One hundred and fifty years ago, twenty-five years before St. Barnabas became a parish, our reunited country was in great turmoil. The previous year had seen both the end of that atrocity we call the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. While the Union had been preserved the ties that bind remained severed and the healing of the nations wounds was still largely a dream.
A month before his assassination, President Lincoln made his second inaugural address. In it he voiced the fear that the war would “If God wills…continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”
But he looked beyond that to the day the war would end and the next great national project could begin “To bind up the nations wounds…and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.” Some of the most determined warriors of that struggle shared Lincoln’s final hope. Even as he conducted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee instructed his men to go home and wage peace with as much vigor as they had waged war. Another Confederate General, the brutal Nathan Bedford Forrest, addressed his disbanding troops saying:
“Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out...”
He concluded his address saying:
“I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor…”
Our times, seemingly, are as contentious as that period after the Civil War. Anger and hatred fester in our public discourse. Some feel validated by winners of elected office and at liberty to commit acts of astonishing hatred. The free exchange of ideas has been exchanged for a juvenile jeering that invokes the worst of our collective emotions.
Yet our own history points us toward a different way. If such enemies as Lincoln, Lee and Forrest could see a path beyond war and division is there a reason we cannot walk that path? If they could be as passionate for healing and community building as they were in prosecuting their side of the war is there a reason we cannot be equally passionate for healing and community? They knew anarchy lurks behind, not far behind, festering division. In such times it takes courage to walk a different path, to play a different role.
We, the people of St. Barnabas have a role in this time. We can be a force, as President Thomas Jefferson put it to, “Restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
None of us can be sure yet of all of that role entails, but, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, one place we can begin is by publically standing with those who are most insecure and vulnerable right now. In this Advent season we can be part of the light of Christ breaking into the world, we can begin to play our part by standing in love, and as neighbors, with those who are most at risk for acts of hate.
I have here an initial draft of a letter I would like us to send to religious and community organizations such as The Center, the Islamic Center, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Sikh Community Center, Temple Micah, Shorter AME Church and others we think appropriate. There is a copy for each of us to take and sit with for a little while. We can all have opportunity to share input at the Adult Forum or with me in conversation or even email before we sign and send these letters out.
I’ll close simply by reading the letter.
Dear Faith or Community Leader
For 125 years the people of Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church have come together as a family, have come together as a faithful worshiping community, have come together to open our doors and reach out in service to the people of this city of Denver. In all those years we have not been shy in partnering with other faith communities and organizations to contribute to the greater good. Our hearts have found great joy in all of this.
In this time we find our hearts are heavy.
It is impossible to close our eyes and pretend not to see a great upwelling of anger, scapegoating, and hate in our country, state, and city. It is impossible to close our eyes and pretend not to see that those who increasingly are targets for acts of anger and hate are too often in places of great vulnerability and insecurity.
From insult and assault committed against women, children, and others who have virtually no defense or defenders, to the desecration and destruction of houses of worship, the incidence of hate crimes continues to rise.
Our hearts break when we hear of women being assaulted for wearing hijab. Our hearts break hearing about grade-school children being bullied by fellow students and even teachers because of the color of their skin, their country of origin, or their religion. Our hearts break hearing of members of the LGBTQ community being harassed and assaulted for simply being themselves.
Our hearts break knowing so many groups feel as if it is open season and fear that they are being hunted: Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Gays, Hispanics, Blacks, Arabs, Asians, Native Americans, the Disabled. With over 1,000 reported incidents of hate crimes in November alone there is more than enough reason for fear.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed that people everywhere ought to be free from fear and free from want, and ought to be able to enjoy freedom of worship and freedom of speech. If these freedoms are denied to anyone in this country they are denied to us all.
It would be so easy to succumb to hatred for those who are, in these days and in this city, seeking to deny others these freedoms. But, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of our country’s greatest prophets, taught, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” And of course the one we follow as Christians calls his followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rejecting hate we choose to stand up in love and as neighbors.
We want your community to know you are not alone, together, we all belong here, we are neighbors. If there is joy in this time it is found just there – together we are neighbors in what actually makes this country strong – our diversity. We want you to know in these fearful days we stand with you in love, as neighbors, as children of the same race – the human race – and children of the God who loves us all.
What we can do we will do to be loving neighbors. Your community doesn’t stand alone in facing hatred. We stand with you. We all stand together.
The People of Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church