My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part II

At the end of last month, the New York Times published an article with news about an important essay from the 19th century that was recently discovered at the New York Public Library. Written in either 1855 or 1856 and titled “Individual Influence,” it’s “a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation.” Near the end, the author notes his belief that “all influence opposit to divine perverts human nature into brutality from infancy into distant years.” Those words were written in the handwriting of a slave from Chatham County, North Carolina, named George M. Horton and “belonging to Hall Horton.” This slave had taught himself how to read with a Wesleyan hymnal.

Horton was a poet who sold his verses to undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While he never made enough money to purchase his freedom, he did make enough to buy his time back from his master. So he spent his days working on the campus and writing poems. “Liberty and Slavery” protested his status in bondage and was the first of his verses published in a newspaper. In 1829, Horton “became the first African-American in the South to publish a book.”

The manuscript of “Individual Influence” was kept by Henry Harrisse, “a French-Jewish immigrant who arrived in Chapel Hill in 1853.” Harrisse was ridiculed and harassed by his students at the university, who were “mostly the sons of wealthy [slave-owning] planters.” He made a scrapbook with Horton’s essay, documents related to his problems with his students, and articles about Benjamin Hedrick.

A native North Carolinian, Hedrick was graduated at the top of his class from the University of North Carolina in 1851. He returned to teach there in 1854 after studies at Harvard University in Massachusetts. When asked by a few students if he would support John C. Frémont as a Republican presidential candidate, Hedrick answered honestly that he would. Soon thereafter, a newspaper article was published that “[advocated] the ouster of those with ‘black Republican opinions’ from the colleges and seminaries of the state.” Here’s part of his public response to the controversy:

cannot believe that slavery is preferable to freedom, or that slavery extension is one of the constitutional rights of the South. . . . Born in the “good old North State,” I cherish a love for her and her people that I bear to no other State or people. It will ever be my sincere wish to advance her interests. I love also the Union of the States, secured as it was by the blood and toil of my ancestors; and whatever influence I possess, though small it may be, shall be exerted for its preservation.

Two weeks later the faculty and trustees of the university voted to dismiss him.

Chatham County, North Carolina, was home not only to slave George M. Horton but also to slave-owner Daniel Hackney, Jr., who is my great, great, great grandfather. Hackney represented the people of Chatham County during the 1840s and 1850s in the House of Commons, as the lower chamber of North Carolina’s General Assembly in the capital of Raleigh was then called. He was a member of the Whig Party but, after the disintegration of that political party in the 1850s, he became a Democrat.

Hackney appeared on what was described as the “Democratic anti-Know Nothing ticket” in Chatham County for the General Assembly. They were opposed to the Know Nothing candidates, who were anti-immigration, anti-Catholic, etc. Because he had switched political parties, people were very interested in Hackney’s opinions about the 1856 presidential election. Hackney’s preferred candidate was former President Millard Fillmore, who was the last member of the Whig Party in the White House. Although the American “Know Nothing” Party nominated Fillmore as their presidential candidate, Hackney’s support of him shouldn’t be seen an endorsement of Know Nothing policies. That’s made clear in this letter about Hackney that was front-page news for The North Carolina Standard newspaper in Raleigh:

In 1844, when Hackney first ran for the House of Commons, his name appeared in various newspapers on a list of candidates for the Whig Party. Sometimes the announcement included candidates all the way up to Henry Clay for President of the United States. This example, from The Raleigh Register newspaper, included information about an important and very hotly debated national issue — possible annexation and statehood for the Republic of Texas.

My great, great, great grandfather belonged to the political party that was opposed to a hasty annexation of Texas. Many Southerners viewed Texas statehood as a way to expand and protect the institution of slavery. Some feared, however, that it could lead to a war with Mexico. In his “Raleigh Letter,” Henry Clay said he opposed the annexation of Texas “at the present time.” It was meant to suggest to anti-slavery Northerners that he stood against the expansion of slavery, while placating pro-slavery Southerners with the strong hint that he would welcome Texas in the future. Regardless of whatever good and noble things he may have endorsed as a private citizen, as an elected public official, and later as an ordained minister of the gospel, Hackney seems to have been consistent in his support of the institution of slavery in the decades before and the years during the Civil War. I wish that I could say otherwise. He was a man of his times.

