SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.’” Amos 7:10.
“And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’” Amos 7:12-13.
Amaziah’s alarm appears strikingly similar to that of Republican legislatures in roughly half a dozen states that have either adopted or advanced bills purporting to take aim at the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in law and society. These lawmakers would do well to heed the wise admonition of Victor Hugo: “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The notion that theories, ideas and statements of fact can be erased by legislative fiat is as laughable as it is pathetic. But to the terrified psyche of white rage and the party that now embodies it, the truth about racism is a word “the land is not able to bear.”
I am not here to defend, explain or critique critical race theory. Scholars, teachers and preachers far more knowledgeable than me have already done that. I understand it well enough, however, to know that its Republican critics haven’t the faintest idea what it actually is. Here is what else I know:
- The United States Constitution, so far from guaranteeing the Declaration’s bold assertion that “all men are created equal,” counted black Americans as “three fifths of a person,” and that only for purposes determining representation of the states in Congress.
- Ten of the first twelve presidents of the United States were slaveholders.
- The routine separation of enslaved black families, wives from husbands and children from parents, for sale and re-sale was a common commercial practice from colonial times until the end of the Civil War.
- Beating, starvation, rape and torture for the discipline and control of Black slaves was either legal or tolerated by state authorities throughout the southern United States prior to the end of the Civil War.
- Lynching was not an isolated occurrence, but happened routinely and claimed the lives of at least 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968. Federal and state authorities routinely declined to investigate, prevent, specifically outlaw or prosecute these murders.
- In June of 1921 mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the ground and from private aircraft and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States- leaving 36 dead and hundreds hospitalized with injuries.
- In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly withheld life saving antibiotics to Black victims of syphilis in order to study the advanced effects of the disease.
- Until 1967, interracial marriage between Black and white persons was illegal in nearly half of the states of the U.S. and punishable by imprisonment.
- The historic (and still existent) practice of “redlining” and systemic discrimination in housing against persons of color which, incidentally, our former president practiced with regularity and was prosecuted during his years as a real estate baron, prevented generations of black families from purchasing homes, thereby depriving them of the chief means of achieving wealth and financial security.
Furthermore, none of these facts were taught throughout my educational experience from kindergarten to high school nor that of my children. What we got was a “whitewashed” version of American history that neglected or, where neglect was impossible, downplayed the story of African Americans in the building and development of our nation. Those of us who grew up believing this sanitized, nationalistic version of the American saga naturally feel unsettled by these truths. They threaten to destroy our illusions of innocence. They are words we are “not able to bear.” But for the sake of our nation’s healing, to make way for repentance and open the door to a better future, they must be spoken.
The words of a prophet are frequently hard to bear. As we learned from last Sunday’s gospel reading and lesson from Ezekiel, speaking words from God will trigger opposition. Prophecy is a dangerous profession. It got Amos deported. John the Baptist lost his head. What are we prepared to lose for the sake of proclaiming the gentle reign of God in a world of nations, rulers and peoples that are not receptive to it? Are we prepared to make enemies for Jesus’ sake? I am not convinced that we are. Our ELCA website boldly declares that “Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person–questions, complexities and all.” We are fond of making the blanket assurance that “there is a place for you” in our church. I don’t believe we can fairly make that representation-nor should we. If the likes of Stephen Miller, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and their supporters feel comfortable and at home in our church, we are not doing our job. If the MAGA hat wearers find us welcoming, I have to wonder, how prophetic is our preaching? If we are not making any enemies, I have to wonder whether we are making genuine disciples.
Truth is, you can’t follow Jesus without making some enemies along the way. That reality is illustrated in the life and ministry of Clarence Jorden, founder of Koinonia Farm. The Farm was formed as an intentional Christian community established in the State of Georgia back in 1942. Jordan intended for it to be a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” For him, this meant a community of believers sharing life and following the example of the first Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. In order to bear witness to the church as a family in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Koinonia was constituted from its inception as a place where African Americans lived side by side with their white sisters and brothers. Not surprisingly, Koinonia Farm was a frequent target of Klan hostility and government initiated opposition in the deeply segregated south. In his book, Unleashing the Scripture, Duke University professor of religion and ethics Stanley Haueraus relates a story about Koinonia Farm and its founder, Clarence Jordan.
