Robert Scheer Talks With Madison Shockley About the Meanings of Christianity (Audio)
In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” the Truthdig editor in chief sits down with Rev. Madison Shockley, an African-American who leads a predominantly white Christian church, to discuss the Shockley family’s history with racism and what it means to be Christian today.
Read the full transcript:Robert Scheer:
Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” in which I get to learn a lot from the people I talk to, thus the intelligence. And today my guest is Madison Shockley, a black minister with a white congregation, primarily, [laughs] in Carlsbad, outside of San Diego county. I met him when he had a black congregation here in the inner city of Los Angeles near USC, where we’re broadcasting from. And you grew up in this area; you played football at Los Angeles High School, you then went on to divinity school. And you’ve had this journey that has not ended up in prison, as some statistics would indicate. It’s also not ended up with you selling out and betraying the interests of the people you grew up with. You’ve been a progressive figure within the church movement. And it’s a journey that I wanted to capture as part of this series of American originals, people who somehow come out of the crazy-quilt of American culture, all the different immigrants and people brought over as slaves and everything else, and somehow find, in some ways, a more interesting, even higher level of human experience than had they not faced all of that complexity, and yet managed not to melt into some kind of boring whole. So let’s just begin with that journey. And what have you seen? What have you done? Madison Shockley.
Rev. Madison Shockley: Thank you, Robert, it’s really a pleasure to be here. It’s interesting, in the last few years, since Madison T. Shockley Sr., my father — he died going on five years ago — I’ve learned more about my origins. My mother, Audrey Shockley, and father are both from Tennessee, but met here in Los Angeles in the 1950s. And my father came out to California to fight fires during World War II, because he was a conscientious objector, and that was one of his work assignments. And he had an interest in returning to California, so he came to USC in 1949 as a student of the School of Social Work. In brief, he didn’t finish in 1951 as he should have, because the McCarthyism that was rampant at the time required him to sign the loyalty oath. And I say this background story because he was my example of not selling out; he was my example of virtue and character. And rather than sign the loyalty oath, he lost his employment with the county of Los Angeles that was sustaining him while he was in school here at USC, and he went to work for one of the black insurance companies out of Tennessee, Universal Life, for 17 years.
RS: What was there in his background, Tennessee, that led him to be a conscientious objector in what many people think back as “the good war” against fascism? On the other hand, he would have been serving in a segregated armed forces. Did you ever discuss this?
MS: Yeah, I did. Because at the time when I was preparing to decide about registering for the draft in 1973, we talked a lot about it. I was not a pacifist at that stage of my life; my father was. And I asked him, why were you a conscientious objector? And he simply said, “I went to Sunday school and I learned that thou shalt not kill.’ When he went before the draft board in rural Tennessee, he’d never heard the phrase “conscientious objector.” He just said, “Jesus told me not to kill, so I’m not going to pick up your weapon.”
RS: But how come you’re now a preacher, a Congregationalist minister, United Church of Christ; actually one of the oldest, if not the oldest congregation in —
MS: Well, denominations in the United States, yes, yes.
RS: –yeah. And ah, the movie, was it —
RS: –Amistad was all about that. But let me ask you, did you probe deeper? Because plenty of people have gone to Sunday school and read Scripture, [laughs] and they end up being outrageous killers; they certainly end up being warriors, and what have you. Why was your father–?
MS: My father simply had a character that saw things in black and white. And he knew what was right and he knew what was wrong, and he was committed to doing what was right. And so when he was faced with the dilemma of keeping his job and cooperating with this witch hunt for communists, he refused, lost his job and went to work. But the ACLU represented he and the whole class of people who lost their jobs and so forth during that era, and he returned to USC in the 1970s. Had to redo his first year, got his master’s degree from the School of Social Work, and went to work back to the county of Los Angeles as a social worker. He just picked up where he left off [laughs] 17 years earlier.
RS: Well, I wasn’t expecting to spend this much time on your father, but it’s — and I’ve known you quite a long time. But it’s an interesting story. Tennessee was a Southern state —
MS: Oh yes, oh yes.
RS: –and did he have any — I mean, what was, what were his politics? What was his social outlook when he came?
MS: He just had a very clear vision of life that he would pursue his course as he felt it was revealed to him by God, and he wouldn’t let anything stop him. And so he was always walking into places where he didn’t belong as a result of that, because in his mind, he did belong, whether it was in college or whether it was in a certain neighborhood. When we were shopping for housing, we — I was born in Nickerson Gardens, and then we lived in —
RS: That’s a project —
MS: Project in Watts. But then we shortly thereafter bought a home in Watts, where I lived the first six years of my life —
RS: What year was that when you were born?
