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

By DAVID CRUMM
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.”

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

This entry is part 13 of 13 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.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
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.

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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.

 

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Across Thousands of Miles, Friends Still Connect to Feed Our Families and Our World

SHARING A POT OF SUMMER SOUP ACROSS 4,300 MILES

RECONNECTING IN A SEASON OF SEPARATION—Can something as simple as a pot of soup help us to reconnect, even the midst of this global pandemic? Two regular contributors to this online magazine are Elisa Di Bendetto and Martin Davis—who are physically separated by 4,300 miles. She is based in Italy; he’s near Washington D.C. They became friends through the International Association of Religion Journalists and have visited in person occasionally over the years. As spring turns to summer, they both were reminded via email and social media that their thoughts were turning toward their mutual love of cooking with fresh ingredients, especially the first crop of summer vegetables. Today they’re coming together to talk about an Italian classic—minestrone.

Elisa: As a child, I would eat anything except minestrone. Lots of children considered it a type of punishment, sort of like being forced to eat cauliflower. It was only later on that I started enjoying that traditional, light and healthy dish that my mother used to cook year-round, creating the perfect mix of fresh vegetables from our grandma’s vegetable garden.

Martin Davis’s starting point for minestrone.

Marty: Where I grew up in the American South, I didn’t like minestrone, either. Of course, where I grew up, the only minestrone I knew came from a can in the soup aisle. It was mushy and generally disgusting. Even the adults didn’t like it.

My mom taught be to cook when I was little. After I left home, I got interested in Italian cooking. That’s where I first discovered what minestrone truly was all about. And when you visited our home and began talking with me about it, I really got into it.

Elisa: As an Italian with friends and colleagues based in all continents, I am frequently asked for advice about—and the “secret ingredients” of—many popular Italian dishes: pasta, piazza, lasagne and so on. But, never before had I been asked about minestrone, one of the most popular foods in Italian peasant cuisine.

What many people don’t understand about minestrone, and something that you, Marty, had figured out, is that it’s a simple dish—but it’s an art form, too. While some foods and dishes are typical of a specific region or area, you can find minestrone anywhere in Italy. That means you will see a huge variety of recipes for the same meal, which is usually served as a first course. Be ready to experience some differences, according to the region and the season. They can come both in the ingredients—with broken spaghetti or soup pasta, and even rice or legumes and other cereals added in the pot—and in the preparation—vegetables usually are diced or cut into pieces, but sometimes they are smashed before serving.

Marty: The unpredictability of minestrone is what appeals to me, Elisa. While I have a few core ingredients that I use in every pot, the other vegetables that I add depend on the season. Spring is heavy on different onions, as well as potatoes and carrots and snow peas.

In the summer I dress up my pots with fresh squashes, corns, okra and field peas. In the fall, it’s October beans and cabbages, plus a wide range of root vegetables, that make their way into my pot. Honestly, whatever is fresh and looks good at the Farmer’s Market every Saturday is what I’ll use.

Elisa’s soffritto mixture as she begins her minestrone.

Elisa: My mother explains it this way, “We always begin by making a soffritto (base flavor for countless classic dishes) with onion, carrot and celery, which are the three base vegetables for many Italian dishes.” My mother still remembers her grandmother making minestrone. “I remember that her recipe always included beans, no matter the time of the year. Every family, even the poorest ones, would grow beans in their garden. Besides that, beans made it filling and nourishing.”

Nowadays, we add some fancy foods, such as croutons. In the past, they used to add stale bread in it. In this way, they would not waste any food, as my mother recalls: “In farms, when they butchered pork, they used to add its bones in the minestrone.” Today, cut up pancetta or pre-cooked pork rind (cotenne), which are frequently used to add flavor.

Marty: I didn’t know that you could add meat or bone marrow! As I noted above, we didn’t make minestrone growing up, but we did make beef vegetable soup, usually in the fall. I wonder if there is a connection between that and minestrone?

Elisa: Perhaps. You can basically use anything in this soup, and that’s why in the Italian language we use the word minestrone to describe a messy, disorderly, set of different things.

