Lily of the Valley
[This commentary will be heard on Elkhart's public radio station -- date to be announced]
It is spring and jars full of lily-of-the-valley line the window sill above my kitchen sink. The window is open, a gentle breeze blowing the flowers’ fragrance into the kitchen and on into the house. I take it in as I consider again the newspaper article I read several weeks ago.
It is an article about a 72-year-old man, in ill health, who has suddenly realized he will not get into heaven unless he apologizes for the violent racist behavior of his youth and middle years. He has made a number of public apologies to African Americans he believes he hurt, including Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, whom he beat up at the Greyhound Bus Station during the Freedom Rides nearly a half-century ago. He has won headlines and praises for these apologies, and been hailed by some as a hero.
Elwin Hope Wilson is the man’s name, and the newspaper article included a picture of him at his South Carolina home holding a framed photo of a mob he participated in during a local civil rights sit-in.
I believe in repentance and forgiveness, I do! But this article makes me squirm. There is something (well, everything really) that smacks of self-interest in all of it, and little that speaks to contrition. That could be the fault of the reporter, or Wilson’s own inability to articulate the depth of his remorse. Or it could be that his actions are purely selfish. If that is so, does it make them wrong?
I know that there is little that any of us do that doesn’t have an element of selfishness in it, even if it’s just the selfish realization that “I’ll feel bad if I don’t,” or “I’ll feel good if I do.” And I know that I cannot truly know what’s in the heart of any person, nor is it my place to judge what I think I do know.
Maybe it would feel better if he was apologizing privately rather than publicly -- whether or not he sought out the publicity. Maybe it would feel better if he hadn’t kept the framed photograph depicting his violence and hatred, or the “colored” sign that used to hang over a restroom in the bus station, and now hangs in his garage.
Then again, maybe he wants to set an example by his public apologies, and maybe he keeps the mementos to remind him from whence he came.
Maybe it would feel better if he was expressing some sentiment other than his fear of going to hell; that, for instance, he realizes that African Americans were and are at least his equal. Maybe it would feel better if I knew he was donating a bit to the black Friendship Junior College he (ironically) attended on the GI bill. Maybe it would feel better if religion didn’t give us quite so many easy outs.
But then, I don’t know that this has been easy for him. I don’t know that the heart of a person can’t be changed by the “easy outs” of some religions. I don’t know that easy outs are all bad.
I don’t know why this man troubles me, or why the newspaper article leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I don’t know. There is so much I don’t know -- about myself, about others, about the world and how it works, about what’s right and what’s wrong.
But what I do know? What I know right now? I know is that it’s spring and the lily-of-the-valley are lining my window sill, gracing me with their beauty and scent.
Last Updated (Sunday, 27 December 2009 16:03)