As previously mentioned this morning’s service is a remembrance of the fatal shooting that took place on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. The shooting was and is remarkable for a number of reasons not the least of which is the congregation’s show of love and forgiveness, that kept the shooter’s intention of causing division and hostility from coming to fruition. It is the juxtaposition of the intentions of the shooter and the response of the congregation that makes this reading from Galatians appropriate for this morning’s sermon. Paul addresses the church at Galatia, who are having some difficulty with the notion of freedom. They obviously were having questions about what it means to live in Christian freedom and Paul writes this letter to them to provide an answer. It is this portion of Paul’s letter that informs our response, as we remember the Emanuel 9 this morning. It is only through the proper understanding of Christian freedom that we can create community out of this crisis.
Our reading today begins with Paul’s theological statement and focal point of the entire letter. Paul writes, for freedom Christ has set us free. Only a few words but packed with significance. First and foremost, it is done. Our freedom has been won completely once and for all on the cross. We are free though not all of us are living in this freedom. We are free though many mistake worldly freedom with Christian freedom. Freedom can be understood as choosing from several different options. As Americans we are used to having choices; we walk into a grocery store and there are four or five different brands of whatever product we are looking for from toothpaste to soup. Many equate the ability to choose with freedom but Christian freedom actually limits our choices. If we would live in the freedom that Christ offers, we are no longer free to go off on people; we give up our freedom of speech so that we speak as we are led by the Holy Spirit with patience and love. We give up our freedom of religion submitting ourselves to the only true and living God and pledging our allegiance to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exclusively. We are freed but not for the sake of self-indulgence; not for the sake of doing whatever we want, living totally unrestrained. Paul says that living a totally unrestrained life is to subject ourselves again to the sinfulness from which Jesus has set us free. He frames this argue based on the dichotomy of either living by the Spirit or living according to the flesh. Flesh here is not to be misunderstood as Paul saying that the human body is inherently bad or evil. For Paul, flesh is shorthand for being self-centered and individualistic as opposed to being God-centered leading to loving and caring about others. For Paul, the works of the flesh include both material (fornication, drunkenness) and spiritual (sorcery, idolatry) desires. Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit has spiritual benefits but also helps us in our relationship to the material stuff of this world. So there is not a body/spirit opposition in Paul’s argument, he is not making a case for giving up material possessions and desires but rather it is the conflict created by disordered desires. The natural longing for God becomes idolatry; the natural longing for sexual intimacy becomes fornication. When disordered desire or living according to the flesh takes over we begin to act out of rage and anger; our zeal, our deeply held beliefs become the cause of factionalism and division. But whereas the flesh causes hostility, strife, and division the Holy Spirit creates community. The two are diametrically opposed to each other. You cannot live according to the flesh and according to the Holy Spirit simultaneously.
This opposition between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit has reared its head on numerous occasions in the church in general and in what becomes the United Methodist Church in particular. The church in general and United Methodism in particular has failed to live according to the Spirit. Colonial and early American preachers used Holy Scripture to support and justify the institution of slavery in this country. In the Methodist Episcopal Church this would result in a split between the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1840. The church missed an opportunity to bring community out of crisis; missed an opportunity to lead the country by setting an example of how to live according to the Spirit even when we disagree. Who knows if the different denominations had been able to work through the issue of slavery perhaps there would not have been a Civil War. The church failed again with the reunification of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1939. This unification included the creation of the Central Jurisdiction, the only jurisdiction not based on geography and instead created based on race to satisfy Southern Methodists’ and their refusal to accept African American members into their annual conferences; again another opportunity for the church to set the example of living by the Spirit and eschewing the tendency to fulfill our self-indulgence; the church could have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement and the end of racial segregation and discrimination but it is not until 1968 and the unification with the United Evangelical Brethren to create the UMC that Central Jurisdiction and racial discrimination in the United Methodist Church came to an end from a disciplinary and policy standpoint. But at this year’s annual conference a pastor stood up as we were debating a resolution addressing racism to recount how at his previous appointment members of his congregation stood at the door to prevent African Americans from entering the church. He did not say where in SC this was but he refuted the notion held by some that racism was not as serious a problem in SC and definitely not in the SC Annual Conference of the UMC. It is unwise and much too speculative to try to draw a line from colonial times to the massacre that occurred June 17, 2015 during the Bible study hour at Emanuel AME Church. However, as Dylan Roof walked into this Bible study intent on destroying community; acting out of self-indulgence with a plan to destroy this gathering of God’s children we are reminded that the church has to be the leading voice if we are ever going to live in the unity and harmony promised by God the Holy Spirit. By Roof’s own account, the love that he encountered at Mother Emanuel almost convinced him not to go through with his plan. He almost decided to walk away but he was controlled by his flesh. Dylan Roof’s beliefs had created such a zeal within him that he acted according to the flesh; he acted out of anger, malice, and divisiveness. He acted out of his enslavement to a belief that he had the power and authority to take human lives; that somehow destroying these people would give him victory. He is not the first and unfortunately as we see from more recent events in Orlando he is not the last of people who have been formed and shaped by this notion that they have unchecked freedom to take life; to destroy community, to do whatever they want to do. However, Paul makes it clear that attempts to destroy others will lead to our own destruction. “If…you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (v. 15) We get an image of two wild animals tearing and ripping at each other with claws and teeth believing that there is a victory to be had when in actuality with each blow inflicted on the opponent they are destroying themselves.
