Some time back in I think, 2011, back when CNN still used the voice of James Earl Jones to announce the station, I remember a story about a black man who went to Ku Klux Klan rallies to interview Klan members about their membership in the Klan. There were news reels of this man shaking hands with the likes of KKK Grand Wizards and the like. I remember at the time thinking, this dude is either very brave, very crazy, or both.
Well, this week at clergy conference during Bishop Doyle’s special conversation with someone whom he interviews… he was interviewing THAT dude…
The man known as the “Klan whisperer” is a jazz and blues piano player named Daryl Davis. Daryl grew up as the kid of an ambassador who traveled and moved many times because of the work his dad did. He said when he was overseas, school and other places were integrated. It wasn’t until he was 10 years old in 1968, that he began to discover racism. He was in a parade with his boy scout troop when someone threw something at him. The scout leaders formed a protective barrier until they were past where these kids were who were throwing rocks and garbage at Daryl. He was confused at first thinking everyone had things thrown at them, but he was the only one; he was the only black boy scout. It was then that his parents had to teach him about racism.
He goes on to say that since he was 10, he was curious as to why someone would hate him when they didn’t know anything about him. How is it, he wondered, that someone could hate him because of the color of his skin?
As Daryl got older, he decided that he was going to find out the answers to his questions. He was going to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and get answers.
So, he went to public rallies. He talked to members of the Klan. He met with the Grand Dragon of one Klan group in a hotel room, and interviewed him. One of the things that is remarkable about the story is that Daryl did not confront; he listened… and because he showed respect for the other’s words, he too was able to speak truth to the other and gently correct misinformation; over time, he and this Klan member became friends. The now former KKK member gave Daryl his Klan robes. Daryl has at least 20 different sets of robes from different “former” Klan members. One really touching story is the story of a Navy Chief Petty Officer who had a swastika and a Klan symbol tattooed on either side of his chest – Large tattoos. Because of the relationship that he formed with Daryl, he repented of his prior ideas and had the tattoos removed; which is no small thing. It hurts. But he got rid of his tattoos, and his Klan robes now hang in Daryl’s closet. Daryl goes out of his way to befriend these others, these known enemies, by respecting them, listening to them, and realizing that even though they disagree, they are people just like he is, who want the same things out of life that he does. It’s… incredible to listen to him tell the stories. It’s even more incredible to watch the various news clips. Talk about the gospel of Jesus being lived out in the world. Daryl is, in my opinion, both brave AND a little crazy.
In our gospel today, we hear others trying to set a trap for Jesus once again. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
These are certainly words that we have all heard before; and, as we start to wind up this long season of discipleship lessons, it’s a fitting lesson for us to contemplate. Loving God and loving our neighbor are intimately related and intertwined. If we look at the 10 commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures, they distill down to these two. The first set of commandments deal with our relationship to God and the second set deal with our relationships to others. Jesus was no fool, and knew his law well.
But what about us? What about loving God and loving our neighbor?
Loving others is not something that is easy; it’s not even easy with people that we like… let’s face it; sometimes the people we are closest to can be hard to love some days, but then again, so are we. But what about those that we truly do not love? What about people we are supposed to hate?
I suspect we all have a person or group of people, who make us want to run for the hills, as fast as we can. Why is that, do you suppose? As the parent of a child whose disabilities are very visible, I have some thoughts. Part of the problem is of course, the fear of people who are different or who don’t look like we do. Some of it is the fear that somehow whatever someone might have, whether it’s a disease like AIDS, or a social condition like poverty, might be contagious; that somehow, by associating with such a person, we might “catch” what they have. Perhaps it’s guilt; guilt that we are healthy, or that we have what we need as we encounter those who are not healthy or who do not have our resources. Perhaps we cannot bear to think about just how fragile human life really is, and how close we all really are to difficulty, illness and death. Certainly there is also the issue of who’s in, who’s out, who is better, who is less than… Issues like racism, where we think we are better than others based on some lies in our history. We have got to do better.
Like Daryl, we are called by God to leave our fears, our doubts, our revulsions and anything else that might separate us from our neighbor, aside. We are called to be a little brave, a little crazy. We cannot claim to truly love God if we do not love our neighbor. Loving our neighbor is inextricably interwoven with loving God; when we love our neighbor, we love the image of God within them, and we love and honor the part of God’s creation that they are. We cannot claim that we love God when we decide that someone who is part of God’s creation is unlovable. The love that we are invited into is a love that is able to move beyond the superficial. It’s a love that doesn’t see the differences that might separate us as problems, but rather sees the image of God within each other, no matter how different they are. That is our connection to each other, and that is what we love in each other. It’s the kind of love that says, “I can love you even if I am fearful, or even if we have nothing that draws us together; I can love you because you and I are both created by God, and when God creates, what God creates is Good. That’s all we need to know about anyone, that what we share is God’s goodness and love, because God creates out of goodness and love.
There are always people who are going to come into our lives who we find unlovable for some reason. There are always those people that society will tell us that we SHOULD hate. Will we instead of hating, choose to encounter Jesus in those we meet? How will we choose to love God today by loving our neighbor?
Our world today desperately needs us to love our neighbors. War in Ukraine and ongoing horrors in Gaza and Israel… children killed by people who cannot seem to see God in their neighbors. While we might think that that’s an extreme example, I ask you, is it really? Hatred has to start somewhere… and it is often in the personal one on one relationships that we have with others that healing can occur. So, go out into this community and start some healing. Look at the people you meet; care about them; pray for them. They are all our neighbors and we have a command to love them for by loving them, we also love God. May we go and be like Daryl and whisper to those who might hate. May we all be just a little brave and a little crazy.