Like many Southerners, even as an adult, I always referred to my father as “Daddy.” He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last years of his life and died ten years ago today on the eve of Palm Sunday. So that year I observed Holy Week in a different and more profound way than ever before. It was intensely personal and accompanied with many tears. Death, the enemy of life, is cruel. I miss him still.
After returning to North Carolina, I touched Daddy’s body and kissed his forehead and said prayers before his cremation. I selected a simple wooden urn for his ashes. I made sure that his ashes were placed directly into it without any plastic bag or metal identification tag, only a layer of cotton between the ashes and the wooden panel that was screwed into the bottom. And I requested that the dirt at the graveside be visible, not hidden under a roll of artificial turf. These things, these realities, were meaningful to me as a priest and, more importantly, as a son.
My brother worked at that time as a private contractor in Iraq. Weather conditions delayed his departure from Baghdad, which in turn delayed Daddy’s funeral. That was transformed into a strange blessing, however, since the funeral was held on Good Friday — the least shallow day of the year for Christians. On a holy day set aside to remember the death of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we also remembered the death of one of his sheep.
The contrast between the weather in the Old North State and the North Star State was a bit extreme on that day called good. In North Carolina, everything was in bloom. But the back yard of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, where I served as the Rector, looked like the photograph below, which was taken on the same day. It was symbolic of my own experience at the time. The warmth of the sun back home was a glimpse of the glory that shall be revealed. Those who were in the “Deep North” will remember a magnificent snowfall that year on Easter Day!
Inside the church of my childhood, I recited the Moravian burial liturgy and sang familiar chorales with the congregation. I carried the urn in a procession from the church to the graveyard, which is called God’s Acre, as a brass band played more chorales outdoors. I placed that urn directly into the ground, returning Daddy’s remains to the earth. I picked up a shovel and, together with my brother, filled the grave with dirt in the presence of our mother, our relatives, and our friends. That final act of love was a powerful experience for me and for many who witnessed it.
The chorale sung at the end of the Moravian burial liturgy, just before the graveside benediction, is a beautiful summary of the Christian faith that Daddy and I shared:
The Savior’s blood and righteousness My beauty is, my glorious dress; Thus well arrayed I need not fear, When in His presence I appear.
We need not fear in the presence of a loving Savior. Needless to say, presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter on the next evening at my Episcopal parish in Minnesota was emotional for me. It was, however, one of the highlights of my life as a priest. That’s when faithful Christians throughout the world, and those who have lost their faith too, are reminded of the night in which Jesus passed over from death to life. That’s when we look into an empty tomb but do not dwell there. That’s when tears are wiped away from the faces of those who mourn. As I wrote down the following words for the back of Daddy’s funeral bulletin, these other things, these other realities, filled me with a hope that is firmly anchored in God’s promises:
“The people to whom I owe my life are unforgotten. They are present to me, because in their love I became free and can breathe in wide spaces. Unforgotten for me are people to whom I am bound in affection and respect. They have entered into my life, and I perhaps a little into theirs. Unforgotten for me are the dead whom I miss. They are always especially present to me. Nothing that has been, is no more; everything that has happened remains. We cannot make anything undone, not the ill, but not the good either. What was lovely and successful, and the happiness we have experienced, no one can take from us, neither transitory time nor death.”
These words of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann at the end of his autobiography, A Broad Place, describe our own lives and also the life that we have remembered this morning. Although memories faded for Clyde over the last several years, those experiences are nevertheless unforgotten. They are not lost because God has embraced them for him as surely as God now embraces him for us.
This we believe.
This is the joy of Easter.
The Lord is risen indeed!
1 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) 382.
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 4, 2018
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . (Exodus 20:1-2)
Yesterday, my wife Carrie and I enjoyed spending the afternoon with some friends at the Hobby Center downtown for the musical Memphis. The lead male character is a fictionalized version of the pioneering disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. As a DJ, he introduced black music to a wider — and whiter — audience on the radio. Down the road, and beyond the scope of the musical, he would become famous as the first person to play on air a recording of Elvis Presley. That young Elvis would be taken around town by this white man to complete his musical education by meeting African American club owners and music stars.
In the musical, set in the segregated South of the 1950s, one of the main things that’s painful to watch is the racism that provides tension throughout the story. However, as if that’s not enough, there’s a jarring dissonance in Memphis between Christianity as it’s meant to be, like the image in the last book of the Bible of “a great multitude which no [one] could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” of God, and old rules about how good Christian white people were supposed to act in the South. It was an inversion of the biblical image in which a perversion of Christianity reinforced the walls between the races.
