“No Matter Who”

In a world as complex and conflicted as ours, maintaining integrity requires constant effort. Being true to ourselves, and to our own ideals, can often be very challenging. One of the ways in which it can be most challenging comes in the conflict between our expectations, conflicts, or biases about a person or a group, and some crucial moral choice about what is right or what is true.

The Rowfant Club of Cleveland, OH began over a hundred years ago, as a society for those who studied, appreciated, and, in particular, collected books. Rare and limited editions, especially. Besides promoting friendship and comradery among their members, from their earliest beginnings, the Rowfant Club existed in part to publish its own fine, collectible editions. In 1899, they published a special prestige edition of a previously-issued short story collection, written by a Charles W. Chestnutt, a Cleveland native. He had hopes that because they’d found his work worthy of publication, they might admit him to their special club, but his application was rejected on the grounds that “one or two members thought the time hadn’t come.” Charles W. Chestnutt was black, you see, and the here-to-date all white club didn’t feel ready for change. The usual spotty defenses of this sort of polite bigotry rang especially hollow in this instance, since the Rowfant Club didn’t have much of a tradition to lean on – it had only then been in existence for 7 years.

Charles Chestnutt’s response to this indignity became one of his most famous and well-regarded short stories. Its name, “Baxter’s Procrustes” hints at its ultra-fancy, overwrought language – the entire thing is a satire of how tastes and appearances interfere with the actual appreciation and honest criticism of art. The story is about a club of book-lovers – identical to the Rowfant Club – who greatly prize their limited editions and jealously protect their value. This was in an era of book-making when it was common to print multiple pages of a book on over-large pieces of paper and then fold them before binding them into the volume. The final copy of the book would have to have its pages cut in order to actually be read. Baxter, the main character in the story, is a member of the club but realizes that his fellows have so fetishized their first editions that no one actually reads them – they would have to destroy their value in order to do that. So when the time comes for the club to publish its next edition, he volunteers to provide some of his well-regarded poetry; and so every member of the club unwittingly manages to buy – and praise – a rare edition of a book whose pages are all blank on the inside.

Chestnutt’s satire of the Rowfant Club wasn’t about race, ostensibly. But it was about how assumptions and biases often lead us to judge a book literally without reading it. Certainly, that does apply to racism and all other forms of oppression-born bias. But it also extends even beyond that. The impulse to think “someone I trust, or like, or who is similar to me in some way said it, so it must be true, or did it, so it must be right,” is powerful and persistent. As is its opposite.

In a passage in the Gospels, the apostles – the leading students of the teacher Jesus, had been arguing with each other over who was the greatest in the eyes of their teacher. Hoping to win favor, one of them came to him and declared, “Master, we saw someone we did not know casting out demons in your name and we told them to stop, because they were not with us.” Casting out demons was one of Jesus’ signature moves – the apple-polishing apostle seems to expect praise for engaging in pro-active brand-management on his teacher’s behalf. But instead praise, Jesus gave the opposite. He told the student he was wrong, and not to do the same again because, as he put it, “whoever is not against us is with us.” No further mention is made in the story of who this unknown exorcist might have been – someone whose faith was powerful enough, apparently, for them to at least attempt miracles in Jesus’ name without his presence or even necessarily his knowledge. Perhaps they received the rebuke from the apostle and persisted. Perhaps they thought, “This one knows the teacher personally, where I do not; he must be right and I must be wrong.” If it was the latter, than their spiritual activism was just one of the countless things the world has lost because those with gifts to share were driven from them when they trusted the authority of others over their own inner calling.

          The artist who stopped painting, the poet who stopped writing, the preacher who stopped teaching should, deserves some understanding. The pressure to conform to such authority can sometimes be overwhelming, particularly when it is backed-up with force. In an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, Captain Jean-luc Picard is captured by a hostile government. Though his mission is a noble one, it is determined that he is not a prisoner of war, but a terrorist, an enemy of the state, and so the protections normally required by diplomacy and the rules of war do not apply. He is tortured for information – hurt, harmed, harassed, and humiliated in all the ways that nations both ancient and modern have employed against those whose fundamental humanity they reject. Yet he does not break. In his jailor’s final bid to defeat him, Picard is shown four lights – blindingly bright. He is instructed that there are five; the pain will stop when he agrees to that statement. He struggles and resists, and manages to hold on until conditions change and he is released. On his way out he declares to his torturer, defiantly, “There are four lights!”

