Column by: The Rev. Dwight D. Andrews
In the vibrant and idyllic environment of Chautauqua, it is tempting to bask in the beauty of the shore and landscape and revel in the marvelous artistic expressions that are all around us. This week’s Interfaith Lecture theme, “Art, Politics, Religion,” is of particular interest to me because my life and vocations represent the intersection of all three. I offer the following introduction to my week of service as chaplain. Like all preachers and teachers, I hope to stir things up a bit. But, most importantly, I hope the conversations and engagements that happen here at Chautauqua will continue to stimulate conversation when we return to our respective homes, professional lives and houses of worship.
The issue of the separation between church and state is longstanding. Yet our religious heritage has always played an important role in the American body politic.
The church in every generation has had to confront the issues of its day. The 18th and 19th centuries saw our nation and our churches struggling with chattel slavery. Slavery in the United States was a political, economic and religious issue. It revealed the deep chasms within the American religious community, and the Bible was used to justify both the abolitionist and pro-slavery position. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the nation and the church then struggled with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and lynching and racial intimidation. Our difficulties with race lie just beneath the surface of virtually every aspect of American life. Laws forbidding interracial marriages existed until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Thankfully, the evolving perspectives of our civil and religious communities regarding race and civil rights helped to impact the changes to the miscegenation ordinances that had been in effect for almost three hundred years. The recent Supreme Court ruling regarding same-sex marriage also represents an equally significant moment in our history. Although it is probably too soon to speculate on what this all means, the shifting religious landscape and the rise in the number of people who consider themselves as “spiritual” but not religious, could have a dramatic impact on the future of both the church and the nation. Thus, an important part of what it means to be an American is to find oneself squarely in the thick of the ongoing and collective struggle toward a more perfect union. That dynamic struggle is simultaneously political, religious and cultural.
The church has long been at the crossroads of America’s moral journey. And, sadly it has also been the site of unspeakable violence. The shocking massacre of the nine church members at a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, is fresh evidence of a wounded society. Many were shocked, but we should not have been surprised by the carnage, for there is a long and dark legacy of such acts. The Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 killed four little black girls and forged the conviction of many to continue the fight for civil rights. In 1974, Alberta Williams King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was slain as she sat at the organ of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. More recently, there have been a number of attacks on our churches, synagogues and mosques reminiscent of the acts of intimidation of the ’50s and ’60s. Some might suggest not all acts of violence are political, but I’m not so sure. I increasingly believe that the way we interpret, respond and cope with violence is profoundly political and religious.
To appreciate the many manifestations of violence in America, we must acknowledge the connections between culture, commerce and the sense of alienation that many in our community feel. The proliferation of guns and the powerful gun lobby, the video game industry with products designed to annihilate people for “points,” and movies and music videos that promote violence cannot be separated from our daily experience with it. We have become desensitized and numbed by it. The Internet promised access and a new way of experiencing community, but the increased use of our personal digital devices has actually decreased our interaction with each other. The digital universe brings rich and poor, educated and illiterate, legal and illegal, together to be conditioned on what to consume and what to desire. The community is built on consumption. Some will pay for it and others will kill for it. All of this as our neighborhoods, schools, and houses of worship seem as racially segregated as they were 50 years ago.
The arts represent a mirror or snapshot of our world at any point in time. Many of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement had their roots in the African-American church and folk experience. Jazz pioneer John Coltrane was so moved by the bombing in Birmingham that he created “Alabama,” in response to the tragedy. Composer and jazz bassist Charles Mingus wrote the explicitly political work “Fables of Faubus” as a protest against Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus who in 1957 sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” is her protest song of the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. The artistic responses of the people at any time are always fluid and dynamic. I am not sure what the art of our time is telling us, but clearly we need to pay attention.
Although some would suggest that religion should stay out of politics and vice versa, the truth is that politics and religion have always been intertwined in America. The American “experiment” has always been a rich negotiation between religion, politics and culture. The evolution of our perspectives and the influence of one upon the others are unmistakable. The seemingly intractable problems of our time can appear to be so vast and complicated that we are tempted to give up and give in to the status quo. Yet Jesus’ model of ministry was to wade into the affairs and afflictions of the day. His method of social transformation was done — one person at a time. This is an opportune moment for artists, audiences and people of faith and goodwill to connect the important issues of our time with our creative expressions and to not underestimate the impact one has on the other.
The Rev. Dwight D. Andrews is senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Atlanta