By Pamela A. Lewis
The term “Old Master” painters always brings the well-known heavy hitters to mind: Rembrandt, Giotto, da Vinci, Dürer, and Mantegna, who are on the long list of European men (and a few women) who, between the 13th and 19th centuries, produced some of the greatest paintings in Western art.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “Old Master” was “a pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; especially a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.”
At first glance, contemporary artist Tyler Ballon may not remind anyone of the traditional image of an “Old Master.” On the day of his Zoom interview with Episcopal Journal, he was clad in a T-shirt bearing the words “God vs. my enemies,” and jeans.
From his canvas-packed studio at the Mana Contemporary Center in Jersey City, N.J., the 24-year-old African-American figurative artist turns out large-scale paintings like those that Renaissance and Baroque-era European artists typically produced.
However, the common themes of old master paintings have also strongly inspired Ballon, a Jersey City native and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He traces to early childhood his first encounters with these works’ depictions of mythological heroes, and, more specifically, biblical characters and saints. Over the last several years, Ballon has used old master techniques from celebrated works to draw attention to the challenges facing Black Americans.
Ballon grew up in a “challenging environment,” where many of his peers were incarcerated, struggled to support families, or died violently. But he credits his parents (who are both pastors in the Pentecostal church) and his love of art for setting him on a different path.
“Art saved me,” Ballon asserted. At first it was merely a hobby that competed with his other love, boxing. But his now-deceased grandmother, upon seeing a drawing he did of her, encouraged him to “keep it up,” because it would bring him and the family success.
In 2013 and 2014, he received the Young Arts awards (presented by the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami), and since 2014, his work has been included in several group exhibitions in this country and in Sweden.
During his years attending a Roman Catholic grammar school and church, Ballon was exposed to and fell in love with traditional iconography that tells the Bible’s dramatic stories
in stained glass and sculpture. As a high school student, he studied the works of Michelangelo and other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
“I was always very observant, and I noticed and was impressed by their technical skill, use of color, and profound knowledge of the human anatomy, as well as their ability to turn the Scriptures so powerfully into ‘real life’ onto the canvas,” Ballon said.
However, his deep affection and respect for the work of the Old Masters gradually came into conflict with his growing and discomfiting awareness of their Eurocentrism.
“I felt a separation from the art because all of the figures were White people. I loved the work, but none looked like me. It left me feeling excluded from the conversation,” he said.
Representations of what is now often termed the “Black body” in European art have been scant and largely peripheral. Black figures, frequently unidentified, were relegated to the margins, in the background of paintings, or portrayed in servile roles.
One exception is Balthazar, recounted in legend as one of the three magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child. As Ballon explained, “We live in direct relationship to our heroes. If our heroes are in the Bible and yet don’t resemble us in images, we can’t see ourselves as trying to be like them or trying to do what they’ve done.”
Ballon has filled this pictorial vacuum. Using the tools of the old masters — grand canvases and oil paint, and fluently speaking their iconographic language —Ballon has moved Black bodies from the shadowy margins of the canvas to the forefront, portraying (and also honoring) them as biblical characters.
His paintings document the struggle and pain still embedded in the contemporary Black experience, while interpreting these circumstances within the Christian narratives of faith and redemption.
Ballon’s meticulously detailed paintings often evoke the work of American illustrator Norman Rockwell, as well as that of Kehinde Wiley, the African-American artist whose paintings also reference European masterpieces, and whose portrait of former President Barack Obama drew accolades. Ballon is not bothered by the comparison to Wiley, whom he met when he was 18 years old and whom he idolizes for the older artist’s technique and his broad knowledge of art history.
While Ballon draws inspiration from a variety of old master painters, the use of color and light, strong composition, and powerful storytelling seen in works by the renowned Roman Renaissance and Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), are reflected most prominently in his work.
Ballon brings these elements together to emphasize the pathos and theatricality of The Deposition (2018), one of his most pointedly Caravaggio-inspired works. Here, the mourners, one of whom locks his eyes with ours, are captured in the same fan-shaped arrangement as those in the Italian master’s 1603 The Entombment.
In Ballon’s hands, they have become residents of an African-American neighborhood lamenting over the murdered body of a loved one. As a kind of homage to Caravaggio, who often included himself in his paintings, Ballon has cast himself as the corpse in this work.
