Underlying Causes

Don Shelby July 12, 2020

Hello everyone. I am so pleased to be with you today. Always happy to be in God’s house, and honored that you would spend part of your Sunday putting up with me.

I was originally asked by the ministers here at Plymouth Congregational to speak on Earth Day. As a reporter who was among the first in the nation to report on the scientific conclusions that greenhouse gases were warming the planet—and as a nature boy—I seemed like an okay choice to preach.

When I was a schoolboy, we were given aptitude tests, like most people who are my age. I scored well in two categories. The counselor brought me in and told me of the choices I had: One, I could become a journalist, and the other category, preacher. He asked me which one I wanted. I said, “Both.”

So, here’s the dilemma. Earth Day church was cancelled because of COVID-19. Second, we were overwhelmed with the news of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, and then the protests that went worldwide. I knew I couldn’t appear before the congregation in the midst of all of that, even today, and talk about a warming planet and the dangers that poses.

I had to talk about what was in the news.

Fortunately for me, I don’t see much of a difference between the three news items. I have been trained to see underlying causes. And so, today, I’d like to speak what is in my heart.

First, if you don’t believe in the science of climate change, if you don’t believe this nation is the product of supreme whiteness and if you don’t believe in social distancing, I quite frankly don’t care what you believe.

My guiding principle is to never mess with what a person believes. Faith is personal. But in the context of the three examples I mentioned, it is not your belief. It is your opinion. And, that’s where things get a little confounding.

In my career in journalism, I could never say what I’m about to say—or I would be fired. Here it is: I don’t care what your opinion is . . . nor do I care what my opinion is.

I only care what you actually know for a fact. Example: If I were to ask you the sum of two plus two, and you answered that it was your opinion that two plus two equals five, I could simply demonstrate with two apples and two more apples that the answer is four. No matter how strongly you held the opinion the answer was five, you would be wrong. If you said you believed the answer was four, I would say that you were wrong. I would say that you don’t believe that—you know it. There is a difference between a vaguely inherited opinion, or adopted point of view, and the bold, objective material fact.

Thomas Huxley, the great biologist and anthropologist said, “Sit down before a fact as a little child. Be prepared to give up any preconceived notions, humbly follow to wherever and whatever abyss nature may lead you. Or, you will learn nothing.”

My, have we had to learn a lot these past few months. We have learned that our justice system is stacked against people of color. We don’t want that to be true of our country . . . but there sit the four apples. We have never allowed the facts to tamper with our preconceived notions that such a thing could never be true. It is the abyss Huxley told us of.

A strongly held preconceived notion, so strongly held that doubt never enters one’s mind, is called hubris: pride . . . runaway pride. It is the chief failing of human beings. I am right, you are wrong, no matter what the facts may show.

COVID-19 has shaken the world like an earthquake and has, like an earthquake, revealed deep fault lines in our society. Hubris is a crack that appears over there. It says, “I don’t believe it. It will go away, and I won’t get sick. I don’t need to follow the rules of the public health experts.” There is another over there: African Americans and other Americans of color die at a higher rate than whites. Is it, as a Texas state legislator suggested, because Black people don’t wash their hands as well as white people, or is it because the system is rigged against equal access to health care? Why, for instance, do Black women die in childbirth at a rate four times that of white women? And that study controlled for incomes. Wealthy Black women die in childbirth four times the rate of rich white women. Those are facts—exposed by a crisis—and those are only a few.

Reverend Benjamin Chavis led a protest in 1982 to stop the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls in a Black neighborhood of Warren County, North Carolina. It led to a study showing that toxic waste dump siting was in predominately minority neighborhoods. In the study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, the finding was that Black people are 79% more likely than whites to live in high-pollution neighborhoods. Is that an accident? Is that the way the social cookie crumbles . . . or is it the plan?

Studies show that people who contribute the least to greenhouse gases warming the planet will be harmed most. Is that justice? Is that what Micah in 6:8 says, when he tells us God requires of us to act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with God?

And it is worthwhile to think of the environment simply as God’s creation, nature? An environment not built by man, but by God. What hubris to think we can tamper with God’s creation, that we are smarter than Nature.

Terri Tempest Williams tells us that the future is watching us, on bended knee, in prayer, hands clasped together. The future is praying for us to see beyond our own time. Leave room for that which is to come, she says.

To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps, she says, the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, that silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness . . . nature . . . creation, I say, lives by this same grace, and so wild mercy is in our hands.

Few sermons in any church include a passage from Edgar Allen Poe, but let me give you a taste.

His poem “Eldorado” refers to a mythical city of gold where everyone had enough, there were no social castes and where, as Amos 5:24 in the Old Testament says, justice rolled down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. Eldorado was a dream.

Poe wrote:

      Gaily bedight,
      A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
      Had journeyed long,
      Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

      But he grew old—
      This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow
      Fell as he found
      No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

      And, as his strength
      Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
      “Shadow,” said he,
      “Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?”

      “Over the Mountains
      Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
      Ride, boldly ride,”
      The shade replied—
“If you seek for Eldorado!”

Some analysis says Poe had given up on finding his dream.

I think differently. I think the happy knight searched and searched, but was finally told by the shadow that if he were to complete his quest . . . our quest for justice—we will have to climb the highest and most difficult mountains of the moon . . . we will have to walk down Psalm 23’s Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The Shadow doesn’t say, “You are too old, your strength has failed you.” The shadow says, “Ride, boldly ride.”

Keep going, in the face of fear and death and insurmountable obstacles. Keep going.

Winston Churchill said to his people in World War II . . . if you are going through hell, just keep going.

In the streets, in the courts, at the voting booth . . . just keep going. In your hearts, in your homes, in your behavior . . . just keep going . . . the hero and heroines’ journey is not complete until we’ve accomplished our mission. It requires of us courage, discipline, energy, and with the facts on your side and justice, mercy and charity in your heart . . . the golden fleece, as it were, will be with you on your journey home.

I have quoted Winston Churchill, Thomas Henry Huxley, Edgar Allen Poe, Micah and Amos and Terry Tempest Williams. I have not quoted the smartest man I ever knew: Carl Thomas Shelby, my father. When I was a boy, I was bullied and humiliated by a fella named Carlton Potts. He was always angry, always trying to get attention in a negative way. He made my life miserable. I consulted my dad. He was a father who was Socratic . . . he never ever told me what to do. He would always ask questions: “What do you think you should do?” he would say. Before the conversation ended, with no clear path for me to follow, he asked another question. He said, “Have you ever wondered what it is like to be him?”

The most important lesson I ever learned, and eventually turned me into a fair country journalist. I always, and have evermore, tried my best to put myself in someone else’s shoes. To see through his or her eyes, to sense her history.

That is why I have been preaching for a long time that people who say they are colorblind are erasing the facts of what it is like to be the other. See color.

What I’m saying is, see the facts. See what compels the powerful to maintain power, and, yes, imagine what it is like to be them. Imagine what it is like to permit yourself in the name of power and money to destroy God’s creation. Imagine what it is like to think that health experts are lying to you and taking away your rights. Imagine what it is like to be someone who knowingly marginalizes people not like you. You will find hubris. In them you will find excuses built on faulty frameworks, and you will find people who are scared to death they will have to share.

Here’s James Baldwin: “It is certain that ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

I will conclude this way: When I was young, in my church experience, a preacher would sometimes say from the pulpit, “Somebody in church today feels like he’s backsliding, that he hasn’t walked with God. That he hasn’t done enough for his fellow human beings.”

I was always certain that the preacher had read my diary . . . that he was talking directly to me.

If somebody in the church today believes that I’m trying to single you out . . . I am.

Thank you.