A Pastoral Letter Concerning Racism and the Church’s Life

              I was 13 years old the first time I began to understand the realities of racism. When you live in a system that benefits you, it’s easy to ignore or be shielded from those realities. Our town did not have any black residents, something I later learned was by design. The town was very ethnically homogenous, although there was a small percentage of Hispanics that lived there as well. Looking back, it is not difficult to now perceive the racial inequality at work in our community. It was my 8th grade year and our teacher required us to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

            As I sat in my desk listening to Rev. Dr. King narrate the American dream and its “promissory note” of equality, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this call to “justice for all.” His words were like a fiery coal searing the heart. It was difficult to imagine thirty years after Dr. King that anyone would be disregarded, disqualified, or discarded because of their skin color. I thought the battle for Civil Rights had been won and was now an interesting historical fact.

            A few weeks later, my sister and I were riding in my grandparents’ Suburban. We were going to dinner with them and sat on the bench seat in the middle of the SUV. My grandparents asked us what we were studying in school. When my turn came, I proudly noted I was memorizing Dr. King’s speech. The vehicle exploded with racial slurs and words that I had never heard before. There was a brooding rage I thought would engulf my sister and me. There was no escape from the moving vehicle and I experienced a fear I had never experienced before. I met racism face-to-face that night and it left an indelible mark on me.

            Twenty-two years have passed since that night with my grandparents. I wish I could say those twenty-two years brought with them the necessary reforms to extinguish the white-hot inferno of racism. The reality is racism did not die after the Civil Rights movement. It just became more subtle in its work. That is how systemic evil often operates. When confronted, it hides itself behind a more respectable façade: chattel slavery shifted to Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws became mass incarceration, the penal system became a for-profit institution that profited from occupied beds. Each step along the way has dehumanized black and brown bodies by criminalizing and monetizing those same bodies. Four hundred years of fear, trauma, violence, and abuse can be summed up in three words uttered this week: “I can’t breathe.” It was a specific officer, Derek Chauvin, that bore his weight down on the neck of George Floyd, but it was a racist system that authorized and empowered him to do it.

            Four hundred years is a long time to wait patiently for equality and equity. Four hundred years of broken promises and frustrated dreams. Four hundred years of learning to do more while being afforded so much less. Four hundred years of complicity and silence from the Church.

            As a pastor, my calling is to serve the Church by speaking truthfully about the world and about the life of the Church. I am called to serve by pointing to Jesus and holding up a mirror for the Church to check its reflection to see if it resembles Jesus in its life. That sometimes means I am in the uncomfortable and difficult position of saying that our reflection looks like something other than Jesus. Having spent years seeking to understand racism and the systems that propagate it, I have to say that the Church has sometimes been the worst offender. That is not simply an indictment on the past. It is the harsh reality of our present moment.

            I am reminded, however, of a story in scripture concerning another group who experienced the terrors of oppression. They languished for four hundred years under harsh and unjust treatment from Pharaoh and his overseers decked out in Egyptian riot gear. God’s people cried out in their suffering. God saw, heard, and knew intimately their suffering as God’s own. And, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage. And, like Moses, the Church must hear the cries of the oppressed and call out for freedom against the powers of domination that continue to enslave black and brown bodies. The Church cannot continue to sit in comfortable silence. Nor can it settle for speech that is devoid of action. God’s compassion for those who suffer invites us to speak out against the modern-day pharaohs of our world. We need only say, “Here am I.”

            Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed this prayer that may help orient us for the difficult but necessary road ahead: “Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so, as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

Exodus 3: “Out of the Desert, Into the Fire”

Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  These words rattled in my head as I heard the devastating news this week.  My heart ached as I asked my black brothers and sisters, “What shall we say?”  My heart ached for my friends who know all too well the deadly sting of racism and the violence that comes with it.  My heart ached for people I respect and love who wear a badge and serve their community as officers.  I cried over a world and a nation that nurtures hate and exercises violence against their neighbors.  I tell ya: “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  And, that is the reason I preach today.

 

The sun beat down on the top of his aging head.  The spindly shrub did little to provide shade.  The sun was always unrelenting in the desert.  Moses sat at the base of the mountain; some called it Horeb, some called it Sinai, still others called it the mountain of God.  He sat watching his father-in-law’s sheep graze, much as he had for the past forty years.

His desert life, a hard life, was far removed from the luxury he had known before coming to the desert… escaping to the wilderness.  The sandy hills were barren compared to the lush, fertile soil of the Nile.  The life of the shepherd hardly compared to life as a prince.

Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s house, although it was pretty obvious early on that he wasn’t Egyptian.  He was a Hebrew – a people enslaved to Pharaoh.  Yet, somehow, Pharaoh’s daughter had taken him in and raised him as her own.  He enjoyed the finest in dining, education, clothing, housing, and sport.  He had power and authority.  His face was recognized anywhere he went.  Heads would bow and nod to show him honor.  But, here in the desert, sheep were the only subjects over which he ruled… and they didn’t seem too impressed by his previous status as a prince.

Moses recalled walking the streets of Egypt, admiring the splendor and wealth of the nation.  Egypt was growing, expanding, swelling ever more powerful.  Life seemed great.  There was so much to enjoy, so much to see, so much to do.

But, over time, Moses began to look more closely, to observe beneath the surface of Egypt’s beauty and power.  He looked past their military strength, their economic prowess, their political power, their social and economic domination.  Moses saw massive construction projects being built by those who lived in the tent cities in the poorest parts of town outside the walls.  He saw the thin, emaciated brown bodies that serving food to rich, fat rulers.  Egypt’s entire society was built on the backs of sun-kissed bodies.  For four hundred years Egypt crushed those bodies and ground them into dust, while Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptian power-holders profited and prospered – all at the expense of those expendable, sun-kissed bodies.

For four hundred years, Egypt used, abused, and discarded brown bodies in service to economic, political, and Egyptian societal gain.  Four hundred years of injustice visited upon the Hebrews.  Four hundred years of oppression.  Four hundred years of groaning under the whip of Pharaoh.  Four hundred years of resentment building up pressure that might explode.  Four hundred years of Pharaoh building a system that capitalized on the oppression of others.

We might imagine that this is all in the past, by-gone history, water under the bridge.  But, it’s sad to say, Pharaoh is ever so much alive and kicking.  Violence against brown and black bodies has been happening for more than four hundred years in these lands we call home.

We have benefitted from the labor of brown and black bodies.  We have been made more comfortable by brown and black bodies.  We have raised ourselves up on the backs of brown and black bodies.  And, we continue to utilize oppression the world around to maintain our power and privilege over those same bodies.  For well over four hundred years we have enjoyed the well-being of Pharaoh and Egypt, while others languished under our whips.  For over four hundred years anger has festered and violence has been the only way we know to diffuse the growing tensions… But, there is no lasting peace won by the sword.

Moses shook his head, remembering his failure, his inability to change anything.  It was a problem too big to tackle.  It was overwhelming.  He couldn’t overcome the odds.  All of his power had been exhausted in trying to change the system… and he failed.  He had resigned himself to accept that things are the way they are and that nothing would ever change.  Egypt was too powerful.  The desert was a place to hide from the world’s problems, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

He recalled his anger at the whip masters.  His fist balled up and his jaw clenched as he saw the brutality visited upon the slashed backs hunched over in agony.  His body shook as the rage threatened to swallow him up.  That’s why he was in the desert – he had allowed his rage to consume him.

He was walking through the streets of Egypt one day when he saw an Egyptian dressed in blue, wearing a badge of authority, using a club to beat and batter one of the Hebrews.  Moses didn’t even think, he jumped on top of the Egyptian officer and beat him until the man lay motionless on the ground in a heap.  The man’s head was bleeding and Moses realized the man was dead.  Without ceremony, Moses buried the man in an unmarked grave and swore the Hebrew man to secrecy.

But, Moses’ secret leaked out.  He learned that his sins were live-tweeted online and broadcast on the local news.  Social media blew up and Moses knew his time was short before Pharaoh would kill him.  So, he ran.  He ran away into the desert.  And forty years passed, but the pain and disappointment never faded, they only grew deeper.  Moses had tried to change things but the system was too big.  Moses thought violence was the answer, but that caused him to lose his influence and sent him into exile.  What is to be done when the broken system is so powerful and seemingly impervious to our protests and our call for change?

Do you recall why Israel became slaves?  Pharaoh was trying to deal with Egypt’s illegal immigrant problem.  Israel, in Pharaoh’s eyes, was a huge liability.  They were becoming numerous – quite a voting bloc to contend with if another nation decided to attack Egypt.  The final solution?  Put a burden so heavy on their shoulders that it would break their back.  Kill their children.  Kill their future.