Marty: Well, that’s what my Minestrone is—a messy disorderly set of different things that blend together over time to produce a simply amazing bouquet of flavors that’s pure joy to eat. I generally cook my pot for 6 hours or more at a very low heat.

Elisa: I’m surprised to learn that you usually cook it for over 6 hours. In Italy, it generally takes about 2 or maybe 3 hours to cook, depending on the vegetables you use.

Marty: I am a fan of slow-cooking. I cook many things that way. Even one of my favorite Low Country meals, Gumbo.

Elisa: Yes! I remember that that’s what you prepared for me when I visited you in the United States. Perhaps we should talk about that sometime?

Marty: Perhaps—but for now, let’s compare recipes.

Elisa’s Authentic Minestrone Soup

Ingredients

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

1-2 ribs celery, chopped

Water (you can also use vegetable stock)

2 medium tomatoes

Seasonal vegetables and leafy vegetables (greens) to taste (usually carrots, legumes, beans, peas, potatoes, zucchini, green beans, kale, Swiss chard). We never use vegetables with a very strong flavor, such as peppers, cauliflower, broccoli. They are not usually included in the recipe, nor do we use eggplant.

Cooking

Put oil in the bottom of a big pot and add onions (make sure it’s big enough to hold all your ingredients). Add onions first. Chop the carrots and then add them in the pot while you chop the celery. Add the celery and a pinch of salt. Let your ingredients rosolare (saute) without browning until everything is soft but not colored.

Cut your vegetables—except potatoes!—into small pieces and strips and add them into the pot, one by one, so that they can absorb the flavor of the ingredients you have added previously.

Add abundant water to cover, bring to a boil and then to a gentle simmer. Allow simmering for about 1,5 hours and if it’s getting too thick, add some water to loosen. Add the potatoes later, so they can cook through before serving time. When all the vegetables are soft (almost meltingly soft), mash the potatoes and stir.

Serve

You can serve it hot, warm or room temperature. It tastes even better the next day.

To provide an extra flavor to your minestrone you can add some extra-virgin olive oil, croutons or grated parmesan on top before serving. You can also cook some rice or pasta separately and add it to the pot at the very last.

 

Marty’s Minestrone

Ingredients

½ cup high-quality olive oil
3-4 garlic bulbs
Salt and pepper
Fresh herbs—Parsley, Basil, Thyme, Oregano. (If you don’t grow it, buy fresh sprigs)2 or 3 fresh tomatoes (any tomato will do – I like Roma, my wife prefers a medium-sized slicing tomato
Purple onion (with green stems)
Carrots
A wedge of high-quality Parmesan cheese
Beans (stay away from canned—use dry or fresh picked)
Cabbage
Peppers (I like Cubanelle, but any type will do)
Potatoes
Parsnips

Cooking

Add about 4 cups of water or vegetable stock to a pot. Quarter the tomatoes and drop them in. Then add the purple onion (onion and stems), carrots, and garlic. Bind all your herbs with some twine and drop them into the pot. Add the Olive Oil and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, then turn to medium heat. Let simmer for 1.5 hours, until the tomatoes begin to break apart. Remove the herbs.

Add the remaining vegetables in any amount that you desire. Bring the pot back up to a boil for 2-3 minutes, then reduce to the lowest heat possible. Add the wedge of Parmesan cheese, cover, and let cook another four hours.

If you like, cook some pasta separately.

Serve

Put the pasta in the bottom of a bowl. Using a ladle, cover the noodles with minestrone. Finish with fresh ground parmesan and Parsley. Serve with bread or grilled cheese sandwiches.

 

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 12—Why do we refer to our most eloquent president as ‘Quiet’?

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

FANCIFUL AND FUN—BUT NOT FACTUAL—This was a popular lithograph envisioning Lincoln leaving Springfield for his long journey to Washington D.C. It’s a cheery image pro-Lincoln families could hang on the wall. But—it’s not how that scene actually unfolded. (Below, today, we have a journalist’s eye view.)

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
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:

“Friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting.”

