Friday, July 19, 2019

A Martyr’s Song in An Age of Rage

Last month, Peg and I went to worship at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Charleston, South Carolina, and we were privileged to witness the commemoration of an Episcopal saint, a bishop, a witness for racial equality and a martyr: Bishop Alexander Guerry.
Guerry was a South Carolinian and was consecrated bishop coadjutor on September 15, 1907 and later became the eighth diocesan bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina on April 22, 1908. Before that, he served as a parish priest and then as Chaplain and Professor of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Bishop Guerry believed that Gospel of Jesus Christ was Good News for all people, and this led him to believe that the Church must reflect the visible unity of all God’s people. In 1914, he proposed that his Diocese elect a black bishop suffragan for South Carolina to be responsible for the ministry to African American Episcopalians. He wanted to ensure that all people, regardless of race, were full participants in the community of Christ’s people in the diocese. His proposal failed. Instead, the majority white (and all male) convention chose to separate the African American community into a “Missionary District for Negroes” within the Diocese. This arrangement continued through the mid-20th century when that segment of the Christian community was finally given an equal place in the diocese.
But that is not the end of the story.
On June 2, 1928, an Episcopal priest of that diocese entered Bishop Guerry’s office at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston, and, enraged at the Bishop’s message of racial equality and reconciliation, pulled out a pistol and shot Guerry in the chest, before killing himself.  The priest had previously publicly attacked the bishop’s position on advancing racial equality in South Carolina, and especially on his proposal to install a black suffragan bishop in the diocese. The priest who shot the bishop had written that the bishop, given his way, would root out the principle of white supremacy in the south. 
The martyrdom of Bishop Guerry is rarely talked about in the Episcopal Church.  June 7th is not an official feast or commemoration in this church. Still, Guerry has been listed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as one of the church’s modern martyrs.
At the Cathedral, we sang a hymn and dedicated a portrait and Chapel to Bishop Guerry.
(1)    The martyr’s song still sings every day, every day.
The martyr’s song still sings every day.
The martyr’s song still sings as heaven’s echo rings
So none will miss the sound of that song every day
So none will miss the sound of that song.

(2)    Hate’s raging ways live on, every night. Every night.
Hate’s raging ways live on, every night.
Hate’s raging way live on and kill the prophet’s song.
Will we not right the wrong with our song, with our song?
Will we not right the wrong with our song?

(3)    The Shepherd’s witness lives every night. Every day.
The Shepherd’s witness lives every day.
The Shepherd’s witness lives in all who dare forgive.
Like One who long ago sent from heaven did come down.
Now wears the martyr’s crown every day.
As a person who has dedicated his life to doing public theology in the public square, as well as pastoring and teaching faithful people in everyday living, I found Bishop Guerry’s example and witness profoundly moving and humbling. As I work through the realities of the concurrent sins of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism, and confront my own tendencies towards these within myself, I am guided by his example.
As I write this, I am struck by the ugliness of our present public discourse. The unrepentant coarseness emanating from the highest levels of leadership dismays me. I expect our civic and religious leaders to call out the best in us, instead they cultivate the worst. It is awful enough when people cheer on the bad behavior of a tv character, but when people—in my experience, good ethical people, with good character—line up behind these antics perpetrated by an elected official, it makes me tired, sad, and worried.
I know I am not alone. As I talk to people around the parish, around the City, and even (on-line) from around the country, this whole season has been a massive trial. What’s an everyday Christian to do?
I am not against debate or divergence about complex issues among people in good faith. When deciding big things, disagreement, even debate, ought to be expected. But when the goal becomes “my side wins at all costs” and even worse, our argument should utterly destroy the opposition and to leave them humiliated, then not a lot is going to get done. And if we can’t disagree with civility, then we cannot compromise, and if we can’t compromise then we are frozen, and all we have left is our frustration and anger.
Christian witness in this atmosphere does not arise from mimicking or blindly aligning with the culture’s values. Mindless chants and group The Apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that not being conformed to the world means allowing God’s Holy Spirit to transform our minds (Romans 12:2).
The first we can do in response to this tense and crazy season is to remain calm even when the air is filled with cruel and fear-fueled words. And to do that, we must pause. When you’re angry, pause. When you’re scared, pause. When you’re tempted to join the angry mobs of people who don’t quite know what to do with all their valid emotions, pause.
Pause. Pray. Give yourself a little bit of space to invite the Holy Spirit into these very valid concerns that an election like this one will bring up in our hearts, and see what God would have us do….
I found a prayer by Pope Francis based on the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to be especially helpful. It was written for World Communications Day, which is always right before Pentecost, in 2018:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practice listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
It is important that we listen in our hearts and minds to what is going around us and the meaning it creates for us. No human politician anywhere—and no cleric, public figure, nor anyone else in society—is the Messiah. Jesus is our Savior and Messiah. No human leader will ever solve all our problems. God is the source of our hope and calling. And certainly no human leader can give us inner peace, that come through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

But we are not passive by-standers. Jesus calls us to love the world, the sick, the wounded, the outcast, the lost, and the least. That neither begins nor ends at the ballot box. It begins at the foot of the cross, gathers us around the font and the Eucharistic table, and sends us into the world in love.

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