Much like Pharaoh, we don’t mind turning our eyes away while others are used and abused.  We don’t mind being blissfully ignorant of our nation’s oppressive practices, especially if we benefit from the arrangement.  We love living in a nation of political prominence, economic excellence, technological transcendence, societal “superiority.”  We rarely think about the devastating impact we are having on other nations to maintain our escalating hunger for more wealth and comfort.  We sing about those things as if it is God’s very blessing upon us… when in reality, we have grabbed those things like Pharaoh by building our power and privilege on a mound of black and brown bodies.  And, standing in the pile of those bones, we rejoice with pride at the work we claim our hands have made.  But, in turn, we ignore the hands held open asking to receive a small pittance from the table of our comfort – primarily because those hands look so different from our hands, because they might take away some of what we claim as our God-given birthright.

Moses, like the sniper that killed five Dallas police officers, took matters into his own hands.  He was filled with rage at the injustice of the system and killed an Egyptian officer.  The denial of justice in society created a ticking time bomb that erupted in violence and death.  Unlike Moses, Micah Johnson learned too late that violence only births violence, it does not create justice.  Micah decided to live by the gun and he died by the bomb.  Violence did not solve the problem, but only escalated the violence.  Violence in Dallas tore apart six families, destroyed six lives, and still nothing has changed.  We are just as divided and just as violent.  Even if we don’t use weapons for violence, often times our words are weaponized for violent means.  We use our words just as effectively as guns to kill and wound.  Violence will continue to spill out into our communities until we deal with our society’s injustice toward black and brown bodies.  Violence will continue to spill over into our communities until we forsake our thirst for violence and violent retribution.

Something caught the corner of Moses’ eye.  A shrub nearby seemed to have caught fire.  God, it was hot out here.  He sat watching the shrub burn… and burn… and burn.  Yet, as Moses watched the shrub he noticed that nothing really changed.  The shrub remained the same size and shape.  No ash gathered at the base.  In fact, the shrub looked amazingly unharmed.  He stood and walked toward the strange bonfire: “I’ve got to check this out, why isn’t this bush torched?”

God was watching, waiting.  When Moses started moving toward the bush, God called to him, “Hey, Moses!”

Moses replied, “Hey, it’s me!”

God said, “Stop dead in your tracks! Take off your shoes, this ain’t no regular dirt.  This ground is different because it’s set apart, holy.  Allow me to introduce Myself: My name is I’M GONNA BE WHO I’M GONNA BE.  I AM the God of your family, the God of your people all the way back to Abraham.”

Moses dropped to the ground and buried his face in the sand.  He was deathly afraid to catch a glimpse of God.

God continued: “I’ve been taking notes on my people in Egypt, their cries are like a megaphone blaring out their suffering under their slave-masters.  I have experienced their pain and suffering.  Now, I’m jumping into the fray to pull them out of this pit and to bring them to a better living space.  You better believe Israel’s tears and wailing have caught my ear and my eyes have spied Egypt’s violent and hateful treatment of them.  And, guess what!?  You, Moses, are going to be the person that rescues Israel for Me from Egypt.

Moses was probably ecstatic to hear that after four hundred years, God was going to deliver Israel.  I can imagine tears of joy streaming down his face.  Then, like a deer in the headlights: “’Scuse me, You’re sending who?  I hate to throw a wrench in Your machine, God, but I’m nobody.  I’m not powerful anymore.  I’ve got no juice.  I don’t have the same swag I used to.  I don’t have that kind of influence.  I’m a criminal on the run, marked to be shot on sight.  Maybe You need to find somebody else for Your dirty work.”

God told Moses, “Stop sweating! I’m going with you. That’s how you’ll know I sent you.  And when you’re done freeing Israel, bring them back to this mountain to celebrate with Me.”

Moses wasn’t done giving excuses yet.  “Well, God, what do You expect me to tell everyone when they ask who sent me?  When they ask me the Name of the One I’m representing, what should I tell them?”

If God had eyebrows, they would’ve been raised: “Look, ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be.’  Tell ‘em ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be’ sent ya.  Tell Israel, ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of your family and people since Abraham sent ya to them!”

God didn’t stop there: “Go, get the people together, grab all of the leaders and tell them: ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of this family since the time of Abraham showed up and told me: ‘I reviewed the video footage of what’s happening to you in Egypt.  I’m busting you outta there and taking y’all to a place with plenty of good things for everyone.  They’ll feel what you’re saying, Moses.  Then, take Israel’s leaders with you and go on up to talk with President of Egypt, Pharaoh.  Tell Pharaoh, ‘God showed up.  Let us go out to the wilderness to celebrate with God.’”

