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    PloughCast 34: Classics, Race, and Religious Reconciliation

    Hope in Apocalypse, Part 4

    By Kim Comer, Anika T. Prather, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    July 19, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah welcome Kim Comer, the editor of Plough’s European edition, and discuss the origins of the new Bruderhof communities in Austria. Welcomed by Cardinal Schönborn as part of the healing of the schisms of the Reformation, these communities are thriving.

    This leads them to the question of how past wrongs can be healed in general: how can we get past the “sins of the fathers?” Not by denying those fathers and not by wallowing in guilt, but by the deep forgiveness and transformation available in Christ.

    Then, Peter and Susannah speak with Anika Prather about her year of mourning with her children: many family members and friends died, of Covid, of murder, of suicide, of heart attacks. How can we parent our children through such incredibly trying times? How can we truly teach them to look to the hope of the resurrection of the dead?

    Then they discuss Dr. Prather’s life project: understanding and using the Classical tradition for racial reconciliation in America. This is another kind of “healing of history,” and Dr. Prather’s work in classical education is an ambitious attempt to tell the untold story of Black classicists and the influence of the great tradition on Black thinkers, writers, and activists.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: Kim Comer: Catholic-Anabaptist Reconciliation in Austria

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Today, we’ll be talking with Kim Comer about a Catholic and Anabaptist reconciliation movement, and with Anika Prather about classics, classical education, and race in America.

    Peter Mommsen: Kim Comer is the editor of Plough’s European edition – about which you may hear more soon – and the European outreach director for the Bruderhof communities. Welcome, Kim.

    Kim Comer: Thank you.

    Peter Mommsen: Kim, you’ve been working for years in Austria and Germany as outreach director for the Bruderhof with other churches and movements. And one of the culminations of the work you’ve been involved in was an event last November in the cathedral in Vienna, the Stephansdom, with the archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Heinrich Arnold from the Bruderhof, as senior pastor, and the representatives of many other Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was a commemoration of 500 years since the Reformation, a commemoration specifically of martyrs from the Anabaptist movement who died there in Vienna and in Austria. Could you describe that event?

    Kim Comer: It was a very special day and in a very special place, as you say, primarily to remember the faithful witness of some of the early Anabaptists who were severely persecuted in Austria. The ones we were remembering actually were executed. Many hundreds of others were also forced to leave Austria during the Reformation and then the Counter-Reformation. And it’s been an open wound in a lot of ways in Austria, because in some ways the memory of that was purged from the history books. It wasn’t taught in schools. It wasn’t remembered in any way. And it also left a legacy, I think, of antagonism and hatred at the end of the day, which is particularly painful when it’s among Christians.

    And so it was an opportunity to gather together in the Stephansdom, the cathedral church of Saint Stephen in Vienna, which is effectively the epicenter of Catholicism in Austria, together with the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, who is the father figure for the Catholic Church in Austria, and to remember those who lost their lives actually at the hands of the Catholics. And to do it in a way that wasn’t casting stones, wasn’t trying to just dredge up the mire of the past, but was really just to honor the witness of those who were not respected and whose witness was not appreciated at the time.

    In fact, Christoph Schönborn said, in many ways, God was offering something to this country 500 years ago and the people at that time rejected it. And his longing and hope is that through the witness of the new Bruderhof community in Austria, but also through that event, through that evening vespers, that we could remember and possibly open a door for God to offer again such a gift for such a witness to appear in Austria.

    Quite a humbling thought for me, I have to say, as a member of the Bruderhof community, because in many ways I definitely don’t live up to the witness of the Anabaptist forefathers, the early Anabaptists. But it also is a sign of a completely new attitude, a completely new approach to Christians working together and respecting each other’s witnesses, even in the face of differences without casting stones and without somehow suggesting that the others are not true Christians and not part of the true Christian Church. So it was more than anything else a celebration of fellowship.

    Peter Mommsen: It was a truly remarkable event. And for our listeners, we’ll drop a link in the program notes. For my wife, who’s a biological descendant of these Austrian Anabaptists who were persecuted, and thousands martyred, 500 years ago, she was completely overwhelmed by this very simple prayer service in the cathedral, which she hadn’t expected.

    I think one reaction that a lot of people can have to this kind of event is an understandable kind of sigh that some people can have when they hear about these kinds of things. And you can actually express it in one of the sessions there, a question from a Catholic participant, how often do we have to apologize for bad things that the Catholic church did in the past? You could extend that to not just the Catholic Church but many other people who sometimes tire of apologizing for things that happened long before anyone today was alive. So that’s one question I hope to get into a little bit.

    But before we do, maybe it would be helpful, Kim, just to tell this story of what led to this event.

