Published in the Martinsburg Journal September 1, 2019

the silent Pulpit

My father, fortunately, was not home much when I was growing up.

 

When he was there, he was quick-tempered with a hard slap; his shouting could be heard a block away.  He revered Nixon; to him, Watergate was a phantom.  He never said a word when the White House tapes exposed the swearing, bigotry, plotting and the crimes.  The nightly news could not be discussed; footage of Vietnam never fazed him except to bemoan the fact that we were losing.  As a WWII veteran, to Question Authority was an act of treason. Civil Rights was not a problem to be solved by white people.  Besides, speaking out against racism might appear to be taking sides.


If you disagreed with him, you had to step far out of his world to do it. Even as adults, we were allowed to say no wrong, and having an opinion was part of being wrong.  He was tolerant of those who were more conservative than himself, but quick to condemn those who were more liberal. And he was no different than a lot of fathers during the 1960’s.


He became an ordained minister, starting off as an Evangelical Christian. No movies, dancing, or popular music for us; even the wrong tone of voice or facial expression was punished.   In the small rural Midwestern towns we lived in, a Fabio-lookalike Jesus always hung in our kitchen.  We had to be on our best behavior around him; he gave us very little patience, forgiveness, or acceptance.


I sat through 780 of my father’s sermons and don’t remember anything other than hearing him sing his favorite hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  He spent his life “preaching to the choir.”  I spent my life “in the belly of the beast” and flew under his radar by keeping quiet. 


His Christian faith did little to create an understanding of people, including himself. Religion wasn’t a Practical Guide for the Real World; it was a Roadmap to Heaven in Ten Easy Steps.  If asked for advice, he quoted John Calvin or recited the Sermon on the Mount.  When asked why we were killing Vietnamese in violation of the Commandments, he smirked and replied that I didn’t understand the world.  But because he was on his best behavior with everybody but us, he was the image of patience, forgiveness, and acceptance.  


He is the reason why my brain is hardwired to detect the double standard; first in myself, secondly in others. It is not a trait that weaves happy family ties; to see the illogic of human behavior and to call it out doesn’t come from the choir loft.  The clergy prefers to sing “In the Sweet By-and-by” and to preach about the afterlife instead of this life.  And that is no different than a lot of churches during the 1960’s, and today.


That’s why last month’s letter from the Washington National Cathedral was so astounding. The message, sent by the Episcopalian Bishops to the People of America, refers to the recent “escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States,” and reminds us that to remain silent “is to condone the violence of these words.  Words matter, and Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.” 


And that was the nice part of their letter, before they got warmed up, ending with “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough?”


They are referring to our recent headlines, which reflect the New Testament parables---quaint stories from when the Romans ruled, but today, we’re the Romans.  Christians are no longer the persecuted underdogs; we are the Big Dogs.  As the Superpower, we have chosen to trigger another avalanche of hatred, aggression and greed, things the Bible teaches us to renounce.  Rather than ask what the Son of God would do today, the Bishops are asking what his 21st Century disciples should do today. Evidently, most of them took a Vow of Silence, dwelling peacefully in the belly of their own beast. 


I know that my Nixon-loving father would be thoroughly disgusted by this President, but would feel that religion shouldn’t mix with politics; that the pews should not be filled, or emptied, based on the party of the pastor.  Unfortunately, politics seems to think it can mix with the Church quite well.  The seats of Congress are often filled, or emptied, based on the religion of the representative.  


So my father would have kept quietly under the radar, selected the hymn “Nearer, my God, to thee,” and kept on preaching to his choir.  And that’s too bad, because with his explosive temper and roaring Hell Fires and Brimstones---so often heard in our home---he could have brought down the House; and I do mean this White House.  In my dream, he’d be belting out “Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might” alongside the Bishops of the Washington National Cathedral.  


And for once, I’d want to be right there with him.