Engaging Judges in Art: Kevin ‘Kevissimo’ Rolly

I shared previously that I’ve been thinking deeply about the book of Judges, which I’ve found to be a rich way of understanding our present political situation. That’s inspired me to look at art that engages the stories there, which led me, in turn, to the work of Kevin ‘Kevissimo’ Rolly, and L.A.-based artist who works in analog photography and oil painting. He sometimes produces “oilgraphs” in short periods of time using real people.

I’ve been using his In the Time of the Judges series as a guide for my own reading. Here is one of my favorites from the series. The Defender of Thebz is a depiction of the killing of Abimelech, a favorite story of mine. I love that the artist shows her as pregnant.


I’m not sure that the artist meant to inspire further contemplation of these difficult stories, but I’ve been engaging with them in a new way since viewing this series.


“When did you first realize you were white?”

New 606 Contributor Melanie Zuercher reflects on that way that being white means you don’t have to know what your African American neighbors’ lives are like. 

I recently participated in a 2½-day anti-racism analysis at my workplace, a small college. One of the exercises asked us to think about “when you first realized you were [however you identify; in my case, white].” I suspect my first time was right after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. We were living in Durham, N.C., in Duke University graduate student housing. One afternoon when some of us kids were playing behind the apartment complex, a tall black man walked by. That’s all that happened, although of course this can be unpacked further. But that’s for another time.

The training exercise made me think about the students of color I knew through most of my public-school years, which took place in Harlan, in southeastern Kentucky, in the decade from 1968-78. We attended the “town school,” the Harlan Independent School District, and it’s from those years that I remember having black classmates. Only decades later did I figure out that “the Rosenwald school,” an abandoned brick building a block down from what was then the Harlan Elementary School gym, and which I had been told from Day 1 was “the black high school,” had closed only five years before we moved to Harlan in 1968.

Starting with my first year at Harlan, in Miss Rice’s 3rd-grade classroom, I always had at least one black classmate. There might have been more but the one I remember was a girl named Blondine Jones. (I was fascinated by her name, and it’s only now, 50 years later, that I think to wonder: “Blondine? What was that about?”) When we were in high school, I learned she preferred her nickname, Cookie. I would love to sit down and talk with her about names and other things, but she died prematurely (from complications of diabetes, if I remember right, but I haven’t been able to locate an obituary so I can’t be sure), so that will have to wait for heaven.

Whether or not Cookie had other family members in Harlan schools, I don’t know. She was the only “black” Jones I knew. There were, however, two families with children in multiple grades, the Hendersons and the Raglins. There was a Raglin (Leonard) and a Henderson (Warren) in my sister’s grade, a year behind me, and there might have been a Raglin in my brother’s, five years back. When I was in the high school girls’ choir, I looked up to an older Raglin (Lydia) and Henderson (Bertha). And I thought of Gwen Taylor – a year older, who stood near me on the risers, since we were both in the second soprano section and of similar height – as “one of my best friends.” (How little I knew. She was as sweet as could be, and very kind to me, but I was so unaware of what her life was really like, and still am.)

I also remember being told early that “Harlan has the highest black population in eastern Kentucky.” The figure was 10%, and most likely was for the entire county, not only the city of Harlan. I doubt the Harlan Independent school district reflected that, though again, I can’t say for sure. The teaching staff didn’t – there was one black elementary teacher and one black junior high teacher and a couple of black coaches who also had other roles at the high school. What put Harlan up there was the former coal camp of Lynch, in the northeast end of the county. Lynch was then the smallest of the independent school districts in Harlan County and also known for consistently having among the best football and basketball teams, “on account of all those black players.”

I recently read an article from the New York Review of Books about “the miners of black Harlan.” According to the article, in the boom years of coal that followed the Great Depression (the 1940s and early 1950s), a little more than half the miners of Lynch coal were black. However, at Portal 31, a former coal mine in Lynch now turned coal-mining museum, there are no voices of black miners included. Sad, but not surprising.

