Identity and Conversation

Let’s see. now. L G B….T…Q?… I??  I.  I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few years about the alphabet of identities. If we haven’t been struggling to articulate our sexual identities we have been thrown into our even longer turmoil about “race,” with the muddled colors of White, Black, Colored, or into the ethnographic kaleidoscope of Euro-, Afro- African, Asian, all the way to Tiger Wood’s “Cabalinasian.” I just worked my way through a long and somewhat jumbled account of Yale University’s controversy about offensive Halloween costumes, identity, and civility in the University’s Alumni Magazine. I was struck that the authors emphasized how the real underlying issue was how people could engage in respectful interchange and conversation out of the welter of their differing faces, bodies, historical experiences, and ways of communication. The problem, they seemed to say, is this: How can we articulate our different identities in a way that leads to genuine conversation about the world we share?

As I engage in my quadrennial effort to minimize exposure to mass media during an American election campaign, I am struck even more by how our much-vaunted means of communication have failed us in this regard. First, because of our low level of attention, they resort to the clumsiest categories to identify the actors in a story—Liberal and Conservative, Black and White, Gay and Straight, and so forth. Second, because this “communication” is a one-way transmission of images and words, it cannot occur between and among real people in all their complexity within a particular group, community, or organization. Instead of eye-contact, body language, and immediate means for confirmation or correction, our media resort to polls and anecdotal interviews. Even the fact-checkers are always a day late and a megabyte short. Without the civility of conversation the media end up tyrannizing over our perceptions, our understanding, and our behavior.

Along with many others I have been struggling to move through a statement of identity to participation in conversations about the world and the conflicts that permeate our effort to cooperate in finding the common good we need for a more abundant and sustainable life. While there aren’t twelve steps to this journey, I can point to a few that have appeared. I begin with the affirmation that the struggle for “identity” needs to be seen as a struggle for recognition and confirmation. We don’t simply want to be recognized and have a label pinned on us. We want to be recognized in a way that confirms or at least speaks to our own self-understanding. Now, our self-understanding is always somewhat confused and incomplete. Who we are is also who we will become as well as who we and our ancestors were. So even the search for our own identity requires that we engage in real exchange and conversation with others who are struggling with our identity as well as their own.

Thus, the struggle over our identity requires that we move to conversation, indeed, face-to-face conversation. The mass media engages in a constant and searing assault on our capacity for this conversation, even as people are naming every exchange of words a “conversation.” Is the Republican primary of Trump and Cruz a “conversation”? Clearly, it is not, but we need models of genuine conversation to correct this parody.

I have believed that circles of perhaps a dozen people constitute a core of genuine conversation from which springs the wider public dynamic where our struggle for identity, confirmation, and community finds its pivotal place. In these circles there often arises a “holy moment” when a wisdom greater than that of any individual’s reshapes our understandings and emotions. It is in these moments that we can sense a revelation of who we are and who the other person is. It can be a revelation that transforms us. And so, I have been involved over the years with others who put this process at the center of a worship practice we call Roundtable Worship. The conversation at this round table requires a covenant of mutual respect as well as rituals that help us remember the equal dignity of all. Conversation is more than just a free for all of verbal expression. It is a listening more than a speaking, a speaking of the heart more than simply of the mind, a silence that provides a space for contemplation of a wider mystery.

In that conversation we can discover that the other person is far more a mystery than we thought. We can understand that we participate in the same mystery about ourselves, our ultimate destiny, and the nature of the world we share. Such a conversation cultivates a humility which is not self-abasement but respect before the mystery of the other person and of ourselves, of the world we share.

Tasting this mystery of identity and conversation helps me claim a center in a world that is mired in the chaos of egotism and narrow ambition. It is also an experience which the powers of this world seek to crush or to seduce in order to defend their own legitimacy.

The search for our identity requires conversation, just as every drama has a plot as well as a cast of characters. We used to call it the “Dramatis Personae,” which reminds me of the long history of the concept of a “person,” from the Persons of the Trinity to the person before the law and finally to the cult of personality in our own time. Bubbling beneath the surface of our present turmoil you can see this deeper plot that presses for a new revelation and a new transformation. I have begun to look for it more persistently and patiently. It is very fragile and evanescent, like the Spirit. But it is also the underlying source of genuine identity and relationship. Let me know what you are finding with this lens.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged | 1 Comment


As I near completion of the text of “Mining Memories on Cyprus,” I turn to the task of reflecting on what it means to try to recover a dimly-lit past for the sake of future generations. I do this in the midst of the horrendous forced migration of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and central Africa to Europe’s beckoning peace and relative prosperity. I write with a sense of deep connection to the island that sits in the midst of this tragic struggle. I seek to remember my own family’s connection to a mine on this island that must sail like a small boat on an enormous sea of global markets it cannot control. With each photograph I have repaired and enhanced I enter into conversation with my grandparents who took it and with those who reach out to me from the photos with their smiles, their hard-worn features, their flowing dress, the beasts of burden they employed.

