As millions of Christians move toward activism, you should meet Mae Elise Cannon, an ethical organizer

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor’s Note: Our publishing house follows Associated Press style, which changed in June 2020 to capitalize the word Black “when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context.” Similarly, writers may capitalize White when reporting on racial issues. Our writers and editors are in the process of adapting to this changeCannon’s book was published weeks before this change, so our quote from her book lower-cases black.


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Just as Marie Kondo has built an international following for her advice on organizing your home—Mae Elise Cannon has become a leading Christian expert on sorting out the often-confusing impulses of your heart.

She can be described as an author, preacher, scholar and social justice advocate. But among that crowded field of voices in 2020—what makes her work distinctive?

Mae Elise Cannon is a Christian ethical organizer.

We know what we’re talking about in this field, because we publish the leading Christian ethicist, Dr. David Gushee, whose influential book Changing Our Mind is featured in the section of Cannon’s new book devoted to sorting out issues on “Marriage and Sexuality.”

Her encyclopedic new handbook is titled Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age and covers lots of topics in front-page news, including the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement and the rights of LGBTQ people. Over the decades, Cannon has made this kind of broad-spectrum handbook her trademark niche. We first introduced her work to our ReadTheSpirit readers in a 2009 cover story marking the publication of her book, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World.

New Teachers Are Emerging Now

If you haven’t been keeping up with Cannon’s work over the past decade, then let us also highly recommend her 2019 book, Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice.

That book introduces readers to more than a dozen leading evangelical thinkers, including women and people of color from around the world. Why is this 2019 book so valuable? Because the men and women profiled in that book are emerging as key Christian voices in the global conversation about social justice—yet they have not yet reached the status of full Wikipedia profiles. Cannon is bringing us the stories of these important men and women before our other online databases like Wikipedia have caught up with the news.

A 21st-Century Erasmus

Another way to understand Cannon’s work is that—through her writing and speaking—she acts as a kind of journalist charting and describing the shape of Christian involvement in these life-and-death global issues.

Among Christian writers, she is emerging as an Erasmus of the 21st Century. Half a millennium ago, in the 16th century, Erasmus defined the role of “Christian humanism” as his writings charted and described the shape of the Christian Reformation sweeping Europe. Even today, no one can fully understand the turbulent changes wrought by the Reformation without reading Erasmus. Right now, reading Cannon’s 2019 and 2020 books, you—and your small group or congregation—will understand a whole lot more about evangelical Christian movements for social justice that are unfolding all around us.

If you think this is merely a bit of historical trivia—think again!

Voices nationwide are calling especially on evangelical Christians—Cannon’s prime audience over the years—to stop and reassess the movement’s support of Donald Trump four years into his presidency. In the July 10 issue of The Atlantic, another Christian ethicist—Duke University’s Peter Wehner—writes a lengthy appeal to evangelicals to rethink their moral and ethical values in light of Trump’s record.

It’s time to end this “Faustian bargain,” Wehner writes, adding: “My hunch is that at the beginning of this Faustian bargain, most evangelicals didn’t imagine it would come to this, with them defending the indefensible, tarnishing their reputations, and doing incalculable damage to their causes.”

This is the same historic moment for evangelical Christians that Cannon is addressing in her new book. Her new book could not be more timely.

Humbly Admitting …

Mae Elise Cannon

“I am writing these books because the first thing we need to do is humbly admit, as Christians, that we don’t know all the answers. So, we need to understand what is happening in the world today,” Cannon said in our interview about her new book.

She covers many major topics in her new book, but “on racism, my constant message is that all of us need to buy and read more books by people of color, so I understand that it may seem odd to ask people to read about race in my book, written by a privileged White woman. The argument I make is that we all need to start, at least, by understanding the evidence around us. So—at the same time I am telling people to read and listen to authors of color—I can also make sure that my readers are getting the essential evidence on racial injustice they need to consider in my book, as well.”

That practical approach to writing and teaching is precisely what you’ll find in these pages.

“You won’t find me being soft or compromising on the truth as I see it,” Cannon said. “I was raised Irish Catholic so I have that fire in my blood as I spread this message that our personal transformational journey as Christians is also something that our communities need to go through together as communities.”

Sometimes she has been accused of being too tough, including a couple of incidents she describes in the book. In one case, a White man stood up in the middle of one of her sermons and accused her of spreading lies. She managed to continue, anyway.

“Sure, I get beat up all the time for what I’m talking about, but that’s part of this work,” Cannon says. “I just keep going.”

What’s in the Book?

Here’s how the book is structured. There are five major sections:

  • Biblical Justice and the Gospel
  • Poverty
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Twenty-First-Century Divides

Then, each section is further divided into chapters. For example, Race is divided into four chapters:

  • White Supremacy and American Christianity
  • Racial Violence, Police Brutality and the Age of Incarceration
  • Global Immigration and Battles at the Border
  • Divisions of Race and Ethnicity around the World

In these four chapters on Race, Cannon draws on her own global experience, the wisdom of scholars who are people of color, her personal interactions with African-American mentors and colleagues—all supported by a host of factual data that builds her case.

