Rev. Thomas M. Murphy, Rector of The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation at 38 Duncan Avenue graciously shared this eloquent essay with Jersey City Times. In it, he reflects on our history, the difficult week we’ve been through and a path forward. Jersey City Times welcomes the perspectives of leaders from the diverse faiths throughout Jersey City.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
When I taught history at St. Peter’s Prep in Downtown Jersey City, each year I took my U.S. History I classes on a field trip to an American Revolutionary War battle site. I’m sure that when my students first heard “field trip” they imagined that I’d hand out permission slips to be signed by their parents, and, someday soon, we would board a bus that would take us away from school for a day. So, there was perhaps some disappointment when I told them that they would need no permission slip because our “field trip” would take us… all of one city block.
When the big day arrived, we made our way over to the intersection of Washington and Grand Streets. An obelisk stands in the small park there, commemorating the Battle of Paulus Hook, where Redcoats and Patriots skirmished in 1779. We carried with us reproductions of old maps, helping us to situate the long-gone fortifications. The exercise required a lot of imagination because the landscape is so different from what it was in colonial times. Over the years, industrious people hungry for more land extended the shoreline to the east and filled in what had been marshland, burying all the many streams that flowed throughout the area.
Today those underground streams are invisible on the street level, but, as many homeowners in the Paulus Hook neighborhood know only too well, they are not gone. The streams continue to run below the surface, occasionally rising back up and doing considerable damage.
Now that we live during a time that historians will study closely, I often find myself thinking back to my classroom days and reconsidering how I went about teaching the past. Thanks to textbooks and, really, our usual way of thinking, it’s almost unavoidable to think of history as having “chapters” with beginnings and endings. For example, each year in U.S. History I, I had the daunting challenge of teaching our country’s history from the “Age of Discovery” to the end of the Civil War. And I aimed to tell that long story in a way that was not just a meaningless list of names and dates, all the while encouraging my students to think critically. It was often fun, but it was a lot to cover! And, the last marking period was usually a mad dash to the finish line. Surrender at Appomattox! The Civil War is over! Lincoln is assassinated! Exam review! Have a good summer and good luck in U.S. History II!
Each year it sure seemed that one chapter had come to an end. Other chapters were about to begin. The only problem is that this is not how history works. It’s not how life works. Rather than a collection of chapters with beginnings and endings, history is more like a stream, or a collection of streams. At certain times, some streams flow stronger than others. Some streams may dry up. And, maybe most dangerous of all, some streams may be forced underground, but only for a time. Eventually, the pressure increases enough that, just like in Downtown Jersey City, the streams rise to the surface, wreaking havoc.
On Wednesday, it was shocking and frightening to watch insurrectionists, some carrying Confederate flags or wearing shirts bearing anti-semitic messages, storm the United States Capitol. Some of those people were buffoonish while others were serious and skilled, equipped for kidnapping and killing. The seeming ease by which they all entered what should be one of the most secure places on the planet raises many disturbing questions. The fact they were cheered on, at least for a time, by the President of the United States, would have been unthinkable to our country’s founders and all the presidents who have gone before. Yet, none of it should have surprised us, really.
The Civil War “ended” in 1865, but we all know that the toxic stream of racism and white privilege has continued to course through our land ever since, diverted into “Lost Cause” mythology, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, voter suppression, and all the rest. Maybe sometimes the stream has been mostly underground, collecting in places like the cesspools of the Internet, but it’s never been far below the surface. And, sometimes, cynical politicians craving power have been eager to draw from this foulness, convinced that they would be able to cap it again when it’s no longer useful to them. Any student of history knows this is a serious, and potentially deadly, error.
It’s convenient for us to forget that many Americans of the 1930s, including some prominent and influential people, admired the Nazis, envying the exaltation of the “strongman,” pinning their troubles on the usual scapegoats, and supporting the oppression of Jews and other minority groups. When the U.S. entered World War II, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed, that toxic stream may have seemed to dry up, but, in fact, it just seeped below the surface. For a while now, this contaminated water has bubbled back up, and it finally flowed into our capital city this week.
We know from nature, and maybe from our basements, the destructive force of water. But, at the same time, all life depends on water. And our Christian lives depend on water, too. This Sunday, we will celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, recalling the day long ago at the River Jordan when God announced to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When we remember the Baptism of Jesus, we are called to remember also our own Baptism, the moment when we began to swim in the holy waters of love, faithfulness, service, and forgiveness.
These are grim days. While new leadership will undoubtedly bring some change, it will not be the end of one chapter and the start of another. No, the streams of history will continue to flow, some stronger than others, some more visible than others. So, especially in such a frightening time, when much ugliness that had been hidden has been exposed, I hope we will remember that we have been washed in the water of Baptism. There is no stream strong enough – there is nothing strong enough – to break the bond between God and us.
I have often said that the people of St. Paul and Incarnation have a special vocation. We are called by God to show the world that all different kinds of people can not only tolerate each other, not only live together in peace, but stand up for each other, truly love one another, no matter what. Our vocation has never been more important, more needed, than right now. And when we are faithful to our calling and when we join hands with other people of faith and goodwill, then together, with God’s help, we can unleash a flood of goodness, making real the vision of the Prophet Amos:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Your brother in Christ,