A Sermon on Violence and Race

Posted by on Jul 11, 2016 in Blog, Matt | No Comments

I’ve had a few requests for copies of Sunday’s sermon that responded to last week’s shootings and violence. The audio recording will be in the sermon archive soon.

Grief and Justice
Jeremiah 20:7-13 | Habakkuk 1:2-4, 2:2-5, 12-14
July 10, 2016

When you’re home with a newborn who is a bit of a night owl, you end up spending a lot of time in front of the TV. We’re not going out much in my house these days. So on Wednesday night after the kids went to bed I found a cheesy old action movie from the 80s on Netflix. It seemed like the right kind of mindless entertainment I needed for the evening. Because I have a short attention span I have a bad habit of playing with my phone while watching a movie. About halfway through the movie I noticed something trending on Twitter that caught my attention, the phrase: Falcon Heights Shooting. And so while my TV screen was full of kung-fu fighting and gunplay and some fake looking blood and gore… a video on my phone showed me something so much more disturbing: blood that looked all too real, and a woman’s voice crying plaintively, “They are not allowed to just kill people like this, Lord, Please Lord, don’t tell me my boyfriend is dead. Please Lord, you know our rights, you know we are innocent people, Lord. We are innocent people.” Followed by the sound of her 3yo daughter comforting her in the backseat, “I’m here with you mommy.” It was the aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor right here in St. Paul. I certainly didn’t feel like watching an action movie anymore. I felt heartsick and angry that these things keep happening.

The next night the nightmare continued in even greater horror, with a sniper’s bullets raining down on police in Dallas, killing 5. And all of this has just been the latest in what has seemed like months of terror and violence across the globe. Mass killings in Paris, Orlando, Brussels, Istanbul, Baghdad, Kenya and the list goes on…

So we’re deviating from our original plan for this morning because to ignore these things would be derelict. According to Genesis the first thing Cain did after he murdered Abel was… nothing. He pretended nothing happened and God said, “your brother’s blood cries out from the ground!” There is a lot of blood crying out from the ground right now.

So I’m going to confess I don’t know really what to say this morning in light of a violent 72hrs that was just the latest in a long line of travesties and tragedies of violence. But the one thing I know I cannot do, is nothing. If we don’t name the sin and evil in our midst then we passively endorse it. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and novelist who passed away just last week once said:

“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I’m going to acknowledge right away that this discussion is uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Scripture exists to comfort the afflicted but it also is there to afflict the comfortable. If a conversation about race and violence makes us uncomfortable, I promise you, your discomfort is no more than what most police officers feel on any given shift or what many people of color experience every time they get in the car.

Our task in this moment isn’t to make sense of things because there’s no sense to be made. It is senseless. The task that is given us is to lament. To publicly acknowledge this pain, to say its name, to face it for what it is. Scripture calls us to the work of lament. We are told: weep with those who weep. We’re told to cry out.

The prophets and the entire Old Testament makes implicit that there are things to be angry about, there are things to cry out about. There are things to call out. And sometimes it can get you in trouble. This was the story of the prophet Jeremiah’s ministry, to tell the people of Judah that things were not right, but nobody wanted hear it. Nobody wanted to hear that the idolatry can’t be tolerated. Nobody wanted to hear that the priesthood had become corrupt. Nobody wanted to hear that the courts were unjust. Nobody wanted to hear about the wickedness of cultic prostitution. Nobody wanted to hear that the apathy of the rich towards the poor would bring ruin upon the entire nation… and all it got him was trouble.

One of the corrupt priests that Jeremiah called out had enough of it, and threw him in the stockade. Later he would throw him down a well. Everywhere Jeremiah went people rejected him and his message. He said, “I’ve become a laughing stock, I’m derided. I’m tired of all of this, I’m done… but then there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones… and I can’t hold it in, so I’ve got to say it again. This isn’t right. The nation is unjust. And if things don’t change, we’re all going to pay for it.” (Jeremiah 20:7-13)

They call Jeremiah the weeping prophet, but you could just as easily call him the angry prophet. Christians sometimes have come to the wrong conclusions about anger and complaint. Paul told the Philippians, “do everything without grumbling”, and we’ve sometimes taken that to mean, “don’t complain about anything.” Paul’s prohibition was about grumbling out of selfishness and pettiness. The New Testament does not prohibit us from getting angry about the things that anger God. Paul told the Ephesians to, “Be angry… but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Be angry that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.

There is a strong tradition in the Old Testament of anger and lament, and even anger towards God. The Psalms are full of songs that would find a home among the saddest blues ballads or the angriest hip-hop music. The book of Job is 27 chapters of Job complaining about his suffering and shouting down the trite sentimentality of his friends.

One of the most profound examples of lament and complaint come from a tiny little book in the back of the old testament, the book of Habakkuk, a prophet who was a contemporary of Jeremiah who like Jeremiah saw the corruption of his own people and the cruelty and destruction they faced from the Babylonian Empire. So the night I watched Philando Castile die, this passage came to my mind, and the night I watched bullets rain down on Dallas police officers, it came again. The next day when a toddler in North Minneapolis had been killed by a stray bullet, again my mind turned to these words.

