It was a few days more than twenty-five years that I made what I think was a conscious choice, though God may have made it for me. I was considering, heck, I was planning on and designing most of my activity around, running for political office in Indiana in 1996, which might well have been as unsuccessful as the first two times, 1990 and 1992, I had tried. At the same time, I was also trying to do more to serve Christ’s Church as a layman, when I figuratively threw up my hands and said, “OK, God, I give.”
And I have never regretted making that choice, though at times it is difficult not to wade back into the political — as far too many ministers and church organization people do, though I hardly oppose parishioners being as political as their good sense and faith will permit.
As I believe I have said more than once, it was an overly politically expressive Methodist minister at the University of Illinois, a truly fine preacher, may he rest in peace, who drove me away from attending church for almost two years, and made me articulate to myself a theology of preaching that I later found to be, I believe, a very Calvinist, if not today, Presbyterian, idea: “Whatever I might preach, if people hear the Word,” which is to say, “If people feel their relation with Jesus and with God stronger after I preach,” then “I must trust that they will exercise their faith in the decisions they make and in what they do even if it is not what I might have wanted them to do.”
Perhaps it is because fewer people today sit in the pews at Presbyterian churches than they did back when I was a Methodist, or whatever, but as I read denominational emails and the like, I do not seem to find others who agree with this preaching theology. Indeed, whereas I want the church to be appealing to individuals to let Christ into their hearts and improve the world that way, many in the denomination, as do so many in the public, increasingly turn to government and politics for, well, for achieving that which they believe good people should do, something for which I believe government is not particularly well suited.
That is perhaps an overly kind way of stating the matter, since, remarkably often, the denomination parrots one party’s political perspective over another’s, and seldom, if ever, calls for the dialogue between or among different understandings of how best to do God’s will that I believe is at the heart of the Calvinist ideal. Nor does the denomination often preface its involvement in political issues with specific appeals as to what our faith might teach.
Perhaps I am being too harsh.
The particular situation that touches off this bit of a rant in the form of a sermon opening is what on the one hand might be good-faith self-flagellation, but on the other hand might be simply defensive self-righteousness or defeatism on the part of some colleagues whom I respect, as they try to deal with the much-in-focus-now but enduring problem of racism. Racism.
Racism or its sister, tribalism, is as old as the hills. In today’s reading from Genesis, we encountered Abraham and Sarah before their son, Isaac, is born. Later, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, gives us our first instance of racism or tribalism when she does not want her son, Jacob, to marry one of the “local girls,” one of the Hittites. 3700 years later, I certainly agree that racism is a major problem in our country and in the world, but today few doubt but that laws on the books in this nation now capably provide for racial equality, for equal justice before the law no matter one’s race, however imperfectly humans might implement it.
There are some good ideas as to how that implementation might be made better, but no one is offering any ideas that I have heard as to how government has the answer to ending racism itself. There might be some ways in which government can be helpful — and forgive me, but with hindsight, I believe court-ordered ethnic diversity in public schools can be really helpful — there might be some ways in which government can be helpful, but . . . and here I risk getting bludgeoned by those not here who might chance upon my words without paying attention to what I am saying . . . racism is not a structural or systemic problem; it is a problem of sin!
. . . or more particularly, of human sinfulness resulting from the fact that we are, as Psalm 8 last week told us, “made a little less than gods.”
Laura Hoffman says I do not talk about sin enough, though as you know I am adamant about confession as a necessary element of worship, and one reason I do not talk about sin more is because, as I tell her, there are limits to my hypocrisy: I hesitate to talk to others about their sins, because I am not being falsely humble when I say that I am pained by, yet not adequately free from, my own sins, from my own continued sinning.
No; I do not usually talk about specific sins, but I do speak regularly in a positive and encouraging manner about loving all of our neighbors, and I emphasize both that everyone is our neighbor, and, to the occasional but diminishing chagrin of some, that there is not a human being ever made who was not or is not a child of God and whom we are not called to love. (That an agnostic denies that there is a god does not mean the agnostic created him- or her-self; he or she is simply ignorant of the fact.) We care for everyone; our weekly pastoral prayers explicitly ask for everyone in the world to know the peace, joy, justice and the special abundance that we find in Jesus Christ. And I believe that, at least when I am around them, at least when they are within the walls of a church I serve, my congregants, my church families, follow what I preach, and they embrace everyone who enters our places of worship, and that includes people of different skin colors from the majority who are there, who are here. Though they are fewer in number than we might hope, members of minorities within our congregations know they are loved by all.
And that is the way it should be!
“But, John, what then is the sin to which you refer when you talk about ‘racism’ as sin?” And the answer is quite straight forward. As our Lord said in so many words, there are two great commandments, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” and you will forgive me if for the moment I ignore the second part of “Love your neighbor,” the “as yourself” bit; the particular passage in the original Hebrew of the Book of Leviticus is a mess, and I often state that I think (based in part on parallel structure with a command a bit later in the same chapter) that the “as yourself” means “as you, yourself, are loved by God,” and I shall never stop repeating that idea.
