Archives For Alton Sterling

160706064731-baton-rouge-police-shooting-alton-sterling-cell-phone-video-polo-sandoval-dnt-nd-00010108-large-169“What’s happening to America?”

I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”

I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.

Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.

During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.

Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.

A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:

“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”

Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”

It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.

Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:

“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”

You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.

Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”

In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.

 

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.

officer-involved-shooting1“The assumption that a black man suspected of a robbery is dangerous enough to be shot is the heart of the issue. The inability of the black community to trust that police offers will not see them as immediate threats and act accordingly is the heart of the injustice involved.”

 

What’s called ‘partisanship’ in politics becomes something worse in a Christian forum: tribalism. Seeing another as Other. Dividing up the perspectives into Us and Them and then quickly looking around for a scapegoat.

Generally, white Americans identify with the white police officers who kill blacks while black Americans identify with the seemingly innocent victims.

Whenever a story like Philander Castile’s or Alton Sterling’s, hit the news, we choose sides.

Rally behind our tribe.

Keep our feet planted in our shoes’ perspective and see ‘them’ as ‘other.’

In other words, we violate the first commandment.

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Yep, you read that right.

Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that it’s not so much that God reveals the 10 Commandments to us but rather the 10 Commandments reveal God to us.

McCabe notes how the commandments chief purpose is to distinguish God from the gods.

The gods of the nations in the Old Testament, McCabe argues:                                                   “represent a settling for a partial local identity.”

In giving the first commandment, God identifies himself not as a god but as the God who liberates from the gods: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of slavery in the house of Egypt. You shall have no other gods but me.” McCabe notes the irony of a God who identifies himself as a Liberator but quickly sets about giving us rules. This is because the 10 Commandments also reveal a bitter truth about ourselves:

“One of the peculiar things about humanity is that when we are left to do exactly what we like, we straight away look around for someone to enslave ourselves to, and if we cannot find a master nearby we will invent one.

The true God reveals himself as the One who summons humanity out of this degradation we cling to, who summons us to the painful business of being free.”

It’s only when read against the backdrop of the many police shootings and the comment threads it provokes that it becomes clear what McCabe means by the painful business of being free.

For its our own preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, nations, _____________ from which the true God seeks to deliver us.

The avoidance of such gods is, the Old Testament makes clear, the basic distinguishing demand made of God’s People.

timothy-radcliffeSays McCabe:

“The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery.

To pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place or people, to a nation or race is to submit to slavery and degradation.

The Old Testament begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’

The other gods make you feel at home in a place or tribe or group or the country you grew up in and love, with them you know where you are.

But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring.

This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the devotions to your native place and people, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are to have no image of God because the only image of God is humanity.”

When you realize, as McCabe does, that the gods of the Old Testament represent our normal proclivity to root our identity in our preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, or nations, you realize why it was so hard for Israel to journey out of Egypt and why it was so tempting for them to return there.

As McCabe points out, whenever you hear a tribalistic comment like ‘I guess people only care about crime when it has a white face’ you’re hearing the rattling of very old chains.

You’re hearing the echo of Israel’s lament to return to Pharaoh.

It’s the sound of exactly the sort of bondage from which the true God frees us, a point Jesus reiterates when he takes bread and wine and declares himself our Passover.