#StayWokeAdvent

Lets Talk Sin and Systems

For a time, as a child in the 1970’s, I lived on or near my grandparents farm.  The farm was forty acres of fruit trees and grapevines in which I, with my sister and cousins, freely roamed and played in.  There were few rules, one of them was that we weren’t to bother or speak to the farm workers.  Our freedom of movement on the farm was largely tied to this rule.  It makes sense when the workers were in the field they were there to do a job and they shouldn’t have to worry about  their boss’s grandchildren getting in their way.  However, the  farm workers were all Mexican migrant workers or Mexican-Americans.  As a child I gave little thought to this, outside of not bothering the farm workers I had Latino friends, we were invited over to  Mexican-American foreman’s home, and he and his family were often in my grandparents home, they were friends.  Years, later in seminary I had a friend who while in seminary was working on campus as part of the janitorial staff.  One day he came up to me and asked “Is everything okay?” I was puzzled. He clarified “Between us…did I do something to offend?” I was even more dumbfounded. He explained ” I saw you yesterday as you were walking to class and I waved, you even looked my direction but you ignored me.”  I had no recollection of this.  Slowly, it dawned on me he was Indian, and when he saw me the day before he was wearing the janitorial uniform. The simple instruction from my childhood had taught me to not see people of color at work.  Even more devastating, was that I also realized that I didn’t ignore another friend who was white when he was wearing the janitor uniform.

The above experience would have been unintelligible to me  had it not been for a College Camp seminar on the system of Racism (lead by a Latino and and an African American). In that seminar I found  illuminating the idea that Racism was structural and systemic. While Racism can be about attitudes and opinions racism is more about the power, privilege, and the participation in racist structure and system.  This was transformative because even at 19 or 20 , I was a ware that the persistence of Racism had to do with more than whether I individually had overt negative feelings and attitudes towards an individual of another race.  It also helped explain why my behavior towards people of color didn’t always match what I felt and believed.  It was liberating because it offered me as a member  of the Church to find in my self where the systems of the World had a hold of me having yet been transformed and illuminated by the Mind of Christ. Because of that seminar I could begin to recognize and seek to route out the ways the system of Racism was influencing me through a childhood rule that hadn’t been racist in intention.

This systemic and structural view of Racism was also helpful, because such an understanding of Racism as structural and systemic and not individual and attitudinal, resonated with certain Pauline themes of the effect of Sin on the humanity and each of us personally.  Such a view of Racism looks very much like the struggle with the Flesh: the sinful system that can cling to one like a body of death.   This allowed me to see Racism as not only about opinions and attitudes that may or may not be based in fact or science or whatever, but part of the system of Sin that, through the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, was now (slowly at least from our perspective) passing away.

We are currently facing, what seems to most of us, the inexplicable persistence of Racism most blatantly seen in the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and in the disparities of the system of mass incarceration.  Although we often speak of Racism as a systemic reality, when I hear expressions of puzzlement of the persistence of racism we are so puzzled either because we think the American system of government and law existed separate from and before an overlay of Racist ideology, and/or we believe that Racism is primarily about individuals holding racist attitudes and opinions and overtly holding to an ideology of racial superiority and purity.  Which means we actually think Racism is about individuals and not systems.

We are having difficulty accounting for the persistence of Racist structures and outcomes without overt racism.  Or more strikingly, when we speak of Racist policing we immediately think that the way to  eradicate racism from policing is to find and remove  racist police officers, or at least curtail the actions of a racist police officer.

As such we then see systems as being grounded in the isolated individuals attitudes and/or actions.  It is offensive and incomprehensible to us that we may act and or be subjected to things we individually don’t intend and individually have no control over.

What I wish to suggest is that Sin and systems function similarly.  For sin and systems to have their power and function they don’t require my overt participation as an individual. Rather the power of sin and systems is to function and dictate our actions depends on my lack of awareness of their effect upon my will and actions.

When we speak of Racism, we aren’t simply speaking of the mere amalgamation of  the actions and attitudes of individuals who think themselves superior to another race and actively and intentionally seek to disenfranchise those seen as members of another race, deemed inferior (though this does occur, and depending on various conditions may or may not be the case).

Granted this thinking runs counter to the idea of the human as an autonomous individual who is the soul source of their self, intentions and actions.

Paul in Romans, speaks of the power of Sin in this way as well, as that which acts upon us often in contradiction and violation of our individual will and desires.  Paul says “What I wish to do I don’t do and that which I don’t want to do I do.”

Racism is part of that reality in which the systems of this world are bound to Sin and Death.

Paul asks who or what will save us from this, his answer Christ Jesus.

Paul’s answer of course requires unpacking,  as well as why the systems of sin and death, like Racism, continue to dominate even among those who have claimed the name of Jesus, and Christian.

Here’s an account from Britney Cooper on experiencing the persistence of Racism.

