Preaching Text: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (Romans 11:32)
Years ago I heard a story that probably isn’t true, but should be.
Supposedly there was a planned KKK rally in 1974 on the Boston Common in response to the court mandated desegregation of the Boston public school system by means of forced busing.
As the story goes, the public lined up along the proposed route the city had granted to the white supremacist group. But instead of responding with violence and outrage, the protestors simply laughed at the ridiculous conga line of miscreants and pinheads.
Again, I don’t know if this actually happened – I wasn’t there – but I hope it did. Either way, this strikes me as precisely the right sort of reaction to what was, even at that time, an outdated relic of our nation’s past.
By the time the 1970s had rolled around, this once-powerful group with roots going back to the Civil War was hard-pressed to garner much of a following anywhere in America. This publicity stunt, in other words, was just that, a publicity stunt.
Today, almost nobody supports the Klan or any other neo-Nazi group, regardless of what the media or our politicians tell us. The statistics prove it.
This is not to ignore their hateful philosophy or to deny the fact of slavery and its dehumanization of a whole race of people. But it must put in perspective. I simply do not believe there are vast swaths of our nation who hold to these views. Yet this is precisely what we’re being led to believe.
What troubles me perhaps more than anything is the way our culture is becoming a kind of tribal society prone to self-righteousness, “othering,” and, all too often, violence. Allow me to explain.
In the August 10th edition of the Washington Post, two days before the shocking events in Charlottesville, VA, there was an article featuring a photograph of a young couple who, we are told, self-identify as “anarchists.” The photo had all the markings of a glamour shot right out of the Style Section.
The woman is wearing a black bandana around her neck (that easily could be put over her face to mask her identity), while the man, wearing designer sunglasses, is casually brandishing a baseball bat on his shoulder.
The caption reads: “By day they are graphic designers, nonprofit workers and students. But outside their 9-to-5 jobs, they call themselves anarchists – bucking the system, shunning the government and sometimes even rioting and smashing windows to make a point.” Well isn’t that special?
They are part of the so-called Antifa group, short for “anti-fascist.”
This is the same group that, during the inauguration this past January, used wooden poles and pieces of concrete to break storefronts and smash newspaper boxes, this according to the indictment filed in D.C. Superior Court. More than 200 people were arrested and six police officers injured. City officials tallied the damage from the rioting at about $100,000.
The group also is generally believed to be responsible for the destruction and violence that occurred not long ago in Berkeley, Oakland, and even at my mother’s alma mater, Middlebury College, to name but a few.
And it was this same group that showed up at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Like the white supremacist group, eyewitnesses reported that the Antifa came with masks, baseball bats, firearms, shields, helmets, and fire spray cans. Though I heartily share their opposition to the white supremacists and their rhetoric, the intent of the Antifa was clearly not peaceful.
If the Post story is any indication, our culture is in danger of ‘mainstreaming’ violence, of endorsing mob-rule, as if such a thing should ever be deemed acceptable. As a Christian, I find this simply appalling.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, a pastoral letter was sent out from the national leadership of the U.C.C. I was truly saddened that the letter seemed to approve, tacitly if not overtly, the tactics of the Antifa.
“We confess,” the letter begins, “that the events in Charlottesville are systemic and communal expressions of white privilege and racism that continue to pervade our nation’s spiritual ethos.” It then goes on to identify various areas within American culture where such injustice presumably resides.
The statement then concludes, “Our local UCC churches must be true solidarity partners with those who march in the streets.” The letter goes on to urge the church to “resist, agitate, inform, and comfort.”
After reading this I thought again about the Joseph story we heard this morning. Many years after his brothers, with utter callousness and disregard, had sold him into slavery, Joseph confronts them.
What he does next simply astounds. Rather than seeking revenge and retribution, which he had every right to demand, he forgives them!
“[So] do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here…,” Joseph tells his stunned brothers. “[It] was not you who sent me here, but God…”
So I ask: does this story make any sense at all? What about Charlottesville?
That there was unconscionable cruelty during the years of slavery is indisputable, or should be. And that there was legal racism enshrined in the Jim Crow laws for the next hundred years after the Civil War is also indisputable.
To be honest, I don’t know what could ever possibly be done to erase or make up for that sort of injustice. Will taking down Confederate statues accomplish this? It might help a little, but would it be enough?
A few months ago, I spoke about an article we had read in the Forum. It was a brilliant diagnosis of the roots of the current culture of ‘victimology.’ The author argues that one of the effects of our increasingly secular society is that we’ve lost touch with the traditional religious means of obtaining forgiveness. In short, we no longer know what to do with our ever-burgeoning guilt.
Because our technological and scientific advancements have helped us to eliminate much suffering in the world, suffering our ancestors could never have avoided, we are tempted to think we can solve every human problem.
This, of course, is impossible. Which only compounds our guilt. If you combine the basic human desire for a clear conscience with the absence of any real means of obtaining it, what does one do with the mass of unresolved guilt that weighs heavily upon the human soul?
Thus, overwhelmed with guilt and without the means to eradicate it, we project it onto others. In our quest for justice, we ourselves are relieved of personal responsibility. Our conscience is clear. All injustice becomes the sole fault of others who are robbing us of the perfect world we rightly deserve.
In the concluding line from our reading in Romans today, Paul counters this way of thinking: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience,” he writes, “so that he may be merciful to all.”
None of us, in other words, is perfect. We all sin. And unless we admit the fact of our personal sin, God can’t show us the mercy we need and readily desire.
One of the hidden dangers of victimology (or benefits, depending on your point of view) is that it leads to self-righteousness.
Such self-righteousness (or false purity) causes us to “other” different people and groups. In this we fail to see what we have in common – sin. And because we think ourselves superior, it is much easier to denigrate and even demonize the ‘other.’ At worst this can lead to violence, where other people are seen as subhuman, evil, even expendable.
This past Wednesday, Mark Heyer, father of the young woman savagely run down by the white supremacist in Charlottesville, spoke at her memorial service.
Commenting on the man who had murdered his 32-year-old daughter, Heather, he said this: “I just think about what the Lord said on the cross,” he declared. “Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
He then went on to say that all sides need to learn how to forgive each other. “I think,” Heyer said, “[that] what the Lord would want us to do is to stop – just love one another.”
Not even Joseph, Paul, or Jesus could have said it more meaningfully. Amen.