She describes for readers the key elements we need to understand to make sense of this complex campaign that is operating on many fronts. She begins by clearly explaining that White Americans have the main responsibility to make changes, because White Americans are the primary perpetuators of racism, white privilege and white supremacy. In other words: The people who created this mess now must play the major role in cleaning it up.

This isn’t a call to simply hold hands and sing together. This is an indictment that strikes at the roots of White communities.

On page 80, Cannon writes: “Racism in 21st-century America is a reality. Acknowledging racism means understanding that white people hold social and institutional power over people of color. The growing face of white supremacy, which seems to have resurfaced in the public square after being less acknowledged for decades, must be identified and rooted out.”

She makes crystal clear to her readers, most of whom will be white Christians, that they still hold the major levers of power and the Black Lives Matter movement is going to require some major—and sometimes painful—changes in White privilege.

The point of this example from the Race section is: In a few weeks of small-group discussion in your congregation—you can have a crash course on the major issues at the center of the current movements for justice.

To help further, Cannon interweaves questions for discussion making it easy for group leaders to spark conversation.

The Greatest Danger is Isolation

Why is there so much emphasis in this book on talking with family, friends and members of your small groups within your congregation?

“The greatest danger right now is isolation, separation,” Cannon said in our interview.

In the Race section, she writes: “For the church to be able to truly advocate on behalf of justice, white privilege must be recognized and understood.” Then, a bit later: “All of us are socialized into a system of racism.” And finally the crucial point about the danger of isolation: “White people, in large part, are isolated from racial stress and can choose to withdraw or ignore the realities of racism if we want to.”

Think of this book as a stepping stone, providing enough information and questions to help men and women sort out their moral and spiritual callings. It’s a short course in Christian ethical organization. Cannon keeps asking readers: Which of the many issues described in this book are closest to our hearts today? Which should we address first? What are the facts? How can we take action?

“Through this information, I’m trying to break down isolation,” Cannon said. “We will never respond to injustice if we’re not in proximity to it. And because of our privileges and luxuries, it’s easier than ever to remain separated from the realities of the world. When people finish reading this book, I want readers to think: Hmmm, now I realize that how I vote just might affect the the life of a 6-year-old girl living in a village in Asia!

“Unless we begin to learn about these issues in the world, we may never even know that little girl’s country even exists on our planet!”

Most importantly, Cannon believes that we all can find purpose—and hope—in our world today. “That really is the question I want readers to consider: How can we find hope in our world today? How can we live with hope and purpose in this age of so much pain and suffering?

“My role as a writer is helping people to find clarity of vision in the fog of fear.”


Care to Learn More?

VISIT CANNON’S OWN WEBSITE: Among the resources she provides is her growing list of podcasts.

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 16—In racial justice, ‘We … bear the responsibility.’

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome. Here’s a Lincoln quote for you:

“We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and in what we preserve.”

In other words, Lincoln would agree with James Baldwin and the powerful voices in our time who say that America’s racial injustices are not the responsibility of Black Americans to fix. White Americans must address systemic injustice built by White Americans.

This week’s quote comes from Lincoln’s message to Congress on December 1, 1862. This lengthy address came in the midst of Lincoln’s eroding political support. His Republicans had lost seats in five populous Northern states. He had announced that the Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect on the first day of 1863. The war would now be about freeing slaves as much as saving the Union.

So, he addressed Congress with a long and elaborate argument in support of emancipation for the good of the war effort, the good of the country and the good of humanity. His message that day was 8,400 words. His hand-written text of it ran across 86 pages of stationery!

(EDITOR’s NOTE—You can see page 85, which accompanies this column below, by clicking on the image to enlarge it. Or, you can see more of the context surrounding the brief, highlighted quote today by reading the text at the bottom of this column. If you want to wade into the whole address, here is a complete transcript of the message.)

As Lincoln reaches the conclusion of his long address, he is winsome and dramatic.

He begins with the word “We” and then punctuates his text with dashes and underlining to ensure that he stresses: even we here! He wants his audience to clearly understand that his call to action is aimed directly at these men sitting in Congress.

Lincoln is emphasizing that moral agency belongs to those who hold the power. “We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility.”

“We”—the White men in Congress at that moment and, if we truly are listening to Lincoln, White Americans today—bear this responsibility, not because we are good, but because we are the responsible party. We created this mess and we are supposed to fix it.

But that is only half of the remarkable spiritual wisdom of Lincoln here. The other half is what we, the Whites, are going to get out of this effort. Lincoln declares that in giving freedom—we assure our own freedom. We preserve freedom as our shared value.

At that moment, Lincoln is telling White power brokers that they are going to receive the very thing they are also giving away: freedom.