Is the assumption that the words of white miners reflect the experience of all miners? Is it because whoever conceptualized and developed Portal 31 – clearly not people of color – simply didn’t think about the fact of black miners? I suspect the answer to both questions is “Yes,” plus more besides.

And then I wonder, Why were there black families living in Harlan at all? While the town was built on a coal economy – everything was then, and suffers for it now – Harlan was not a former coal camp, like Lynch or many of the other small pockets of black population. Historically, slave numbers in Kentucky had been lower than in many Southern states because there was a huge chunk, the eastern mountains, where there were neither large farms nor people inclined toward chattel slavery (which didn’t mean they weren’t racist – they were). There were no big cities or factories in eastern Kentucky to catch and hold those African Americans coming from the Deep South in the Great Migration. Maybe the forebears of the Jones, Henderson, Raglin, Taylor, Body and Gray families in Harlan were coal miners. I don’t know.

That’s really the bottom line – all I don’t know, about the racial history of this area where I spent a significant chunk of my childhood and teenage years, about what it was actually like for my classmates and choir sisters to be “the good black people” (or the other stereotypes they faced). As I keep unpacking what “white privilege” means, personally and more broadly, this is a big part of it – ignorance. There are many things about our racialized cultural and social systems in the United States that are so hard to change (not that we shouldn’t keep fighting that battle), but this is one that’s easy. Read. Ask. Learn.


Can we be friends with hateful people?

It’s been a lingering question for us at 606: How do you engage with people who are hateful?

Like, not hateful to you personally (Presumably, we let those people go, unless they are related to us, when we may still let them go or may choose a variety of other tactics to avoid them or minimize their impact on our lives.)

But the grandpa who says racist stuff, but only in private. The friend from high school who makes sexist jokes when it’s just among friends. The people who voted Trump proudly–or the ones who voted for him quietly, denying it was racism that drove them, even though his policies are incredibly racist.

What about them?

I’m returning to that question now for a personal reason: I’ve recently lost a number of relationships to people who are hateful in this way.

Data point: All the Trump voters I know in a personal way I also know are racist. I mean, if I’ve been in a position to hear a Trump voter use a racial epithet (assuming, for example, that the Trump voter I know at work isn’t going to use one there), I’ve heard them say it. (I’m outing some folks here, I know.) For this reason alone, I cannot call these relationships friendships or these people friends. People who are hateful cannot really have friendship like I understand it, because they do not have respect like I understand it.

Those people are gone from my life now. I didn’t make that choice; they did. And it wasn’t politics that drove us apart, at least not directly. It was broken relationships in other ways.

I didn’t hang on to them because I enjoyed these relationships or because they were useful to me in some way. I hung on to them, in the limited way we had a relationship, because I think it’s the work of white people to stay in relationship, as much as they safely can, with other white people–and men especially and straight men especially and Christian men especially–, to push them to better ways of being in the world. It’s not the job of vulnerable people to do this. It’s the job of people with privilege. And even as we do it, we cannot allow it to take one bit of energy from our other work: changing structures so that, regardless of the hate people feel in their hearts, they cannot act on it in society.

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They hung on with me for their own reasons. We were both bothered by the others’ politics. I was disgusted by how they cheered on conspiracy theories of migrant caravans; they don’t like that I support health-care-for-all. Their genocidal politics were always a sufficient reason for me to quit our relationship. That they were never that upset about my politics (I mean, they treated me with disrespect, but they wouldn’t have stopped talking to me over politics.) doesn’t mean that they were more open-minded, only that my politics are pretty inoffensive to to them compared to how horrendous their white supremacy is to me.

We keep these relationships in part because these people can do tremendous damage. We–or, at least, some of us–have to keep trying with these people, even if just to moderate their hate if it won’t be eradicated.