Words of Comfort and Call to Repentance #StayWokeAdvent

There was no manuscript for my sermon at the Oratory on Sunday December 7th, what follows is my own continuing reflection on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Edited 12/15/2014 for clarity and grammar

Scriptures for the Second Sunday of Advent were Isaiah, 2 Peter and the Gospel of Mark.  These Scriptures include words of comfort (from Isaiah) a call to wait patiently for the end(2 Peter), and a call to repentance (Mark).

What I asked us to sit with and I am still sitting with is hearing words of comfort together with call repentance in light of the anguish that so many feel and have long felt.

We though can rush too quickly to take on or apply these Scriptures to our context.  There are resonances surely but not necessarily an easy fit.

The call to comfort “my people” may easily resonate with the continued suffering of the African-American community as it continues to suffer under a racist system.  Yet the words of comfort spoken in Isaiah are to an oppressed people in exile but whom according to the prophets went into exile for their failure to act justly and to remember they were once an oppressed people freed by the act of God.  The people addressed aren’t just human beings in general or the oppressed in general but a particular people, who have been oppressed and then who oppressed their own, and who are now again a subjugated and exiled and oppressed people.

It was to those who returned from exile yet still waiting complete deliverance, once again under subjection and oppression, this time of Rome, These are those addressed by John the Forerunner’s ministry and baptism to repentance.  John the Baptist called the  people of God to repentance.

If we are to hear these Scriptures, in concert with what is revealed in our streets and is coming more and more to light in our institutions particularly the police, we must first hear the Scriptures as addressed to others, the people of God, Israel, the Hebrews, Jews.  I would say this is especially true for White Christians in the United States.

We as White Christians need to regain a sense of being grafted into the people of God.  We are those who weren’t a people and now are a people.  Then we can perhaps begin to repent of our sense of privilege and responsibility.

I’ve recently been reading from a variety of sources how often well meaning Whites seeking to be in solidarity with Blacks, will join a protest and then take the initiative or stick with only other Whites at the protest.  Or how the chant #Blacklivesmatter is changed to #alllivesmatter.  Also,  how attempts at acknowledging privilege (such as the problematic  #crimingwhilewhite) turns attention from the lives of Blacks and people of color to whites and our guilt and shame over our privilege.  These aren’t examples of repentance, but as often as not re-inscribe White dominance and privilege.

When there are studies that show that even whites who don’t express or show any overt racism or even racist attitudes still in simulation will give the benefit of the doubt to armed White men and will shoot people of color who are suspected of holding a weapon, we have some fairly deep and unconscious shit to turn from.  We need a change of mind and being.

Such a transformation for Whites may require  stepping back: letting others take the lead, being less concerned about ones identity as White or even to give up one’s need to speak.  What I hear from Black voices and people of color is that we as Whites need to listen and amplify their voices, not to speak ourselves.  Repentance for White Christians in America may be to turn away from all ways of self-preservation, including attempting to assuage guilt by seeking fix the problems.

Then if there is deep repentance and transformation by White Christians in that we begin to be able to see Blacks and people of color as truly human (thus #blacklivesmater) and as truly members of the Body of Christ.

We want to to do something so this will be difficult.  Yet, here, if we can here Peter’s words, there is an openness to God’s refining fire in us and the world.  At this moment there is opportunity in the turmoil and the protests to let the fire burn and refine.  We can allow this apocalypse ( unveiling) to push us to live according to truth and justice, that will hasten the day when God’s righteousness and justice will be all that we know.

Then in this is also our comfort both for we who wracked by guilt and shame for our being caught up and blinded by our privilege and dominance, but especially for those who suffer and are oppressed by the racist structures and actions of the police.

Words of comfort and call to repentance go hand in hand for the people of God. Sometimes as in our case some of the people of God need to repent for participating in the cause of oppression, so that those who are oppressed may find comfort.

This all begins by hearing “my people” as a people to whom we are foreigners, and to whom have been welcomed into by God in Jesus Christ.

White European Christians the Scriptures and the faith aren’t yours.  In fact we may have betrayed the very faith we think we can defend and spread.  Repent, and be comforted.

“Comfort O Comfort my people, God has come and is coming.  If justice seems slow in coming, it is because of God’s patience with all of humanity.  The place where God’s justice and righteousness shows forth fully is what God desires for all.  Let that knowledge change you. Seek that vision of the world and each other.

Comfort and change of mind and being go hand in hand.  Let your story dissolve into the story of a people of God journeying towards and awaiting the coming of God’s justice and righteousness that we don’t and can’t have or control. Give into the consuming and refining fire. Be comforted and repent.

Longing for Justice in Absence: #StayWokeAdvent

WIN_20141130_143419O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)WIN_20141130_143444

This cry for God to act from the lectionary  for the First Sunday of Advent seems very fitting.  Calling on god to tear open the heavens.  Tear down the barrier between heaven and earth that keeps the kingdom from coming and God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what if this has happened?  What if the heavens have been torn open and God has come down? (As depicted in these depictions of heaven opening up)  In Advent what we wait for, what we are awake to is that God has come in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.WIN_20141130_143332

The tearing of the heavens and God coming in justice happened. It happened in a very strange and nearly imperceptible way.  The nations, the powers, have been shaken.  Yet we can be unaware, live as though all is lost.  Admittedly in times like these, it doesn’t seem like this story has much relevance or meaning.  If true what good has it done for those who continue to suffer injustice, oppression and death.