Lincoln knows that his White world will never be free, will never have the assurance of freedom, as long as Black people are enslaved. A nation cannot hold its democratic values together through violence, oppression, cruelty and injustice.

A system wherein a privileged class eats the bread from the sweat of another’s labors can never maintain itself without violence. And, Lincoln says, violence is ultimately destructive of two things: honor and democracy.

Honor. Lincoln frames this whole argument around the word honor. What is honor but the ability to trust the goodness of oneself and each other? In Lincoln’s language, trust based on honor is what democracy itself requires. There must be a basic minimum of individual trust, goodness. Law and order require equality and justice, Lincoln knows.

So he is pragmatic and also spiritual. We see that as he describes giving what we receive, and at that time freedom was something to give. Nowadays, however, the issue is equality and justice. The question we all face today is: Who holds the power to correct the systems of inequality that have crippled America in the 158 years since slavery officially ended? Who, now, is responsible for addressing those toxic systems? We must assume, as Lincoln did, that it is most assuredly the White institutions and the mentality of the people who run them that hold the power and bear the responsibility.

That was also the challenge laid down by James Baldwin who said: You are the problem. Don’t try to make it about me. He wrote, “I am not your Negro.”

To Lincoln equality is to be assumed. Equality must be in the air, an assumption as much as a fact. We must come to a point where all Americans truly share in this truth. Lincoln’s assumption follows the same spiritual logic that we heard from Martin Luther King when he preached that the purpose of non-violent resistance was two-fold: It called forth a wrong as it demanded it be righted—and, it named the White person’s evil. It made the White person see and feel just who he or she had become. That untwisting of a moral distortion was the gift that Black non-violent action so painfully gave to the rest of us.

This is what makes Lincoln a spiritual leader as much as a political leader. He felt deep down that the system of Black slavery held him—and the nation—in bondage to a tragically and morally flawed system. If he could let slaves go free—he could free the nation of captivity from this self-inflicted evil.

So, today, we are in a different chapter of American history. Our flawed systems of racial injustice have different shapes, although they are as deeply entwined in the structure of our nation than they ever were. Restoring our proclaimed American values will be nearly as traumatic today as it was in Lincoln’s era. And that is why we keep turning to Lincoln for spiritual wisdom in facing such complex moral, spiritual and systemic challenges.

We are no longer debating emancipation as Congress was in 1862. No one suggests that Lincoln’s specific policies should guide us in our era. He kept changing them himself to adapt as events around him changed. Not even Lincoln himself wound up adopting the convoluted emancipation proposal he included in that 1862 message to Congress. Lincoln is not on the ballot today, nor should he be. What millions of Americans are protesting, today, are entirely different forms of these bars and chains that are the legacy of slavery.

The reason millions of Americans still look to Lincoln as “the soul of America” is because of the spirit that guided him—that opened up such a compelling vision of America’s purpose and potential. And, today, the timely truth Lincoln calls us to remember is our responsibility to act.

The recognition of the equality of another human being is a timeless, spiritual truth. The recognition of our responsibility to assure that freedom is a spiritual calling. As Lincoln said in this same 1862 address to Congress: We must shed the myths and biases and injustices of the past. His words were: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” That line that could be uttered in our streets today.

We must wake up to the realities we face, Lincoln said. “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

And, if our heads and hearts do clear—then, we shall begin to glimpse the tasks ahead of us. For White Americans, it is the power and responsibility for correcting injustice—because, even in our day, “we—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility.”

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.


Care for More Context?

In understanding our brief passage from page 85 of Lincoln’s hand-written text, it may help to read a bit more from this concluding portion of his message:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

“Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.

“We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it.

“We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail.

“The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”




Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.



Civil Rights Leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis: ‘People Can Change’

Contributing Columnist

“People can change. People can change.”

These are words from John Lewis, legendary civil rights leader, speaker at the Lincoln Memorial Freedom March with Martin Luther King, Jr. and an organizer of the March 7, 1965, Selma March that changed hearts—and laws—as America took another step toward liberty and justice for all.

JOHN LEWIS AS A CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER SPEAKING TO JOURNALISTS IN 1964. In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. He was the first to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Three years later, Lewis took part in the March 7, 1965, Selma to Montgomery march now known as “Bloody Sunday.” When the marchers stopped to pray, police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, leaving permanent scars on his head.

The skull of that Black American was fractured that day—and those scars remain. He also had been beaten earlier, in 1961, at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The reason Lewis was repeating the mantra of “people can change” was not just because Americans changed enough in 1965 to pass major Civil Rights legislation, including a changed President Lyndon Johnson. No, this was a personal healing he was incanting.

Half a century after his bloody baseball-bat beating in the bus station—to which he had only his non-violent response—an old man walked into Congressman Lewis’s office in Washington, D.C., with his middle-aged son and said, “Mr. Lewis, my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?”

Lewis did. They embraced, the son embraced, they wept, and then they talked.

