Make Babylon Great Again

The delusion of mistaking our exile for home.

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Credit: Thomas Hawk

On Sunday I began a preaching series called Thriving in Exile. The premise is simple: Much of the time in Scripture God’s people are experiencing exile – having been sent or kept away from their homeland – and must wrestle with the inevitable theological and practical questions of an exilic experience. While the exile’s desire is always to return home – or, for the Christian, to experience finally what Paul calls our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) – often God promises not a quick exit from exile but a flourishing life in exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is probably the best-known example as seen in Jeremiah 29.

Preaching about the experience of exile in a multi-racial church provides an interesting challenge for the different ways members have experienced their place in this country. For many of us who are white, our general posture toward the USA has been hopeful. We have felt at home in the land of the free. Our experience of Christianity has usually done little to challenge our deep affinity with the country. If anything, certain types of white Christianity have, at different times, identified certain moral concerns as a means of describing our cultural marginalization. Public school desegregation, school prayer, and contraceptive mandates have each functioned as rallying cries for communities that perceive themselves to be besieged.

Then there are those in our congregation who’ve never once mistaken this country to be their homeland. More than once, mostly from black members but not only, I’ve heard laments about how this nation has communicated dangerous disdain toward certain of its citizens. The biblical description of exile – in the cries of the psalmists, the questions of the prophets, and the experiences of the early Christians – resonate with their own experiences in a land that has made of them permanent exiles in this world.

There’s a difference, then, in how we hear Jesus’ promise in John 15:18 that his followers will experience the same hate he knew. Those who’ve made this nation our home, despite its deadly treatment of those who share our faith but not our race, will be tempted to hear a vague spiritual threat to our individual rights or happiness. But to those who’ve known their exilic status in this place, Jesus’ warning holds the potential for great peace. The one who outlined our exile in this life was himself despised, rejected, and made to suffer. Those who’ve never been confused about their homeland are the guides to thriving in our exile, to identifying with the despised One who makes available to us the abundant life, even here and now.

Thinking this Babylon to be our home has led many of us to fight for power in ways that damage not only our Christian reputation but the very lives of our fellow Christians. Our long battle to Make America Great Again has been a mistake greater than many of us are willing to imagine much less one for which we will consider repenting. But time remains and friendship with the crucified Lord and his exiled children remains a possibility for all who will come to embrace exile.

“Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.”

Moore: You argue that our understanding of the judgment of God has become untethered to His love. Kindly unpack that some for us.

Rutledge: Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious that our culture despises “judgment” above all things. There is hardly any room for discernment or connoisseurship any more. If you love Bach more than you love crossover thrash, you’re an elitist and not worthy of a hearing. When you hear that a person is “judgmental” you know that’s a crushing judgment on that person (yes, the irony is deliberate). It’s not easy in today’s culture to show how the judgment that crushes is the judgment that heals and restores—not only restores, but indeed “makes all things new.” So preachers and teachers of the Christian faith must be tireless in illustrating how the necessary judgment of God upon evil is a facet of his all-embracing love and his conquest of all that is harmful to human flourishing. It’s not all that hard to illustrate if we work at looking for examples of how this works. Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.

– Interview With Fleming Rutledge on Scot McKnight’s blog.

Audacious Faith

A sermon about the requirement of active faith in the struggle for racial justice.

MLK350WikimediaTrikosko,_Marion_SOn August 16, 1967, less than a year before he was assassinated in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. King spoke to the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta in a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Toward the end of the speech, after recounting the many successes of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, King turns to more sobering realities.

And I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.

For King, in light of inevitable setbacks, audacious faith was a requirement in the pursuit of racial justice. The opposition was simply to great. He knew, theologically and experientially, that the spiritual powers of racial oppression would not relinquish without a fight. He understood that much of the time – maybe most of the time – it would seem like righteousness was losing, as though justice would remain out of grasp, as though hate would in fact overcome love. The fact of racist presidents and powerful economic interests opposing King’s beloved community did not come as a shock to him or to peers like Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, or Dianne Nash.

Likewise, perhaps we should not be shocked when we encounter such opposition today. The audacious faith that was necessary then is just as needed now.

King closes his speech by urging his colleagues to hang on to audacious faith.

Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” [Galatians 6:7] This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”

From a distinctly Christian perspective, King envisions how faith is to be embodied in the struggle for justice. He quotes from Galatians 6, the longer passage which reads:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. [Galatians 6:7-9]

Living by faith means far more than a one-time placing our faith in Jesus, though it includes this. And the life of faith means far, far more than waiting quietly through injustice until Jesus returns. The life of audacious faith, as described by King, is one of actively sowing, planting.

We sow in faith, actions and words that please the righteous Spirit of God. We sow the truth in times of deception. We sow solidarity when our neighbors are slandered. We sow compassion in the face of dehumanizing policies. We sow public protest in response to cover-ups and backroom deals. We sow reconciliation in the midst of purposeful segregation. We sow prayer and fasting, we sow Sabbath worship and rest, we sow joyful celebration and feasting… we sow, in other words, a vision of the Kingdom of God that is coming even now, on earth as it is in heaven. And we sow in faith.

All of this is an act of audacious faith because the reaping – the harvest of justice and righteousness – is not our responsibility. Only the holy and sovereign Creator God can bring in this harvest. We, through audacious faith, are simply called to sow.

But though our faith in God’s righteousness and justice may be audacious, it is not misplaced. Our faith is secure; our hope is assured. And so, despite what the circumstances of the present moment may claim, we must press on in faith. 

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Do not grow weary. Do not grow skeptical. Do not grow cynical. Do not grow bitter. Do not succumb to despair, to selfishness, to greed.

No, like the saints who’ve gone before us, I urge you to once again choose faith. Choose audacious faith. And then go from this place – not weary or despairing – but energized by the life-giving Spirit of Jesus to plant that audacious faith everywhere you go. Plant hope. Plant justice. Plant reconciliation. Plant forgiveness. Plant mercy. Plant grace. Plant truth. Plant love.

For in the power of God’s time we will reap a harvest – a harvest of righteousness and justice – if we do not give up.

“Her death, like her father’s to some extent, is another reminder of what it means to embody and to carry in the body the full experience of being Black in the United States.”

Ms. Garner’s death means much and it’s impossible for me to distance her death from her father’s death. They were two different people and if I can find one common line between them, it is, for me, that neither of them should have died when they died. Her death, like her father’s to some extent, is another reminder of what it means to embody and to carry in the body the full experience of being Black in the United States.

There is immense pleasure in being Black and there is a corresponding shadow side that is inexplicable despite the best linguistic tools. Death comes for everyone, and it seems that death comes so soon for those whose skin is along that gorgeous spectrum from cream to vanilla bean. The hands of those who are sworn to serve and protect or the low-lying pervasive threats of asthma and “high blood and sugar” as they were known in my childhood–the line of angels of death is long.

Michael Washington meditating on the death of Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner who was killed by the NYPD.

“Church is not a place where we go to profess our virtue, but one where we go to confess our lack of it.”

Yet if the church is an alternative polis, one of its chief characteristics is the striking failure to be a fully realized moral alternative. Because we receive the Gospel from human hands, our human selfishness and limitations—marked by sin and the pain that comes with it—constitute a significant part of our story. I have seen pinprick glimpses of unmitigated glory in the church, but I have also seen ignorance and self-satisfaction, abuse and oppression, selfishness, bullying, manipulation and all manner of viciousness. As a priest in the Anglican Communion, I’ve seen our entire denomination around the world divided over questions of biblical teaching around human sexuality and marriage. As a female priest, I’ve been publicly mocked and privately humiliated by men who not only oppose women’s ordination (a view from Scripture one could reasonably hold) but who are sexist and just plain mean.

Such examples are sometimes used to accuse the church of hypocrisy, but part of our witness as an alternative polis is that we admit we are failures but have received grace and offer forgiveness. Church is not a place where we go to profess our virtue, but one where we go to confess our lack of it. This is a fairly radical idea in our broader culture where, as theologian Martin Marty puts it, “everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.” For Christians, our very creeds claim that we fail to live up to that which we proclaim. Every week we kneel together in confession, abandoning any hope that we are the righteous ones, the ones on the “right side of history.” The church, says ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, is “first and foremost, a community of forgiven sinners gathered under the cross. Not a community that embodies the practices of perfection or that is simply separate from the world, but a body of believers who still live ‘in the flesh,’ who are still part of the world, suffering the transformations effected by God’s grace on its pilgrim way.”

“True Story” by Tish Harrison Warren in The Point.  A beautiful apologetic for church. You should read the entire thing.