With an economy of gesture and expression the artist gives his attention to hands in Called (2019), where another young man (again, the artist), wearing a baseball cap, sits on a damaged set of steps.
He is interrupted from counting the money he holds in each hand by a white jacketed but faceless figure who holds a Bible in his right hand while pointing to the young man with his left. Looking up, the young man points to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), the work represents subtly yet powerfully the decisive moment when the soul is summoned.
Take Up Your Cross (2020) offers an ambiguous portrayal of its subject. Drenched in dramatic, Caravaggesque light, he looks penetratingly at the viewer, appearing to be just another elementary school kid clutching an unusual object he has found. But in truth, he is the young Jesus embracing the instrument of his death.
Mary in Prayer (2018), based this time on Francisco de Zurbáran’s The Young Virgin (1632-33), is a nearly full-length figure work and one of Ballon’s most explicitly devotional images. The open book (suggesting the Scriptures) on Mary’s lap and her hands positioned to receive the Holy Spirit place her solidly in Western iconography, yet Ballon uses her to address current conversations about whose body can embody holiness.
Although not a member of a faith community, like the message on his T-shirt, Ballon is forthright about his beliefs and self-identifies as a devout Christian who dedicates all of his work to God’s glory.
“God is the source of my gifts and my greatest agent, who brings opportunities to me,” he said. He feels closest to the Old Testament’s Joseph, on whom God bestowed the gift to interpret dreams, whereas Ballon feels that he has received the gift to interpret the Scriptures through his paintings. His goal is to become one of the greatest figurative painters in the art world, and to be a mentor to other young artists. But, again, he said he leaves that in God’s hands.
Ballon is part of a small but growing group of artists who have returned to representing the human form. His models are friends, family, and members of his immediate community, and in his view, the figure expresses most effectively all that can be expressed in life. As was true for these painters from Europe’s past, composition, vivid color, light and gesture are his currency.
Whereas some may accuse the artist of a lack of originality, his references to and evocations of their works are in keeping with past practices of artists borrowing from one another’s masterpieces. After all, imitation is the highest form of praise.
But more importantly, Ballon is contributing meaningfully to the growing interest in and discussions about the lives of African-Americans and other people of color by bringing together their underrepresented bodies and a European art form to tell the Bible’s compelling stories. His work unapologetically affirms that these bodies can portray sacred characters, be the bearers of eternal truths, and can reflect the imago Dei.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York.
Cli-fi: What is it and why is it important to the church?
“For years, authors have been writing climate change fiction, or ‘cli-fi,’ a genre of literature that imagines the past, present, and future effects of climate change.” So wrote Amy Brady, of the Chicago Review of Books, for her then-new column, “Burning Worlds,” an exploration of all things cli-fi. Her piece also introduced Dan Bloom, a literature professor who coined the term in 2007 after having read the 2006 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Though as a proper genre, cli-fi is just over 10 years old, books fitting the definition have been around since at least the 1960s. Science fiction authors and staples of mainstream and literary fiction have created a varied and blended spectrum of books. Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, “Dune,” is a primary example, as is Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” and J. G. Ballard’s “The Drought.” What unites them is a desire to help humanity “’see’ possible futures lived out on a burning, drowning, or dying planet,” says Brady.
Religion and sports have been closely linked for centuries, teaching eternal values and calling the human spirit to greater heights.
Baseball is no exception, from Annie Savoy in the movie “Bull Durham,” who declares her faith in “the church of baseball,” to the book “Green Cathedrals,” which lovingly details every past and present major league and Negro League ballpark.
As this unusual, shortened baseball season winds down to the World Series, scheduled to start on Oct. 20, here are three books that propose various forms of relationships between the national pastime and the divine.
By Dennis Raverty
Giovanni Bellini’s “Saint Francis in Ecstasy,” in the collection of the Frick Museum in New York, embodies both the Franciscan sense of poverty and its attitude towards nature, not only in the style and subject matter but also in its pristine, jewel-like oil glazing techniques.
It was painted at some time in the last few decades of the 15th century and so stands at a pivotal historical point, near the end of the early Renaissance, and just on the threshold of the High Renaissance in Italy. It represents the 13th century saint alone at the mouth of his cave retreat. Having just stepped outside, he witnesses the early dawn as if it were an unexpected miracle.
