I am deeply grieved by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia that unfolded on around August 12. I must also confess that a cloud of fear surrounds me as I reflect on these events, events over the past few months, as well as those looming on the horizon. My sense of fear is honed by the anxiety and chaos that surround the possible launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile by North Korea and potential retaliatory attacks by the United States. I find it difficult at times to focus given the amount of chaos and plethora of threats – it kind of feels like my name is “Dug” from the movie Up and I’m constantly distracted by squirrels. Every day brings a new distraction and I find it difficult to remain oriented.
I continued to search out all of the factors that seemed to be causing to grow the cloud of fear around me as I watched and reflected on the events of Saturday. I named a fear that such unrest and violence could arrive in our community; I named a fear that such activity could endanger my family and friends, near and far; I named a fear that what we are watching is only one eruption among many others that potentially will unfold as a result of the deep divisions that exist in our country and culture, ones that too often we gloss over. I spent much time thinking about this last named fear – the nature of the divisions that exist around race, sexuality, gender, identity, religion, economics, and others; wondering how we as a community begin to heal such deep divisions; how we find a common sense of purpose that is greater than the rifts and that can guide us forward. I think these pieces of our dilemma are significant, but I do not live under the illusion that this list is exhaustive. Yet, I continue to live in hope, imagining tomorrow as God intends it rather than being swamped in the despair that can easily overcome each of us. I am reminded of the teachings of Jesus and the prophetic leadership witnessed to in the Hebrew Bible, both of which help me see what God intends. I offer this narrative so that you can perhaps understand a bit of my thought process.
As I watched and thought about the hate-filled events initiated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, I recalled Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4) when he, by speaking one on one with this woman, challenged not only gender norms but also reached across the racial divide of Samaritan and Jew. The story of the Canaanite woman who begged for her daughter to be healed (Matthew 15:21-28) makes this point even more clearly. When she pleas for her daughter to be healed, Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). When he makes this statement using the term “dogs,” Jesus uses a racial slur. But this affront will not stop the Canaanite mother and so Jesus heals her daughter. The gospel writer here uses a rhetorical device to make a point that race is a topic addressed by the one we call Lord and that his teaching makes clear these boundaries of race are crossed and a new path forward is marked. Here is the center line of that path that guides us towards the Garden of Love that God intends: All are children of God! There is no room in the teachings of Jesus Christ for any race to claim supremacy over any other. White supremacy and anti-Semitism are sins and have no foundation in the teachings of Jesus!
I continued to watch the reports and I wondered how clergy would respond on Sunday morning and the week ahead. I remembered Jeremiah’s struggle against the false prophets as he called the people of Jerusalem and Judah back to the path of God. The other prophets promised that all would be okay, that God would bless Judah because Judah was righteous, and that Judah and Jerusalem would be great again. In this time of great turmoil, God’s prophet reminds the people that God has not abandoned them and that God will bring them home from exile and cut a new covenant with them, engraved on their hearts. I recalled Ezekiel and his vision of a valley of dry bones and the wondering if they could live again. The divisions are great, chasms are too large to cross at times. Yet, the Spirit of God moves among the valley of bones, brings them back together with muscle and flesh, and again breathes life into them. It is a vision offered to the people of God trapped in oppression and exile. It brings hope and reminds that it is God’s vision that will guide us forward. I concluded Sunday evening feeling a sense of hope rooted in God’s love and intention for creation. I felt I had a place from which I could speak to how we move forward confident that God’s intent will guide us.
But it was a restless and sleepless night. The call of Isaiah in chapter 6 kept coming to mind when the prophet confesses, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (v. 5). The prophet acknowledges his call to proclaim the message of God but simultaneously says he’s not up to the task. Not unlike this moment, the cultural context is shifting and the threat of war looms large on the horizon. I started thinking what these words had to do with my own situation. The fear is daunting but it is not ultimately silencing. As I spent considerable time reflecting on the call of Isaiah and my sleepless night, I began to think about my own place in the situation. It was, and continues to be, not an easy exercise of self-reflection. It is important though to know the answer if I am to be an agent for change that contributes to the blossoming of God’s Garden of Love. I believe that when we begin to see our own privilege and position, then we can begin to see everyone else more fully. Our awareness of advantage, systems of inequity, what is considered desirable and normal aides us in seeing the other sides of each of these areas and thus helps us see others more fully and how the systems of inequity need to change. I am a white male, raised in the south, straight, middle class, had access to education, among many other privileges. I am aware of the privilege I have had and still do. As a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the senior minister of First Christian Church of Topeka, I am ready to stand and point out the racism and hatred and say these are sin, ready to say we have to walk the path of God’s vision.
As you reflect on the violence, hatred and bigotry exhibited by white supremacists, anti-Semitists, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, I call you to engage in self-reflection to assess your own place of privilege so that you may see others more fully. (This linked questionnaire may assist you in reflecting on privilege.) Together, we can work to help God’s Garden of Love blossom and live into God’s intention for all of humanity and indeed all of creation.