People can change.

To understand the healing of America that is ahead for us all, these stories, Selma and Rock Hill, are retold by Parker Palmer in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy. This is the personal and the political healing that is possible.

Following the cataclysm of the Covid-19 virus pandemic the first place of healing is personal not political. What we can see in the heart of John Lewis and in his attacker is that cynical contempt does not have to win. Blame wins no game.

A nation of high promises, like America, is a country that will break your heart. That’s one of the central themes of our other cover story this week—about Abraham Lincoln and James Baldwin.

A broken heart must endure grief. Great grief has come to America in this pandemic. Grief follows suffering and grief can teach the spiritual purpose of suffering: to open the heart to self-sacrifice, relationship, community and to the Other.

When Elwin Wilson died in 2013, the story of his reconnection with Lewis was shared once again via The New York Times and other news media.

But the most moving words came from Lewis himself, who marked Wilson’s passing with this epilogue:

I am very sorry to learn of Elwin Wilson’s passing. It is my prayer that he will rest in peace since he made amends to many of those he had injured. He told me he wanted to be right when he met his Maker, and I believe Elwin Wilson accomplished what he set out to do.

We can all learn a valuable lesson from the life of this one man. He demonstrates to all of us that we fall down, but we can get up. We all make blunders, but we can get on the right road toward building a greater sense of community.

Elwin Wilson experienced what Martin Luther King Jr. told all of us that “hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” He demonstrated the power of love and the effectiveness of non-violent direct action not only to fix legislative injustice but to mend the wounded souls in our society, the soul of the victim as well as the perpetrator. Elwin Wilson shows us that people can change; and when they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people. Elwin Wilson proves that we are all one people, one family, the human family—and what affects one of us affect us all.

I will never forget Elwin Wilson. I speak about our meeting often. In fact, just this morning I mentioned him to 147 students from California, New York and Ohio. And I spoke about him earlier this month on the pilgrimage to Alabama. Because this one man had the courage to seek the power of forgiveness, he stepped off the sidelines and into the pages of American history forever.

John Lewis and Elwin Wilson.

Then, how should we portray Lincoln? Artists’ perspectives are as divided as today’s public debates

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Today, a growing number of Americans agree that the so-called Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C.—and its duplicate in Boston—need to come down. City officials in Boston already have removed their copy. The fate of the D.C. original has not been determined.

Why such a strong consensus? Because—as Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer writes this week—almost certainly, Lincoln himself would never have wanted that image as his legacy. Lincoln did not want anyone kneeling before him—and said so!

Then, how did this become such an icon? As Duncan points out, statues are external expressions of artists’ perspectives on historic figures and events. In most cases they are erected after a hero has died and are not—by their very nature—an expression of that person’s inner soul. They are biographical, not autobiographical. And among biographies, most memorial statues would fit in the genre “hagiography,” stories of saints by those who adore them that are infamous for their inaccuracies.


What Was Frederick Douglass’s Perspective?

In recent arguments for the removal of Thomas Ball’s original sculpture in Washington D.C. and its duplicates, many commentators quote a couple of lines from Frederick Douglass’s dedication of the memorial in 1876. Douglass’s lengthy oration has been preserved online by the Smithsonian and it is well worth reading in its entirety, because Douglass eloquently indicts Lincoln for moving toward emancipation mainly as a last-ditch weapon in his effort to defeat the South.

Douglass makes crystal clear in that 1876 oration that Lincoln was a “white man” living with the biases that were so common among white Americans.

Click this quote from Douglass’s oration to see the entire document at the Smithsonian website.

What most commentators fail to add is that Douglass stressed Lincoln’s biases—in order to express how amazing it was that Lincoln, despite those prejudices, nevertheless made the astonishing decision to end the institution of slavery.

As his oration built toward is challenge to continue what Lincoln had begun, Douglass called on White Americans to lift up Lincoln’s model to future generations. White Americans should embrace both their identity as Lincoln’s “children” and the new role of Black Americans as Lincoln’s “step-children.” Speaking for Black Americans to White Americans, he declared: “We would exhort you to build high his monuments.”

Whatever Lincoln’s complex rationale was for ending slavery, the fact is that history was transformed at that moment—and White Americans must find the courage to continue down the path Lincoln had opened, Douglass argued. Reading the entire text of Douglass’s oration that day, it is obvious that he had little praise for the actual statue. Douglass’s oration was, at best, a pragmatic endorsement of the image as a small step White Americans were taking to move further along the path Lincoln had opened for the nation.

Today, there is no question: The Thomas Bell monument was a tragically conceived image of a powerful White figure dominating a groveling Black figure. Black Americans objected to its depiction even in 1876.

That is why Boston removed its copy of the memorial. Meanwhile, so many other monuments are falling in the wake of George Floyd’s killing that Wikipedia has a huge page devoted to listing them all, including the June 30 removal in Boston.

