The current cover image for Slow Burn.
When I take long runs these days, I need to be distracted. So I turn to podcasts.
Lately, I’ve been listening to the latest season of a podcastAr called Slow Burn. The first season is about Watergate, and it’s fascinating. The most current season, the fourth season, takes a slightly different topic: David Duke.
David Duke, if you didn’t know already, is a former grand wizard from the KKK who appears every now and again in the news. He’s run several successful and unsuccessful campaigns for office, both in his home state of Louisiana and outside of it.
If you do end up listening to the podcast, I must warn you: if you think you’re in for hearing only about Southern racism in this season, you’re in for a surprise: they also cover his raucous rallies all over the country back in the 1970s and even later, including some right here in New England.
Anyhow, episode four covers David Duke’s 1990 campaign to be the US Senator from Louisiana.
When the results came back after a fraught campaign, Duke lost that Senate race to rival Bennet Johnston 54-43.5%, in what one Johnston supporter called “the most depressing win I think I’ve ever seen.” Duke should have been resoundingly defeated, but he wasn’t.
The most depressing statistic: in that election, David Duke captured 60% of the white vote, as he railed on and on about “restoring” the rights of white people. His KKK exploits, as well as other facts — such as his celebrations of Hitler’s birthday — were all also well known to the voters by the time they cast ballots.
A common theme of the series, as with other similar candidates, is that more people, in Louisiana and elsewhere, would vote for the neo-Nazi and former Klansman than would admit to it to pollsters or others, meaning that he consistently out-performed poll numbers. One of Duke’s fellow Klansmen referred to these as Duke’s “silent army of white believers.” Other white people were appalled that their neighbors would support someone, in 1990, who had once donned a KKK hood, and who used coded and not-so-coded language to talk about race.
Black Louisanans, naturally, were alarmed. This was personal. One such Louisianan was Michelle Belle Boisierre, who identifies as black and Louisiana creole. Her family has been in southeast Louisiana since the 1740s. In 1990, she was 25 and a biology graduate student at Tulane.
“It felt like weights were being placed on me,” she said of those days. “It seemed like those weights were getting heavier and heavier and it was harder to function, harder to make forward progress in my own life, because of this idea that there are going to be thousands … of people who would actually vote for [Duke].”
Boisierre sent a letter to the local paper saying “I have been haunted by the fact that sixty percent of the white people in Louisiana supported David Duke. I have spent the last few weeks in a state of paranoia unlike any I have ever experienced.”
It bears noting that she was the only black PhD student at Tulane at the time.
She said, “I had to wonder — of the fifty white people I’ll talk to tomorrow, which thirty of them voted for David Duke?”
Boisierre had to wonder which members in her community supported David Duke, who openly claimed that white people were superior to all other races. Many, of course, volunteered the information to her that they did not vote for him — but others were silent, and she always had to wonder about that “silent army.”
How do you know who is good and who is bad? How do you know who is a racist and who is not, who is homophobic and who is not, who is sexist and who is not? For some of us, these are moral judgements, “political issues.” For others, they can be life and death questions, or at least questions that affect livelihoods, mental health, and senses of wellbeing.
The question of being able to tell who is good and who is bad is not a new one, obviously. It’s a tale, as they say, as old as time.
Jesus knew this. We find ourselves once again in the Gospels, listening to Jesus talk about spiritual things in, quite literally, earthy terms. He describes the kingdom in terms of things that grow, and passages like this one can make us all anxious.
Delmer Chiton, a Lutheran pastor and co-host of “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” a weekly podcast about the lectionary passage for the week, posits that in every congregation, there are two types of people: there are the ones who need to be told that God loves them in spite of what they’ve done, and those who are quite sure that they’re the “good” people and need to be told to get out of their pews and help their neighbors, if not be taken down a notch. Now personally, I think there’s some of both in all of us.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian philosopher, wrote, “If only there were bad people somewhere that we could gather up and get away from us and then just destroy them and that would take care of the problem with the world. But the line of good and evil runs through the middle of the human heart.”
Indeed, the church has done a lot of harm to itself over the years by attempting to tear the weeds from among us. We have labeled all kinds of people sinners, barred all types of people from being part of our community. We always truly think that we know how to tell what’s good and what’s bad, who’s wheat and who’s a weed.
This story is for us.
A wise preaching professor once taught a group of self-righteous feeling seminary students one very important lesson — remember, when you’re pointing a finger at the congregation, you’d better go ahead and name that you’ve got three more fingers pointing right back at yourself.
So what does that mean, then?
That we ignore evil and injustice? That we refuse to call out wrong, in the church and in the world, when we see it? That we let people do terrible things to others and say nothing?
Elsewhere in the Bible, it’s quite clear that speaking up for the marginalized is part of the Christian’s calling, as is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving a cold cup of water to those in need. A church without boundaries is a place of abuse just as much as a church with too many.
But we should be very careful before we condemn individuals, before we attempt to rip out the weeds. The point of this text is, of course, that ultimate judgement of individuals is entirely up to God.
Besides, it’s a little silly to imagine the wheat attempting to rip out the weeds.
Wheat doesn’t even have thumbs.
It bears noting here that I am not condemning David Duke voters to hell. I do not believe that anyone is beyond redemption, or that anyone is defined forever by a vote they have cast. Besides, condemning anyone would be quite against Jesus’ point in this text: that judgement is up to God. My point is only this: that we do not know what is in anyone’s heart, and that people can indeed surprise us by the beliefs they hold.
That brings us to the final question: what does the wheat do in this story?
It grows, strong, tall, and proud. It is planted in good soil, it produces food to feed the hungry, and it is gathered into the barn in due time.
Michelle Belle Boisierre is now, thirty years later, a professor of biology at Xavier, New Orleans’s historically black university. The experience she had as a graduate student in 1990 made her stronger in her identity and her drive to succeed.
At the end of the episode, the podcast host asked her, “How did you continue to live in [Louisiana] and go about your business?”
Dr. Boisierre replied, “I … know that the work that I do and the way that I conduct myself is a source of pain for people like David Duke. I know that in my career, I help young people, primarily African American, complete career journeys that people like David Duke think they’re not well suited for, think they’re not capable of doing. So I know that I live my life doing things and being a person who’s disturbing to him.”
At this point, her smile can almost be heard in the audio of the interview as she finishes, “…and that’s quite comforting.”
Friends, this side of heaven, there will always be evil. Some of it will be open, and some of it will be hidden. It is not up to us to rip the evil out of the world. We would do harm if we tried. Throughout history, the most harm that has been done has been when someone decided that they could eradicate “those bad people” from the face of the earth.
What we can do is to continue growing strong, working for justice, being wheat, feeding the world, knowing that ultimately, the one who compares the kingdom of God to things that grow will give us all that we need, and that in due time, the harvest will come, the world will be fed, and that someday death and evil shall be no more. Someday, we will no longer have to wonder.
Until then, stay rooted, my friends. Grow strong.
Thanks be to God. Amen.