All posts by revolsen

About revolsen

I am a retired Lutheran Pastor currently residing in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I am married .and have three grown children.

Planting on Unpromising Ground

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:1-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Matthew 13:3-9.

I cannot remember when and where I first heard this parable. It might have been in Sunday School or church. But more likely, I heard it from the Bible story book my mother read to my sister and me every night at bed time when we were still small. Perhaps if I had been more spiritually aware at that point, I would have been contemplating whether I qualified as “good soil.” Instead, I wondered what sort of lame brain farmer would waste good seed on ground where it was unlikely to survive, much less thrive. If good seed has any value at all, it would behoove the farmer to ensure that every kernel finds its way to soil in which it can grow and bear fruit.

Then again, perhaps I was onto something. Maybe it isn’t about the soil. After all, plants sometimes display an uncanny ability to grow where you wouldn’t think anything could take root-such as on paved thoroughfares. The good soil we know today was built up over centuries of seed falling upon rock, penetrating its crevices with roots, dying, decaying and mixing with weathered stone. I can attest, from having witnessed in that vast untamed wilderness known as my back yard, that seeds brought by birds, runoff and wind from my neighbor’s Eden like paradise somehow manage to bloom and thrive in my tangle of native shrubs and wild grass. I guess it goes to show that you can never tell where you will find “good soil.”

That brings me to our lesson from Isaiah. This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start and declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return. Furthermore, he assures the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.

The prophet’s assertions are bold, given that the return from exile is at this point merely aspirational. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks will come to fruition just as surely as new growth from rich soil nurtured by the rain. Isaiah brings his prophecy to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle in the midst of the desert. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.

We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, their return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. The road home was difficult and life in the land of promise turned out to be precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and their temple.

If asked whether the prophetic words of Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to seize the opportunity God had given them for a new beginning. Yet the fulfillment hardly lived up to the promise that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even Isaiah could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.

That brings us full circle back to Jesus’ parable. It is not for the sower to decide whether or not a patch of ground is worth seeding. God would have us sow God’s gracious words freely, liberally-one might even say wastefully from the standpoint of our own shortsighted perspectives. God’s Word echoes through sanctuaries where none seem to be listening. It finds its way into conversations where it is not welcome. God’s word is frequently drowned out by the loud and angry voices of hatred, prejudice and violence. But even in the midst of such hostile environments the word finds enough soil to sprout and grow. Just when it seems as though the word has been carried away, starved to death and smothered, the day arrives when it bears fruit that topples monuments to white supremacy, shatters border walls and brings tyrants down from their thrones. “It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11.

Here is a poem by Robert Finch reflecting on the nature of words, their powers and their seed like quality. This brief verse can be for us an invitation to contemplate how God’s word is sown into the fabric of our lives and how it might take root, grow and produce.

Words

There are words that can only be said on paper.
It is fortunate they are few. And others shrink
On paper to the thinness of dried ink
And fade at the mind into forgotten vapour.

There are words that can only be said once
And have been said before that fact is plain.
In a sense no word can ever be said again.
And none can be said again in the same sense.

There are words that have to be said or written,
Answers and questions, times to be observed,
But most words die in a cause they have not served
Or bite forever what never should be bitten.

And then there are the words that are left unsaid
And the undetectable words used in their stead.

Source: Poetry, April 1941, p. 19. Robert Finch (1900-1995) was a Canadian poet and academic. He twice won Canada’s top literary honor, the Governor General’s Award, for his poetry. Finch was educated at the University of Toronto and taught French there for four decades. He was considered an expert on French poetry. Finch began writing his own poetry in the early 1920s, but due largely to the scarcity of opportunity for publication during the depression, he did not see any of his poetry in print until 1936. His first book of poems was published in 1946. You can sample more of Finch’s poetry in the above issue of Poetry.

Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) apologizes to people of African descent for its historical complicity in slavery and its enduring legacy of racism in the United States and globally. We lament the white church’s failure to work for the abolition of slavery and the perpetuation of racism in this church. We confess, repent and repudiate the times when this church has been silent in the face of racial injustice.” Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John the Baptist, Luke 3:8.

Dear Bishop Eaton and Synodical Bishops:

By way of this open letter, I am asking you to call upon the ELCA to implement a reparational tithe. This would involve allocating 10% of all income from unrestricted sources received by the ELCA and each of its synods to the aid and support of black churches in the United States for their congregations, ministries, mission and work for their communities. It would further involve an appeal to congregations for an increase in their mission giving by 10% for this purpose and an appeal for individuals to increase their offerings by 10% to that end as well. Duration would be for no less than five years.

It is understood that you are not in a position to implement this proposal by fiat. I am fully aware that such action must be taken through established procedures ensuring representation by the whole church. Nonetheless, the ELCA presiding bishop is to “be a teacher of the faith of this church and shall provide leadership for the life and witness of this church.” So says the ELCA constitution at chapter 13, subsection 21. According to the model synodical constitution, bishops are to “[i]nterpret and advocate the mission and theology of the whole church.” Model Synodical Constitution, chapter 8, section 12, subsection g1. Thus, as I see it, the chief responsibility for calling this church to bear the fruits of our repentance for complicity in our nation’s history of slavery and racism, so eloquently articulated in the above cited Declaration of Apology, falls to you.