    Kim Comer: Over the past twenty or thirty years, there’ve been quite a number of Christians who’ve been delving into the question of the lingering scars, the lingering pain of the Reformation, and how one can bridge that rift. The antagonism that was let loose in those heady days of the Reformation has just continued through and in a certain sense, even become more and more politicized through the centuries and become more and more a part of the history of the Western world and of Christendom.

    So these Christians, a number of them with whom we’re befriended, they have given a lot of thought to this. And one of the ideas that has emerged from their discussions, from their meditations on this, is the idea of identification with the sins of those who’ve gone before. This idea means speaking straight about the things that went wrong in the past. Not holding back, not trying to justify or excuse behavior that did create pain and did create a lot of division. And yet somehow to see that by recognizing, by acknowledging the things that have gone wrong in the past and seeking together, particularly as descendants of various sides of a conflict, seeking together for ways to overcome that division, that a real healing can happen. Something special can happen.

    Around 2010, when all the planning was underway for this big jubilee in 2017, 500 years after the Lutheran reformation, there was a real concern among some that this could easily become just a celebration of Protestantism, a celebration of Lutheranism, without recognizing that there were many other parties in the Reformation, and many of them were in fact victims of Luther’s Reformation and Luther’s orthodoxy and of the politics that emerged from it. And in particularly the Anabaptists were victims, both of the Catholics and of the Lutherans and the Calvinists and the Zwinglian Swiss Protestants. So they had a longing to have some aspect of 2017 be more comprehensive than just remembering Luther and just glorifying what Luther did, as important as it was.

    So they started preparing already in 2011, inwardly and outwardly also doing research to see how one could have an event – if you like, one might call it a fringe event to the big Reformation festivals – and really try and bring out some of the other aspects of the Reformation that were not so pretty and in which the Lutherans did not shine so positively. And they invited a range of descendants of Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Amish, and also representatives from the Bruderhof to come and join them for that event in Wittenburg in October of 2017.

    And it was in that context that I think really something happened that opened the hearts and touched the hearts of everybody who was there. And as you said before, one can almost become jaded sometimes about all the talk about everything that has happened and how does one move forward with it?

    The people that I know who were there tell about it just with a glow in their eyes about what happened in that experience, a real meeting of hearts. Just a few weeks after the conference, the representatives from the Catholic Church in Austria who had been there also on behalf of Christoph Schönborn wrote to us at the Bruderhof and asked us: Would we consider having a community in Austria? It’s been 450 years since the last Anabaptist community of goods was dissolved in Austrian territory. Isn’t it high time that this witness somehow reemerges in Austria? And we felt like we couldn’t just say no, right? We didn’t have any active interest in Austria, but we did have an active interest in increasing our presence in continental Europe. And we didn’t feel like we could just ignore the movement of the Spirit that we had experienced in Wittenberg and which was patently gripping the hearts of those people from Austria who were inviting us.

    So on the back of that, my wife and I were seconded in 2018 to come to Austria and to explore. Are these people who are inviting us speaking for a bigger circle of people or is this just a few individual opinions? Is there a legal framework and a societal framework that might welcome an Anabaptist community after such a long gap? And the short answer is yes, we just met an enthusiastic and warm response among everybody that we met. Free churches, the Lutherans, the Swiss Reformed. Everybody here, especially the Catholics, extended a real hand of welcome and enthusiasm. And one thing led to another, we established a small community then in 2019 and now a bigger community in 2022.

    I can only say it’s something that goes beyond what we as human beings have done. It’s not anything that my wife and I or any of us from the Bruderhof have done. And it’s not even anything that Christoph Schönborn or Catholic representatives have done. The time was right and it was just a real privilege to be a part of starting something new here in Austria.

    Peter Mommsen: I recall, Kim, that it was actually a little bit unnerving, the level of welcome that was extended to us. We as individuals or the Bruderhof as a community, it wasn’t about us, but about something beyond that we were allowed to play a part in: some knitting together of the body of Christ again. And it’s interesting the two communities that the Bruderhof now has in Austria are both in former monasteries. One in Retz on the Czech border in a former Dominican cloister and the other right outside Vienna in a former Franciscan convent. So that’s just a kind of nifty sign of a spiritual continuity.

    Section 2: Kim Comer: The Sins of the Fathers

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s climb into that question though of what it means to repent for the sins of the fathers, I think was a phrase that was used. Already Pope John Paul II issued an apology for acts made by those members of the Catholic Church in the past, not only in the Reformation but also in the conversion of the Americas and elsewhere. Especially where coercive measures were used to suppress “heretics” as reformers were called. Those efforts parallel secular apologies that have also been made in this country. We of course think of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the dispossession of Native Americans. There’s a culture of apology almost that can seem cheap, that can seem like a form of cheap grace.