Sometimes it works. For example, when white men making racist comments on Twitter are confronted by a bot posing as another white men, they are more likely to change their behavior than when they are confronted by a bot that appears to be a man of color. And the more followers the white man (bot) has, the more likely they are to stop. Peer pressure–especially from someone seen as popular–works.

And sometimes people don’t change. The wages of sin are death, and some white people will hang on to white supremacy even as it kills them.

For the most part, people don’t leave hate because they have a sudden epiphany that hate is wrong or because they now understand that their former targets are inherently dignified and deserving of respect. When they do leave, they do it slowly, turning away a little at a time. They seek an exit ramp rather than executing a U-turn. And their reasons are personal and generally selfish: they don’t like the social costs of hate. Or they themselves are finding their hate groups participation to be too burdensome. It’s limiting who they can date, what they can wear, or their chances to earn a decent living. That’s not a change of heart.  Sometimes, though, a change of heart follows. But it’s generally not where stories of leaving hate behind start.

We hear inspiring stories of how friendship brings people out of hate. They are true, I don’t doubt. But they are atypical.

Even now, when there is a sense of relief that I don’t have to do these relationships any more, there are mixed feelings, a little like, I think, you feel when you end a relationship with a person with an addiction. You can’t help them anymore, but you are still worried about the damage they will do to others. You wonder if you could have done more even as you know that this isn’t your responsibility.


The Comforting Face of God

I was digging through old writing this week and came across a sermon I shared at Peace Mennonite Church many (like, 12?) years ago, before the internet was invented.

Oh, wait, I just fact checked it and turns out that’s not true. But before I used the internet to share such things.

So, I’m sharing it now, in case you missed a sermon this morning or just need another. The texts are Isaiah 40: 1-11, Psalm 85: 1-2 and 8-13, and 2 Peter 3:8-15a.


Each weekday at 5:30, I rush into the childcare center where G– and M– enjoy their days. Usually, I am one of the last two parents picking up their preschoolers. I usually rush in, full of apologies to everyone for being the last, still thinking about the problems of the day and already worrying about dinner, bathtime, and bedtime and wondering if it’s okay to put your kids to bed at 6:00.  The other parent is Chris, who has two daughters roughly the same age as my children.  Though C–, like me, comes in at the last minute, he is calm and happy, always smiling and looking ready to enjoy his family time in the evening.

I am especially impressed with this because C–’s older daughter, Isabelle, hasn’t been in daycare since August.  Instead, she’s been in the hospital. You see, Isabelle was born with a severe heart defect.  We met at daycare when she was not quite two years old, so now she and G–, who lovingly calls her “Isabelly”, have known each other for half their young lives.

In August, Isabelle had the third of three scheduled heart operations, but something went wrong, and, shortly after the operation, the procedure had to be reversed.  Her health deteriorated quickly, and, since August, she has remained in the hospital. In October, she was moved from Children’s Mercy in Kansas City to St. Louis Children’s Hospital in part to increase her chances of receiving a heart transplant.   Her mother, a middle school teacher on a long term leave of absence, remains with her, while C–, her father, stays in Lawrence with the younger daughter, working to pay the medical bills, which they estimate may be more than $100,000.  After having spent months lying on her back with a tube in her throat, Isabelle is now able to spend about half her time off the tube, but she has lost use of her core muscles and so can’t sit up, and she has, because of the tube, lost her ability to speak.  Her time awake is filled with speech and occupational therapy and videos involving Disney princesses.  Her mother, who is staying at the hospital with her, gets a lot of time to read novels but is lonely, while her father is single-parenting a toddler who hasn’t seen her big sister in four months.

So when I run into C– at the end of each day, I am immediately impressed with his cheerfulness, then ashamed of my own grumpiness.  He knows that it’s possible that Isabelle will not find a donor—and, if she lives through the transplant, she still faces a life of difficulty.  I know that most marriages do not survive the death of a child or a bankruptcy, should medical bills result in that, and I worry about the younger sister, what her future will be like if she loses her sister and her parents’ marriage.  I look at Isabelle’s father and wonder about my own ability to handle the kind of situation his family is facing.