In the background, we see the charming hilltop town of Assisi in central Italy from which he came. Much has been written about both the style and the iconography of this magnificent painting, but I want to discuss it here principally in terms of its technique and how the oil glazing method Bellini used embodies Franciscan ideology and values.
Although oil paint is now a revered traditional technique (having been practiced for centuries), at the time Bellini worked, oil paint methods were the new, cutting-edge technology originating far away in the Netherlands. Only a few Italians at that time had even experimented with the new medium, which mixed pulverized colored pigments in a base of linseed oil and varnish that binds the powdered color together and adheres it to the work’s surface.
The standard media for early Renaissance panel painting in Italy was tempera. In tempera, the binder is egg yolk instead of oil, and it dries very quickly, so it demands a rapid, dry-brush technique of application. But oil paint dries much more slowly, and certain additives can speed up or slow down drying so the artist has more control over the timing of the painting’s execution and can lavish more attention on details and nuances of color.
During the Renaissance, however, oil paint was not applied freely to the canvas or panel as it is today, but was glazed in thin transparent layers of paint laid down one over the other, allowing some of the underpainting to be visible through all the other layers, giving it that luminous, jewel-like effect.
Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, “Saint Jerome,” in the collection of the Vatican Museums, offers a rare glimpse into the oil painting techniques used by Italian artists in the first stages of a work. Initially, Leonardo covered the entire panel with a warm yellow ochre ground, after which he established the broad darks and lights of the composition with earth browns.
Next Leonardo would presumably have glazed in the local colors for the skin, the sky, the lion’s fur, the rocks, and so forth, but allowing some of the ochre underpainting to remain visible, shining through the various transparent glazes, giving greater overall coloristic unity to the finished painting.
In Bellini’s “Francis in Ecstasy,” there is a coloristic dialogue between the warm amber foundation (more intensely orange-yellow than in the Leonardo) and the cool grey-blue and brown glazes he layers over this underpainting in articulating the main masses and elements of the landscape.
But because blue typically seems to recede while yellow appears to push forward, the amber underpainting almost gives the effect of the light coming from behind the picture, softly illumining the entire landscape in all its minute, lucid, naturalistic detail, so lovingly labored over, and echoing the gentle light of the emergent dawn.
The attentiveness Bellini shows to every detail is typical of Netherlandish art, but is somewhat rare in Italian art, where the landscape setting is often minimal — just enough of a background to situate the figures in a believable space.
The landscape here, however is rendered in all its marvelous, minute, rich, naturalistic detail. This truth to nature, with each leaf and blade of grass so lovingly and realistically rendered with all its imperfections, embodies the Franciscan reverence for nature and a respect for creation that Bellini shares with the saint.
In yet another respect Bellini parts with tradition in this painting. It was customary during the Italian Renaissance to idealize forms as a way of indicating the presence of divine grace. Images of Christ, his mother and the saints would all resemble the idealized gods of the ancient Greco-Roman world, like Apollo and Aphrodite (Botticelli’s contemporaneous painting comes to mind).
But Saint Francis in Bellini’s picture is a homely man of small stature, with a crooked nose and a balding pate, hardly the Adonis we might reasonably expect from an Italian master. But this lack of idealization is also in keeping with Franciscan humility, the modest saint as he is represented here is remarkably un-beautiful — not dominating the landscape, but living harmoniously within nature’s bounty as brother and fellow creature.
In Bellini’s hands, not only the diminutive, homely saint, but also the animals, birds, plants and even the sun itself seem almost to be incarnations of the divine, and the “poor,” commonplace materials used in the making of the picture — wood, oil, pigments, varnish — are themselves transformed and transfigured by the artist sacramentally, so that the painting itself is a sort of “incarnational” witness revealing the Christ potential in all living things. As the saint himself puts it in his famous Canticle of Brother Sun:
By mother earth my Lord be praised,
governed by Thee, she hath upraised
what for Man’s life is needful.
Sustained by thee through every hour,
She bringeth forth herb, fruit and flower.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans show solidarity with Black Lives Matter
By Pat McCaughan , Episcopal News Service
With passing cars honking approval, the Rev. Peter Huang and hundreds of Asian and African Americans gathered Aug. 1 in South Los Angeles’ historic Leimert Park neighborhood raising fists; praying on bended knee; singing; chanting in solidarity, “Your liberation is our liberation”; affirming that Black lives matter.
