December 13, 2016
I’m going to give some attention to the public FB post of a long-time family friend, an African-American IT professional and pastor from the Baltimore suburbs between western city line and Patapsco river that have been my home territory (though not always where I’ve lived) for the better part of three decades. He posts publicly there, we can pretty safely say, not because he’s inattentive to information privacy matters, say, or is just an indiscreet person, but because he means to present an open testimony of fidelity — the fidelity he understands to be our due to God and wants to urge those under his pastoral care to follow his example in, as also conversely God’s primary fidelity toward the people of God, the ground of this man’s declared confidence in doing the thing he sees to be right even when it’s a very painful thing to do.
What’s this about, though? It’s about a bunch of things, and won’t make for one clean post. Darrell’s most recent Mennonite reflection conveniently occasions it, in a way, but larger in my consciousness probably is sometime conversation with Susannah — with whom, among other points of topical connection, I had a chance to see Fiddler on the Roof (live and then afterward, for the first time in years, on video) earlier this year. Also very much in mind is the 2016 election, its buildup and its aftermath. I want to talk a little about cultural complexity and dividedness, in various dimensions, in America and perhaps beyond, and I want to try to pick up threads of the narrative of my own religious and political evolution again.
I’m going to both identify closely with Pastor Chuck and acknowledge obvious, and some maybe less-obvious, significant distance between us. Chuck and his family were briefly members, with a handful of other black families, of the small non-denominational evangelical church in Catonsville that I belonged to with my family for about ten years in my teens and twenties, as he was preparing to start the majority-black church he serves now, a short way north in Woodlawn. (Some years after his move, our mainly white church, at that point somewhat diminished by a recent split, and his still-new mainly black church explored merging. For reasons unknown to me (I’d moved away by then), it didn’t happen, but fascinating to consider that it could have.) None of that is to suggest that I’m close to Chuck’s family and church. I want to establish, though, that the language and ideas of his post are entirely those of the religious culture I was first formed in. They’re given expression here in a concrete social context that I have deep connections to and participate in still, albeit in limited ways, and where it should be understood that with family and friends I see him as a trusted leader in the neighborhood of church communities we’ve shared, someone of durable character and sound judgment, an ‘elder’ in generally (but not exclusively) ecclesially conditioned uses of the word. In spite of the relational hurt involved, the private conflict he makes a public account of in his post is hardly a weird or outrageous one, in a number of specifics as also in its well-explored broadly Anglo-American cultural shape, for anyone of religious inculturation like mine. At the same time, of course, there’s a greater minority history-and-culture aspect to his picture that I can only consider from the outsider’s view — and which it is partly my point, here, to make an outsider’s approach to. It should be plain enough in any case that I’m looking at my own story, in part by way of his, with a critical eye. I don’t at any point mean simply to endorse views he holds or I have held.
That said, then: to any reader whose ready reaction to Pastor Chuck’s post is to say that an adult daughter’s decisions about love and marriage, since (as he affirms) entirely her own, deserve a parent’s support where there isn’t some substantial harm to come in the relationship, my ready answer’s going to be, ‘Whoa. Not necessarily.’ That’s going to be my angle for several reasons — reasons that’ll apply differently to different cases, though, and not reasons I’m about to try to work through in this post. But leave aside what her freedom implies for him as parent. What if, even if he comes to it from a position you can’t agree with, it happens that he’s not wrong to be deeply resistant to a member of his community’s going over to (and raising her children among) the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Maybe you’re appalled at some regressive patriarchalism &c. manifest in his self-explanation; what if there’s a good case to be made that the J.W.’s are still worse? (That very interesting long read is via Google, by the way — where for me it turns up at the top of search results for ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ in a paid link from celebrity anti-religionist Richard Dawkins’ non-profit.) Pastor Chuck is as free as his daughter is, surely, and arguably bears a good deal more responsibility than she, to assess the risks entailed in religious commitments — those of others in his life as well as his own — and to act on that judgment as someone members of his community look to for guidance and, at least some of the time, guardianship. Even if religious prejudice is a factor in his judgment, would we prevent him drawing boundaries of this kind if we could, in hope of sparing his family the heartache they’re experiencing now?