    And one of the things that really impressed me is that it’s actually not a cheap thing to apologize for the “sins of the fathers,” to use that biblical terminology: for the guilt of one’s ancestors, both biological ancestors and one’s forerunners in whatever tradition one belongs to. Could you talk a little bit about that? You mentioned the word identification, which is different than vicarious repentance. Those are two different things, and it’s important to distinguish between wallowing in ancestral guilt versus what happened in Vienna, which was something very different than wallowing, in my experience.

    Kim Comer: So I can definitely say it’s been tremendously interesting and challenging for us to deal with this whole, I guess, theological side of how does one deal with the sins of the past, the sins of the fathers, so to speak. Because we all know and recognize that these things have consequences that linger into the present day. I grew up in Alabama, with the history of the Trail of Tears and the treatment of Native Americans. And then also the course of the treatment of African Americans and the whole slave trade and plantation economy of the South had tremendous negative impact, not only on individuals, but also on the whole fabric of society. This damage, this injustice, these sins effectively, they do linger in the sense that there are many aspects of society today where one could say we’re worse off because of things that were done in the past.

    And yet as you point out, and as I read the Bible, it’s not possible for us to somehow become surrogate penitents for the things that happened in the past. Every soul and everybody who lived in the past has to stand before God’s judgment, and God offers grace and judgment. Each individual person and each society ultimately has to face the judgment of God. And we can’t change that in the sense that now I’m going to repent and so God will be more gracious to the people 100 years ago or 500 years ago. On the other hand, when we do see that there are lingering problems that exist because of things that have happened in the past, then it’s also a challenge, because I don’t want to just go around feeling guilty about what my great grandparents may have done.

    My wife is German, and there’s a huge challenge for younger Germans –we’re not so young anymore, I guess – but post-war Germans, to deal with what actually happened in the Second World War, what happened during the Holocaust. And clearly a lot of our direct ancestors were involved in that. On the one hand, the answer cannot be just to feel guilty about it and just hang your head in shame and wish that you were not German or wish that you were not part of the people who committed these atrocities. One wants to do something in response. And when we also see the consequences that linger on even into the present day, then we also wish for healing. We want to do something that can also bring about healing, that can bring about, if you like, the vision of Martin Luther King Jr, the day when the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will sit together at one table.

    So how do we make that happen? And this idea of identification actually is taken largely from the Old Testament, the prime example being actually the prophet Daniel who cries out to God and says, “Our people have sinned.” It wasn’t Daniel himself personally, it was all something that had happened generations before. But “We sinned against you and it’s right that we were punished. It’s just that there were consequences to that, but now please, God, be gracious and help us to find a new course” – a new way that overcomes not only the sins of the past, but also overcomes the consequences of the sins of the past. And in this plea to God, then also God responds, the angel Gabriel comes to Daniel and says, “God heard you just the moment you spoke. In that very moment, when you spoke, God heard you and it opened something in the world of the Spirit.”

    And I think that’s the longing that we have felt for many of the people that we’ve been working with in Austria here. To me, it goes beyond just “Oh, I’m so sorry that this happened.” It’s not a question of apologizing. It’s a question of looking the problems that we face today straight in the eye, recognizing also that they are in part directly influenced by things that happened in the past that were unjust. And to say we want to turn away from that attitude of the past, and we want to turn towards something new that can overcome that.

    I think that the overriding thing that we felt is that there’s a spiritual dynamism in it. There’s a spiritual aspect to it that goes beyond just the intellectual working through, the sociological working through of this cause and effect, and somehow trying to stand together, no pointing fingers, no throwing stones. We’re all weak people and our forefathers and forebears were all weak people, but we want to stand now before God and ask him to be gracious in our day and allow something to happen that was hindered in the past.

    That’s what I felt the most strongly in that gathering in November and continue to feel, that there’s just this longing. You mentioned that we’ve taken over two monasteries here. We’ve met also with the Franciscan sisters, all old now. They’re all in their eighties and even nineties. They had to move out of this convent because they were too few and too old to even maintain it. And it stood a number of years empty. Their longing and their hope and their prayer was that something new, some spiritual life, some new spiritual life would come into these old walls and that new breath would come in.

    I wish you could experience what it’s like to talk with them. The enthusiasm that they have for this new community beginning on their old stomping grounds, in the place where they had invested their hearts and strength and souls into building community. And they come now and they see the children and families playing and laughing and singing. And they just overflow with joy, tears literally flowing out of their eyes, just with the joy that something new can be given. And one old sister, ninety years old, the former Mother Superior, she turns to my wife and she says, “You know what? We have to decline, but you have to gain.” She quoted from John the Baptist as he spoke to Jesus, “Our day is passing, but now a new day is dawning.”