I’ve been wrestling with that same dissonance within my family tree over the last six months or so. As some of you heard me share during a recent Faith Forum on the theme of reconciliation, my wife strongly suggested to me last summer that I should find something else to do in my spare time other than checking the latest political news constantly. Fair enough, I thought. So one night when I was having trouble falling asleep, I decided that it might be a fun distraction to explore the past through Ancestry.com. And it was fun to discover in my wife’s family tree a truly delightful scoundrel who spent some time as a prisoner at the Jamestown Colony and four Unionist hell-raising cousins in my family tree who broke out of jail multiple times in Confederate North Carolina, barely escaping the hangman’s noose the last time.
But I didn’t expect to meet Daniel Hackney, Jr., my great-great-great-grandfather. He became a Baptist deacon in 1833 in Chatham County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, he was licensed preach in 1866 and then ordained as a minister of the gospel in 1871. He, too, was a Unionist throughout his political career as an elected representative in North Carolina’s General Assembly during the 1840s and 1850s.
But Hackney was a pro-slavery Unionist, believing, like many of the conservative politicians of his day, that secession would ultimately be the surest and quickest path to the destruction of the institution of slavery. That, of course, is exactly what happened. So I guess we can all agree he was right about that one thing at least.
The 1860 United States Federal Census included slave schedules that reveal the fact that Hackney, just like his father before him, owned slaves. It doesn’t include their names because they are simply counted as property under Hackney’s name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses. The dissonance between that harsh reality and Hackney’s complete devotion to the work of Baptist churches after the war without seeming to regret the past is astonishing, although it’s important to acknowledge that he would have been raised not to hear that.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That sentence introduces what we Christians traditionally refer to as “The Ten Commandments,” which we’ve been reciting together at the beginning of our liturgies each Sunday throughout this season of Lent. But the Bible itself refers to this collection not with that familiar title but as “The Ten Words” or “Decalogue.” Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, that sentence is neither an introduction nor a prologue to everything that follows but stands alone as the First Word.
As an aside, yes, there’s more than one way to divide up this familiar-sounding text into ten parts. In fact, there are three different ways to count those Ten Words. I’ve already mentioned the traditional Jewish way that counts the first sentence alone as the First Word before moving on to count not having other gods and not making idols, together, as the Second Word. Roman Catholics and Lutherans also combine no other gods and no idols as their First Word and split the commandment against coveting into not coveting a neighbor’s spouse as the Ninth Word and not coveting a neighbor’s possessions as the Tenth Word. Anglican, Orthodox, and Reformed Christians keep all that coveting together as the Tenth Word and count not having other gods as the First Word and not making idols as the Second Word. Got that?
So counting to ten can be more difficult than we often imagine! Back in 2006, Lynn Westmoreland, who’s a member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia, co-sponsored a bill that would have declared the Ten Commandments to be “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstones of a fair and just society” and also would have required them to be clearly displayed in the United States Capitol. He believed people needed “to understand and to respect” these commandments. But when Westmorland was interviewed about this, he stumbled when he was asked,
“Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.” And then he admitted, “I can’t name them all.” Now to be fair, as my wife told me, that’s like asking Americans to name the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. You might come up with Sleepy, Bashful, and Sneezy, while completely unable to recall Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, and Doc.
The issue with Westmoreland wasn’t the fact that he stumbled when he was asked to list the commandments. After all, there are different lists. Rather, it was the sanctimonious way he wanted to impose this on everyone without fully embracing it himself. And make no mistake about it, these ten words are spoken directly to Jews and, by extension, to Christians who accept the Hebrew Bible. They presume a redeemed and worshiping community like the one that surrounds us right now.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That First Word in the Jewish reckoning isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, it’s a “statement of who God is and what God has already done for Israel.” That one sentence really summarizes most of the Old Testament — using God’s revealed name, “I am Yahweh your God,” and reminding us of that God’s liberating actions, which are not merely anchored in the past but are a continuing reality in the lives of God’s people from generation to generation, including our own.
It’s easy to miss the plain reading of the text that God didn’t just bring those people from long ago out of the land of Egypt, God brought you . . . and me out of the land of Egypt. God brought us out of bondage. As Christians, we might say with the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” This God brings life out of death, good out of evil, and sets us free. Each of us needs to be set free from something.