(Pause)  God takes note of the marginalized and oppressed.  Their suffering is engraved in the palm of God’s hand.  Their cry pierces God’s heart like a spear jabbed in the ribs.  Their spilled blood runs down like red rivers down God’s thorn-pricked brow.  God knows the suffering of the destitute and dispossessed; the down-and-out and the downtrodden; the denigrated and the denied.  God knows their suffering as God’s own suffering.

And God wanted Moses to know it, too.  Sure, it was a bush on fire – nothing particularly special about that.  But, that fiery bush erupted in images of bodies lying cold on the pavement.  And God stood right in the middle of that fire so that the bush wasn’t consumed.  When God is present in the midst of the fire, even when the heat is most intense, God can preserve a dried up branch from being consumed.

God catches Moses’ attention with the fiery bush.  God draws Moses’ vision to the fires that seek to destroy God’s Creation, God’s people.  Moses begins to observe and pay attention to the flames of oppression, the flames that destroy community.  And, in seeing the fiery climate that threatens a vulnerable community, Moses’ heart is ignited by God’s Spirit to move.  Moses’ move toward the flaming bush is a step toward God.  But, God isn’t interested in just one step: “Take off your shoes, Moses, because I’m going to need both of your feet for this job.”

The news over this past year may be our burning bush.  Ferguson.  Baltimore.  Orlando.  Baton Rouge.  Charleston.  St. Paul.  Dallas.  God may be trying to get us to recognize our addiction to violence.  God may be opening our eyes to the deep-seated racism still entrenched within us and within our society.  God may be calling our attention to the fire-storm of hatred that leads to violence against others and the ambivalence which permits it to continue unchecked.

In recognizing, instead of ignoring, the fires that threaten to consume us all, we take one step toward God, but God says, “Now, I need both feet.  I’m sending you to represent me and to set my people free.  Free from violence.  Free from hatred.  Free from the denial of our responsibility for these problems.  Free from ignoring our responsibility to change our way of life.  Now, I need both feet, not just one foot… You’re standing on holy ground.  Quit hanging your head in the desert, avoiding the problems of Egypt.  Get in the game – the flames won’t consume you, I’m going with you!”

God warns Moses, despite God’s presence on this journey, it’s going to be hard work.  God says, “Don’t be shocked.  I know Pharaoh isn’t going to budge and let you leave.  He won’t change his mind unless he sees something greater than himself.  And, I’m about to reach out and slap Egypt upside the head with wonders, then Pharaoh will let you go.  And you won’t leave empty handed either.  I’m going to help you leave this place with Egypt’s wealth on your wrist, and new threads on your body and kicks on your feet, both you and your kids are going to be dressed to the nines, while Egypt will be stripped buck naked.”

God warns Moses, God warns us, confronting Egypt is difficult, dangerous work.  Don’t be shocked at the resistance to changing the way our society operates.  Confronting our broken system is hard, dangerous work because not everyone wants it to change.  Some are happy to keep the present arrangement – like Pharaoh – and will even use violence to protect it.  Protesting the wicked corruption of a society that gives advantage to some through the disadvantage of others, may result in crucifixion.

But know that God has already declared victory over the powers of injustice, violence, and death.  God has announced victory over systems of oppression that maintain those systems of injustice.  God says that those society’s will one day be stripped naked, laid bare.  Their glory will be their shame.  Their pride will be their ruin.  Their violent power will be turned back on itself.  Pharaoh wouldn’t relent from his ways until he saw something greater than himself; his arrogance kept him from seeing anything greater than himself.  It led to his ruin.  Let’s not be so prideful as to think that there is nothing greater than ourselves – lest we be stripped naked and our shame laid bare for all to see.

Where do we find God in the midst of such tragedies as we have witnessed this week?  If we wonder where God is at work, we will find God right in the heart of the fires that threaten to consume.  Where lives are being torn apart, God is working to mend them.  Where people are being torn down, God is working to build up.  Where people are being destroyed, God is working to bring new life.  It may be dangerous work, but there’s riches untold in joining our hands with God’s hands, which then joins our hands with the hands of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our world.

God is taking note of the violence and the oppression in our own neighborhoods and communities.  God knows that suffering as God’s own suffering.  God has jumped into the fray.  God wants us to know that suffering as well and to jump with both feet into the fires of injustice to free God’s people.  And we will know it was God that sent us because God will go with us, preserving us through the flames unto everlasting life.  “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”

 

Losing Market-share of the Religious Landscape: Beyond the Brickyards

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey detailing the American religious landscape (find article here). Some of the data indicates that there is a rise in those that affiliate with no religion at all. This trend is sometimes called “the rise of the ‘nones.'” Along with this upward trend is a downward trend in those that identify as Christian, regardless of the denominational affiliation.