    I don’t know how to express it, but it just goes beyond anything I could possibly have imagined in this country where a relatively short time ago Anabaptists were viewed as complete heretics. It would’ve been as if we were turning it into a mosque or something. And yet now, a completely different feeling has arisen, and I think in large part because of these efforts by many people who are looking at this spiritual dimension of identification with the things that have gone wrong in the past.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Hearing you talk about it just makes me so eager to visit. Obviously I was there recently and I didn’t get to. One of the things that reading the account of this meeting and various meetings has made me think about is just the concreteness of the teaching of the communion of saints in a couple of different, weird ways. One of them is that when I think about all the different martyrs of the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant and Anabaptist, I do kind of have this sense of, they die, and then they find themselves with each other praying for the church militant that they just left, that was militant against itself, in that time.

    And that sense of the communion of saints that already happened before God at that time, it seems as though that’s really being lived out. That communion of saints that’s happening in the church triumphant is now kind of getting funneled back down into the church militant in a way that just seems incredible to me, especially given both the Catholic and the Anabaptist emphasis on – it’s not just an invisible unity. You can’t just say with the Lutherans, “Well, invisible church,” you actually do have to have visible unity. We’re going for that and it’s an incredible thing to see the way that God works through history to get that visible unity back.

    Peter Mommsen: It strikes me in thinking about reckoning with the past, the Germans have a special term for that, don’t they Kim? Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

    Kim Comer: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Yes. It’s interesting, but the people that we work with, they avoid that term. Vergangenheitsbewältigung kind of has a sense of coping. The people that we know who are involved in this identification movement, they say, what we need is Geschichtsaufarbeitung. We have to take the past and we have to work through it. We have to reuse it as clay towards making something new. Re-casting it into a future that meshes with what we know the kingdom of God is calling us to. And I think that this idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung has really, in some ways been, I don’t want to say misused, but it’s certainly gotten a bad taste in post-war Germany in many ways, because what it effectively has meant is exactly the thing that you brought up earlier on.

    It’s just rehashing the same things again and again, and it’s described as coping, but it’s not actually coping at all. It’s just describing our helplessness, reiterating again and again our helplessness in the face of what has gone before – the monstrosity of it. What I’ve appreciated about this identification approach or this Aufarbeitung approach is that it’s trying to make something positive out of what we all recognize was, is, an ill. There’s nothing good, you can say, about it – and yet that’s the very message of the Gospels is that God can turn – I think it was Kierkegaard who said that the grace of God is what makes the wrong turn out better than the right ever could have turned out to be. That’s what redemption means. I think if the blood of Christ redeems also the sins of the past, it has to mean more than just, okay yeah, now we can move on. We don’t have to think about that anymore. It means taking that raw material, which is really, really ugly and raw and seeing it transformed into something that brings a benefit to future generations.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In thinking about all of these kinds of things it seems if you’re a Christian you’re asking for a lot. You’re asking for real forgiveness and real restoration and something that is better than what came before and all of the horrors of history kind of get caught up in that in ways that we don’t understand. It feels really bold to even think about.

    Kim Comer: It is bold, but I think desperate times call for desperate measures.

    If you push hard enough against somebody and against their family and their background and their ties and simply make a person try to feel guilty, ultimately, if a person gets the feeling that they’re being made to feel guilty for things that they themselves had nothing to do with for simply being a descendant of people who did things that were wrong, that’s a kind of judgementalism that almost demands a reaction against it.

    So I think the only answer going forward is the answer of the gospel. We have to stand together. Every one of us is a sinner before God. Not one of us can stand righteous before God’s throne. Who knows what future generations will have to cope with as a fruit of what we are doing today. So we have no ground to stand above, but we do have a responsibility to recognize that the things that have gone wrong in the past require repentance. They require redemption. They require what Susannah was just saying, this restorative moment that makes it come out good in the end, that makes it all build as part of God’s history. That’s what’s been a great privilege of being part of it here in Austria, specifically with respect to the Reformation.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you, Kim. And it’s going to be exciting to see how this all develops going forward.

    Section 3: Anika Prather: Grieving with Children

    Susannah Black Roberts: And now we’re very pleased to welcome to The PloughCast Anika Prather. Dr. Prather is a Christian, she’s a wife, she’s a mother, she’s a professor at Howard University, she is the founder of Living Water School, and she has various other projects going on at all times, some of which we’ll end up talking about on this podcast. Anika’s also a friend. We ran into each other up at Fox Hill, the Bruderhof community that Plough is published out of, I guess, last year. And you can find her on Twitter. Remind me of your handle.

    Anika Prather: @AnikaFreeindeed

    Susannah Black Roberts: @AnikaFreeindeed. You can find her on Twitter where she is a superstar of emotional and intellectual, I don’t know, charity, engagement in a social media environment, which is not always conducive to that, shall we say. And she also has a piece in the current issue. The piece is called “The Griefs of Childhood.” Do you want to talk about writing that piece, what occasioned it, and the year that you had?

