In Memoriam

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of my dear friend and mentor, John Claypool. To commemorate his passing – and celebrate his enduring legacy – I’ve composed this reflection, portions of which appear in the September 2015 issue of Baptists Today, alongside the reminiscences of others who were fortunate enough to learn from him during his time at the McAfee School of Theology.

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I don’t have to look far to be reminded of John Claypool each day. In our house hangs a copy of a black and white photograph showing the Rev. Dr. Claypool and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having coffee in the refectory of Southern Seminary on the day the civil rights icon visited the campus in 1961. It’s very special to me – and not just for featuring two men whom I believe to be 20th century saints in the same frame. It’s special because, like most everything to do with John Claypool, there’s a story behind it: a story about choosing love and grace over all other available options.

My wife gave me this photograph as a Christmas present. Dr. Claypool brought the original from the Louisville Courier-Journal with him to class one day in 2002 as a prelude to the day’s lesson. As an aspiring preacher, seeing my professor with Martin Luther King, Jr. was like a basketball player seeing his coach with Michael Jordan. But Dr. Claypool hadn’t brought the picture to brag. He’d brought it to illustrate a point. That picture got him into a whole lot of trouble.

Claypool and MLK 1961

John Claypool (second from left) shares coffee with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Southern Seminary in 1961.

Dr. Claypool was the Pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville at the time, and as soon as the paper hit the stands he knew he had to brace for the backlash. It was one thing to be present when the prestigious Southern Seminary hosted a controversial but undeniably significant figure like King; it was quite another to be spotted sharing refreshment with a Black man, especially an “agitator” and a rumored Communist. Dr. Claypool knew what people in town would think – and perhaps do. But Dr. King had asked if there was a place to get a cup of coffee before he gave his address, so Dr. Claypool led the way. To hear him tell it, it was as simple as that. Of course, what he really did was make a profound choice. He chose the grace of hospitality over the safety of propriety. He chose to share a cup of coffee in calm, holy defiance of his culture’s bigoted, ungodly conventions.

The humility with which Dr. Claypool shared this photograph, and the openness with which he told the story behind it, forever endeared him to me as a mentor and exemplar of prophetic pastoral leadership. Throughout our time together, Dr. Claypool impressed upon me that simple but purposeful acts lie at the heart of Christian witness. Living intentionally out of Christ’s love, compassion, and generosity matters more than profound exegesis or homiletic agility. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like welcoming the outsider, that you tell Christ’s story through your story. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup, that God has long revealed God’s self.

I am one of the many to whom God revealed God’s self more fully through the simple yet purposeful witness of John Claypool. His humble, confessional reflections on the grief and joy of this world, and the mystery and wonder of the Holy, have helped me navigate the complex task of living faithfully in a complex world. He’s also inspired me to directly engage the civil rights issues of today. I’ve often wondered how he’d respond to the recent police shootings, and the riots, and the mass incarceration of Black men. No doubt he’d be offering refreshment, physical and spiritual, to anyone in need – and getting into what John Lewis has called “the right kind of trouble.” [1]

 

[1] https://kmslibrary.wordpress.com/page/2/.

A Watchman for Our Souls

On Tuesday, author and journalist Neely Tucker sat down with Kojo Nnambdi to discuss the release of Harper Lee’s new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman. I had seen the controversy over the characterization of Atticus Finch brewing online since the Wall Street Journal published the first chapter of Watchman last Friday. However, I was unfamiliar with the questionable circumstances surrounding the book’s release. Biographers, close friends, and serious fans of Harper Lee have known about Watchman’s existence for decades, according to Tucker. Yet, Tonja Carter, a lawyer from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, AL, claimed to have “discovered” the “lost” manuscript when news about Watchman first broke. As the story goes, Carter showed the book to Lee, who enthusiastically endorsed its publication after all these years, even though the aged author suffers from impaired hearing and eyesight as well as the lingering effects of a recent stroke.

These circumstances, combined with the novel’s history, yield a curious mix of fascination and bewilderment. What is this story, exactly, and why now? Chronologically, Watchman takes place twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s being published fifty-five years after Mockingbird. But Watchman was written first – essentially as a draft of the story that became To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus, Watchman is neither prequel nor sequel nor spinoff. It’s an alternate universe of sorts. Tucker compares the revelations about Atticus Finch’s prejudice in Watchman to James Bond fans learning that 007 has been a KGB double agent all along. No wonder it has many interested readers baffled.

