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By Keith Starkenburg
Something happened in my intestines this week.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama are opening later this month. The memorial and museum are projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), led by Bryan Stevenson. The EJI describes the memorial as “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
As part of the media coverage of this opening, Oprah Winfrey did a story this week on 60 Minutes covering the monument, the museum, and the history and effects of lynching in the United States. I had read about this project in the past. But, when I watched the report, including the vivid images of mobs enthralled by acts of lynching, my gut started speaking. I got sick to my stomach and I needed to weep and lament.
I’m starting to think, as a wise colleague once mentioned to me in a frank moment of conversation, that as I age, different layers of my person are emerging. Emotions are coming to the surface more regularly. I cry more easily. I usually choke up somewhat when I preach. But, that’s not all that’s going on here. This project by EJI and Stevenson and the countless others who contributed to it, was already doing its work.
According to EJI, the memorial is about “publicly confronting the truth about our history” as “the first step towards recovery and reconciliation.” In the 60 Minutes story, Stevenson leads a ritual with the family of lynching victims and states something that I have encountered elsewhere in his work: “We want to call this community to repentance, to acknowledgement, to shame. We want to tell the truth, because we believe in truth and reconciliation but we know that truth and reconciliation are sequential.” This memorial is many things. This memorial and the broader project is doing more than expressing a cry of suffering or the recognition that life can absorb any amount of suffering.
It is a collection of stories and events. It is a cry carved out of earth, metal, and stone. But, one thing we should not miss. This memorial is a physical plea to the United States to confess its racial sins and tangibly enact that confession through public action – starting with chattel slavery but moving forward to the lynching era and the current era of mass incarceration. Reconciliation cannot be boiled down to confession and forgiveness cannot be forced, but neither reconciliation nor forgiveness happens without confession. This memorial is a plea for that step and more.
This may seem like too much for many of us. Why do we need to sink so much time and money into this sort of thing? As for me, I give thanks for this monument. Murray Rae, a Reformed theologian who teaches in New Zealand, recently concluded his remarkable book Architecture and Theology with these words about architecture and memorials: “Architecture itself, of course, cannot heal our brokenness. But what we build and how we build it can reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work within us, nudging us toward forgiveness and reconciliation and a true mending of the world.” Structures can reveal the Spirit’s work and nudge us toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Really?
Yep, and this happens in our bodies, our emotions, our feelings. Consider one of the reasons that John Calvin said that God chose sacraments as a means of nurturing our communion with Christ: “since we are surrounded by this . . . earthly body, we need symbols or mirrors, to exhibit to us the appearance of spiritual and heavenly things in a kind of earthly way.” Our souls and bodies, minds and hearts, emotions and thoughts can and do become bridges, by the Spirit, to our union with Christ. That’s how we are created, redeemed, and perfected by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We can know heavenly realities, but they are best received by us when they come in earthly form, embodied souls that we are. If we are going to experience our unity with Christ more deeply, it has to extend to every nook and cranny of us—including our bodies, emotions, and feelings. Sermons are embodied events, but with sacraments we eat what we hear. We taste what we were feeling and experiencing. We touch what was pronounced. That’s how embodied souls know and experience reality, including God in Christ.
Memorials like this are not sacraments. And, there’s much more to be said about all of this, such as whether the United States has confessed these sins sufficiently or not and how that would be possible. But, if it is true that American culture and polity still has not sufficiently confessed its sins with regard to white supremacy . . . more honestly . . . if it is true that I have not sufficiently confessed my sins with regard to white supremacy, we need, I need, this memorial just as we need sacraments. We need more of them, perhaps near the base of Mt. Rushmore.
We are embodied souls who encounter the Spirit calling to us in the feeling and emotions we experience as we bump around memorials with our bodies. At least, that’s what the Spirit did to me when I all I saw was a couple of news reports about this memorial. Maybe something like that will happen for others as well.
As for me, I have some new items on my bucket list, and they involve a visit to Montgomery, Alabama.