Have you ever wondered why the president of the Ku Klux Klan is called an Exalted Cyclops? Or how a white supremecist could be redeemed? Or how anything good could come from betrayal? Or how any of this has to do with Naaman? Me too.
A couple weeks ago, a local civil rights leader in my city, Ann Atwater, died. She was eighty. Ann organized in Durham for decades, and as a big black woman with a fierce will, a booming voice, and an authoriative aura, she got stuff done. She’s probably best known for her role in a series of public meetings leading to a plan to integrate the county’s public schools. Not exactly the person you’d have expected, a few years back, to eulogize a former Exalted Cyclops of the KKK. But that man was C.P. Ellis, and C.P. had, one might say, gone down to the Jordan and washed his reluctant body seven times. When he emerged, he didn’t even recognize himself – and those who did, his own people, didn’t like what they saw.
Osha Gray Davidson tells the story in his book, The Best of Enemies. The year was 1971. Durham schools were beset by overt racial tensions that often erupted into physical violence in and out of class. Two branches of the federal government – the Supreme Court in 1954 and Congress in 1964 – had mandated school integration, but Durham had stalled until the year before, when the district court ordered Durham’s schools to desegregate.
After months of negotiations with local leaders, the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare announced that, as a part of a $7.5 million integration support package, it was committing almost $80,000 to a series of community processes, called charettes, to smooth the path toward desegregation. The charettes were meant to provide space for community members to air their concerns and propose productive avenues forward, ways to comply with their legal obligations.
Both C.P. and Ann were outspoken civic leaders in Durham, and the man charged with planning the charettes called to invite them both to help plan the events. At first, C.P. balked. He didn’t care for the idea of associating with the people who would be present at such a meeting. But the chair of the Citizens’ Council – the Klan for genteel, law-abiding folk – convinced him that white folks needed their voice to be heard in this process. When Ann heard this, she resolved to show up herself and called around to make sure plenty of black leaders were present at this planning meeting.
It was an explosive gathering, but by the time it had played out there were plans for a series of ten public charettes, ten sixteen hour public input and design sessions to integrate Durham’s public schools, back to back over two weeks that summer. Ann and C.P. would chair the process.
But they were not friends. They could hardly agree on a location for the events, each of them concerned about “neutrality” and the safety of the people they hoped would attend. When the morning of the first charette arrived, C.P. took Ann to his car, opened his trunk, and showed her the revolver he brought, just in case things got out of hand. “C.P., that’s your god,” Ann replied. Holding her Bible, she said, “This is mine. We’ll see which one is stronger.”
It wasn’t on that first day, but as the days progressed, C.P. surprised himself by hearing his own concerns voiced by black parents in attendance. He’d never actually listened to black people before. As a working class white man, never quite able to provide the life he hoped for his family, he found he resonated with black parents’ fears that their children wouldn’t get the new textbooks or attentive teachers, that they would still lose, even after desegregation.
During one afternoon break, he spotted Ann sitting in the auditorium by herself and collapsed in the seat beside her.
“How you doing?” he said.
“‘Bout wore out!” she replied.
They got to chatting about nothing, enjoying a pause in the marathon of intense meetings. At some point the conversation turned to their families.
“How are your kids?” he asked her. “You’ve got two, don’t you?”
Ann sized him up, still unsure how much she could trust him, and she took a risk, telling C.P. how her daughter had been coming home from school crying every day. Her teacher and classmates had been harassing her because they thought her mother was a fool for working with a Klansman.
C.P. was frozen in shock. His kids were getting that, too, he said. People thought he was getting soft. He’d gotten death threats at home for working on the charettes, for trying to make a place for his kids to stand in this world. Their conversation tumbled into all the hardships they’d both experienced for their role in the charettes, all the hardships of growing up and raising kids in poverty, all the hardships they shared. “And suddenly,” Davidson writes, “he was crying. The tears came without warning, and once started, he was unable to stop them. Ann was dumbfounded, but she reacted instinctively by reaching out and taking his hand in her own. She tried to comfort him… as he sobbed. Then she, too, began to cry.”
There’s no happily ever after here, though. By the end of the ten days of meetings, the 160 hours of sessions, C.P. realized he had done something he couldn’t undo. His eyes had changed. He saw his skin, and others’ skin, differently, more tenderly – and he wasn’t at all sure he liked it. He’d set fire to bridges he had thought were made of stone, and he had nowhere to go. He felt out of place among the middle class liberal whites who supported integration, couldn’t get comfortable in Ann’s black church, and was iced out of the Klavern community he once led. They’d kill him if he got too close. But they didn’t have to. Death was at his side, and dispairing at his own transformation, he made unsuccessful attempts at his own life.
