by Keith Herron
Our text: Art – oil paints, mixed with precision for color and shading, all of it purposeful in the hand and creativity of one of the world’s masters; no wasted elements here, all of it serves the artist’s intent – all of it thought through for a larger purpose.
“The Problem We All Live With,” by Norman Rockwell, 1964, Oil on Canvas
Our brains tell us immediately that this is a Norman Rockwell – what could be more American? Did you know that when the naiveté of the 1950’s gave way to the clamoring of change, stodgy, traditional old Rockwell grew too? For decades he had painted our greatest American values. But in the 1960’s Rockwell made the editors of The Saturday Evening Post nervous with how he began exploring our American struggle.
Art has a way of throwing open the windows and doors of our minds.
This painting was based on the experience in 1960 of a 6-year-old New Orleans girl named Ruby Bridges who was trying to get to her elementary school. The painting shows Ruby in a white dress carrying her schoolbooks, pencils and a ruler, while behind her the N-word, the vilest of racial epithets, is scratched on a wall. A tomato has smashed against the wall; near one edge of the wall, the initials KKK can be seen. Rockwell uses every square inch of the painting to shape what he wants us to think deeply about.
Not visible in Rockwell’s painting are the crowds taunting and threatening the child as she walks toward the school (images known to us through history).
Four men tower over her as her escorts – two in front, two in back. They are deputy U.S. marshals (notice the deputy in front of Ruby has the court order sticking out of his coat pocket). The key detail is how he framed the four U.S. marshals who are accompanying that child to school. We do not see their faces; in the painting, the men are cropped at their shoulders.
That is the power and the story of the painting: Four men were accompanying Bridges to school, but the point was that the authority of the United States of America was accompanying her. We see the men’s “Deputy U.S. Marshal” armbands, and that is all that matters. The painting tells us: This country may have its flaws, but when right and wrong are on the line, the nation, in the end, usually chooses to stand for right.
Robert Coles, in “The Hero Without and Within,” (Harvard Diary, NY: Crossroad, 1988), relays a conversation he had with one of Ruby’s teachers:
“I watch her walking with those federal marshals, and you can’t help but hear what the people say to her. They’re ready to kill her. They call her the worst names imaginable. I never wanted ‘integration,’ but I couldn’t say those things to any child, no matter her race. She smiles at them – and they’re saying they’re going to kill her. There must be 40 or 50 grown men and women out on those streets every morning and every afternoon, sometimes more. One of the marshals said to me, ‘That girl, she’s got guts; she’s got more courage than I’ve ever seen anyone have.’ I agree with him; she doesn’t seem afraid. There was a time, at the beginning, I thought she wasn’t too bright. But she’s a bright child, and she learns well. She knows what’s happening, and she knows they could kill her. They look as mean as can be. But she keeps coming here, and she told me the other day she feels sorry for all of them, and she’s praying for them. Can you imagine that?
Coles later interviewed Ruby who explained how she did it. “I do what my granny says; I keep praying…”
Why do we trouble ourselves with art? This painting from over 50 years ago, from another time, and another disturbing setting has the power still to help us reflect upon the issues of our own day. We are forced in our time to confront issues of citizenship and gender, sexual orientation and human rights. Even today we are battling poverty issues and moral courage.
Our responses are constructed by our exploration of right thoughts, right actions, and right faith. When we follow these sources for faith, we will be led by God to struggle for the outcomes of justice.
We draw faith from the imagery of another painter – this one painting with words: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24, NIV). Gravity pulls the waters of the earth downward to the sea. It cannot help but seek out the lowest elevations. Drawn there by the laws of God, relentless, grinding, working its way to the bottom of things until it loses itself in the sea.
Justice demands we respond with courage. Hear the prayer by William Sloane Coffin, former pastor at Riverside Church in NYC:
May the LORD bless us and keep us.
May the LORD make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us.
May God give us grace not to sell yourselves short,
grace to risk something big for something good,
grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything
and too small for anything but love.
May God take our minds and think through them.
May God take our lips and speak through them.
May God take our hands and work through them.
May God take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was written as a reader response to the “Beyond the Divisions” series.
Keith Herron is the former pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in KCMO and St. Lucas UCC in St. Louis and is now serving as interim pastor for churches in transition. He also teaches “Understanding Yourself and Others” in the Doctor of Ministry program at CBTS. He and his wife, Wanda, live in Sunset Hills MO.