There are a few places below that I filled in orally. I should have explicitly mourned the Dallas killings of police officers. And now we have more officers gunned down.
Amos 3; Mark 10:35-45; Philippians 2:1-11
I try not to preach to the headlines. Not because the events of our headlines are unimportant; and not because I want to avoid anything political, for I don’t think the gospel can be insulated from politics. But the headlines are ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow. So much of our media, whether the source is print, TV, or internet, revolves around novelties, ephemera, “news.” These media offer us a quick and easy point of connection: we can all talk, or preach, about what is trending today. And then tomorrow we will be on to something else. And so we will keep consuming the endless product of our media sources.
But we in the church do not subsist on novelties. You can’t build a sustaining and sustained way of life by watching the news. You do that by tapping into deep truths which have sustained a way of life for millennia, truths like the classic image in Philippians of the one who was equal with God accepting humiliation, and becoming a pattern of true exaltation for all of us. We repeat these classic stories and images, year after year, and embody them in repeated rituals like baptism and communion. We do all of this, here in a beautiful and old public space; not alone with our “devices.” That’s how we are able to build a lasting way of life in community. So in preaching I try to speak to our abiding common truths, and avoid the headlines of the day. And I can’t keep track of the headline of the day anyway: first it was terrorism, then it was race relations, now it’s terrorism again.
But we are not above it all, above the world and its problems. We are in the world, and we love our world the same way God loves it, depressing headlines and all. I believe we have much to learn from the world: from thoughtful secular people, even from our headlines and pundits. What we learn can help us rethink and even correct our Christian beliefs and practices. But I wouldn’t be in this pulpit if I didn’t think that our faith gives us a way of life, a way of being a community, that the world needs now more than ever. And so today I want to talk today about our current racial divisions, and what the truth of our Christian faith brings to this sad and violent division. We have much to learn here. We should be hearing the stories of African Americans who have experienced rough and disrespectful treatment from officers of the law, and who have lost mostly men: sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. And we should hear more about what our police go through, about the trials and challenges they face as we shunt off on them virtually the entire responsibility to establish peace on our streets. I was thinking recently, wouldn’t it be wonderful to use this place to invite traumatized people of color and exasperated police officers to share their stories with us and each other? We could learn, educate, and become a place of mutual understanding and healing.
There is more we could do. We could debate the merits of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as a congregation, as many others have done. My impression is that this group has been unfairly tarnished. The movement is officially non-violent, but their opponents malign them, claiming they advocate violence against white people. Thanks to this deliberate misinformation, public support for the movement will inevitably create divisive feelings. It may nonetheless be worth it, if the time has come to join in a public confrontation against racism, especially in law enforcement.
The non-violent tactics of Black Lives Matter is rooted in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Like that movement, they actively confront racism with non-violent protest. But times have changed also. Civil rights in the 50s and 60s used shocking images on network TV of protestors being shoved, jailed, lashed with water canons, and even shot and killed, to raise the consciousness of most Americans. This created political pressure to change laws and intervene in localized discrimination and segregation. My sense is that the Black Lives Matter movement has doubled down on using media to generate political pressure; their rhetoric in more forceful, and their demonstrations are at least as confrontational. The media have changed. Unlike the old network news, Facebook, Twitter and the like do not usually connect to everyone; they make it easy to listen only to the people you already agree with. So police outrages, which are outrageous, become the basis for a protest scene in which the police are disparaged in a generalized way (they are called murderers, racists, at war with black America, and that sort of thing). There is a strong basis for this angry disparaging of the police. But the sweeping statements do not speak very effectively to those not already in the movement, nor does the harsh rhetoric move the police leadership to take a hard look at itself. Leaders in the loosely organized movement do have some sensible proposals to improve our policing. But the protests preach most effectively to the choir.
Using violence is always a little horrible at best, and often backfires. Non-violence is good; it avoids the shedding of blood, which ever since Noah’s covenant with God has been a basic moral value. But I think if we listen to the ancient wisdom of the Gospel, we find an even better way. I think that the gospel calls us to an approach to conflict and division that goes beyond non-violence. Now the civil rights movement won its good achievements by using pressure. When you use pressure, you force someone to do something, whether physically or politically. That’s different from converting someone from injustice to justice, from racism to true humanity. I don’t know how that could have been done 60 years ago in Selma or Montgomery. Bull Connor and the KKK were not going to be converted; they sold themselves into slavery of hatred. I don’t know how to overcome racism today. And it is bad. There’s still plenty of bigotry. But there’s the much more difficult problem of the way our society as a whole favors white people and dishes out disadvantages to black people. Like all sin, this one has affected us much more deeply than we are aware, or than any headline can do justice to. And so, if we are not even aware of how racism has affected us and how we perpetuate it, we might all need to be confronted forcefully about it if we are ever going to repent of it.
But the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement, however necessary they may be, do not rise above a broader disturbing trend in our culture. It is so easy for us to break up into “tribes,” as people call them (it’s not my favorite term), and to bolster the self-righteousness of your tribe by pointing the finger at everyone else. We are becoming more and more adept at dramatizing the wrongs of our opponents. You assume the best about yourself and your fellows, and assume the worst about those whom you oppose. I am very saddened to hear police officers and their supporters react this way to the anger over police killings. (Story of guy at funeral.)…. Pointing the finger of blame at your opponents may be justified sometimes, and it is not violence per se; but it is one step toward violence. It is in the very least devoid of compassion.