When we hear the story of Naaman, we hear a lot of things. We hear the story of God’s miraculous healing, the healing of an outsider, a healing of an enemy of Israel, a healing which Jesus cites in his first recorded sermon in Luke 4. Naaman is cured of his leprosy and his skin is made soft, like a boy’s. It seems like fairly predictable love-your-enemies flavor good news.
And this is true, and good; but I think it overlooks the precariousness of Naaman’s situation. He’s a general of one of Israel’s enemies. In the next chapter of 2 Kings, Aram is at war with Israel again. We hear a bit of this tension in the king of Israel’s response to Naaman’s arrival. “Just look and see how he’s trying to pick a quarrel with me,” he cries.
He’s got a letter from the king of Aram, but this sounds like treason, it sounds like betrayal. Didn’t the Arameans have any doctors or magicians or healers who could have done the trick? Or maybe the king was right, and Naaman was throwing down the gauntlet. Maybe he fully expected to return home with leprosy, having exposed either the impotence of the God of Israel or their lack of charity. Maybe this was a sly war overture, an attempt to gain the upper hand in battle.
So when Elisha instructs him to wash in the Jordan, Naaman finds himself reluctantly committed to the charade, but he hates himself for it. He hates the indignity of his situation – and when he’s healed, he seems genuinely surprised and surprisingly superstitious. He asks to bring two loads of Israel’s soil home with him. Elisha simply tells him, “Go in peace.”
We don’t know what happened to Naaman when he got back to Aram, or what it’s like to be a grown man, a military man, with a boy’s soft skin. Maybe the king of Aram threw a big party for him with all their friends and colleagues, but it makes me wonder.
Maybe Naaman was like C.P. Maybe he realized once he got back to Aram, that he could never really go home. That his mission had been too risky, that he had been successful in all the wrong ways, that his success would be reckoned to him as betrayal.
Or maybe he was welcomed back, tentatively, cautiously, like someone who’d gone too far, who now was unrecognizable to those he once knew. Maybe he was wracked with the doubts that grow out of receiving your life back from your enemy.
We don’t know how Naaman’s story ends. His history is opaque to us.
What we do know is that his transformation, like C.P.’s, was not instantaneous. We know that from Naaman’s anger. It was not what he wanted. It was not a magical invocation and a miraculous waving of hands. It was not a priestly blessing. It was seven humiliating baths in the Jordan River or ten tiring and demeaning charettes. It was unseemly candor with the unlikliest of people. It was moments and days and years left unrecorded, slowly adjusting his unfamiliar body to his unchosen life.
C.P.’s betrayal of his klan, both the fraternity and the extended family, was unforgivable. Those spaces he once called home were now closed to him. As a white working class race traitor at the end of the twentieth century in the American South, he was shunned from family reunions and never again found a church where he could belong. But as a tradesman at Duke, he found his way into an integrated labor union, where he was elected and worked successfully for its 80% black membership for the final two decades of his career.
At his funeral, Ann arrived early and sat down in front. The funeral home director approached her and asked her to move. She was in the section reserved for family.
“I’m his sister,” she replied.
On July 4, 1915, during the First World War, a French soldier wrote a letter to his cousin. “Above all, trust in the slow work of God,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote.
We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that may take a very long time.
The ironies of this statement, of course, lie between its context, the fundamental impatience of war, and its illusion of future security. Teaming up and killing each other is about the least patient thing we can do and the “stages of instability” he concedes are not so much the stepping stones he imagines as simply the character of life’s terrain. Yet perhaps in the context of Naaman’s, C.P.’s, and our lives, we can find some truth and gain some consolation and courage here.
We live our lives in a slow unfolding, within never-ending ecologies of relationships, fidelities and betrayals unknown and unforeseen. Perhaps these are excruciating because they are our horizons; because they extend beyond our capacity to know or imagine; because this is the topography of life, and we need each other to be our Elisha, to listen to us with compassion, heal us, and to tell us, “Go in peace.”
 Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
 Ibid., 275.
 Ibid., 276.
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest, 1914-1919, tr. René Hauge (London: Collins, 1965), 57.