          It all reads like a triumph of the human will against inhumane conditions. But at the close of the story, the captain confesses to a friend that he was only moments away from breaking. It was not simply a matter of the pain and the terrible conditions; by that point he had been so ground-down by his experience, that he was on the verge of saying that there were five lights because, although he knew there were only four, he had begun to see five. Injustice cannot change the truth, it cannot make the wrong thing right, but it can do the next best thing by robbing us of the integrity needed to resist.

          Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, revolutionary, and unlikely politician described such resistance as “living within the truth”. Any great injustice depends upon a very large number of people living out a lie: pretending to believe what they do not believe, pretending that they are indifferent to people and things that they care about, and generally denying what is true in their heart out of fear or complacency. But any moment of living in truth, even a small one, threatens the unjust status quo because it points to the lie, and points out to everyone who lives in it the absurdity of that lie.

Vaclav Havel compared this absurdity – the absurdity underlying all injustice to the night that he was walking down a road in the dark and fell into an open sewer. Suddenly submerged in a pool of – well, a word that I’m not going to use from the pulpit – Havel was in trouble. Some friends began to scramble around the edge of the hole with flashlights, making different attempts at a rescue, while he focused his energies on trying to swim. It was a good bit of time before anyone had the wise idea to run and fetch a long ladder. The situation was momentarily a hopeless one – few things will suck the hope out of you like being trapped in a lightless sewer pit. But hope still managed to reach into that forsaken place – it is, Havel said, “a state of mind, not a state of the world…In the face of…absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

          The farmer and poet Wendell Berry puts the choice between fundamental human ideals and the convenient falsehoods of the modern economic and political system in very stark terms. His poem, entitled “Questionnaire” is written as a form for the reader to complete, with five numbered entries.

1. How much poison are you willing

to eat for the success of the free

market and global trade? Please

name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much

evil are you willing to do?

Fill in the following blanks

with the names of your favorite

evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared

to make for culture and civilization?

Please list the monuments, shrines,

and works of art you would

most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and

the flag, how much of our beloved

land are you willing to desecrate?

List in the following spaces

the mountains, rivers, towns, farms

you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,

the energy sources, the kinds of security,

for which you would kill a child.

Name, please, the children whom

you would be willing to kill.

To live with integrity we must be willing to believe ourselves when it would be easier to believe someone else. We must be willing to side with those whom we do not know or do not like simply because it is right and even though it may be unpleasant or carry some personal cost. The price of integrity is high, and its reward is low; that’s not a very conventional argument for a preacher to make, but if I was going to argue for integrity on the basis of its rewards I wouldn’t really be arguing for integrity at all.

The poet Hafiz, one of the most passionate mystical voices of the rich cultural tradition of Islamic poetry in what is today modern Iran, wrote about out human condition centuries ago,

You entered form to give a holy message.

An envoy from the inconceivable is each of us.

When you have completed that courageous task

you will be able to return to a world

that does not know sadness.

But so difficult your divine errand,

it will take a lifetime to accomplish,

love along the way.

Being true to the holy message entrusted to each of us requires us to look past our biases and expectations, our ignorance, our anger, and our comforts, and consider over and over again: what is the right thing to do? What is the true thing to say? This sermon emerged from a meditation on a quote from El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz – Malcolm X – which I return to again and again to remind me of my commitment to that ongoing struggle. Malcolm came to prominence as a leader within the Nation of Islam, an Afro-centric religious identity movement which was inspired by Islam, but also led by a founder who, according to the religion’s teachings, was God-incarnate. That man – Elijah Muhammad – and Malcolm eventually had a falling out, and Malcolm moved towards a more conventional practice of Islam. As part of that evolution, he went to Mecca, on the hajj, the pilgrimage, that Islam requires all Muslims to make if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so at least once in their life times. On that journey, he became more convinced than ever that the man he had been following was not divinely infallible, and he came to meet Muslims from every continent who treated him with kindness and fellowship – including those with white skin, whom he had been taught to hate. Afterwards, in letters to friends, he wrote that he’d had enough of someone else’s propaganda, as he put it,

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity _as a whole_.”

