A number of you have asked whether I’d be able to post my homily from yesterday, July 19. Here it is, with thanks:
“Those who are just must be kind.”
I hope you’ve had a chance to read our own Mary Leisring’s essay about her experiences on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Sunday, March 7, 1965 – forever known as Bloody Sunday. Not long after beginning a civil rights march to the Alabama state capitol at Montgomery, she and 600 other peaceable and unarmed protesters were viciously attacked by Alabama State Troopers and private militiamen. There were many injuries in the ensuing chaos. Mary Leisring herself was bitten by a police dog. And the skull of a 28 year old man from Troy, Alabama was fractured by a trooper’s baton. That man was John Lewis. He passed away last Friday. He was as great an American as ever lived. An apostle of nonviolence, he understood that a victory won by violent means was no victory at all. He served with honor and integrity in the United States House of Representatives for 33 years and was called the Conscience of the Congress – a daunting job title if ever there was one. His was a life well-lived.
Which is what each one of us is called to: a life well-lived. We were created in the image and likeness of God, and we were given the freedom to choose. That’s a gift that at times can become an agony. God will not force the human spirit. The enemy of humankind cannot force the human spirit. And God is merciful. God is mercy itself. We are given chance after chance to bear good fruit: a lifetime of chances. And chance after chance to repent, turn to God and make amends. But there are expectations, and in the end, you either measure up or you don’t. You’ve either done your best or you haven’t. That’s what we mean by a life well-lived.
You know there’s a standard. There is a standard, because morality and integrity are real and objective things. The moral life is not easy, but moral norms can be known and understood. There is a difference between good fruit and bad fruit. You don’t go to the store and come back with peaches that are all hard and unyielding. You bite into an apple and find a worm? You’re not going to finish the apple.
As I have said, this time in American history is God’s gift. Things that we thought would never come together have come together. There is a sense in which time itself has stopped. There is a sense in which our choices have become clear.
Americans have been given the time to learn our history and to learn from our history. Because they have held the power, white Americans in particular have a particular responsibility to learn from the whole of American history. We all of us have the chance to right the grievous wrongs of the past – and by the past I mean everything up until and including this morning.
Times like these are fraught. This is a blessed time in our history, but there is nothing about it that is easy. We are called to conversion and we must not let this moment pass. We’re called to learn and understand hard truths – not as a means of making people feel guilty about things that happened before they were born but as a means of learning why things are the way they are right now and today. We don’t have time to waste. In fact the times are filled with urgency on any number of fronts: Urgency about climate change, urgency about the wearing of masks, and certainly urgency with respect to the cardinal sin of racism – and, in our particular American context, racism driven by the love of gain. Please hear it again: Slavery was an economic institution; capitalism at its most destructive. Distinctions based upon race are distinctions that have no basis in fact. As concepts, race and racism were created to justify the economic institution of slavery. And men like Thomas Jefferson knew that the choice before them was clear: profit or justice. And men like Thomas Jefferson chose profit, again and again, until they could choose no longer.
Winner-take-all capitalism did not end in 1865. It thrives even today. Neither did slavery end in 1865; it merely changed in form like some unholy shape-shifter. That’s because the 13thAmendment contains a loophole. I don’t know that it was intended as a loophole, but it has served as one. Although I’m sure we could all recite it from memory, here are the words: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States.” That language “except as a punishment for crime” became a loophole when the formerly enslaved were arrested on trumped-up charges and again placed in bondage. Their crimes? Being in debt, or vagrancy, or loitering or changing employers without permission or talking loudly in the presence of white women. Tried and convicted by sham courts with corrupt judges, men and women alike were sentenced to hard labor in mines and factories and quarries and lumber mills, operated by state and local governments, corporations, small businesses and private citizens. Men and women were traded and bought and sold as surely as if they had been enslaved. The goal? Cheap labor, and the suppression of the aspirations of Black Americans through fear and intimidation – so as to maintain a ready supply of cheap labor. There’s your domestic terrorism. This particular system of forced labor began shortly after the end of the Civil War and developed and grew until its back was broken by the need for soldiers to fight in the Second World War.
And that’s hardly the whole of the story. When people speak of systemic racism and racism written into the fabric of American life they’re talking about lynching and poll taxes and literacy tests and red-lining and urban renewal and gerrymandering and “cleaning up the voter rolls” and payday loans and sitting in back of the church or sitting in the back of this church or sitting in the back of the bus and unfair and discriminatory lending practices and private streets and Jim Crow and mandatory minimum sentencing and the war on drugs and do you begin to see what people mean when they talk about systemic and institutionalized racism?
Voting. Another part of the system. Particularly relevant as we look toward November. There’s nothing new about rigged elections. People have been rigging elections for as long as there have been elections. White Americans have been trying to keep Black Americans from voting since the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. They’re still at it. In a particularly stinging example of irony, people who should know better are rigging elections in the name of preventing voter fraud: Trying to keep Americans of color from voting; trying to make sure that the votes of one party don’t count. And all the while believing themselves to be decent, everyday human beings, oriented to the good.
The problem with systemic racism is that it’s a system. You’re born into it and it just seems like the way things are. If you’re born into a culture that views an entire group of people as physically, spiritually, intellectually and morally inferior then prejudice and exploitation seem like perfectly reasonable ways of proceeding. Perfectly reasonable, but wrong and even Satanic. Satanic because that’s how the enemy of humankind does his best work: quietly, behind the scenes, in the everyday, getting decent human beings to participate in the work of racism just by living their lives. Subtle, secret, hidden in plain sight: That’s how evil works. The Hollywood stuff with pitchforks and sulfur and howling demons with cloven hooves? Forget it. That approach would never work, for few and far between are those who would choose evil when they recognize it for what it is. Which is why the enemy of humankind traffics in confusion and ignorance.
So we go along, living our lives, believing things to be more or less fine, and then by the grace of God something happens and the scales fall away from our eyes and we see things as they are. That’s the power of God, a bolt of lightning in the night, bringing clarity of vision and understanding.
“Those who are just must be kind.” Those who are just must also be merciful, as God is merciful. Indeed we depend on mercy, though we never take mercy for granted. Perfection is beyond us. We make mistakes. We get things wrong. And yet we are called to live in God’s beneficent light and to bear good fruit as we can. And to encourage one another and to work together to build the Kingdom. We are not alone and we cannot do it alone: Not on earth and not in heaven. As we heard in today’s passage from Romans: “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness.”
The well-lived life is a life well-lived. The well-lived life is moment after moment of striving to do your best. Those moments of clarity are gifts – uncomfortable gifts at times but gifts nonetheless, for in those moments of clarity the “Spirit has come to the aid of our weakness.” Brothers and sisters, let us rejoice in this moment. Let us welcome the Spirit, for it is in the Spirit that we are beloved and redeemed. The very possibility of redemption is God’s gift, and indeed there is no person on earth who is not worthy of redemption. There is no person on earth who does not have the potential for conversion and change. Because we are beloved, we can change. Praise God.