What is the alternative? What is God’s alternative? When I asked myself that question, I didn’t think immediately of our scriptures for today. I thought about Mahatmas Gandhi. Part of his theory of non-violence, which he employed to dismantle British colonialism in India in the 30s?, involved a rigorous commitment to holiness. He advocated fasting, … These are practices that Christians and Jews associate with repentance. Non-violence is not for Gandhi a tactic, a form of pressure, it begins as a personal, spiritual discipline. Because it requires loving your enemy. And that is a very difficult thing for us to do.
Once I saw why Gandhi was using these spiritual disciplines, then I could see how his approach is closer to the message of Jesus and Paul than to most modern protest movements. In the reading from Philippians, Paul finds in the example of the Son of God—this mysterious pre-existing figure who became incarnate in Jesus—a divine basis for a revolutionary community ethic: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” “Be of the same mind,” or we could say “of the same character,” as Jesus, Paul tells them, who emptied himself of divine privilege to be like us, and was obedient to God even to the death on a cross. It was for this reason that God “highly exalted him,” not because he skillfully manipulated the power he had to get his way, but because he rejected power as such. It was because Jesus became a servant to all humanity on the cross (which is very mysterious and would require more discussion) that his name is above every other name, not to his own glory, but “to the glory of God the Father,” as Paul concludes.
The story of James and John in Mark’s gospel makes the same point. Power as it is normally held in the world is for one’s self-aggrandizement. Jesus overturns this use of power, replacing it with one in which the last shall be first…
We are not called to be pushovers. Paul even tells the Philippians, a few verses earlier, “I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Both Paul, who writes from prison, and Jesus knew all about dealing with opponents. But they call us to an almost ridiculously high ideal. Seek, they tell us, to bring your opponents to the good without any self-interest, but solely for their own good and to God’s glory, as Jesus did.
Remember, what God has called us to is not just forgiveness of sins. We are reconciled with God and given a clean slate, certainly. But when God makes a people God’s own, they receive the privilege and power to be God’s own agents in the world. I don’t know if we can stand by all of Amos’ prophesy, but notice what he has God say: “You alone I have known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities.” I guess Amos could not yet reconcile God’s mercy and justice in the way Jesus has done, but he provides a helpful reminder that to be God’s own is to be made uniquely responsible to God’s high calling.
Paul’s version of this higher calling is what we heard: Consider others to be better than yourself. Don’t begin by pointing the finger at your opponent, by recounting all the wrongs that she or he has done to you. Begin with being honest about your own faults.
Paul counsels this for the church as a way to overcome division and live out our unity in Christ. This is incumbent upon us as the people God has known from all the families of the earth. And we all know that we fail at it. We all keep secret ledgers in our heads about the grievances done to us by others. That is “human nature,” I suppose, our fallen nature that a culture of grievances encourages and instills in us. But we must try to be of the same humility as Jesus, who took on fault that wasn’t even his own. When we find ourselves in conflict with someone, we must start with repenting our own faults—and remember being thankful for others like we talked about last week? When we do this, aided by God’s Word and Spirit, it will inspire those we are alienated from to do likewise. It is not weak, it is not being a sucker, but in fact wise and effective. When you confess your faults and repent, you disarm your opponent, who comes expecting a fight. And so if we all do this, we will become, not a hapless bunch of patsies and pushovers, but a community of love so powerful that nothing can overcome us.
The story of the gospel and the example of Jesus suggest that this same approach can give us a powerful alternative politics. (Can you imagine, if instead of negative attack ads, candidates tried to outdo one another in confessing their faults? [I’m telling you, that will be what political ads will be like in the kingdom of heaven.) I don’t know if the Black Lives Matter movement could adopt this path, a path more like Gandhi’s. I do know that we white people would do well to begin with confessing our faults, with repentance. There’s much to be said about that for another time. I pray that those entrusted with power, including our law enforcement leaders and servants, would try to begin with repentance, with confessing their faults. But sadly power breeds defensiveness and sometimes arrogance, which is why God favors the humble and lowly.
And what if we, as the most powerful nation in the world currently, came to our conflicts by way of repentance and confessing or wrongs? I don’t know if it would “work” in all cases. Many believe we have to be tough as a nation and force our way. But many of these same people are the same ones who want us to be a “Christian America.” Well, I think you either have to be a tough nationalist who believes in assertive American self-interest, or a Christian who does nothing out of self-interest and… The last thing you want to do is to confuse one with the other, to give the glory due uniquely to God to your nation in God’s place.
I don’t know if the way of repentance, of regarding others as better than ourselves, of putting others before ourselves, can revolutionize international relations. I don’t know if it can be used to convert racist power structures to the way of justice. This is our hope: that the way of the gospel can bring God’s justice and mercy to the world. But I do know that this path is demanded of us as a church, and is already at work in us. The violent divisions of the world can seem intractable, so that we can see no way to overcome them. I think the way of repentance can work. But if it produces no wider victory over division in the near future, it nonetheless can, right now, make us into a different kind of community, not driven by asserting our individual rights, but achieving a compassionate unity by putting others’ interest above our own. If we can do nothing else—and don’t forget, we are glorifying God after all—we can preserve this Godly alternative as a promise and hope for the world.