These are the first words of Lincoln’s Farewell Address, given on a rainy morning, February 11, 1861, at the railroad depot in Springfield. A thousand or so of his friends and neighbors, no doubt some barking dogs as well, are up early to bid him fare well as he leaves home to become President.

It is called an address. It is shorter than the Gettysburg Address. Very uncharacteristically, Lincoln spoke without notes. His words are prayer-like and they invoke the mystic chords of memory and the abiding presence of the Divine Being who can be “everywhere for good”.

The words of his Address are so prayer-like that you can sense the silence within them and the silences that must have fallen upon the upturned faces listening to him.

The heart-felt sincerity of his words that day are obvious in the way he delivered them—spontaneously, without having written down any script in advance, not even notes.

HENRY VILLARD about the time he covered Lincoln’s rise to the presidency. (Click his photo to read his Wikipedia biography.)

However, once he spoke them, his parting words were so poignant that Associated Press correspondent Henry Villard begged him to commit the words to paper. So, as the train jolted along the tracks, Lincoln and his secretary did just that, which is why we have them today.

Had Villard not insisted, Lincoln would have left the station, the words only held in the memories of the crowd, and would have returned to his more characteristic silence.

Silence follows Lincoln like a spiritual friend wherever he goes. Sandburg has written that the element of silence was great in the making of this man. Many of the personal reminiscences written by the men and the women of his time will say that conversation with Lincoln began with his extended and silent listening to them.

This, then, is the “quiet” that is in the quiet fire of Abraham Lincoln.

Now one reason so many people, for so many years, have found, and are finding, something about Lincoln they love is that he was a many-sided person. There is hardly a characteristic of Lincoln for which he did not also possess the opposite. He had many paradoxes, a Euclidian array of equal opposites. And they all held together. He didn’t just hold the county together, he kept his head together. It wasn’t just 36 states he eventually held in union.

People find a side of Lincoln they love: his logic, his heart, his humor, his sorrow, his power, his humility, his voice, his written words, AND his unspoken inside side.

This is reason we can talk about the spiritual life of Lincoln. He was extraordinarily deep, inside. His was a well spring.

There is as much fire in Lincoln as there is quiet. His fire gives off light, heat, inspiration and power. His quiet contains a sense of yonder, his intelligence, and his well spring of goodness.

We have a language for these paradoxes in Lincoln. We can talk about introverts and extraverts. In his own paradoxical way Lincoln was defiantly both. You can feel the introversion in his Farewell Address. “My Friends, No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting.”

This is as close as we ever get to Lincoln saying out loud, “You just don’t know how I feel.”

His law partner Billy Herndon once said that he felt he never really knew Lincoln, that no one did, that Lincoln held himself close to his own chest in a quiet almost mysterious way.

Of course in this Farewell Address Lincoln is sharing his inner life. And they do know how he feels because he is addressing their inner life too. In fact, emotionally, every one there is in his situation as well—they are the other side of this painful parting. He is addressing the unspoken feelings that everyone is feeling, feeling inside. He is giving voice to what they all are feeling.

But no one else was in his situation, no one else is going off to be President. The only such company Lincoln can feel would be the silent presence of George Washington, whom he mentions and who was also once going off to be President of a new nation in crisis.

Silence is how the spirit is present, in joy and in sorrow, in terror and in beauty, in deep feelings and in long thoughts. It is the way we feel awe and horror.

Silence is how we start and end prayer. Silence is how we feel before we applaud the uplift of a symphony, or how we feel unspeakable joy at the emerging site of a new born child. Silence is what we feel when we have sighs too deep for words, or gasp at some unspeakable wrong.

This is the range of silence that Lincoln brought with him from the wilderness to Washington.

We can love the inside story of this man, noting, as maybe a few did on that rainy morning, that it was February 11th and the next day their gawky neighbor would have his birthday, his fifty-second. He would have celebrated many birthdays in Springfield. But this often tightlipped man makes no mention of that in his farewell.

This is a bit of the quiet that is part of the paradox of Lincoln’s quiet fire, and it can follow us down in honor to the latest generation.