    Anika Prather: Well, I was really excited when Plough asked me to write about it because it had been something I had been wanting to write. We have three young kids. My oldest just turned twelve, my second son just turned ten, and my daughter just turned eight. And they had never really dealt with a lot of tragedy or hard times in their life.

    And we found ourselves immediately, as soon as the virus started, thrust into a time period of horrendous loss of people that were close to them and close to us as a family, through very tragic ways. Some through Covid, but very tragically through Covid. One minute being alive and well, and within two days, can’t breathe and gone. And these were older people that would play with my kids and just made a lasting impact. One of them was my first cousin who was also my kids’ Sunday school teacher. He passed. One was their art teacher: he passed of a heart attack while driving. Some things weren’t Covid related, some were just death. And we had a couple of suicides, a couple of murders, cancer, strokes, just people that we loved so much, dying.

    I was not able to put on the strong face for my kids. And I worried about that. I worried about how all of this death would affect them. And as I was praying through that, I just felt God tell me, let them grieve with me. Instead of running off into a room and crying to get myself together, to get strong, to be with them, let them run with me, let them run together, let them fall on the floor and cry with me.

    And I just thought that was such wisdom from him because I never would’ve thought of doing anything like that.

    I didn’t hide the details of what happened. We talked a lot about death. We faced death. We faced the reality of, we may die. I talked about, I may die. Daddy may die. And I don’t want you to be angry at God if one of us dies. Or if Mama or Papa dies or your cousin dies, we don’t get angry at God. And we talked about the theological foundations of death, how we as Christians see death.

    And what I saw happen for myself is strength. I became much stronger than I thought I would be. I began to be able to heal from the losses. Because as I was talking to …Me and my children were talking about heaven and the promise of heaven and how death is not the end and how we live this life is so important because we want to prepare for eternity. I began to really value heaven. While you’re alive and well, heaven seems very far off.

    The test of this healing happened when I lost my best friend. He was a very dear friend. My husband and I, and his wife and him, we had all gone to a jazz concert, I think the year before, at this place called Blues Alley in DC, in Georgetown. And it was a wonderful time. The guy’s almost seven feet tall. I mean, he’s larger than life, loves God, just a really vibrant personality. And I had just texted him twenty-four hours before his passing, “Just called to check on you.” His mother had just passed away. “Are you okay?” And he just wrote me back, “I’m good. Thanks for checking in. I want you to know that you’re my favorite singer.” Just a really loving exchange.

    So in talking to my kids, it allowed me to thank God for the life of the person, for the blessing of being able to be connected to him right up to the end.

    And then finally, he was such a strong Christian. I know that he’s with God right now. And I began to really find comfort in that, that he’s with God. I know where he is. He’s at peace. We’ll see each other again, as I cover to my kids through that.

    And so then that was my journey. And so we walked through death together, crying together. I took them to funerals. I allowed them to see as people were sick. If we could visit, we would go. And what happened was instead of them becoming traumatized by it, they became not afraid of death so much. And they came to know that God does allow trials sometimes. And then the final thing that happened was when they lost their art teacher, which was, I think, the most recent passing we’ve experienced.

    We have his artwork that he did with my children around the house. It decorates their playroom. When he died, I was so distraught about that, because I was very close to him as well. And my youngest son says, “Mommy, did . . .” his name was Coltrane – he said, “Mom, was Coltrane a Christian?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, now when people I love pass away, I remember that they’re with God. It always makes me feel better.” At the time he was nine, telling me this. So here’s a nine-year-old telling a forty-eight-year-old this. And it comforted me.

    And so that’s how this article came out, just reflecting on this very important life lesson, that everything’s not going to be good and happy for our kids all the time. We can’t always protect them from that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, coming in the context of this apocalypse issue: it is apocalypse as the end of their world. I mean, it is their Judgment Day. It is the time when their hearts are revealed before God. And it’s also apocalypse in the sense of the unveiling of . . . we walk around as Christians saying we believe this stuff. And then this happens and you’re like, “Oh, well, this is real.” Christianity is not something that we use as a philosophical system to just make sense of our lives. This is a concrete hope. I felt like the issue of the magazine needed that piece as a very concrete anchor to what we’re talking about as Christians, when we talk about apocalypse.

    Section 4: Anika Prather: Classical Education and the Black Experience

    Susannah Black Roberts: In the midst of all this, you’ve not been otherwise idle. You have been extremely busy, pursuing a really interesting life project, from what I can tell, which involves your own scholarship, as well as the school that you’ve started. Can you tell our listeners what that is?

    Anika Prather: My overall desire is to use classics to bring racial healing. That’s my ultimate vision. I came to that conclusion as I watched Black activists use classics to fight for liberation, but not fight for liberation in a way to hurt anyone, but to heal America, to make America what it should be. And watching that pattern made me realize it is possible for us to do that today.

