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Christ Church Frederica, St. Simons Island, GA
Christ Church Frederica

Rector's Ramblings June 3, 2020

RAM1 6 3 2020A few years ago I had the opportunity to ask the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, what advice he would offer to clergy who were trying to navigate a tricky political landscape and the razor thin line preachers often have to walk as they bring the faith of the church to bear on a broken world. His answer was quick and offered a simple proscription: “Preach the Gospel.” It is a simple concept, and yet even that has become more difficult in the years since. Preachers across the Christian spectrum report increasing pushback from congregants who wrongly attribute classic Christian theology to thinly veiled political criticism. That is nothing new, though. From the very first days, as the Gospel was formed through what our Lord expressed in word and deed, his teachings and actions were deemed to be political in nature. Indeed, they were in some cases. The political realms of this world impact the spiritual realities of God’s people and become the subject of prayer and action by the faithful. Fortunately for us, the opposite is also true. Both realities area as old as our faith and continue to this day.

The interplay of faith and empire has always been dangerous. It’s one of the threads that we can pull through the New Testament. That same thread also pulls the Hebrew scriptures as well.  When the Faith/Church stands up to empire it doesn’t always appear to win, at least not right away. Jesus’ death and crucifixion show that quite clearly. So too, can we say, that it isn’t always good when the empire underestimates the power of God and God’s people, motivated by love to seek justice, even at great physical cost. History is full of examples of the Church in action, reshaping the landscape around it to bring God’s kingdom to bear. The two realities don’t always oppose, but often enough that we’re used to seeing them conflict with one another. We’re seeing it again now.

RAM2 6 3 2020Spanning as far back as our Judaic roots, God’s people have been required to, “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” I attended a rally in Brunswick several weeks ago after Ahmaud Arbery’s death began to garner widespread attention (including mine), holding a sign with that very reminder. I didn’t shout, I didn’t cheer, I simply stood there quietly with other clergy and Episcopalians as a reminder that justice had not yet been pursued for that young man. I have no doubt in my mind that were it not for the dogged efforts of Ahmaud’s mother and the national outcry that sprang up, particularly after a video of the shooting was shared, his case could have continued on a path that would not have garnered the full investigative process it requires and deserves. I stood there on the grounds of the courthouse with one foot in the world of the Judeo-Christian faith and one foot in the world of the empire that controls the justice system.  Sometimes we have to bridge those worlds as followers of Jesus. We’re in one of those times now.

In the days since Ahmaud’s death there were several other national-level stories involving the killing or threats towards African Americans. Breonna Taylor was killed by police in the confusion that ensued after a no-knock warrant was mistakenly executed at her apartment. There was Christian Cooper the bird watcher in New York’s Central Park, who was threatened after he calmly challenged a woman who was breaking the leash law in the part of the park set aside as a sanctuary. Her threat? She would call the police, she said on camera, and, “tell them there is an African American man threatening my life.” She knew how real a threat that is to black men in this country. It highlights the pervasiveness of the danger black people, but especially black men, face. They are frequently deemed to be a threat, even when it is undeserved. It happens every day, and it’s happening now.

All of that then spilled over into the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, since ruled a homicide, at least by medical standards. Mr. Floyd died, on camera, despite the pleas of bystanders, with the knee of a police officer on his neck slowly choking him. Four instances of failures and weaknesses in the justice system in as many weeks, and also glimpses into the all-too-common experience of black and brown people, most of which aren’t captured on video and don’t become headlines. Anxieties, fears, and anger already rising, reached a new level.  Most of that energy has been righteous, and some, admittedly, destructive. Protests, which started peacefully, now get out of hand. We struggle to know who is responsible for what behaviors, as it seems extremists on both ends of the spectrum want to capitalize on a moment in history for their own gains, either to make a hated group look bad, or to bring the whole system to its knees. Amid scenes of looting from stores, we have to wade through narratives that also show the looting of a movement for some other gain. It’s a process that isn’t over. It’s ongoing right now.

