Essay

Say Grace at the Polls

By February 17, 2020 4 Comments

It’s been another crazy few weeks in American politics. Crazy seems to be the new norm. Impeachment proceedings. An acquittal by senate republicans. A highly partisan State of the Union address with lots of theatrics (including the house speaker tearing up the president’s speech). The Iowa caucus disaster. More caucusing in New Hampshire. A crowded democratic field, still with no clear front-runner.

Amid all of this, while re-reading Thomas Long’s excellent book Preaching from Memory to Hope, I was reminded of the story of Grace Thomas.
Do you know this name? You’re in good company if you don’t. Very few people remember Grace Thomas today.

She was the daughter of a Birmingham streetcar conductor and his wife. Growing up in the racist south, she developed an interest in law and politics and eventually earned her law degree.

In 1954 she shocked her family by announcing that she was going to run for governor of Georgia. There were nine candidates for governor that year, eight white men and Grace. But there was really only one issue on the ballot. In the famous Brown vs. the Board of Education case earlier that year, the Supreme Court ruled that racially “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional and thus paved the way for the integration of public schools.

Eight of the candidates spoke out vehemently against the Supreme Court’s decision. Grace was the sole candidate who supported it. Her campaign slogan was wonderfully clever: “Say Grace at the Polls.” Unfortunately, not many did. Grace finished in last place, and her family was much relieved that she had gotten all of this out of her system.

Except that she hadn’t. Eight years later, in 1962, Grace made another run for governor. By then, the civil rights movement was gaining steam. She received countless death threats, and her family travelled the campaign trail with her to provide physical protection and moral support. She finished last again on Election Day, but her campaign was a testimony to courage and the hope of racial equality.

On one occasion, Grace made a campaign stop in the small town of Louisville, Georgia. In those days, the centerpiece of the town square in Louisville was not a courthouse or a war memorial but an old slave market, a tragic and sordid place where human beings had once been bought and sold as chattel.

Grace chose that slave market as the site for her campaign speech, and as she stood up on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come. This place,” she said, gesturing to the market, “represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

This was provocative talk in the Georgia of 1962, and the crowd grew even more agitated. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. “No,” she replied softly, “I am not.”

“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get those damned ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to the steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there, “she said, “in Sunday school.”*

Grace Thomas’ story is a powerful reminder that so much of the crisis in American politics, and the broader moral crisis in which we find ourselves, is at its heart a failure of imagination. And a failure of imagination invariably leads to a failure of courage.

It’s in the body of Christ, when we gather for worship around Word and sacrament, when we place the highest priority on all ages being formed in the biblical story, that the Christian imagination is cultivated. We’re given a new “social imaginary,” to borrow Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s phrase. A new way of seeing the world that calls for a new way of living in the world under the reign of God. Our ultimate allegiance is to another king and kingdom. The old has passed away; a new day is here! And we are witnesses of this new day.

To so many in this deeply polarized and highly partisan moment, the kingdom to which we witness may sound like a bunch of “damned ideas.” But as Grace Thomas could see, and as divine grace helps us all to see, such a vision is the opposite of damned. It is the stuff of heaven, Thy Kingdom come.

So come, all you who hunger and thirst
for a deeper faith,
for a better life,
for a fairer world.
Jesus Christ,
who has sat at our tables,
now invites us to be guests at his.
For he is the one, even now, who makes all things new.

(Based on the communion liturgy from the Iona Community)

*Taken from Thomas Long’s Preaching from Memory to Hope (John Knox Press, 2009), pp.19-20.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

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