Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #167. First published in the St. Cloud Times online June 4, 2021; in print June 6

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

That “today” was Aug. 28, 1963 – almost sixty years ago – when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s our today too.

I write when three commemorations converge: Memorial Day, the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and the centenary of the Tulsa Massacre.

King, speaking on behalf of people of color, said, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

I am in awe. How can people who have been treated as those of color have been throughout our history sustain confidence that “the funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation” are sufficient? Their faith has required, right up to the present, a tenacity of genuine patriotic allegiance to the Declaration and the Constitution that puts to shame the white supremacist “Americanism” of the traitors who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

For instruction on what “the architects of our republic” meant, I’ll go to a worthy heir of Dr. King – the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign – rather than to Mitch McConnell or Steve Bannon. Black people are more authoritative interpreters of our nation’s sacred scriptures than people who look like me are. They know those documents are a promissory note, not a bill of sale.

How do Memorial Day, George Floyd and Tulsa weave together?

Each has become real. Truth has broken through the veil of inexperience, inattention, ignorance.

Recent articles in the press and on social media have bemoaned the way Memorial Day has devolved into a barbecue. There are many families for whom the memories are painful, but because a small proportion of the population has any first- or even second-hand experience of warfare, the Gettysburg Address’s “last full measure of devotion” is more a rhetorical trope than a lived experience for most of us. In my family the men were either too young or too old for conflicts all the way from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq.

But art has peeled away the veil of inexperience. Movies – “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Hurt Locker” and “Da 5 Bloods” (which resonates with George Floyd and Tulsa also) and so many more; books – “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans” and so many more; countless stories of the unrelenting anguish of PTSD – all these keep tugging me back to the fundamental truth that “war is hell” – and Memorial Day is for those who went to that particular hell and didn’t come back.

“Speak their names.” I’ll never forget the devastating power of what I saw at George Floyd Square last summer – names painted on the street as far as the eye could see, and then even more names in the symbolic graveyard nearby. This unmasking of my previous, lifelong inattention was sobering, unnerving. In old-fashioned religion-speak, I was convicted of sin.

Something St. Augustine wrote suddenly made sense to me: Speaking to God, he says, “You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself, and you set me before my face.” I had long acknowledged poet John Ciardi’s observation that we are what we do with our attention. I now learned that I was equally what I did with my inattention, and others suffered.

Those names called me to account. That I am alive and they aren’t is an indictment of the white supremacist system that tells me I am the norm. I must work to change myself and the system. Either effort alone is insufficient.

Until very recently I, like most Americans (more precisely, most white Americans) – including 83 percent of Oklahomans – knew nothing of the Tulsa Massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921. From “Gone with the Wind” we had seen Atlanta burning, but knew no images of Tulsa’s Greenwood District — “Black Wall Street” — bombed and ablaze.

Now we know – just as series like “The Underground Railroad” and movies like “12 Years a Slave” and documentaries like “13th” obliterate ignorance about the horrors of slavery that went on, unrelenting, for centuries, generation after generation. A Facebook friend posted: “The Tulsa Massacre was a performance of violent racial nostalgia.” So, too, was Jan. 6.

At the Lincoln Memorial Dr. King said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.” Memorial Day, George Floyd, Tulsa – the promissory note’s urgency is just as fierce in our Now.