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[Alan Felton] Why did I go?

We are delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton, pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, to Profligate Grace once again.

I stood on the muddy quad in front of Duke Chapel today and heard the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer.  Why did I go?

Photo by Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning), via Twitter.

Photo by Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning), via Twitter.

I don’t know the motivations of all those who gathered at Duke today. I imagine some standing there were merely curious.  There were a few news reporters and security personnel paid to stand on the fringe of the crowd.  I’m sure others were there to support the free speech rights of American Muslims.  But, why did I go?

The whole event was somewhat anticlimactic.  Anyone who came out expecting to see fiery protests or anything worse was sorely disappointed.  The call to prayer was explained. It was sung in English and Arabic. The Muslims left to go into the basement of the chapel to pray (which they have been doing for years with much less attention).  I spoke to a few friends and then wandered off to eat lunch and think more about the sermon I will preach on Sunday at the church I serve.  I posted a photo of Duke Chapel on my Face Book page with the caption “The chapel is still standing” lest anyone think the bell tower had been brought crashing down on us by the words of the adhan.

There were no protests against the adhan or Muslims yet, in the days leading up to today’s event, many objections were heard. The loudest voice of opposition came from Franklin Graham, son of the great evangelist Billy Graham. This is not the first time Franklin Graham has loudly voiced invective against Muslims.  He has been a fixture on Fox News in recent years denouncing Islam and proclaiming dire warnings against those who adhere to it.  Earlier this week he called for alumni and other supporters of Duke University to withhold financial support until the decision about the adhan was reversed.  He quickly got his way.

Franklin Graham may be crowing in victory but what he did in the past few days has revealed something vile and disgusting within the soul of many Christians.  He has spouted a theology of ignorance, intolerance, and fear.  Graham has spiced up his comments with a dash of American exceptionalism and a pinch of childish bullying along with a spoonful of good ol’ fashioned misunderstanding.  The whole recipe is indescribably delicious to many yet it is hard to see much Christianity in what Graham is saying and doing.  His stand on Muslims seems to be inspired more by the gospel of Dick Cheney than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am not naïve about the dangerous rise in Islamic fundamentalism.  There should be appropriate concern about ISIS and Al Queda and Boko Haram. We should all grieve and condemn the recent hateful and deadly attacks in France and Australia and Nigeria.  The rising tide of violence and extremism across the world is a cause for concern and attention.  I do not believe Islam and Christians are identical in what we believe.  There are clear differences that must be acknowledged.

Islamic extremism and the violence of terrorism however was not at all what the hoopla at Duke was about this week.  The uproar in fact had very little to do with Islam.  The real issue in play is instead something rotten at the core of much of what passes for Christian faith these days.  The problem is not Muslims wanting to pray at Duke.  The problem is the reaction of many Christians when they hear about this desire.

Franklin Graham’s words and actions perfectly illustrate this problem.  The underlying dilemma with Graham and his ilk is that they are consumed by fear rather than being filled with hope. Fear has long been the weapon of choice by demagogues and ideologues throughout history.  Fear is the well-played card played during every election.  Fear is the constant undercurrent in our society today.  I am always amazed at how gullible we the people are to unspecific “threats” and meaningless “raisings” of the so-called terror alert system.

Living in fear may be something many Americans find acceptable, but fear should not influence Christians in the same way.  Christian faith is ultimately about the hope given to us by Jesus Christ who died on a cross and rose from a grave so that fear might be banished from our hearts once and for all.  Jesus is the center of Christian faith, not a beautiful chapel or a preacher claiming to be a defender of that faith.  Faith that can be eroded by the expression of another, albeit different faith, is not much faith at all. Jesus cannot be diminished by the adhan or any other non-Christian religious observance.  The only thing that can diminish Jesus is when Christians choose to replace him in their hearts with the scourge of fear.

Allowing the adhan to be sung at Duke Chapel today was not the beginning of the end of Christianity at Duke or in this country. It was instead a mark of generosity and hospitality that is at the core of believing in Jesus and living by his example.  Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV).  Yes, I know many Christians are not allowed to freely express their faith in other nations.  This is a concern.  Yet, instead of responding in kind, I choose to respond as Jesus tells me to do.  I choose to live with the hope of Christ as my lodestar rather than the fears preached by Franklin Graham.

