Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Dangers of Doing the “What” Without Remembering the “Why”


Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Prayer of the Day: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—” Deuteronomy 4:9

Forgetfulness is the mortal enemy of covenant loyalty. It also leads us into a warped and toxic way of interpreting the scriptures. In these final words of Moses to Israel, memorialized in the book of Deuteronomy, the call to remember is a constant refrain:

“When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.’” Deuteronomy 6:20-25 See also, Deuteronomy 8:11; Deuteronomy 11:2; Deuteronomy 31:9-13.

Israel was admonished not merely to remember “what” God had commanded but also “why.” God did not liberate Israel from slavery in Egypt only for her to become a mirror image of that oppressive empire. Israel was to be a different kind of community, a “light to the nations.” The law is to be diligently observed, says Moses, “for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” The whole reason for God’s election of Israel was to show the world a new way of being human. Obedience to the covenant laws and statutes was a means to that end, not an end in itself. For this reason, Israel was warned never to forget her story of how God’s compassion and zeal for justice brought her into being as God’s instrument of blessing for all creation.

To forget our stories is to forget who we are and why we do the things we do. In Pierre Boulle’s book, Bridge over the River Kwai, a group of British soldiers under the command of Lt. Colonel Nicholson are captured by the Japanese during World War II and ordered to work on building a bridge across the River Kwai. In order to keep up the morale of his men under cruel and inhumane conditions of captivity, Nicholson orders them to take special care with their work. He directs them to build the best bridge possible to show the Japanese just how skilled and competent the British are and what the Japanese are up against. The bridge was to be a symbol of British power-an act of defiant resistance giving the captive soldiers a sense of purpose and dignity. But before long, Colonel Nicholson becomes enamored with his bridge, proud of the project-so much so that it consumes him. In the end, when British commandos show up to destroy the bridge, Nicholson fights with his Japanese captors to protect his bridge.

Colonel Nicholson forgot who he was. He forgot who his enemy was. He forgot why he was building his bridge. So, too, Moses knew that his people would be tempted to forget who they were, how they were called from slavery into freedom and the reason for which they were given the commandments and statutes of God. He therefore admonishes them (and us) “neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.”  Deuteronomy 4:9

When the law is observed with no recollection of why it was given, it becomes an instrument of bondage rather than a vessel of liberation. In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents seem to have lost touch with who they are called to be and why they are following the law. They practiced well enough the “what” of the law, but quite forgot its “why.” For them, the law had become an instrument of judgment, exclusion and condemnation. The rules were ends in themselves and it mattered not whether one knew or understood why they were given or what they were intended to accomplish. Suffice to say, Moses surely never imagined that the statutes he delivered to Israel in order to protect their newfound freedom from bondage would one day be used by a religious elite to condemn, enslave and shame hungry people. Clearly, that was not God’s intent for God’s people or God’s law. Nor, do I believe, is it God’s intent that the Scriptures be used by Christians to shame, condemn and reject people because of who they love, or what their legal status under the laws of any nation state happens to be or the nation, race or culture of their origin. The commandments, we dare not forget, were given by the God who liberates God’s children from slavery. If the scriptures are not lived, taught and proclaimed in a way that moves us from bondage into freedom, they are being misinterpreted.

Our lessons for this Sunday call us to remember who we are: Children of a God who, at the cost of his only beloved Son, liberates slaves, lifts up the lowly and embraces the outcast. That is the narrative that must control how we understand, interpret and apply every verse we find in the Bible.

Here is a poem/hymn about biblical remembering by James Weldon Johnson.

Lift Every Voice and Sing   

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Source: Johnson, James Weldon, Complete Poems (c. 2000 by Penguin Publishing Group). James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a lawyer, teacher and civil rights leader in the early part of the twentieth century. As head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, Johnson led civil rights campaigns aimed at eliminating legal, political, and social obstacles to black advancement. In addition to these achievements, he was also a gifted author and poet. The above poem, ultimately set to music, constitutes a tribute to black endurance, hope, and religious faith that was later adopted by the NAACP and dubbed “the Negro National Anthem.” It is found in many Christian hymnals today, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). See ELW # 841. Concerning this hymn, Johnson had this to say: “A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

“The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.” You can read more about James Weldon Johnson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


To Preachers Everywhere: Stop Domesticating Jesus!


Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Seems I got a little ahead of myself last week putting up the lessons for this coming fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, thereby skipping altogether the thirteenth. No point in looking backward; therefore, I offer these further reflections on the texts for the fourteenth Sunday.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’” John 6:53-56.

If we are honest, most of us will agree that these words of Jesus are more than offensive. They are revolting. Cannibalism is taboo in nearly every culture and was certainly so in every strain of First Century Judaism. You might point out that Jesus is not to be taken literally here, but that only begs the question. If Jesus is speaking metaphorically, why choose such a vulgar metaphor?

The answer is that Jesus is not speaking metaphorically and that he knew full well the reaction he was likely to evoke from his audience. Internalizing Jesus is offensive and contrary to our deepest instincts. The way into which he calls us goes against all of our sensibilities. Take, for instance, Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek when stricken. There is nothing natural about that. Doesn’t Kenny Rogers tell us that you have to fight to be a man?” Preachers and religious pundits fall all over themselves trying to explain away the clear sense of Jesus’ command. Take for, example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council who, when asked about that very saying, replied “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” Evidently, you can’t rely on a milksop like Jesus to get Christianity right.  That’s a man’s job.

Jesus also calls his followers to “Sell your possessions, and give alms,” but who does that? Again, numerous hermeneutical gymnastics have been performed in order to extricate us from this clear and unambiguous command. I recall the pastor who confirmed me assuring the congregation that, while Christians must believe that the earth was created in seven days of twenty-four hours (as per Genesis 1), that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish in whose belly he lived for three days and that the sun literally stood still in the sky for twenty-four hours at Joshua’s command, we need not take Jesus literally in this instance. What Jesus really meant was that we must “have our possessions as if we have them not.” That is, we can keep what we own as long as we are ready to let go of it all at Jesus’ explicit command. If I had not been a timid, introverted teenager at that point, I might have asked, “So pastor, what part of ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ is less than fully explicit?” It all goes to show, I suppose, that we take the Bible literally until it says something we don’t like. When that happens, the staunchest fundamentalist is reduced to a wiggling bowl of liberal Jello.

Let me be clear in saying that I don’t follow Jesus’ teachings with any more rigor than the two gentlemen I just pilloried. It is not my purpose to charge them or anyone else with hypocrisy. You know what they say about people living in glass houses throwing rocks. But we do need to stop co-opting Jesus in support of our hypocrisy.  We need to stop trying to smooth out Jesus’ rough edges to make him more appealing and less abrasive to our cultural notions of manhood, our capitalistic values and all other aspects of our lives we deem non-negotiable. We need to stop trying to shape Jesus into the image of someone who fits neatly into our middle class lives to help us cope. Jesus didn’t come to help us cope with life. He came to transform it. Jesus didn’t come to help us adapt to and accept our circumstances. He came to make us uncomfortable with our circumstances to the point of being unable to tolerate them. Jesus came to put us into conflict with the “blood and soil” nationalism that is sweeping the globe; the blatant and cynical disregard for truth that characterizes our political discourse and the self-centered tribalism that demonizes the stranger. If you are comfortable with the way things are, you haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

For the last few weeks we have been following Jesus through Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. When the chapter began, Jesus had five thousand enthusiastic followers who were ready to make him their king. At its close, Jesus had only twelve disciples. That is hardly a model of success by megachurch standards. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in gaining followers. He is intent on making disciples. At the end of the day,  Jesus has twelve disciples who-however imperfectly, however incompletely and however tentatively-know that Jesus has the words of eternal life. That’s as much success as Jesus needs to build his church.

So perhaps we need to start asking ourselves whether we are more afraid of membership decline than we are committed to making disciples. Are we ready to take a hit in membership for the sake of discipleship? Are we preachers ready to say point blank, not in any denominational statement, but to our own people in our own pulpits, that we stand, as disciples of Jesus, with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, victims of deportation, young black men who are being victimized by police, women and men who are crying out against sexual abuse, the sick and dying who are being systematically denied life saving medical care? Are we prepared to call out the growing tyranny of a president who calls women dogs, Mexicans murderers and rapists and black Americans names I won’t print. Are we ready to hear a large part of our membership tell us, “This is a hard teaching! Who can listen to it?” Are we, like Jesus, willing to lose our following to gain disciples?

