This has been a pretty shitty couple of weeks. Let’s just admit that. The prevalence of death and our pornographic consumption thereof is sickening, and there is simply no way around that.
Although I have spent the last two weeks on a much-needed vacation, I have been inundated with questions from parishioners about what we can do in the face of such evil. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on this very topic (“From Chained to Changed”) wherein I mused about the fact that I am often stuck in the quandary of that same question but that I also feel compelled to continue to speak the Gospel into the world in need of poetry and reminders of resurrection.
In the wake of the recent incidents of police brutality enacted upon black bodies and the mass-shooting in Dallas, Texas which claimed the lives of 5 law enforcement officers, I am clear about one thing the Church needs to stop doing – press conferences and vigils, at least as we have been doing them. The world does not need our words if they fail to frame action. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are too often characterized by a “high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” This might be my spiritual and emotional fatigue talking, but I am tired of press conferences and vigils. I no longer attend them and I feel as though I have a moral obligation to speak against the symbolism we settle for when the world needs actual transformation. I have heard more than a few milquetoast sermons with vapid appeals for unity all the while decrying violence without seeking to understand and ameliorate the causes of the violence in the first place. We can offer our broken world more than symbols or else the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not worth the paper it is printed on. We have been flying far beneath our potential and capacity to impact this world. We can do better.
One of the biggest theological jumps I had to make when I transitioned into the Episcopal Church was with the idea of the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist. While Episcopalians do not often delve into the Aristotelian physics of Transubstantiation that our Roman Catholic friends might, we do affirm the actual presence of Christ in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. They are not mere symbols of Christ; they are Christ. This was and remains important for me because symbols only take us so far. Symbols point is in the general direction, but actual presence brings us face-to-face with the transformation we need but desperately wish to avoid. When Jesus gives his infamous “drink my blood” and “eat my flesh” rant in John’s Gospel, he pushes people beyond their comfort zones. He pushes some people so far that they discern that following Christ is not for them. One message we might glean from that interaction is that participation in Christ is to be pushed where we do not wish to go, but must go for the sake of the Gospel and the world.
Our symbolic shows of solidarity with hurting communities are a great start, but unless we follow that up with actual, tactile action, we are nothing more than spiritual placebos in a world in desperate need of open-heart surgery. Holding hands across racial lines and singing “We Shall Overcome” is a wonderful visual, but unless we follow that up with renewed efforts to dismantle systemic and institutional racism in our midst, reinvigorate our need for diversity and anti-bias training, engage communities across racial lines when cameras are not present, diversifying our leadership, and organizing our communities around issues of racial justice, our songs are meaningless. Subtract race and add any other type of difference – sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, class, religion – and the truth remains the same. There is so much more that we can do. Settling for mere symbols of reconciliation and unity only sets us up to repeat the cycles of dis-ease and un-health.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is quoted as having once said,
I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.
Jesus’ initial sermon in Luke’s Gospel makes clear what he is about – good news to the poor, healing to those who are broken, sight to the blind, release to prisoners, and liberty to those who are oppressed. I wonder if we are not guilty of ignoring hungry people for the sake of the comfort of our symbols. People are asking for bread and we are giving them our “thoughts and prayers.” Our sacred spaces can no longer be safe places. The world needs transformed people to engage in a different, redeeming narrative of actual healing and wholeness. We need to challenge and be challenged. We need to speak and listen. We need to grow and learn.
We can do more. We must do more.
The internet is filled with resources of how communities of faith can do something. Campaign Zero, curated by activists Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, Deray McKesson, Samuel Sinyangwe, and Brittany Packnett, has clear policy solutions that would address police brutality. What would it mean for churches to study these policy solutions and petition legislators? I have seen churches who have taken it upon themselves to engage book studies using books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. I have witnessed communities of faith following prayer vigils with intentional engagement with communities across some type of difference in order to build relationships and learn from one another. I have seen Christian Formation that centers a certain issue plaguing our society with conversation and dialogue around how local communities might address it. I have seen churches work with local community organizers to educate local congregations on important issues. The Episcopal Church has curated a list of Resources for Racial Reconciliation and Justice. Other denominations have similar offices. Other writers have collected resources to help white communities listen and learn about racism.
Change is not just going to happen. Peace and justice are not just going to fall out of the sky. We have to be intentional about the world we desire to create. Highlighting best practices for other communities to emulate might be a good place to start. If your church is not doing anything or you feel as they are not doing or saying enough, talk to your clergy or lay leadership. Challenge them on the lack of responsiveness.
But for God’s sake, can we please stop the feckless rituals of mourning? We can not simply become the consumers of human grief when we are called to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor.
There is so much more that we can do if we begin with prayer and solidarity and then move toward concrete, measurable, achievable action. Symbols be damned; the world needs salvation.
The only other option we have is to save the bulletin templates for our prayer vigils and manuscripts from our press conferences with blank spaces for future names to be added because we will be doing them over and over again.
Shock. Pray. Repeat.
I, for one, am tired of it.
We owe each other more than this.