Occasionally we get to see that deliverance in dramatic ways in the world around us. I’m grateful, for example, that people in the 1860s saw the end of the institution of slavery throughout the United States and that people in the 1960s witnessed the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin was enshrined in the words of the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person. And I hope the shadows of that, which linger in our own time, will one day be dispelled by the light of God’s love — the same love that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ, who healed the afflicted and, from the cross, forgave his tormentors. Those in bondage to hatred aren’t really free, even if they seem to be.
But I know that even if a miraculous shift like that happens in our society while I’m still on this earth, the dissonance between my personal life and the words of the Decalogue will remain and never go away. That’s part of living, breathing, and being human. That’s part of knowing that we need to be forgiven and embraced and loved. And it’s important for me, spiritually, to listen for that dissonance, even if I’ve been taught not to hear it or the people around me don’t want me to acknowledge it.
I thought about that while reading Larry Parsley’s review of the novel Godric, which was written by Frederick Buechner. The book takes its title from the name of the story’s main character who observes that “nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.” Parsley says that “Godric’s early life breaks most of the Ten Commandments.” Eventually, however, he settles into the life of a Christian hermit whom people, for whatever reason, seek out for healing. And this is how Parsley’s review ends:
In Godric’s latter days, an obsequious monk named Reginald of Durham is dispatched to write Godric’s hagiography. As Reginald tries to pretty up the often ugly past of his subject, he justifies himself: “. . . for the sake of him who is himself the Truth, I leave some small truths out.” But Godric opposes the literary airbrushing techniques of Reginald at every turn. When Reginald tries to tell Godric his name is Saxon for “God reigns,” Godric corrects him and says his name literally means “God’s wreck.”
Over the course of reading this book, I was struck by my deep and persistent temptation to serve as my own Reginald, to tell stories of my life in such a way that the ugly parts are excised and the good parts are magnified. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I, too, am “God’s wreck.” Thankfully, though, I am God’s. And sometimes, God even moves through me . . .
I don’t know about you, but I love the oddly comforting image of being God’s wreck. That’s something I share with my great-great-great-grandfather and why it’s o.k. to talk about his life not as I wish it to be but as it really was. It’s o.k. for me to be honest with God about my own life too. God hears the dissonance, even the parts that I do not, taking those notes and composing something new that’s beautiful and eternal.
And that’s the invitation each one of us has received today — to bring our true selves to this Table, to be fed here, to be loved here, to be forgiven here, knowing that God will one day right all wrongs, those done not only to us but also by us. This I believe.
2 BACK TO POST I also didn’t realize until last month that the same dissonance is present in the history of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Founded in 1834 to educate Baptist laity and men entering the ordained ministry, and named Wake Forest College in 1838, it was originally located near Raleigh in the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. According to Twitter’s @WFUHistory, which highlights the six-volume History of Wake Forest College:
In 1860 Wake Forest was given the estate of Mr. John Blount for sale, which they sold for $12,153.19 Confederate dollars. All the money was invested in Confederate bonds, which were worth nothing by the time the college reopened in 1865. Of this $12,15319 over $10,000 came from the sale of Mr. Blount’s  slaves by The Board of Trustee’s Treasurer, Mr. J. S. Purefoy. The money from his estate was to be part of the college’s endowment.
After the end of the Civil War, my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., no longer “owned” 14 human beings as “property.” Their new status as free persons had been guaranteed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863, freeing slaves within the borders of states in rebellion, and by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. Hackney, a former politician and former Confederate Home Guard officer and now also a former slaveholder, would spend his post-war years devoted to the work of Baptist churches. He had served as a deacon at Love’s Creek Baptist Church in Chatham County, North Carolina, since 1833. But he was granted a license to preach in the Sandy Creek Association of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1866. Eventually, he was ordained as a preaching elder in that association in 1871, serving as a pastor, without seeming to regret the past or even noticing its dissonance with his Christian faith, until his death on December 28, 1884.
My great-great-grandfather David Williard and his brothers, having been drafted to fight for the Confederacy, returned home to Forsyth County, North Carolina, after the war to resume farming. These men born to Moravian parents didn’t enslave any human beings before secession, so nothing about that reality changed afterwards. However, the economic ruin that had been wrought by the rebellion was obviously different. And so was the psychological trauma of having participated in wartime violence that their Moravian grandparents and great-grandparents would have found abhorrent as members of an originally pacifist Christian community. A line had been crossed. They were now Americans who happened to belong to the Moravian Church (or Primitive Baptist churches), and not Moravians who happened to live in America as in previous generations.