And as we say over and over, “love your neighbor” is not touchy-feely; in words designed a bit to bite into my colleagues, “love your neighbor” is more engineering than liberal arts; it is about doing and treating and not about feeling — nor even about motivation.
In contemporary, real world terms with necessary immediacy, the commandment includes Treating African Americans [and all others] the same as we treat our closest friends and members of our own families … and some of us are now blessed with African Americans within our families or as closest friends, and know that we can love them in the touchy-feely, “liberal arts” sense, as well.
But not to treat another person as one would treat one of one’s own skin color or religion or national origin or political persuasion as one would treat one’s own family, well, that is sin, the sin of omission, the sin of failing to “Love your neighbor.” We might think that the in-law whose politics are anathema to us is an idiot, but we should never treat him or her other than with Christian charity and consideration and acceptance as a fellow child of God.
To do otherwise is sin, and the Church with a capital “C” and the denomination with all of its small “c” churches has failed to teach that aspect of sin adequately.
And I must emphasize: we, you and I, do not avoid sin because we are afraid of hell; most of you know I do not believe in a literal hell; we seek to avoid sin because we want to show our love for God and our thanks for what God through Jesus has done for us.
There has been tremendous progress made in race relations in this country. I saw it in my own parents, when, to their then dismay and disapproval, a great-grandson was born out-of-wedlock — and with an African American mother! Within two years, they were completely won over by him. (Sadly, his mother has never been part of his life; he was raised by my nephew and my sister, and we all — including this ex-engineer — love him dearly and in the best liberal arts sense.)
Government has played its necessary part, I believe, in achieving legal equality. When citizens’ attitudes on not loving Black Americans denied them equal education, equal access to public transportation, equal access to jobs and public facilities and housing and the list goes on and on, it took quite a while, but laws were added or changed. Christian clergy and Christians have played and continue to play a significant role in getting people to support these changes. Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 school desegregation case, was over-my-head in 1954; I was only in fifth grade. But I remember well the fall of 1957, as I was entering my freshman year in high school, when President Eisenhower did use the Army to make sure the governor of Arkansas, Orville Faubus, had no choice but to allow the schools in Little Rock to be integrated; that the schools had been segregated reflected the sins of generations of people of that state — sins shared perhaps by the majority of White Americans.
Separate schools based on race, like slavery, are a historical embarrassment; racism itself is more than an embarrassment; it is sin — and slavery and race-based schools were sinful! Racism is the sin of not loving as we were told to love, and it is the calling of the Church of Jesus Christ, not to have an office in Washington, D.C. lobbying the government, but to preach the love of God made human in Jesus Christ to those who have not yet adequately accepted Him into their hearts, and who thus do not know and accept that we are called to share His love with all, with all of God’s creatures. The work of the Church will never be over until we can bring all of humanity to being His followers.
That “all of humanity” might sound a bit more “orthodox” Christian than I sound normally; I certainly respect our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, who I dare say are probably more embracing of racial equality than are many who call ourselves “Christian.” There are plenty in the numbers marching for the myriad of causes, some understandable, some nonsensical, that have occurred in the aftermath of the specific police brutality resulting in the homicide of George Floyd, plenty of people who have no religion whatsoever who do accept that people of all races from the very fact of their being human are deserving of equal treatment and justice.
Not only people of faith can be “good” people
And tragically and criminally, of course, enough of them have no problem looting and doing violence against others to cause some to disregard the more honorable. I have told before of one of the non-sequiturs of driving on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1968 when some would shout in the same sequence, in the same breath, “The streets belong to the people” and “Off the pig!” “Off the pig!” meant “kill the police,” the same police who were patrolling those streets to protect those shouting.
The real love God has shown to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, once we grasp it, calls us, allows us, entitles us to love others as part of our own family, and not to settle for simply saying it but for living it out in how we regard them and how we treat them.
Identity politics is highly unfortunate, I would almost argue, “evil,” because it is so counter to the great dream of a great Christian, Martin Luther King and misses the point of the commandment; no one should be judged on the color of his or her skin, and no one should ever be treated differently by any Christian — or by the government — because of the color of his or her skin. To do so is not to love one’s neighbor as one’s self; it is sin.
Human sinfulness in the form of violence and “lusting after another’s possessions,” to be “Ten Commandments-y” about it, is the reason we have government. But abolition of sinfulness is not the province of, not within the power of, government; it is within the province of Christ’s Church. Let us be faithful followers and obedient —by which I mean, obedient to those two great commandments — obedient servants of its Lord by whom we are called, again as we read last week from the Gospel According to Matthew, called to make disciples, followers, of all people.
And in His name, the name of Jesus. Amen.