Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

As someone pointed out, it was no accident the statue of Lee was facing north.

It was seminary that radicalized me.  I know that, now.

Seminary taught us to exegete, but not to confine that concept to words alone.  We learned to exegete a space, to figure out why worship spaces were designed they way they are.  Some, notably Catholic (Roman) and Episcopalian (I haven't checked this in a Lutheran church.  The only one I attended worship in was a small neighborhood place, built more like the surrounding houses than a cathedral), are cruciform.  The nave (with all the redolent connotations of "naval" and "navy" held intact) is the long "leg" of the crucifix.  In true cruciform fashion there are sides extended like the cross-beam, visible and distinct even from the inside. These are also part of the nave.  The top of the crucifix is the focal point:  an altar should be central, emphasizing the sacrifice on the cross.  Here the eucharist elements are placed, blessed, and distributed.  The altar dominates, the pulpit and lectern are off to either side (usually right and left, respectively, as viewed from the nave.).  It is easy to exegete this space, especially if it is set off (as it often is) by a rail, convenient for kneeling and receiving the elements from the priest/celebrant.  That rail marks off what is accessible by the laity, and what is accessible only by the priests.  The distinction is not maintained by guards and bouncers, but the meaning is clear.

You can run this exegesis during Advent, too.  Some churches, usually Protestant, will put up a tree   next to the pulpit or the lectern; perhaps even a Nativity scene.  The tree will be covered with "Chrismoms," religious symbols almost no one recognizes anymore (many people, if they notice at all, think the "IHS" on the paraments is for the English "In His Service."  It's actually a confusion of Greek and Arabic alphabets, meant to be the first three letters of "Jesus."  There is a whole bestiary of Christian symbols, not to mention books worth of Christian symbols themselves.  Most of these have faded behind a curtain of historical ignorance.), because Batman and Spider-Man and Darth Vader, not to mention just glass ornaments, aren't really Christian.  More liturgical churches, like the Episcopalian church I attended, put a tree outside the nave, but never in the worship space.

Modern Protestant churches look more and more like Catholic churches, but there are distinct differences.  Protestant churches don't tend to be cruciform, and older churches de-emphasized the altar as much as possible.  More common is a table; sometimes prominently placed, sometimes pushed against a wall, and functioning more like a side-board for communion, than like a table for the eucharist.  I knew one old E&R church which had the pulpit set high in the wall at the back of the chancel (the space separated from the nave).  It was set high because it was from the days before sound amplification, and the nave had a balcony that ran around three walls.  The preacher had to be up high enough to reach those ears, as well as the ears below.  It was set in the center of the wall, because in Protestant theology worship is about the Word, not about the Sacrament.   There was a table against the wall below this pulpit; the hierarchy was clear for all to see.  In the Reformed tradition, communion (sacrament) is offered only a few times a year.  It was a radical shift when Reformed tradition churches began offering it once a month. That shift took place in my lifetime, and yet I know churches that only made that change a few years ago.  500 years is still not long enough to make everything change; or change back, as the case may be.

So it isn't unusual in Protestant churches of an older design to see the pulpit in the center of the space, rather than in front of one bank of pews or the other.  I once gave a sermon exegeting the worship space of my then-church.  It had a vaulted ceiling at least two stories taller above the space, with huge long exposed beams leaping up the meet at the pointed peak of the roof.  I pointed out the space the congregation sat in was the nave, a term referring to the part of the ship that held the passengers.  The idea of calling that the nave was to emphasize the journey of life on chaotic seas (the sea was a symbol of chaos to the land-bound desert dwelling people of Israel and Judah) traveled together by the people of God.  The beams, I said, resembled the structure of a wooden ship, albeit turned upside down.  I remember saying something, too, about the stone facade of the building, pockmarked with fossilized sea shells, about how much history the building carried in its materials, and in the memory of those present.  I don't remember it going over that well, but it was an expression of my training in reading spaces and understanding why they were as they were.

Now when I turn my thoughts to memorials to the Confederacy, I realize seminary taught me to exegete these things, and such exegesis makes me radical.  Not "radical" as in crazy and extreme and on the edge of the social order, but "radical" in the sense of looking for the root of what is, and why.

Why do we have statues of Confederate leaders, of Confederate commanders, of generic Confederate soldiers?  What do those mean?  That Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Hood's Brigade and Terry's Texas Rangers deserve our respect and public honor, even if we don't remember who they were or what they did (Terry's Rangers claim to fame seems to be that they never surrendered.  Hmmmm.....).  Why are we honoring these people and when did we start doing it?

The new high school in my hometown was named for Robert E. Lee.  The first high school was named for John Tyler, a more obvious connection to the town of Tyler (10th U.S. President, and namesake of the town, which was established in 1846).  Is it any coincidence the second high school was named in 1958, a year before the plaque in the Texas Capitol was put up,denying that slavery was ever a reason for that war, instead of the prime motivating factor of a war made inevitable by the compromises necessary to get a Constitution in 1789?  It is rather hard, almost 60 years after the fact, not to exegete those two events and see a connection, a demand about history that wouldn't be made today, but less than 100 years after that war was so important to some people a school had to be named for a general of an army of traitors, and a plaque had to go up in that state's capitol to defend the war against its own racism.

Just about the time there was a resurgence of interest in the war, because of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its actions in the south.  The Montgomery bus boycott was in 1955, the year I was born.  Three years later is long enough to see what's coming and to start objecting to it.   Certainly it's within the time frame of deciding to build, floating the bond, designing and building, what was probably a school named before it opened.  And why else pick the name of a man who otherwise has nothing to do with the town's history?  Jefferson Davis might have been a more reasonable connection; but Davis's name doesn't carry the resonance of respect and symbolism of the "lost cause" that Lee's does.  And the "lost cause" has been on the minds of the good people of Tyler, Texas since at least 1958; and the fact that students of Lee still fly "rebel" flags to recall the "good ol' days" of the Lee "Rebels" that only their grandparents could remember, shows that effort 60 years ago is still bearing fruit.

Which is as sad a thing as I can imagine.  Maybe it wasn't seminary alone that radicalized me.....

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