Culturally, we are experiencing the pressure of a failed economic system that favors the extremely wealthy and bashes the poor, a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately harms black and brown communities, and a disparate education system that geographically favors white suburban communities. From political commentators to local news, race relations are a central part of life in America. When a white "Lutheran" entered Emanuel AME church in Charleston this summer and murdered 9 people- including two pastors, we joined many others around the country in expressing grief, anger, and powerlessness. Why, along with all of the other violent deaths of young lack people, is this happening with such frequency? We know that violence in the black community has been a problem caused by the formation of ghettos, economic depression and poverty, and drug crime. Some of us in the faith community have begun to examine more deeply and more critically our personal and public failures and our responsibility to affect change that honors the lives of black and brown people around us. How do we begin?
First, prejudice has always existed in human community. The bible attests to it and is partly responsible for the perpetuation of racial prejudice and injustice. Despite the fact that the bible's authors and first audience were minorities, the good book hasn't always been so good for minorities. Since biblical times, Israeli/Palestinian relations are partly related to deep-seeded religious assumptions about the other. The bible, in the hands of European whites, has been used to justify the oppression of women and people of color. Colonialization and the displacement and annihilation of native peoples in the name of Christ may have started the American story of racial injustice. In the 19th century, many southern ministers advocated the biblical justification for slavery.
The bible also has a lot to say about overcoming racial hatred and prejudice, about ending hypocrisy and judgment that leads to violence, and about welcoming the stranger and the foreigner with respect and hospitality. The book of Jonah is a fabulous parable on God's concern for the future of a people beyond the borders of Israel, beyond the chosen covenant family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is also about Jonah's hidden prejudice that compels him to "abandon ship"and ignore God's true intentions.
Jonah was called to deliver a message from God to the people of Nineveh. He refuses to go, because of his prejudice against Ninevites. Jonah believed that his proclamation of judgment on the Ninevites would lead to their repentance and God's mercy. He did not believe that they deserved mercy, but rather judgment and destruction. He was disappointed when God chose to deal compassionately with them. God's position toward human kind is not legalistic, moralistic judgment of our failures to live according to God's will. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Slow and steady. God is patiently coaxing humanity toward a future that looks more like heaven than hell. Despite centuries of insistence that God is angry and wrathful and that few will escape God's vengeance, the bible tells a story of a God who loves what God has made. God cherishes humans and desires that we learn to live together in harmony and peace.
The gospel is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, first century Jewish Rabbi who taught healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation as the foundation for a new humanity. He confronted the powerful who used fear, religious purity, and violence to subjugate and marginalize people. He did so by compassionately seeing and hearing and touching people who were paralyzed, cast out, driven to insanity, and isolated. He sought to dismantle the system of isolation and annihilation that powerful people use to maintain their power over others. In the process, he crossed boundaries and borders and ethnic prejudices to teach people what it means to flourish. Human flourishing requires that we learn to accept and honor diversity as a gift from the creator. It also requires that people with wealth and privilege see the poor and seek their welfare. That means more than redistribution of wealth. God's provision is not equal, but just. That means, everyone is supposed to get what they need to live as full a life as possible on earth. When some people do not have access to what they need to live, how do we expect justice? Prejudice and privilege create a system whereby some people have access and others do not. By virtue of race, ethnicity, or sexuality humans relegate fellow humans to a marginalized state of existence.
Jesus' opposition to the powers-that-be risked a high level of vulnerability, of which he was personally aware. He expected to be killed. Jesus was crushed by the dominant system, crucified by the Roman empire, abandoned by his own people. But unlike so many other movements to overcome human failure to live in harmony and peace, Jesus' movement persisted. It persists, precisely because his followers said that he was raised from the dead. The perpetual movement of Christianity is just that precisely because the teacher and Lord lives on as a new human with a new life, transcendent of the broken old systems of oppression and tyranny and marginalization. He did not die a failed martyr. He died and was raised from the dead as a sign of God's promise to make all things new.
But the church has not always followed its Lord. The church has been co-opted and corrupted by dominant system values. And we perpetuate segregation and prejudice. Christians have narrowly defined the gospel message in order to avoid challenges. The gospel is about personal salvation and a post-death trip to heaven. The gospel justifies sinners without transformation. We prefer comfortable, segregated Sunday morning churches where we are not forced to examine our consciences. Even confession of sins has been relegated to personal moral failings, rather than broader systemic and structural sin. Dancing, swearing, sex, alcohol, and smoking became the sins churches were willing to discuss. Bias against the underclass and the deprivileged has not been discussed for fear that we would lose members over challenging talk.
But, recently I've met some people who are looking to be part of a church that will examine itself critically and attempt to embody the alternative way of Jesus' ecclesia. So we are talking about racial prejudice because the kingdom of God continues to emerge among us. We see glimpses of hope through struggle. We identify small victories and mountains to climb. We stand on the shoulders of giants and know that another day is coming. We long for a world where harmony and peace prevail,where people see skin color and language diversity and cultural diversity as gifts from the creator to be cherished and enjoyed. We long for a world where basic provisions and protections are afforded to every creature. We desire a higher government and a prince of peace who will rule with compassionate justice and all-inclusive love. We're talking about racial prejudice because we have some that we need help to overcome. We want to be in recovery from our sins.
This week, we will hear a gospel story about a Lebanese woman who begs Jesus for help. Lebanon and Israel are enemies to this day. She is humble and she is insistent. Jesus, on the other hand, is dismissive and resistant. Like Jonah, he is not interested in handing out God's mercy to "those people". The encounter changes Jesus. I think it is meant to change us, too. Come and see. Sunday at 9:30 am at Zion on Main Street or 6 om for dinner church at Roland/Akron park. Worship is relaxed and includes an open communion table, where all are invited to share the great and promised feast. We sing songs from the rich diversity of Christian community around the world. Join us.