When Values Clash and Violence Occurs
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, August 20, 2017
Like many of you, I was shocked and appalled by what recently took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was also deeply disturbed by our president’s inability to speak effectively against the hatred that was so manifest, stating that both sides were at fault. It was a bit like blaming Jesus for his crucifixion. What took place in Charlottesville was clearly evil. People filled with hatred brought terror to the peaceful streets of one of America’s quintessential college towns.
This morning I would like to speak about the clash of cultures that is occurring across our nation, to reflect with you upon the deepening divisions that we are witnessing in our country and to offer a few thoughts about what we as Christians might do. This is part of our continuing conversation about racism. It is a difficult and complicated topic, but one that we must hold. And just as you would like me to respect your views on this topic, I hope that you will return the favor. Most of all, I hope that this will not be the end but rather a continuation of our dialogue.
As all of you know, the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the alt-right marched to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Psychologists note that the presenting problem initially shared by someone in counseling is rarely the main problem that needs to be addressed. I suspect that this is the case here. The statue is important, but there are much deeper things that need to be dealt with, explored, discussed.
Removing statues and changing names on buildings can be complicated, because these changes threaten people’s tradition, history and identity, while keeping them in place makes others feel as though the tyranny of oppression will never end. This rising sea of tension hit a new level last Saturday when our nation witnessed heavily armed white supremacists carrying torches, marching and shouting “Jews will not replace us,” while wielding Nazi and Confederate flags on American soil. Was this our country? Had the lunatic fringe taken over? We wondered what on earth was taking place. Within 24 hours, a peaceful protester was killed, two police had died and 19 others were injured. It was despicable. The KKK and neo-Nazis are vile and repugnant.
What you may not know is that the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, returned from a sabbatical with a sense that God was calling him to engage more deeply with issues of social justice. He encouraged his clergy to join him in a counter-protest as a witness to Jesus’ love and grace. Our former Associate Rector Hillary West and her husband Fred accepted his invitation. Hillary is a powerful proponent of social justice and as fine a Christian as I know. Together, with about 100 clergy from different faith traditions, Hillary and Fred took a lot of risks to stand for love in the face of hatred. They knelt arm in arm in prayer as heavily-armed KKK and neo-Nazis marched past them. Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that the only effective tool to combat people filled with evil is to follow the ways of peace and non-violence.
I was in Seattle on Sunday, and I called Hillary to make sure that Fred and she were safe. Hillary said, “I’ve never witnessed such hatred in my entire life. The men marching screamed every imaginable swear word and spat at us. Most of them were in their 20s or 30s. It’s hard to imagine how people so young could have developed so much hatred!”
Sadly, white supremacy continues to live on in the minds of some very warped people. They have their minds made up that blacks and Jews are to blame for everything. Their thinking is abhorrent and evil. White supremacy and white nationalism is a blight on the face of the earth.
God created all people. We belong to God’s beloved community. Love unites us. Hatred divides us. There is sin in each of us. We have fallen short of what God has intended for us. We need forgiveness. Grace restores us. Faith can heal us. As Christians, we must even be willing to risk our lives to protect those who are threatened by evil. We must demand the truth when people tell lies – including politicians on all sides. Our leaders must unite us, not divide us.
Never forget that Nazism began with rallies, thuggery and hate speech. It went unchecked. Good people were silent. They thought that the Nazis would go away, but incendiary words fueled a fire storm that decimated Europe. Martin Niemöller was a German pastor who spoke out against Adolf Hitler. He was imprisoned and nearly executed. Niemöller said, “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I wasn’t a trade unionist, so I didn’t speak out. Then they came for the Jews. I wasn’t a Jew so I didn’t speak out. Then they came for me, and there was no one to speak for me.”
While good people can differ widely in their assessment of history, it is a very different thing to spew hatred, threaten harm and incite violence. What is the price for protecting hate speech? We must address these issues in difficult but important conversations across our country.
In 2000, there were 457 hate groups in the United States. By 2016, that number had more than doubled to 917. Hate groups are on the rise. Hatred comes from anger within us. The KKK and neo-Nazis feel emboldened by our president, whether he has intended it or not. His words and actions have proved extremely inadequate to clarify the evil nature of these groups. As president, he has failed to state clearly and unequivocally that hate has no place in our country and in our world.