Shortly after Koinonia was founded, Georgia’s state attorney general made several attempts to outlaw the community, confiscate its property and evict the residents. Clarence Jordan sought the help of his brother Robert Jordan, a prominent lawyer with political aspirations. Clarence asked Robert to take on the defense of Koinonia Farm. According to a passage from a book written by James McClendon, the following exchange took place:
“Clarence, I can’t [represent you]. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”
“We might lose everything too, Bob,” [Clarence replied.]
“It’s different for you.”
“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”
“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?”
“That’s right, [Clarence]. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
“Then, [Bob], I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer and not a disciple.”
“Well now, [Robert replied] if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”
“The question is” Clarence said, ‘Do you have a church?’”
That’s a good question for us at this juncture. Do we have a church that is the Body of Christ placing itself between the jaws of injustice and its victims? Or are we a community of admirers of Jesus willing to follow him “up to a point” short of the cross? Is peace and harmony within the ecclesiastical household more precious than the peace of Christ that breaks down the hostility between members of the human family? Are we so fearful of dividing the church over the gospel of Jesus Christ that we are willing to settle for unity grounded in something less? What does faithfulness to Jesus look like in the face of concerted efforts to defend white supremacy by undermining voting rights and manipulating public education curricula?
Maybe it’s because I am getting old and losing my filters. Or perhaps I am just too damn tired of being part of a “community of moral deliberation” that never evolves into concrete teaching or action. Or maybe being retired and professionally bullet proof has made me reckless and irresponsible. Attribute whatever motives you like. But what I am now going to say will probably not go down well in some quarters. Though I commend our ELCA leaders for condemning racism and publicly apologizing to our African American siblings for our complicity in their oppression, I wonder why they cannot go the extra mile to challenge us to practice within the Body of Christ the “equity” St. Paul calls for in his second letter to the Corinthian church by making concrete financial reparations to black churches? Not only have we benefited from their oppression, but we have also been enriched by their hymnody, preaching and prophetic witness (See II Corinthians 8:8-15). Is it too much to ask that we now employ our vast financial resources in supporting these churches in their struggle to rebuild their communities?
I have been told by some of our leaders that we need more dialogue, education and anti-racist training before embarking on such a bold initiative. I don’t have anything against any of those things-except that we have been doing all of that from as far back as the 1970s when I started seminary and the needle hasn’t budged. I understand that, given our polity, ELCA bishops cannot mandate, legislate or compel the church to do anything. But as pastors, teachers and theologians they can and should be telling us what we ought to be doing. The same goes for us pastors of congregations.
Will such bold preaching and admonition trigger a backlash? Will it result in more congregations leaving the ELCA? Will it put the position of pastors in danger? Will we wind up making enemies both within and outside of our church? Perhaps. But as long as our heads remain on our shoulders, we shouldn’t be heard to complain. It goes with the territory.
Here is a poem by Charles Mackay on the virtue of having enemies.
You Have no Enemies?
YOU have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Charles MacKay (1814-1899) was a Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist, novelist, and songwriter. He was born in Perth, Scotland. His father was a bombardier in the Royal Artillery. His mother died shortly after his birth. In 1830 he began writing in French in the Courrier Belge and sent English poems to a local newspaper called The Telegraph. In May 1832 he moved to London where he found employment in teaching Italian to the future opera manager, Benjamin Lumley. Mackay engaged in journalism throughout his time in London. In 1834 he was an occasional contributor to The Sun. From the spring of 1835 till 1844 Mackay was assistant sub-editor of The Morning Chronicle .In the autumn of 1844, he moved to Scotland, and became editor of the Glasgow Argus, but resigned in 1847. He returned to London and worked for The Illustrated London News in 1848 and became editor in 1852. Mackay visited North America in the 1850s, publishing his observations as Life and Liberty in America: or Sketches of a Tour of the United States and Canada in 1857–58 (1859). During the Civil War he was a correspondent for The Times. Mackay was twice married—first, during his Glasgow editorship to Rosa Henrietta Vale by whom he had three sons and a daughter. His second marriage was to Mary Elizabeth Mills, likely a previous servant in the household.