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Holy Trouble-Making

By April 24, 2015 One Comment

I was on the road again last weekend (this has got to stop!) for the annual conference sponsored by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Seminary. The topic this year was “Faith and Race,” definitely not one of the Old Man’s strong suits. Not that the papers at the conference all have to be about Kuyper; rather, from or about the neo-Calvinist tradition, or even the Reformed tradition in general. Even so, the papers on Kuyper himself brought out more nuance about the man on this issue than we usually hear, and—just as important—nailed his faults and contradictions more accurately. A good number of the presentations were by graduate students. All in all, I went away hopeful about the re-freshening of this scholarly tradition.

The highlight of the conference was definitely the Kuyper Prize lecture, held as usual in Miller Chapel where Kuyper himself delivered his Stone Lectures in 1898. This year’s talk was given by John Lewis, grand old man of the civil rights movement and still going strong as Congressman from Georgia. Lewis burst on the national scene as co-leader of the march on Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. You might have seen in the recent Hollywood feature, Selma, how Lewis and the marchers were tear-gassed and beaten by state troopers that day, sparking national outrage. A few weeks later, protected by Federal arms, the marchers did reach their destination of the state capitol in Montgomery and helped trigger passage of the Voting Rights Act.

At dinner before the lecture I happened to be sitting close enough to listen in on the Congressman’s table talk. What was it like to see yourself depicted on the big screen? Ok; a little strange; the actor did a good job. How many times have you seen the film? Six—with friends, with black and white churches sitting together, with 200 Members of Congress. Some of them asked me afterwards, ‘did that really happen?’ I pointed to the scars on my head—nice that it’s bald now. (The billy-clubs had fractured Lewis’s skull.) What scene in the movie hit you the hardest? Oh, definitely the one where they blew up the church in Birmingham and killed those little girls. That made me cry.

Still, I was a little worried about how the lecture was going to go because the Congressman is 75 now, had put in a full day at his D. C. office, and arrived late because of a malfunctioning train. He was pretty quiet and still at dinner and I wondered how he would do in a lecture format before a big crowd on a Friday night. Not to worry. Lewis charged up the podium, immediately seized control of the room, and masterfully moved from prepared script to spontaneous remarks for an hour with nary a stammer or slipped phrase along the way. Clear, crisp, direct prose that rose to poetry from time to time. He wowed everybody. And why not? He’s been out on the stump for forty years and really, really knows how to do this.

Some of the professional Kuyperians in the audience remarked afterwards that the substance of the speech hadn’t done the usual job of clearly integrating theology and politics. For myself, I thought it was in style the most Kuyperian address I’ve ever heard in this series—or maybe anywhere else. We saw an oratorical master at work, reading the crowd perfectly, speaking from lively experience, deftly interweaving the spiritual and political, and leaving the audience with a direct, moving challenge. “My mother and father raised me to be holy,” Lewis summed up. “The sheriff who beat me up said I was a trouble-maker. They both had it right—I was a holy trouble-maker. That’s what this country needs more of today. I want you to move out of here and live a life of holy trouble-making.” That earned a standing O, exactly the way old Bram did it with the Dutch Calvinists a hundred years ago.

Later in the conference the conversation turned to the current racial situation in America. Lots of talk about Ferguson and all the other Fergusons since that incident. About the egregious injustice, not to mention the long-term folly, of mass incarceration. About voter suppression and violence of every stripe. One speaker remembered that Martin Luther King, Jr., in the later, more radical phase of his life, said that the United States was suffering from three plagues: racism, militarism, and poverty. The three are still alive and all too well, a deadly triangle claiming victims by the score every day. Why is this so, the speaker wondered. Why haven’t we made better progress?

I was called back to the one sermon I remember from my heavily—very heavily—churched youth. (I’ve calculated the services attended by the Bratt family back in the day as coming to 110 per year. 52 x 2, cuz we were not oncers. Add Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day, and the National Day of Prayer.) All those sermons, and the only one I can clearly recall was from a summer Sunday in 1967 after a week of “race riots” in my home town of Grand Rapids. Reverend Vander Hoven got up and preached from 1 John 4: 18—“Perfect love casts out fear.” And fear it is, I reflected last week, that fills out and animates and sustains our current triangle of destruction. Fear of enemies abroad, whom we attack—and multiply—with mindless devotion to weaponry. Fear of black men at home, who can be killed and jailed without stint or justification. And fear of losing our place in a constricting economy if we invest in resources for the destitute and working poor. Fear on all fronts, turning the nation into a fortress of anxiety and violence, all of it self-defeating.

I wonder where the new John Lewises will come from who will rise up in his fearless commitment to non-violence and work out against this oppression the holy trouble-making that surely is our spiritual service. I hope I’ll have the eye to see them and the courage to applaud. Maybe not even from the sidelines.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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