It has not been merely a task of reconstructing a past but of reconstructing my own self and the way I move in the present. A dialogue with our past is a conversation with ourselves in the present. It is rehearsal for the next step we take in our lives.

A distorted past can distort our future. I am thinking of the people who have taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, not far from where my wife Sylvia grew up. They are re-enacting a mythic past of rugged ranchers wresting the land, not from their original inhabitants, but from a national government. Armed with rifles and threats, they step out of a Western movie into a world they seek to remake to fit the errant script embedded in their memory.

I think of the continual reconstruction of the narrative of Africans who were forced to come to this country as slaves. Over and over again, as European Americans erected new roadblocks, they persisted in the task of recovering the people whose identity and dignity could never be extinguished by the slaver’s lash, the Jim Crow laws, the prison gulags of America. And now their past—our past— will soon contain a First Lady in the White House and a son of Ireland, Kenya, and America.

With each birth the work of memory begins again. With each death we add another chapter. But every chapter we add to the story, every brick we add to the edifice of understanding, is but a fragment. We have to add the mortar of imagination to fill in the cracks, bring the pieces together, try to make a coherent whole out of the materials at hand. We are fragments working and reworking fragments, working with the hope that we can make a contribution to a whole we cannot see.

 Our parents

            and their parents

            and their parents

live as fragments

            in muddy layers of our minds.



            some go missing.

Some have jagged edges

            slicing at our fingers

            if we probe too deep,

            disturbing them.

If they rise to lie within the furrows of imagination

            sometimes we can see connections

            see forgotten lines

            where things once worked together.

If we’re lucky

            and are patient

            we can mend them into faces, forms, and fantasies,

Put mosaics back together,

            form a plate that people ate on

            craft a pitcher pouring wine,

            piece together pictures of a meal,

Put our fingers on the pulse of life that petrified

            and broke

                        and was buried

                                    and emerged again

                                                to form the lattice of our lives.


Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs | 2 Comments

The Gift of Mother Emanuel

Last week Sylvia and I went on a long-planned visit to Charleston, South Carolina, a beautiful and historic city we had not seen in twenty-five years. Founded in 1680, its protected harbor made it one of the most important and prosperous cities of colonial America. Much of its wealth was built up on the backs of African slaves who raised the rice, indigo, tobacco, and cotton that flooded from its port. It was where the American Civil War began, not merely with the shots fired at Fort Sumter out in the harbor, but with the State’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession” on December 20, 1860. The cause? That “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the InstitutionEmanual-Shrine web of Slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations” to enforce the original Constitutional requirement to return fugitive slaves to their masters. It was by far the bloodiest conflict of our history. Even today, some people, like our guide on a carriage ride, claim that the war was not fought over slavery. It was.

On June 17 of this year a lone young White man posted pictures of himself on the internet defending the honor of the flag of the Confederate States of America and then slipped into a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After receiving their hospitality and listening to their prayers and conversation about the Bible, he shot and killed nine of the congregants, including their distinguished Pastor. He was soon caught and at his arraignment some of the family of those he had killed declared that though they would grieve for their loved ones for the rest of their lives, the love of Christ constrained them to forgive him.

Emanuel is the “Mother Church” for African-American Christians not only in Charleston but far beyond its boundaries throughout the South. It was the church of Denmark Vesey, a carpenter who bought his own freedom with a lottery ticket, and who helped found the church. Vesey led a failed rebellion and escape plan in 1822 and was executed along with thirty-four others. The congregation survived its subsequent banning and destruction of its building, continuing its work as a beacon of hope after the Civil War.

The faith and grace manifested by its members after this assault brought President Obama to a special memorial service where he led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace” in the face of the still-raging racism and callous political indifference to gun violence that still infect our national life.

It was to this church that we went simply to utter a prayer and to feel the grace of this sacred place. Outside, a spontaneous shrine of flowers and mementos stood at the foot of the entrance stairs, flanked by announcement boards, one of which said simply “Thank You.” We found a church member on the lower floor who graciously led us up to the sanctuary where a group of young people was finishing up a visit. “Sit down, make yourself at home. Stay as long as you like. Thank you for coming.” he said quietly.

