If buzzwords and phrases these days like “peaceful protest,” “March on…” or “social justice” turn you off, this post will no doubt further the discomfort that typically leads you to remove yourself from reality. But let’s be honest, these are no different than speaking truth in love, denouncing the forces of wickedness in our world, and the entire tenets of Matthew 25 (the bit about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.)
For the first time in a while since I have been in full time ministry, Sunday, August 13th was a morning where the Holy Spirit overwhelmed me with conviction and the raw grief festering inside of me. I was angry, disappointed, and afraid. If you ask any pastor about how fragile the pulpit can be, they will share with you something more or less along the same lines as what I felt.
One of the many actions our United Methodist bishops task us with as pastors is to speak boldly and prophetically. And let’s be clear, this does not mean speaking for the sake of partisanship or with the intent of buying another vote for the values and beliefs pastors do or do not share with their congregants. I admire the late rabbi, Abraham Heschel when he suggested that
“The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”
Pastors are called with the lofty task of speaking the extra octave, the truths of God into a broken world. We lead a life of inviting the complacent to witness rather than to sit by. Last weekend, I preached on just how critical it is as disciples to venture out of the boat to live out the gospel the way Christ intended it. And much of that has to do with our constant need to re-examine who we are as “church.” To put it bluntly, if we are settled, we are missing the mark.
The always witty and always snarky Tina Fey went on Saturday Night Live last week and cast light, with a mouthful of sheet cake, on the incessant attitude of those who resist without reacting. There is one kind of resisting that I personally feel lacks chutzpah. The social media trolls who enjoy a good stirring of the pot and find pleasure in never ending paragraph responses that often have no resolve. Granted, there are exceptions when these can be productive and helpful, but when does it come across simply as avoidance? And what Tina Fey and others reveal is just how sobering the question is: “What will it take for the Church to react?”
I have been waiting to reflect on the events in Charlottesville, Durham, and elsewhere because I am genuinely discouraged. I am discouraged when I hear about or see churches that don’t take initiative and I am discouraged when some choose to use Church as an escape from it all. My heart has been filled with lament these past couple weeks for a variety of reasons:
I lament as a graduate of two schools where the soil of education and community became a ground for bigotry and hatred.
I lament the trepidation that has confronted faith leaders from living into their call to speak prophetically.
I lament for those who fail to see that these events are not multi sided.
I lament as a white man, brought up in privilege and achievement, for those who have been dealt the brunt of racism as a consequence of white supremacy.
One of the most harmful things I believe you could say to a pastor is “move on” or “get over it.” Why? Because the entire gospel life pivots around reclaiming our salvation story in the here and now. I taught my confirmation students this year the value in approaching Scripture with an open mind and open heart, not limiting themselves to a reading that implies God’s Word is written and done with. Part of that informs our ability to allow God’s Word to speak not solely in ancient battles between empires, but the conflicts of race, gender, violence, and sexuality that throttle the Church today.
In an effort to press us forward in response to events like Charlottesville, I share some things that can be helpful to you as you seek to be the Church in the midst of such hate:
Don’t stifle our prophetic witness. This is a collective challenge we share as the Body of Christ. It’s not just the pastors that have this task. Preaching professor and writer of Preaching as Testimony, Anna Carter Florence writes: “Jesus himself claimed the freedom of speaking the truth he saw and lived…He embodied for us the essence of proclamation and the essence of Christian faith–which is to speak the truth we have seen and experienced in our own way, no matter what comes.” When we refuse to name things that occupy our communities, our country, and our world, we are doing a disservice to those who are suffering or who are losing their lives for the sake of what is good and right.
Allow the Psalms to speak into your life. What I’m saying in a nutshell, here, is to give yourself the freedom to lament. An extension of our faith is crying out to God in the face of uncertainty or hurt. Don’t treat the Church as a place of shelter from the storms outside of it. The Church is a reflection of Christ and therefore, is a site where our wounds can be healed and redeemed.
Read and enter dialogue: Before you spout off things like “reverse racism,” the “race card,” or before you decry the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group, please read the sources! Assumptions do no one any good. The New Jim Crow and Racism without Racists are two great starting points that I would recommend. Read these books with others. Ask questions. Be informed. Ask someone who is directly impacted instead of seeing their situation as exaggeration.
Ask, “What do I idolize? History is, sadly, written when it comes to the conversations at hand around racism, white supremacy, and bigotry; however, Scripture is always a living Word. So when some decry the removal of statues as an erasing of history or a denial of their heritage, they miss the point. The Confederate statue debacle raises a genuine question around what we choose to idolize. Their removal is not about creating a new problem. It’s about redeeming the wounds already in existence because of a persistent clash of idols. Duke Chapel was a place where I worshiped. The space where I graduated to a sermon given by a black woman. A site committed to serving a student body of wide and diverse religious and racial backgrounds. A place where among noted leaders in Church history stood Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The Dean of Duke Chapel, Luke Powery, remarked on the recent decision to remove this statue:
“I looked at the empty space and couple of things came to mind,” Powery said. “I saw it as a hole, or a void. But it is a hole that in many ways represents a hole in the heart of the United States and the ongoing struggles of racism, hatred and bigotry – all the things we’re seeing in our streets. We haven’t come as far as perhaps we thought we had come as a nation.”
Is moving a statue that signifies hatred and a racist ideology to a museum or archive truly breaking your heart when it can serve as a means of helping us unlearn the past?
Lastly, we all should ask “What’s our excuse for not reacting?” If claiming color-blindness has been your excuse for avoidance, you have bought into a false illusion that on the surface sounds all fluffy and nice, but actually denies our present (yes, present!) reality even further. To say you “don’t see color” negates Jesus’ ministry entirely for the sake of living in ignorance to difference. The gospel and early church thrived in communities of difference with the understanding that the Body of Christ is not ours to define. To not react is to refuse accepting there is a systemic problem at hand.
Lord, may we continue to strive to be your hands and feet in a world that tries to paint over reality with narratives that are not of You. Grant that we may lead boldly, beginning with humble confession and moving on towards faithful witness. Amen.