(The other Lincoln-related removal on the Wikipedia list is a stained glass window in the Cathedral of the Rockies, which will be removed because it shows Robert E. Lee standing with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The leadership of this United Methodist congregation that calls itself “Cathedral of the Rockies” had been discussing the window’s removal since 2015—and finally decided to take it down after Floyd’s death.)

William Edouard Scott Reverses Ball’s Image of Dominant Lincoln

A dramatic contrast to Ball’s image of a dominant Lincoln was a ground-breaking mural by Black artist William Edouard Scott (1884-1964). Scott graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was committed to developing positive images of Black Americans—especially in his depictions of Frederick Douglass.

In 1943, Scott was selected as the only Black artist chosen to create a mural for the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. He named the mural: “Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln.”

Frederick Douglass met Lincoln face to face three times. Scott’s mural depicts his first appeal to Lincoln in 1862 to combat discrimination in the Union army against black soldiers. The main effort to recruit black regiments began only after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in January 1863. No photographs were taken during that meeting.

African-American art scholar and curator Edmund B. Gaither, devoted part of a book about four Black artists to this particular Scott mural, writing: “Scott, in his manner of depicting the exchange between Lincoln and Douglass, suggests that the fiery orator is here the aggressive speaker. Whereas Douglass, hands extended slightly, shifts his weight forward while speaking to Lincoln, the president appears to avoid looking into Douglass’s eyes and concentrates on listening to his words.”

Furthermore, the strewn and scattered papers on the desk and around the trashcan suggest urgency and desperation—and this was certainly the case. “The Civil War was proving much more difficult than the Union leadership had expected.” And while Douglass presents a possible solution to the president, it is far from ideal in Lincoln’s eyes. Many whites of this time didn’t believe that African Americans could be effective soldiers. Regardless, Douglass is undeniably the active part of this depiction. This portrayal furthers the message inherent in the subject matter: African Americans could be equally as patriotic, and thus equally effective as soldiers, as any whites.

In Our Struggle for Freedom, the Truth is Not in Our Statues—It’s in Our Souls

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

SOULS and STATUES—Throughout his career, James Baldwin explored the painful struggle of living with opposites, including despair and hope, injustice and compassion, truth and compromise. Throughout his life, Baldwin had little patience with the hyperbole of monuments, which is why he had an ironic grin as he agreed to pose with this statue of Shakespeare in central London.


Author of 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln, and its relevance to us today. Welcome. This is Duncan Newcomer.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

It is the morning of April 4, 1865, and Lincoln has made an inglorious rowboat landing from the James River in Richmond, Virginia, and is walking up the streets of the burning and defeated Confederate Capital. Most of the Whites, including Jefferson Davis, whose chair Lincoln hopes to sit in briefly, have fled. Excited gatherings of former slaves recognize Lincoln’s tall body and silk hat, and a man has fallen to his knees in front of Lincoln. People are calling him “Father Abraham.”

Lincoln has a truly humble heart and is a clear-minded theologian. He says: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

Thomas Ball—the creator of the Washington, D.C., and Boston Commons statue of Lincoln—clearly had not heard what Lincoln was saying. But many of us, Black and White have heard. Today, we cannot abide the humiliation of the Black man on his knees and we sorely need the humility of Lincoln and his relationship to God.

Can we take a moment to listen better to Lincoln’s real words?

The great value of the Lincoln Memorial is that his voice is all around us in words etched into the walls: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Addresses and the Gettysburg Address. We can read. We can hear.

We know what Lincoln was saying: Don’t kneel to me. I have never pretended that I am a god.

If now a statue seems to say otherwise, Lincoln would agree: We should take that down.

Frederick Douglass at the 1876 dedication of the Washington D.C. statue in question said that it “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

We can understand also why Douglass agreed to speak there, despite his misgivings. President Grant was there. Some of the Supreme Court was there. Much of Congress was there. And the statue itself was fully paid for, $17,000, by newly freedman’s money, the first being $5 from a young Black woman. Blacks paid for but Whites designed the statue.

So there were other voices speaking from that statue on that dedication day—and Douglass used the occasion to urge his White listeners to recognize that Lincoln had set them on a path they should courageously pursue.

That is why history is so nuanced and complex. There are many voices.

The “democratic mind” has been defined as one that can hold seemingly polarizing ideas—many differing, nuanced and complex voices—in its head at the same time. Not because it is confused, but because it is realistic.

As many episodes in the Quiet Fire series have shown, Lincoln certainly had a democratic mind. And, so have other great American sages, especially the poet, author and journalist James Baldwin. We cannot read Baldwin’s writings without glimpsing his dual mind and heart.

Baldwin’s dual-mindedness was there as he was growing up as a sensitive young man struggling to live in the world as it is. He needed to find some measure of love and hope in his heart, despite the cruelties, injustices and blindness he encountered everywhere he turned. He struggled mightily to find some solid ground between bitter despair and love.