When the young people had left, a woman of the congregation came over to us and greeted us softly and graciously. We said we had simply come to say a prayer for her congregation. “Thank you. We need your prayers.” And we talked a little bit about the beautiful sanctuary. At the front are two large paintings of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. “We don’t know who painted them. They were Emanuel-Sanctuary ed webdone at the end of the nineteenth century. Some people complain that the Jesus is too white, but we aren’t going to change them now.” It’s all right, we said, “he looks sort of Palestinian now.” She smiled. We talked a little more. Then she added, “You can go downstairs, too. That’s where the shooting was.” We said that it would be too painful. She seemed to understand and thanked us for coming, adding that we could sit and meditate as long as we wanted to.

We did sit, meditate, and gaze at the frescoes. We could feel the love and care that had gone into this building over all the years. We tried to grasp the years of living into the impossible calling of forgiveness and healing that had yielded their moment of grace in the midst of their suffering.

It was the most precious Christmas gift I can remember. Thank you, Mother Emanuel. We will not forget.



Posted in Personal Events, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Travel Journal, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

How do you know?

“What do you know?” Who hasn’t uttered this frequent throw-away line in our everyday discourse. Not so usual would be to say “How do you know?” And yet, this could be a more important question in the deeper moments of our lives. Proper Americans would probably prefer “How do you do?” But my recent experiences put the question about knowing to the forefront.

Two recent events brought the force of this question to my attention. The first was a Roundtable Worship that Sylvia led recently here in Waynesville. About 20 of us gathered at our round table for our monthly gathering. She placed seven pieces of art on easels and tables nearby that expressed her long engagement

"Green Cross," by Sylvia Johnson Everett

“Green Cross,” by Sylvia Johnson Everett

with various forms of a Green Cross symbol that could re-imagine the central symbol of Christianity. Instead of our usual liturgy, we each took a small votive candle in one hand and a piece of bread “for our journey” as we went to each image in turn. If one image especially spoke to us, we left our candle there. If not, we returned with it to the table, where we had a refreshing cup of juice and reflected on what we had encountered.

We then had a circle conversation about this experience and our struggle with the cross symbol. It arose to prominence as the central Christian image with the vision of the cross as a sword that supposedly came to Emperor Constantine in AD 312 and bade him “In this sign you will conquer.”  Soaked in blood ever since, it has remained our central image, though the meaning of its sacrificial context has often changed. Protestants removed the bloody body to speak of the empty cross as a sign of resurrection. Sylvia wanted to probe ways it could be green, a source of life, a reclaimed and resplendent tree at the beginning and end of creation. For all of us, it remains a potent but problematic symbol.

As we spoke and listened, many of us realized that some people “know” things through the images they see, while others “know” through the words they hear and see in print. Dancers know through the movement of their bodies. Lovers know through touches that are deeper then words. And so we can explore all the ways of knowing that our senses exhibit. Not to be aware of How We Know is to miss the depths and mysteries of the Ultimate which is even beyond all our ways of knowing, even though revealing the Holy Source through these tangible means.

A week later, at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, we similarly invited people to “know the Heart of God” in many ways—through words printed, spoken, and sung; through silence; through images; through music and movement. Even as word of the brutal massacres in Paris and Beirut came to us, we worked deeper into what these media could do to connect us to the Source of our Peace.

Even with words, some people know their meaning through their chanting and singing, others through exploring the logic of the words or even their spellings and histories. Others find word meanings primarily in stories. Some listen to all words while others listen only to words in the agreed-upon “sacred” texts. With our guest calligrapher, Haji Noor Deen, from China, we got a sense of how the sheer imagery of words and characters conveys their meanings. Exploring the iconography of the Eastern Church with Anna Danylevich, we got a taste (another sense!) of how a particular art form for the eyes opens up windows onto mysteries that cannot be grasped by other means.

As I worked my way more deeply into this multi-sensory pattern of knowing I was also aware of the way people who are working toward a peaceable world at the interface of these religious traditions, almost invariably find a pathway to the other traditions through their mystical branches, whether the Hasidic strands of Judaism, Christian mystics from St. John to Thomas Merton, or the Sufis of Islam. In going beyond the words that convey laws, examples, and exclusionary practices, mystics open us onto a new field, as Rumi would say, where we can begin to construct new relationships that break with our past divisions even as they honor the Spirit animating them. How this mystical sense of unity can finally build new practices of peace becomes the primary challenge before us.

As I experienced this manifold knowing I was also aware that the three traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (such bare categories!) probed all of these sensory avenues, though each seems to give a little different weight to one or another of  them. Maybe, in knowing through all of them we can come to our fuller senses about this mysterious Heart of God that wills creativity, life, and love.

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