Even as he said this, back in the US, his home country, the same consideration was never returned to him. For the rest of his life he remained narrowly understood in popular society as that voice of violent, angry Blackness. His message about listening for the truth no matter the source was, ironically, never really listened to.

          I want to tell you a story now, about the poet-saint, Kabir. Maybe not a familiar name to you, but an incredibly famous and important one in India. He lived on the borderline between Hinduism and Islam, at a time when those two religions were vying for authority and leadership on the subcontinent. He was a follower, or at least associated with the followers of a particular, earlier Hindu religious teacher. And one day he was travelling and came to a place where more of those followers lived. Now, Kabir was a man of humble origins. In the caste system of India we could say that he had a low rank. But this group that he was visiting – all of them were Brahmins, the uppermost level of that system. People who were religiously designated in a certain mode of orthodox Hinduism as being more important and just plain better than everybody else.

          They accepted that they had to host Kabir, that they could not turn him away, but they still believed they should eat separately, because he was of one caste and they of another. So in order to divide the table to make sure that he did not sit with them, but without coming out and saying exactly why, they said that, “It would be fitting if those of us who can recite one of the Vedas should do so now, and we should eat together, and those of us who cannot recite the Vedas should eat in a different place.” The Vedas are one of the chief holy texts in Hinduism. And its not necessarily that no one but a Brahmin would know how to recite them. It’s that no one but a Brahmin is allowed to recite them, so he would have to remain silent out of custom.

          One by one the Brahmins went around and proved their merit according to their own understanding, and when there was no one left but Kabir and the water buffalo that he had ridden in on, he placed his hand on the forehead of the water buffalo and said, “Well, go ahead.” And the water buffalo, which being an animal had no caste and all and so no particular restrictions on what it could say, began to recite the Vedas in a beautiful, clear voice.

          No matter what you expect, if you live long enough, if you listen carefully enough, you can be assured that the truth will come to you from some corner that you had previously ignored or disregarded, and that wrong council or wrong action will be undertaken by someone that you trusted or looked to as a perfect source of truth. The poet Naomi Shehab Nye writes about the variety of different ways in which we express our humanness, and in particular the different ways that we pray, in just one small microcosm from her own experiences. She writes:

There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.

The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,  

hidden corners where knee fit rock.

Their prayers were weathered rib bones,

small calcium words uttered in sequence,

as if this shedding of syllables could somehow  

fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long  

they walked like sheep.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—

Hear us! We have pain on earth!

We have so much pain there is no place to store it!

But the olives bobbed peacefully

in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,  

and were happy in spite of the pain,  

because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,

wrapping themselves in new white linen  

to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.  

When they arrived at Mecca  

they would circle the holy places,   

on foot, many times,

they would bend to kiss the earth

and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers

the pilgrimage occurred daily,  

lugging water from the spring

or balancing the baskets of grapes.

These were the ones present at births,

humming quietly to perspiring mothers.

The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,  

forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.

The young ones. The ones who had been to America.  

They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.

      Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.  

They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,

for the twig, the round moon,

to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one

who did none of this,

the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,  

who beat everyone at dominoes,

insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,  

and was famous for his laugh.

          Charles Chestnutt did eventually become a member of the Rowfant Club. In fact, his children reported after his passing that some of the happiest days of the last several decades of his life were spent in that club, enjoying the company of its members. It still exists today, and despite having been racially integrated more than a hundred years ago, it persists, defiantly, in being a men’s only institution. Progress is possible, but it is not guaranteed. And it is more possible where we are open to the idea that truth or justice or both will come to us from a place we do not expect. From something we have disregarded, from some person that we have already written off. Because those things are not closed off to any person upon this earth. We are only able to close ourselves off to them.

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