We (myself obviously included) are a long way from following Jesus with complete fidelity. We probably never will perfect our faith this side of eternity, but we can, and if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, we should grow in our faith. I believe that begins with letting our churches hear Jesus in the unedited, unredacted and unmodified biblical witness. We need to let Jesus question our most basic assumptions about our economics, our politics and our beliefs about God. We need to hold up our cultural assumptions, our patriotism and our relationships with one another to the light of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom with unflinching honesty-even when the words of Jesus embarrass, confuse and frighten us. My preaching professor in seminary used to tell us: “Don’t ever let me catch you explaining in any sermon what Jesus really meant. Jesus meant what he said and if you can’t stomach it, get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who can.” The words Jesus speaks are sometimes hard to hear, difficult to accept and run contrary to our deepest instincts. Nevertheless, they are good words; redemptive words; words of eternal life. They may not win many followers, but we can trust them to make solid disciples.

Here’s a poem/song by Phil Ochs illustrating both the radical nature of Jesus and our tendency to domesticate him.

The Crucifixion

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie
‘Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised.
Planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies.

In the green fields a-turning, a baby is born.
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn.
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard.
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard.
And the only single sighing is the sighing of the stars
But to the silence of distance they are sworn

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Images of innocence charge him to go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn.
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
A blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love there is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.

So he stands on the sea and he shouts to the shore
But the louder that he screams the longer he’s ignored.
For the wine of oblivion is drunk to the dregs;
The merchants of the masses almost have to be begged
‘Til the giant is aware that someone’s pulling at his leg
And someone is tapping at the door.

To dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Then his message gathers meaning and it spreads across the land;
The rewarding of the fame is the falling of the man.
For ignorance is everywhere and people have their way.
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day.
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
And blood is the language of the band.

The Spanish bulls are beaten; the crowd is soon beguiled.
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style.
The excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets;
Gracefully he bows to the ovations that he gets.
But the hands that are applauding him are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Then this overflow of life is crushed into a lie;
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire.
It’s the death of beauty, the victory of night;
Truth becomes a tragedy limping from the light.
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger at the sight,
And the cross is trembling with desire.

They say they can’t believe it, it’s a sacrilegious shame.
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall.
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Time takes a toll and the memory fades,
But his glory is growing in the magic that he made.
Reality is ruined; there’s nothing more to fear;
The drama is distorted into what they want to hear.
Swimming in their sorrow, in the twisting of a tear
As they wait for the new thrill parade.

The eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind.
To the safety of sterility the threat has been refined.
The child was created; to the slaughterhouse he’s led;
So good to be alive when the eulogy is read.
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
As the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie;
‘Til the universe expodes as a falling star is raised.
Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed.
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was born in El Paso, Texas. He was a folk singer/songwriter and contemporary of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s and 1970s and released eight albums. He performed at numerous anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and organized labor rallies. Ochs’s mental health deteriorated in the 1970s owing to what is now known as bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Tragically, he took his own life in 1976. You can find out more about Phil Ochs and his music at this website. If you would like to listen to the above song as performed by Phil Ochs, click here.


The Hard Truth about “Ends” and “Means”


Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

Of course, the evil one would have us believe that our struggle is against enemies of flesh and blood-such as immigrants, liberals, socialists, fascists, racists, conservatives, Muslims, Jews, people of color, etc. Victory over evil consists in overcoming evil people by banishing them from our neighborhoods and churches, preventing them from coming into our country, driving them from positions of authority in government, silencing their voices in the public forum and, if all else fails, killing them. What is war, after all, but the most extreme strategy for ridding the world of evil? Sure, its ugly, cruel and brutally unjust, especially to non-combatants that happen to be in the way of strategic military strikes. But the ends justify the means, don’t they?

