Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering Our Veterans

My father, the late, great Champ Ruffin, was a Navy Veteran of World War II. He, like most veterans of war, did not glorify or romanticize his service and he certainly never said or even implied that if I wanted to be able to hold my head up in polite American society I needed to serve a stint in the military. He did, though, suggest that I consider participating in ROTC. His reasoning was practical: “They’ll commission you when you graduate from college, they’ll probably pay for seminary, and after you serve twenty years as a chaplain you can retire and still have decades to pastor churches.” Given that had I done that I would have been drawing that retirement check for a dozen years now, it now seems like a better idea to me than it did at the time.

I did meet with the head of ROTC at Mercer University but I decided not to pursue that course. I reckon I decided I wasn’t Army material. Subconsciously I suspect I was influenced by my then recently deceased mother; my Aunt Joan loved to tell the story about how, one Christmas at MawMaw and PawPaw’s house, I walked my very scrawny eight-year-old self by them in my brand new make-believe Army uniform and Mama said to her, “Look at him. He looks like a prisoner of war!” (which Mama pronounced “wawa”—it rhymes with the state we lived in, which she pronounced “Jawja”). Given that I weighed 125 pounds soaking wet when I entered college, I think that I thought not much had changed.

I guess I wasn’t military material. I confess, though, to having felt some guilt over the years at not having served in the armed forces. A young service member that I met early this year changed my thinking, though. I was thanking him for his service to our country when my guilt surfaced and before I could beat it down I heard myself confessing to him, “Sometimes I wish I had served in the military.” He shot a quizzical look at me and said, “Well, Sir, I’m sure you have found other ways to serve!”

In so saying, that young sailor set me free not only from my misplaced sense of neglected duty; he set me free also to think about and to celebrate the many different ways that people serve our nation and our world. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s analogy, if we think of the United States as a body, we realize that not everyone in the nation is meant to be a foot—not everyone should serve by being in the military; the foot is necessary but if the whole body is a foot, then it’s not a body—it’s a foot. Military service is one vital and essential kind of service; in this world, sometimes a nation has to defend itself and when that time comes, we need and are grateful for the people who are ready and willing to defend us.

Our military veterans have won, protected, and preserved our freedom. Other veterans have, too, in different but absolutely vital ways.

Think, for example, of the veterans of our diplomatic corps. Who knows how many more conflicts our country would have been involved in and how many more lives we and other nations would have lost had our diplomats not worked so hard behind the scenes to make and to maintain peace? Diplomats working through the State Department and the United Nations, among other departments and organizations, have championed and preserved our liberty and continue to do so.

Think, for another example, of the veterans of humanitarian organizations. Who knows how much worse situations might have been and how much more quickly they got better because the representatives of such organizations have been and are present in times of disaster, whether the disaster is brought by nature or by humans?

Think, for a third example, of the veterans of peace movements. Who knows what the radical witness and the radical actions of peace-making groups and individuals have done to keep us aware of and hoping for a better world in which conflict is less present and war is rare?

Think, for a final example, of the veterans of civil rights and liberties organizations and movements. Who knows what could have happened to our freedoms right here at home—especially those of the poor, disenfranchised, and powerless—had such advocates and activists not done the difficult and often unpopular work that they have done and continue to do?

In all of these cases and in many others, people labor to help correct conditions that can fuel conflicts and to foster communication that might improve relationships. So there are many kinds of veterans who in their own ways have defended freedom and who have preserved the peace.

As for me—well, I’m a veteran minister/pastor/preacher/teacher/writer who hopes—who believes—that the Spirit of whose presence I have tried to foster greater awareness and the prayers that I have tried to encourage people to pray and the Jesus in whose steps I have tried to follow and to help others to follow have influenced people to be more peaceful in their spirit and more peaceable in their relationships.

As for you—well, you’re a veteran of your life, whatever shape that has taken and is taking. In your home, in your vocation, and in your community you by your attitudes and your actions have had and do have every opportunity to promote peace and to defend liberty.

So as we express our gratitude for our military veterans today, let’s also express our gratitude for veterans of other movements and organizations who also work, often at great risk and sacrifice, for peace and liberty.

And let’s all be, whatever our role in life, veterans of the never-ending struggle to help everyone be free.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I would like to tell you about what I learned from Dr. Carey T. Vinzant.

I first met Dr. Vinzant on a spring morning in 1975. Rev. William L. Key, a retired Baptist minister who was also my high school Creative Writing teacher’s father-in-law, picked me up that morning to take me the forty or so miles from my home in Barnesville, Georgia to visit Mercer University, the college to which his daughter-in-law and he were convinced I should go, even though I was not so convinced. When I got in the car, Preacher Key told me that we were going to pick someone up in Forsyth; that someone else turned out to be Dr. Vinzant, a man of whom I had never heard but who I that morning discovered had retired some six years earlier from the presidency of Tift College, the now defunct, sadly, Baptist college for women located in Forsyth.