The Gathering: A Space for Asian American Spirituality participated as a co-sponsor and helped to plan the socially distanced and livestreamed “Vigil for Solidarity and Love.” The group’s involvement signaled a shift for this Diocese of Los Angeles ministry, created in 2019 to affirm and explore Pacific Islander and Asian American identity within the Episcopal Church. The nation’s current conversation about race has led the ministry to further define that mission through the question: How do we fit into this work, this dialogue?
As native elders succumb to COVID-19, culture is lost
By Heather Beasley Doyle, Episcopal News Service
In early 2019, as an editorial committee began working on a new Lakota translation of the Book of Common Prayer, two of its members died “right off the bat.” They were Indigenous elders whose language fluency had uniquely qualified them for the task, the Ven. Paul Sneve, who coordinates the project funded by a United Thank Offering grant in 2018, told Episcopal News Service in May.
The loss hurt Sneve both personally and culturally: Losing two elders in short order was a reminder that time is a critical factor in saving Native languages, stories and customs. Then, about a year later, the coronavirus began disproportionately affecting Native Americans, putting elders at particular risk. The pandemic is “scaring us to death,” said Sneve, who also serves the Diocese of South Dakota as archdeacon. “We’re terrified of losing [our elders]. And our tribes are very aware of it.”
By David Paulsen , Episcopal News Service
When protests against racial injustice erupted nationwide in late spring, the dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York invited Episcopalians to participate in “Sacred Ground,” the Episcopal Church’s 10-part, film-based discussion series. The curriculum confronts the historical roots of systemic racism and examines how that history still shapes American institutions and social interactions today.
About 200 people signed up for the dioceses’ discussion circles.
Interest was just as strong in the Diocese of San Diego, where at least 11 congregations recently signed up to form Sacred Ground circles. And in Stevens Point, Wisc., the Rev. Jane Johnson started a discussion circle at her Episcopal-Lutheran congregation hoping at least a handful of people would join her. The circle widened to more than 60 participants from four local congregations and across the Diocese of Fond du Lac.
Such examples highlight the churchwide growth in Sacred Ground participation since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, fueled widespread protests. Previously, about 400 discussion circles had taken up Sacred Ground from its launch in February 2019. Two months after Floyd’s death, that number doubled to more than 800 groups.[Information about how to register for Sacred Ground is at www.episcopalchurch.org.]
“The response has given me hope this is not going to be just a moment, but a movement,” Johnson told Episcopal News Service. “It’s sad that it takes so long to wake up to something … but we’re finally willing to do something.”
A discussion circle may sound like a rather passive form of action, especially in light of the fervent protests against recent instances of deadly police brutality. But Sacred Ground goes beyond a book club or Bible study, facilitators say. They describe some of the curriculum’s videos and reading assignments as intense and the conversations direct, even uncomfortable — all intended as a springboard for action.
“This is tricky stuff to navigate,” said Jenny Fife, an Episcopalian who organized a Sacred Ground circle this year in Roanoke, Va. Examples she cited from the curriculum include European Americans’ forced relocation of Native Americans, racial discrimination in 20th-century federal housing policy and the various barriers that made it difficult for Black World War II veterans to obtain G.I. Bill benefits.
“There’s some awful stories out there,” she said, “awful stories that we need to hear.”
Sacred Ground is part of the Episcopal Church’s Becoming Beloved Community initiative on racial reconciliation. Unlike other anti-racism programs, Sacred Ground doesn’t require an experienced trainer, only volunteer facilitators. The curriculum is ready to go for any groups that commit to engage with the material and have honest and open conversations about what they learn. And though the curriculum doesn’t prescribe specific real-world responses, it presumes participants will be moved to work for social change in their own ways when they are done.
It also presumes most participants will be white. That is by design, said Katrina Browne, the “Traces of the Trade” filmmaker who developed the Sacred Ground curriculum: “written by a white Episcopalian for white Episcopalians.”
Episcopal Church leaders welcomed a new resource “targeting white folks to help with the kind of re-education that we need,” Browne told ENS, “given how little we get taught in schools about the history of racism and the actual depth and extent of it.” Rather than exclusion, this approach encourages fair expectations: People of color are welcome to participate but shouldn’t feel obligated to explain racism to their white neighbors, Browne said.
“It’s very common in my experience for people of color to say, ‘It would be great for you all to learn more and not have us be the teachers all the time,’” she said. She also has found that well-meaning white people often don’t think they can talk about race without a person of color present, a common scenario in the Episcopal Church given its predominantly white membership. Sacred Ground encourages those Episcopalians not to let their congregations’ homogeneity stop them from increasing their own understanding of racism.
Church leaders also have increasingly found that white Episcopalians desire those conversations.
“Sacred Ground has clearly filled a deep need and hunger across the church and beyond. Especially among white folks, there is a growing recognition that racism is not just a problem for people of color,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and stewardship of creation, said in a statement to ENS. “If anything, systemic racism has been built for white flourishing; that means it is best dismantled and addressed by white people.”
Fife’s experience with Sacred Ground in Roanoke is a common one. “It’s been pretty profound for me personally,” she said. “I’ve done a 180-degree turn.”
A self-described “child of the South,” Fife grew up in Richmond, Va., blind to the vestiges of white supremacy all around her in the one-time capital of the Confederate states, from the prominent monuments to Confederate figures to the slave owners and overseers in her own family tree. She was given the middle name, Lee, in honor of her grandfather, who had been named after Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.
She first learned about Sacred Ground from a woman she met in August 2019 while she and her husband participated in the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice organized by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Fife then began developing a Sacred Ground circle at St. John’s Church, and by the time the church hosted its first session in January 2020, more than 50 people had signed up from St. John’s and other Christian congregations around Roanoke.
Fife, a 67-year-old retired elementary school teacher, had considered herself a “typical liberal do-gooder,” but she soon realized how little she understood of systemic racism, the institutional systems and structures designed to disadvantage African Americans. She never had been challenged to go beyond a white perspective to reexamine the racial arc of American history.
“As a Christian, I believed that we were all made in the image of God. I just didn’t kind of get that there are two Americas. There’s Black America and there’s white America,” Fife said. “And I live in white America. And African Americans live in both Americas.” Institutional racism, she said, is “just so hard to see” — until it becomes obvious.
Browne, a lifelong Episcopalian who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, came up with the idea for Sacred Ground after the Episcopal Church’s 2017 launch of Becoming Beloved Community, invoking a term popularized by Martin Luther King Jr.
Renewed focus on racial reconciliation drives interest in Becoming Beloved Community webinars.
Becoming Beloved Community’s four parts often are illustrated as a labyrinth: telling the truth about the church and race; proclaiming the dream of Beloved Community; practicing the way of love in the pattern of Jesus, and repairing the breach in society, such as through advocacy for reform.
Spellers’ team offered it to dioceses and congregations to guide their efforts at racial reconciliation, which the church set as one of its top priorities at the 78th General Convention in 2015. Within that framework, Browne saw an opportunity to get white Episcopalians to lower their guard and engage with the subjects using documentary films as educational tools and as prompts for discussion.
Browne is best known for her 2008 documentary “Traces of the Trade,” which followed her and her family members’ researching and coming to grips with the truth about their slave-trading ancestors in Rhode Island. “I was certainly steeped in an appreciation for the power of documentary film to generate more heartfelt dialogue,” she said. “This is an emotional, spiritual journey, and there is something about the power of film to open things up.”
In fall 2017, Spellers embraced Browne’s pitch of a film-based series on the roots of the racism still built into American institutions — and perpetuated, often unknowingly, by the individuals who fill those institutions.
Browne, originally from Philadelphia, doesn’t exempt herself. As a white Northerner who once clung to a “presumption of innocence,” she learned in making “Traces of the Trade” that much of the economy in the North had been tied to slavery, even after slavery was outlawed there. Browne also began examining her own perceptions. “I may not be an intentionally racist person, but I still have implicit racial bias. I still have loads of white privilege and class privilege.”
Browne developed a series of 10 sessions, each requiring participants to prepare themselves before meeting by completing reading assignments and viewing one or more videos. Sacred Ground participants also are expected to read the curriculum’s two core books: “Waking Up White,” a 2014 memoir by Debby Irving, and “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Black theologian Howard Thurman, originally published in 1949.