He described a kind of double consciousness that Black people in America must master. Baldwin wrote that his sense of double mindedness was to “hold in one mind forever two ideas which seemed in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life, as it is, and men as they are….(and) the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in ones’ own life, accept these injustices as common place but must fight them with all one’s strength.”

This was his only way to “keep his own heart free of hatred and despair.”

For that reason, Baldwin rarely wrote about Lincoln. On the few occasions that Baldwin did address Lincoln’s legacy, he did so to attack White Americans’ mythic adoration of heroes like Washington and Lincoln. Baldwin agreed with Douglass that Lincoln’s role as savior of slaves was a morally compromised choice mainly aimed at saving the Union.

The subject of Lincoln was too painful for him to contemplate, Baldwin wrote in a 1982 essay. “I am weary of Lincoln Memorials, of the American piety, which is nothing less than a Sunday-school apology for genocide.” Baldwin was letting his readers see the depth of his despair with his nation’s centuries of injustice.

His essay continued: “The Republic is a total liar and has never contained the remotest possibility, let alone desire, to let my people go.” Baldwin warned his readers: Most White American heroes from Lincoln to the Kennedy brothers will break your heart if you look too deeply into their motives, their compromises, their limitations.

And yet it is our lot in life as Americans to grapple with these painful truths, struggling toward a hope that we are somehow stumbling forward. It’s a painful journey, Baldwin wrote. “To be a Black American is much worse than being in love with, tied to, inexorably, mysteriously, responsible for, someone whom you don’t like, don’t respect, and don’t dare trust.”

It is a lover’s struggle, Baldwin finally concludes. And this struggle is inescapable, if one truly is honest about the dilemmas in our history—and our future.

The irony is that, in the spiritual life of Lincoln, we find this same paradox: a struggle every day to hold together a sense of purpose in the midst of opposites that threatened to swallow up all hope.

Perhaps as a result of 2020, we may commit ourselves to spending less time gazing at someone else’s idea of a statue—and more time with the authentic voices of great sages like Lincoln and Baldwin.

Perhaps they may light a pathway so that we, too, can search for the humility, balance, hope and power that animated their lives.







Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.



Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil on ‘Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The dramatic wave of support for the Black Lives Matter campaign shows an astonishing change in American awareness of systemic racism. Nearly 6 percent of Americans now are saying that they have taken part in protests in recent weeks. That’s 18 million protesters, based on Pew Research—half of whom are white. There is overwhelming support for justice right now. Pew says 67 percent of all Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s up from 43 percent who supported the movement after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.

So—now is the time to channel that tidal wave toward change, says the Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil. Now is the time—as her new book urges—that all of us should be Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now(That Amazon link takes you to the pre-order page. You’ll get your copy when the book is released in August, just in time for autumn reading and small-group discussion.)

McNeil is nationally respected for her many years of work in this field. She directs the Reconciliation Studies program in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University, preparing students to engage the culture around them as Christian reconcilers. You can visit her website to learn much more about her ongoing work. Or, visit her Amazon author page to see all of her books at a glance.

This new book, Becoming Brave, is a call to action for people in congregations who want to get more involved in the work of changing America. At various points in the new book: McNeil talks to us as a teacher; sometimes she preaches a little bit; occasionally she tells compelling stories of real people she has encountered—and her entire narrative is interwoven with the life of Esther. Esther is the courageous queen in the Bible who risked her life to protect people targeted with genocide under the reign of a Persian king.

The book is perfectly designed for small group participants in congregations—many of whom like to have a biblical basis for their discussion. There are millions of these small groups in congregations, some of them called “Sunday School” or “Bible study” or “men’s group” or “women’s group.” McNeil’s teaching style, interwoven with the story of Esther, can fit into any of those formats.

Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s Call to Action

Click McNeil’s image to visit her personal website.

McNeil outlines her call to action right away in the book: “Now more than ever, … we must speak up and out about injustice and must go about the work of dismantling the structures of this injustice and combating the harmful, even deadly result of this country’s unchecked legacy of systemic inequality and discrimination. The church must talk about justice. I must talk abut injustice. The time is now.”

NOTE to those readers considering a group discussion: Many major figures in the Hebrew Bible also appear in the Quran. Although Esther is not one of those figures included in the Quran—Islamic tradition does have many examples of heroic women. This mean’s McNeil’s book could be used to spark interfaith conversations, because the core values she describes run through all of the world’s major religions.

“I think there is real potential for interfaith conversation here,” McNeil said in our interview about her work. “I remember attending my first Purim, which is the annual Jewish celebration of Esther. It was really, really wonderful and I would encourage other people to experience this with Jewish friends.”

In 2020, Purim already passed in March—but it comes around again in February 2021, which makes this summer a great time to get McNeil’s books and plan a discussion series in your own congregation. Then, equipped with all of the background about Esther in McNeil’s book, you can plan ahead for an interfaith gathering during the 2021 Purim to celebrate how God’s people can triumph over deadly oppression.