We had an appointment with Mercer’s Director of Admissions Johnny Mitchell. We walked into his office, sat down, and chit-chatted a bit. Finally Mr. Mitchell looked at me, then at Preacher Key, then at Dr. Vinzant for a long time, then at me again. He said to me, “So, when do you want to start?” I was a sixteen-year-old high school junior; I entered Mercer that fall.

I have been loosely connected with Dr. Vinzant in other ways since then; he and I both served as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia and of the First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia where I presently serve.

I remember exactly one thing that Dr. Vinzant said to me. It was during my meeting with my ordination council, a group of ministers and deacons who quizzed me to determine if I was fit to be ordained, which, frankly, my seventeen-year-old college freshman self was not, although they voted unanimously to proceed with the ordination that was already scheduled for the next day.

During that meeting, Dr. Vinzant asked me the only question that I can still remember from that interrogation: “Mike, I wonder if you think that the Apostle Paul could have done the work he did for the Lord had he not had the education that he had?”

I stammered out an answer that I thought was pretty good; it had something to do with my conviction that I reckoned that the Lord could use anyone the Lord wanted to in whatever way the Lord wanted to, including overcoming whatever deficiencies, educational or otherwise, they had. Or maybe I just said, “Yes.”

Dr. Vinzant gave a little smile and said, “Well, you may be right. But it seems to me that Paul was uniquely qualified to accomplish God’s purpose of bridging the gap between Jews and Gentiles precisely because of his background and education in both the Jewish and the Greek worlds.”

I’ve thought a lot over the last four decades about Dr. Vinzant’s observation; he was right to say that Paul’s ability to articulate his faith in both the Jewish and Gentile worlds was vital to the spread of the Christian faith. One could make a similar observation about Moses, who as a Hebrew raised in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household was well positioned to speak both to the Hebrew people and to the Egyptian leadership and thus to lead the Hebrews out of bondage.

I say all of this, Mr. President, to say that I believe that you should say much more about race in America than you have to this point said and that you should say much more about race in America than you said in your recent remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. You are, after all, uniquely qualified to do so and, being so qualified, you should take advantage of the bully pulpit of the presidency to try to help us make further progress in understanding each other and in working together for the benefit of all people.

The reasons that you are uniquely qualified to help us to think and to talk about race in America are two-fold and are, I suppose, obvious, but I beg your indulgence as I state them anyway. First, you are the President of the United States, which will be a fact of your life for only forty-two more months, and so you should take advantage of every second to deal with truly vital matters and issues. Second, you are both black and white, which has been a fact of your life for your entire life and will be for the rest of your life and so you will be in a position to help us to keep thinking and talking about race for a long time.

It is likely that we will never have another President who is as qualified as you are to help us in coming to terms with the realities of race in this nation. I know that you cannot do so on your own, but you—and only you—can be our prompter-in-chief and moderator-in-chief. You and only you can set the terms of the debate at an open, honest, and dignified level.

I realize there are risks for you if you continue to talk about race; some people will say that you are stoking the fires of racism if you continue to talk about what it is like to be black in America, but you nevertheless need to talk about it, especially since you also know more than most black people do about what it is to be white in America.

When you were elected, we celebrated the fact that you were our first African-American President. But we need for you to embrace, even more than you already have, the fact that you are our first bi-racial President.

In the First Testament of our Bible, at a time of great crisis, Mordecai suggested to Queen Esther, who was a Jewish woman serving as queen alongside the king of Persia, that perhaps she had risen to leadership “for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps, Mr. President, you have, too.

Please lead us in speaking with truth and grace about the fact of race; lead us in making progress in understanding each other so that we can better live up to our ideals of equality and justice.


Michael L. Ruffin
Fitzgerald, Georgia

Friday, February 8, 2013

Are Double Taps Double Trouble?

The "Century Marks" section of the February 6, 2013 issue of Christian Century contained the following item (citing the source as Business Insider, December 12):

New York University student Josh Begley has been tweeting about every U.S. drone strike since 2002. He has pointed out a tactic called "double tap," which is considered by some a war crime. It involves a strike on the first responders who try to rescue the people hit in the initial strike.

If the double tap is indeed American policy, it should be deeply troubling to all Americans.

I would like to know: do we make it a practice to target with a drone strike those who are responding to an earlier strike?

I have contacted many media figures asking them to look into this matter but have received no response and, so far as I know, it has not been mentioned on the air...