“Is Hope Possible in the Wake of Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas?”
By Rev. Dr. Phil Snider
July 10, 2016
Brentwood Christian Church
We ended last week’s sermon by reflecting on how part of the way that good religion keeps an open mind is by believing that change, that hope, for ourselves and our world, is possible.
And then we had a week like we just had, which makes us wonder all the more if change is possible.
Today’s follow up sermon is on finding hope — it’s about how good religion is supposed to be hope-filled. It’s part of our summer sermon series; the themes for which have been planned for over three months. But who would’ve thought it would be so difficult to speak a word of hope on this day? Who would’ve guessed? Sometimes hope seems so hard to come by. As Langston Hughes wrote, “I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?”
Many of us have felt more despair than hope these last few days, these last few weeks. From the shootings in Orlando, to last week’s extra judicial killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to the killing of officers serving in the line of duty, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson, killed by sniper fire.
“I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?”
The kind of headlines we’ve been reading are the kind we expect to come out of Baghdad or Lebanon, maybe Jerusalem. But they are coming out of Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, and not long before that, headlines out of Stanford University. Sometimes it feels like more than we can bear.
The writer of Lamentations echoed the poetry of Hughes:
“My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground, because my people are destroyed.”
In many ways this state of affairs in America seems so “new” to me — but this newness simply reflects my naïveté and my privilege. My naïveté from the perspective of history [when in America have there not been struggles related to power, racism, violence, sexism, heteronormativity? — how many struggles have there been throughout American history that maybe weren’t captured and shared on social media but are just as real, from the violence of public lynchings to the behind the scenes violence of domestic abuse to the violence of perpetual warfare to the violence associated with the valorization of and obsession with military grade weaponry — from a historical perspective I have been naive].
But I’ve also been privileged, especially from the perspective of race and gender. Several years ago, when I was doing my doctoral work, I took a class on how ministers and churches can meaningfully respond to the racism that remains far too prevalent in our world. One of my colleagues in the class — an African-American minister — talked about how he stopped wearing football jerseys when driving to school, and switched to wearing ties, because it keeps him from getting pulled over as often. I had no idea. It was the first time I became aware of being pulled over for a DWB (Driving while black). Just a couple of years ago, Wes Pratt, who is also African American (many of you know him from his work at MSU), stood in our sanctuary during a panel discussion reflecting on the tragic death of Michael Brown, and he talked about how he had been in the car with a friend (another African American man) just a couple of weeks before, and they had been pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. Both officers had their guns out of their holsters, pointed at Wes and his friend.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been pulled over several times for minor traffic infractions, but never once has an officer even begun to draw his weapon. And while I may have been naive for most of my life, examples like these abound. These stories are just as much a part of the American experience as my own, but they are experiences that I don’t like to acknowledge because they make me feel uncomfortable, but they must be acknowledged. To hide from the kind of truths that one doesn’t personally experience doesn’t make the experiences of others any less real, just because they are not your own, and silence in the face of such experiences equates to complicity in, or at least the sanctioning of, the system that perpetuates them.
In many ways we are living under the conditions that make for a perfect storm. A history of racism — centuries and centuries of unfair treatment of brown and black bodies, coupled with a culture that has sold its soul to the myth of redemptive violence; with the near valorization of explicitly racist vernacular in recent public rhetoric; to the mistrust and lack of respect of people different than ourselves, “the others we don’t know”; to the rampant availability of military grade weapons that can lead to massive death tolls in a matter of minutes, which in turn leads people to be all the more defensive and on edge at all times, to fire first and ask questions later… It’s not all necessarily a history of our making but it is a history we’ve inherited, in which we live and move and have our being. And because we’ve inherited it, we are stewards of it. And history is still in the making (history is not what happened it is what we make happen) and we are left with the questions of what kind of history future generations will inherit, and what our responsibility is to them. This morning, the great great great great nephew of Robert E. Lee, the Rev. Rob Lee, will stand in his pulpit and say the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile because he knows American history needs to change.
