(Photo of William Porcher Dubose from the Holy Women, Holy Men blog)
Almighty God, you gave to your servant William Porcher DuBose special gifts of grace to understand the Scriptures and to teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus: Grant that by this teaching we may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Feast Day of William Porcher Dubose, Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 533.
William Porcher Dubose, whose feast day was August 18, seems to be a rather interesting character in our liturgical calendar. One one hand, he is considered one of the giants of theology in the early days of The University of the South (aka Sewanee.) He was one of the people who shaped the "Big Tent" theology of our modern Episcopal Church. He was virtually unknown as a theologian until age 56, yet his books still sell to this very day on Amazon.com and get high reader reviews.
On the other hand, he was a Southerner--and I mean a Southerner--in every sense of the word. He was an officer in the Confederate Army (there's a great story about him baptizing General John Bell Hood not long before he was killed by a shell.) He lived in the south during Reconstruction, and sadly, there is some speculation (although unproven) that he could have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period. This allegation is rather unclear, and I honestly don't know if it is true or not, but it's enough of an allegation that there's been discussion about whether he should be removed from the liturgical calendar.
My gut feeling, though, is even if the allegations were true, leaving him on the calendar might be a wonderful testimony to the tension in which me must all live as Christians, and the unease we have to accept about some brutal mistakes we have made in the name of Christianity. I often think about what my atheist friends try to hang on me as a practicing Christian. They seldom want to fight with me and my personal theology. They seem, however, to be hell-bent for leather to make me feel some kind of guilt for every war, every aspect of oppression, that was condoned by the church or perpetrated by Christianity. It's impossible for me to accept that guilt, because, frankly, I didn't do it. I have compassion for how the church has wronged people over time, but the church is not the only oppressor of society, so is government, capitalism, etc., and I can't feel any more guilt over the church than I can feel for, say, American Imperialism.
It seemed no small coincidence that on the feast day of William Porcher Dubose a pile of interesting discussions broke out on Facebook regarding the recently released movie, "The Help." Elizabeth had posted this story on her blog, and also on the Episcopal Women's Caucus Facebook page. Religion Dispatches had posted this piece, which Jane Redmont had shared. NPR had posted this and this.
Now, I do plan to see the movie. But I also plan to participate in a discussion we will be having at Trinity-Kirksville about the movie. It's been my heritage to see things for myself. Years ago, my late grandmother specifically went to see The Last Temptation of Christ because it had been denounced from every pulpit in Macon, MO. (Her verdict? "I don't know what all the fuss was about. There was this dream scene where he imagined being married to Mary Magdalene and having children. Well, duh, if you were about to be crucified, wouldn't you want an escape option?")
The controversy about this movie reminds me of another controversy from years past, involving the actress Hattie McDaniel. She was the first African-American actress to win an Oscar--but these days, what she got an Oscar for is reprehensible--she got it for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind. In fact, as time went on, Hattie caught a lot of flak for playing mammies and maids from groups like the NAACP. Yet, at the same time, she was a quiet champion for civil rights--helping overturn restrictive covenants in a neighborhood in Hollywood, and a well-paid, working actress and radio star at a time many African-Americans could not find a job with dignity. I find it interesting that she was a trailblazer in so many ways but regarded as a traitor to others. She had to find her own way in a stormy place...as, I suppose, did William Porcher Dubose, and each of us in different ways.
I carry my own version of this storm. My great-grandfather was known as a fair man when it came to dealing with the African-American community. He owned and raced harness horses, and often hired black horse trainers. Yet he could not let his best drivers race, because only white men could be drivers at the racetracks he frequented. On the other hand, he was the city marshall, and in the 1920's when there was a lynching in my home town, he did nothing. Nothing. Honestly, I suppose that was because as one man, there was nothing he could do, even behind the badge of the law.
But what that storm did was shape my grandmother and mother. My grandmother was an election clerk, and she tolerated no foolishness nor shenanigans when it came to letting everyone who was eligible to vote, vote. My mother was a junior in high school when the high school integrated, and she was one of the people who made the "newcomers" feel welcome. I've posted before on my own life about my favorite elementary teacher, Mrs. Ella Smith, and how this amazing African-American lady and I shared the school year of 1967-68. That was quite a year to share a classroom.
I don't think there's any right answer to what impact the movie "The Help" will have on race relations, if it has any at all, but I am not a fan of boycotting something on someone else's principle. Telling someone to boycott something, to me, smells of someone saying I'm too stupid to make up my own mind about something. Now, that doesn't mean I won't make a terrible mistake. I've made terrible mistakes in the past. I've eaten crow for many things. But if I trust in the power for God to make all things well, and the realm of God to emerge, I have to trust in the power of the storm and the tension of it.
I don't think there's a cure or an answer to how to deal with this tension that still exists in our society between black and white, but I know I have power as an individual to spread the love of Christ. I think about a young African-American man who is one of my medical students. Recently, his mother unexpectedly passed away. He grew up in "the hood" in L.A. He's had to come so far on such a hard road. He came by my office asking my advice on some things and I also told him he was in my prayers and, at the end of the visit, I gave him a big hug. There was a day in my lifetime that hugging a young black man was an unthinkable, unspeakable thing. I know things are not changing fast enough, but they are changing. I can only trust in God to help me live in the tension of it.