Why did I go to Duke today to hear the adhan?  I went because Christ led me there.



‘His Eye is on the Sparrow': Why We Matter

 This is a draft of a chapter for a forthcoming book called “Why People Matter,” edited by John Kilner.  I am expanding on questions and affirmations Kara Slade and I made when we gave a keynote address at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics.  That essay is online here at this site.  It is thanks to Kara also that we are posting this draft here.  Having worked on it for so long, I’d lost perspective on whether or not it is helpful.  She says it is!  And thanks so much to Meghan Florian for editing this draft and creating the bibliography! – ALH


Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 (RSV)

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. Civilla D. Martin, 1905


You and I are not only individuals. Each individual Christian is part of a larger body. We are part of the Body of Christ. But we are not “just” part of the Body. The Body of Christ cannot itself be measured or parceled. Take the Lord’s Supper as a weekly reminder of this fact of Christian faith. Christians believe the Body of Christ is indiscriminately there, on the table, across the world in ways that not even Google Maps can map. And each individual in the Body of Christ cannot be authoritatively measured or parceled or evaluated numerically. Being part of Jesus Christ means that each individual, as a whole, is whole in an incalculable way. We are each, as little bitty parts of the Body of Christ, unto our own, beloved beyond reckoning by God as individuals. Here I further suggest, with centuries of Christians, that Jesus came in one single body with a name and a history and a story for a reason. Jesus is not a “symbol” of some other truth that is beyond his particularity, whether that truth is political or spiritual or aesthetic. His individual body marks our individual bodies as known by God in ways that must shape how we seek to know one another not as symbols or instantiations of another reality but as real, as incarnate. Numbering people – and trying to know them by a category that can be counted, and assessed, and sent by experts into the right pen – is a lie that Christians need to refuse. This essay is one way to explain why the particularity of Jesus Christ matters for the particular matter that makes each person a unique person. You, and I, and that woman next to us in the pew, each one of us is too inscrutable for a larger description and decisive evaluation by another human being or another group of human beings who seek to study us. Read more

[Alan Felton] What would you do?

We’re delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton to our pages on this fourth weekend in Advent.  Alan currently serves as the pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, and in his copious spare time he’s also a preceptor at Duke Divinity School.

What would you do?

What would you do if year after year unarmed members of your community were gunned down in the street by police officers?

What would you do if year after year the legal system returned no justice for these acts of violence?

What would you do if you lived under the constant pall of suspicion and distrust by your neighbors of other races?

What would you do if the American dream of peace and prosperity were denied to you over and over and over again?

What would you do if you were repeatedly told to respect a “system” that was never designed to respect you?

What would you do?

You might do what was done recently in Ferguson, Missouri.  You might do what was done in Los Angeles a generation ago.  You might do what was done in Watts and other communities still another generation in the past.  You might just go out burn the bitch down.

Media outlets were quick to broadcast the anguished reaction of Michael Brown’s mother hearing that her son’s killer would not be indicted on any criminal charge.  That broadcast included the boiling over anger of Michael’s stepfather who repeatedly screamed to “burn this bitch down.”  Part of Ferguson went up in flames soon thereafter.

The media was quick to focus on this angry response and blame it for the violence happening in the wake of the grand jury’s action in the Michael Brown case.  The media was quick to do this because it allowed them to take the focus off the real crime, the killing of an unarmed black kid, and return to telling the comforting myth that our system “worked” even though not everyone agrees with the outcome.

The media also wanted to feed the desire to name “good” and “bad” guys.”  The violence was quickly dismissed as the work of a few criminal elements or “outside agitators.”  The so-called looters were obviously “bad” elements.  They were the anomaly.  They were misguided.  They were the ones who didn’t respect the process.  Maybe (never said directly but strongly implied) they were the ones who just didn’t know their place.

Yet, what would you do if were Michael Brown’s mother or father or stepfather?  What would you do if your son’s body had been left lying in the street on public display for nearly five hours after he was gunned down? What would you do if your dead child’s character had been demeaned and vilified for months after his body had been assassinated?  What would you do if you were part of a community where these things and worse happening are not unusual but the norm?  What would you do?