Things might have turned out differently for him if the churches of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association, to which Hackney’s church belonged, had taken to heart their own words, rooted in the Christian gospel, in their partial, anti-slavery resolution in 1835. The inability of that association more than a decade later in 1847 to provide a clear — or any — answer to the question of whether it is contrary to the gospel for Christians to “keep [human beings] in bondage for life” explains why Hackney was able to represent his church at association meetings right up to the Civil War.

I also wonder how his life might have been shaped if he had received an education like Benjamin Hedrick, who was able to speak against slavery honestly and counter-culturally in spite of the cost to himself both personally and professionally. Unlike Hedrick, my great, great, great grandfather was very popular. He received more votes than any of the other candidates in the race to represent Chatham County in the House of Commons. That victory would be repeated again and again and again.

But the juxtaposition of his name and the “For Sale” notice to the right of the list of Whig candidates below in The Greensboro Patriot newspaper is an unsettling visual reminder of what life was really like in North Carolina in 1844. While I can’t change the past, in the spirit of George M. Horton’s sermonic essay, my prayer today is that my individual influence, by God’s mercy and grace, will not be “opposit to divine.”

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part I

Last night C-SPAN’s series on American history, American Artifacts, highlighted the Saving Slave Houses Project. These structures, which are vanishing, witness to our nation’s original sin of slavery — enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives in the United States Congress from each state. The contrast between that reality and the “self-evident” truth set forth in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal” is hard to understand.

I watched that program with great interest because I was surprised to learn, only this year, that I have slave-owning ancestors. That’s not the narrative I’ve always told people about myself: I’m the grandson and great-grandson of tobacco farmers in North Carolina. While that’s a true statement, it’s not the whole truth. Further back, some of those who came before me mentioned slaves in their wills. One person in particular stands out, although his slaves are not referenced in his will because they were presumably freed at the end of the Civil War by the Union army.

His name was Daniel Hackney, Jr., and he’s my great, great, great grandfather. He was a politician in the General Assembly of North Carolina in the 1840s and 1850s, a member of the Whig party who became a Democrat, a slave-owning Baptist deacon who became a post-slave-owning preaching elder, and a Unionist (an as-it-was-with-slavery Unionist rather than an as-it-might-be-without-slavery Unionist) during the years before secession who would then be elected 3rd lieutenant in the Confederate Home Company for Chatham County, North Carolina, during the Civil War.

The Chatham County slave schedules from the 1860 United States Federal Census don’t include the names of Hackney’s slaves. They are simply counted as property under his 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.

When I first saw this, I kept a copy of it on my beside table. I stared at it every night before trying to fall asleep, haunted by the fact that I was directly connected to the institution of slavery in America. So I’m reflecting on all of this in a series of posts.

For now, however, I’ll begin with Hackney’s strong religious identity. In 1823, at the age of 20, he was baptized as a Christian and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He was one of the first deacons for Love’s Creek Baptist Church, which is located about two miles east of Siler City, North Carolina, when that congregation was organized in 1833. After his service in the Home Guard and his former slaves were no longer his “property,” he was finally granted a license to preach in 1866 and ordained as a preaching elder in 1871 in the Sandy Creek Baptist Association.

Interestingly, in 1835, that association had opposed not the institution of slavery entirely but, specifically, “buy[ing] and sell[ing] Negros, for the purpose of speculation or merchandise, for gain” as “inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel of Christ” and advised churches “to exclude members who will not abandon the practice.” Later, in 1847, the association was asked this question: “Is it agreeable to the gospel for members of the Baptist Church of Christ to buy and sell human beings, or keep them in bondage for life?” The only answer referred back to the minutes of the association for 1835, which ignores the part about lifelong bondage.

So it is not surprising that Hackney frequently represented his church at meetings of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association during the more than three decades between the time those first statements were affirmed 1835 and his receiving a license to preach. Clearly, owning a lot of slaves was not, in itself, a reason to be excluded.