MS: 1955. And in 1961 we moved to what one might still call West L.A. And it was about as far north and as far west as black folks could live in 1961. And during that hunt for a house I remember shopping in Torrance, and my father telling us not to get out of the car to go look at it, because the owner told him to his face, “We don’t sell to blacks.” And my mother’s story is also interesting. She found her way to California because she was going to school in Memphis, Tenn., at LeMoyne Owen, a congregational school. Congregationalists built colleges for blacks after the Civil War, that was one of them. And she had a job downtown in a bridal shop, but on her lunch break, she went to the local lunch counter and bought a Coke. And she was standing in line with other white persons; she was about, you know, young 20s. And the clerk —
RS: What do you mean — but she’s a black woman.
MS: Yes, but they were just buying it at the counter.
RS: Oh, yeah.MS: And so the line in front of her was mostly white people, and the clerk — she could hear the clerk saying, “That’ll be five cents for your Coke. That’ll be five cents, that’ll be five cents.” Then when my mother bought hers, she said “That’ll be 10 cents.” And she said, “Why is it 10 cents?” Says, “We charge niggers twice.” And my mother swears, without thinking about it, that she found herself throwing the Coke back in the woman’s face. They called the police, they were about to arrest her; she called her father. And my grandfather was also a radical kind of guy, one who again would assert his rights even at the risk of health and well-being. And he told her what to do. But when she got out of that little pickle, they all decided, you need to get out of here. And they sent her to an aunt in Los Angeles, Calif. So both my mother and father came here as a result of trying to overcome the injustices that they experienced in their lives. And I tell this background story because —
RS: This mother, by the way, to interrupt you — I met her, right, she’s a sweet —
MS: Yes, oh, yes. We just had her 90th birthday!
RS: — yeah, a sweet lady!
MS: Absolutely. [Laughs]
RS: And I’m trying [laughs], trying to see her throwing a Coke in somebody’s face, my goodness.
MS: Yes, well, I only heard this story in the last five years. I never knew this. And so that’s what I was saying; I understand myself better by understanding my parents, and the circumstances of my birth and of our family’s genesis. And so I don’t see my story as unique.
RS: Were they ministers, or —
MS: No, no — well, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a minister. But on my father’s side, they were just good Christian people. But I don’t think my story is unique as I talk to others in my age cohort. Most black people that came to the West were escaping something in the South. And so if you got out here, you had a story to tell. And every black person’s life is framed by race at almost every stage of our lives.
RS: Well, I could give you a story — well, we had Mayor Bradley, who I interviewed him on his 60th birthday. Which, as you just had your 60th birthday — I don’t know if I’m supposed to bring that up. But I remember he was telling me that even when he got married, he had to worry about which motel he could stay at — in California — where he could go and so forth. Then you have probably one of the most important elected officials we’ve had, Willie Brown, who was head of the Assembly and became mayor of San Francisco. And I interviewed him when I was working at the L.A. Times, and he told me about growing up in Minneola, Texas, where you would go to the movie theater, the crow’s nest, you’d have to sit up there on the top. And when he would walk down the street of the little town, his father would have to get off the sidewalk and into the gutter to allow even white teenagers to walk by. So those scars were quite prominent.
MS: Yeah. And I remember my father when I was a child, telling me about this rule or law in the South called “wandering eyeballs.” That if a black man looked at a white woman, they could be charged with what he called “wandering eyeballs.” And I always found that so silly and so crazy, but now I realize when I look back, when I was five, six years old, the death of Emmett Till in 1955 was in everyone’s consciousness. And I just connected those dots. When my father was talking about wandering eyeballs, he was telling me about Emmett Till, who was lynched in the South because he had allegedly made an advance or said something inappropriate to a white woman, and was killed for it. So one of the things that white people struggle to understand about white privilege — when they say, well, you know, “Racism is over” or “I don’t think about race,” that’s exactly the privilege. The privilege of not having to think about race. We think about it all the time, because our lives are framed and defined by it in so many ways. And the formative years of a person’s life, they don’t just go away. They do shape a core perspective that one has. [Editor’s note: At this point, several minutes of the audio recording were edited out. The transcript includes the part of the interview that is missing from the recording.] And I’m 60, I was born in 1955; I was raised here in Los Angeles, so I didn’t face the Jim Crow South, as so many did. But when I went to college, most of my black —
RS: Where was that, now?
MS: I went to Harvard College, and most of the black students there were from the South. And so they were telling me your Willie Brown story; that when they were seven, eight, nine and 10 going to the movie theater, they were going to segregated movie theaters. Because it wasn’t until 1964 that we got the Civil Rights Act. So when they were six, seven, eight and nine their lives were as segregated as life had been for the prior 100 years. And so when you grow up that way, and you still walk down those same streets, you remember when you were seven, eight and nine and couldn’t go in this front door and had to go around the back and couldn’t sit in this front row. Those things don’t go away. But for white people, I don’t know what they think about. Do they think about the good old days when I could sit on the floor of the movie theater and not have to be bothered by the loud talking black people? I don’t know.