    And so the school is predominantly Black, but it is set up for anyone to attend. It’s not only focused on Black history. It talks about everyone’s history and how we all work together and have equally participated in humanity’s progress and in the progress of America.

    So it’s set up that way. And so the school I desire to be kind of like this training ground for young minds, to continue to think, as I’m thinking about this thing, how to engage with people who may not think like you, to have dialogue. Our Bible lessons are taught through dialogue. There’s just a lot of dialogue. Socratic dialogue is kind of interwoven throughout the day and being open to hearing other people’s opinions and thoughts and respectfully agree or disagree.

    And then there’s math and science and all the other things too. And then there’s this sense of democracy and freedom where we all vote for decisions. I don’t make final decisions. I didn’t even get the new building that we just got without having the students vote on it first. And then the parents voted on it. And then that’s when I signed the lease.

    Just this sense of, I am an equal participant in democracy. And I, as a human being have control over . . . I own my body to do what I think is best for it, so that’s another thing. And I don’t mean that in a liberal sense. I want to be clear on that too. But I mean it in a human sense. Meaning if I feel called to be a singer, I have the right to pursue that, use my time. During school time, I’m given free time to work on music, to work on gaming, to work on art, to work on writing. Another student might learn how to build computers. So we have this free time, a lot of free time built into the school day, but the students have to use that free time, working on something. And when I say “something”, it doesn’t have to be something that I think is okay. As long as it’s not displeasing to God, we want them to pursue all these different interests and passions.

    So we feel that in the midst of all of that, you’re learning what it means to be human, how to relate to other human beings and to give everyone liberty and democracy and to live that out. And that sense of equality.

    So that’s the school. And then my work in teaching at the university level is giving that same vision, packaged in a fifty-minute class, as we discuss various Black classicists or Blacks who read classics, but we don’t just read Black authors. We read the classics that they read, so they can cross reference and see, well, why were they reading this text? Why did they find value in this text?

    And then finally the final part of my puzzle is wanting to have . . . I didn’t want to wait for a college university to take on this project. I decided to start this museum called the Blacks in Classics Museum. And it’s going to be in Old Town, Alexandria.

    Peter Mommsen: Anika, this work is taking place in a context in which over the last two years, the accusation, the remark has been made and grown ever stronger that classics and the classical tradition is fundamentally racist and should be dismantled. And you’ve been pretty passionate about that. I wonder if you could reflect on that, catch us up on your thinking. Why is it important? Why is it important there would be such a thing as this museum? Why is it important that the Black intellectual tradition be highlighted, and its connection to the classics?

    Anika Prather: I’m going to answer that question by talking about Martin Luther King and not because he’s . . . everyone wants to talk about Martin Luther King, but I would like to say most people don’t understand him really. Because if you ask the average person, what did he accomplish? Most would say,” I Have A Dream” speech and he marched on a bridge. But they don’t realize that all of his work led to some type of change in legislation.

    He wasn’t just marching and nothing happened. He marched, he pushed people to vote, pushed for the right to vote because he felt that there was a lot of power in that. He was very political and very strategic. When he would get arrested, they were all strategically planned. He would literally sit and plan for everyone to get arrested. Everyone knew, young or old, when we do this, we want to get arrested.

    And then he would raise the bail money before they did it. “We want to dramatize what’s happening to us. We’re not doing anything. We’re not causing any violence, but here we are praying, kneeling, being arrested and hit with clubs.”

    And then the bail money would all be ready. By the time they got locked behind a jail cell, they’d have to let them out because they’d have all the bail money raised. And they would do this repeatedly. Now, how did this kind of thinking to create such a powerful force happen? Because he was classically educated.

    If you read his autobiography, he was on the debate team. He did recitations. All of the key components of a classical education that we know of, he mentions. And so he was classically educated and he graduates at sixteen from high school. Right? And he goes to college at Morehouse. And as a sixteen-year-old, sixteen, seventeen-year-old, his first essay I think in college was on civil disobedience. I don’t know any seventeen-year-old who’s interested in civil disobedience, anything that Henry David Thoreau would have to say right now.

    And so, as sixteen, Martin Luther King develops this vision for the civil rights movement. And that vision came from watching his father being mistreated as a black man and him feeling helpless as a young boy to stand up for his father who he highly respected. But he knew that there couldn’t be something that could just be fought with guns or violence. It had to be done strategically. It had to be done logically.

