November 22, 2020

Salt & Light Online

A current connection to each week's session


How Can We Keep from Singing?
Acts 17:16, 22-34

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Late this summer, I helped someone move to Asheville, North Carolina, a city I had never before visited. The ideal time to explore a city is not during a pandemic, so I was happy to be an outdoor tourist and walk its streets and admire its landscape, buildings, and public art.

One of Asheville’s most prominent landmarks is the 75-foot-tall Vance Monument, which in July was wrapped in black material draped over scaffolding. Its base was covered in spray-painted plywood and hand-lettered signs.

The monument honors Zebulon Vance, a Civil War military officer, governor, senator, and enslaver. Written evidence reveals that Vance was also a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. A smaller Robert E. Lee marker was removed earlier in the summer after George Floyd’s murder reignited protests, but this huge obelisk remained, albeit shrouded.[1]

As an oblivious tourist I came upon this monument in the town square. I first noticed that I was standing on a huge, painted, red-letter V filled with black wings and a man holding scales. The V soon revealed itself to be part of a “Black Lives Matter” mural painted on the street encircling the green. Then I saw the black-draped obelisk.

Asheville, like many other cities, continues to struggle with whether to remove or repurpose its Confederate memorials. Removal of the monument would be expensive. Monthly scaffolding rental is costly. Removing Vance’s name would be cheaper but possibly illegal. Adding an additional marker to offset and interpret the existing monument might satisfy no one. Recently, the dark shroud material blew off the scaffolding in a windstorm. The scaffolding and plywood remain as a statement that the issue is not resolved.[2]

I wonder if the apostle Paul would have used his “Athenian approach” to comment on the “shrines made by human hands” (v. 24) in downtown Asheville. I can imagine Paul being “deeply distressed” (v. 16) as he sees a monument that he recognizes as an altar to the idol of white supremacy. But then, he might also find an inscription proclaiming something akin to “For we too are his offspring” (v. 28). Maybe he would connect with the Black Lives Matter mural. Or the “Racism: America’s Original Pandemic” sign or the “White Silence = Violence” banner. Would Paul find some inscription with which he could agree and on which to build a sermon?

This passage in Acts 17 shows Paul in one of his most inclusive and expansive moments. Paul proclaims that God made the world and everything in it (v. 24) and that all nations are made from one ancestor (v. 26). Paul’s most universal statement is a quote of one of Athens’s poets, “In him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).

  • What does it mean that we all exist within the cosmos of God?

—Gwen Groff, bethanym@vermontel.net

© 2020

1. Mackenzie Walker, “Vance Monument Group’s Mission Failed in 2017. Why Will This Time Be Different?” Ashville Citizen Times, July 14, 2020.
2. Joel Burgess, “Asheville’s Shrouded Confederate Monument, Unveiled by Wind, Won’t Be Recovered Because of Cost: City,” Asheville Citizen Times, September 9, 2020.

Resources for this session

Gwen Groff is pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont. She lives in Plymouth, Vermont, with her husband and intermittently with her adult children.

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