RS: Oh, I can’t speak for all white people. But you were born when?
RS: 1955, so five years later, I actually was in the South, and made a journey across the South in my Volkswagen with my wife at the time. And we had two people who worked for the communist paper The People’s World, in San Francisco; we’d met quite by accident on a plane coming back from Cuba, where we had gone to see what was going on in Cuba, I was teaching back at City College in New York. And these people — and everybody forgets that communists were ones who were very early to the Civil Rights Movement. And these people, here it was 1960; a lot of people weren’t talking that much about civil rights. We got in the car, we offered them a ride; there was a hurricane in Key West when we got back from Cuba. And we went across the United States through the southern route, and they insisted on integrated bathrooms and things like that. And I had a little problem, I didn’t have any money and I had brought rum and cigars from Cuba and I was trying to trade it for gas. And so here I have some, you know, rural gas station operator or owner. And he said, “What are those people doing there? They’re in the wrong –,” I said, they’re a little crazy; you know, they don’t know what they’re doing, I’ll straighten them out, but you know, they’re not right in the head. I had about one bottle of rum for a tank of gas. And work it out and get out of there. And we went through the South that way, right? Through Mississippi, Louisiana. And I went by where Jimmy Carter came from; I went to Koinonia Farm, which was one of the few integrated places in the South. And you know, all these years later, it is difficult to remember, because we’ve had the so-called New South. Which for a while there, I thought the New South was the old South plus air conditioning, but now it’s plus voting, at least in the cities.
MS: But I don’t want to get too far away from that story, because I have a flip side to that story. When I was seven, we would go back to Tennessee to visit family. My mother’s from Memphis, the big city; my father’s from the country, and one day when we were going from one grandparent to the other out to the rural South, my 4-year-old sister needed to use the bathroom. And we pulled into a roadside gas station. And my mother, knowing the rules in 1962, went to the manager of the station and asked, could this little girl, this little 4-year-old girl, use the bathroom. Because they didn’t have black and white everywhere, and if you only had one, it was white. And so she asked him, could this little girl use the bathroom, and he said, “No.” She persisted, please let her use the bathroom. He went in his office, he came out with a pistol, and said, “I said no. She can go out there behind that truck.’ So while your friends might have thought it was a kick —
RS: Oh no, they didn’t think it was a kick. No, no, they — no, I want to be respectful to them. They knew the consequence —
MS: But what was the point?
RS: I was being cowardly. They were trying, actually — they had been already early into the Civil Rights Movement, and they had made the kind of quirky commitment your father had made. They just were not going to honor segregation, and they were making an issue of it. And I would rather they, at that time being more opportunistic, I was hoping them wouldn’t make an issue, because I just wanted to get my gas and get out of there. No, and with them it got a little bit more serious, because when we got to Jackson, Mississippi and other places — well, we went to, in fact in Plains, Georgia we went up to Koinonia Farm which was one of the few places that was somewhat integrated on a religious — and I’d like to ask you that, about the whole religious basis, but a religious communal place; we had heard about it because they would be shot up and bombed every once in a while, and they’d try to sell their hams, and —
MS: Members of my church, actually, have also been on Koinonia Farms.
RS: Yeah. And well, and the congregational church was backing them, as well as the Unitarians and others. But again, so let’s get to religion a little bit. Because for me, that was a real example of some people taking religious in what I consider to be a very humane and progressive direction. So here in this one little spot, Koinonia Farm, it’s interesting, because when I went back to interview Jimmy Carter in 1976 when he was running for president, I went up to Koinonia Farm. And it turned out that Hamilton Jordan, who had been Jimmy’s campaign manager, it was Clarence Jordan, his uncle, who was the one who did that farm. And Florence Jordan, his wife, was still alive; Clarence was dead, and Florence told me my most important Jimmy Billy stories. And Jimmy was away in the Navy, but Billy actually had the — you know, Billy was being treated as some kind of joke, you know, redneck, Billy Beer and everything — she told me Billy was the really brave one, and he shucked their peanuts when there was a boycott against him. And Miss Lillian, and he would help them out. But it was a mixed bag; cousin Hugh Carter was quite racist, I thought, in my conversations with him, even in ’76. But there was, you know, one of the many experiments with racial integration in the South that came from the church. And of course, from the black church you had a lot of this; we all know about that. But again, looking back on it as a religious person, how did your family feel about the white church and its relation to racism?