Of course, without must surprise, the onslaught of moaning about the demise of the Church and the emphasis on ministerial techniques to reverse this trend have been plentiful. Some see it as the moral decay of a nation and shout to rally the troops so that they might retake Capitol Hill and reclaim some kind of power to assert their influence again. Others see it as a matter of ministerial, pastoral technique that will ensure recovery. So, plant churches because that’s “the most effective way to reach the un-reached” or market to a particular demographic or create programs that will get people hooked on the church (sounds like we’re peddling drugs). Or, perhaps, and this has been my tendency, it is a matter of better education of laity and pastors that will ensure the Church’s future.

But, unfortunately, those are all inadequate. They are woefully inadequate because they focus on “technique.” By “technique,” I mean developing the skill set to achieve a purpose or goal. It’s about management. Essentially, it’s about control. Finally, it’s about power. The underlying motivation for the above-mentioned techniques is typically motivated out of a desire to maintain or gain ground in the market-share of the religious (and perhaps non-religious) consumers. That’s the primary difficulty in reading the Pew Research Center’s survey – people are reduced to percentages. And, where people become numbers and percentages for a market-share, they cease to matter as anything more than a means to our ends. They become commodities, useful until used up. Their humanity is diminished, especially if they don’t serve our bottom line.

The result, with little, if any, exaggeration, is that people do not matter in the Church. Thus, the “rise of the nones” threatens our market-share kingdoms. It becomes a fearful thing to see this downward spiral, even if we don’t see it as bleakly as the survey paints it. The rise in the opposition to the Church or to religion in general is easily viewed as a threat to our longevity and viability. But, this is only a threat to a Church that does not know how to die, that has left the cross behind for the tools of management. Isn’t this the very thing that Pharaoh fears in seeing the rising strength of Israel? They’re too many and what if Egypt is attacked by other nations; what if Israel turns their strength against Egypt? So, Pharaoh orders them to make bricks, he begins building projects, he turns to technique in managing the loss of market-share. In so doing, he attempts to de-humanize God’s people. The end result is that Pharaoh has no real identity – he’s never named.

I see this turn to technique and the Church’s resistance to embrace dying as a move in line with Pharaoh. We see the rising threat to Christendom, want to desperately hold onto our power, and are willing to go so far as to de-humanize those whose rising power might threaten our own sense of security and privilege. When this is our position, we operate out of fear and self-protection. We create “brickyards” out of our sanctuaries that tell people to work harder, lest we lose more ground. And, in the process of de-humanizing others, we find that we have lost our identity. We resemble Pharaoh, not Jesus.

Personally, I have found hope in the numbers because I believe in resurrection. Yes, we must go through death, but Jesus has shown us that life is on the other side. I’m okay with Christendom dying, with the Church dying, with me dying because I know there is hope where God is at work and that life springs up from dead stumps, dead bones, and dead bodies where God speaks. New life is able to break out with the death of Christendom because we might finally come face-to-face with our own false claims and narratives. We might hear the Gospel again when it has been extracted from the cultural narratives that we have swallowed. We might stop relying on our own power to control the outcome and re-enter into the difficult work of imagination, wonder, and surprise. We very well might find that being crucified with Jesus will free us from the bondage of playing power games and developing leaders that play those games. Instead, we might find disciples utilizing the tools of towel and basin, bread and cup, and the cross as the call to serve others and “not lord is over them.”

I think Desmond Tutu’s response to the question about optimism in the midst of great travail is poetically potent: “I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope is not yet another technique of optimism that we must engender so that we can motivate people to a new future. Rather, it is a hope rooted in the gift of God’s ever-abundant, life-giving Spirit at work in the midst of the broken Creation calling forth a new Creation – a new heaven and new earth. As Romans 8 unfolds, we are in the midst of the groaning pangs of child-birth of the new Creation. We’re not always sure even what to pray. But, the Spirit prays with and for us as we await the redemption of our bodies, which includes social bodies as well. In this I find hope to actively wait and serve while putting aside the tools of manipulation, management, and control. The hope of God’s promised future allows the Church to die faithfully, seeing it as an opportunity for God’s new work of the Spirit to unfold among us. Church, move beyond the brickyards.