O God, Father in heaven, have mercy upon us. Your heart, O God, is grieved, we know, by ev’ry evil, ev’ry woe; upon your cross forsaken Son our death is laid, and peace is won. O Son of God, redeemer of the world, have mercy upon us. Your arms extend, O Christ, to save from sting of death and grasp of grave; your scars before the Father move his heart to mercy at such love. O God, Holy Spirit, have mercy upon us. O lavish Giver, come to aid the feeble child your grace has made. Now make us grow and help us pray; bring joy and comfort, come to stay. – Lenten Hymn # 96 in the LBW
Cordy Tindell Vivian is a minister, author, and was a close friend and lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. He founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute. President Barack Obama, speaking at the occasion of the anniversary of Selma to Montgomery Marches in March 2007, recognized Vivian in his opening remarks in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. as “the greatest preacher to ever live.” On August 8, 2013, C.T. Vivian became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Well, leave it to your Pastor to have the peculiar distinction of having had a drag-out verbal fight with this great Civil Rights leader! It is true – and I am neither proud nor ashamed of it.
Other than my husband, I have never told anyone about the event I will be describing next. For decades I was certain that I would share it when the Lord placed it on my heart. I am sensing the day is today. So, here it is!
C.T. Vivian was the presenter of a three-day so-called “Racism Workshop” when I was a Seminary student. Wow, my entire class was pumped to have such an icon in attendance to sensitize us to the plight of racial inequalities. We wanted to hear, see, understand and walk away as agents of change. Little did we know! The word ‘painful’ does not even come close to what we heard, how we were challenged and what our response was. We were a rather small group so none of us could just ‘blend into the woodwork’ as we gathered in the conference room of a local hotel.
Of course, this is over 30 years ago and my German accent was still very pronounced and because of it I became the focus of our group for C.T. Vivian. Over and over he would call on me, whether I raised my hand or not. It took me many months thereafter to realize that I indeed was the perfect ‘prop’ to make his points of discrimination, false accusation and punishment in his own black community. While I was anyway close to tears during the entire workshop, on the third day C.T. Vivian pulled out all the stops and did what he seemingly had been aiming at all along: he called me a Nazi. At that point I turned from a teary-eyed, mealy-mouthed Seminarian into the defender of all injustice ever spoken!
Born only years after WWII, my generation without doubt is THE generation of Germans who fought the hardest against any and all ideological ‘left-overs’ of the Third Reich. We lived in a mode of constant apologies, endless admission of guilt by osmosis, forever seeing ourselves as making emotional and political ‘restitutions’ for the sins of our ancestors. From the time we stopped wearing diapers we fought against any and all measures and behaviors which even remotely could resemble the actions of Nazis and their sympathizers. There were many cultural and personal insults I would have understood and taken lying down during that workshop – “Nazi” was not one of them. My class mates agreed that Dr. Vivian had gone too far – the rest of the seminar became a free-for-all.
While the thought of the event still feels uncomfortable, I believe I can today understand why C.T. Vivian did what he did. He took it upon himself to judge me on my ethnicity, on my place of origin, on my people in whose midst I had grown up. He did not ask if I agreed, supported or defended the actions, words and ideals that remind us of a horrible war and the Holocaust. He did not know that I had stood sobbing at the rubble of a Concentration Camp, mourning the victims of an evil dictator. He did not know that I had spoken up many times as a young woman when people continued to insist that “Hitler wasn’t all bad…” He did not know anything about me but heard the voice of a German person and in his mind he thought he knew who I was. Or, at least he decided my presence made for a perfect example of the injustices he wanted to lift up. I am still unsure if he was serious or wanted to know how I would respond. He found out!
Let me say this: I consider Dr. Vivian one of the last great icons of the Civil Rights Movement; every honor and recognition he receives he deserves – and then some. He is a hero. He has my respect.
I am afraid the “C.T. Vivian – Solveig A. H. Zamzow encounter” is unfortunately all too common: we assume too much about one another and make judgements and take actions based on those assumptions. What do we assume these days about men and women in law enforcement? About those walking in protest marches around the country? What do we assume about black college students out East or white electricians in the Midwest?
As followers of Christ, we know that God is capable of forgiveness – and dispenses such much more readily than we do. We know that God loves those who spew hate and offers them transformation. We know that God seeks justice for all. We know that God is a God of sinners. We know that God’s heart is grieved by “every evil, every woe”. We know God’s heart is not only moved by the scars of Jesus but as well by the scars that are on our bodies and our hearts and minds – and our society. We know that God continues to call us to turn around, repent, reconcile and see whatever ‘redeeming value’ we can possibly find in our oh-so-different-neighbor.
No, we shall not call evil good or good evil! No, there is always right and wrong. There are always actions that please God and those that certainly are not in alignment with the Word of God or the actions of our Lord Jesus. There are moments inspired by the Holy Spirit and moments inspired by destructive spirits. Discerning the difference is forever a challenge and forever our task as children of our Heavenly Father. God does not ask more but also not less of us. I would like to think that these thoughts can be applied to people on any ‘spectrum’ – religious, political, socio-economic and whatever else is out there.
I am doing a lot of praying these days. As I wrote last week: we are in a perfect storm in our nation right now. Prayer is one of the few ‘weapons’ that can and should be used at all times. Prayer will not magically change all troubles but it certainly as the power to work on each individual heart. We have to start somewhere and prayer has the greatest chance to lead us into care, understanding and appreciation for others. Please join me in reading once again the words of St. Paul from Romans 8: 31-39 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Amen, Amen, Amen