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February 22, 2016
Born in Sin, Upended in Grace is a recent memoir written by BPFNA Founding President George Williamson. Below is a review of this work by BPFNA Founding Director Ken Sehested.
Click here to purchase a copy of George's book.
“Nothing can be known that isn’t a risk to know,
isn’t surrendered to, lived out.
Westerners don’t ‘know’ that way.” (p. 35)
If you’ve spent much time around toddlers, you know the again! again! supplication. You finish reading a favorite book, or bouncing on the knee, or any number of assorted other forms of play, and your charge squeals an insistent request to continue. Again, and again, to the point where you have to devise some distraction in order to catch your breath.
Because of a long and close association with George Williamson, many (though not all) of the stories in this memoir are familiar. But my response in reading is still again! again!
Books of stories are inherently more fun to read but also harder to review. Where to start? Probably with the title itself —Born in Sin, Upended in Grace — an odd one for an urbane audience, unaccustomed as we are to reference “sin” in daily conversation — except maybe in jest, in poking fun at backwater folk. I’m sure George laughed, too, when the title first occurred to him. (And his laughter is infectious, by the way. It’s unlikely you’ve experienced the rapture of laughter until you’ve laughed with George.)
George is serious about sin, though not in its weak-kneed association with “dirty thoughts” or willful cruelty. Sin is what the Black Lives Matter movement is about: unearthing the unseen privilege associated with particular racial (or a host of other) assumptions, social depositions, entitlements and prerogatives. Like a fish, which has no concept of water, so are we, in various ways—every one of us, some more, some less—complicit in arrangements of power of which we are clueless. In fact, the “cluelessness” is frequently the best synonym for what the Bible means when it speaks of sin.
Thankfully, George is also serious about Grace and its upending, bruising, disorienting (often frightfully so) but ultimately delightful consequences. And his story, indeed the Bible’s story, details how one is imprisoned (“I am the image of God, spoiled.” p. 136) in the former and released in the latter. Grace, he writes, has “been a shock of unexpected ordeals, snatching me up, devouring existing values and commitments, hurling me upended into the roaring front end of rushing currents.” (p. 159) Also, I believe he is exactly right in saying this transformation is more like an exorcism than a tune-up— and more than a little scary.
Born in Sin documents a cascading progression of confrontations with assumed privilege, but the grit of George’s spiritual journey began, innocently enough, with a piety-gripped adolescent’s stand against dancing and its carnal implications. (I refrained from laughing because I did the same thing.) But then, in college, “fairness” surfaced as an act of conscience, and George gave up not-dancing.
Things only escalated from there. In a moment of spontaneous adventure, he joined a group of Wake Forest University students who joined the Greensboro, NC sit-in movement, the first whites to do so, and this before “sit-in” was even a word. His college mentor, Mac Bryan (of blessed memory—he’s the one who taught George how to cackle), bailed him out, introduced George to the words “civil disobedience,” and launched him into a lifetime of addressing [the United States's] hideous racial history.
With this dawn’s crack, light began to illumine awareness of a larger horizon of corruption: the specific threat of nuclear weapons and, more generally, the US’s warmongering habits and imperial impulses; our inherited and reinforced patterns not just of sexual discrimination but outright misogyny; and then—for circumstances in his immediate attention—an increasingly conflictual, prophetic engagement with the forces of homophobia (especially within the church) and devoted pastoral presence within the LGBTQ community. (It wasn’t, by the way, until 1972, when “homophobia” was first coined, that we even had an explicit word for this form of violence.)
“Grace,” George writes, “before it is anything else, is the crack inherent in the otherwise ironclad, unbreakable laws of nature and history. Grace is the capacity for unchangeable things to change. . . .” (p. 182)
I should have confessed at the beginning the incomparable debt I owe to my companionship with George Williamson via the Baptist Peace Fellowship. I’m probably not the best candidate to review this book, but I jumped at the offer to do so. Of the many insights I’ve received at his hand, let me highlight two.
The first is covered extensively in the book, having to do with how we read the Bible which, verse for verse, is profoundly more violent than the Qur’an. The Bible, George says, is “the story of the breakthrough of God in human history.” The challenge and burden of reading—and living—the text involves discerning what is “breakthrough” and what is merely “history.”
The second greatest insight I absorbed is not explicitly stated in this book, though is everywhere implicit: That the peace, the peaceable kingdom, the Beloved Community, for which we long and to which we are oriented is, in the end, a miracle. Not in the sense of an abrogation of supposed “laws of nature,” but miracle in the sense of surprise, a reality beyond human prediction, an achievement beyond human manipulation.
Not that our devoted efforts, however fallible, are insignificant or even futile. The stories in this book of adventures in faith are vast: from shackling outside a Woolworth lunch counter, to the apartment of Soviet dissidents during the Cold War, to Bangkok hotel gatherings with insurgent leaders in South Asia, to Central American jungles, to Saddam’s parade grounds and the Warsaw Cathedral during Solidarity’s ascension. There is abundance here.
What I think George would want you to know is that these stories don’t belong to him, at least not in the terms of our culture’s gangster-capitalism values. The worst thing you could mine from this memoir is a comparison test. These stories, your stories, our stories—the very meaning of our Eucharistic practice is that we belong to each other, feeding each other, being fed together, baptized as we are in to one body “in Christ” rather than in separate investment portfolios.
Here is George’s summation:
"In the end, what constitutes, what hounds and thrills me, is inescapable suspicion that I suffer a Calling from God. This isn’t something I’m proud of or can document. It isn’t in any sense a singling-out. It’s just there, light from behind, warming my backside, narrowly lighting the way ahead, casting a shadow toward where I’m bound when, occasionally, I’m in it." (p. 183)
Our only reliable hope is that we do not get what we deserve but submit to being upended in Grace.
Click here to purchase Born in Sin, Upended in Grace.
Ken Sehested, founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, is the editor and author of “prayer&politiks,” an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.