    So not only was he very strategic and very logical, he was a master at rhetoric, which is why his letters and his speeches are so powerful. And he won awards for being on the debate team. And so, all of that comes from his classical education. If we get rid of classics, we get rid of that story.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Everyone obviously cites the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and everyone is made to read it. Basically, my case is that Dr. King is the location of traditional Thomistic ethics in American history. I mean, you could make a case a little bit for Lincoln, but there’s not really anyone else in the kind of canon of people that you’re supposed to read in high school that are talking about American politics, who explain natural law in that very straightforward, very traditional, very straight out of St. Thomas, straight out of the Treatise on Law way. My family tend to be typical New York City progressives who are kind of suspicious of all my weird natural law stuff and my annoying Thomism, but if you explain it as like, you already know this. The ethics that you taught me because you raised me reading Dr. King, that’s where he got those ethics. The idea that an unjust law is no law at all, even that phrase, that’s in the American bloodstream because of him.

    Anika Prather: I mean, and he says that in his autobiography. It’s very clear. He talks about how the works of the Canon, the philosophers, he named these philosophers, which were all in the Canon, helped him to formulate the civil rights movement. I actually cringe when people say, “When we get rid of classics,” because as a Black woman, I’m like, “You’re getting rid of part of my history.”

    I know we’re upset with how they’ve been misused, I’m not denying that, but if you don’t read the classics that he read, you won’t really fully understand what he’s talking about. You won’t really fully understand. You won’t even really fully understand the style of writing when Zora Neale Hurston writes Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is very much inspired by the Odyssey.

    And so, Zora Neale Hurston, being part of the Harlem Renaissance, all of those authors, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, all of them read the Canon. As Allen Locke says in his “New Negro” essay, they wanted to stop telling the Black story as some just tragic, violent story. All that is true and they do include that part of the story, but they wanted it to be beautiful and a work of art that you would value the way you would value the Odyssey and the beauty of that story. And so, they would gather, they would talk about these texts together. And they would write literature.

    When Langston Hughes writes, I think, “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I think. Is that the title? He’s talking about our journey as Black people from ancient Africa into America. All of it is about our beautiful, tragic, victorious journey, that though the Harlem Renaissance wanted to show people, this is art. This is creative. This is not just some Black story over there. This is something you should value the way you would value the Odyssey and in any other epic that you would read and say, “Oh, this is wonderful.” That this is an intellectual text for you to read and discuss and digest. And so they were very much motivated by reading these works. When you take it, you don’t understand the motivation behind them all.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You need to allow them to have the intellectual roots that they did have.

    Anika Prather: Yes. Yes. And, even Booker T. Washington, even though he was not a supporter of classical education in the Black community, was successful and intellectual and who he was because of his reading of various works of the Canon. He got it for himself, but then wanted to show an easier, quicker way to his people. I don’t think he had ill meaning for that. I think he was really just being protective.

    I used to really talk bad about Booker T and my father had to set me straight. He was like, “You can’t.” He was a man of his time. He came out of slavery. Like he probably saw some horrible violence and think . . . I mean, a man who was . . . he became wealthy. He started a college. He had to be very careful on how he spoke in order to have any success.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is a bit of a weird question, but I did mention earlier, you tend to conduct yourself on Twitter in a way that’s really distinct. I haven’t really seen anyone else do it quite as persistently as you do. To what degree did you decide to . . . are you just this way? Are you just . . .

    Peter Mommsen: Susannah is saying, tell us how to be, tell us how to behave on Twitter, please, Anika.

    Anika Prather: Well, first of all, I’m a pastor’s daughter and when you’re a pastor’s kid, you often deal with a lot of negativity, gossip, and just kind of just a lot of meanness. And so, you kind of developed this tough skin, like you can’t let it get to you or you won’t be able to enjoy life. And I’m wondering if that has kind of transferred over into Twitter.

    I am used to people saying mean things to me. And I find a lot of comfort in knowing who my friends are. So if I know who my friends are, who my family is, who my tribe . . . no, I don’t want to say tribe, who my community is, then I don’t really care what anybody else says.

    The other piece to that is, I didn’t want to go on Twitter. Jeremy Tate made me go on Twitter and I fought it tooth and nail. When he messaged me and said I need to get on, I was like, “I hate that place.” But you’ve got to be heard. So when he convinced me to do it, I made the decision, I was not going to do the toxic thing under any circumstances. That it was only going to be for positive reasons, connecting with people, encouraging people, inspiring people. And that, if that toxicity found its way in my space, I would try to douse that fire if I could.

    My favorite verse is, “do not answer a fool according to his folly or you’ll be just like him.” I mean, it’s such a waste of time to respond to people who I’ll never meet, who have nothing to do with my life. If you feel like you can’t control your tongue, just push the . . . it’s really easy. You just go to the thing that says “block” and you’ll just feel so free. It’s very liberating. Then you could just go on and talk to your friends at the Bruderhof community or anyone else out there that brings me joy and just engage with them.