This morning, let’s be clear: Jesus was another brown body executed by the powers of the state, that is true; but it’s also true that when Jesus’ disciple Peter drew his sword against the powers of the state, Jesus told him to put it away, saying that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” — for returning violence with violence, from Jesus’ perspective, was unequivocally and categorically wrong. That’s why so many protests against inequities and injustices draw on the ethics of the non-violent resistance which was described, demanded and enacted by Jesus. As Gandhi is credited as saying, “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” Last night at the Black Lives Matter rally on the Springfield square, one person who showed up had a sign that approved of the Dallas shootings, but the organizers quickly went to the press in order to say that does not represent the views of the BLM movement. As the official BLM Facebook account posted on Friday, the shootings in Dallas were unequivocally condemned, “Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it.”
So where is God in the midst of all of this?
The Christian tradition symbolically juxtaposes two things that don’t seem to go together — the cross, which is a site of death, and hope — or as St. Paul calls it, hope against hope.
The symbol of the cross stands for all places and all times in which life is unjustly taken, where all hope is lost, where the darkness is all we know.
Hope, as St. Paul describes, is hope against hope. In other words, it’s not hope when things look bright, when our chances look good, when we have good reason to be optimistic about the future. No, hope is only hope when we’ve been pushed to the brink, up against the wall, and all hope seems lost.
That’s why the cross is the central symbol of Christianity. The cross is a symbol of the place of hopelessness, yet, paradoxically, precisely the place in which we find God at work. While a lot of popular theologies these days like to talk about the cross only in terms of it representing the place where God forgives our sins by killing his son, we must understand that such an interpretation was largely shaped within the context of privileged classes and is primarily used to establish and reinforce privileged norms. It’s not the only theology of the cross.
An even older interpretation of the cross, and one that still finds a great deal of resonance today, especially in African American churches, is the cross as a sign of Gods identification with those who unjustly lose their lives, who are victimized and exploited and derided, often by the powers that be, and it’s a symbol that God unequivocally and categorically condemns unjust suffering and unjust blood being taken as a sacrifice that appeases the cultural norms of our day.
And, ultimately, this is the symbol St. Paul refers to when he says that nothing, not even death on the cross, can thwart the abiding and transforming love of God that is stronger than even the most unjust deaths in our world, a transforming love that will not rest until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. The cross provides hope because in the Christian gospel hope comes alive precisely when we expect it the least, God brings forth resurrection, when we thought all hope was lost.
This is not a cheap hope, or a shallow optimism. And it’s not just a sentimentalism (I love the hugs between police officers and BLM protestors, but interpersonal exchanges are not enough — for true hope to emerge in our future, systems and structures must change also). Hope is not the same as sentimentalism or optimism. As Cornel West describes, “optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Yet we know that the evidence does not look good. By contrast, hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of inequality, xenophobia, and despair. Only a new wave of vision, courage and hope can keep us sane — and preserve the decency and dignity requisite to revitalize our organizational energy for the work to be done. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” It’s been said that as human beings, we can light candles, or curse the darkness. As Christians, we light candles.
Because of the gravity of the last week, indeed, of the last few weeks, I often feel as if I don’t have words. So I’m drawn to prayer — not as a passive way of doing nothing about the violence and injustice — but out of the recognition that all of our best efforts often are not enough, and that we need help that comes from beyond ourselves. Prayer, at its most basic level, draws us out of ourselves toward the needs of the other. It’s not some sort of magical formula in which we ask God to grant our wishes, but it’s an act that centers us, that grounds us, so that we might focus on what matters most.
In prayer, we cry out to God with hopes and sighs and tears too deep for words…
– O God, in a world torn by violence — around the world and here in the U.S., we cry out for your help
– For the blood on the streets of Baton Rouge, we cry out
– For the blood on the streets of St. Paul, we cry out
– For the blood on the streets of Dallas, we cry out
– For the centuries of racism that threaten the very fabric of our being, for the stranglehold of fear and prejudice that too frequently lurks within, we cry out
– Deliver us, O God — from silence in the face of oppression, from the failure to treat black and brown bodies with the dignity they deserve, from actions that return violence with violence, that tear apart and destroy your beloved people
– O God, may your redemptive and liberating power move among us, as we long for your justice to flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream
After preaching this sermon, a friend sent me the following quote, which I think is apropos for Christianity as well: