Ecclesiastes 04 – Do Not Turn a Blind Eye to Modern Lynchings

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.
But better than both
    is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

There is so much to write about in this chapter, so much I was hoping to share with you today.  But given the recent arrests of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers, I don’t want us to think our work on that subject is done. We need to sit with some hard truths instead, and I want to share some powerful words from an anonymous source, republished with their permission:

 

Ahmaud Arbery was lynched on February 23, while out jogging on the outskirts of Brunswick, GA. Today, to celebrate what would’ve been his 26th birthday, #IRunWithMaud.

And yes, I said lynched. Maybe some of y’all thought lynchings had gone the way of Jim Crow laws. They have not.

Merriam-Webster defines “lynching” as “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission,” with the following usage example: The accused killer was lynched by an angry mob.

That’s what happened here. The two men arrested for Arbery’s murder, 64-year old Gregory McMichael and his son 34-year old Travis, claimed they believed he was a robbery suspect. That the father was once a police officer doesn’t add support to their claimed justification for stalking and gunning down Arbery; as any student of American history knows, in many if not most lynchings of black people, law enforcement was complicit, either as participants in the lynching or observers who prevented the victim from being saved. And in nearly all instances, accusations of crime, nearly always against whites and nearly always either overblown or entirely baseless, were the predicate for the lynching.

Between 1877 and 1950, only Mississippi saw more lynchings than Georgia. During that time period, 589 people were lynched in Georgia–that we know of. The vast majority were black, and nearly every person complicit in those lynchings was white. Again, many had ties to law enforcement.

Georgia was the scene of some of the most gruesome lynchings on record. Take, for example, the April 23, 1899 lynching of Sam Hose near Newnan, GA. In his remarkable book “At the Hands of Persons Unknown,” Philip Dray reconstructs from contemporary reports the chaotic scene, a festival of death to which crowds of Georgians traveled by horse, by train, and on foot from as far away as Atlanta. Here’s Dray’s description of the lynch mob’s treatment of Hose; those with weak stomachs may want to skip it:

“The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose’s ears. Then several men grabbed Hose’s arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs, Hose cried in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.”

After being so mutilated, Hose was soaked in kerosene and set on fire while still alive. His last words were reportedly “Sweet Jesus.” His charred remains, photos of which survive, were then set upon by the crowd, who fought to wrench free pieces of his body as souvenirs. Civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, who visited the town soon after the event, was shocked to learn that Hose’s knuckles were for sale at a local grocer’s shop.

Hose’s alleged crime? Murdering his white employer during an argument over wages, and allegedly raping his wife. The rape allegation was added later, when the mob needed justification to deny Hose his right to a fair trial for the killing. Rape and attempted rape would be a frequent justification for lynching over the years.

The Hose lynching wasn’t even the most vile and disturbing one to happen in Georgia. That dishonor would go to either the Mary Turner lynching in Lowndes County, or the Mae Murray Dorsey lynching in Walton County.

On July 25, 1946, Dorsey, her husband, and another couple were stopped by a white mob, beaten, tied to an oak tree near the Moore’s Ford Bridge, and shot numerous times. Dorsey was seven months pregnant at the time. After the smoke had cleared from the shooting, one of the mob cut the fetus from Dorsey’s body.

Somehow that’s not even the most revolting, disturbing lynching of a pregnant woman in Georgia. That would be the Mary Turner lynching. On May 16, 1918, a 25-year old white farmer named Hampton Smith was murdered in Brooks County. Over the following weeks, at least thirteen black citizens were murdered by white mobs seeking revenge for Smith’s death. One of those victims was a man named Hayes Turner, who had threatened Smith after Smith struck Hayes’s wife, Mary.

After her husband was lynched on May 18, 1918, Mary publicly denounced the lynch mob and swore that she would have them arrested for their crime. So the mob came for her next, despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant. Again I’ll rely on the description of the scene given by Philip Dray, based on contemporary reporting and eyewitness interviews–and again I warn those of you with weak stomachs:

“[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” Dray writes, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”

Why am I sharing all this gruesome history? Simple. Because what happened to Ahmaud Arbery was the same thing that happened to Sam Hose, and Mary Turner, and Mae Murray Dorsey, and hundreds of other black people in Georgia. Groups of angry white people deemed a black life to have no value, and decided they would end it. Just like the murderers of Hose, Dorsey, and Turner, Arbery’s killers probably figured they’d get away with it. And for a while, they were right; the Glynn County District Attorney directed police officers on the scene not to arrest the McMichaels, even though they believed they had probable cause to do so. 589th verse, same as the first. And Georgia’s not the only state with such a hate-filled history; I’m writing this about a two-hour drive south of where Jesse Washington was tortured, castrated, and slowly roasted to death near Waco City Hall while the mayor and chief of police looked on.

Facts like these are the reason groups had to be formed to remind us white people that black lives do, in fact, matter. Facts like the ones I’ve laid out above are the reason Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt during the National Anthem of a nation where such acts of evil were permitted, and not punished, and where numerous attempts to make lynching a federal crime were defeated. (In fact, one can easily argue that none of the perpetrators of the acts I’ve described above suffered a fraction of the consequences Kaepernick has suffered.) Facts like the ones I’ve laid out above are the reason so many of us need only look to Donald Trump calling the racists who marched on Charlottesville “very fine people” as the final proof, if such were needed, that a racist sits in the White House.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: America has a race problem, and it could end up being the death of us. If you don’t believe me, go read Dray’s book. Go read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Go read Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped From The Beginning.” Go read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law.” Go read any collection of writings by Dr. King, or Du Bois, or Wells-Barnett. I could recommend countless books to enlighten y’all who need the enlightening.

Again, America has a race problem, and it could be the death of us. As Kendi points out, it’s not enough for us to not be racist. We need to be anti-racist. That means knowing our history, and understanding where we are now. It means calling lynching by its name when we see it. It means demanding accountability for such awful crimes against humanity. It means understanding why Kaepernick knelt, and understanding that he’s far from alone in his sentiments. And it means standing with people like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and the thousands of other black men and women who’ve met violent, early ends for the sole reason that they were black in America.

 

If you have been moved by what you have read, I encourage you to consider donating to support a Legal Aid society near you (this link takes you to the one in DC), which helps those most at-risk in the legal system receive effective representation.  I also encourage you to support the Black voices speaking their truth right now.  There are many, but some that I follow are Rachel Cargle (and the Loveland Foundation), D. Danyelle Thomas of Unfit Christian, and Christena Cleveland – who is included in the upcoming anthology A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South, which can be pre-ordered at the link.  My wonderful husband Chris Newman of @sylvanaquafarms also writes incisive prose about the intersection of race, farming, food, and privilege.  There is a crowdfunding page published by Crowdpac for Ahmaud Arbery’s family, but at the time of publishing they have yet to be personally affiliated with it, so I am watching to see it receives their stamp of approval before donating to it. And as always, God vs. The Patriarchy can be supported via several options at the Support tab, to the left.

Ecclesiastes 03 – Patience; Surrender; and Charity in Action.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

 

Patience and Surrender

Indeed, there is a time for everything.  A right time, a due time, for everything.  But that time is not for us to decide.  As v. 11 says: “we cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  Things may not make sense now, but there is a divine plan at work.

Believing in this divine plan requires two very difficult virtues, some I’ll readily admit I’m not great at: Patience and Surrender. While related, I see them as two distinct practices.  Patience means we wait.  Surrender means we trust.  Putting those two virtues into practice means we must wait for the right time, trusting that God will bring that right time about – even trusting it to happen beyond our lifetime, if need be.

Charity

But patience and surrender do not mean we sit idly by.  There are many beautiful passages in this short chapter, but the one that had the most impact on me was vv. 12-13: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil — this is the gift of God.” Emphasis my own, because I want to make sure you see the inclusive nature of this language, the action that it calls us to: we are to do good so that everyone may find satisfaction.

Qohelet does not shrink from acknowledging the evil and indifference in the world. “In the place of judgement — wickedness was there, in the place of justice — wickedness was there,” reads v. 16.  He also acknowledges our base natures in vv. 18-19: “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals, the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath, man has no advantage over the animal.”

But even with these allowances to the harsh natural world, Qohelet realizes this: “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked.” Even believing in universal reconciliation as I do, I’d rather be lumped in with the righteous.  In order to be so lumped, it is our God-given duty to not only find enjoyment for ourselves, but to make sure we help others find that enjoyment, too.  I read this passage as a ringing endorsement of global human rights.  Everyone deserves the right to eat, drink, and find fulfillment in their work (which implies a safe working and home environment – otherwise enjoyment would be hard to come by).

A time to act

“Nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”  This is a verse from chapter eight that I’ve already quoted once and will probably quote again, because I think it is the best summation of the vision Qohelet has for peaceful and prosperous living.  It is a goal that we should all be working towards, for ourselves and everyone living.  The time to act on that goal is now and always, until it is attained.  The time for different tactics may change, but the time for action does not.

So what does that action look like right now?  Now is an excellent time to call your representatives to say you want to see benefits like Medicaid and SNAP extended, small business loans un-fucked, and decarceration explored further.  It’s also an excellent time to buy giftcards from small businesses that may not be open right now but still have bills (or small businesses that are open, like my own Sylvanaqua Farms! Sorry, had to plug),  support creative entreprenuers (like my awesome cousin Abby who went from teaching Pilates classes in NYC to streaming Pilates classes from her childhood home in Connecticut), and make donations to food banks and other social safety net organizations.

But mainly, I think action means staying at home as much as you are able.  I do not begrudge (or envy) anyone who can’t abide by stay-at-home orders due to their jobs, or who may need to hire babysitters to come into their home, or send their kids to the daycares that are starting to re-open because they can’t miss any more work.  I don’t begrudge you patronizing restaurants with curbside pickup because you just can’t make one more meal, or going to Target for your groceries because then you can also pick out some clothes (I know I need to figure out getting my girls new shoes sometime soon) and maybe a little pick-me-up present for yourself.  Because sometimes what is classified as non-essential does, in some cases, actually become essential.  That rather long qualification aside, I’ll add my plea to the millions of others you’ve probably heard: if you can, please stay home.  Those with cancer, the elderly, the newborns, the chronically ill – not to mention the families and loved ones of all the aforementioned people – are relying upon all of us to abide by social distancing and vigilant hand washing so that they can live.  As Qohelet has made clear, we all have the right to eat, drink, and be glad; and we all have the responsibility to make sure everyone has that right, as well.

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Ecclesiastes 02 – A Journey to Wisdom

24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

The journey begins

I ended last post with a spoiler, and I’m going to spend a lot of time jumping around and ahead in this post, too.  Not that I really think there can be any spoilers in the Bible anymore, we’ve all be around the broad strokes of the big stories for too long…but I do want to give you fair warning if you want to go read ahead yourself before anyone puts any preconceived notions in your noggin.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I want to draw your attention to another literary aspect of Ecclesiastes that makes it eminently readable and personable: Qohelet’s journey to wisdom. The journey follows a natural progression of a man’s life from child to youth to wizened sage.  While this journey continues throughout the book, much of it takes place in the condensed narrative of chapter two, so it seems appropriate to focus upon it today.

The journey starts briefly in chapter one, but it does start: In 1:13 Qohelet says “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”  This one little verse made me think of my girls, and the sheer wonder they experience on a regular basis.  They enjoy learning for learning’s sake, and are constantly searching under rocks for new bugs, eager for their new vocabulary games, and always, always showing off their latest finds, whether it be a sticker or a leaf or deer poop (a sighting that causes much excitement in our backyard).  Perhaps they haven’t formally declared their “devotion to study” the same way Qohelet has, but in practice, that is what they (like many other curious children) are doing. They delight in learning about their world, steeped in education from morning to night, wondering at all that is done under heaven. There is a joy in 1:13 that speaks to youthful exuberance and childhood wonder, a learning for learning’s sake.

Recklessness and wisdom gained in the teen years

Yet something happens. In this life, something always happens, even if it is just becoming a teenager.  The closing words of chapter one carry so much weight in them: “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Do you remember being a teenager?  Everything teenagers feel, they feel big.  I do not say that to disparage teenagers, their passion and emotions can be frustrating, to be sure, but also can act as a catalyst for the rest of us to examine our own feelings.  Are they really acting outrageously, or should I be as outraged as they are at whatever indignity they are pointing to?  Sometimes no, they just need to calm down, but oftentimes we do need to pay more attention to what is upsetting them.  I sincerely hope that whatever trials teenagers are going through get smaller in hindsight (and my heart goes out to each and every teenager that is living through quarantine right now, because that is causing some big feelings in all of us), but I remember how important everything seemed in my teen years.  I didn’t have small feelings, small reactions.  The angst in the closing lines of chapter one isn’t just for teenagers, but I do believe it’s an angst we start feeling in those years.  Our childhood innocence fades, we become aware of larger problems in the world, and it is unsettling.

And how do teenagers often deal with these big feelings? By acting more recklessly than their parents may like.  And that is exactly what the opening lines of chapter two sound like: a teen following hormones and under-developed coping skills to partying and delights of the flesh. “I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good,'” opens chapter two. Yes, Qohelet goes on to say laughter is foolish, but that doesn’t stop him from “cheering [himself] with wine and embracing folly.”  How many times were you asked as a teenager “what were you thinking?” or “don’t you know better?” after embracing some folly?  The answers were, at least for me, “I wasn’t thinking” and “I do know better,” but that still didn’t stop me from dating someone my parents didn’t like, sneaking off to parties, trying drugs, getting drunk, or trespassing among other transgressions committed as a teenager. (And I was a “good kid!”)  Qohelet sounds much the same here, wouldn’t you agree? While we may wince to think back on all the folly of our teen years, we also did a lot of important learning about boundaries, limitations, and consequences during that time.  The teen years, however painful they might be, are an important early stop on the journey to wisdom.

Building empires as a young adult, finding meaning in middle age

Then, starting around 2:4, Qohelet ages into young adulthood, with his first bit of authority, and all his youthful vigor.  He undertakes “great projects,” everything from grand parks to a supposed harem (the general consensus translation, the original Hebrew word has an unknown, or at the very least debated, meaning). Qohelet may not have a Gordon Gekko in his life, but I still thought of Wall Street’s Bud Fox here: a young, ambitious character eager to build something and experience all the finer things in life.

Qohelet’s “heart took delight in all [his] work,” and “[He] denied [him]self nothing [his] heart desired,” yet again, something changes.  The work, the women, the fine things, they aren’t enough.  Qohelet sees that all his achievements, all his possessions, all his wisdom, are not going to grant him immortality.  “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind,” he tells us in 2:17, going on in 2:21 to say “for a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it.”  In other words, you can’t take it with you.

The reflections of a sage, where wisdom becomes a practice

Qohelet wrestles with this on and off the next two chapters, one might argue for the rest of the book, but slowly comes to a place of acceptance.  Qohelet makes the realization akin to “it’s not as bad as I thought” as the worries of younger years seem less and less urgent, and he surrenders more and more to the will of God.  Again, we’ll get a lot of back and forth on the “meaningless” of life throughout the rest of the book, but you can already see Qohelet’s ultimate lesson revealed in 2:24-25: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”

I think the above lesson is important – why else would Qohelet repeat it, in various iterations, over and over through-out the book?  But there is a secondary lesson I want to share with you today.  Wisdom is a journey, not a destination.  As Qohelet has made clear though his own life narrative, wisdom is a practice.  He gained experience from each of his life stages.  Life experience is a teacher available to all of us.  One hopes to gain wisdom of the years, but how often do we actually cultivate it? I think Qohelet is telling us to become more intentional in our lived experiences. Then we will gain more wisdom, and with that, more balance in all aspects of our life.  Much like exercise, the “goal” of wisdom isn’t some finite destination, but rather a cumulative effect that continually improves us.  One does not “finish” exercising, and one does not “finish” wisdom.  The journey itself is the point.

In closing, I invite you to be observant and intentional this week.  We are all on our own wisdom journeys, now more than ever.  We are learning what we can live without, we are learning what is important to us, we are hopefully learning patience, respect, and love.  Perhaps with quarantines still in effect you have a little more time to make space for more observation and intention, and put it in full practice before we return to “normal.” Perhaps now you need to make more time for that intention, because it will help put the hecticness and anxiety of this time into perspective so you can tackle it head-on if need be, or let it go if possible.  This is an ongoing process, so let’s embrace the journey and know that every day we are moving forward towards satisfaction, towards wisdom, towards joy.

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