Let me be clear. This reparational tithe is not for the purpose of developing new ELCA programs, whether for anti-racism education or multicultural ministries. Its purpose is to support the mission and ministry of black American churches to their communities. As a church which has benefited from white privilege, we would simply be returning these benefits in some measure. By implementing the reparational tithe, we would be imaging within the Body of Christ and bearing witness to the reconciliation and mutuality God desires for the whole world. You can think of it as “becoming the change you want to see.”

I understand that there may be numerous legal, procedural and political hurdles to overcome approving and implementing this proposal. But nothing worth doing is ever easy. Some will argue that such a substantial investment on our part will deplete resources required to support our existing ministries, that congregations are already under financial stress from years of decline, now magnified by economic fallout from the ongoing pandemic. The same argument could have been made for withholding the loaves and fishes from the One desiring to feed the hungry crowd. Others might argue that a tithe is insufficient compensation for centuries of enslavement and oppression. I agree. There is a reason I call this proposal “modest.” I would love to see us follow the example of Zacchaeus and make a fourfold restoration. Still, we have to start somewhere. So let us think of the reparational tithe as a floor rather than a ceiling.

I am fully aware that this proposal represents a “long shot.” Still, I believe that this moment in history is exactly the right time to swing for the fences by challenging our church to confront racism with more than words and symbolic actions. We have an opportunity to do something big. Don’t let this moment pass!

With deepest respect and profound thankfulness for your leadership,

Christ’s Servant and yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)

Prisoners of Hope

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Prayer of the Day: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope” Zechariah 9:12.

“Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.

Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensable element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.

In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse and his promise that Judah would be made “great again.” So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost its land, her temple and the royal line of David. The people’s hope in the optimistic promises of Hananiah were sorely disappointed.

History is littered with disappointed hopes. In the midst of economic depression and unemployment following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the German people saw in Adolph Hitler the promise of escape from their wretchedness and a re-birth of national vitality and patriotism. Their misplaced hope plunged them and all of Europe into the greatest mass slaughter of the century. So, too, Donald Trump was swept into office by a wave of white anxiety over losing cultural dominance and a vague but intense fear that our country was somehow being taken away from us. Too many of us desperately wanted to believe Trump would make good on his promise to “make America great again.” But as the United States experiences the world’s highest level of Covid-19 infection due to the government’s failure in dealing with the disease in a timely and comprehensive manner, as racist violence pushes black Americans to the breaking point and unemployment soars, the recent poll numbers suggest that even his staunchest supporters are beginning to realize that their hope in Donald Trump has been cruelly betrayed. Such is always the consequence of misplaced hope.

The prophet Zechariah has a word for his people that I think is helpful for us as well. “Return to your stronghold.” The stronghold of which the prophet speaks is not what we typically look for in a stronghold. Zechariah does not offer us a charismatic “strongman” promising easy solutions to difficult problems, vanquising enemies both real and imagined and imposing law and order on an unruly world. He commends to us a leader who is “humble” and who rides not a warhorse, but a donkey. This leader renounces military power, yet reigns from sea to sea and commands peace to the nations. It turns out that there is no hope in weapons of war or the leaders who brandish them. There is no hope in any flag, any nationalistic aspiration or anyone who traffics in them. The only hope not destined to disappoint is hope grounded in God’s appointed messiah, the humble prince of peace whom we in the church recognize as Jesus.

One of the many benefits of focusing our hope on Jesus is that we no longer place that unbearable burden on our human leaders. After all, what human leader can be expected to do all that God promises to accomplish under God’s gentle reign? When we demand that our leaders give us what only God can accomplish, should it surprise us that we get leaders with delusions of godhood? If one must lie and overpromise in order to get elected, should it surprise us that we end up with a government that cannot be trusted? The problem with idolatry is that our idols cannot bear the weight of our expectations. When they fail to deliver on their promises, we angrily kick them off their pedistals-only to set up new ones in their place. Perhaps the time has come to break this cycle. As we look forward to yet another election, let us expect honesty from our candidates. Let us expect commitment to racial justice and equality. Let us expect them to be zealous for the health and safety of all people. But let us place our hope in Jesus. He alone is our stronghold.

The following poem by Stephanie Burt gives us some perspective on the limits of human power and the permanence of those true things that outlast us and teach us humility.

Advice from Rock Creek Park

What will survive us
has already begun

Oak galls
Two termites’ curious
self-perpetuating bodies

Letting the light through the gaps

They lay out their allegiances
under the roots
of an overturned tree

Almost always better
to build than to wreck

You can build in a wreck

Under the roots
of an overturned tree

Consider the martin that hefts
herself over traffic cones

Consider her shadow
misaligned
over parking-lot cement
Saran Wrap scrap in her beak

Nothing lasts
forever not even
the future we want

The President has never
owned the rain

Source: Advice from the Lights, (Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Burt, pub. by Graywolf Press). Stephanie Burt (b. 1971) is a literary critic, poet, Professor of English at Harvard University and a transgender activist. She has published four collections of poetry and a large amount of literary criticism and research. Burt earned an AB from Harvard University and a PhD from Yale University. She joined the faculty at Macalester College in 2000. In 2007 she joined the faculty of Harvard University and became a tenured professor in 2010. You can read more about Stephanie Burt and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Dueling Prophets

FOURTH SUNAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Prayer of the Day: O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from a larger drama in the Book of Jeremiah that could be given the title, “The Dueling Prophets.” Unfortunately, you only get a little snippet of it in the reading. It all begins with God commanding Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Judah that God is about to bring the Kingdom of David and the Temple in Jerusalem to an end by the hand of the King of Babylon whose armies are even now advancing upon Jerusalem. To make the point, Jeremiah is told to wear a yoke over his shoulders, the kind used for oxen. It is God who brings the yolk of Babylonian bondage upon Judah. To resist Babylon is to resist God. Jeremiah 27:1-11. You can imagine how that must have gone over. How would you like to be sent out to meet the Fourth of July parade with a yoke on your neck to tell everyone that God is about give victory to one of America’s national enemies?