When he died in 1884, Hackney’s will included a charitable bequest in the amount of $100 to the Baptist Foreign Missions in China. A newspaper announcement of that bequest noted that it was in fulfillment of a promise he had made 35 years earlier, which would have been in the middle of his political career and long before his slaves were set free. His obituary declared that from his baptism until his death, Hackney “made his secular interests subservient to his religious duties.” It pointed out that he had been a successful businessman earlier in his life and “accumulated a handsome estate, which he used liberally in promoting the cause of Christ.”

Like most of us to one degree or another, Hackney seems to have been a tangled knot of contradictions. For him, Asians were worthy of conversion to Christianity while Africans were bought and sold as part of chattel slavery. The latter was not seen as something contrary to his “religious duties” and provided the source of his wealth. That wealth was then used “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love,” quoting a hymn verse that was written the same year Hackney started preaching.

One of the things I love about America is the fact that our ideals about universal human rights can be the source of a reformation from time to time. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery in the 19th century; civil rights legislation that ended racial segregation in public places in the 20th century; and our discussions about racial discrimination, law enforcement, and the dignity of every human being in the 21st century are examples of this.

Blessedly, the same thing happens from time to time within Christianity. Christian faith can become the means by which some of those knots become untangled. As the late African-American preacher Peter Gomes, formerly of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, noted a decade ago at Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City:

[I]t is instructive to examine how the religion of white slave owners became an instrument of liberation for slaves, rather than the instrument of docility the slave owners had hoped.

“The Christian faith was stronger than the Christians who used it,” he said, because white Christians could not corrupt Jesus’ truth.

I find that to be a hopeful testimony of faith not only for myself but also for my slave-owning ancestor. Hackney, too, in words from the Book of Common Prayer that are addressed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is “a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.” He rests in those everlasting arms — but not because some thought he was “a man of intellect and great force of character,” as the Wilmington Morning Star newspaper said of him after his death.

No, he rests there only because he is forgiven.

This I believe.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

From the Rector #67

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

These words from David Lose, Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, have been on my mind. The invitation that he describes isn’t something limited to members of the clergy or professional church staff. It’s an invitation that you have the power to extend to a child of God . . . today:

Jesus’ whole life is centered on inviting into the presence of God those who neither expect nor deserve [that] invitation. And he expects us to do the same. He expects us, that is, to stop counting the costs, benefits, and rewards of our actions and live from a sense of abundance and blessing.

Counting. It’s so omnipresent in our lives that we almost forget it exists even as it exacts a tremendous toll on us. Whether we are counting the amount in our bank accounts or the opinions of our neighbors on what we wear or do, we are continually counting. Why? Because we live with the sure conviction that there is not enough. Not enough money, time, prestige, resources, recognition . . . you name it. And that conviction seems sure, even unquestionable, because so much in our culture – and particularly the advertisements we’re relentlessly subjected to – tell us there isn’t.

But what if there was? What if there was enough and more than enough to go around? What difference would that make in our own peace of mind and the way we treated others? . . . [Jesus is inviting us to] stop counting and start giving and blessing. . . . [What would it] be like to live into the freedom to stop calculating our social prestige and stop worrying about what others think and simply be kind to everyone around us, particularly those who are not often the recipients of kindness. What would it look like at work, at school, and at the places we volunteer or play sports or socialize, to look out for those who seem off to the margin and to invite them into the center by inviting them into our lives?

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

“. . . a time to mourn.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4)

The mass shooting in Las Vegas, resulting in at least 58 deaths and more than 500 injured people, was one of the first things discussed today during a spiritual retreat with the heads of churches throughout the Anglican Communion at Canterbury Cathedral in England. Silence was observed this evening at the beginning of Evensong in that mother church of Anglican Christianity, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, offered this prayer for the victims.

From the Rector #66

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

David Lose is Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which is the largest Lutheran congregation in the United States and just down the road from my previous community of faith. I find these words of his about comparison, which I just ignored in my previous sentence, to be true for so many people that I meet:

One of the “life rules” I’ve adopted as I grow older . . . is that “no joy comes from comparisons.” Have you ever noticed that? Rather than be content with what you have or who you are or what you’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have or are or have accomplished. I suspect this is part of being human – being animated by a deep-seated insecurity that makes it difficult for us to establish some sense of ourselves apart from an external reference. . . .

