It took the Rev. Susan K. Smith almost 24 hours to get from Columbus to Chautauqua Institution.
But despite several flights on standby, she arrived about an hour prior to her speech on “The Failure of our Sacred Texts to Quell our Current Faith Crisis” as part of Week Three’s theme “A Crisis of Faith?” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. She gave a solo presentation first and was joined by broadcast journalist Bill Moyers afterward.
Smith came to talk about the tension she feels between the Bible and the Constitution. Despite her mother exclaiming biblically, “You have to love them, and you have to forgive them,” when Smith was a child, Smith thought apparently there must be “a couple of Jesuses” because all her peers operated by different racial and socioeconomic standards.
“I was a good student, and I loved learning about the Constitution, and I loved the words ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,’ ’’ she said. “Oh my gosh, even if you were a black kid, if you heard that you thought there was hope.”
But, Smith said, the Bible and the Constitution are “impotent” and cause Americans to believe in myths.
“When I was little, I needed to believe in Santa Claus,” she said. “I needed to believe that that guy, that fat white guy, could go into 14 thousand million homes in one night and slide down chimneys … and when I couldn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, I was crushed. We have a couple things as adults: We have the myth of democracy and the myth of being in a monotheistic society.”
But instead, she said, America is a polytheistic nation, worshipping “the god of the oppressed and the god of the oppressor.”
“We lift up pieces of Scripture every now and then for our own good, but the words that we follow are often used to denigrate and to discriminate against the masses,” she said. “They are not used to lift up and to join people together.”
The social contracts that do still join people together, like not wearing white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, are “a part of us, like Peter Pan and his shadow.” Discrimination, she said, should not be our shadow.
“The one God that Jesus the Christ talked about to me was a God who believed in love and mercy and grace and egalitarianism,” she said, “a sharing, loving, community-driven God. But the gods we create are not like that God. A god of the (oppressors) didn’t see anything wrong with going to a lynching on a Saturday night and going to church on a Sunday morning and putting on a suit and maybe serving communion. Something’s wrong with that.”
She said the oppressor god doesn’t feel remorse — whether it’s over the events of the past (like the Holocaust), or lingering social ills (like the shooting of young people or the continuation of poverty). But the god that keeps her going is “greater than the evil that (she) is facing.”
Smith said if she responded defensively to this evil, people would claim she was playing the race card.
“Dude, the race card was put in the deck!” she said. “I wanted ‘all men are created equal’ to mean that. … It just meant rich, white, Protestant male landowners.”
The Constitution, she said, “did not include most of us.” Figures like Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision, Edmund Morgan, Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln disappointed her, as all of them advocated for slavery, even if just implicitly.
“If the very basic texts that you depend on to feed your soul and to give you direction do not mean what they say, we have no choice then but to be in a crisis, because we don’t have anything solid to stand on,” she said. “The chasm between the rich and poor is getting worse and worse.”
But, Smith asked, “how can you not get up in the morning and just sing when you hear some of these words? … ‘Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles,’ ” quoting from, among other Biblical passages, Isaiah 40:31.
“Those words in the Bible and in the Constitution are life-giving and life-saving, but we don’t use them as they were written and we all have a different interpretation of what they mean,” Smith said.
During the civil rights movement, Smith said, a senator was interviewed by a reporter who asked if he read the Scripture, “love thy neighbor.” He responded, “Yes, I know that Scripture, but I get to choose my neighbor.”
Despite this, Smith said the God behind the Bible is still active.
“There is one God and that God is not judgmental, that God does not put us down, that God does not care if you’re white or purple, that God doesn’t care about your sexuality, that God is the one that we need to look for and that’s why I’m trying to figure out how to do,” she said.
Moyers entered the discussion and proclaimed, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was a black woman from Columbus, Ohio.”
He asked Smith several questions; one of his first was about civil conversation between races.
“If I talk about white people, I can’t say white people,” she said. “I say things like the majority culture … Everybody’s afraid to have a conversation about it and nobody wants to hear because we are members of the religion of empire, and empire has taught us to think in a certain way — all of us, black, white, brown — but we can’t talk about it. It’s not a safe conversation.”
She said, though, that “silence will not save (anyone).”
“If you have cancer and you need to get it treated and you don’t get it treated, you will get more sick, is that not true?” she asked. “You may die. This oppression — it’s racist and it’s sexist and it’s all of these other things — it’s our peculiar thing and if we don’t talk about it, it’s going to kill us.”
Moyers asked about the Jeremiah Wright controversy, a primary topic in Smith’s book, The Book of Jeremiah: The Life and Ministry of Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. ABC News aired controversial excerpts from Wright’s sermons and attached them to President Barack Obama, as Wright was Obama’s longtime pastor.
“People know the ethos of this country,” she said. “This whole image of the angry black man is a disturbing image. They knew that if they could make it seem like he was angry and that Barack Obama sat under him for 20 years, then Barack Obama was an angry black man, too, and you don’t want an angry black man in the White House. … It was a deliberate strategy.”
Moyers brought Smith back to Obama’s convention speech that included the phrase “American exceptionalism,” as a polished way to talk about the nation’s constant need for construction.
“What did that tell you about Barack?” Moyers asked.
“Remember at the press club, whoever was asking Barack Obama a question said, ‘There’s a difference between me and Barack Obama: he’s a politician, I’m a pastor,’ ” Smith said. “A pastor is charged with feeding the souls of his or her particular flock. That flock that Jeremiah Wright was reaching needed to be sustained. There was great joy in the fact that an African American was running for the White House, but there were also … years of hurt and pain that he had to dig through and make God palatable and believable.”
Moyers quoted Smith’s book, in which she writes, “black people in America really don’t want to talk or hear about racism.”
“It’s much easier just to go in and say, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” she said. “It’s much easier to give a nice, milquetoast sermon to make you feel good than to wrestle with the reasons why you’re in crisis.”
Smith said there were endless devastating stories within her family and community. She believes this pain, if dwelled upon, can be a sin.
“That one God will help you deal with the pain,” she said. “Anytime we come to a place of being self-revelatory, it’s like falling down and skinning your knee, but it heals. We won’t even dare to fall down.”
Moyers discussed his recent meeting with three members of Black Lives Matter, with whom he has worked on a film about the incarceration crisis. One of the members cited incarceration as being the “sharp edge of American racism.” The group told Moyers they did not look to black religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. for guidance of their objective in the movement. This led Moyers to ask Smith what she will do when “there is no longer a church like that one that raised her.”
“They’re not thugs,” she said. “They’re young people who have not seen the action and movement of God in their pain.”
She recalled a conversation she had in St. Louis with one of these young people, who was trying to make sense of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the police.
“We had to pray an honest prayer,” she said. “People who are hurting don’t need flowery words. If somebody is hungry, the last thing they need me to do is say, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ The hell with that, give me a piece of bread.”