How they do it? Not just how does this man continue to go through his day or his wife sit at Isabelle’s bedside, because I know the answer to that. They do this because they have two young children, and they have to do it.   But where does the sense of peace and comfort come from?

I have a small clue.

Last week, posters of Isabelle appeared at the kids’ daycare, along with cards listing her website and these bracelets that you can buy to raise funds for her.   We have the card and the bracelets, too.  But what struck me as most interesting was the posters. They include Isabelle’s photo and ask us to pray for her.

What a humbling thing to ask someone else, especially people you don’t know, and people whose faith you don’t know, to do—to pray for you.  Isabelle’s family needs so much, but what they ask for is our prayers.

I have no experience of God’s supernatural comfort, no moment when my own grief and pain was erased by a sense of God’s warming love, no moment when I’ve felt myself picked up by God the shepherd and, like a lost lamb, carried in his bosom.  I have no life-altering encounters with the Holy Spirit comforting me, no clear visions of God telling me not to fear but to rest in the protective shadow of God’s arms.  In fact, when, at moments of grief, well-meaning friends deliver platitudes like, “All things happen for a reason,” or “God has a plan in all of this,” I usually feel irritation rather than comfort.  I don’t have the experience of God actually walking through the shadow of the valley of death with me.  I find that “Footprints” poem really sweet, if a bit hokey, but it’s very far from my own experience.

So, as I’ve prepared this sermon on the comforting face of God, I’ve struggled a lot.  In the meantime, I’ve attended a double funeral—a friend lost both her parents, one unexpectedly and one not, in the same week—and I have received news of the imminent death of my cousin’s child.   With each piece of news, I’ve been faced with my own sense of inadequacy as a comforter. What shall I say to my cousin as she prepares for her son’s death? What do I say to my friend in the receiving line after the funeral?  Do I repeat the platitudes of the funeral sermon? My first response is to deliver a casserole. That seems very inadequate.

Today’s texts give us an idea of what providing comfort means.  They give us an outline of how we might invite God’s comfort of us, how we might prepare ourselves to receive it.

Isaiah gives us this list of commands to follow to hasten God’s comfort:

Prepare the way of the LORD.

Make straight a highway for our God.

Get up to a high mountain and lift up your voice and announce God’s coming


Peter tells us to expect “all things…to be dissolved,” for all that derails us from God’s mission to be burned away. Inspired by that promise, we should

Lead lives of holiness and godliness

Strive to be at peace

Be without spot or blemish

These are hard words and not ones we deliver in funeral sermons.  We do not usually tell people that they need to “lead lives of holiness and godliness” before God will comfort them. In fact, in our popular expressions of religiosity, we often hear stories of God’s comfort being revealed through coincidence, not as a result of our own spiritual discipline.  We hear a song on the radio that reminds us of a loved one, or we are packing up Grandma’s things after her funeral and discover, from the bookmark in her Bible, that she was reading Psalm 25 on her deathbed, the same passage read at her funeral. I do not deny the comfort that such moments bring us, but I do not think that these small coincidences are what Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Peter mean when they talk about comfort.

Isaiah gives us instructions for hastening the coming of God’s comfort, and he says that comfort is a consequence of God’s justice. Or, as we might say, there is no peace without justice; in this case, God’s comforting peace cannot rest upon us if our consciences are stained with the abuse or exploitation of others.  Isaiah’s vision of justice is clearly a reversal of power—the high mountains are laid low, the valleys lifted up, just like Jesus promises the first shall be last and the last shall be first.   Isaiah’s vision is, literally, one of an even playing field.  The writer of Psalm 85 describes this as a time when steadfast love and faithfulness— I think, God’ steadfast love and our faithfulness—will meet. This is where, Peter says, “righteousness is at home.” In other words, our expectation should be that God’s justice and peace belong to humanity even if they do not have their genesis in humanity.

