Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Speech: A Simple Gift

Sometime in the mid-1980s, my friend Chris Lydon, his eyes glowing and finally tearful, told me that he had joined the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Born a Catholic, raised to be erudite and free, he had been searching. The pastor, the Rev. Michael Haynes, once a friend of Martin Luther King, had gradually become his spiritual guide. Chris did not quite know how to explain this, and I did not quite know how to interpret it, but he told me with conviction that he had been "saved." I suppose my envy was a kind of faith.

Over the years, after many visits to the church--often just to see Chris' white face singing, shining, swaying, in an otherwise black choir--the word saved began to make sense to me, though not in a way that would redeem any doctrine. We would sing how He lifts me up, or how He keeps on blessing me, and "saved" just meant melting into the terrible mystery you felt as the hymns swept over you, a mystery of courage, hope, love, justice--terrible because these things are gifts, terrible because they are true only when you are ready for them, which is not exactly when you need them.

The most memorable of these visits was Father's Day about eight or nine years ago. Sidra and I were in Boston and had come to the church, as it were, by chance. One young man after another, graduating, or just having finished a school year with ordinary success, came up to be blessed by Rev. Haynes, and to acknowledge the mentor in his life. The June air was thick, mostly with gratitude, which is the only thing you really need God for. And Father's Day was always particularly poignant for me, for it was the day my father was buried, the Sunday in 1971 after taking his own life. I stood there, watching those young men, thinking about the responsibilities they were assuming in the face of so many discouragements, and the humility that unlocked, of all things, their autonomy. I thought especially about the mysterious truths my father had not been ready for.

I HAVE JUST read a series of columns about how Barack Obama's inaugural speech was, well, disappointing; I am thinking about the Twelfth Baptist Church. I confess Obama's words--pouring through my laptop on a tense Jerusalem evening--had me riveted, speechless, much the way that Father's Day did. I suppose we could have done without "rising tides" and "still waters," which came (alas) at the beginning. But like Chris' word saved, Obama's other very familiar words, "responsibility," "common good," seemed true, faithful, something hard won by a young man who, wondering about what to make of Father's Day himself, had put away childish things at a young age; who realized that, for him, soldiers fought, for him, marchers marched, for him, mothers scrambled.

The speech, some note, had no memorable lines, which is what others said about the speech on race. For me what was memorable was the plain struggle between the lines: the relief of a plain sermon, simplicity after complexity. I thought about Obama, like Chris (like me), rediscovering simple gifts. I thought about the way Rev. Haynes mixed unabashed political exhoratations with unabashed moral exhortations; how he put away childish things, like the need to say something memorable, because there was no point saying anything just once, or to people not yet ready to be saved.

Chris once told me that its black churches are the secret heart of America. The secret is out. In Dreams From My Father, Obama admits to crying for the first time, standing in church, finding commonwealth in the pews. The cadences and themes--and criticisms and cliches--of Obama's speech would have been inconceivable without those pews, I believe. The reinvention of America, and its global responsibilities, would be inconceivable, too.


Christopher said...

Dear Bernie:

There is no accounting, no telling of the gift in churches like Twelfth Baptist -- if indeed any are like it at all. But you did a lovely job here. Thank you.

We can't describe the black churchy feeling in the Inaugural ceremonies, either. But surely Joseph Lowery laid it out in all that hard-earned wisdom and magnificently relaxed, unforgettable rhetoric -- much of it from familiar hymns.

I liked the comment in a long thread yesterday in a NYTimes analysis of the not-quite-over-the-top Obama speech. Simply: "Aretha Franklin is a tough act to follow."

We repair to the African-American Christian churches in something like the way we repair to the rock-bottom reality and equally profound spirit of the Dostoevsky novels. In a pinch, we find big truth there.

Praise God for this moment of what feels like possibility. I want the prayerful courage of a terrific American Gospel hymn we sing at Twelfth: "Jesus... on the main line. Tell Him what you want!! ... Call Him up, call Him up, Tell Him what you want."

Love and peace to you, Bernie.

Chris Lydon

Christopher said...

Ah, the Haynes brothers, Michael and Roy.

David Remnick brings it full circle here on the New Yorker blog. He's writing, of course, about the big little brother of our Twelfth Baptist Church pastor -- the jazz drummer, 83, who showed the way at the Inaugural festivities at the Kennedy Center:

"In the end, what knocked me to the floor was the appearance of Roy Haynes, eighty-three and dressed better than even BeyoncĂ© or Michelle O, playing drums next to his drummer grandson on a tune from Thelonious Monk: “Four in One.” Roy Haynes has played with absolutely everyone, from his earliest years with Lester Young and the Charlie Parker quintet, to John Coltrane, Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins … He pretty much is American music, living and breathing and fast. And, with his shaved gleaming head bent over his kit, he made clear at the Kennedy Center that what he has lost in aggression and power he’s made up for with the wit of endless experience."

Thanks again.