MS: Well, here’s an interesting story. So my father, again, being a kind of straightforward person, after we — he was Methodist by heritage. And in the South it was the colored Methodist Episcopal Church, CME, that his family belonged to. But when he came out to the West, they didn’t have the segregation, and you could go to any Methodist church that one chose. And my father, rather than going to Holman here in Los Angeles, a renowned African American congregation led by Jim Lawson, who was in Nashville and Memphis during the 60s but pastored a Holman United Methodist church here in the 70s and 80s. And so many black folks just gravitated toward Holman — my father measured the distance from our house to Holman and from our house to Wilshire United Methodist on Wilshire Boulevard. And Wilshire, which was a 99.999 percent white church that served Hancock Park, was a few hundred feet closer than Holman. So my father said, “We’re going to the closest Methodist church to us.” And that allowed us to be the second black family in that congregation of well over 2,000 people. And so that was my father’s perspective on religion; that it should not make a difference, you go where you belong, and we belong to what’s closest to us. But that also was a formative experience for me and prepared me for the life that I was able to live. Growing up as an active integrationist — because that’s what my father was; without being overt about it in terms of announcing it, he lived his life in a way that he refused to kowtow to the rules. And so he was always in places he didn’t belong, or integrating places. That’s why we moved to West L.A. So I went to an elementary school that was predominantly white; I went to John Burroughs Junior high school, which was predominantly white. And here we’re in the 60s, and I’ll never forget being in maybe seventh grade, and you remember the old tracking system, where you had the so-called bright students would go into the AE classes and the regular students would go into the other classes — well, I was in the AE class in history. And a student — and I don’t know how it got to the subject, but a student said to the teacher — I won’t call her name, but I do remember it: “If black people are supposed to be equal to white people, then why are there only two in this class?” Because John Burroughs had started bussing in black students from south of Pico. And the teacher was speechless. And all she did was turn and look at me, a seventh-grade student, to answer this question. And I simply said, “Well, I’ve been in your classes from the second grade. We’ve had the same education. The students that are being bussed in did not have the same quality of education that we’ve had here at Wilshire Crest and now at John Burroughs. And so that’s why I am equal, because given the equal education, I’m here sitting next to you.”RS: But is it only the education? What about the equal home life, the equal job structure, the equal opportunity?
MS: Well, that — it was those equalities, to a certain degree, of course, that allowed us to be in that school district. Ours was a very middle-class family, even though I said my father didn’t have the opportunity to pursue his career in social work; he was very successful in the insurance business, or successful enough that we could live a middle-class life. My mother worked, she worked for Pacific Bell up there in the classic building at La Brea and Wilshire. And all four of us went to college; my older sister Brenda Shockley went to Occidental and then on to Loyola Law School, my brother Hillary Shockley went to Stanford and played in two Rose Bowls, I went to Harvard, my younger sister went to Wellesley. And there’s not many white or black families that can put that record up for their family’s education.
RS: Yeah. Your sister went on to be — Brenda Shockley went on to be a very well known civic leader.
MS: Oh, yes. Absolutely, she’s been president of Community Build since 1992. She was intended to be the head of Rebuild L.A., but they chose Ueberroth, and we know the history of the success, or lack of, of that effort. But Community Build is still going strong over 20 years later.
RS: So let me stop you there. Because one of the things I’d like to explore is, you know, why hasn’t this been the norm of the melting pot, of the American dream? And you know, you got you, you got Willie Brown, you got lots of people on a whole — and people point to those examples and they say, well, we did have bussing and we did improve the education situation, and OK, where’s the payoff? Why do we have so many people going to jail who are black? Why is their dropout rate still so high?