The drama unfolds in Jerusalem where the prophet Hananiah is rallying the people of the city behind the flag. “Salvation is on the way! The Lord is coming to the aid of his people just like he always has in the past! The Lord is coming to rescue Jerusalem! The Lord is coming to save his people! Within two years we are going to see all the treasures taken from us by the Babylonians returned. We are going to see freedom! We are going to see peace! Do I hear an ‘Amen.’?” (Paraphrase of Jeremiah 28:1-4)

“Amen” shouts a voice from the midst of the cheering crowd. Everyone turns to see the prophet Jeremiah-wearing his yoke. “Amen!” shouts Jeremiah. “I hope you are right Hananiah. I hope everything you say comes true. Nothing would make me happier than to be dead wrong about everything I have said. But this is much bigger than you and me, Hananiah. This is much more important than who is right and who is wrong. The question here is, ‘What is the word of the Lord for us this day?’ Don’t forget,” says Jeremiah to Hananiah, “there have been prophets before you and me. Not all of them prophesied salvation. Some foretold disaster and destruction. Remember Elijah, remember Amos, remember Micah who once prophesied that this very city would be laid bare as a mown field. Time will tell what the word of the Lord is, who proclaimed it and who received it faithfully.” (Paraphrase of Vss. 5-9). So ends the lectionary reading, but not the story. Next Hananiah, in a dramatic and brilliant show of oratory, jumps down from the podium, breaks in two the yoke off of Jeremiah’s neck and cries out, “So shall the Lord break the yoke of Babylon from the neck of his people.” Jeremiah 28:10-11. The crowd roars its approval and Jeremiah goes his way. He lost the duel-for the moment at least.

Prophecy helps us make sense of the world and the way we experience it. Like art, prophecy is often disturbing, upsetting and even offensive. The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem stark naked to bring home the tragic fate of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom, already themselves paraded naked into exile by the Assyrians. His potent visual served to evoke compassion for these unfortunate kin to his own people of Judah and bring home the threat of a similar judgment against them. The prophet Ezekiel portrays Israel’s faithlessness in a graphic poetic fable about an unfaithful bride using imagery we would surely consider obscene were it not located in Holy Writ. In today’s lesson, Jeremiah’s yoke illustrates God’s placement of Babylon over Judah as punishment for her sin, warning the people against the futility of rebellion.

But just as art, literature and music can be employed to spread propaganda, so prophecy can lie. False prophets induce us to consume lies and trust false promises. They trick us into accepting “alternative facts” and embracing false narratives. False prophecy appeals to the lazy and cowardly. It gains traction among them because it offers easily understood and comforting explanations to complex issues requiring the hard work of learning and courage to face difficult truths. False prophecy fixates blame on others instead of encouraging introspection and repentance. It pampers our inclination toward self-pity. There is a perverse comfort in believing that life is miserable because there are so many malicious forces at work making it that way: nefarious agents of Antifa, corrupt operatives in the depths of the “deep state” and radicals bent on implementing Sharia law. If these narratives offer nothing in the way of hope, they at least provide a target against which to vent one’s anger and an excuse for having to take responsibility for one’s own life.

But while false prophets insist that we are suffering victims at the mercy of a cruel world, true prophets insist that the world suffers because we are so bent on having our own selfish way. True prophets invite us to examine ourselves in order to discover the sin at the source of our misery. They open our eyes to the very real opportunities we have for change, repentance and faith. True prophecy, like good art, stands the test of time. Jeremiah’s words were rejected in his own day and the nationalistic jingo of his opponent, Hananiah, was popularly received with great enthusiasm. Yet it was to the words of Jeremiah that the people turned during their long exile in Babylon. It was the prophecy of Jeremiah that helped Israel rise from the ashes of its darkest hour and find its way forward to a new day and a renewed community. Jeremiah’s words are preserved for us in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Hananiah’s words were ever even written down, they have long since perished in the dust bin of rightful neglect.

There is no shortage of “prophets” these days purporting to tell us what God demands of Americans and how America figures into God’s will for the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows me with any regularity that I reject all claims of “American exceptionalism” and preaching that blends American mythology, patriotism and white middle class morality with Christian faith. I must say that I am also skeptical of “progressive” equations of the reign of God with a redeemed America built on democratic ideals of the enlightenment. As much as I love my country and value the institutions and traditions that have helped promote the common good among us, salvation is for the cosmos. What role the United States of America might play in that, if any, is unknown to me and, as far as I can tell, unknowable to anyone else as well.

That brings me to my final point. True prophecy is tempered by humility. One should not say lightly those words, “Thus saith the Lord.” God’s ways are not our ways and God’s view of what constitutes progress in the grand scheme of things might not coincide with what we view as advantageous through the narrow porthole of our brief moment of existence. Jeremiah was prepared to admit that he might after all be mistaken, that he might have misunderstood God’s word and that he might need to listen more closely to that word. By contrast, Hananiah knew he was right, was sure he had the truth and therefore felt entirely justified in shouting Jeremiah down. Arrogant certitude is the surest mark both of a weak mind and a false prophet.

