Where Do We Go from Here?: A Sacramental Framework for Confronting Racism

In moments of great crisis, we all come to the crucial crossroad of decision that will determine the shape and fortitude of our character. When chaos confronts us, there is the temptation to shrink away, to shrug in defeated resolution to the world as it is. We may celebrate the moral courage of those who have stood for human dignity and life even while facing overwhelming odds. But it is easier for too many of us to sit in silence and allow the wheels of uncaring oppression to trample down the most vulnerable in our society. We either cannot imagine that our voice matters against the tide of injustice or understand all too well the dangers of speaking out against injustice. Thus, we are rendered silent. Yet, the pressing obligation of neighborly love demands the unrelenting pursuit of peace and justice for all.

Dr. King proposed the appropriate question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”? The reality is that systemic racism enslaves all in society. Some benefit from its consolidation of power, but that does not diminish its enslaving power – for those who benefit, remaining enslaved can be more enticing. Dr. King recognized we are all enslaved to this racist system and that to work for the freedom of another is to simultaneously work for my own freedom. As he was famously noted for saying, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is a reciprocal reality to human community. My salvation and freedom are interwoven with the salvation and freedom of my neighbor. The ability to opt out of acting against a system, it turns out, only furthers the bondage of our lives to a system that will not tolerate any alternative way in the world. Racism embodies a totalizing claim upon human bodies. It is a totalizing claim that values certain bodies over others and can discard those undesirable bodies without fear of repercussion or retaliation… until those who know their inherent worth can no longer bear the brunt of society’s denigration, devaluation, and destruction. The devaluing of any life cheapens every life. Saying “Black lives matter” affirms the value of lives that have too often been devalued by our society. So, indeed, where do we go from here?

It seems to me that too frequently the resources of the Church have been ignored when it comes to addressing these societal evils. Statements are easier to broadcast widely but cannot deal with the particularities of each context. Likewise, they ultimately do not provide character formation – although statements may be important as a tool for helping us articulate the world around us. The sacraments, with their unassuming elements and limiting/ed particularity, may not seem adequate resources for healing our racism and prejudice. How can being plunged in the waters of baptism relate to the suffocation of a black man on the pavement? How can the bread and wine sitting on the Table quench our thirst for racial justice and sate our appetites for true reconciliation (I owe much to Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination for his insightful work on the history of racism and the reconciliation of community in communion)? What does a crucified Lord say to a world filled with lynched persons (James Cone’s work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, provides the framework for this poignant and challenging lens by which to understand Jesus)? The sacraments appear too insignificant and small before the looming specter of white supremacy and racism. However, God often uses the seemingly insignificant to shine forth God’s glory and to invite us into a new way in the world.

The sacraments embody the new reality God has enacted and incarnated in Jesus. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is the new humanity. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the fullness of communion that was intended from the beginning. God’s identification with us is our very salvation for what God assumes, God saves. But, the manner of God’s coming in the person of Jesus should give us pause. Jesus did not come as a Roman emperor but as a lowly brown-skinned carpenter from the backwaters of Bethlehem. And, it is this same Jesus who is put to death unjustly by the political powers of that day. Jesus was publicly lynched by public officials and “church-going” folk. As James Cone writes, God becomes one of the lynched peoples of the world when Jesus hangs from the rugged tree.

The jolting identification in baptism with a publicly lynched Christ, by which we join him in his death, plunges us into a new identity by putting to death that which has been Death in us. We are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. Beneath the surface, suspended for a moment, we recognize the fragile thread of life to which we cling. The waters press down and suffocate, preventing the inhalation of life-giving breath. “I can’t breathe.” The waters of baptism remind us that Jesus suffocated, struggling to draw breath as authorized agents of the government watched the spectacle until Jesus exhaled his final breath. To enter the waters of baptism is to be given a new way of being in the world that does not side with the powers and principalities of this world, but joins with those who are vulnerable and suffer at the hands of the powerful.

Eucharist is the meal for the baptized, for those who have embraced the way of Jesus and the cross. It is the means of grace for the journey. It nourishes us and instructs us in this present moment of chaos. This meal was the celebration of the Passover. It was the Jewish meal celebrating the deliverance of God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt. The meal reminded God’s people that God is not a God insensitive to the cries of the oppressed. Rather, in surprising revelation, God sees, hears, and knows intimately their suffering as God’s own suffering. God comes down and delivers them. The meal is also the ongoing reminder for God’s people that they must not then turn around and become just another Egypt on the scene of world history. They have been called out and set apart to embody the way of God, the way of neighborliness and generosity, whether in the scant landscape of the wilderness or the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The meal brings to memory the abiding call to live as those who seek the well-being and welfare of others (shalom) in the community. To break bread was to share life and peace with one’s neighbors. To break bread was to extend welcome, forgiveness, and blessing to those who gathered with you.

It should come as no shock when Paul calls the Corinthians to not partake of the meal if there is anything wrong between one of them and someone else. They are to go make it right and then partake of the meal. The meal cannot embody true communion if there is no reconciliation between persons. Wrongs must be confessed. Forgiveness must be sought. Humility must replace hubris. The hand of friendship must be extended. Communion invites us into the practice of receiving and sharing, seeking forgiveness and extending forgiveness, loving God by loving neighbor. The sacrament of communion offers us grace for the reconciling journey that seeks to heal the deep communal wounds which we have wrought on others. It invites us to confess our woundedness which has wounded others. We find that even in our brokenness God can take it and bless it for the sake of the world. To eat and drink at this Table requires that we see those we have hurt, hear their cry, and join them in the work of restitution. This happens at both the personal level and the social level because both are intertwined in the work of justice and righteousness (right-relatedness).