MS: Let me stay with my family for one minute, because there’s something I think that is important. One reason I think my family’s had the success that it’s had is that we got reparations. In looking at our family history on the Shockley side, my great-great-grandmother was born a slave, the offspring of the slave owner and her mother. I’ve often said, no system, not even a system of oppression, is perfect. And so while the norm for black folks in the South in that same circumstance is that they were just cast off and thrown in with the rest of the black slaves, my great-great-grandmother was given a share of the inheritance of her father, along with her white brothers. And so my great-great-grandmother had property in the 19th century rural Tennessee. And my family, from here, were never sharecroppers; were always landowners; and were always educated. So that’s the case for reparations. But it was hardly the norm. And so when you deprive a people of opportunities to be landowners and to participate in society, to have access to education — my grandfather was in year one, class one of Tennessee State when it was still Tennessee Normal. There have been four or five generations of Shockleys at Tennessee State University. But this is just that talented tenth that Du Bois was talking about. For the vast majority of black folks, those opportunities were not there. And so when you go from sharecropper to industrial worker in the city, without education, without stable homes, without — and stable homes come from being able to own your own home. Growing up, I never lived in a rented house. So when 90 percent have the other experience, I don’t think it’s a mystery the circumstances that we have, and that you also have the new Jim Crow, which intentionally uses every opportunity to put young black males into the system. This is the result that you’re going to get. And I was just lucky; you know, you’ve heard my story before. That my first year at Harvard I was walking across Harvard Yard, and the Cambridge police pulled into the campus — which was very unusual; you don’t see LAPD here on USC’s campus. It’s all private, and private police. So I, it struck me as odd that the Cambridge police would pull into Harvard Yard. And they had their lights on, but they were blue lights, and I was raised in L.A. where we have red lights, so I didn’t get the heart racing, I didn’t have the visceral reaction. I was just, I remember saying to myself, hmm; I wonder what’s going on in Grays Hall, because that’s where they were headed. And before I knew it, they had pulled up on me! Doors swing open, hands at their sides ready to pull their gun, and they say, “Stop right there.” And I’m like, me? I’m just walking. And they said, you know, there’s been — give me your ID. I had my school ID. And then they got back in their car. I said, wait a minute, why did you stop me? “Well, you fit the description.” But if I had left my ID in the room, I might have been carted off. So it’s just there but for the grace of God go I. And so I think it’s a miracle that any black person makes it in America.
RS: Well, speaking of miracles and God’s plan and all that sort of thing, what caused you to become a minister? And why didn’t you, you know, just take the advantage of the Harvard education and become a Wall Street hustler or something else?
MS: Well, it was actually while I was in college that I got saved. There in Cambridge was a very special place called St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, almost 200 years old; because the AME church is the first black denomination on the planet, and was started in 1787 by Richard Allen. So there in Cambridge and all throughout New England are many very strong African Methodist episcopal churches. But this particular church was kind of a prototype of what now we commonly call the megachurch. It had a very dynamic pastor, and it was situated between Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Simmons, and a variety of schools where black students would come to this church. And when I was in my sophomore year I joined that church, and it was a fantastic experience; it was a powerful spiritual experience. It was during the free South Africa movement, and it was both religious but also engaged with the world; it was a fantastic church, and I wanted to be part of that. And I found myself saying, how do I live my life in this way? And that led to the ministry. And so I was originally ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and pastored in St. Louis and Denver and Seattle, and then I got into the United Church of Christ many years later, in 1989 when I came back to Los Angeles.
RS: And you had gone to, after Harvard, the Union Theological —
MS: Yes, yes. I went to Union Theological Seminary, and that was a transformative experience. There I went to study black liberation theology with James Cone. When I got there, I found that there was not only black liberation theology, but there was women’s liberation theology, gay liberation theology, Latin American liberation theology, Korean, African liberation theology. And the whole world opened up to me there. And so I spent three years there and then three years at the Claremont graduate school studying New Testament. And so my perspective had significantly broadened. And it wasn’t intentional at that time, but I kind of, when I came out of graduate school and was intending to go back into full-time ministry, I found a way into the United Church of Christ. Longer story than we have time for here.
RS: Let me ask you about Christ. When I was growing up as a kid in the Bronx, my father was a Lutheran by birth and my mother was Jewish, and we’re right in the middle of World War II and my father’s German relatives are, not trying, succeeding in a genocidal campaign against Jews. And yet in the middle of that whole thing I remember every once in a while somebody would come up to you and they’d punch you in the nose and say, “You killed our Lord.” And the first time, I didn’t understand what they were saying, and then part of me wanted to say, “But only half of me killed your Lord,’ you know. But there was that sense, of course, that had a lot to do with the rise of fascism, and kids had it even in the middle of the war against fascism. And then I remember I was working at a Catholic literary magazine in the early 60s, which was willing to print my articles, and they were responding to Pope John at the time, who finally clearly stated the Jews did not kill Christ, or were not collectively responsible. So you know, all my life then I’ve been thinking, OK, who is this Jesus and did he exist and what did he stand for, and why did he have so many crazy followers who would punch you in the nose over some, you know, claim of some religion. And when I met you, I really was fascinated, because you were involved in something called the Jesus Project.
MS: Jesus Seminar, yes.