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This justice and peace bring us comfort in two ways.  The psalmist says that, when we invite God’s righteousness, God will “give what is good.” When we invite God’s justice and God’s peace, when, in fact, we expect that our faithfulness to God’s vision for creation will be met with God’s steadfast love and care, I think we can also expect other blessings from God. We will be better able to hear God’s voice, including God’s words of peace.  We will find ourselves in a new heaven and a new earth, as Peter says, a place of sufficiency for all needs, as the Psalmist suggests.

This comforting vision comes from God’s steadfast love, our confidence in God’s plan for peace, our commitment to God’s justice, and our understanding who were are in relation to each other and to God.  Note that these qualities all involve consistency, a key to comfort. This is why, of course, we feel comforted by the familiar and comfortable when surrounded by those whose trustworthiness is confirmed through our experiences with them. We are comforted because God’s love is assured. We are comforted because we know that God will respond to our faithfulness with righteousness.  We are even comforted knowing that we are like withering grass or fading flowers. Our fears and troubles are temporary.  Our individual ability to believe at any one moment is not relevant; instead, God’s enduring presence bolsters us.

To be receptive to this kind of comfort requires action.  Isaiah tells us to prepare, to make a highway for our God. In other words, we are to create a means through which God will enter our lives.  In the Mennonite tradition, this means, I think, simplicity in living, so that we do not ignore God because we are too busy with other things. We are open, receptive, and alert to holiness. We are also to share God’s coming justice and peace with others.  Isaiah tells us to “get up on a high mountain” and announce God, but he also promises that God will level those high mountains. Apparently, then, we are to announce God’s plan for justice before it is delivered—and by doing so, we will aid in its delivery.  Likewise, Peter tells us to strive—what an athletic word!—for peace, holiness, and godliness.   Here are our obligations.

Isabelle’s family receives the comfort of God by preparing themselves for God’s goodness, for waiting with anticipation and assurance of God’s consistent love. This week, C– and I spoke about Isabelle’s chances for a transplant. “They’re good,” he told me with a mixture of hope and grimness that I understood.  St. Louis is a larger city, which means more potential donors.  Winter means more auto accidents, and rates of donation go up around Christmastime, when people are more generous and as parents seek to make sense of their own child’s death in a time that celebrates the birth of Jesus.  For Isabelle to live, some other three year old will have to die—and for her to inherit that child’s heart, some other child, also in need of a transplant, will have to wait.  C– asks me to pray for the donor’s family, and for the first time, I see his cheeriness waiver. I ask him the awkward question all the etiquette books say not to ask someone in need: “Can I do anything to help?” It sounds insincere as I say it.  I can’t pay their medical bills. My own children have healthy hearts beating in their chests, and I can’t give them up.  C– does not ask me for these things, thankfully.  Perhaps he has read Isaiah and the Psalmist and Peter lately, but he doesn’t ask for the kind of social justice that would reduce his healthcare bills or make it possible for both parents to be with an ailing child. Instead, he looks with confidence to a future with his daughter home from the hospital, healthy and growing, and asks me for the comfort I can give to him, thereby consecrating the highway I can build for God’s blessings to enter their lives: pray for his family, pray for the donor’s family, and, when Isabelle gets home from the hospital, please bring them a meal.  In his humble acceptance of a gift I can give, C– allows me to walk the highway he has created between God and his family, bringing tidings of comfort that God’s love promises us.

May God bless us with discomfort

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

A new semester is beginning at colleges across our country. Here in State College, Penn State students are rolling through their first week. In honor of the occasion, I decided to take a familiar Franciscan blessing and edit a few words to fit our context. Perhaps it will be a blessing to you wherever you find yourself as you begin this fall…

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May God bless us with discomfort at shallow professor answers, partisan-truths, and superficial student relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at institutional injustice, higher Ed oppression, and exploitation of grad students and staff, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace at Penn State.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from mental health, body rejection, Lion Cash hunger, and marginalization, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference on our campus, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to Penn State, State College, and beyond.

