“Let there be a moratorium on such preaching!”

Legalists and antinomians are equally guilty of hermeneutical gerrymandering to annex New Testament texts to foreign modes of ethical discourse. Christian preachers, at least since the time of Clement of Alexandria, have preached hundreds of thousands of disastrous sermons that say, in effect, ‘Now the text says x, but of course it couldn’t really mean that, so we must see the underlying principle to which it points, which is y.’ Let there be a moratorium on such preaching! The New Testament’s ethical imperatives are either normative at the level of their own claim, or they are invalid.”

– Richard B. Hays in his classic The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

“…a cog in the machine of a racist hierarchy.”

In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy.

These two sentences, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a moving article about Nina Simone, perfectly summarizes why neutrality isn’t an option when it comes to racial injustice. The options are few: we resist or we collude.

“…a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.”

Most Americans see inequality – and the racial habits that give it life – as aberrations, ways we fail to live up to the idea of America. But we’re wrong. Inequality and racial habits are part of the American Idea. They are not symptoms of bad, racist people who fail to live up to pristine ideals. We are, in the end, what we do. And this is the society we have all made. So much so that we have a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.

-From the first chapter of Eddie S. Glaude Jr’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. A church member told me about the book yesterday after our service and I picked it up this morning. Glaude has quickly sucked me in- he’s precise and truthful in a way that, as I’m reading, feels notable for how rare such clear writing about our current racial and political moment usually is.  Another quote to give you a sense of this:

Opportunity deserts are the racial underside of a society that has turned its back on poor people, especially poor black people. This indifference allows most white Americans to be willfully ignorant of what happens in such places and to ignore the history of racism in this country that has consigned so many black people to poverty with little to no chance of escaping it. Most white Americans never go there – literally or metaphorically – and have a hard time imagining that such places exist.

“…carry the cross willingly…”

If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering, but here there shall be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one. Do you expect to escape what no mortal man can ever avoid? Which of the saints was without a cross or trial on this earth? Not even Jesus Christ, our Lord, Whose every hour on earth knew the pain of His passion. “It behooveth Christ to suffer,and to rise again from the dead, . . . and so enter into his glory. How is it that you look for another way than this, the royal way of the holy cross?

The whole life of Christ was a cross and a martyrdom, and do you seek rest and enjoyment for yourself? You deceive yourself, you are mistaken if you seek anything but to suffer, for this mortal life is full of miseries and marked with crosses on all sides. Indeed, the more spiritual progress a person makes, so much heavier will he frequently find the cross, because as his love increases, the pain of his exile also increases.

Yet such a man, though afflicted in many ways, is not without hope of consolation, because he knows that great reward is coming to him for bearing his cross. And when he carries it willingly, every pang of tribulation is changed into hope of solace from God. Besides, the more the flesh is distressed by affliction, so much the more is the spirit strengthened by inward grace. Not infrequently a man is so strengthened by his love of trials and hardship in his desire to conform to the cross of Christ, that he does not wish to be without sorrow or pain, since he believes he will be the more acceptable to God if he is able to endure more and more grievous things for His sake.

It is the grace of Christ, and not the virtue of man, which can and does bring it about that through fervor of spirit frail flesh learns to love and to gain what it naturally hates and shuns.

-Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, chapter 12.

“A deeply segregated church does not appear without history.”

Self-absorbed Christians who are apathetic toward injustice do not emerge from a vacuum. A deeply segregated church does not appear without history. In the United States, grief and pain related to race are often suppressed, and the stories of suffering are often untold. Our history is incomplete. The painful stories of the suffering of the African American community, in particular, remain hidden. Often, American Christians may even deny the narrative of suffering, claiming that things weren’t so bad for the slaves or that at least the African Americans had the chance to convert to Christianity. The story of suffering is often swept under the rug in order not to create discomfort or bad feelings. Lament is denied because the dead body in front of us is being denied. But the funeral dirge genre of Lamentations 1 requires the telling of the full story of death – the cause of that death, the history surrounding that death and the historical effects of that death – because a dead body cannot be ignored.

In this section of his essay-like commentary on Lamentations, Dr Soong-Chan Rah is reflecting on the imagery of the funeral dirge that is found at the beginning of the book. While the tendency to downplay our country’s historic racist underpinnings may be an understandable American practice, it is a distinctly unBiblical one. For Christians to overlook or deny our ugly history requires ignoring entire sections of the Bible that make practices like lament and repentance normal for those who worship the God of Scripture.

“The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended…”

The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended; it is accelerating. The movement of those forty million Europeans to the North American continent was only the beginning. There is not place on the globe today that can stand secure and changeless. It is all changing. It is changing before our eyes. No one can predict what will happen to global culture in even the near future. If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.

-Zenos Hawkinson in a sermon in 1978. Hawkinson was a history professor at my denomination’s college and he was addressing a people with strong immigrant memories.

“…we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.”

We can appropriate and in some fashion use godly powers, but we cannot use them safely, and we cannot control the results. That is to say that the human condition remains for us what it was for Homer and the authors of the Bible. Now that we have brought such enormous powers to our aid (we hope), it seems more necessary than ever to observe how inexorably the human condition still contains us. We only do what humans can do, and our machines, however they may appear to enlarge our possibilities, are invariably infected with our limitations. Sometimes, in enlarging our possibilities, they narrow our limits and leave us more powerful but less content, less safe, and less free. The mechanical means by which we propose to escape the human condition only extends it; thinking to transcend our definition as fallen creatures, we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.

-Wendell Berry, “Two Economies” (1983).