The sacraments ground us in a faith that draws us toward community, toward others. The sacraments do not allow us to withdraw into a privatized and individualized faith that denies the bodily, concrete realities of suffering in our communities. Rather, we are invited into the life of God, the life of Jesus, to join others in their suffering and to allow our lives to be poured out in self-giving love and service. The sacraments, by God’s grace, offer us patterns for the new creation life in our present world. They provide the doxological practices by which we are brought to awareness of our complicity in society’s deathly practices, our need for reconciliation to God and others, and the grace to join with those who suffer.

The sacraments provide the ground by which we are shaped by the cruciform life of Christ. It is a life that joins others in their suffering and embodies the hope of shared pain and communion. There is no communion outside the possibility of shared pain. But, as the cross is transformed by the resurrection from the spear of death to the plowshare of life, God is able to transform our suffering into the glory of God by which the world is renewed. Even as the mundane elements of the sacraments are transformed into the means of grace, so the ordinary gifts of our lives may be sacramentally taken, blessed, broken, and given by Christ for the healing of the world.

Practice Makes Perfect: Ritual, Routine, and Rites

There seems to be a great amount of distrust in the Evangelical church of anything that resembles ritual.  I’ve grown up in that tradition and for many years had the same assumption.  Repeated exercises robbed the exercise of its power.  In psychology, that is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns.  As the novelty wears off, the activity seems to produce less response in our brains.  This is usually understood when it comes to things like addictions, in particular.  But, it can be applied to other areas as well.

Our aversion to ritual is not only found in this notion of diminishing returns.  We have a history connected with the Protestant Reformation that saw the abuses of a Church that had become so enamored with rituals that it seemed to walk away from its Christological center.  Thus, we conclude, rituals are to be avoided because they might somehow compromise what is most important.

Here, it might be helpful to move to a different realm of life to explore this idea.  Every year my wife and I celebrate each other’s birthdays.  We celebrate holidays (i.e., holy days) with family and friends.  We tell each other “I love you” every day – sometimes even when we don’t “feel” it.  We both show each other love by doing things the other loves, sharing time with each other, and talking about things we’ve talked about together a million times before.  If ritual and routine were seen as something less than genuine, we might conclude that we don’t have a relationship at all.  But, then again, that would be silly.  Our love is demonstrated to one another through the traditions and routines we have constructed together and some that we have inherited together.  Love is played out in the routine, normal, everyday occurrences that make up our lives.  It is the mundane moments of our routines together that continue to shape our love for one another.  If either one of us were to stop these routines in our relationship, it would communicate something less than care for the other.  It might even be received as rejection.

Now, there can come a moment when those “rituals” that construct our lives as a married couple cease to be heartfelt or genuine.  They can become opportunities to go through the motions.  But, that does not mean, again, that we should conclude that the rituals are bad.  I will continue to tell Becca I love her because there is value in that routine.  As such, the routine may not need to be discontinued.  Rather, it may need to be re-engaged with intentionality on our part.  The attitude with which we act upon those routines can make a significant difference.  And, in addition, I will find that those routines help continue to shape my love in tangible ways – even if, as I mentioned before, my heart is “not in it” at the moment.

When it comes to the traditions, rituals, routines, and sacraments of the Church, it’s important to remember that not every ritual is worth reviving.  However, many of the traditions that we have in the Church have been passed down to us because they have demonstrated their capacity, through the work of the Spirit, to shape our lives in helpful, healthy ways.  They have been valued been many generations of faithful because they have experienced these disciplines as great means by which God works in the lives of the faithful.

It is unusual that in a tradition that has sometimes warned against traditions and rituals that they are the most vehement about maintaining regular practices of church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer.  Whether they do that or not remains to be seen.  They recognize the value of rituals and routines, although they would debate as to which are important and necessary.  But, I think it’s a good start to recognize that EVERY church has routines and rituals – some good, some bad, some ugly.  The question is to then discern which traditions, rituals, and routines are true “means of grace.”

We also should address the Law of Diminishing Returns for things like the sacrament of communion.  Many fuss over the loss of meaning if one should take communion too often.  If the sacraments are something that we do, then I would agree that is correct.  Our experience would diminish given enough repetition.  However, if the sacraments are something that God gives and imbues with God’s grace and something that we receive, then the argument doesn’t hold much water for the very simple reason that we cannot exhaust God’s grace!  This is the very basis of the sacraments and the means of grace.  They are God’s gift to the Church as ways of growing in grace.

John Wesley often encouraged his parishioners and ministers to take communion as often as possible.  Sometimes he took it multiple times a day because he understood it to be a means of grace and not something that we accomplish.  Wesley recognized that it was a practice that shaped us in profound ways, even if one could not “feel” or “sense” a difference in that moment.  Yet, even in the mundane moments of communion, Wesley believed God was at work.

Practice makes perfect, not because we are achieving something, because we are cooperating with the grace that God is giving us.  Practice makes perfect for the very reason that we are equipped by the Spirit to be what God calls us to be (this is the Aristotelian over the Platonist view of perfection), not because we are without flaw.  Further, practice makes perfect because we are being trained to love God and neighbor with a greater depth than we could before.

I once heard a story, although I cannot recall where I read it, about a man that came to fully appreciate the practices of the Church.  Every Sunday that church he attended would receive communion.  It is the sacrament that constantly reminds us of the forgiveness which we have received and also of the ways that we participate in the very life of Christ as His Body.  This man’s son began to act out and in ways that were damaging and detrimental to his life.  It went on for some time and there was nothing the man could do but watch the destructive path his son had decided to take.  However, there came a moment where the son came and asked forgiveness from his father for all the things he had done to him.  The father recalled all the times he had taken communion and how he had received God’s grace and forgiveness at the Table.  Those times of practice and routine now shaped his loving, forgiving response of reconciliation with his son.  Practice made perfect.