This is the message this morning, we need each other. God has created us all in such a way that we cannot survive without the help and support of others, there is just no two ways about it. Paul in his list of the works of the flesh lists, quarrels, strife, enmity, dissensions, factions among others but these point to the ways the works of the flesh promote division and a scattering into isolated individualism. The fruit of the Spirit on the other hand, creates unity bringing us all together in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is easy to hate Dylan Roof. That is what I want to do. I want to be self-indulgent and wallow in the hatred and anger and rage that I felt when the realization of what had occurred hit me with full force. That this fellow could sit through an hour of Bible study, pray with this group of people and still take their lives in cold-blood. But to be self-indulgent is not to be self-loving. To give my self-control over to the passion of anger is to deny the power of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide toward unity and wholeness. We are freed from these passions in Jesus Christ. That is not to say that there will not be conflict. Indeed, it was the openness of this congregation to unquestioningly welcome everyone who enters their doors that made it possible for this young man to do what he did. To live according to the Spirit is to live in the vulnerability that is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus loved without restraint; Jesus not only sought out those who were oppressed and abused but he also sought out the abusers and oppressors. Jesus did not condemn as he corrected; instead he constantly called to everyone to all who would listen giving every man, woman, boy, and girl a chance to experience the healing and wholeness he offered. If we are going to be followers of Jesus Christ we have to have a different understanding of freedom and power than those who do not follow Christ. Whenever, conflict arises and it will, we are charged by the power of the Holy Spirit to meet it with generosity meaning a humility that makes a space for others, patience that bears with those who sin differently than we do, kindness that seeks what is good for everyone, and faithfulness that will not let us walk away from this community God has given us. This is not optional or a suggestion but is a command. To meet this crisis or any crisis with hate and anger is to feed into the death and division that was intended by this horrible act but to be the church to be followers of Christ is to take seriously our responsibility to bring community out of this crisis. How can we, led and guided by the Holy Spirit turn what was meant for evil into good? How can we get beyond the initial coming together for prayer vigils and walks, which are good but only temporary? How can we see how God is creating a more permanent and intimate community out of this crisis? Hear me clearly, we are not in this alone; the Holy Spirit is with us to empower and sustain us. As Paul continually reminds us and the church in Galatia with the imperatives to walk by the Spirit (v. 16, 25), live by the Spirit (25a), be led by the Spirit (v.16, 18, 25b). Through these imperatives Paul asserts that we are either led by the flesh leading to unrighteousness, death, and destruction or we will be led by the Spirit leading to righteousness, life, and creation. We are called to action while being totally dependent on the Holy Spirit so that we are able to live in Christian freedom and bring community out of crisis.
To God be the Glory.
Yesterday, I posted a statement on Facebook that stirred a little bit of conversation. My initial point said,
“Racial reconciliation is an existential lie that pushes the oppressed to enter back into the hell they have been trying to escape.”
Throughout the rest of the day, I had conversations with many brothers and sisters, about my comment. As I pondered, upon the conversations, I started to wrestle with some thoughts about racial reconciliation. It is my sincerest hope that my thoughts will be conveyed with clarity as I attempt to unpack my line of thinking. These are not definitive, well researched thoughts, but somethings that I have been wrestling with:
First, we must understand that racism has worked. Race was never meant to be a tool to build community. The quest to identify someone as the “other” has always been a tactic to say that I am better than you. Dr. Mitzi Smith writes, “Difference is constructed in order to distinguish ourselves from proximate others. Our constructions of the other generally function to subordinate the other to us.” So, when race and the politics of race were implemented they were not done with the hope of building community. It was designed to disempower a group or groups of people that did not meet the pigmentation requirement to be white. Also, the premise of developing the concept of race was to make sure that the group designated as important always remained the important group. That is why it is extremely hard for some white people to grasp the notion that racism is a real trauma in the black, brown and Native American communities. Because, to make the claim that racism is live and active, would then force that white person to have to deal the reality that they have prospered on the backs of others. Their positions and privilege spaces were not always the products of hard work but often time engineered by what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “elegance of racism.”
Secondly, racial reconciliation is not an applicable reality. As I said before the concept of race was not developed to build community, it was meant to divide. Once race enters the picture the aspects of relationship start to diminish: No longer am I an African connecting with a European, but a black skinned person interacting with a lighter skinned person. The cultural beauty of our tribe or country is sidelined by color. The cultural aesthetics are secondary to color schemes.
Furthermore, if we are honest, when racial reconciliation is stated it is usually slanted to ascribe that those designated as minorities conform to the characteristics of those who are the majority. Thus, racial reconciliation usually calls for a sacrifice from those who have been the victims of racism.