No joy comes from comparisons. Only envy and resentment and bitterness or, occasionally, a shallow and superficial pride because you’ve chosen to make yourself feel better by looking down on someone else. And not only do we not bring joy, but we unintentionally denigrate the actual present reality with which we have been blessed. . . . [D]o we take stock of what we think we deserve or of all the things we’ve been blessed by that we don’t deserve? Do we look for places in our lives characterized by lack and scarcity or do we name and give thanks for places of abundance. Do we reflect on what others have and we do not, or do we delight in the wonder of all that we have been given to which we had no guarantee or right to expect? Do we, in short, choose comparisons or do we choose joy?

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #65

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

A couple of years ago, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote a review for The New Statesman magazine of several books about violence, including Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here’s part of that review, which I found to be profoundly thought-provoking as I consider my own place in this broken world and my relationship to others in that world as a follower of Jesus:

Again and again in Genesis, younger brothers overturn the legitimate expectations of older ones, and varying degrees of conflict result. At first sight, this reads as a catalogue of simple displacement, yet it becomes more interesting when we look at the verbal detail. Younger brothers discover that their privilege is to secure the future of older ones; or they discover that the blessing transferred to them from an older sibling is balanced by an unexpected blessing for the latter which benefits both. The trickster Jacob, when he next encounters Esau, the brother he has defrauded, says that to see his face is like seeing the face of God. In other words, the stories are not about favouritism and rejection, whatever the appearances: they are about the blessing of difference — the dignity of difference, to quote the title of one of Sacks’s best-known books. There is no firm ground for asserting that divine choice makes an enemy of those not chosen, because God’s choice is always purposeful, directed at a common good.

This reading is an ingenious and often moving turning upside down of a rhetoric of “chosenness” that has often blighted Christian as well as Jewish self-understanding, and has undoubtedly fuelled the anti-Semitism that Sacks rightly sees as resurgent in so many contexts today.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #64

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Paul Hooker is the Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He recently authored three hymn verses as he thought about the hurricanes in Texas and Florida that have “drenched and torn the lives of so many [he loves].” Perhaps his words will speak to you as they have spoken to me:

In the wind that howls, the deep’ning dark, when rains begin to fall
and the hopes we cherish most in life are shrouded in their pall,
then at last we lift our vision; then at last we strain our ear
for the word of sweet deliv’rance: our rescuer draws near.
Teach us, Lord, to rescue others, and to find as we are found,
until all your people reach the shore and stand on higher ground.

O that you, O God, would tear the skies and to the earth descend
‘mid the trembling mountain’s tumult, ‘mid fear that knows no end.
Though the stars may leave their places, constellations cease to be,
though the world we know and all we love lost to memory,
still we wait, Lord, rapt in wonder, ‘til morning’s sun shall rise,
‘til the clouds are rent asunder, and the tear of heartache dries.

‘Til that day, before the table spread, the font, the spoken word
we will gather as a people and let lament be heard
for your promised reign of glory, for tomorrow’s dawn of peace,
for the helpless and the hopeless, the prisoner’s release.
Quickly come, Lord, to your people! The night grows e’er so long!
We believe; help now our unbelief, ‘til all our hearts are strong.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Stories of Life and Death for Sept. 11

Here’s what I said on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which fell on a Sunday that year:

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19, September 11, 2011

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)

For many of us, those words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans bring to mind the opening sentences of the burial liturgy. Perhaps you’ve been to a funeral in this church and heard them spoken by a priest as one of the saints who has died is accompanied on the last part of a pilgrimage — a lifelong journey toward God. Those words remind us that we are the Lord’s possession no matter what happens to us in life or in death. It seems appropriate, therefore, to contemplate that reality on this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that forever changed us as Americans.

Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago? People stopped the ordinary activities of daily life to watch the news reports about those awful events. We watched them over and over again. Throughout the country, others were doing the same thing, experiencing the same emotions, and fearing for the safety of family and friends. For weeks churches overflowed with those who needed community and who had promised themselves that the most important things — their loved ones, their neighborhoods, and the grace that binds us together — would thereafter be the main focus of their attention.

As this solemn anniversary drew near, more than a few of us shared a very different kind of experience with friends and strangers. This one was a wonderful, almost magical event. It caught me off guard the way that grace-filled moments often do.