I recently read an angry manifesto from a young woman who left my own Lutheran Church. She said, in part, “I’m done with being patient. I’m done with loving people who treat my people like s#$%. I’m done waiting. I’m done with hoping people are going to change, that the world is going to change. Ain’t no change gonna happen but the change we make any way we can make it!” I understand the anger, the frustration and the hurt. God knows that we who call ourselves church have managed to do a lot of nothing about everything. But I am not ready to accept the proposition that it’s finally up to us to make the change we want to see “any way we can make it.” The ends don’t justify the means but, as Alduous  Huxley reminds us, they frequently determine them. We don’t employ the weapons of violence, force and coercion without being shaped by them. Furthermore, we cannot truly know the “ends” of our deeds. At best, we can only hope they will work out for the best. But how often don’t good intentions lead to unanticipated consequences? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that the ends or consequences of our actions are beyond our ability to control. The only thing we do control are the means-and Jesus tells us the means by which we are to live into the reign of God. Until that kingdom comes in all its fullness, discipleship takes the shape of the cross. That’s a difficult word. Most won’t accept it. But it is, as Peter rightly recognizes in this Sunday’s gospel, “the words of eternal life.”

In fact, no human being is an enemy. All people are created in the image of God. Some, to be sure, have been shaped by violence, hateful ideologies and false values. A few have become so thoroughly corrupted by evil that one can scarcely discern their humanity. Can one become so thoroughly twisted and perverted by evil influences that nothing of the divine image is any longer recognizable in him or her?  Does one ever reach the point where the Creator says of the creature, “I do not know you”? Since Jesus seems to allow for that possibility, we do well take seriously the corrupting power of evil in our own lives. Nevertheless, God alone is capable of making such a call. For our part, we must assume that everyone we encounter, however flagrantly they manifest evil tendencies, retain traces of their dignity as God’s human creatures. We cannot allow our determination to resist evil to degenerate into a campaign against the people held in bondage to its grip. To do so is to fall into the devil’s trap.

The Apostle Paul understands the evil one’s stratagem well. He knows that peace, justice and righteousness can never be achieved by violent acts against God’s creation and its creatures. So, he takes the imagery of imperial military might, the sword, the helmet, the shield and turns it on its head. The only weapons disciples of Jesus wield are truth, peace, integrity, faith and the word of God. This is the whole armor of God. Nothing further is needed nor allowed to the disciples in carrying out their struggle against evil.

“This is a difficult teaching,” Jesus’ disciples remarked. They were right. Internalizing the Spirit of Jesus, leaning wholly on the power of the Word and the strength of the Spirit to defeat the forces of evil manifested around us requires a willingness to lose a few battles, suffer some losses, perhaps endure persecution or death. Moreover, we may die without ever seeing any positive result from these sacrifices. In a culture that rewards only results and insists that the ends justify the means, it is all the more difficult to resist the temptation to seize hold of more “efficient” means than words, acts of mercy and peaceful resistance. Paul’s words and Peter’s witness keep us focused on the long game and the means necessary for winning it.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov illustrating the power of the word, of imagination and courage that make for peace-not unlike Paul’s admonition to avail ourselves of the weapons of the Spirit.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Source: Breathing the Water, c. 1987 by Denise Levertov, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation). Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Putting Away Falsehood and Speaking the Truth


1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25—5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, your blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread that gives life to the world. Give us this bread always, that he may live in us and we in him, and that, strengthened by this food, we may live as his body in the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25.

When I was a teenager, the Vietnam war was raging. So was the national public conversation over the merits of that war. I heard it over the radio, on TV, in the barber shop and at my table in the high school cafeteria. That conversation was always passionate, frequently heated and sometimes less than civil. But it was everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in our church. There were reasons for that, of course. We had families whose sons were serving in Vietnam. We had families whose children were actively involved in the resistance to the war. Our church, like all others, was sustained by longstanding relationships of love and mutual respect. The war constituted a threat to that unity in the Body of Christ. It was the third rail we all took care to avoid, talking around it and over it but never about it.

At the time, it seemed like a sensible strategy. After all, there were plenty of venues for talking politics. Why not let the church be that one place where all the political opinions, ideologies and crusades that divide us are left outside? Why not acknowledge that there are, after all, people of good will on both sides of issues like these and simply agree to disagree-at least for an hour on Sunday? Isn’t our unity in Christ bigger than the temporal issues that divide us? Shouldn’t the church be that one place where we can rise above all of the divisiveness that plagues the rest of our society?

