Monday, May 19, 2008

What's Going On?


Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 4; Psalm 8
****** Congregational Church

May 18, 2008

Marvin Gaye was one the most influential rhythm and blues artists. In his music he combined gospel, blues, and jazz— ultimately reinventing soul music. Like most people he was a mix of contradictions: spiritual and sensual, romantic and radical. The juxtaposition of these traits made for complex, beautiful music. In 1971 he broke out of the Motown mold with his concept album “What’s Going On?” by writing about the war in Vietnam, the ecology, and the love of God. Berry Gordy, Motown’s hit producer, warned him it wouldn’t sell. Marvin didn’t care. For him, the message was more important.

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, has invited local churches around the country to initiate a ‘sacred conversation’ about racism on this day, Trinity Sunday. In some places this particular message might not sell either. Some might call it a ‘scared conversation’. I am not your pastor; I am here to preach a sermon because your pastor is out of town. I am a white woman, born with a certain amount of privilege and advantages, with really no idea what it means to be the object of racism. But I believe the message is indeed important. We need to talk about ‘what’s going on’ when it comes to racism in this country for several reasons.

One, we have an African-American who just might be the next Democrat candidate for president: Senator Barrack Obama, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago. Two, his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, has been vilified in the public media, amounting to the equivalent of a public lynching of his 36 years of ministry and of the black church and its experience of faith. And three, it’s something this nation is not done with yet, not by a long shot. Jim Wallis, editor and founder of Sojourners magazine, said that America’s sin of racism has not even been confessed, much less repented.

Yes, we’ve come a long way: Senator Obama is a sign of the progress that’s been made in the effort to banish racism from this country. Recently, however, an Obama campaign volunteer canvassing for votes in the Midwest received one homeowner’s angry response with alarm: “Why don’t they just hang that darkie from a tree?” We are shocked that such vitriol still exists, even more so that it is expressed so openly. Yet why are we not equally shocked about our apparent inability to discuss our own racism and fears with our sisters and brothers of color?

It has never been easy for anyone to imagine themselves in the shoes and skin of someone else, whose experience of life is so vastly different from our own. Growing up in this country with a skin color other than white still entails an education different from that of most whites, a family situation different from most whites, an expectation of life different from most whites, and thus an experience of this nation and an experience of God different from most whites.

The Christian faith of most people of color dates back to the prophets, including the prophetic teaching of Jesus Christ, who preached liberty for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, release for the prisoners, and compassion for the brokenhearted, as it is written in Isaiah 61. As Rev. Jeremiah Wright proclaimed at the National Press Club it is a prophetic theology of liberation, liberation not only for the captives but also for the captors, not only for the oppressed but also for the oppressors. It is a theology of transformation, of radical, permanent change: changed hearts and minds, changed laws and lives. Ultimately it is a theology of reconciliation, for God does not desire that we be at war, that we hate or abuse each other, but that we be reconciled to one another. (I haven’t heard those words used in sound bite, have you?) Wright declared that this is not only the core of the black religious experience but also of the United Church of Christ.

This is the bedrock of the United Church of Christ, that as disciples of Jesus we all need liberating: from prejudice, fear, greed, hate, and ignorance. These all stand in the way of us seeing one another with the eyes of grace. God has another vision for us. In Genesis we read that God created us, men and women, in the image of God; in the image of God, God created us. All human beings were created in this image, not just some. In this morning’s psalm we read that we were made a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, that God is mindful of human beings, that God cares for mortals, even as the universe continues to birth new stars and new galaxies.

God did all this and then also gave all of us dominion over all creation. But what does it mean, to have dominion? The Hebrew word for ‘dominion’ is râdâh, which means to tread down, to subjugate, prevail against, to rule over, to take. Certainly this is what humankind has done to the earth and its peoples. There have been those who have had power and who have power now, who have oppressed, and continue to oppress, those who are different or believed to be inferior to the ones in power. Precious natural resources have been exhausted, and continue to be exhausted, in the quest to subjugate others as well as establish civilizations. It seems more likely that we were intended to manifest God’s rule of peace and justice on earth, having been made a little lower than God. But I don’t believe that God intended, that God desired this manifestation to be oppressive, violent, or abusive. Sometimes the Bible tells us about what God intends, and sometimes it tells us about what actually happened.



This first story of the creation in Genesis 1 is thought to have been written around 500 BCE, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, after the Jewish people had been conquered by the Babylonian empire and sent into exile. When a small number of Jews returned home about fifty years later to begin rebuilding their homeland, the stories of creation and of God’s relationship with human beings were written down, in the shadow of domination under a new imperial power, Persia.

The Jewish people knew all about domination, since the time of the Egyptian pharaoh who enslaved them and their descendants to build his empire to the Babylonian, the Persian, and the Assyrian empires, not to mention the Roman Empire of the New Testament, that each brutalized the Jews in their own way. Domination was not the desire of God but it was an extremely harsh reality within which the Jewish people struggled to be faithful.

The Bible is the only book I know of containing the history of a people who were on the losing side of empire. Most histories are written by the winners, the empires, casting themselves in a favorable light, ignoring the stories of those they may have stepped on or even destroyed along the way. Indeed, the whole Bible can be read from beginning to end as a treatise against the evils of empire versus the goodness of the kingdom of God. This is where the black theology of liberation claims its power and its heritage.

People of color know about the evils of empire; most white people don’t. We are the beneficiaries of empire. Even when our government has oppressed white people in some way, some parts of the Patriot Act come to mind, we are willing to overlook it or put up with it. But for people of color oppression can still dominate and permeate their lives. It was a government comprised of white people that enslaved proud African people, with their own culture and long history, and brought them to this country in chains to build an American empire. It was a government of white people who drove indigenous people from their land onto a trail of tears that led to the destruction of their nations and the demoralization of their peoples, all to make room for the American empire. This history doesn’t just go away. I think if this had happened to my ancestors, if they had been considered 3/5 of a person, my outlook would be quite different. When Jeremiah Wright cried out ‘God damn America’, it was not her people he said that God condemned but her empire, her government that continues to oppress, break the hearts of, and imprison people of color ten times more than white people.

God does not bless empire, God condemns it. The United States of America is a descendant of the Roman Empire, that spread its influence to Gaul and the land of the Anglo-Saxons, from which rose the British Empire, from whom this nation was born. From our very beginnings, even as ‘we, the people’ declared that ‘all men are created equal’, we behaved as a domination system, taking, subjugating, treading down the wilderness and its natives.

Today the United States military has over 737 bases or installations in 63 countries worldwide. We are indeed an empire, believing itself to be the only superpower in the world. However, in God’s kingdom power is shared. In Genesis we read that God gives us this dominion, God shares power with us; it is a gift, not a right. And it is given not to a few but to all. To share power means to share what is powerful: an equal education, fair housing, a living wage, justice linked with compassion, and community that embraces each one as a child of God.

Like any nation we are a mix of contradictions. Our government can commit acts of hegemony with impunity, but we the people worry about the people we love, and we see the pain and struggle of our neighbors. Our nation’s influence in the world is beginning to wane, yet we the people have the power to influence the direction of our nation.

Like any church, the United Church of Christ is a mix of contradictions. One preacher’s words can be taken out of context, but not all of us agree with him or with each other. And that’s okay. The majority of our church is white, but we are also African, Hispanic, Latino, Caribbean, Pacific-Islander, Samoan, Native American, and many others.

The conversation, the transformation, the message begins here, in this covenant community where we strive to love one another as Christ has loved us. Our brothers and sisters of color suffer because of the realities of living in an empire, in a dominant white society. What can we do to confess and to repent the sin of racism? How can we reach out in love to ease the suffering, to enact justice, and to embrace everyone as a child of God? God is still creating. How can we create alongside God, with the power that God has given us, to effect radical, permanent change? What holds us captive, how are we oppressed, from what do we need to be freed?



The Body of Christ is segregated and thus, not whole. It begins here, this call to revolutionary love and radical repentance. The church has the power, the power of the Holy Spirit, to disturb the status quo, to effect radical, permanent change in society, if only we will use it. It is not enough that black children and white children hold hands, but that all God’s children, black and white, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Arab, Christian and Muslim, Iraqi and American, Darfurian and Sudanese, Chinese and Tibetan, hold hands together as one people on one planet heading toward a common future. It begins here. Amen.

5 comments:

Mystical Seeker said...

Indeed, the whole Bible can be read from beginning to end as a treatise against the evils of empire versus the goodness of the kingdom of God.

I like that interpretation.

By the way, "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me" are among my favorite songs of all time.

Cynthia said...

It was in Borg's Reading the Bible Again For the First Time.

hereticalpolemicist said...

Fate of happy synchronicity has brought our souls togethr in this metaphysical intercourse so we may refresh and pollenate the yearning to feel and e intouch with our hopes through the aroused anticipation of union of our highest passion.

Bugs

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