One of the first assigned videos is titled “The Myth of Race Debunked in 3 Minutes.” Others are longer, such as an hourlong episode of the PBS series “The African Americans,” hosted by historian and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. Browne also identified the TV news program episode “White Anxiety” hosted by Katie Couric as a highlight for its discussion of class issues, as well as the final session’s assignment “Dawnland,” a 2018 documentary that details Maine’s efforts to atone for taking Native American children from their families to be placed in foster homes and boarding schools.
The sessions follow a roughly chronological line, starting with a look at the persecution in Europe that motivated the early colonists to leave their home countries and journey to North America. The new arrivals soon began persecuting the continent’s Indigenous people and enslaving Africans. Other sessions examine Latino and Asian/Pacific American experiences in the United States. Participants also examine examples of systemic racism in today’s America, such as mass incarceration and its disproportionate effect on people of color.
The curriculum isn’t intended as a comprehensive summary, but rather a starting point for discussion as participants connect historical narratives with their own life experiences.
“Sacred Ground is a time and opportunity to hear the story of our past with regard to race, to hear our stories of our pasts,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a video statement released with the curriculum’s February 2019 launch. “From the travail and the reality of all those stories may emerge hope for a new day.”
The Rev. Janine Schenone, rector of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego, Calif., said she often preached against racism on Sundays but wanted to help her congregation dig deeper. She and the church’s minister of formation invited parishioners to join a Sacred Ground circle in fall 2019, and the results were profound, Schenone told ENS.
“I’ve never seen anything so utterly change the attitudes and the beliefs of people,” she said, especially around race. “This is a painful curriculum. It is not easy to listen to the history of our country and how it has systematically shut down the lives of people who are not white.”
Schenone also serves on the Diocesan Advocacy Committee of the Diocese of San Diego’s Executive Council. The committee formed its own Sacred Ground circle in January 2020 and was joined by newly consecrated Bishop Susan Snook. More congregations around the diocese are also participating.
And though many of the discussion circles remain all or mostly white, some Black Episcopalians are joining the discussions and finding them valuable as well.
Trinity Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va., is a notable example. Its multiracial congregation partnered about five years ago with the mostly white NOVA Catholic Community for regular meetings about race relations, often taking the form of book discussions. They wanted to do more, so in August 2019, they started Sacred Ground.
“I think it’s an exceptional program,” the Rev. Kim Coleman, Trinity’s rector, told ENS. She also serves as national president of the Union of Black Episcopalians.
Coleman said she has learned things she didn’t know about white culture and that she appreciates how Sacred Ground illuminates the connections among the historic patterns of abuse endured by other communities of color in the United States. Such knowledge provides the essential foundation for taking action, she said.
“Today, people ask the question, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’” Coleman said. “The response is, get informed first. Find out what the issues are. If you’re at all unhappy with what you see on the national scene and can’t understand, turn to Sacred Ground or something similar, just so you can broaden your understanding and awareness.”
Yearning To Breathe Free: A Reflection On the Murder of George Floyd
“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” — James Baldwin
America has been and is a place of irreconcilables. In contrast to the stalwart Pilgrims and other early settlers who survived perilous journeys to forge new lives are the indigenous peoples whose territories were taken from them and who became displaced persons within their own lands.
There are the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of humanity’s God-endowed freedom and unalienable rights, penned in elegant calligraphy by a man whose slaves were not meant to be included in those words. America is a place where a black man has served two terms as its president, yet one where an unarmed black man can also die from a white police officer’s pressing his knee on his neck.
Recognizing moments of gratitude during a crisis
In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
The above quote was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while imprisoned in Germany near the end of WWII. Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, was being held in prison for treason after participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for which Bonhoeffer was ultimately executed. The entire process of writing Letters and Papers from Prison relied upon individuals putting their lives at risk to bring Bonhoeffer writing supplies and to make sure his texts were delivered to those who would preserve them.
In this context, gratitude was likely much clearer, as the costs were especially high for those helping him. The quote makes clear that Bonhoeffer recognized that when everything is going perfectly (or as close to perfectly as we can encounter), it is easy to assume that we have achieved security, happiness or success on our own and overlook those that aided us. It is in moments of struggle that we then realize that our lives and achievements are woven tightly in with the lives of others.