Pairing This Book with the ‘Roadmap’

But, wait, there’s so much more!

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

McNeil’s second new book, this summer, is: Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0—Moving Communities to Unity, Wholeness and Justice.

(ANOTHER NOTE: If you’re planning to order Roadmap, don’t confuse it in bookstore listings with a 2015 book that has nearly the same title. This 2020 book, called “2.0,” builds on that earlier book in which McNeil first described the structures of reconciliation.)

“Here’s how I would describe this new 2.0 edition of my book to readers: There’s a whole lot more in this new expanded-and-revised edition—a lot more that I realized I needed to share with readers in the five years since that first book came out. So, yes, make sure you’re pointing people to the new 2.0 version,” McNeil said in our interview.

Read together—either individually or in a small group—the two books function like a toolbox for building a community response (the “toolbox” is the Roadmap to Reconciliation)—and then (in Becoming Brave) we get an invitation to summon our collective courage and actually set off on that road.

‘Transformation Animated by God’

“What I’m trying to encourage is transformation animated by God,” McNeil said. “What I realized, some years ago, is that too many Christians talk about reconciliation in theory but, in truth, they have no clear definition of what reconciliation actually is.”

In Becoming Brave, McNeil writes a lot about this crucial distinction in her work. Mid-way through her book, she writes: “The relational, diversity-oriented approach to reconciliation has grown stale and was not leading to real, lasting change. … This message of reconciliation is not able to produce real social change, because it is too rooted in a narrative about coming together across our various differences. That message was more palatable to white Christians because it did not focus on or demand justice from them. Instead, it implied that white Christians and Christians of color have parallel work to do in order to repair racial brokenness. … This approach does not take seriously the realities, both historic and current, that produced and continue to uphold divisiveness, nor does it acknowledge the specific work that different groups must do to repair the divide.”

So, what does that divide—that deep injustice—look like? McNeil explores the process of repairing the divide in more detail in the Roadmap book, however, she also describes it very pointed passages of Becoming Brave.

‘An Insidious and Growing Evil’

Halfway through Becoming Brave, for example, she writes: “There is an insidious and growing evil at work among us that continues to commodify and dehumanize human beings based on a racial hierarchy. This is rooted in a philosophical belief that certain people are higher on the ‘great chain of being’ than others and that justifies mistreating people deemed ‘lower’ as less than human.”

Stop a moment and read those lines again, please. McNeil’s words may seem obvious to many readers, but what she is summarizing in this passage is a deep realization that is harder to accept than most of us realize. For further reading on this same point, get a copy of Ta Nehesi-Coates’s National Book Award-winning Between the World and MeIf your congregation is building widespread awareness of the work that lies ahead of us—having a member of your discussion group read Coates’ book along with McNeil’s books will add a powerful perspective.

Here is one passage in Becoming Brave in which McNeil tries to describe the shape of this evil. She writes: “That’s why a white man can have a gun in his hands and be arrested without being shot or killed, but a Black child holding a toy gun is killed by the police within two seconds of their arrival, before he even has a chance to speak. This type of racialized injustice is woven throughout every aspect of our human society, and I feel compelled (like Esther in her day) to come ‘out of the palace’ and speak out against it. If I and others do not call people to tell the truth about what’s happening, we will replicate this type of racial evil from one generation to the next. If we refuse to face the truth about our racialized society, we will find new ways to repackage it and will never heal the pervasive racial and social injustice in our land.”

‘Rocking the Boat’

In our interview, McNeil said that she is surprising herself with the blunt honesty she is speaking and writing these days. “For years, I was known as the ‘nice person’ who came to speak and teach about how reconciliation is possible. Some of my friends have actually challenged me and said that, at times, I sounded like someone who wasn’t going to rock the boat very much.

“Well, with Becoming Brave, I’m saying very clearly that—like the choices Esther had to make—this work is going to require courage. This is not a feel-good lovefest where we all come together around a table of brotherhood and sisterhood to make friends. To actually come to reconciliation is scary. Esther knew that. Esther’s knees were knocking. Her teeth were chattering. But, Esther shows us: We must dare to speak truth to power.”

As we spoke, McNeil paused and then added, “I do hope that people reading this realize that I am not setting out to hurt people. But right now there is hard work we must do. Right now we’ve literally seen a man killed on television with someone kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes until he was dead!

“That’s why we now have these millions of good-hearted people of faith who want to do something—like this Pew data you’re describing. That’s activation. What I’m saying in these books is that activation and short-term reactivity does not lead to the deeper systemic change we need.

“What gives me hope, now, is that people are hungry. People do want to do something. In these books, I’m trying to give them clarity about what those next steps can look like.

“I keep repeating this: What we need is an ongoing spiritual process that involves forgivess, repentance and justice that transforms broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.”



Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 13—Ultimately, we are responsible for our faces.