I grieve the violence in Ferguson.  I am sorry for those who lost their businesses.  Yet, I don’t grieve them more than I grieve the death of Michael Brown.  Insurance can rebuild at least most of what was lost in the flames of Ferguson.  There is no replacing what was lost when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown met in the street on August 9.

That’s why I urge us to not be so quick to condemn a grieving stepfather when he cries out “burn this bitch down.” I don’t condemn him because that is exactly what I wanted to do when I heard the decision of the grand jury. My first inclination was to go grab a rock or a bottle or whatever I could get my hand on and go throw it through a window somewhere.  My first thought after hearing the news from Ferguson was “I hope they burn that bitch down.”  I didn’t go to any of the marches taking place that night or since because I was sorely afraid I would pick up a rock or make a Molotov cocktail and start doing just that.

I’m white.

I’m well educated and middle class.

I don’t have to worry that my son will be harassed or shot by police.

I’m the son of a retired police officer.

I’m a pacifist, a student of Gandhi and King.

I’m a pastor.

I received the news from Ferguson sitting in the church I serve with the cross of Christ I preach under every week in front of my eyes.

And, still, all I could think was “yes, let’s go burn this bitch down.”

W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”   For those of us who are protected, always have been protected, and always will be protected by the American legal system, maybe it is hard to understand the angry reaction to the grand jury decision.  Yet, for those who not only read what Dubois wrote, but live it every day, it’s not so hard to understand the anger and the violence.

I can’t possibly understand the depth of anger and grief experienced by Michael Brown’s family.  But, I can refrain from condemning them.  I can try to walk a few feet in their shoes.  Maybe if more of us would do that, we might go from wanting to burn this bitch down to celebrating justice for all.

Be Not Afraid

good-spreadI’ve learned how to “tweet.” This involves putting words together to share, using 140 characters. One of my most “retweeted” “tweets” on the internet came out after a tragedy had everyone in panic mode. These were the words: “The world is transfixed by fear. Perfect love whispers in fear’s ear to turn his head toward hope.”

I was paraphrasing a fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich. I am writing a book about what her visions have taught me about fear. She is really in my head this week because, according to every news media outlet around us, we are supposed to be scared of one another. Restaurants, waiting rooms, and the pump at my gas station have news blaring: EBOLA! ISIS! Short of sleeping at the Eno River, you too will be exposed to the contagion of FEAR.

I recommend an antidote. But first, a history lesson. Julian of Norwich is the name given to the woman who wrote the first book written in English attributed to a woman. We don’t know what name “Julian of Norwich” answered to before she came to be called “Julian of Norwich.” We refer to her by that because, toward the end of her life, she was a resident wise woman in a church in Norwich, England that had long been called St. Julian’s. Sometime near the late fourteenth-century, this woman took the name of St. Julian’s church in Norwich. The church was bombed to oblivion by the German air force during WW II. But it was rebuilt for people who have the means to travel and love the writer known as Julian of Norwich. Tourists who don’t know a fig about the second century St. Julian go there because they think Mother Julian, from the fourteenth century, was holy. They go to see the apartment she lived in, adjacent to the place where people received Mass (the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) and feel close to her.

St. Julian's Church, Norwich

St. Julian’s Church, Norwich

Norwich, England was a port city. In the fourteenth-century there were “sumptuary laws” in England. This meant that peasants, farmers, and other human beings without certifiably blue blood were forbidden to dress in a way that might allow them to pass above their station. As a port, Norwich had people coming in ships from Europe, dressed in ways that could not be easily sorted. Also, the official English church at this time distributed the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, according to rank and station. The first were to be first to the table, and the middle to be middle, and the last to be very, very last. If there was no more bread by then, so be it. Christianity, as it was practiced in the beautiful, fancy churches that people pay good money to see, was practiced during Julian of Norwich’s time to remind everyone to keep in their place. And, well . . . then there was The Plague. Thousands of people during this period were dying, horribly and suddenly. And they were dying “unshriven.” There were so few priests left alive in some areas to deliver the last rites to the dying that people were dying without being cared for to say confession and receive blessing. People left behind were stricken with fear that their husband, mother, or child was condemned to hell.