RAM3 6 3 2020I do not condone violent protests and rioting. Certainly not by the imposters who are causing trouble for trouble’s sake, but neither do I condone it from those who start out as peaceful protestors. I subscribe to the way of non-violent resistance.  And yet I do understand how anger can turn violent. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, without condoning it – he was consistent in his calls for, and example of non-violence, “rioting is the language of the unheard.” This is true for those seeking racial reform and on many other fronts as well. We know this, and yet we still don’t condone it. But, the truth is that peaceful protests don’t seem to get the message through either. For example, if we have said something to the effect of, “It’s terrible that these things are happening to black people, but there’s no excuse for damaging property,” we’ve gotten our gospel priorities backwards. And we might be doing it right now.

Instead, the comment might better be made, “It’s terrible that property is being damaged, but there’s no excuse for the deaths of black people in these and similar instances.” It’s a slight difference, but an important one for those who take seriously Jesus and the Church’s millennia-old mandate to love God and love neighbor. Both are manifestations of sin, but that which destroys God’s children is always what will grieve the heart of God first, as near as I can tell.  Even Jesus, faced with institutional injustice that harmed God’s children, was known to destroy a marketplace. That doesn’t mean we should begin condoning violent protests and riots, but it does invite us to check where our priorities lay. This is work we can and must do today.

Monday night brought another element into this mix for me and for the Church. St. John’s Episcopal, Lafayette Square, the historic “Church of the Presidents” was in the news one night for a basement fire set by rioters, and the next night because of the way peaceful protestors were cleared from the area for a photo-op as police used tear gas (or copious “pepper balls”), flash grenades, and possibly rubber bullets. For information on this event I don’t have to rely on news reports. I know people who were there; priests I served with in the Diocese of Washington, before I came to Georgia. They were on the ground at St. John’s, participating in a peaceful protest and offering care to those who needed it. Their first-hand accounts, shared throughout the night on Monday, on social media, are making the rounds. One of my friend’s posts was shared more than 190,000 times on Facebook. Their voices are adding to the growing chorus of calls for justice, a chorus still growing louder today.

Yes, we need to do something to prevent widespread damage and destruction. No one who is sane and loves this country wants to see it devolve into chaos. No one who has a heart for love wants to see protestors or police officers hurt. The killings of George Floyd and others by police do not mean that killing or harming police officers is the appropriate response. A few bad cops should not make all police guilty by association, nor should the actions of a few horrible protestors make all protestors guilty by association, nor should the actions of one criminal be applied to an entire group of people who look similar. Most importantly, no death can dismiss the tremendous grief of any other. It’s all antithetical to the ways of God’s Kingdom. It was when Jesus was killed, and it is today.  

It’s also very personal for me. I saw a headline yesterday morning that a police officer in a major US city was killed the night before, after being shot in the head at a riot. My immediate thought was for my first cousin, who serves as a police officer in that same city. He’s safe, for now, but he’s back on duty today in uncertain and dangerous times with even greater tension in his community. I don’t want to see anything bad happen to him, or to anyone as this crisis continues. I have black friends for whom I am worried and concerned, and I have two family members in law enforcement for whom I am worried and concerned. I find it’s possible to love and respect them all, even now.  

In the days ahead, we don’t need grandstanding and propaganda. We need de-escalation and courageous willingness to talk with one another and listen to what each other is saying. We need to seek unity and understanding with others, particularly those who look and think differently than we do. We need to resist the temptation to subscribe to easy answers and the blame game. We need to support good, moral leaders and raise up even more. We need to confess the sin of institutional racism and other “isms” that grieve the heart of God. We need to admit that enough is enough and it’s time for reform, reform that will save lives and allow us to live into our Baptismal Covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” And we need the gospel. We need it to be preached, but more importantly we need it to be lived out. That gospel says that God loves all of God’s children and offers us new life together in Christ. That new life is marked by generosity, peace, justice, and love, and it is meant to be shared. When people of generosity, peace, justice, and love mobilize in word and deed, they change the world, empires and all. 

It’s time. Now.   

Tom+

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored,
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

 

We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
And we'll guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride,
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior,
the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the
great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body
and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith,
one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all
of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth
and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and
one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.  BCP p. 818

Photo Credits:  Diocesan Clergy and Bishop at Savannah protest, via DoGA FB Page; Glynn County Episcopalians at Ahmaud Arbery protest, via Fr. Tom. 

Christ Church Frederica
Christ Church Frederica

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Christ Church, Frederica
6329 Frederica Rd.
St. Simons Island, GA 31522

(912) 638-8683