Preaching Repentance as though Our Lives Depended on It

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” Ezekiel 18:7-9.

“We’re all tired of being called racists,” said a Trump supporter recently to Elaina Plott, journalist for The Atlantic. Ms. Plott’s 2019 article chronicled several interviews with participants in one of Mr. Trump’s massive rallies in Cincinnati. All Plott’s interviewees denied emphatically that they were racist, pointing to their interracial grandchildren, their black co-workers and their many acts of charity toward people of color. I know from my own conversations with folks like these that nothing elicits as much anger as the suggestion that they are racist. Talking about race is by far the hardest task I have ever faced as a preacher-and one that, to my shame, I often avoided. I avoided it because I am conflict averse and nothing generates conflict like racism. I avoided it because I know from the times I haven’t that it leads to anger, defensiveness and resentment. I avoided it because I feel awkward, knowing that I struggle with the same demon in my own heart and wonder how I can presume to cast it out of someone else. But mostly, I avoided confronting racism because it is easier just to leave it alone. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, however, took the “leave it alone” option away from me. Since that time, the prophet Ezekiel’s words seem directed to reluctant preachers like me.

Time and again I have been confronted with the angry rhetorical, “So, are you calling me a racist?”I am never quite sure how to respond to that. Are Trump supporters racists by definition? Is it fair or accurate to characterize them that way? I think it is fair to say that these folks are not racists in the sense that they consciously adhere to a racist ideology or associate with Aryan Nations, the KKK or other hate groups. It is likely that they do have family, friends and neighbors who are people of color and for whom they feel a genuine degree of affection. They might even take exception to some of Mr. Trump’s more blatant racist rants. Nevertheless, it is troubling that these same people, who profess to be “color blind” and friendly with people of all races, can at the same time support Donald Trump. Rather than argue over whether supporters of Donald Trump fit anyone’s definition of racism, let us simply consider some hard facts about the president that were well known before the 2016 election.

  • It is a matter of record that in the 1970s Donald Trump’s real estate companies in New York systematically discriminated against people of color in their rentals and that, after a lengthy court battle, Trump was compelled to bring his practices into compliance with laws against discrimination under regulatory supervision.
  • It is a matter of record that Donald Trump propagated the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and therefore unqualified to be president. Moreover, he continued to make this baseless assertion years after it had been thoroughly debunked.
  • It is a matter of record that Donald Trump painted Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as drug dealers and rapists.
  • Donald Trump stated publicly and has never withdrawn his assertion that an American born federal judge was incapable of deciding a case involving a white man because he was of Mexican heritage. Even most Republicans found the remark to be racist-though it did not stop them from selecting him as their party’s candidate for the highest office.
  • During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump savagely attacked the Muslim family of an American soldier who gave his life serving the nation in Iraq.
  • Donald Trump refused to distance himself from the support of avowed white supremacist and former KKK grand wizard David Duke for days after receiving his endorsement and finally issued the most tepid of disclaimers against him much later. Nevertheless, Duke continued to and still does support Donald Trump.

Since his election, Donald Trump has referred to African nations as “s##t hole countries, referred to white supremacists as “very fine people,” referred repeatedly to Black Lives Matter protesters as “terrorists,” “rioters,” “Marxists” and “extremists.” The president has at times seemed to encourage discrimination and even violence against people of color and, in any event, it is indisputable that hate crimes against people of color and visible expressions of white supremacy have increased substantially since the president took office.

Finally, the RNC convention that ended last week should lay to rest any lingering doubt about the true colors of the President and the Republican Party that re-nominated him. Those colors are white, white and white. Nobody had to use the “N” word this week. We all knew  from whom Donald Trump was promising to save our suburban neighborhoods. Nobody had to tell the cheering white Republican mob what color the “rioters” were or against whom the “law” had to be ruthlessly enforced to ensure “order.” Yes, there were some faces of color in the speaking line up. But neither their presence nor their endorsements were sufficient to override the Trump message to white America: Your country is being taken away from you by brown skinned people, people with different religions and different languages. They will dilute the white race, undermine Christianity, change our neighborhoods for the worse, denigrate our American identity-and, as Trump has said repeatedly, “I am the only one standing between you and them.” Those of us who are old enough hear loud and clear the echos of George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Strom Thruman.

On the basis of these facts, I cannot help but conclude that supporters of Donald Trump do not feel his disparaging remarks against people of color or the support he receives from avowed racists and racist hate groups disqualifies him from serving in America’s highest executive office. I must conclude that Trump supporters are not particularly concerned about how people of color might experience threats and denigrating remarks from the United States President. I also conclude that Trump supporters have determined, on balance, that benefits they enjoy as a result of the Trump presidency outweigh whatever concerns about discrimination and violence people of color express in its wake. This is the kindest construction I can put on the “softest” supporters of Donald Trump.

I leave to others the task of determining whether the above assessment places Trump supporters within the racist classification. For my part, it tells me that the best of them are lacking in sensitivity, understanding and empathy. It tells me that their own economic and social wellbeing trumps (no pun intended) all concern for other members of society whose fortunes are adversely affected by the status quo. It tells me that the moral compass of Trump’s least malignant supporters is seriously impaired.

