I can remember when I first grew defensive about being Southerner. I had not realized the common perception of Southerners as dim-witted recalcitrants, obsessed with racism and the Civil War, until I went to college in California. I was young, my friends were young; and it seemed to me that they had never met a Southerner in their lives. At my first dinner in the cafeteria, my new colleagues wanted only to hear me talk. They said they did not care what I said; they just wanted to hear me speak.
The next day, when I was politely learning names, as we love to do in the South, I met a woman who told me her name was Laurel. I politely asked what her last name was. She replied that it did not matter what her last name was. Well, of course, that was exactly when it did begin to matter to me. Was she embarrassed about it? I pressed her for a few minutes; maybe I was flirting. Finally, she admitted rather sheepishly, “It’s Sherman.” “What was so wrong with a name like Sherman?” I asked. She turned and queried, “Aren’t you from the South? …Sherman?”
So, I got it. She did not want to admit to me, a Southerner, that her last name was the same as that of the general who burned Atlanta. But I would not have made the connection unless she had supplied it. It was as if my new California friends supposed that Southerners travel the world with “Sherman” on their minds, carrying vengeance and surliness forever.
It was soon apparent to me that Southerners have a real advantage when we meet these misperceptions of racism and ignorance. When folks mistake a slow Southern accent for a slow mind, it is rather easy for the Southerner to win debates and arguments simply because he or she is underestimated. Of course, sometimes a slow mind is a good thing, too.
On racism, I still carry even more defensiveness. As a student in California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, I encountered far more racism in those states than I had ever experienced growing up in Georgia. I had never seen the Ku Klux Klan march until I was in Connecticut. Most of the people who preferred to scapegoat the south as racist seemed to me to have no black friends themselves. I was amazed. In their minds, it was as if the South existed only as a place where they could deposit their racist projections and backward stereotypes. I know we deserve some of the perceptions, but the same accusations are certainly true in most other parts of the country, too. Again, when I was younger, it was rather easy for me to say only a mild positive thing on inter-racial matters and be instantly hailed as a progressive.
I like being a Southerner. I am proud of a region that retains something of courtesy and custom, tradition and heritage. I know we have sin in our past and in our present. We have grace and we have sin in the South. We have saints and we have idiots. Other regions of the world have the same, but we are especially proud of ours.
As a Southerner then, and as an Episcopal Christian, I especially appreciate August 18, which is the day we remember William Porcher DuBose. He was both a Southerner and an orthodox, progressive Christian thinker. He was someone who could be grounded in his region and culture and yet speak to the whole world. There is not space here to review his entire life and theological contribution; but the outlines are important. He was from South Carolina, and he attended the school that would later become the Citadel. Then he went to the University of Virginia. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Finally, he came to reside in Sewanee, Tennessee, teaching in the new religion department at the University of the South, which department would become the School of Theology.
At a time when Christianity was being threatened by Darwin and the new sciences, and when the Episcopal Church was divided internally between low church Protestant types and high church Catholic types, William Porcher DuBose provided a theology that resolved both those threats. He was not afraid of the theory of evolution; he claimed that evolution actually showed the divine to be working, creating, within the natural. He was not afraid of critical thinking and cultural progress. Furthermore, he was able to combine a deep evangelicalism with an Anglo-Catholic emphasis on sacrament.
Ultimately, he was not afraid of contradictions and opposites. Here is where I am especially fond of his contribution to the Anglican world. Our own times need to hear again what William Porcher Dubose says about church unity:
“Truth is not an individual thing; no one of us has all of it – even all of it that is known. Truth is a corporate possession, and the knowledge of it is a corporate process.” (from Turning Points in My Life (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1912), p. 56, as quoted in Donald S. Armentrout, A DuBose Reader (University of the South, 1984) page xxvi).
“The one great lesson that must forerun and make ready the Christian unity of the future is this: that contraries do not necessarily contradict, nor need opposites always oppose. What we want is not to surrender or abolish our differences, but to unite and compose them. We need the truth of every variant opinion and the light from every opposite point of view. The least fragment is right in so far as it stands for a part of the truth.” (from The Gospel in the Gospels (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1906) page ix, as quoted in Donald S. Armentrout, A DuBose Reader (University of the South, 1984), page xxvii).
I would believe these words no matter where the speaker came from; but I am especially glad they were written by a Southerner, William Porcher DuBose.
The South still has much to contribute to the Episcopal Church. In fact, the South has much to contribute from both its conservative and its liberal components. The South definitely has both. Our largest churches are usually large because they are able to contain both sides of most arguments, including the arguments that otherwise divide certain parts of the communion.
Some Canadian friends of mine were in Atlanta last Spring to attend my daughter’s wedding. On Sunday morning, they were amazed at the traffic on the street, especially in front of churches. “So many people go to church here!” they exclaimed, “There are hired policeman directing traffic in front of the churches!”
Yes, people go to church in the South. It is one of those customs and traditions that make us who we are. And at church, we have found both grace and sin; we have had communion with both saints and idiots. All that is our Christian community. We find who we are at church, and we also find the opposite of who we are. We learn, as William Porcher DuBose learned, that “contraries do not always contradict, and opposites need not oppose.” We are different from one another, and we are similar to one another; and we are all loved by God, in the ultimate truth of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(This piece also appeared at The Episcopal Cafe. Check it out here.)