Birthday of John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Little baby John grew up and baptized repentant sinners with water. Clean, crisp Jordan-River water, flowing south from the Sea of Galilee.
One of the first facts that Pope Francis cites in his encyclical on Mother Earth: Millions of people do not have consistent access to potable water. The poor of the world often find themselves without water to drink.
This constitutes a serious physical problem. But I think we southerners feel also that an existential drought afflicts us as well. Because last week a white boy slaughtered nine innocent black Christians, in a church.
Who can disagree with everyone who has been saying since then: “Look! See! We still have racism in our country!”
Who can disagree? But what about this: “Look! See! This is actually worse. This is worse than any lynching that took place in 1915 in South Carolina, or anywhere else in the South. This is worse than any slave whipping that took place in South Carolina in 1815. This was an execution, in a church. In 1963, a racist planted a bomb in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Half a century later: a cold-blooded, face-to-face execution.
My generation of white boys and girls grew up going to school with black boys and girls. My white dad worked for a black boss, and my dad loved and respected him. Genuine friendships among people of different races truly have flowered throughout the land during the lifetime of my generation, because our fathers got rid of legal segregation.
But who can deny it? The “situation” is genuinely worse now than it was 50 years ago. We elected a black president, and still it’s worse. Worse, in the sense of less mutual understanding. During the hot summer of 1963, President Jack Kennedy, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr., came to an agreement about having a March on Washington. A long, hot summer, 52 years ago, when black and white believed, together, in a better future.
So: the existential question for the South—and, I daresay, for the world; the existential question for the human race in the hot summer of 2015: Where will the clean water come from? Where will the water come from, that can wash this place clean? The South, the US, the world? The poor by the millions need water for their bodies, and we all need water for our souls.
Now, we are church people; we spend a fair amount of our time in church. Just like the people killed last week. We are not such racists that we can’t see how much we have in common with them. To the contrary, we feel profoundly close to them. And we turn to God, to Christ, at a time like this.
There is a fountainhead—of love, of communion. A fresh start. John pointed Him out.
Elizabeth gave birth to St. John the Baptist during the brightest week of the year, the year when the day all but swallows up the night. Christ our Light dawns. John knew it; we know it. There is water to wash away all the innocent blood spilled since Abel, and to moisten the parched throats of the poor.
Church people! We have to be willing to lose everything for the sake of Christ. Because the world needs the Good News. The world needs the pure and unadulterated Good News of Jesus Christ like she has never needed anything before.