This shoud concern us. Consider that only a fraction of the German people in the thirties and forties were members of the Nazi party. Many and perhaps most party members sought that status primarily to boost their social and professional standing rather than out of any strong political conviction. It is worth noting that, although antisemitism is an ancient stain on all of Eurpean culture, it was not particularly pronounced in Germany.  It is probably fair to say that most Germans bore no intense animosity against Jews. Most Germans probably socialized and interacted professionally with Jewish doctors, attorneys and shop keepers on a regular basis.  Still, they supported Hitler notwithstanding his antisemitic rants. He was, after all, rebuilding the country’s shattered economy and restoring national pride in the wake of national humiliation and economic depression following the First World War. When Jewish businesses were confiscated, Jewish homes seized and Jewish families moved into concentration camps, relatively few non-Jewish citizens questioned the government, much less protested. It was not so much the virulent antisemitism of the Nazis as the indifference of so many others that made the Holocaust possible. A small group of people was able to slaughter millions because millions more were willing to look the other way. These onlookers were not evil people. Like the “soft” Trump supporters, they were simply people who lacked the social awareness, spiritual maturity and moral courage to be good.

I have been told that I am hyperbolizing here with comparisons between Trump’s America and the Third Reich. Perhaps I am. Sometimes you have to hyperbolize in order to make your point. Therefore, let me be clear. I know that historical comparisons are dicey. And no, I don’t believe we are yet a fascist police state, but is that a direction in which you want to travel even one more inch? No, I don’t foresee our government building concentration camps to incarcerate black Americans. But isn’t it bad enough that a disproportionately high percentage of black men are incarcerated for non-violent offenses? Isn’t it bad enough that our banking practices have and continue to deny so many black families the opportunity to purchase homes, thereby restricting their social, economic and geographic mobility? No, we have not yet seen people lined up, shot and buried in mass graves. But isn’t it bad enough that hardly a week goes by without a new story of an unarmed black person shot to death by police? Isn’t it bad enough that Covid-19 infection and mortality rates are substantially higher among people of color due to historic disparities in access to health care? No, we have not reached the levels of infamy earned by the Third Reich, but how much closer do you want to get?  How high does the body count have to be? How many murders does it take to make a holocaust? Do you really want to find out?

There is a glimmer of hope in all of this. A very significant number of those “softest” Trump supporters are sitting in our churches or, more likely these days, tuning into our services on the internet. They have never chosen between white privilege and discipleship with Jesus because they have never been taught that a choice is required. They have never chosen between God and country because it has never occurred to them that the two could ever be in conflict. They need to hear from their church that, whatever the Republican party once stood for, it now stands for white supremacy. They need to hear from their church that supporting Donald Trump is, not to put too fine a point on it, sin. Our people need to hear from their church that the communion of saints made up of every nation, tribe and tongue can never be reconciled with an attempt to build a secular kingdom grounded on the flimsy foundation of blood, soil, race and nation. In short, our people need to hear the good news that the way of Donald Trump is not the way things have to be nor will be. They need the opportunity to follow a “yet more perfect way.” And woe to us, says the prophet Ezekiel, if we do not make that way known to them.

I expect that some people, I don’t know how many, will be driven out of the church by such direct preaching. But I suspect there will be others who will find such direct proclamation refreshing and full of promise. I strongly believe that there are people in our churches who will be thrilled to hear their pastors speak truth to power-with authority. I believe there are many people in my church that would eagerly respond to our bishop’s call to invest a substantial portion of our corporate wealth in the ministry of back American churches on the front lines of the battle against racism. That, however, is all beside the point. As the prophet tells us, our duty is to warn our hearers away from unrighteousness and injustice and toward repentance and its life-giving fruits. The greatest danger is not that we shall have failed to convince our hearers, but that the word will never have been spoken because of our fear of conflict, our desire to avoid the way of the cross and our lack of confidence in the efficacy of that word. We need to preach and practice the reign of God and the communion of saints against the darkness of racist nationalism as if our lives depended on it-because they do.

Here is a subtle and layered poem by Adrienne Rich speaking to the necessity of proclaiming hard words reviving memories we would prefer to leave burried in forgetfulness and exposing truths we are reluctant to face, using whatever language, whatever metaphor, whatever image will pierce the listening ear.

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Source
:  Collected Poems: 1950-2012. (c. 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust,  pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.)  Adrienna Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet and essayist. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two sisters. Her father, a renowned pathologist, was the chairman of pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her mother was a concert pianist and composer.  She was home schooled until she entered public education in the fourth grade. After graduating from high school, Rich earned her college diploma at Radcliffe College where she focused on poetry and the craft of writing. In her final year at college, Rich’s first collection of poetry was selected by the senior poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University. They had three children together. Rich and her family moved to New York in 1966 where Rich became became heavily involved in anti-war, civil rights and feminist activism. Her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York. In 1971, Rich was the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and spent the next year and a half teaching at Brandeis University as the Hurst Visiting Professor of Creative Writing. She took up the position of the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellow at Bryn Mawr College in 1974. Having separated from her husband, Rich began a partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff. This union lasted until her death. From 1976 to 1979, Rich taught English at City College and Rutgers University. In 1979 she received an honorary doctorate from Smith College. Thereafter, she moved with Cliff to Montague, MA, but eventually took up residence in Santa Cruz, CA where Rich continued her career as a professor, lecturer, poet, and essayist.
Rich wrote several poems explicitly tackling the rights of women in society. Her poems are also notable for their feminist elements. Besides poems and novels, Rich also wrote and published a number of books that discuss feminist issues. You can find out more about Adrienna Rich and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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