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

And this is what the day actually looked like, thanks to a journalist’s sketch

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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.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 11—Raising a Flag and Contemplating the Sacred Pillars of America

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

THE 34-STAR U.S. FLAG, which only was used for two years after the admission of Kansas as a state in January 29, 1861. It became obsolete on June 20, 1863, when West Virginia became a state. As a result, Lincoln was the only U.S. president to fly the 34-star flag. No stars were ever removed from the official flag—not even during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
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:

“May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings.”

This is a sacred quote with a secular tweak.

Lincoln is quoting from Psalm 137. We may know this psalm best from musical versions that feature its words, “How do I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” Lincoln is using the powerful poetry of this Psalm. It proclaims the Hebrew captives’ faith to remember Jerusalem even while captured in exile in Babylon.

Bible words would often spring to Lincolns lips. What faithfulness, what teaching, is Lincoln affirming here?

The “teachings”—and that’s the word he substitutes for “Jerusalem”—are the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He is not in exile in Babylon but he is in imminent threat of assassination.

His courage in the moment is to prove true to the idea of America. Like the singer in the Psalm who is remembering Jerusalem, they both are in dire straits.

It’s Thursday evening, February 21, 1861, and Lincoln is in Philadelphia on his over-thousand-mile train trek to Washington City to be sworn in as 16th President of the United States. Despite the danger he is outstandingly calm and resolute.

He will soon be taking off his stove pipe hat and wearing a soft Hungarian freedom fighter’s cap and a shawl to disguise himself and enter Baltimore on a secret train to Washington.

But he is in Philadelphia because he promised to be there. The next morning it will be George Washington’s birthday. He will be raising a brand new American flag, with a new star for the state of Kansas fixed on a field now of thirty-four.

At noon that day, down from Maine, also in danger, his Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and his wife Ellen will be secretly blanketed up in a sleeper car. They will be left unrecognized by hooligans breathing death and whisky.

Meanwhile Lincoln is pledging his faith in the teachings and principles that came from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, as he will remember, 84 years ago. He says this is a sacred hall. He has said Americans are God’s almost chosen people, and he will say, also spontaneously, “I would rather be assassinated on the spot than to surrender” his loyalty to the Declaration of Independence and to the principle of equality enshrined.

He testifies with these words, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence…. (and earlier)… all the sentiments I entertain have been drawn from (those) which originated and were given to the world from this hall.”

He has, in a way, pondered this moment all his life. When he was 10 years old and had read in Grimshaw’s History about the American Revolution, he wondered what extraordinary “something” was going on in these events. What mysterious power or truth or idea?

Now the day before in Trenton he had said he considers himself only the “humble instrument of the Almighty” in the task before him. About this flag-raising he will say, “I could not help feeling…. as I have often felt, that in the whole proceeding I was a very humble instrument. I had not provided the flag. I had not made the arrangement for elevating it to its place. I had applied a very small portion even of my feeble strength in raising it. In the whole transaction I was in the hands of the people who had arranged it. And if I can have the same generous cooperation of the people of this nation, I think the flag of our country may yet be kept flaunting gloriously.”

What is a stake here is Lincoln’s way of seeing himself. Humble, yes. But indeed, as would be revealed to all his close friends on his death bed in four years, his arms were anything but feeble. In his dying night shirt the dignitaries there were astonished at the muscular power of Lincoln’s arms.

Also at stake is his stoic courage. The people in Philadelphia noted later how very calm and without alarm or fear he was when told of this first assassination plot.

And more at stake is this:

In the religious mind, a consciousness first found in traditional peoples, the world of stone and tree, is filled with spirit. Something more, something else. Some power that makes things be.

This force is what makes some things sacred, the very power of life being made real and present. The cosmos can show the holy. And the holy is what is most real, most valuable, most powerful, most full of Being itself.

In these moments in Philadelphia, with Abraham Lincoln, there were things in America’s life that he saw as sacred:  the flag, Independence Hall, and the Declaration of Independence. The religious mind knows that they are just things and also more than just things.

It is this religious feeling, first found in ancient peoples, that makes the world sacred, and can still, in the minds and hearts of those who see and feel such things, be a light, like Lincoln’s, to live by in honor down to the latest generation.