Here is a poem by Howard Nemerov about education that fittingly describes the courage, the rigor of learning, the humility and the depth of wisdom to which biblical prophecy calls us.

To David, About His Education

The world is full of mostly invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind’s eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
Things like the square root of Everest
Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
Or whether the law of the excluded middle
Applies west of the Rockies. For these
And the like reasons, you have to go to school
And study books and listen to what you are told,
And sometimes try to remember. Though I don’t know
What you will do with the mean annual rainfall
On Plato’s Republic, or the calorie content
Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn.

Source: War Stories: Poems About Long Ago and Now, (c. Howard Nemerov; pub. by University of Chicago Press). Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He also won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize. Nemerov was raised in New York City where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School. He later commenced studies at Harvard University where he earned his BA. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the United State Air Force. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant and thereafter returned to New York to resume his writing career. Nemerov began teaching, first at Hamilton College and subsequently at Bennington College and Brandeis University. He ended his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was elevated to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov’s poems demonstrated a consistent emphasis on thought, the process of thinking and on ideas themselves. Nonetheless, his work always displayed the full range of human emotion and experience. You can find out more about Howard Nemerov and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Rev. Franklin Graham Announces New “Decision America Tour” Says: “I’m so Over Jesus”

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

“It’s a sad day for America,” remarked the Rev. Franklin Graham at a gathering of evangelicals at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. Irked by the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County holding that existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status, the President and CEO of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association brushed off questions as to whether Christian faith might dictate compassion for LGBTQ families despite how Christians might feel about their lifestyle. “They aren’t ‘families’ no matter what the liberal press says. A family is a dad, a mom and kids. It doesn’t include people living in sin. The law should not sanction sin.” When asked how Jesus might respond to such persons, a clearly exasperated Graham responded at some length.

“I’m so over Jesus,” said Graham. “I never understood what my old man saw in him. Jesus is no true Christian. Every true Christian knows that God hates homosexuals and he hates abortion. That’s the essence of Christianity right there. But when did Jesus ever say anything about these issues? For three years Jesus preached and taught without ever addressing them. Instead, he went about distributing free healthcare, feeding crowds of people that should have been at work and disrespecting our troops by telling people that ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’” He added that what America needs is “a truly Christian savior,” a “man who knows what God really wants.”

Graham went on to announce that he will be leading a new Decision America tour to coincide with the upcoming 2020 election. “I’m calling on the faithful now to decide for Donald J. Trump in November,” he told his audience. “God showed up on election day in 2016 to answer the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people across this land who had been praying for this country. We needed a real savior and God delivered!” Graham went on to say that for the president to complete his mission of salvation, he needs the personal commitment of evangelicals. “Donald Trump was crucified by the Democrat House of Representatives, but raised from the dead in the Senate,” he said. “As Georgia representative Barry Loudermilk has pointed out, Donald Trump suffered more than Jesus ever did. And when he rose up from the death sentence of impeachment, he didn’t go scampering home to his dad. No, he smacked down everyone who betrayed him and took command of the country. Did you see how he clubbed and gassed those demonstrators in DC on his way to church? Now that’s what I call a savior! That’s what I call true Christianity.”

Graham also announced a soon to be released campaign button that will feature an image of the president and the words, “Who is like the Donald? Who can fight against him?”

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

 

How Will Our Grandchildren Judge Us?


THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-18
Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Prayer of the Day: Teach us, good Lord God, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we do your will, through Jesus Crist, our Savior and Lord.

There isn’t much in the way of good news to be had in this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus begins by warning his disciples that they have no right to expect any better treatment than he himself is to receive-the cross. Next, he promises that nothing now secret will remain hidden-not tax returns, not discussions had in the situation room, not fleeting affairs had on business trips, not jokes passed in the locker room and not police files discretely consigned to oblivion. All that is now hidden will be revealed and the disciples are to be the voice uncovering the discomforting truth to power. Speaking truthfully is risky, but it is not as dangerous as remaining silent. Rather than fearing retaliation from the powers that be, Jesus warns his disciples that they ought rather to fear God who is able to “destroy both soul and body in hell.” We need not delve into a lengthy analysis of what Jesus meant by the term, “gehanna” translated in our English Bibles as “hell.” Suffice to say, whatever it denotes, it is surely unpleasant. Finally, Jesus informs his disciples that he has not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword. His call to discipleship will rupture families, set loved ones at each other’s throats and sever the most intimate of relationships. So much for “family values.”

The blinding disclosure of secret sins, about which Jesus warns us, is unfolding in our headlines and on our streets. The ugly truth about police violence against black Americans, long concealed behind a “blue wall of silence,” has been exposed in graphic detail. Events like the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of an entire black American community-about which we learned nothing in school-is now finally rising from the dust bin of “inconvenient historical trivia” to public awareness. As confederate monuments fall throughout the country, so also do the lies we white Americans have been telling ourselves for generations about our “exceptionalism,” heroism and nobility. I believe that what we see in the vitriolic rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters is a terrified and angry scream that would drown out truths we desperately want to remain hidden. We want frantically to believe in this myth that is America and we wish everyone whose speech uncovers the falsity of that myth would just shut up.