Thirdly, we must be very clear that we do not confuse the reconciliation of the scripture to mean racial reconciliation. The scriptures make no room for race. They do make room for nations and tribes, but not people based upon the color of their skin. When we make efforts to force racial reconciliation into the reconciliation of the scriptures, we force God to be a racist. God has called us to “put on Christ.” (Romans 13:14) God has not called us to be black or white. We have adopted these labels and most of us live by them wholeheartedly, including me. The reconciliation of the scriptures calls for us be put back into a place where we can receive the blessed favor of God. It is not a space where we come and disrobe our authenticity, so that others feel safe. It is a sacred space where God allows us to be in community with Godself, while being in community with others and color is a non-factor.
Unfortunately, I do not think we can have that type of encounter outside of the love of God. We live in a society that promulgates the racism with ease. The hatred of anything non-white becomes evident just by turning on the television. When the safety of an ape Trumps (pun intended) the safety of a young black child, racism is real. When good Christian folks see nothing wrong with the rhetoric and politics of Donald Trump, racism is real. So for someone to believe that racial reconciliation is feasible is treading on some sticky ground. Spiritually, God makes no room for it and in reality it is just not going to happen.
Just take a look at your local congregation and that should be a good indicator of the importance of this so called racial reconciliation.
We are in a time where your pictures speak before your mouth does. As I entered a Lutheran church Sunday, I was blown away by the gigantic moral of the 30 foot white Jesus on the back wall. This white Jesus spoke more to me than the very message that was preach. This white Jesus though pictured as welcoming was the most unfriendly sight that I have ever seen in a church. This white and manicured Jesus, I assumed, was supposedly the Jesus they thought gave his life as a ransom for me. This white Jesus with a triumphant smile and arms spread abroad signaling, “May the Lord be with you.”
The entire service all I could think about was the picture of this white Jesus.
Honestly, as a fellow ELCA candidate for pastoral ministry, I didn’t feel valued or respected. This picture did not encourage me to want to be in fellowship with this particular church. It made want to leave the ELCA in its entirety. The premise of a white Jesus has more negative implications than I have time or care to discuss. What I will say is that as a black male, the invention of a white Jesus is inconsistent with building multi-cultural churches…
The constant rehearsing of the trauma of racism has placed an indelible chasm in the soul of black folks. As we wrestle to understand, and, ultimately, try to reconcile: how other (so called) Christians can stand around as such heinous crimes were/are being done to black and brown folks. How can Christians care so little about the poor and alienated while condoning the evil rhetoric of a Donald Trump? Yes, I applaud Donald Trump for at least being honest about his politics but he is an evil man. How do Christians even justify that black and brown lives are not vehemently abused by society? If you call yourself a believer in Jesus and live out the tenants of the Christian faith, how do you reconcile with such evil?
Racism kills the very essence of love and confines perspectives; there is no growth or progression. You can’t say you’re not racist but sit idly by and not combat racism. You can’t say you’re not racist and think that it is ok, to allow poor education, and poor healthcare to ravage through black and brown communities.
Racism sucks the life out of organization. It demeans in order to tear down. There is no redeemable quality within racism. Racisms presents a subtle approach, but it comes with obvious and intentional outcomes –keep black and brown people in poverty. There is nothing accidental about racism. It is an intentional weapon used when the majority finds its status sleeping away.
The mere thought of racial reconciliation is laughable at best. What exactly would this reconciliation mean? Here the words of James Cone,
Reconciliation does not transcend color, thus making us all white. The problem of values is not that white people need to instill values in the ghetto; but white society itself needs values so that it will no longer need a ghetto. Black values did not create a ghetto; white values did. Therefore God’s Word of reconciliation makes us all black. Through this radical change, we become identified totally with the suffering of the black masses. It is this fact that makes all white churches anti-Christian churches in their essence. To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people.
Now these words can be easily misconstrued if read through the eyes of racism. But Cone is very simply stating that God is on the side of the” least of these.” Black is not a color but a place where “your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” To be Christian is to know what the underside looks like and to feel the pain of the margins. Reconciliation is not just a pathological response of forgiveness but it is a deep intrinsic reframing of one’s authentic God-self.
I love the words that introduce Dr. Yolanda Pierce’s website,
“I am not interested in most conversations about equality. To whom would you like to be equal, given a broken and morally bankrupt system? Do you want to be equal to the persons, forces, and systems which generate the very terms of your oppression? I am, however, interested in the weightier matters of law: justice and freedom. How can we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?”
These words echo the sentiments of a generation that’s been disproportionately jailed, harassed, overlooked and abused because of the color of their skin. Honestly, the system is not broken, it is working exactly how it was programed to work. When corrupt people build a system, you can rest assured that the system is corrupt. America was established through corruption, theft and racism and those sins continue to wreak havoc on all people locked “in these yet to be united states.” Maybe KRS-One was right when he rapped,
“There can never be justice on stolen land.”
There is no simple strategy or words that can make things better overnight. But a collective sorry that is entrenched in justice is a good place to start.
“How can we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?- Pierce