Chris Lydon

Y. Ben-David said...

Reading this piece, Dr Avishai, and almost all the rest of your posting over the last year, leaves me with the feeling that you are a divided person.
Here we read of your and your friend Chris's reaching out to another culture and finding meaning there, yet you, when writing about Israel, retreat into a narrow perspective that has difficulty accomodating views and cultures that don't jibe with your own.
You find it beautiful and meaningful when you, as a Jew, go into a black church.
But have you ever stepped foot in an synagogue of the
black Ethiopian Jews here in Israel? Have you ever prayed in a Yemenite synagogue? These people, no less than the blacks in the US have suffered centuries of persecution and isolation, but in the prayers they continue to say to this day, they found the strength to hold on, maintain their faith and identity which enabled them to finally realize their dream to return to Eretz Israel. Why don't you find any inspiration in that? And that is Judaism, your own religion. In any event, where do the black churches get much of their inspiration? From the same Hebrew Bible read in the synagogues of the Ethiopian, Yemenite and other Jewish communities.

You are constanlty repeating in your columns that Israel is divided into two camps, the "Judeans", who represent the traditionalist and Orthodox/religious and Jewish nationalist camps, and the "progressive" (largely secular Ashkenazic) "Israeli" camp, with which you identify. You stated that the possibility that the Likud would win an election and form a governing coalition with these so-called "Judean" groups was, and this is the exact word you used: "Grotesque". But, wasn't the idea of having a black President of the US "grotesque" to a lot of Americans? Of course you would reject that characterization in the US, but somehow it is acceptable in your circles to dismiss the right of many circles (which happen to be the majority) to have governing power in Israel.

You also state at the end of your column "Chris has told me that the black churches are the secret heart of America". Well, in Israel I would say the same about the synagogues. However, you reject your so-called "Hebrew Republic" you claim that Israel's essence is to be realized as a "globalized, secular, consumer society". The preachers in the black churches which you are approvingly calling the "heart of America" don't want to see the United States characterized the same way. I think it is time to take the blinders off and look at the true essence of Israel and the Jewish people with which you identify and begin to take a more unbiased look at it and its people.

Christopher said...

Mulling Y. Ben-David's thoughtful and provocative comment overnight, may I redirect the question: What is it that is "working" so well in this Obama Moment?

There's no rivalry here over sectarian and ethnic identities -- no "mine is better than yours" contest. Neither is it a question of Bernie Avishai's personal sensitivities: my guess would be he has experienced and been moved by Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish piety.

To me, as a white American searcher who found a home in Boston's Twelfth Baptist Church almost 25 years ago, the inquiry about my own faith is this: what is it in the African American experience and the black church's mediation of it that's come into such beautiful blossom in Barack Obama -- for all the world to see and celebrate on Inauguration day, with gorgeous grace notes from Aretha Franklin and Joseph Lowery. The whole world "had church" at mid-day on Tuesday, and felt a blessing, felt the promise of real fruit from those spectacular blossoms. We felt the utter authenticity of President Obama's presence and his testimony. When he said: "These things are old. These things are true," we nodded in affirming not just the good virtues he underlined (honesty, courage, tolerance, curiosity, and such); we affirmed also the consistency of his mind and character and the complex life story that formed it all.

Of course we are charmed by this man, who can think and talk, smile and dance at the same time. But his real power is the truth of the context he brings to life. Something still larger than Barack Obama has taken hold and come to power in America, I think. The shortest, most direct description of it is: the spirit and example of Martin Luther King Jr. Militant love, inspired activism, selfless responsibility, the bravest pacifism, unswervingly anti-violent, "heavenly minded" confrontation with suffering and injustice in this world.

I was surprised and thrilled -- following Bernie's link to my page about Dr. King's colleague (and my pastor) at Twelfth, Michael Haynes -- to see that I had touched on principles of a church tradition that keep revealing themselves anew in President Obama: "a Christianity that is Scriptural but not literal; faith-based but never fantastical; community-rooted and bathed in black history and black culture but never provincial or tribal; socially activist but not partisan, much less ideological; moral but not moralistic."

Reverend Haynes is forever quoting his own baptismal Bible verse (Proverbs 3:5 and 6): "Trust the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." Almost invariably, Reverend smiles at the end and adds, "It works!" One would not call black American Christianity a religion of "pragmatism." But watching the Obama inauguration on Tuesday, I found myself saying, over and over, with joy and much mystification, "yes, it works."

Anonymous said...

Dr. Avi-Shai reminds me in an associated way only of the once literay genius , Yiddish writer Sholem Asch.
Both tortured souls.

Sholem Asch however was a prolific writer a giant of an intellectual and man. A sheer genius who captured minds, hearts and souls of man.
He however also went arop fun em zennen- lost his senses -when he started according to the Jewish Daily Forward and many others with promoting Christianity.

Even the second rate Jewish Forward dropped him.

Here we have a situation where a blog is created which promotes anything which reeks of opposing Judaism and a Judaic state.
It is a real shame. Shame

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