    And then you also find, the exciting thing is, you find new friends. Sometimes people can be negative, but there’s usually something they’ll say that lets me know that they’re not really, that’s not their heart. That they really are trying to understand where I’m coming from, but maybe can’t find the words.

    I usually have this, “three strikes, you’re out” thing. I’ll engage with you for a little bit just to make sure where you’re coming from. Eventually, a lot of times I can find out that we have something in common. The person’s not out to destroy my life. They just misunderstood something I said, I misunderstood something they said. We’ve chosen to agree to disagree, but still find each other pretty cool. And we move on, but just don’t waste any energy on hating hateful people. That’s my number one rule.

    And then, finally, I feel like in such a public space, it’s Twitter. I do have a mandate from God to spread his light and love. I do feel that it’s kind of almost like, I know this sounds weird. I hope y’all don’t think I’m crazy. God, he’s looking at me: “Don’t even.” The times I want to say something back, he’s looking at me. “Don’t say it. You’re not representing me. That does not represent me.” I feel like if I do it, if I say something hateful or mean, that it deflects from the love of God and I really want to reflect that as much as possible.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The other thing that you do though, it’s not just positivity. It’s also just curiosity and there is a kind of Socratic engagement. You’ll pick out the one thing in someone’s snarky response where they’re accusing you of being, sort of, having false consciousness as a Black woman, or they’re accusing you of being woke or they’re accusing you of like all the thousand things from the left or from the right or whatever it is. You’ll pull out, kind of, the nugget, the clue that they gave you, that they have an idea or that they have an actual question and you’ll pull that out of the sort of miasma of accusation and you’ll actually end up having a conversation with them.

    Anika Prather: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’ve tried to do that too and it’s really hard.

    Anika Prather: Also, if I can’t figure out the question, I’ll just say, can you explain what you mean? I’ll even ask, what in my tweets made you feel the way you feel, because also a lot of times people are just misunderstanding each other, I think. I mean, I spent most of my life, because of all the racism I went through, not trusting white people. I mean really, I didn’t.

    Then at St John’s College, I was just there to get a Master’s. I thought I was just going to get my education and be done with it. I went thinking that it was not going to be a positive experience, I was going to be the only Black person there, I’m going to deal with a whole bunch of racism. It’s going to be just same old, same old. But I went and actually had conversations with people who don’t look like me or even think like me. And it was the most beautiful experience. That was a real life changer that maybe I needed to . . . I’m not saying we should forget our pain. I’m not saying we should ignore racism that is still in existence today, but be slow to judge and be gracious and try to learn where people’s hearts are.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I don’t know if this is something you want to talk about, but you also have a recent self-published book, I believe.

    Anika Prather: Yeah. My book is, Living In The Constellation of The Canon: The Lived Experiences of African American students Reading Great Books Literature. It’s my dissertation. And then I also have another book called The Black Intellectual Tradition that I wrote with Angel Parham, that’s just about to be out, later on this month.

    Peter Mommsen: We’ve talked a lot about education. When you look at children and the young people and the students that you work with, what is the goal of education? Where are you trying to get them to?

    Anika Prather: My father gave me this quote and it is the mission and vision of my school. This was what he used to have to say when he was in college, at his college. At the time it was AM&N College, a Historically Black College. University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff is what it’s called now. But this is the quote. “The end of education is to know God and the laws and purposes of his universe and to reconcile one’s life with these laws. The first aim of a good college is not to teach books, but the meaning and purpose of life. Hard study and the learning of books are only a means to this end. We develop power and courage and determination, and we go out to achieve truth, wisdom, and justice.” And to me, that is the way I see what I’m doing.

    I feel the books are a tool to discover goodness, virtue, beauty, justice. We don’t say the word justice oftentimes, when we talk about classical education, we say, goodness, beauty, truth, virtue, but we leave off justice. But the Word says that we should. What does the Lord require of us? That we should pursue justice, but we’ve got to pursue it in the right way. We can only do that when we read good books that give us noble ways of addressing injustice.

    I’m hoping to create students at the school who know God and how that knowledge permeates every part of their life, that they read good books and how that knowledge helps them navigate and fight through life. And how to be a good human.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you so much Anika, for this conversation. It’s always so great to talk.

    Anika Prather: Thank you all so much for having me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening! Be sure to subscribe on ITunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and for a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $32/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: Join us next week as we talk with Chris Tollefsen about nuclear war and the obligation of nuclear disarmament post-Ukraine, and with Samuel Moyn about humanitarian war and its impossibility, or not.

    Contributed By portrait of Kim Comer Kim Comer

    Kim Comer is an editor for Plough and European outreach director for the Bruderhof communities.

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    Contributed By AnikaPrather Anika T. Prather

    Anika T. Prather focuses her research on building literacy with African American students through engagement in the books within the literary canon.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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