RS: Jesus Seminar. And so as a columnist, you became my go-to guy to find out well, what does it really say in the New Testament, the Old Testament? What can be attributed to Jesus? So what did you get from all this experience of studying religion and so forth? What do you believe, what do you know? And you’re now, I should remind people listening to this, you, after this seminary experience, had a primarily black church in the in the central city of Los Angeles, but I think it was what, about 10 years ago you went down to Carlsbad, which is a really nice, Carlsbad by the sea, right by San Diego county, and you have a predominantly white church there.MS: Let me say a brief word about that and then ask you a question. So after I’d been here at Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, on Hobart just south of Washington, which was a UCC congregation, and then I got into politics, as you know. And then I was looking for a new ministry, and I made a conscious decision. And this was really eye-opening to myself. I said, if I’m going to have a career in ministry in the United Church of Christ, and I only pastor black churches, I’m going to have a very short career. Because the church is 90 percent white across the country. And just as an aside, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright is also a member of the United Church of Christ in spite of the slurs against him about being —
RS: Barack Obama’s minister in Chicago —
MS: That’s right, yeah, Trinity UCC is part of the same denomination. But I made a decision that I would apply to exclusively white congregations to test this very liberal church, to see if they really walked their talk. And would a congregation that was predominantly Anglo call — because I’m not appointed by a bishop; the congregation has to call the pastor. And in that process, I did encounter racism within this United Church of Christ. But as I said, no system is perfect. And there was a wonderful congregation of people in Carlsbad who were open to that idea, and had even, in fact, discussed it before they encountered me. And so I was called to the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad by the sea, and it’s been quite a journey, one that I’ve enjoyed and I hope that they’ve enjoyed. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about being black and being white. I like to say to people when they ask me, “What’s it like, what’s it like” — I say well, you know, it’s interesting. As a black pastor in a white community, I’ve finally met the rest of the family. I realized, in my growing up, living in West L.A., going to John Burroughs, going to Harvard — for the first 20 years of my life, every white person I knew was richer and better educated than myself. Every one. So you get this kind of feeling that, well, all white people are rich and educated. So then I go to an all-white community, and I start meeting the rest of the family, and realizing that that’s not the case. That not — you know, when they say 25 percent of the population have a college degree, that means 75% don’t; and a lot of those are white. And so in meeting the rest of the family, as I like to say, I recognize we are much more, we have much more in common than we think. And that’s a shame that we don’t realize that and we don’t understand that in our culture. But so it’s been quite a journey pastoring in that community. My favorite story is when we had a conversation on race a few years ago, and I asked the congregation — we had a dialogue sermon — I said to them, “How has my being your pastor for these five years,’ at that time — “changed your view of black people?” You could have heard a pin drop. Because there’s no good answer to that question. What are they going to say? Well, I used to hate ’em but now I love ’em. [Laughs] Or you know, I never thought much of ’em and you haven’t changed my mind. [Laughs] But after a few excruciating moments of silence, I kind of let them off the hook by answering a different question for them. I said, well, I’ll tell you this. My being with you certainly has changed my opinion of white people. And that was, implicit in that was, I met the rest of the family, and I now have a better understanding of your perspective and a better understanding of my perspective. And I think that’s the benefit of, as you alluded to in our opening, that when you bring the breadth of what this country has to offer together, we are better informed; we are richer; and we are wiser for it.
RS: OK, but let me get you back to this Jesus issue. And you’re, you’ve made yourself something of an expert on — or I shouldn’t say something, a considerable expert on what parts of Scripture can be directly attributed to Jesus, and what is the reckon, and was there a Jesus and so forth. And I want to ask you, not only what have you learned, but I want to ask you whether it matters, and what is the significance of this tradition.
MS: Yeah. Well, I was a student; my professors were the active members of the Jesus Seminar. And their project was to go through every phrase attributed to Jesus, as “Jesus said X,” and to —
RS: These are your professors at Union Theological–
MS: My professors at Claremont graduate school, Jim Robinson, Burton Mack were members of the Jesus Seminar and I was a student at the time they were actually doing this work. And the scholars, and 130 of them, would vote with marbles — black, grey, pink and red on each phrase that was attributed to Jesus. Red, the old red-letter Bible; red, this is something Jesus certainly said as far as we can determine. Pink, this is something that expressed an idea that came from Jesus, but we don’t have the exact wording. Grey, this is not something Jesus said. But it’s consistent with what he said, but the gospel writers added this sentence or idea or story, because it was an expansion on the ethos of Jesus. And then there was black. And the black phrases did not come from Jesus, and in fact were opposite of what Jesus actually taught. The majority of the phrases in your red-letter edition of the Bible, in the Jesus Seminar bible, are actually black or grey. Only 17 percent of all the phrases attributed to Jesus are pink or red. So if you only read the pink and red phrases, you come away with a very, very different Jesus. You come away with a radical, peasant, table-turning prophet who said “It’s the poor who are blessed; it’s the hungry that are the concern of God, and they shall be filled.” That it’s those who are suffering in this world that God cares about. And you better watch out, because when it’s all over, the last shall be first and the first shall be last” — or how can we say it in today’s language? The one percent will be last, and the 99 percent will be first.