As much surface appeal as this argument might have, the apostle is having none of it. His admonition is to put off falsehood and tell the truth-and not just the truth that is comforting and uncontroversial. Disciples of Jesus owe one another the truth-even when it hurts. After all, how can the good news of Jesus Christ heal us if we won’t let it come near to our deepest wounds? How can a community be truly united as long as its divisions remain undiagnosed, untreated and festering under the surface? There can be no genuine unity in Christ as long as painful truths remain unspoken. What unity there may be is but a brittle façade just one unguarded moment away from shattering.

There is no more troubling and painful truth confronting the American church today than that of its own racism. Despite what I believe are genuine and heartfelt expressions of repentance for our participation in and complicity with our country’s sad legacy of slavery, oppression and segregation put forth by our mainline churches, the harsh truth is that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of any given week. Moreover, whatever our denominational leaders are saying, our rank and file continue, at best, to retain a “blind spot” when it comes to recognizing systemic racism. At worst, we are experiencing in our midst and with increasing frequency a resurgence of the ugliest expressions of racial hatred and intolerance.

As I have said before, the one positive contribution of the Trump administration to date is its exposure of the deep seated fear and suspicion with which white folk regard people of color in general and African Americans in particular. The 2016 campaign has laid bare the pillars of systemic racism that permeates our government, our work places and our educational institutions. We are not, some people proudly proclaimed with the election of Barak Obama in 2008, a “post racial society.” We remain a nation that favors the privileged position of white people, white men in particular at the expense of all others. None have experienced more deeply and destructively the receiving end of all this than black Americans. The consequences of more than two and a half centuries of slavery, segregation and racial terrorism are brutally clear. According to Laura Shin of Forbs Magazine, the average white household possesses 16 times the wealth owned by the average black family. The incarceration rate for black Americans is six times higher than for white people. Access to adequate health care, good schools and affordable housing is too often severely limited in black communities. So too are opportunities for higher education and employment.

In the face of these brutal realities, we are tempted to take comfort in falsehoods. “Slavery has been over for more than a century. Nobody living to day can claim to have been harmed by it and on one living today is responsible for it.” “The civil rights movement ended segregation. So now everyone is playing on a level field.”  “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for the state of their own communities. They need to quit playing the victim and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” “Hey, we elected a black president, didn’t we? That proves the race thing is over.” These expressions are all to common within the churches I have held membership and served over the years. They are not as obviously abrasive as some of the more vulgar assertions of racial hate that have gained currency in our cultural landscape of late. But they are, for that reason, even more insidious. They allow us to avoid the hard and truthful conversations we need to have within the Body of Christ if we are going to become that one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we claim to be.

So where do we go from here? As a white male and beneficiary of systemic racism, I am hardly in a position to proscribe comprehensive solutions to that evil. Nonetheless, we all have to start somewhere. I believe that the best first step white folk like myself can take is to assure our African American neighbors that we believe them. We need to say clearly and unambiguously, “I believe your stories of brutalization at the hands of police. I believe you when you tell me of the regular indignities and slights you experience in going about your daily business at the grocery store, in the restaurant and at work. I believe that your experiences are real.” In other words, we need to put aside all of the old falsehoods and begin to acknowledge and speak the truth.

Of course, before we can do even that we need to learn the truth. In order to do that, we need to be listening to the stories of our non-white neighbors with a compassionate ear and without judgment or defensiveness. That is not easy, because we are bound to learn some truths difficult to hear.  It’s hard to “shut up and listen” when every bone in your body wants to argue, defend and explain. But until we can do at least that, we cannot hope to move in the direction of healing and reconciliation, much less move the world closer to justice.

Here is one hard and truthful story told by poet and author Kwame Dawes.


I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.

Source: Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems, (C. 2013 by Kwame Dawes, pub. by Copper Canyon Press)

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962, but he spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. He subsequently emigrated to Canada and came eventually to the United States. From 1992 to 2012 he taught at the University of South Carolina as a Professor in English, Distinguished Poet in Residence, Director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, and Director of the USC Arts Institute. He is currently the editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of numerous books and poetry collections. You can sample more poetry by Kwame Dawes at the Poetry Foundation Website.