Habakkuk 1:2-4

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,  and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

These words have became my prayer, my lament, because I’m sick and tired of this. I am so, sick and tired of this. Something is broken. It’s the confession of our faith this world was created by God, is redeemed by God, is sustained by God and thus this world matters, this life matters, all life matters, but because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be it needs to be said without hesitation and without condition: Black Lives Matter. The lives of the five police officers in Dallas matter. The lives of the victims of violence in Kenya matter, lives in Istanbul matter, lives in Baghdad matter, the lives of 49 LGBT people in Orlando matter. So we must name the evil that cuts down lives that matter.

Here is one of the uncomfortable things scripture teaches us: there are no untarnished heroes and there are no irredeemable villains. We’d like to believe that people can fall into neat categories of good and bad, but it’s a fantasy and a lie that perpetuates our divisions. Every human being on this planet bears the image and likeness of God and in the same way every human being on this planet is afflicted with the problem of sin. The Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzenistyn described the problem like this:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Making worse: sin doesn’t stay contained in the human heart. It  gets out and infects other part of the created order, it gets into non-created things. It gets into systems of society and culture–powers and principalities is how the Bible describes them. Our technical term for it would be systemic injustice. Sin and evil that is born in human hearts seeks systems of power to preserve it. It happens in all kinds of ways, but for the last four centuries it has become particularly entrenched in the systems of white supremacy.

There is nothing in human DNA that would make you more virtuous or less because of your skin color, but wherever power accumulates, sin becomes malignant in those systems to preserve its supremacy. Sin it cloaks itself in the appearance of righteousness. It lies about who it is. It calls evil good. It pockets itself in pathologies of power.

The Bible sometimes calls this injustice “false scales” or “dishonest weights.” Sometimes the same bushel of wheat that was sold for dollars on one scale earns only pennies on another scale. It was a way for an elite class of people to maintain their privilege while making the plight of the poor even more difficult to relieve. Here in the United States the legacy of slavery, lynching, segregation, and discrimination still tip the scales unfairly for people of color.  Sin has infected the system. We’d like to think the problem of racism is about Klansmen and Skinheads, but racism as a systemic injustice is something more more insipid.

By every metric, for people of color the road is steeper in our economy, in our justice system, and in their everyday lives. In the news coverage of the shootings, I heard someone say this, “For most white Americans, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

You know who said that? It wasn’t Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton… it was Newt Gingrich! So if you find this conversation uncomfortable because of politics, let’s put that out of our mind because this isn’t about politics, this isn’t about culture wars or even social justice… this is about Biblical justice. This is about the witness of the Church of Christ.

Trying to talk about these things across polarities of left/right or Democrat/Republican will not achieve anything. We don’t need to be taking our cues and our talking points from our preferred political candidates or our preferred sources of news media. We need to start listening to our black neighbors and our black brothers and sisters in the church. Listen to the their stories and then listen to the scriptures… the same scriptures that call us to the highest standards of love and leave no room for retributive violence.

If the people of God can reclaim the task of lament, reconciliation, peace, and justice… I do believe there will be hope. The work of God in Jesus Christ confronts sin and evil wherever it is. The faith we put in Jesus death and resurrection gives us an inward salvation and freedom, but it doesn’t stop there. The death and resurrection of Jesus indicts systemic injustice as well. Scripture says the cross disarms the powers and principalities, it exposes them as frauds. The cross humiliates the systems of power and injustice, and triumphs over them (Colossians 2:15).

Something beautiful can come out of the ashes these tragedies but it takes repentance and reconciliation. The work can’t be fast tracked. The tears can’t be rushed. The pain must be acknowledged.

So we weep, we name the injustice, we repent where we must, we ask for God’s help and God’s mercy… but we cannot stop there. There is an old African proverb that says, “when you pray, move your feet.” The Apostle James was teaching his congregation about faith and works he said, “if a brother or sister is hungry and naked and all you do is say, ‘go in peace’…” you’ve done no good, faith and works go together (James 2:15-16). Thoughts and prayers must accompany action and resolve.

  1. So use your voice to demand that our elected officials and public servants reform the policies and laws that endanger both police and civilians.
  2. Find ways in this community to build meaningful relationships across cultural and racial divides, and listen to their stories.
  3. Look inward to find the places of fear that need to be replaced with faith and find the resolve to be courageous in your love. Don’t settle for things the way they are, because this is not the way the world is meant to be.

Habakkuk cried out to God and asked how long do we have to look at this violence? How long do we have to look at this injustice? How many more shootings? How many more bombs? How many more breaking news stories? We read on in the second chapter of Habakkuk a reply from God.

Habakkuk 2:2-5, 12-14

Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith.
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
   the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
   like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
   and collect all peoples as their own…

“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
   and found a city on iniquity!”
Is it not from the Lord of hosts
   that peoples labor only to feed the flames,
   and nations weary themselves for nothing?
But the earth will be filled
   with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
   as the waters cover the sea.”

We serve a mighty God and an awesome God who is on the side of good. The Lord is like a dreadful warrior. Persecutors will stumble. They will not prevail. They will be shamed and they won’t succeed. The powers and principalities will be made a spectacle for the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God who hears our cries, sees our tears and says, “I will deliver, justice.”