Jesus tells us plainly that we are fighting a losing battle. The truth will out. If you make it your enemy, it will consume you. Nevertheless, befriending the truth will undoubtedly make enemies for you, perhaps even within your own household. In fact, you might well learn, as did I, that you can be your own worst enemy when it comes to confronting the truth. Confronting your own racism is a little like struggling with addiction. Most of us are not out to hurt people of color any more than alcoholics desire to abuse their spouses or neglect their children. These behaviors are a byproduct of dependence on alcohol and are likely to continue so long as the alcoholic refuses to recognize and acknowledge that dependence. So, too, I am the last one to recognize and name the systemic racism by which I have benefited socially, financially, politically and the last to acknowledge the injures it inflicts on people of color.

Racism, like addiction, is as destructive to its host as it is injurious to its victims. It threatens to devour my soul. The lies I have to tell myself about myself to justify myself cloud my vision, intensify my isolation in whiteness and harden my heart. Left untreated, this disease will finally transform me into a creature Jesus cannot acknowledge as a child of his heavenly Father. In trying to salvage the man I want to believe I am, I must sacrifice the life Jesus would give me which, it turns out, is the only one worth living.

If there is one flicker of good news lurking in Sunday’s gospel it is Jesus’ assurance that our lives, however corrupt, compromised and entwined with systemic evil are nevertheless precious in God’s sight. There is no room for sentimentality here. Nor should we take false comfort in the oft repeated trite assertion that “God accepts us just as we are.” No, God does not accept us as we are. God loves us too much for that. We are to understand that our lives are precious because they are needed for the work of proclaiming God’s reign. We are important because our voice is needed to “proclaim from the housetops” what the world needs to hear, namely, that the life Jesus would give us far surpasses any mean and selfish existence we might cobble together from the shattered fragments of the American dream. Our lives are precious because they matter. Our actions are important because they make a difference. By grace we are saved from the bondage of racism to be agents of its dismantling.

This is a moment of truth for all Christians who live in the United States of America, particularly for those of us who identify as white. In the not-too-distant past, my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, issued an apology for its complicity in the American enslavement of African peoples. I fervently hope that we will not be issuing another apology decades from now for our failure to stand with black Americans at this time and our complicity in our nation’s brutal response to their struggle for justice and dignity. In this age, so aptly described below by poet Mary Oliver, may it not be said of Jesus’ disciples that we were silent when the cry of our Savior should have been on our lips; that we “feared death and adored power;” that we spoke “little if at all about the quality of life for people;” that our hearts were “small, and hard, and full of meanness.” My prayer for my church is that my grandchildren will come to know these days as a time of bold witness, faithful service and brave martyrdom. May we be a church Jesus will be proud to acknowledge before his heavenly Father.

Of the Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Source: Red Bird, Oliver, Mary (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press)  p. 46. Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was born in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Transcript of Trump Call with Canadian PM Trudeau Leaked to Press

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Yet another transcript of President Donald Trump’s telephone correspondence with a foreign leader has surfaced, this time with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. The Ghost received a copy of the transcript from a source within the administration who wishes to remain anonymous.

BEGIN TRANSCRIPT

Trudeau: Good morning Mr. President! To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?

Trump: Well, I just wanted to tell you that the new NAFTA provisions are ready to go into effect.

Trudeau: Wonderful! So, when can we expect to see tariffs on Canadian goods lifted?

Trump: Soon-but we need you to do us a favor though…

Trudeau: Oh no, Mr. President. I don’t have any dirt on the Bidens. And even if I did, I’m just not in a position….

Trump: Relax Justin. It’s not about getting dirt. I just need your help with something.

Trudeau: What do you want from me!

Trump: You do black face, right?

Trudeau: Now look. I explained all of that. I used bad judgment and I apologized. End of story. For you to be bringing that up again is…is this some kind of trap? Are you really Donald Trump? Are you just some hack trying to smear me?

Trump: Justin! I said relax. It’s really me. And believe me, it is just you and me on the line. After that Ukraine karphufal I kicked everybody off my calls. Nobody is listening in to this. I promise. But like I said, I need your help.

Trudeau: So what do you want?

Trump: I need you to stand behind me at my next rally-in black face.

Trudeau: You can’t be serious.

Trump: I’m dead serious. I have to knock out this fake news line about me being a racist. I have to show everyone that black people like me. I’ve got some big rallies coming up. I need some black faces up on the stage with me. Believe me, I have been trying to find some. But since that whole thing in Minneapolis, you know, with the cops and all, it’s been impossible. I’ve tried everything. These folks can’t be bought! I almost had a deal with Macy’s to send me a dozen black mannequins. But when they found out why I wanted them, they pulled out. I threatened them with the DPA, but they wouldn’t budge. I begged Governor Northam to help me out, but he refused. So much for bipartisanism! You’re my last hope, Justin. You need to help me, you know, make it look like I think black lives matter.

Trudeau: Out of the question.

Trump: Come on, Justin! All you have to do is put on your paint, stand behind me, smile and clap. Nobody will recognize you.

Trudeau: No can do, Mr. President.

Trump: Well, OK. But I can’t promise you’ll be seeing those tariffs come down anytime soon. You know how it is, we have to review these things and that can take time.

Trudeau: Mr. President, that is entirely improper! It’s against the law!

Trump: So impeach me. It worked so well the first time! I got Mitch McConnell in my back pocket and he has the Senate in his. Fact is, I can do whatever I want-like shoot someone on Fifth Avenue-and there are no consequences.

Trudeau: Mr. President, you will never get away with this!

