Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Confronting the Ghost in the Atticus

I have just finished reading Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. I don't feel qualified to judge its literary meritsI don't know whether it should have been published.

That said, I found the book fascinating.

What makes it so fascinating is the portrayal of Atticus Finch--the upstanding lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird--as a director of his local Citizens Council. As W. Ralph Eubanks writes over at What It Means To Be American,:
"It is difficult to see how the Atticus of 1935 in Mockingbird would have evolved into the intolerant old man depicted more than 20 years later in Watchman." 
Joe Crespino, in his NYT editorial, offers Eubanks an historian's answer to his problem. The Atticus of Mockingbird could easily have become the Atticus we meet in Watchman. Crespino argues that in Go Set a Watchman, Lee offers us:
"a guide to the complexities of Southern politics, and to the political transition of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party — a shift that has remade American political life over the last half-century — “Watchman” is actually a more revealing source than Ms. Lee’s celebrated novel." 
But not only does Eubanks favor the Atticus of Mockingbird because he finds the transformation hard to understand, he favors the Atticus of Mockingbird because that Atticus fills the Southern need for "folk heroes and mythic figures." This iconic Atticus gave "permission" to white Southerners "to stand up against the gross inequities of Jim Crow laws."

Eubanks approvingly quotes Jon Meacham saying, “We all like to think Atticus Finch was our father or grandfather.” The historical reality--the one Crespino deals in--is that for most of us white people, our fathers or grandfathers are likely to be the Atticus Finch of Watchman and (if we are lucky) of Mockingbird.

Perhaps like Scout in Watchman, fifty years after Selma we have finally come of age and can move beyond the once helpful "folk heroes and mythic figures" and can face some hard truths. As Atticus explains to his daughter,
"Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways."
The timing of the publication of this novel is remarkable. As the question of the flag, the heritage of hate and the systemic racial injustice in our country once again confronts white America, perhaps Harper Lee's second novel has a timely role to play in shaping the country just as her first novel did fifty-five years ago. Perhaps it will help us understand ways we have been fooling ourselves.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Human Up!

In the aftermath of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program that revealed, among other things, that two psychologists were paid $81 million to design and participate in the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, Fox news got an exclusive interview with Dr. James Mitchell - one of the psychologists that Physicians for Human Rights is calling a war criminal.

I watched the interview online and found the experience equal parts disturbing and morally disorienting.

Dr. James Mitchell presents himself as a reluctant torturer. A man compelled to abandon his “moral high ground”  by the events of 9/11 to save American lives. That the interrogation techniques were in fact torture (whatever legal definitions the CIA hides behind) is clear from the interview. Dr. Mitchell told Megyn Kelly that “the techniques are so harsh that it’s emotionally distressing to those who are administering them.” One can only imagine how distressing they are for the subject of those techniques.

In explaining how he managed to overcome his own (implied) emotional distress and moral reservations to design and implement the torture of another human being, Dr. Mitchell said something I found very revealing:
“Even though you don’t want to do it [enhanced interrogation], you’re doing it in order to save lives in the country. And we would just have to ‘man up’ for lack of a better term and carry forward.”
He had to man up.

I instantly made the connection with something I had read years ago by Robert Jensen. A quick bit of googling found it again. This is what Jensen wrote in an opinion piece in 2006:
I don't think the planet can long survive if the current conception of masculinity endures. . . We have a simple choice: We men can settle for being men, or we can strive to be human beings.
For Jensen, the masculinity celebrated in our culture and reinforced every time a boy is told to “man up” is a toxic notion. He summarizes it this way:
Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a real man is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it. Men who don't measure up are wimps, sissies, girls.
This masculinity is celebrated in our culture’s heroes that “most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals.”

Dr. Mitchell, the psychologist dealing with interrogators traumatized by participating in the torture of fellow human beings, apparently told them and himself that they needed to man up.

Fox News has helped me see that Jensen is right. We do have a choice to make as we seek to end our endemic and systemic violence revealed in our Guantanamos and our Fergusons. It is a choice between being a ‘man’ or being human. We cannot be both.

It is going to be a struggle to eschew violence and seek peace and justice but we are just going to have to human up!


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Covenant Theological Seminary

I have just returned from teaching part of the D.Min. City Mission and Ministry cohort at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. It was an honor to have been invited and I had HOURS of intense conversation with some ministers earnestly engaged in ministries from Southall, London; Jackson, Mississippi; and Greenwich Village, New York.
On my final day there I made a presentation to the cohort and invited area pastors. I made the case as strongly as I knew how that the Church is only the true church of Christ when it is made up of dissimilar people. That an ecclesiology of Open Friendship is not just a mission strategy for congregations ministering on the margins of a denomination; rather it needs to be an ecclesiology that transforms the other 95% of our churches.
You can listen to my talk here:

to download the audio click here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Murmurs from the Front

It is interesting to me to see my book pop up in blogs and to track its progress. In May, 'Charlie' who is a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina wrote a detailed review of my book.
Slade’s narratives are rich. . . The characters speak with their own voices, challenging us with their stories. Slade does not cast a script of heroes and villains, but rather of people united in overcoming their own inherited prejudices.
Superbly written and uncommonly perceptive, I highly recommend Open Friendship in a Closed Society. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I was particularly interested in the central roles that First Presbyterian in Jackson and Reformed Theological Seminary played in the pages. Having one branch of my theological heritage analyzed was an uncomfortable but liberating experience. Since the situation in Mississippi is replayed in miniature all across the United States, most Americans will find themselves reflected somewhere in this work.
Meanwhile, in the same month J.R. Caines blogged about being prompted to preach on racial reconciliation after reading it.  From my googling I guess this is the same J.R. Caines who is a Presbyterian minister in Chattanooga, TN.

Outside of PCA circles, an organization in Texas called Friends of Justice picked up on Joe Reiff's article in Christian Century.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lived Theology

I travelled to the University of Virginia in May to take part in the 2011 Spring Institute for Lived Theology. The theme was "Lived Theology in Method, Style and Pedagogy," and Charles Marsh had assembled a wonderful group of scholars (and me) to discuss our work. 

You can find links to audio files of all the papers at the project's website including one to my paper Part of the Body: Reflections on Risks and Responsibilities in the Discipline of Lived Theology.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Few Reviews

My book has received a couple of reviews over the last few months. Back in November, Books & Culture carried a long review by Robert Elder. He also wrote a review in Journal of American Studies.
HomeMore recently, Joseph Reiff wrote a review article which appeared in the March 1 issue of Christian Century. Both men are white southerners, a group notorious for its suspicion of outsiders inflicting their opinions; however, Reiff wrote:
"As a Mississippi exile who grew up in the 1960s in Jackson and served a United Methodist pastor their in the mid-1980s, I can say that though this is, as Slade admits, 'a white Englishman's study of a Christian racial reconciliation movement in Mississippi,' he gets the story remarkably right, with all the nuances."

Taking a Class to Jackson, MS.

In March, I took a group of students from Ashland University down to Jackson, MS, as part of my class   Religion and the Civil Rights Movement. We worked with Voice of Calvary Ministries, met with veterans of the movement and those currently engaged in issues of justice and reconciliation.
We attended a Mission Mississippi prayer breakfast and Dolphus Weary and Neddie Winters both spent time with the group. As the week progressed I discovered that questions I raised in my book about justice and reconciliation have generated some discussion within Voice of Calvary and Mission Mississippi.

Ashland University students with Rev. CJ Rhodes, Mt. Helm Baptist Church, Jackson, MS.