Elkanah, William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard — my second cousins, fourth removed — returned home to Yadkin County, North Carolina, after having remained Unionists throughout the war and having actively opposed the Confederate government in the Old North State. It was suggested that they were members of a secret resistance movement known as the H.O.A. or Heroes of America. There was a warrant for the arrest of William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard and 11 other Unionists for murder “with malice aforethought” after an attempted arrest that led to a shootout with the Confederate state militia. And Elkanah Willard, who can be seen in this photo with the beard of a biblical prophet, was a subject of conversations between North Carolina’s wartime governor and chief justice because of his brash defiance of the authorities. Even though the arrival of the Union army ensured the murder case wouldn’t be pursued, it’s astonishing that these brothers just resumed their old lives.
So my ancestors represented at least three of the groups of people who were living in the “Quaker Belt” of the central piedmont of North Carolina during the Civil War: The wealthy who encouraged young men to volunteer to fight in a war that would mostly benefit slaveholders; yeoman farmers who were drafted into the Confederate army, many of whom deserted or resisted passively; and those who actively rebelled against the rebellion for the sake of the Union. However, when monuments were raised in the 20th century in Chatham and Forsyth Counties to commemorate the historical events of 1861 to 1865, the speeches that accompanied their unveiling glorified ordinary citizens who stepped forward to fight on behalf of the Confederacy with patriotic zeal, ignoring, in a real sense, all three of these groups.
The monuments themselves ignore these same groups and Black Americans who had been enslaved by the rule of law, beginning with the Constitution of the United States, with the imagined blessing of God in the Bible. Those slaves were the human subject of “property rights” that Christian people like Hackney wanted to protect for themselves and their own economic gain by talking about the equal rights of states rather than individuals. However, Black Americans were very much on the minds of the men who gave speeches that praised these monuments before cheering white crowds.
After 20 children unveiled Chatham County’s new Confederate monument before a large crowd in Pittsboro, North Carolina, on August 23, 1907, Chief Justice Walter Clark of the North Carolina Supreme Court was introduced as the guest speaker for the occasion. In his remarks, which the Raleigh Times newspaper published, Clark suggests the possibility that the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution “to secure the rights of the newly emancipated colored people” had not been adopted legally.
Clark would later give the 1920 commencement address at St. Augustine’s School (now St. Augustine’s University) in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s a historically Black educational institution that was founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Church for the education of freed slaves. Unbelievably, his remarks included these words:
It is true that our colored people wear “the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” and there is no social equality between the races, but the latter condition exists in every country where there are two or more distinct races of people. The colored people do not wish social equality, and the white people would not tolerate it, and there the matter ends. It is not a matter of debate, but is settled and not a cause of strife like the divergence in language, in religion, in national aspirations which exists in nearly every other country. . . .
There has been some times complaint as to what is known as the “Jim Crow cars,” which are established by law. At the North, where there are few colored people in proportion to the population, the railroads cannot afford to furnish separate cars for them. With us, where nearly one-third of the people are colored, and probably one-fourth of the travelers by rail, it is better for them and the whites that separate cars should be furnished for them. The real objection is that sometimes these cars are inferior to those furnished the whites. This is contrary to the law, which requires the same rate to be charged for fare and the same and equally good accommodations furnished for both races. When this is not done it is not because of the law, but in violation of it, and the remedy is by application to the Corporation Commission to require better accommodations.
As to suffrage, which I do not intend to discuss in any way, I think that the wiser heads among the colored people have discouraged any attempt to intermeddle in politics and that the colored race has lost nothing but gained much by abstaining from doing so against the wishes of the white people, notwithstanding the decision of the United States Supreme Court that the “Grandfather Clause” is void.
Forsyth County’s new Confederate monument had been unveiled in Winston (now Winston-Salem), North Carolina, on October 3, 1905. The guest speaker that day was the Honorable Alfred Moore Waddell, Mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina. And he said, “I thank God that monuments to the Confederate soldier are rapidly multiplying in the land.”