Trump: So long, loser.

END TRANSCRIPT

****************************************************************

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Deserves Got Nothing To Do With It

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 19:2-8
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35; 10:1-23

Prayer of the Day: God of compassion, you have opened the way for us and brought us to yourself. Pour your love into our hearts, that, overflowing with joy, we may freely share the blessings of your realm and faithfully proclaim the good news of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8.

Brian was a young exchange student from England majoring in engineering. But in the middle of his sophomore year, he began experiencing chronic pain and fatigue. After undergoing numerous tests, Brian was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that had ravaged his kidneys. Though the disease was brought under control with medication, Brian’s kidneys were beyond healing. The young man was placed on dialysis. At this point, one of his teachers, a young professor in her third year of teaching, underwent testing to find out whether she might be a potential organ donor for her student. When the results confirmed that she was indeed a match, she volunteered to donate one of her kidneys to Brian. The resulting transplant was a success and Brian returned to leading a full and active life. This story is true, though the names have been changed in the interest of protecting the privacy of those involved.

One can’t help but be inspired by the young professor’s generosity. But how inspiring would it be if, instead of a promising young engineering student, Brian had been a high school drop out with a long history of addiction. What if his kidneys had been done in by years of drug and alcohol abuse rather than an autoimmune disease? Would such a generous and costly sacrifice move us to the same admiration? Our would we wonder about the sanity of the donor? Certainly, there must be other matches far more deserving.

Yet, as Clint Eastwood’s character, Bill Munny says, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”[1] Those of you who have seen the movie, Unforgiven know that Munny, being a cold blooded killer, means simply that what happens to us is not tied to whatever we think we are entitled. The universe deals out famine, epidemics, hurricanes and personal tragedy without a thought to what anyone deserves. Experience bears that out every day. Children are killed by drunk drivers, innocent civilians are killed in military conflicts of which they want no part and the cat throws up all over the carpet just as the guests arrive. Saint Paul, however, applies this concept inversely to God’s love for creation and the people God calls to make known that redemptive love. The world might appear to be hopelessly caught in a spiral of spiritual, economic, environmental and political destruction. The church might seem a far cry from the Body of Christ Paul insists that it is. Neither the world nor the church seems worth God’s investing so much of God’s self. But this world is the one for which God sent God’s Son and the church is the people called and chosen to make that wonderful gift known. “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”

The same principle seems to be at work in Jesus’ selection of disciples. This is a motley group consisting of a terrorist dedicated to ending by whatever means Roman occupation of the Promised Land, a tax collector enriched by collaborating with Rome and some fishermen who were just trying to make a living and stay out of the way. As we discover throughout the gospel, these are people of “little faith,” people slow to comprehend Jesus’ parables, people obsessed with being “great” in the kingdom of heaven and quick to abandon their Lord when their support is needed most. There were probably many others as or more deserving of inclusion among “the twelve.” But “deserves got nothing to do with it.”

I know something of undeserved grace. I was about as unpromising a student in high school as the twelve were unpromising prospects for discipleship. My grades hovered at and sometimes dipped below “C” level. My only interest in college was avoiding the draft in the event the Vietnam war dragged on past my eighteenth birthday. So I sluffed my way through Ms. Boyers’ “bonehead English” class during my freshman year, fully expecting to be placed in the sophomore equivalent the following year. Much to my surprise, however, I discovered upon my return to school in the fall that I had been placed in honors humanities. This had to be a mistake, I reasoned. Ms. Boyer informed me that it was no mistake. “Peter,” she said, “you are lazy, your spelling is awful and your penmanship stinks. But you have a brain. You can be much better than you are. So I saw to it that you got placed in honors. Now, don’t embarrass me.”

I don’t know exactly what Ms. Boyer saw in me. But her decision to place me in honors humanities was literally life changing. In that class I discovered a passion for learning that put me on a trajectory leading into two rewarding careers. There were, no doubt, plenty of students (probably most of my class) that showed more potential and were more deserving of that spot in honors humanities than me. But as it turned out, “deserves got nothing to do with it.”

We don’t get what we deserve in life. That is common complaint, but it shouldn’t be. As the anonymous poet says, “There ain’t no one should have the nerve/ To say they ought to get what they deserve.”

Justice

He shuffled in out of the rain and sleet
leaving in his wake puddles of dirty
water on the floor from the melting slush
on his booted feet.
Behind the counter the haggard waitress
turned her back against the freezing wind
That came uninvited through the door he’d left ajar.

She muttered “Jesus!
Why can’t you shut the door?
Don’t you know it’s cold as hell?
It costs enough to heat this joint,
Without having to heat
the whole damn city as well.”

The harsh rebuke was lost on him.
He took his seat at the counter,
fumbled with the menu
half speaking, half singing
the words to a vaguely familiar hymn.

“Mary’s favorite,” he said,
turning toward the waitress on his stool.
She, for her part, kept her gaze on the grill.
She had no time to pass with this garrulous old fool.
“Loved that old song,” he declared in a husky voice
so loud and so intrusive was his talk,
That patrons in the booths along the wall
Stopped their hushed chatter and looked up.

“Keep it down, will you?” she snapped.
“You don’t have to broadcast to the whole damn world you know.”
“Sorry,” he replied, in no quieter tone.
“I’m so confounded deaf these days I can’t hear myself.”
“Well I can hear you fine.
And so can everyone in the room.”