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

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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.

 

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Greg Garrett Helps Us Understand Hollywood’s Role in Systemic Racism

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peel’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie, Get Out—one of six movies explored in media scholar Greg Garrett’s new book, A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page. The book is also available directly through Oxford University Press as well as Barnes & Noble.

Global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25 are rattling the foundations of major institutions from local and state governments to major segments of American culture, including professional sports and media networks. Countless Hollywood leaders are responding. On June 10, The New York Times published the news that the HBO Max streaming service was pulling one of the most popular movies ever produced in Hollywood: Gone with the Wind—because of racist portrayals and a positive, nostalgic view of the South’s role in the Civil War. The streaming service plans to return it later, accompanied by “a discussion of its historical context.”

Why is Hollywood such a vital part of the Black Lives Matter effort to open up discussions of systemic racism?

In his new book A Long, Long TimeBaylor University scholar Greg Garrett says that it’s because movies are such a deeply embedded part of our own self image as Americans.

Throughout his book, he draws on James Baldwin‘s piercing analysis of this problem. “The language of the camera is the language of our dreams,” Baldwin wrote way back in 1976, decades before Hollywood power-brokers were even listening to such critiques.

The result, Garrett concludes, is that for people of color, movies also have been the language of nightmares—including overwhelming nightmares from deep in our past. Almost overnight, Americans have gone from watching mainly new and recent movies at theaters or on cable TV—to expecting that the entire century-plus history of Hollywood will be instantly streamable at home. Along with that 24-7 availability comes all the legacy of Hollywood’s ugliest eras of bigotry.

Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett

“The title of the book refers to Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous line: ‘We’ve come a long, long way and we still have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved’,” Garrett said in an interview about his new book. In fact, King first delivered that line in the mid 1950s—and he kept repeating it until he was killed in 1968.

“The six films in this book offer us all an opportunity for conversation about the different places Hollywood has taken us,” Greg said in the interview.

In his book, he writes: “Over the past century racists have used the medium of film to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and offer warped narratives, or they have portrayed white reality as though it were the only reality that mattered.” In the later 20th century, he writes, that began to change as “filmmakers of conscience” began to challenge racism—and, especially in more recent years, black filmmakers have attacked the problem and broadened our vision.

Why is this book such an important invitation to congregations and community groups today? Because, right now, two-thirds of Americans have become supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement—and 38 percent “strongly support” it, says a June 12 Pew Research report.

What Are the 6 Films in Greg Garrett’s Book?

Many films are mentioned in his 230 pages, but the book really is designed as a discussion guide for a six-week series with a class or small group—perhaps in a congregation, a school, a library or some other community setting.

Here are the six films that each receive a full, chapter-long analysis for individual reflection or group conversation:

1915: Birth of a Nation

Greg begins his series with the single most lethally racist feature-length film in U.S. history: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Not only is the film a catalog of the most viciously racist myths in American culture—it also became the recruiting tool for a rebirth of the dormant Ku Klux Klan. After the Civil War, President Grant sent the Army to quash the original Klan. The debut of Griffith’s movie celebrating the Klan literally brought the organization back to life.

“This is a film that almost no one teaches anymore in classes, because it’s so toxic. My argument is that the film was so important, in its time, that people need to grapple with these incredible negative, awful representations,” Greg said in our interview. “My argument is that we need to talk about how all of these terrible elements were put together so skillfully by Griffith. We need to recognize what happened here and how this worked on audiences.”

Just as Greg does with all six films in this book, he devotes an entire chapter to analyzing Birth of a Nation—fascinating material for a group leader to develop a lively discussion.

Still hesitant about showing such a viciously racist film in your small group? Over the past two years, a growing body of educational material has become available for discussion. Birth of a Movement is the best book about the impact of Birth of a Nation—and also the remarkable birth of a black protest movement, even in that early era. In reclaiming that forgotten history, Boston University scholar Dick Lehr describes the equivalent of a Black Lives Matter campaign that sprang up in reaction to Griffith’s film in 1915. The courage of those pioneering activists was remarkable! Lehr’s book is available at Amazon and a one-hour documentary version is streaming on Amazon, or is available as a PBS-co-sponsored DVD.