RS: OK, when you talk about the table-turning, you’re talking about overthrowing the tables of the money-changers in the temple.
MS: Yes, yes.
RS: And that brings me, I guess, to where I want this to end up with, is the Pope. And you’re not a Catholic; you’re one of the people who protested against the conformity of the Catholic Church. And yet, what are we to make of this Pope who seems to have brought new life to a religion that you thought with all its scandals and its opulence and its archaic traditions and male dominance and everything else — who would have thought a Pope would come along who could be so inspiring? Are you surprised?
MS: I’m not surprised. Because if you really listen to what this Pope, Pope Francis, is saying, he’s saying kind of what the pink and the red in the New Testament are saying. He’s bringing the focus back to the real concern of the divine, which is those who suffer in this world. And the point of the Jesus Seminar is that if you pay attention, and you understand that the Bible is a human product and that some very conservative forces are also expressed, especially in what they call the Deutero-Pauline letters; you know, first Timothy and second Timothy — or second Timothy and those Ephesians, where it says “wives be obedient to your husbands” — those were some of the conservative elements that tried to push back on the original, radical Christianity that Jesus was expressing, and his first followers expressed. All to say, not everything that says “Christian” on it has Christians in it. And the Pope’s statement about “building walls is not a Christian act” ought to be listened to. And he’s bringing this focus back to what is the concern — God’s concern are those who are starving on either side of the border.
RS: You’re referring to his flare-up with Donald Trump —
MS: The one whose name we shall not speak. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, well, it’s — but really, here was the Pope, taking on this notion —
MS: Right. And he said it very plainly. “The person who only builds walls and doesn’t build bridges is not a Christian.” And that’s, I think, a fair statement for a Christian leader to make. Because what is the role of a Christian leader but to help define Christianity in such a compelling and clear way that people who want to follow Jesus know which way to go?
RS: Well, let me ask you — also as the Pope has asserted, and even as a kid when I was being accused of having killed Jesus because my mother was Jewish — it still struck me, because I would hear about the pagan babies, and collecting money in the Catholic church to save the souls of people in Africa and Asia and so forth. And it hit me that if you recognize that everyone has a soul, you’re committed to a certain essential dignity of every individual. I never could understand how the Southern church or races throughout the world could look the other way. You know, it just would seem to me that once you accepted it — how did those folks back in Tennessee, who were supposed to be taking this seriously — how could they deny that your grandfather had a soul to be saved?MS: Well, Bob, I do wish that that made as much difference as you think it ought to make. We do know, as you say, that much of Christianity deemed slaves soulless and subhuman. But something I learned when I went to Angola, and I stood on the shore there where they shipped off hundreds of thousands of Angolan slaves to Brazil. And the Portuguese, who were Catholic, did believe the Africans had souls. And in fact they built a chapel at the port, so they could baptize the slaves before they shipped them off to Brazil in case the boat sank. And so it’s not believing that one has a soul or not that makes the difference that we want it to make. It’s really accepting one another as true brother and true sister. And what did Jesus say? Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If that is how we approached life, then there would not have been slavery.
RS: So are you finally — let me ask the question, are you optimistic about race relations in this country? What was the significance of having the first non-white president? What is the report card you would give? I know you were more optimistic when Barack Obama came in.
MS: “Optimistic” would be a little strong. I mean, I’m glad about a few things, let’s put it that way. I think the new conversation about race is good; I think it’s headed in the right direction. I mean, the very idea or concept of white privilege has now made it into the common language of our culture. Even though we’re arguing about it, we are talking about what white privilege means and how it’s operated for the 400 years of history that blacks and whites have been on this continent. We still have a long way to go. One of the less optimistic things that I’ve just recently realized as we’ve been actively engaged in this conversation at my church and other congregations, and the church still is the place where these conversations are held and being encouraged. So I think the church plays an important role, those who believe we are brother and sister to each other. There’s not enough of me to talk to all y’all that need to hear [Laughs] what we have to say. And one of the things that’s emerging is, white folks have to have their own, internal conversation about race, racism, white supremacy and white privilege. And they have to do it among and with themselves. And we need to build a curriculum that can be used for a profitable conversation. Jim Wallis just produced, just published a new book; the title is escaping me, but it’s about how to have, how white people can have that conversation about race that they need to have. Jim Wallis, W-a-l-l-i-s. So I won’t say I’m optimistic, but I think we’re heading in the right direction. I don’t think that Barack Obama could have been elected without a lot of well-meaning people across the board. When I came here to USC, when President Obama spoke here four or five years ago, the line was around the block. And I literally walked the entire block of this main campus to find the end of the line. But it was a thrilling walk, because in that line and on that walk, I saw everybody. I saw America. We were all there. And that’s, I think, the benefit and the positivity of this presidency, is that in our best moments, we all do come together, even if it’s only in glimpses and in moments.