The Lollards' Pit is now a pub.

The Lollards’ Pit is now a pub.

Norwich also had what came to be known as “Lollard’s Pit,” a place where heretics were brought by the

church authorities to be burned alive. Fourteenth-century followers of a man named John Wycliffe, a group known pejoratively as “the Lollards,” were thrown in a pit and burned alive as examples of how not to think around the time that Julian of Norwich was bravely trying to write down what she had seen. The Lollards were in trouble for suggesting that regular people ought to be able to read the Bible. This was a dangerous suggestion. If regular people started reading the Bible themselves, they might believe they could think for themselves, without the strictly hierarchical authority of the feudal and church system. Wycliffe and his band of merry men and women had caught an idea that was irrepressible throughout early Christian history. No matter the chaos and rules around you, Jesus had given a new rule. Sit down and eat with your brothers and sisters. And, by the way, your brothers and sisters are those you most fear.

When Julian of Norwich wrote, people were dying by the thousands of disease. People were scared of newcomers, given that they could be carriers of disease, chaos, or heresy. And, Christians were being hanged for saying that Jesus did not care much for the stupid rank and file system. Her answer? Laugh at the devil. Look to Jesus. Keep hope. And don’t let fear be your new religion.

Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40

Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40

Happy Birthday!

Pop! My dad had been called Reverend Hall, Dr. Hall, Father Hall, and occasionally “DAD!” but not Pop, until my Mom chose to go by Cookie. Pop goes with Cookie.

Want to know why my mom is called Cookie? I have a picture that I will eventually share of my dad, after my mom bought Rachel her first Mall Cookie Shop cookie. Rachel is sitting in Pop’s lap and looking really smug. Pop is also looking smug. They did it behind my back. My mom and my dad were right. Rachel deserved a huge cookie and icing sandwich thing, with no guilt. She deserved to be just smugly satisfied that they’d accomplished this without my knowing. That is what grandparents are supposed to do. So, Cookie became Cookie after that. Rachel knew who had just given her the best thing she’d ever had. Thank you, Pop and Cookie.

Here is what Pop knows about my younger daughter, Emily. Pop told me, when Em was about 3, that I needed to recognize she is truly an athlete. Em is smart. And she is brave. She is really, really, good at NOT running away from a soccer ball or volleyball coming full force at her head. (I have finally stopped wincing each time this happens while she is playing.) Emily is really, really good at not running away from a challenge. My dad, who is also an athlete, knew this. When Em was going through the very difficult toddler stage, Pop told me that I should make each hard thing a game she could win. He understood her. Thank you, Pop.

Pop also tried to understand me. I have told this story when teaching Christian Ethics 101. My dad told me, after having sat with me asking question after question for six months in his Confirmation Class, that if I did not understand everything, I should promise God that I would keep asking God good questions. Pop did not tell me that I would embarrass him if I did not conform in front of the congregation he was serving. He told me that I should see confirmation as a process. I think anyone teaching confirmation should take a hint from Pop.

Cookie and Pop taught me to understand Christians who do not always understand one another. My mother is so strong and smart she could have been the Governor of Texas. My father is so wise and kind he could have been a United Methodist Bishop.   I have just embarrassed them. But so be it. It is true. Neither one of them spent their time running for bishop or for governor. I am grateful. If they had been running for either, my girls and their cousins would not have seen them half as much. I am grateful Pop loved the people in his churches so much that he forgot to find time to run for bishop. He is the pastor I think of first when I tell my students that I want leaders whose gifts outstrip their ambition.

Pop hates to fly, but he is going to get on an airplane, again, to come see us this Thanksgiving. When I went off far away to college so long ago, I think we all knew it was going to be hard for me ever to move back to Texas. They have been patient with my wayward ways, and Pop evidently beams a little bit when he tells people back home I teach at Duke. He is a basketball fan. And he loves me.

Happy Birthday, our dear Pop, from all 3 of the Green Street Girls! We love you so much the 8 falls over! (That is our cute way of saying infinitely : )

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