Personally, I was planning to ignore the book. But thanks to Kojo’s interview with Tucker, I now plan to read it. I plan to read it because I’m beginning to wonder if the novel’s publication at this point in American history is, despite the controversy, serendipitous. Watchman may prove to be the book White America needs in order to have the conversation about race and racism that we need to have. Here’s the segment of the Tucker interview that changed my mind:

Tucker: “In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch has regressed, devolved from being that [heroic] character [from To Kill a Mockingbird] to being a petty bigot and racist…. [W]hile he might not have wanted Tom Robinson, the black man unjustly charged with raping a white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird…. taken out and lynched, he absolutely, it turns out in Watchman, wanted him to be and every other Black character to be kept in their place.”

“You’ll remember this last scene, it’s this iconic moment, particularly in the movie with Gregory Peck, where he fights this doomed battle to win Robinson an acquittal, and he’s walking out of the courtroom and all of the Black people in the little town of Maycomb are up there in the balcony, right, where they have to sit by segregation and Scout is up there with them at 9-years-old, and one of the people prods her and says, ‘Stand up, Scout. Your Daddy’s passing.’ And it turns out in this book that’s where Atticus Finch thought all those Black people should be. It’s incredibly bitter.”

More than bitter, the idea that Atticus Finch, of all people, could be racist is appalling to the American conscience – especially the educated, White, affluent, liberal American conscience. It’s appalling because all of us would like to think we’re Atticus Finch at heart. If we had lived “back then,” we’d have been brave and noble and not the least bit bigoted, just like him. We like to think that about our lives even now. We voted for Obama. We’re outraged at the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and countless others. We make copious use of #blacklivesmatter on Twitter and Facebook. We cheer the removal of the Confederate Flag from state capitol grounds. We read books and attend conferences on the topic of “social justice.” We may even belong to monthly book clubs that discuss such books, volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club, and participate in the occasional voting rights protest. There couldn’t possibly be a tinge of racism in our hearts or minds. #WeAreAtticusFinch

And yet, by some estimates, 90% of White US citizens have never been inside an African-American home. One study reveals that “the more highly educated and progressive-sounding US Whites are, the less likely they are to be in racially mixed churches or neighborhoods.” [1] For all our “progress,” most of what has changed in recent years is not the way we live, but the way we “speak in public.” [2]

So, yes, Watchman reveals that we are Atticus Finch. We will unabashedly give voice to the cause of justice and disavow systemic racism. But that doesn’t mean we’ve left segregation behind.

Hopefully, the disconcerting appearance of Go Set a Watchman will challenge us to look deeper into ourselves and probe uncomfortable truths concerning the subtle and sinister nature of prejudice. We’ve disposed of the “Whites Only” signs in restaurants and schools. Now, we must confront the unmarked balconies that remain attached to our souls – our individual souls, and our collective, American soul – if we wish to sustain, much less further, the cause of Civil Rights. We must be honest with ourselves that, for even the most boisterous, self-professed progressives among us, we still harbor notions that Black people “should be” in certain places and not others. When we “didn’t expect” our new doctor to be Black, or gaze with curiosity as a Range Rover rounds the corner with a Black couple inside, that’s our inner Atticus wondering what they’re doing out of the balcony. It’s a phenomenon former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey describes as “a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference now based in culture as opposed to biology, a milder yet novel version of white supremacy manifest in, for example, racial profiling, unfair and predatory lending practices, disparate incarceration rates, residential and school segregation, discriminatory employment practices and medical racism.” [3]

Perhaps if we can grapple with Atticus’ ironic racism in Go Set a Watchman, we can begin to come to grips with our own. Whether we want to admit it or not, the reason Walter Scott was disgracefully shot in cold blood is directly related to the reason why he doesn’t live next door. To abolish incidents of the former, we will have to deal with the latter.

#WeAreAtticusFinch

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[1] Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16.

[2] Ibid, 15-16

[3] Natasha Trethewey, “Lee’s ‘Watchman’ demotes Atticus from god to man,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2015.

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