RS: So let me just push this a little bit further. I wouldn’t be doing my job as a journalist. We still look at this country, this black president inheriting from the white, Republican president, inheriting from a white Southern democratic president — actually, all three, Clinton, Bush, and Obama, presided over an economic regression, call it deregulation, whatever. But basically caving in to the banks, letting the banks run amok. And as a result, not only have we had a permanent recession, but the hardest hit groups were black and brown people, even black college graduates lost — I shouldn’t say even; particularly black college graduates lost 70 percent of —
MS: What little net wealth —
RS: –accumulated wealth of their families; brown people lost 60 percent. These are from the Federal Reserve studies of this thing. They were targeted by the banks, they got the liar’s loans, they were hustled. And these were the kids who did everything to get into school, to stay in school, to get the four-year college degree. And it wiped out the gains, a lot of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement from an economic point of view. And we have this incredible income inequality which is registered much more sharply in black and brown communities; we have this enormous prison population, what, four times greater than China, and they have four times our population, and we dare talk about human rights. And sometimes when — I wander around this campus of USC, and I go into the neighborhood a lot, and I wonder, you know, what’s going on? And I particularly ask the question, how do educated and successful black and brown people accommodate this? I know there’s a bigger question — how do white people accommodate. And there is white poverty also, and anyway we’re all responsible for each other, and it’s a situation of our common making or our common indifference. But I do, to be honest, I have to ask myself the question. Because we do have a black leadership class. And the last person I interviewed on this series, D. Watkins, a 34-year-old young black author who was at once point dealing drugs and everything, and then got, you know, his master’s from Johns Hopkins and the University of Baltimore and is a terrific writer — he has an attack in his book on the, I forget the way he put it, but it’s the reverend group that shows up after every riot. And he’s got Jesse Jackson in there, he’s got other people. And they show up and they’re going to make it all better, they’re going to call attention to it, and so forth. I’m talking to the Reverend Shockley here, Madison Shockley. What about it? How do people go along, get along, with such a depressing situation of wasted lives? And where is Jesus in all this?
MS: Well, I would only hope — I mean, well, one would hope — that this crucible of racism in which we’ve lived for these 400 years would produce exclusively Martin Kings and Malcolm X’s and Medgar Evers, and so forth and so on. It does not. And as I alluded to earlier, we are much more alike than different. And that our leaders, Sojourner Truths and so forth, and Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan — these stars are stars. I wish that the common person would take the same experience that these heroes had, and respond in the same way, but they don’t. And so I think we sometimes lose sight of that. That these people are extraordinary, and we need more of them, and they work as hard as they can to try and motivate the mass of people to rise up and resist. But in every struggle you have those who are co-opted, you have those who are simply trying to survive and don’t have time; I just came back from the Samuel D. Proctor minister’s conference in Houston, Texas; a thousand progressive clergy and lay black folks. And the thing that we were reminded of is that Martin Luther King, in the depth of his struggle for civil rights, had to form a new convention of Baptist ministers. He left the National Baptist Convention, which is the largest black denomination in the country, always has been, to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, because the majority of the black pastors didn’t want to follow his program for not only black liberation, but of course when he started to resist the Vietnam War, which sucked up so many young black lives as well. So even in Martin Luther King’s day, you didn’t have enough heroes. And he had to form his own movement. And for this preacher class that D. [Watkins] was referring to, I don’t disagree with him. Many of them are more form than substance, and are perpetuating an image that had meaning in the moment that it lived with vitality, but that moment is gone. And the community and even the black church are not that way anymore. And you talk about the power of the black church, and I went to study black liberation theology; not every church is a center of black liberation. You have too many congregations that only hear this prosperity gospel, which is a distortion of the pink and red that we were talking about, and is some other kind of religion. And to come back to the answer to that question, I think when people focus on what Jesus taught, and the pink and the red of the real message that he offered, and take it into their lives, they live differently. And if more people lived in that way, and truly followed that teaching, the world would be a better place. But Christianity has worn many garments, and unfortunately, that name “Christian” — you really have to peek under and look at the label of that garment before you assess what that Christian person, congregation, church or denomination really stands for. So I wish we had more heroes and she-roes. But that’s part of the struggle as well.
RS: Well, thank you, Madison Shockley. I’ve looked under your label; it’s the real deal. [omission] That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney were our producers, Maria Diaz our engineer, and Sebastian Grubaugh has been the engineer here at USC doing a terrific job bringing this show. Thank you, see you next time.
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