I cherish my upbringing on a farm in rural Alabama, smack dab in the middle of the geographical region known as “the south.” Here, fireflies flicker at dusk. Pace slows. People smile, shell peas, and sip sweet tea. Skylines broaden and sunsets linger a wee bit longer. And here, “suhthuhn”(1) culture still maintains exclusionary attitudes that often require going north, east, or west to truly understand. After years of being away and gaining a theological education, I return to the south with a Biblical worldview and experiences that contradict many suhthuhn ideologies. Even after Civil War and Civil Rights, after Women’s Suffrage and lynchings, it’s still real sticky in “the Heart of Dixie.”
Detecting the Stickiness
In suhthuhn culture, politicians drizzle their constituents with the cane syrup of cronyism. Sexism is still served up like a pan of honey-pecan sticky buns, glazing roles for men and women with pseudo-morality. SEC-ism rolls people like nuts in the nougat of collegiate sports.
Population migrates to urbanity while poverty escalates in rurality. Colonial mansions cave in, showcasing Alabama’s broken-down aristocracy. Ironically, we’ve shifted the aristocracy to urbanity, where people relocate in more “suitable” zip codes or school zones. Conversations about sororities, Junior League, restaurants, vacation spots, denominations, and affiliations allow people to rank others according to the cultural hierarchy. Classism also works in reverse, stereotyping the wealthy as self-absorbed, arrogant, or unfeeling. Whether it comes from top-down or bottom-up, classism sticks to a soul like chewing gum to your shoe, adhering you to a place in the social order and shaming you for being there.
Suhthuhn culture keeps the paraphernalia of the confederacy so ubiquitous that everyone, including its victims, is tricked into furthering its ideology. Rebel flags blaze from bumpers and billboards advertise the meetings of the Sons of Confederate Soldiers. The photo I snapped of these two women of color sewing and selling rebel flag pillowcases at a rural festival this spring proves my point.
Dissolving the Stickiness
In the weeks following my return, I vented to Mama about how women, children, and people of color and poverty continually experienced persecution. She just kept telling me about her water aerobics class at Bobby Miller Activity Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and how different things were there.
Mama said it started when one woman, Dot, hugged everyone that came to the class. Everyone: male, female, old, young, white black, poor, rich. With each embrace, a bit of stickiness dissolved. Laughter and encouragement echoed off the water. The group gathered in the pool several times a week, but their interactions extended beyond chlorinated spaces. They hosted holiday parties and baby showers for each other and provided free babysitting services for one another.
The group, known as “the hugging pool,” provides a haven from the hatred and bigotry which constantly batters group members like Doris, the woman of color pictured front and center below, who says the group is “a little micro-world of how things could be.”
“It reminds me that it is not in vain that I desire the new earth,” she continues. It proves that “we can dispense with hatred and bigotry if we want to. I don’t know if, for us, it’s because we are wearing swimwear (meaning we are barely dressed and nobody is ashamed of their bodies) that we can just be real. We take no time to compare what each other has. Nobody vies for power. If this can happen with all kinds of people in a pool in the Deep South, it can happen around the world.”
The Journey Toward Unity
Do government actions achieve unity? In May, Mayor Mitch Landrieu demolished confederate monuments sprinkled throughout New Orleans while Alabama lawmakers simultaneously drafted legislation to prevent the destruction of similar monuments (2).
Does society and its fascination with technology achieve unity? Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerburg, recently expressed remorse for the hostility of posts and admitted that the initial mission of Facebook, which was to unite people, cannot be achieved by merely “connecting” people.(3)
Does the Church achieve unity? Not when congregations collude in the stickiness, practicing cultural Christianity, promoting individualism, and diluting doctrine.
The unity we seek is rooted in the person and work of Christ whose Gospel message penetrates the social structures perpetuating warped ideologies of inferiority. Even in this fallen world, unity is experienced wherever God's people walk yielded to his Spirit. The stickiness disintegrates as believers yield "to God as instruments of righteousness” and engage culture as peacemakers willing to confront the exclusionary attitudes that fractionalize our own hearts and the debilitating systems that marginalize others. (Mt 5.9, Rom 6.13). The stickiness fully dissolves on that glorious day when people come from east and west and north and, yes, even the south, to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).
1. Disclaimer: Remarks contained in this article are broad strokes and do not reflect the entirety of southern society. I distinguish between folks living in the south and “suhthuhners,” those promoting the exclusionary attitudes and ideologies of racism, classism, and sexism.
2. Transcript of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's speech: http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/05/mayor_landrieu_speech_con...
Kay Ivey signs bills protecting monuments: http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2017/05/gov_kay_ivey_signs_b...