Isaiah a few verses below the words above, wonders why God doesn’t act as in the time of Egypt and Israels deliverance from the oppression of  Pharaoh and Egypt, the empire and power of the day. But think with me on that story:

Did Israel’s freedom from enslavement and oppression at the hands of the state power and government come because Pharoah gradually made reforms and improved the conditions of the Hebrews?  Did the justice Isaiah recalls and longs for come from Pharaoh, or even with Pharaoh’s help and coöperation?  No, it was wrested from pharaoh by God.

But in a sense God remained a part from humanity and creation in that moment.  God crushes the power of oppression destroying its ability to exact its legal penalties, and it’s justice.  It was fearsome and violent, and at Mount Sinai the Israelites weren’t so sure what to make of all this shaking.

But when we speak of God’s advent, we are no longer speaking of the shock and Awe that Isaiah is longing for in the tearing open of the heavens and God coming down, yet even so the heavens have been torn open and God has come down.

WIN_20141130_143456It is perhaps worth noting that this didn’t happen only once, God tore open the heavens in the incarnation, and then again as the Spirit came upon those followers of Jesus, to form the Church on Pentecost.

Yet, none of this has brought an end to injustice.  The heavens have been torn open and God descends… and then what… disappears?

Christians, perhaps even the Church, are and have been as much a part of oppression and injustice as working for liberation and justice.

There are questions… is something awakening?

We wait in darkness with not much light.  This is Advent and a place of deep longing.

For now lets sit with heavens torn open and God come down, but seemingly little shaken, and ask what is the source of justice and liberation?  What are we looking for and who will provide it?

 

Wake up and Keep Awake: #StayWokeAdvent

I’ve kept mostly silent about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  On Social media I’ve attempted to direct people’s attention to Black and other voices from the margins around what happened and the continued unrest in the wake of the announcement of the grand jury’s decision.

In terms of white voices this post by Geoff Holsclaw is a good response from a position of privilege that is seeking to be open to move beyond privilege.

As the strange juxtaposition of the lit sign of Seasons Greetings and heavily armored police showed we are in the Holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving.  I’ve never particularly seen Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, and the attempts to make it a Christian Holiday have always struck me (even as a child) as strange.  As a child it was one of the few Holidays that my family celebrated that was really just about family.  Christmas and Easter were times for family to gather but they were first feasts of the Church. It’s not that God was absent from the celebration, but I don’t remember ever attending a worship service on or around Thanksgiving.  My Grandmother (on my mother’s side) was the daughter of a Swedish immigrants, My Grandfather (mother’s father )second generation Swedish American.  My father was a naturalized citizen of the United States, his family were refugees and displaced persons after World War II (a story for another post).  As immigrants who had been able to assimilate into White America we were genuinely thankful for the life we were able to lead in the U.S.  As for me as a child the story of Thanksgiving never really touched me.  It’s problematic and racist themes eventually came to mean that mostly Thanksgiving is an excuse and a means to see my family.

I say all this to draw attention to what looms on the horizon on Thanksgiving if one keeps the liturgical calendar of the Church: Advent.  The transition between Thanksgiving and Advent  always felt abrupt and jolting.   The pallid whitewashed soporific mythology of the Pilgrims was in stark contrast to the jarring scriptures of wakefulness and prophetic words anticipating God’s justice come in human flesh.  At Thanksgiving we were full and thankful, on the First Sunday in Advent we were in the dark, empty waiting for fulfillment.  Hopeful, yet aware of things being out of whack.  In Advent we were called to admit our failings and await God’s loving answer to our violence and hatred.  Thanksgiving pretended all was as it should be. Advent said we were still waiting, but the dawning transformation of the world was on its way.  In Advent we were to hunger for the righteous reign of God.

Clearly, the shooting of Michael Brown and now with the failure of a grand jury to indict Daren Wilson has jarred us from the whitewashed and soporific mythology of America that continues to be told on Thanksgiving.  Many of course want things to just calm down to not look at the reality that the system of America is and always has been racist, that since I’m deemed white I have privileges that people of color and certain blacks continue to not have.

We’ve had an Advent moment come before Thanksgiving, don’t be lulled back to sleep, Stay woke.  Being awake isn’t easy.  To open your eyes to the world and the systems we inhabit.  This Thanksgiving to be awake probably means to lament, to grieve and to confess.   Sure there are also reasons to be thankful, but I doubt it is for the reasons that the Thanksgiving mythology wishes us to believe, and the source of that goodness isn’t  from the god of the altar at which we are to burn the incense of our thanksgiving.  But then as a member of the body of Christ our Thanksgiving (Eucharist) isn’t the founding of another principality of the world but in one crucified by the systems of the world.  And this crucified one says wake up, stay awake.

This Advent, I encourage  saying awake by listening and waiting with Theology of Ferguson and Stay Woke Advent.