Mark Moller and Julia Gutz Moller are members of St. Stephen’s and have been waiting to adopt a child. Quite suddenly, that moment arrived and necessitated a road trip to Montana. Through the power of social media, a lot of us were able to follow this adventure online via Facebook as Mark posted status updates along the way. More and more people started making comments and offering prayers and describing their own tears of joy as all of this was actually happening. Several of the hotel’s staff members even remained in the lobby after the end of their shift on Friday night to witness these new parents welcome a tiny baby and name her Anna.

Both of these stories, one about death and the other about life, have a kind of power to concentrate the mind and cause most of us, as we think about our loved ones and about the dignity of every human being, to move in the direction of love. Both of them tell us that life is a precious gift that’s fragile. They make us want to focus on the most important things.

And yet the will to do so isn’t as strong as we often imagine it to be. Over time that resolve gradually fades away. Forgetfulness seems to be built into our DNA. So we need reminders of God’s grace in our day to day experiences.

That’s why baby Anna’s trip home to Minnesota won’t be her most important journey this year. She’ll soon undertake another one that begins at the baptismal font — the same font that confronted you as you entered the front doors of the church. That stone font hasn’t been used for years and years. Now it’s been moved to the center of things, where it belongs, and we’re going to use that font for the purpose for which it was created.

There baby Anna will be bathed in the waters of grace and marked as Christ’s own forever. There her parents and the rest of us will promise to remind her of the fact that she belongs to God and that the Holy Spirit is present in every act of love and every step of her pilgrimage home to God.

This is a photograph of Anna’s baptism on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2011. 

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes this relationship with Christ that we have together as a community of the baptized:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.[1]

As you leave today, take a closer look at the outer rim of our “new” old font.  There are eight sides.  It’s octagonal.  That’s not a randomly chosen style.  The symbolism of that shape  goes back to early Christianity and hearkens back to the beginning, to Genesis.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The creation story then unfolds in the narrative over a period of six days.  On the seventh day, God rested.  On the eighth day, which is how early Christians described the resurrection of Jesus, God re-created the world. And it is through the waters of baptism that we enter into that new creation.

So, each time that you walk past that stone font, remember that you belong to God, too, and that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life and in our life together.

During my first summer at St. Stephen’s, my father-in-law and I attended, as we do most years, the Washington Island Forum in Wisconsin. The speaker was Tom Long, a seminary professor from Emory University. He reminded us that every Christian can share memories of God’s presence and that congregations need to hear these stories and celebrate them.

He told us about a young woman whose heartfelt words exemplified this. She was more graceful as a professional dancer than as a public speaker. But she shared one of these memories with a group from her church — her family in Christ:

She reminded [them] that she was raised in that particular church. She described the sanctuary, including the baptismal font, and she said that she was baptized as an infant right in that very font. She did not remember this, of course, but she told [them] that her father was very proud of that moment and that when she was a little girl, he would often tell her of the Sunday that she was baptized. He would describe the baptismal dress that she wore, he would remember what hymns were sung and what the minister had said in the sermon, and he always ended the story by clapping his hands together and exclaiming, “Oh, sweetheart, the Holy Spirit was in the church that day!”[2]

Her father would tell her that story over and over again. Yet something puzzled her about it. She wondered where the Holy Spirit really was in the church. Where could she find it? As a child, she thought it might be hiding in the building’s nooks and crannies. This is how Tom Long remembers the rest of her testimony of faith:

[S]he paused for a moment, and everybody in the room leaned forward to hear what she would say next. “As many of you know,” she continued, “I lost both of my parents to cancer in the same week, a terrible week, last winter. During that awful week, on a dark Wednesday afternoon, I was driving home from visiting my parents in the hospital, and I was passing by the church. I felt an intense need to pray, and so I came into the church and sat in one of the back pews and began to pray. The church was dark, and in the shadows, I prayed and poured out my grief to God, and cried from the bottom of my heart. A member of the church . . . was in the kitchen preparing a meal for a church meeting, and she saw me praying and knew what was happening in my life. She took off her apron, came and sat beside me in the pew, held my hand, and prayed with me. “It was then,” the young woman said, “that I knew where the Holy Spirit was in this church.”[3]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 6:3-5

BACK TO POST Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004) 127. This is the written version of the same story that he shared at the 2007 Washington Island Forum.