“Now my Mary,” he began…
But to begin is as far as he got.
“Look, Chuck, I’m busy.
I got customers, tables and food.
I don’t have time to chew the fat.
Don’t mean to be rude.”

He stammered something about having to go,
Got up from his stool,
Put on his hat
And trudged back out into the snow.
The waitress stared straight ahead
The deep purple neon sign
Reflected off her glossy black hair,
Illuminated the crusty makeup on her pale face
And gave a surreal glow to her chalky, white skin.

“Kind of rough on the old coot, weren’t ya?”
An old fat man with an unlit cigar in his mouth
Sauntered out of the back room.
He sat himself down a shabby chair
Behind the counter.
A resentful silence was all the answer he got.
“Seems to me,” he went on, “the guy is just lonely.
Let him talk a minute or two
and he’ll move on, like as not.”

“He ain’t the only one that’s lonely,”
The waitress replied.
“And he treated ‘his Mary’ like a dog
Right up to the day she died.
Now, of course, he misses her.
Says he wants her back.
I bet the hell he does.
But it’s too damn late now, Mack.
He’s a lonely ‘cause he’s a bastard
And he’s been one all his life.
He didn’t deserve Mary
And there’s no woman so bad
As deserved to be his wife.”

“That may well be,” the fat man said.
But let the good Lord sort that out once we’re all dead.
Fact is, there ain’t no one should have the nerve
To say they ought to get what they deserve.”

Source: Anonymous.

[1] Unforgiven, 1992, Fill written by David Webb Peoples and produced by Clint Eastwood.

A Response to the ELCA’s Draft Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement: Discipleship in a Democracy

May 6, 2020

Rev. Roger A. Willer, Ph.D.
Director for Theological Ethics
Office of the Presiding Bishop
8765 W. Higgins Road
Chicago, Ill 60631

Re: A Draft Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement: Discipleship in a Democracy

Dear Dr. Willer

I am afraid that what I have to say about the above draft will come across as rather harsh. Though appreciative of the careful work it represents and in substantial agreement with its content, I am convinced that, on the whole, it misses the mark. It is quite simply not the statement the church and the world need at this time.

The draft statement hangs much of its argument on the “two kingdoms” doctrine. That teaching works fine when government is more or less functional and requires only maintenance and occasional repairs. Not so much when it goes off the rails and into the ditch. Of course, I recognize and affirm the interest we all have in preserving the health of institutions, governmental and others, that promote the public good. But I believe the hostility expressed toward governmental regulations for the protection of health and safety is part and parcel of a much deeper crisis, that being the rise of race based nationalism personified in a maniacal, narcissistic megalomaniac and implemented through the agency of the Republican Party with the support of its religious surrogates. The critical problem with the document is its obsession with ‘fixing” America. What we need in this hour is a bold witness to the reign of God and its counter-cultural values that is unafraid of naming the beast and exposing its lies and oppression.

You don’t have to look far in order to see exactly what I am talking about. The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” was enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform . It states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that  “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.”

Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.”  It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”

This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Stephen Miller have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

The rise of quasi religious nationalism is not just an American phenomenon. Similar political movements have overtaken the governments of nations around the world, including Italy, Hungary, India, Brazil and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Such movements are making considerable headway in western European nations as well. Just last year, the Lutheran World Federation produced a very thorough and thoughtful collection of essays on the scope of this disease entitled Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism. This is a global ideological pandemic that we ignore at our peril. We do not serve the church or the planet well when we “heal the people’s wound lightly” by treating only the symptoms while allowing the disease to spread unchecked.

The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins and other prophets of the regime employ the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Are we going to go on pretending that the man who leads our nation is just another elected leader whose blatantly false, racist and hateful words and policies we must “talk around,” in the name of civility, neutrality or nonpartisanship? No, we are not yet at the point where our situation is analogous to that of the church under the Nazis. But I have to ask, how much closer do you want to get? How many more black Americans must be gunned down by police? How many more children must die in detention centers? How many more people must die of covid 19 because a president approaching an election does not want to impose or enforce regulations unpopular with his base, but required to prevent its spread?

I am aware that the ELCA has issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But like the current draft under consideration, they only scratch the surface of our country’s sickness, a global sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism, the America first agenda and the claim that these demonic ideologies are sanctioned by Christian faith and teaching. I would love to see my church, the ELCA, take the lead toward developing such an ecumenical confession. Sadly, though, I am beginning to doubt that American mainline protestant churches like my own possess the moral courage, the spiritual maturity and the theological depth to produce such a bold confessional document. I devoutly hope that my doubts are misplaced. Because until we address the ice berg toward which the ship is sailing, our learned theological dissertations on governance amount to little more than squabbling over arrangement of the deck chairs.

Please know that, despite my criticisms, I appreciate your work and that of your office and pray for the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance for our church in what I believe are challenging times.

Christ’s servant and yours,

SS/Peter A. Olsen

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)

The Other Epidemic

See the source imageHOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

Genesis 1:1–2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For the last three months Covid-19 has been turning our lives upside down. The epidemic has forced us to change dramatically the way we shop, the way we care for our loved ones and the way we plan our day to day activities. Painful sacrifices have been made by medical caregivers on the front lines battling the disease, by essential workers daily putting their health at risk to protect ours and by the millions who have lost their jobs in the effort to slow the spread of infection. But over the last week we have been made painfully aware of another epidemic that has been raging for centuries on our continent. It is an illness that makes headlines only sporadically and one about which we would rather not be reminded. Next to nothing has been done to combat this epidemic and there is little support or enthusiasm among leaders in either of the two major political parties to address it with more than rhetoric. I am speaking, of course, about the epidemic of police violence against black Americans.

