Here in the United States, an election day is approaching that is the most consequential one in my lifetime. On trial is the kind of nation and people which we will see ourselves as, and as the peoples of other nations will see us.
In his sermon, "What Is Our Religion Doing to Our Characters?"1, Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:
"Some years ago in the American College at Beirut, Syria, I addressed an audience of students in which, so they said, there were representatives of sixteen different religions. One could fairly feel the rival faiths bristling at each other. I still can see in my mind’s eye a Moslem from Upper Egypt, a fierce devotee of Islam, who had come to the college at Beirut determined that he would never give in to the influence of Christianity. He was there, and others like him, on guard against this preacher from the West who probably would argue for his religion against theirs. And I can feel yet the tense quietness of the audience at the first sentence. It ran like this: “I am not going to ask any here to change his religion but I am going to ask every one here honestly to face this question, What is your religion doing to your character?”"
That was a fair question for Fosdick to ask then, and it is a fair question for us to ask today. What is my religion doing to my character?
My nominal religion, and possibly the religion to which I adhere, might or might not be in sync with any of the great religious teachers. Furthermore, the thoughts I have and their resultant actions might or might not be in sync with the religion I espouse.
As I was taught in seminary, and as many people were taught in other venues, often there is a difference in our espoused theologies and our theologies in practice. Often there is a difference in what we say we believe and our actions.
Is my religion teaching me to be depressed, or is it teaching me to soar? Is it teaching me to marvel, or to think nothing is particularly wondrous? Is it teaching me respect and love, or arrogance and indifference? Is it teaching me honesty and truthfulness, or dishonesty and falsehood? Is it teaching me that vileness is good, or that immorality and lack of ethics are not to be sought? Is it teaching us to despise or uphold righteousness?
It is said that we are known by the company we keep. It can be said that we are known by the people we choose to lead us. It also can be said that the people we choose to lead us are known by the people who chose them. “What is your religion doing to your character?”
1See the first page of Chapter 11 in, Answers to Real Problems: Harry Emerson Fosdick Speaks to Our Time, Selected Sermons of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Compiled and Introduced by Mark E. Yurs. Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, © 2008 by Mark E. Yurs. The sermon is from an earlier work of Fosdick’s, The Power to See It Through, © 1935 by Harper and Brothers. Copyright renewed © 1963k by Harry Emerson Fosdick.
On the urbandictionary.com website, the definition of “I feel your pain” is, “I compassionately understand what you are going through and there may have been some times I have undergone the very same thing or similar.”
If it is true that most people have an aversion to pain, then feeling the pain of another human being would not be high on anyone’s bucket list. Some folks like doing things that almost guarantee they will feel pain, such as playing sports. However, those folks do not do those things for the pain, they do them because they like playing sports. Pain as a byproduct of an activity is one thing, purposely searching for pain is something else. Feeling the pain of another human being is something else again. Yet isn’t that last thing desperately needed now?
In the wake of the brutal killing of Mr. George Floyd, yesterday I spoke with a dear friend. As a black woman and mother of grown children, she expressed profound fear for her son, who lives in the south with his wife and children. Her fear was palpable. I could hear and feel it in every syllable and nuanced tone of her voice.
Her life as a black woman and mine as a white man are quite different. Situations I never give a thought to, terrify her. A lot of people do not drive at night because of poor night vision. My friend does not drive at night because of the color of her skin.
She lives in a beautiful home. A cast iron fence closes off a large portion of the lawn. The fence is a beautiful, decorative piece of art which serves as a barrier. It makes it more difficult for intruders to get in, and for little children to run into the street. However, the main reason my friend appreciates the cast iron fence is that it might slow down law enforcement should they mistakenly approach her home.
My friend has a very clear memory of shedding tears of sorrow while looking at her son when he was three years old. She was not grieving because her son was sick. She was grieving because he would grow up black in America. She was grieving because she knew and knows how dangerous that can be and is. “The talk” is real. The fear is real.
As our conversation was drawing to a close, she said, “Life makes me tired.” Daily she is on pins and needles. When she is having fun with friends, when she is worshipping, when she is in her own home, or at work, or commuting, or talking with friends on the phone, some part of her mind is always on guard to keep her safe from the worst consequences of the daily racism she encounters.
I wish I could say I feel her pain. I cannot. I feel kindred pain, but not her pain. I can never feel her pain, but I can try. I can cry with her. I can grieve with her. I can cherish her as a dear friend and speak up against the injustices of racism. I can be there when she calls, and I can call her.
We met nearly forty years ago when she and Julie became coworkers and then dear, lifelong friends. Blessed to be Julie’s husband, I became blessed to have that same close friendship. I cannot say to our dear friend, with any honesty, that I “compassionately understand what you are going through and there may have been some times I have undergone the very same thing or similar.”
What I can and did say to her is something along these lines, “I have compassion for you, my dear friend. I grieve because you grieve. I cry because you are crying. I am angry at the racist injustices you have faced because you have faced them. Your struggles are my struggles. I will add my voice to yours.”
The problem of racism lies not with the people who are victimized by it. The problem of racism lies with those who espouse, teach, and perpetuate it. It is long past time for the choking weeds of racist ideologies to be plucked and thrown from the garden of life. All people deserve the same good soil.
Blessings My Friends,
Rev Jim Sinclair
Pastor Jim is the minister for First United Baptist Church