The president serves like a priest to our nation, speaking to those who never darken the door of a house of worship, setting a moral tone and charting a moral path for all of us. The president has the ability to summon the soul of our nation. In times of trial and trouble, the president must remind us of our highest ideals and be a voice of wisdom that people of all races, religions, sexual identities, political beliefs and economic levels can trust. Our current president is woefully failing to fulfill the moral aspect of his office. In fact, his words make us wonder about his ability to comprehend love, truth and forgiveness.
Jesus reminds us today that, “….it not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Holiness comes from within us when God’s love and Spirit fill us and guide us. Jesus said, for…. “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person…”
The mission of the Church is to reconcile everyone to each other and to God. This mission even precedes Jesus. Our texts this morning are providential. It is as if God selected them for just this occasion. The prophet Isaiah says, “Thus says the Lord, maintain justice, and do what is right…. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel…” Social justice is at the heart of Christianity. To follow God’s teaching on social justice means to demand that our police and government treat all citizens with the same respect and courtesy and that all leaders do all in their power to combat evil, stop the spread of bigotry and prevent those who would instigate violence.
In our Baptismal Covenant we are asked, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We respond, “I will with God’s help,” but do we really mean it? Will we live into those words and make them come alive in our flesh and blood, our words and our actions? Do we teach our children never to judge someone by their race, religion, gender, sexual identity or economic level? Surely, we need God’s help to root out racism from our lives, community and world.
I suspect that each of us has some internal work to do, for racism is rampant. So, read books, and educate yourself. If you are white, read black authors. If you are male, read female writers. If you are wealthy, connect with the poor. Create friendships with people of color. Get to know an immigrant. Worship in an all-black church. Visit a mosque. Expand your world.
Last year a group of clergy and I met for several months to discuss racism. We read Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates’ book Between the World and Me. As we read and discussed, I realized that I have so much to learn. Many of us do not know what it is like to live in the world as a person of color, as a woman, Muslim, Jew, as a transgender or gay person, as someone physically challenged or mentally ill, or living in poverty or as a refugee. At the end of today’s service, we will hand out copies of The Social Justice Bible Challenge. I urge you to read it slowly and prayerfully. We will offer opportunities to discuss it and address racism. We have much to learn from each other and from those who are different from us.
The problem with prejudice is that we can see it in others but not in ourselves. John Newton was a devote Christian, who read the Bible every day aboard the ship that he captained and led a Bible study for his sailors. But despite his professed faith he could not see the contradiction between his love for God and his work as a slaver trader, transporting captives packed like sardines in squalid quarters, shackled in dark spaces that stank of feces and urine, half-starved, sick and dying. Newton treated blacks as a subhuman commodity for personal gain. When his eyes were finally opened to see his own sin, he wrote one of history’s most famous hymns:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
You and I are called to live eternal life in ordinary time. Baptism sets us apart for God’s work. If we fail to distinguish between good and evil, we will become slaves of a soulless culture. The psalmist notes, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” This is God’s dream. We are called to gather in worship and then be sent out into the world as salt and light. God wants us to do something significant, and God wants us to do it in community.
This moment in history calls for leadership. Racism must be extinguished. We must demand that every leader unequivocally condemn white supremacy and white nationalism. Jesus never picked up a weapon. He never hurt another person. Jesus invited women to share in his ministry. He spoke to despised Samaritans, reached out to the poor and cared for those on the margins of society.
Today, he would stand in solidarity with gays and lesbians, immigrants, people of color and all nationalities. He would oppose those who spew hatred and chastise those who stand silent when bigotry and violence are on the rise. Jesus died upon a cross to put some steel in our spine so that we might have the courage to confront evil in order that love might triumph.
In last Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus invited Peter to get out of the boat and walk to him on the water. In the Bible water is always a symbol for chaos. Jesus calls us to relinquish our safe places in the boat and venture forth into the chaos, keeping our eyes focused on him. So, I urge you to get out of your comfort zone. Share meals and conversations with those who are of different race, religion, political party, sexual orientation or economic level. Listen, and listen some more. Select one issue in our local community, city or region and address it. Tackle gun violence, prison reform, public education, speak against police violence or help immigrants.
I have just returned from a conference where we focused on our Presiding Bishop’s call for us to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. That’s our calling. We are not black or white, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight, rich or poor, conservative or liberal. None of these things are ever our first identity. We are first followers of Jesus, and we are charged with transforming the chaos of this world into the dream that God envisioned it to be.
So, my brothers and sisters, be courageous, be bold and be discerning. Stand firm beside Jewish, black and gay and transgender sisters and brothers, who have become easy targets for those who hate and would do harm. Stand up! Take part in the Jesus Movement and together we will be transformed as Christ transforms the world through us. Amen.