BACK TO POST Long 127-128.

From the Rector #63

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

As I announced last Sunday and also explained in an email message to the congregation, Palmer hosted a free day camp this past week for children as a gift to the community in response to the fact that HISD schools delayed the beginning of the new academic year until tomorrow, September 11.

I want to thank Roger Hutchison, Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life, and a host of helpers from the church staff and church members who made this possible. There were more than a few tears shed by parents who were very grateful that we had created a safe place for their children to be.

Looking ahead, Palmer will be part of a coordinated relief system that has been created by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. There are now eight hub churches in the network: Palmer Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Martin’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, The Church of St. John the Divine, Holy Spirit Church, St. Francis Church, and Trinity Church. Christy Orman, whom you are welcome to contact directly at corman@christchurchcathedral.org, is the Hurricane Relief Coordinator for this network.

Additionally, each hub church has a Parish Hurricane Relief Coordinator. Betty Key has graciously accepted the invitation to fill that role for our community of faith with the help of a support team. Betty and her team will be Palmer’s conduit with Christy as our church becomes a platform to help with the management of restoration projects in the City of Houston for the weeks and months to come. You can contact them via stormsupport@palmerchurch.org, which is the same email address we’ve been using to receive updates about assisting our own parishioners.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Harvey’s Wrath & The Problem of Evil

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 17, September 3, 2017

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)

I love those beautiful words from the 12th chapter of Romans. And this community of faith has embodied them in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. You have embodied what it means to love one another, to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers. You have been patient in suffering. You have persevered in prayer. And as that passage goes on to say, you’ve shown what it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.”[1]

You’ve turned to God, although that surely hasn’t been easy for everyone. Even an elderly Christian who showed no fear as she was rescued from rising floodwaters inside a nursing home concluded her statement to The Washington Post by saying, somewhat ambiguously, “God promised he’d never do this again.”[2]

Certain things unfold in the history of the world or in our own personal experiences that cause doubts not only about God’s goodness but also about God’s very existence. And those who rush to God’s defense often make matters worse with hurtful words of false comfort. At times they dishonor God’s holy name more than ecclesiastical outlaws who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering.

That kind of rage is often felt in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the human misery that we’ve seen in the wake of the storm here in Houston or recent news out of central Nigeria, where more than 100,000 people have been displaced because of flooding.[3] However, just like hurricanes and rains that seem like they will never come to an end, humanity itself belongs to the natural order. Our actions that allow others to suffer raise the same kinds of questions as natural disasters.[4] Why is this happening? How can this be? And, ultimately, where is God?

Lt. Jack Harvey of the Houston Police Department is also a member of Palmer
Memorial Episcopal Church and can be see in this video holding a small boy.

Whether looking in the face of nature’s violence, or sins of omission that make bad situations worse, or the flood of human evil that spreads inhumanity in every generation — in all these things people want to know where God is. And, in some cases, they want to know if God is.

But the truth is that it doesn’t take rising floodwaters to float such a question to the surface. Suffering that demands a response can be found all around us, all the time. Neglected children live unseen in many communities, including ours. Maybe friends we want to rescue have made decisions that place them beyond our reach. Battles with disease might be taking place within our own bodies. And all of us will face a time when someone we love becomes lost in the shadow of death.

These experiences compel us to wrestle with God like Jacob, who struggled until daybreak at the River Jabbok.[5] They force us to cry out and watch. And what we do next might make all the difference in the world for ourselves and for those whom God has entrusted to our care.

David Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian with some helpful thoughts about this. He’s the author of a book entitled The Doors of Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Although written as a reflection on the tragic deaths of more than 225,000 people in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, his reflections are just as important today in the midst of thinking about the disturbing headlines about Hurricane Harvey in the media, the destruction that we’ve seen with our own eyes, or whatever trials we might be facing ourselves. Surely he is right to suggest that we should all remain silent at first.