On February 23, 2020 Ahmaud Arbery, and African American man, was jogging in his Georgia neighborhood when he was chased down and shot to death by Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son. Gregory was a former police officer and, for reasons that are unclear, no arrest was made and the local authorities declined to prosecute-until a video of the shooting became public. Earlier this week a white woman called the police and reported that she was being threatened by Christian Cooper, a black man who was out bird watching in Central Park after he merely asked that she leash her dog as per park rules. Then on Monday of this week, the nation witnessed a video of George Floyd in hand cuffs being choked to death under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In all of these circumstances, the victims were unarmed and were not posing any threat to the officers involved or anyone else. The fact that in Floyd’s case there were three other officers on the scene observing this horrific event without raising a whimper of protest puts the lie to the oft asserted claim that such brutality is a freak occurrence involving a “few bad apples” within an otherwise blameless police force. We cannot deny that there exists within American law enforcement a culture of pervasive hostility, fear and suspicion of black men.[1]

Lest you think my use of the term “epidemic” is a bit too hyperbolic, understand that black Americans constitute less than 12% of the United States population. Yet they constitute 26.4% of all Americans killed by police between 2015-2019. See May 26, 2020 article “Police Killings of Blacks: Do Black Lives Matter?” by Todd Beer, Ph.D. in Society Pages. This disproportionate use of lethal force against black Americans tracks with their average rate of imprisonment. African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. See Nellis, Ashley, Ph.D., “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” published in The Sentencing Project (June 14, 2016).

Of course, the systemic oppression of black Americans in the justice system form the streets to the courthouse is symptomatic of a much deeper and more insidious level of inequality. The Covid-19 the epidemic we are all fixated on right now has magnified the systemic inequalities between white and African Americans. In Chicago, African Americans comprise a third of the city’s population, but they account for half of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus and almost three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths. Milwaukee County, Wisconsin where African Americans constitute only 26% of the total population, they make up 70% of deaths due to the Covid-19. See “Coronavirus in African Americans and Other People of Color” by Sherita Hill Golden, M.D., M.H.S. These disparities point to a chronic, widespread and historical pattern of exploitation of black Americans leading to a severe lack of access to economic, educational and political opportunities. That, in turn, has placed and continues to place black American individuals and their communities at a severe disadvantage.

I am dismayed, but not surprised by the explosive anger that has erupted into violence in cities throughout the United States. What does surprise me is that such eruptions do not occur more often. As a white American male, I can scarcely imagine what it must be like getting up every morning to face a culture filled with reminders of your secondary status. These reminders come in the form of discomfort on the faces of shop owners upon seeing you walk into their store and the eyes that watch your every step anticipating theft. They come from confederate battle flag stickers prominently displayed on bumper stickers. They come in the form of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) allusions to racist stereotypes in the rhetoric of right wing politicians. As one young woman protesting in Minneapolis put it, “I’m just so tired of being hated.” Police brutality against black Americans is merely the extreme expression of violence in a culture of systemic oppression that exists everywhere, always at every level of daily life. How can one live in such a pressure cooker without exploding?

How, then, does a church like mine, one of the whitest in America, respond to this explosion of anger and the deep anguish it represents? I think the most important message to be sent right now can be summed up in three words: “We believe you.” Though I can honestly say that I have not seen a lot of overt racism in our churches, there is plenty of the softer, dismissive kind that denies or minimizes the realities of life as experienced by black Americans. The sentiments expressed in our eloquent social statements are oddly out of sync with comments frequently heard in the hallways of synod assemblies, seen on social media and uttered in our church parking lots. “There’s no racism in our neighborhood,”-as though those of us who have known nothing but white privilege would have any idea about that. “They wouldn’t have problems with the police if they just wouldn’t give them an attitude,”-easy enough to say when you have never been profiled. “Slavery and segregation are over, so let’s forget the past and move on”-much like saying “let’s just get on with the race and not dwell on what happened back at the starting line” after you have been given a commanding head start. My prayer is that these tumultuous days will finally open our eyes so that we can begin to see our country through the eyes of black Americans and find a genuine determination to join them in their struggle to change it.

That brings me to my final point. Remedying four hundred years of racial injustice cannot be accomplished by mere words. The task of removing the systemic legal, commercial and societal disparities that keep black persons and their communities at a severe disadvantage requires an effort as substantial as the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. At present, I don’t see much enthusiasm in either of the two major political parties for such seismic change. I expect to be deluged with all the usual reasons why this cannot happen. “It will increase the deficit,” “it will impose unreasonable restraints on business” “it will raise taxes” are sure to be raised in opposition. Additionally, there are those who will continue to insist that this isn’t necessary because the Civil Rights Movement ended segregation long ago and whatever problems black people have in modern America are their own. But like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I “refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Speech of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington. A better America is achievable-if the rest of us begin to want it and are willing to sacrifice as much for it as have black Americans for the last four centuries.

Here is a poem by Langston Hughs expressing simply and powerfully what I believe so many protesters are trying so hard to make us hear.

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

 

[1] Yes, there are many police officers who serve with honor and distinction. I am not suggesting that all police officers are racist. But I think it would be more accurate to say that these officers represent “good apples” working within and often against a culture of racial profiling and oppression.