"Baptism by Fire" and Atticus Finch
Have you ever experienced an arduous, harrowing event which required extraordinary effort to reach the other side and conquer the challenge? It could be a sudden assignment at work, with a quick turnaround time, or learning a whole new skill on the fly. Or maybe a relationship changes dramatically and you have to regroup. Or it could be a spiritual experience where the givens and assurances of your faith seem to fall to pieces, and you must rebuild something new to depend on. In any case, this event leaves you changed, different, transformed in some way.
Luke's Gospel says that we are baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That means that God is dwelling in us in a new, powerful way (the Holy Spirit), and that God is also refining and purifying us, stripping away all that is not strong enough to withstand God's fire. There is some discomfort implied here!
I had this experience when I read Harper Lee's newly issued novel Go Set a Watchman. There has been much debate about the genesis of this novel and its literary quality. But what was not debatable for me was the change that it wrought in me.
This book showed me that Atticus Finch, the enlightened Alabama lawyer who defended a black man in To Kill a Mockingbird, wasn't who we thought he was. He wasn't an unqualified hero, seeing past the racial divisions of the American South. As an older man, he was clinging to the ways he understood society, that is, with white people in charge and people of color subservient. Racism was the very water he was swimming in; racism was part of him. He could not change that fact.
And I was convicted. All my liberal and inclusive perceptions of myself fell away like chaff, and I had to face the fact that I do not always see people of every race equally, though I try. I am not colorblind. I make distinctions and assumptions based on my upbringing and the American society I live in. I am not proud of that. In fact, I'm ashamed. But it's the water I swim in, a baptism in the truth of my racism and America's racism, which is clearly America's original sin.
This Sunday, January 10, we welcome the Rev. Paula Clark to preach and teach. Paula is a delightful, vivacious woman who works on our Bishop's staff in the area of multicultural ministry. She will lead the adult class at 9:50 a.m. and preach at 10:45 a.m. I hope you will be present to hear her. I believe we shall all be blessed by her presence at St. Dunstan's. JBM