If you are inspired to organize a Greg Garrett film series, using Greg’s book as a guide for six discussions, you could extend your series to seven weeks and begin with Birth of a Movement to provide more historical context—and to tell the inspiring story of activists who took to the streets a century ago.

1942: Casablanca

Greg subtitles this chapter: “Friendship and the Beloved Community.” If you plan a discussion series, this film will be both a popular draw—and a surprising choice for a discussion series on race. In his chapter on this classic Bogart-Bergman love story, Greg zeroes in on Bogart’s friendship with the black piano player Sam—and relates their friendship to life-and-death themes arising during World War II.

Click this 1967 TIME cover to read more about this historic issue of the magazine.

1967: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Not as surprising in such a six-film series is this Tracy-Hepburn classic. What Greg adds to our discussions is important context, starting with the year this movie, co-starring Sidney Poitier, was released. That year, 1967, was not only a tragic landmark in urban rebellion—it also was the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning inter-racial marriage in Loving v. Virginia.

1989: Do the Right Thing

You and your friends are likely to have seen the groundswell of international media about Spike Lee’s provocative masterpiece. They may welcome a chance to see the film along with an opportunity to discuss it. Just a few of the recent headlines about this film have appeared in: National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, The UK Guardian and Forbes. You’ll find dozens of other recent columns about Spike Lee and Do The Right Thing with a simple search of Google-News.

2004: Crash

Greg knows this Paul Haggis Oscar-winning film is a poster-sized example of the term “controversial.” Many have condemned the film, including New York Times critic Amanda Hess who wrote that  Crash ranks among the worst best-picture winners ever. Other critics agree, charging it’s merely a white person’s feel-good idea of resolving racism. Greg subtitles his chapter “Worst Best film? Or Essential Parable?” He argues that discussing Crash, especially right after Spike Lee’s film, helps us to explore some deeply entrenched white assumptions about racism.

2017: Get Out

Greg closes with a chapter that brings us through the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the rise of media voices including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jordan Peele, the director of the Oscar-winning horror story Get Out.

Care to Learn More?

Greg is an active voice for justice and inclusion both in the U.S. and in the UK as well. During the years he prepared this book, he has co-hosted film festivals and discussion groups. You can learn a lot more about his work and his many earlier books by visiting his Amazon author page.

Recently, Greg spoke with the online magazine Faithfully about the timeliness of the issues explored in his new book.

He wrote a commentary in the Austin Statesman.

Brigham Young University radio recently put online this 50-minute interview with Greg about using film with discussion groups.

Greg also wrote a recent piece for LitHub.

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CNN Heroes Speak Out: Zaman founder Najah Bazzy’s prayer for George Floyd and justice

EDITOR’S NOTE—Two-thirds of Americans now support the Black Lives Matter protests (and 38 percent “strongly support” this movement) according to a June 12 Pew Research report. Millions are producing their own messages of hope and encouragement. Now, Zaman International founder (and CNN and People magazine hero) Najah Bazzy is broadcasting a prayer for George Floyd, his family—and all the men and women spreading the call for justice. She used the power of her own smartphone, coupled with the broad audience of #CNNHeroesSpeakOut. Here is her video, which you can share with others.

Najah Bazzy’s Prayer for George Floyd

Transcript of Her Message

George, you belong to God, as do we all, and to God you have returned.
To your Mama: She came to get you when you needed her the most.
To your family: May God give them the patience, the wisdom to navigate this tremendous tragedy and loss.
To our nation: What can we learn? What must we learn?
May we come out of the arrogance that has plagued us, and may we move into the humility of true leadership.
May we move from this darkness of oppression and the shackles of racism—the bitterness of racism—into the light of liberty and into coexistence, as God has intended his human family to be.
And may each of us reach our human capacity to understand the higher consciousness of love.
And to establish justice and peace and equity and inclusion.
And to rid our nation of all evil.
And to be the hope for humanity that we were meant to be.