A 2019 Penn State Franciscan Blessing

Engaging Judges in Art: Samson

Regular readers of Sixoh6 know that I’m reading through Judges right now. I think it’s the book for our time, and I encourage others to read it carefully now to see how it speaks to our culture of violence, especially against women, tribalism, and nationalism. While conservative Christians have been looking to Trump as a King Cyrus and, in Trump’s delusions, Jews are looking at him as the Messiah, I think the comparison to Samson might be more apt: a man persuaded in any moment by his appetites and anger, somehow who is vengeful but wants to be remembered as a hero. (I’m open to other readings of Samson, but I think it’s unlikely that my assessment of Trump is going to change.)

Anyway, that has taken on my a review of art inspired by the stories there. I share some of them below. If you have other pieces that address the Samson story, I would love to see them!

Samson Slays a Thousand Men with the Jawbone of a Donkey by James Tissot

Image result for Samson with the JawboneSamson and Delilah by Jose Echengusia Errazquin, above, and below, by Peter Paul Rubens

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See the source imageSamson and the Philistine by Danish painter Carl Bloch

See the source imageSamson by British painter Solomon Joseph Solomon

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Above, The Blinding of Samson, by Rembrandt. 


Segregated Education’s Role in Today’s “Religious Liberty” Arguments

Today, a special back-to-school post reminding you that white supremacy and racial segregation in education gave us much of today’s Religious Right:

Since Brown v. the Board of Education (1955), religious conservatives have used private religious education as a defense against segregation.  Post-Brown, white families facing the specter of integration set up private Christian schools all across the US that excluded students of color. “Religious liberty” became a cover for racial bigotry–just as, today, is a cover for anti-gay bigotry.

This went on for more than a generation, as white people integrated with “all deliberate speed”–which is to say, not much speed at all. White mothers, claiming that they were only acting in their own children’s best interests, were central players in resisting segregation.

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“Race Mixing is Communism” announces the picket sign of a white woman opposing desegregation. Political conservatives have often tried to paint those in favor of racial justice and equality as un-American. Not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan, who tried to label Nelson Mandela as a communist, supported “segregation academies” like Bob Jones. 

It wasn’t until 1983–almost thirty years after Brown–that the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University lost a Supreme Court case over the issue. Because it opposed interracial marriage on religious grounds, the school refused to allow African Americans to enroll until 1971. (In 1970s, 15 years after Brown, the IRS revised rules to say that segregated nonprofits were no longer tax exempt.) Then, until 1975, it only allowed in married African American students (presumably, only those married to other African Americans). When it began to allow unmarried African Americans to enroll, it prohibited entrance to anyone who promoted interracial marriage. The university had a policy against interracial dating that it didn’t repeal until 2000.

These policies caused it a major headache in the 1970s and early ’80s. The federal government came after the school’s tax exempt status, arguing that the government had a compelling interest in eradicating racism in education. For 13 years, the school fought against the revocation of its tax exempt status, but in 1983, Bob Jones v. United States was decided in favor of the federal government. In 2000, when presidential candidate George W. Bush came under criticism for visiting a school that continued to ban interracial dating (and is anti-Catholic and homophobic, though most of his voters didn’t mind the homophobia), the school changed its policy. Just two years ago, it regained its nonprofit status.

Bob Jones lost its court case, but the arguments it made there–that any government intervention in its operations was a violation of its religious liberty–continue to appear in “religious liberty” arguments today. This includes those opposing contraception mandates in health insurance, supporting the right to fire LGBTQ+ people based on their sexuality or gender, and attacks on Muslims.

At its core, Bob Jones wasn’t about religious liberty but about the right to create a white-only schools–and, in a broader sense, about defining “religious liberty” in a way that gave authority to white Christians to discriminate.