IRS Tax Code Part 3 ch. 8 sect. 45 subsect. 7 pt. 35 revised Jan. 1, 2011, describes the “Conscience Fund.” Illegitimately born in 1811 when a soldier feeling guilty for theft sent $5 to salve his conscience, the Conscience Fund gets legitimized in 1950. It’s where money goes that is sent to the U.S. Treasury Department by those who conclude that they have fleeced the U. S government. They send guilt money to clear their conscience. This happens a lot, even happened to my granddaddy and some of his friends who during WWII, had already shot and eaten the bergermeister’s milk cow, paid the bergermeister $40 to salve their guilt, but were still so hungry that they stole grenades, tossed ‘em into a river, and scooped up fish that exploded to the top. Granddaddy admitted feeling guilty for stealing, felt prodded into it by others; as he aged guilt was eating at him because he’d share this story more often. Part of me hopes he made peace, maybe mailed a check to the Conscience Fund.
Perhaps like Granddaddy, Herod, needs to send a check to the conscience fund because his conscience has been working hard on him; the man mistook Jesus for raised-from-the-dead John the Baptist. Herod is prodded by others, is seriously into people pleasing; his choices are shaped by how other people perceive him, by how he craves affirmation, acceptance, and approval from the crowd.
John calls Herod out for trysts with his brother’s wife. Herod could have repented, but instead he gets angry with John. Still, his anger doesn’t erupt into murder because fear of the people keeps Herod in line. John is popular with the locals and Herod wants nothing like a Charlottesville on his hands because such as that shows Imperial Roman leaders that one cannot be trusted to keep the peace. And, those who can’t maintain Rome’s Pax Romana aren’t left in power for long. And this leads Herod to behead John.
Pax Romana means Roman Peace. And can’t we all appreciate a desire for peace? I certainly do, so I make a practice of not speaking from the pulpit on many matters—especially when those matters are potentially divisive in a way that might take us away from God’s preferred future for Zion. So, while I am not interested in disrupting the Pax Ziona, matters of conscience are weighing heavily on me these days. So, right now conscience has me preaching outside of my comfort zone. Right now, I confess to you that I have been outside of my comfort zone for weeks. And I suspect that I’m not alone in my discomfort. Since Nazi flags were waved in Charlottesville, I’ve been challenged; mainly because I remember granddaddy’s stories of the liberation of two concentration camps during WWII. One was Mauthausen, I think the other was Ohrdruf. Of Ohrdruf, General George Patton had this to say, “In a shed . . . was a pile of about 40 completely naked human bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime, not for the purposes of destroying them, but for the purpose of removing the stench.” That description matches Granddaddy’s stories; makes me feel sadly nauseated remembering those stories in his voice.
I remember Grandmother interrupting Granddaddy during them, saying, “Bill, don’t share those stories with the boys. Talk of nicer things.” I remember his response, “Virginia, if I don’t tell ‘em, how can we know that during their lifetime, it won’t happen here?” I remember Virginia’s face, unhappy with the reality, but accepting of Bill’s truth.
So, yes, like some of you, your pastor is feeling challenged these days. And I am doing a lot of listening to a lot of people. I am listening to Oglala Lakota friends, and a presiding elder in the AME church, to our synodical bishop, and local people eating in the Hen and Egg, to college students, and to Zion church members, even to folks in Newton as they geared up for Old Soldier’s Reunion. All this listening has led me to more questions that I had at the start. And these questions are all about conscience.
So, after much prayer, and with more than a little fear, I offer them now to you. Some may already be your own questions, some may be new. And to these questions I have no answers.
Since Nazi flags were waved two weeks back in Charlottesville, and since people got all riled up over Nazism, racism, statues, and heritage, I’m asking myself:
1-How does a person who has ancestors who served in the Confederate States of America honor those elders with integrity, and manage to do so without rendering harm to others? Are those ancestors not worthy of respect for their valor, sacrifice, giving of self, even if some of the ideals for which they fought so clearly repulsive? Do we write ‘em off, or should we allow that leaders are imperfect and simply take the good with the bad? Perhaps “forgive as we have been forgiven?”
2-How do we come to terms with the reality that presumptively saying, “our heritage as ____fill in the blank____,” believing it to fit the audience around us spawns inaccuracy and does not apply evenly to all people? Isn’t it true that the USA has many peoples with many heritages, and few US citizens share the exact common heritage?
3-While it is true that 21st century caucasians in the US did not own slaves, and equally true that 21st century people of African descent in the US are not enslaved to 21st century whites, it is undeniable that the impacts of years of slavery, de facto segregation, are still effecting unhealthy systems in the US—-how do we talk of such things in listening love and compassionate care?
4-How do citizens who center the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and walls but not in hearts, who profess the same command of Jesus, to “love neighbor as self,” yet openly say stuff like, “I hate President so-and-so,” legitimately lay claim to the misnomer, “Christian nation?” Call a skunk a rose, but when you sniff, have tomato juice handy, and watch out for “rose” spray.
5-How does one ask these questions of conscience to prompt thoughtful discourse, without feeling deeply in one’s belly that someone will judge the daylights out of you for asking, and fearing that you’ll be called unAmerican?
6-Given that Jesus says to “love one another as I have loved you,” and to, “love your neighbor as yourself,” how does one come to peace with Nazi flags being waved in the USA given the atrocities committed under that banner, especially when one lays claim to the title, “Christian?” Had a cup of coffee with a church member this week, and a cantor from our synagogue joined us to chat for a bit. As he chattered away I wondered how those Nazi flags waved recently in Ole Virginny impacted him. I didn’t ask him out of politeness.
7-Can we allow for one moment that blanket statements are incredibly painful and glaringly inaccurate, that saying, “All whites think,” or “All blacks think,” are profoundly unhelpful, especially in times of race turmoil?
8-And while it is true that white privilege does exist, it is also true that white privilege does not apply evenly to whites, just ask a local pastor whose white mom, fearing eviction from their flat, peddled him out to “Johns” of all races before he was 8, eventually landing him emotionally unstable and living under a bridge near State College, PA by age 14—how much privilege did his whiteness garner him?
9- Can people recognize and explore that being black in the USA means for many, not knowing what country is your ancestral homeland, not knowing your family tree, not knowing your own heritage, since Euro-American slavery destroyed all chances of that possibility? How might that make one feel? To be unable to identify self beyond skin-color and continent of origin, especially when others can and do wave their own heritage, the one that took yours away, in public view via statues and flags?
10-How can we talk of such things as these without cursing at one another, judging one another, blaming one another, and discounting the stories of one another through use of our own faulty sliding scales? Perhaps especially when some systems benefit from us not holding such talks? Definitely. If holding such talks lead us to change? To the unknown hope-filled future that God has for us?
These are our questions to ponder along with many others. And it is our responsibility to ponder them. And here’s why—after surviving seven years in a concentration camp, Lutheran Pr. Martin Niemoller writes,
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Zion Lutheran Church we have to speak—for our nostrils are filled with a stench that lime cannot erase, and we can’t be prodded into inaction, nor let the opinions of the crowd guide us to quiet down. For to God’s world, aren’t we part of God’s great cloud of witnesses?
It falls to us to lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. We’re talking about so much more than just a matter of conscience here, for now we’re talking about a duty of grace.