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

FINISHING LINCOLN’S NOSE—Between October 4, 1927, and October 31, 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60-foot-high carvings of United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to represent the first 130 years of American history. These presidents were selected by Borglum because of their role in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory. The carving of Mount Rushmore involved the use of dynamite, followed by the process of “honeycombing”, a process where workers drill holes close together, allowing small pieces to be removed by hand.


Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome. Here’s a Lincoln quote for you:

“After the age of forty a man is responsible for his face.”

For fans of Lincoln this is an often-quoted sentence. Lincoln’s point of view is that the inner life of a person, and the ethics and spirit that follow, are the responsibility of that person as they age. Over time something inside should show up on the outside.

The “Ancient”—as his young male secretary John Hay called him—had been asking Lincoln how he felt about a particularly vile man they had just met.

Lincoln’s wisdom is that actions from inner goodness, or inner evil, will show up on the outer face.

Lincoln is talking about an ethical perspective. We can also see that art brings the inner life up and out. Artists learn how to bring things inside to the outside, whether that is the soul of a painted flower, the spirit in a moving dance or the emotion in playing music.

Spiritual life also works from the outside in. We may express our spiritual life from the inside to the outer world, but we are inspired from the outside in ways that touch our soul or heart inside.

This is can be seen in the grandeur of a Cathedral, for example. The large and holy external building holds us small and little inside. We take the spirit in, we are inspired and moved.

Large statues do the same thing. A statue in a cathedral or outside is larger than the worshipper for a reason. It is to inspire the believer to feel that no matter how small and finite they may be, this statue is a reminder that there is a big and beautiful goodness out there in the world, a God-send. We can be opened up to feel something larger than life.

This inspirational purpose of statues is also true in the secular world, and in the civil religion of any society. In daily headlines this summer, we see how important these large iconic statues are in a nation’s life. That is why dozens of statues have been removed since the May 20, 2020, killing of George Floyd. Wikipedia set up a special page just to list the many monuments that have fallen.

When we put someone on a pedestal we mean it to inspire us to a greater good. That wouldn’t work if the statues were smaller or lower than we are. And if and when we no longer feel that a greater good is re-presented—then it needs to come down.

Have you ever stood inside the temple-like columns of the Daniel Chester French Lincoln memorial, itself ninety-nine feet high. You look up at the nineteen-foot-high statue of Lincoln who is seated, and who, if standing, would be twenty-eight-feet tall.

In those moments we can have an experience of our inner feelings being connected to a bigger and a better world. Out there.

That is why our statues are so important. We need to and want to feel small only in the presence of something larger that is good.

Now Gutzon Borglum, the man who made Mount Rushmore with its large faces and heads of four Presidents, deeply knew all this about artistic expression and sacred inspiration especially through large sculptures. He wanted the goodness of Lincoln to seep into us while we are temporarily reduced in size and so humble. From the ground level at Mount Rushmore to the top of the four presidents is 500 feet.

Lincoln’s face and head are more than twenty times larger than the life masks that Lincoln had made and Borglum had held in his hands. He had come to value the inner life of Lincoln and wanted as an artist to make the outer version of Lincoln.

Borglum was a Danish immigrant’s son from Idaho. This was secular American work he was doing, but it uses a time-honored traditional spiritual practice from the world’s religions.

That is a sacred pattern. It is evident in the famous encounter that the Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton had on a journey to Asia, just a few days before his death. Merton, at that time, was reaching out to other religious leaders, especially Buddhists. He met with the young Dalia Lama, he dialogued with D.T. Suzuki, and also with the Protestant Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hebrew mystic and scholar.

On this journey, in Sri Lanka, Merton encountered the four large statues of the Buddha at Polonnaruwa. It was a life-changing experience for him, famously called his Illumination.
At the large preserve near Polonnaruwa he approached the reclining Buddha that is over 46 feet long and over 15 feet high, a standing Buddha who is over 22 feet tall, and two other statues.

Merton had written that, “The presence of God is like walking out of a door into the fresh air…and breathing it in.”

He had that outdoor open-air inspiration when he made a pilgrimage to these enormous Buddhas. He wrote that “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things….an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves became evident and obvious….All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.”

His smallness next to the very large images gave him a spiritual perspective, an orientation to all that really matters and a discernment of all that does not really matter. The rock itself seemed alive with the presence of holiness, and his own real self had come into full view. He felt it inside himself, next to that great outside. “All matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya,” the Sanskrit word for the most sublime and essential reality in the universe, the cosmic body of the Buddha—what Merton, as a Christian, would know of as the self-emptying love and mercy of God.

The sculptor, Borglum, once said, “We want to see what we care for. We want to feel the private conscience that became public conduct.”

Lincoln was responsible for his face and at the end of his life he shows peace and compassion. We care about this spiritual journey, from large inspirations to true inner thoughts and feelings, we too can be lighted down in honor even to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.




Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.