Acting in generosity as soon as possible is one thing. And without question we ought to stand close to those suffering the experience of Good Friday. Palmers have done both of those things in remarkable ways, for friends and strangers alike, over the last week. You’ve helped one another clean up flooded homes, brought food to those who’ve needed a good meal, and cried together. But it’s almost blasphemous to seek out a greater meaning for it all before weeping with those who mourn.[6]

The storm that killed those whose bodies have completely filled the city morgue, and whom we’ll remember in our prayers today, isn’t divine retribution. And it isn’t part of some divine plan, as a few streams of Christian theology might suggest, in which someone’s pain is required to show forth the glory of God. We aren’t better people because tragedy of one kind or another didn’t befall us. And we most certainly aren’t better Christians when we stand at a distance and affirm that “everything happens for a reason.”

Reflecting upon that kind of response in the face of a father who lost four of his five children in the tsunami, David Hart states the obvious:

Most of us would have the good sense to be ashamed to speak such words . . . And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them . . .[7]

At the center of our faith stands the cross. So it should come as no surprise that right in the middle of the Nicene Creed we declare that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . suffered death and was buried.”

This statement anchors our faith not only in the pages of history but also in every experience of God-forsakenness. It brings our faith into the suffering of the world, where God himself has led the way. Perhaps to the surprise of many, we stand beside those who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering. That’s because what they protest isn’t God but things that are the enemy of God.

In one of his less familiar stories, J.R.R. Tolkien retells the beginning of all things at Creation.[8] And he includes a helpful image, I think, about the relationship between divine providence and the chaos we encounter loose throughout the world, whether we’re driving down the street of a neighborhood that was flooded or just looking at the hidden messes in our own lives. It reminds me of the final words of our reading from Romans about “[overcoming] evil with good,” which we’ve witnessed countless times in response to the natural evil of Harvey’s wrath.[9]

In the literary imagination of Tolkien, God is represented by Eru, also known as Iluvatar. And Iluvatar first created the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who are like the host of heaven. Iluvatar taught them about music and was very pleased as they began to sing. The more they listened to each other, the more they began to understand one another and to sing in harmony. Iluvatar then spoke to them about a great theme that would bring forth Great Music. And so it did. This Great Music spilled out into the Void, making it no longer a void.

But one of the Ainur, who had spent too much time alone in the void places before the Great Music, wanted to increase the importance of his own part. And these thoughts became part of his music, disrupting the harmony that surrounded Iluvatar. As Tolkien describes it: “the melodies . . . foundered in a sea of turbulent sound . . . a raging storm as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”

And this is where Tolkien provides a helpful way to think about God’s interaction with the world. Iluvatar arose, smiled, and lifted up his left hand. A new theme with its own beauty evolved in the midst of the storm, but the discord grew more violent than before. So Iluvatar arose with a stern countenance and lifted up his right hand. Yet another theme arose above the confusion. The music without harmony could not overtake the other. In fact, in the words of Tolkien, “its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”

But the strife continued and rippled out into the silences that had never been disturbed. For a third time, Iluvatar arose and “his face was terrible to behold.” Iluvatar raised up both hands. He brought forth a single chord “deeper than the Abyss” and “higher than the Firmament.” Suddenly . . . the Music came to an end.

Iluvatar explained that it was impossible to destroy the Music. Anyone who attempted to do so would become another instrument in creating things yet more wonderful. Finally, Iluvatar took the Ainur into the Void and said, “Behold your Music!” And before them appeared a new World.

For me, that’s a helpful way to think about not only the world as it is but also the new creation that awaits us. In Tolkien’s story, God isn’t the source of discord — the chaos in the world and within us. And God is not pleased with such freedom abused. Yet God is able to create anew, bringing good out of evil and the chaos to an end.

For those who prefer less indirect speech about such weighty matters, I turn again to the words of David Hart. His final thought leaves nothing more to be said:

God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable . . . he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and . . . rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”[10]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 12:15.

BACK TO POST Kevin Sulliavan, Arelis R. Hernández, and David A. Fahrenthold, “At least 22 confirmed dead as Harvey pivots toward Louisiana,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017.

BACK TO POST Associated Press, “More than 100,000 displaced by flooding in central Nigeria,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2017.

BACK TO POST David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 37.

BACK TO POST Genesis 32:22-32.

BACK TO POST Hart 6.

BACK TO POST Hart 100.

BACK TO POST J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, second edition, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York: Ballantine, 1999) 3-12. The quotes and the language that I adapted for the retelling of this story are taken from here.

BACK TO POST Romans 9:21.

10 BACK TO POST Hart 104.