Wadell had been a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate cavalry and was a United States representative during the 1870s. He also participated in a coup d’etat known as the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, when white Democrats overthrew the legally elected officials of the city and expelled black Republican leaders. Emboldened by Democratic election victories in the fall of 1898 throughout most of North Carolina, an armed white mob seized control of the city. Before sunset, they had forced the mayor, the board of aldermen, and the chief of police to resign.
Waddell, who began his term as the Mayor of Wilmington under these violent and racist circumstances, had made clear his unvarnished white supremacist views in a statement before the election that was published in the Constitution newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 21, 1898. This was part of the intimidation of Black voters that, together with at least one city precinct in which the ballot boxes were stuffed, contributed to the wide election margins by white Democrats:
So I do not believe those monuments truly reflect or honor the historical events of 1861 to 1865. They certainly are not honest about the white supremacist ideas that undergirded the celebrations after they were erected. Not even General Robert E. Lee thought these “enduring memorials of granite” were a good idea. He wrote a letter in 1869 to decline an invitation to return to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with officers who had participated in the battle there for the purpose of marking on the ground where such memorials should be placed. This is how he ended his letter:
I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee.
W.E.B. Du Bois was a historian, civil rights activist, and the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also known as the NAACP, and wrote these words in 1931 in a publication of the NAACP called The Crisis:
The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments, — the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to explain on its war monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter on a North Carolina monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”
Last summer I happened to read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times newspaper that was written by a self-described “black daughter of the Confederacy.” Her name is Lisa Richardson, and, like me, she’s the descendant of a Confederate soldier. The difference, as she notes in her essay, is that she finds herself in that category most likely “through coerced sex and rape,” which was tolerated within the institution of slavery.
Also like me, a victory for one side of her family meant defeat for another side of her family. In Richardson’s case, however, the end of the rebellion brought an end to the institution of slavery and, therefore, freedom to her enslaved ancestors. With her, I rejoice that the rebellion didn’t succeed in its aim to deny that freedom to millions of human beings whose ancestors came from Africa. With her, I lament that white supremacist ideas have survived the fall the Confederacy, emerging renewed as those statues were dedicated and, sadly, continuing into our own day:
History isn’t being erased, but it is being corrected. Relocating a Confederate statue to, say, a museum, is an acknowledgment that we see the naked emperor; we see through the contorted logic that it is possible to separate the Confederacy from . . . slavery . . .
As for my Confederate ancestor, [Jeremiah Dial, who enlisted in the 31st Regiment, Arkansas Infantry,] I consider him without bitterness. He was a man of his time, his family, his community and his culture. He probably wasn’t particularly evil — just an ordinary man, without the advantage we have: [more than a century and a half’s] perspective on the Civil War. I have met a few of his white descendants — my cousins — and we regard each other with genuine affection.
To those who would keep Jeremiah Dial frozen in time, forever trapped at the moment he chose a cause on the wrong side of humanity, I believe you do him a disservice. To those who use him as an excuse to fly the flag of modern-day anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry, you have no right.
To all the bronze Confederate soldiers, in whom I see the image of my great-great-great-grandfather, I would extend this grace. Without resentment or rancor, I would move them into museums and there tell the story of their lives. I would end their utility as flashpoints for racism and division, and, once and for all, allow them to retire from their long service as sentries over a whitewashed history.
I’m also grateful that I’ve been able to learn details about connections my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., had to the institution of slavery, both personally and politically, thanks to the resources of Ancestry.com and its affiliates. Even when I disagree with them, it’s amazing to be able to read his thoughts, printed in black and white in local newspapers, about the events of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.
From my point of view, there is nothing to fear about shining a light on the shadows that have been ignored for too long. As for this particular series, there may be future posts about other Unionist cousins of mine whom I discovered through their own testimony and the testimony of their friends and neighbors before the United States Southern Claims Commission several years after the end of the Civil War. Some of that testimony includes references to and claims of secret membership during the war in the Red Strings, a biblically-inspired nickname for the Heroes of America.
I’m also pondering a final post that somehow imagines a conversation, centered on reconciliation, between me and Hackney. However, that will necessitate some time and some prayer to do honestly. So perhaps it will appear in a future season of Easter. That would seem appropriate since I am, like Hackney was, an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The promise of Easter is that God will one day make all things new, including the conflicted and sin-wearied hearts of both Hackney and me with our prejudices, our imperfections, and our many mistakes. As the First Letter of John in the New Testament reminds those of us who are called Christians:
If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts . . .
To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen.” The Lord is merciful to all.