To Speak the Truth in Bombingham

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

John Archibald is almost my exact contemporary. Same age. White cis male. Southern. Methodist. A man who deals in words, though he’s an Alabama newspaperman who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his work in The Birmingham News while my main public output are sermons these days.

What Archibald has done in his latest book is to make my life more difficult. Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution is the stuff of old preacher’s nightmares. He has gone through and read all the old sermons of his father, who was a well-respected Methodist minister through the Civil Rights era and beyond. It’s enough to make me want to go empty the file cabinet right now.

Next year Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail will be 60 years old. It is one of the purest distillations of King’s moral message and it is addressed to the white clergyman of Alabama—men like Archibald’s father. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” King wrote. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (8)

John Archibald understood the 60s as revolutionary for the South.  Rev. Robert L. Archibald, Jr., his father, had little to say. Reading his words now, John says, “In the spring of 1963 my father stood in a pulpit in the Bombingham metropolitan area [Birmingham’s mordant nickname in the era] and offered words without resonance or relevance to the people who needed it most. And it breaks my heart.”(41)

The good reverend emerges as more than a disappointment in this book. Archibald recognizes that his father was a product of his time, his environment, and a church that was painfully slow to move on segregation and even now struggles to find vibrant, multiracial expression. The son appreciates his father’s love and guidance and the generosity of his vision. But he simmers at the fierceness of a lingering white culture of racism.

It is so easy to go silently. Especially in the South. You hardly even know you’re being suffocated until you start to fade to gray, until you can’t find the breath to say that thing you always meant to say. So you keep it to yourself, like they want. (105)

I’m an heir to the likes of John’s father. I have been stirred by pastors who loved the system enough to buck it when it failed to live up to its ideals. I have also been challenged by the witness of pastors who have risked exile, or chosen it, in order to be bold in confronting racism or to fully include LGBTQ persons. And I’ve been surrounded by many who know the call of truth but who know the peculiar pain of speaking that truth to the beloved sinners they serve.

In these days when it seems the world has chosen up sides and claimed the mantle of gospel truth for their tribe, the preacher’s dilemma is no different than it has always been: to return over and over again to the message that got us here in the first place—the uncomfortable call of the confounding Christ. Christ does call us to condemn the evil but reminds us that the place to look for that evil is not “over there” but also “in here.”

As Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn discerned in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Even recognizing this, however, I realize how paltry it all seems in the face of manifest wrong.

John Archibald

Archibald had another witness in his family—his brother, Murray, who came out as a gay man and went on to a long relationship and marriage with Steve Elkins, another Southerner. The two of them founded CAMP Rehobeth—a non-profit in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware that sought to bridge the gap between gay and straight people in the place they made a home.

Murray’s relationship eventually led their father, as a delegate to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, to speak in favor of full inclusion for LGBTQ persons within the denomination. Murray and Steve also found a welcoming home in a UM congregation in Rehobeth. 

It’s not exactly a happy ending. But it is a small sign of hope. Archibald’s book feels like a fragmented mirror of his family with each shard giving a different glimpse of the complexities of what constitutes a faithful life in a Southern society still wracked by ancient sin. It is mournful and appreciative and wondering. 

When Archibald’s father died, one of his ministerial colleagues, Rev. Kevin Higgs, who had cast a difficult vote in favor of LGBTQ inclusion, spoke to John:

Higgs practically begged me to see. “John, your father was one of the best men I ever knew,” he said. I know. I know. But is it enough to be a good man? A good person? Are there not times when you must say more and do more? Are there not moments in history when you must take your fist or your head and pound on your podium, on your pulpit? (218-9)

What is the final verdict on his father? On any of us? Looking back on those sermons from the 60s, the son says, “It was a reminder of how preachers—even those like Dad, who believed the vision of his God would one day be realized in love—could not find words to shake the status quo of segregation, to shake the gates of hell.” (215)

It’s a reference back to the epigraph of the book—a quote from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement: “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God;…such alone will shake the gates of hell.”

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