregate, swap information, chit-chat.
This was part of the reason I gave up on my childhood church–this, and the bitter division the church experienced when it began to debate the question of admitting African-American members. This, and the way I was publicly upbraided by my Sunday school teacher in class one Sunday, when he asked the class if we’d all swear never, ever to march in any rally that called American values and American loyalties, and the Cross, into question. When he asked us to swear we’d never march in a protest against the Vietnam War.
I refused to swear such an oath. I told the teacher, a well-heeled banker in our town, that I’d have to think about each and every such opportunity that came along in my life. I’d evaluate the opportunity as it came along, and would decide at that point what was the right or wrong thing for me to do. I was the only boy in the class to challenge him, and I paid the price by receiving a public scolding and shaming.
Those black churches bombed in places like Alabama during the Civil Rights movement, the churches that became incinerators for black children who were gathered in their churches to sing and pray: the bombs that lit those churches on fire were lobbed or left beneath the churches by fellow Christians. I’m 99.99% certain of this.
Not by Jews. Not by Muslims. By Christians. By the people for whom the cross is the ultimate sacred symbol. And, though it has long been fashionable in polite social circles of the American South to pretend that those engaging in this kind of heinous violence in the name of Christ were the lowest of the low in the white community–rednecks, white trash, social misfits–when Diane McWhorter investigated the probable chain of transmission that resulted in the violence that blew up black churches in Birmingham during the Civil Rights struggle, she came to the shocking conclusion that her own father had very likely been a link in that chain. She wrote her book Carry Me Home to tell this story.
Her father, a prominent member of Birmingham society. Her father and other members of the Birmingham country club. Men who went to the right churches–to Episcopalian and Presbyterian and Methodist and rich urban Southern Baptist churches like the church my family attended in our community full of wealth from the oil industry. The bombs may have been set by the kinds of Christians who jumped and screamed with emotion in country churches, but the men whose hands were hidden all along the chain of transmission that resulted in the murder of black children, and who protected the actual perpetrators of the violence, were Christians, too, albeit Christians from polite churches that professed to abhor violence.
Christians. Not Jews. Not Muslims. Christians.
I grew up among Christian families who devoutly believed (mine included) that beating errant children is not merely a recommended child-rearing task, but a sacred obligation. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Train the child up in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.
The schools I attended, whose teachers and students were 90%+ Christian, believed in and practiced beating children. Schools throughout my state and many other staunchly Christian Southern states still beat children, and anytime anyone in my state makes waves about corporal punishment in our schools, there’s fierce pushback from God-fearing Christians who say that abolishing corporal punishment in schools will lead to immorality and social chaos. God commands the rod, and we disobey God at our peril, since God Himself wields a rod.
Several years ago, I sat in an airport some time after 9/11 and heard a group of self-proclaimed, proud Christians snickering and laughing about the Christian obligation to kill as many Muslims as possible, since, after all, they believe they’ll go to Paradise when they’re killed. “Send ’em t’Allah,” their ringleader, a man with a thick tongue who could barely speak standard English, kept crowing, as the crowd cheered him on.
Christians, and Catholic Christians. When I read Fenton Johnson’s memoir of the death of his partner Larry Rose from AIDS, Geography of the Heart, several years ago, I was deeply troubled by his report of how the hospital in Paris in which Rose died in 1990 put one barrier after another between Johnson and Rose as Rose died.
Because much of France is at least nominally Catholic, I assumed that those keeping Rose and Johnson apart at this significant juncture in both of their lives were likely to have been–at least some of them–Catholic. I know for certain that the Filipina nurse who displayed constant hostility towards my life partner Steve and me several years ago in the Catholic hospital in which Steve had a hip replacement was Catholic. I heard her saying that.
And she made no attempt to hide the homophobia that was at the bottom of her hostility. She was very angry that I slept in the hospital room, on a pallet on the floor, for the two nights following the surgery, to be there when Steve needed assistance and to see that he got it.
And when she defied the doctor’s orders to give him pain medicine as he asked for it, since he was never to let the pain rise to uncontrollable levels, and when we called to report this, since he was desperate to keep the pain controlled, she retaliated by taking an i.v. bag right out of the refrigerator and squeezing it as fast and as hard as she could into his veins.
He says he has never felt such intense pain.
A Catholic. A good Catholic. A good Catholic like the many good Catholics who marched this past Sunday beside Maggie Gallagher, another good Catholic, to protest the beginning of marriage equality in New York. Who marched beside Maggie Gallagher and her heavily Catholic NOM crowd and beside Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist church group, which bussed in large numbers of protestors to help swell the crowds of the righteous.
Fred Phelps and his church group who say publicly that they delight in the deaths of gay and lesbian folks, and in the cries of anguish they believe they hear those gay and lesbian folks who have died screaming from the depths of hell. And though Maggie and her contingent have done everything possible to distance themselves from Fred and his crowd, there they were, all marching together. To the same end.
To continue making the lives of gay and lesbian human beings as miserable as they possibly can make those lives. In the name of Christ. To inflict as much violence as possible on gay and lesbian human beings. In the name of Christ.
And so, given all of this, and given the way in which many of the policies of my “Christian” nation routinely inflict economic misery on the poor both in my country and around the world, and given my “Christian” nation’s propensity for war, and given the deliberate murders of innocent civilians in the Middle East by Blackwater, headed by Catholic Erik Prince, and given the role that many good Christians played in the Holocaust in one European nation after another in the 20th century, I am beyond shocked to read many of my fellow Catholics in the past two days nattering on at Catholic blog sites about how Christianity has always been a religion of peace and has never done violence to a soul in the world.
Or, if it once did violence, it gave up the violence around, say, 700 years ago.
When I read these foolish statements, I’m not certain whether to conclude that those making them are base liars or that they’re abysmally uneducated fools. One thing I do know for certain: violence done in the name of any religion or any god is abhorrent. I deplore the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam by some folks citing the Koran or claiming to be good Muslims as they engage in violence. I deplore that violence just as many good Muslims vocally deplore it.
But I don’t live in an Islamic nation. I live in a “Christian” one, and I am a Christian. I can do far more about the violence done by other Christians in the name of Christ than I can do about the violence done in the name of Allah by some Muslims.
And one thing I can certainly do about the particular kinds of violence fomented by people citing Christ and the cross as their inspiration in my own society is to keep talking about it. To keep exposing it and identifying its roots. To keep pointing it out. To keep giving testimony to what I have seen and heard in my own life–that people in my own lifetime have burned crosses, the ultimate sacred symbol of my religion, to celebrate hatred towards and violence against fellow Christians whose pigmentation happens to be different from their pigmentation.
And I can and will keep challenging the shameful lies and outright tomfoolery of some of my fellow Catholic Christians who seem to have little understanding of what our religious tradition is all about, in its core meanings, or little education about who and what we Christians have been over the course of history.
Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 26 July 2011.