Aug. 11, 2019
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
A conversation I had at General Synod has been playing in my mind lately and especially in light of the latest mass shootings that our country has suffered. The woman’s name was January, and I confess that I’m not even sure if she would identify as female or if “she” is even the correct pronoun. So, my apologies to January if I’ve gotten that wrong.
We both were assigned to the committee charged with recommending or not recommending to the plenary a resolution that sought to prohibit the “Faithful and Welcoming” group and other groups whose stated priorities conflict with officially adopted denominational statements from hosting displays at the exhibit floor. Though the UCC is “Open and Affirming,” meaning completely inclusive regardless of race, gender identity, or sexual orientation, the Faithful and Welcoming folks seek to welcome UCC churches that do not agree with the denomination’s position.
As you might imagine, the debate in our committee was pretty intense. Though all agree that free speech is important, clearly certain groups would never be allowed to host a display. Every year there are requests that get declined without reservation. The KKK obviously wouldn’t be given space. However, “Faithful and Welcoming” has been given space for the last number of Synods, and two years ago their space was quite prominent so that when UCC delegates and visitors came, many of whom find refuge in the UCC’s inclusive and welcoming position, they were confronted with a message that reiterated messages of rejection, judgment, and exclusion that they have faced for years out in the world. They experienced the display as an act of violence, which shouldn’t be tolerated in the church. So, that was the debate. Should Faithful and Welcoming not be welcome? Should they be silenced in that setting or should they be allowed to offer their message even if many find it offensive?
January and I were having a sidebar conversation. She said, “I hate myself for this, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but even though I’ve been hurt by this group I cannot vote to exclude them.” I asked her why and she said, “Because I believe in an open and inclusive church.” And, this is the part that really struck me. She said, “If I have to suffer more for there to be a church of radical love, even for my enemies, then I will. I’m a Christian and this is the way the cross works.”
Love for our enemies and a redemptive kind of suffering rooted in faith that the cross leads to resurrection and life.
Though none of us is shocked the way we were when Columbine made the news all those years ago, I think it is also impossible not to be saddened, angered, confused, and concerned by these most recent shootings in CA, OH, and TX. While the exact thought process that leads a person to do such a thing remains a mystery to me, I do believe that these events are extreme expressions of a violence that in ways has become a part of common culture. I believe we have a violence problem. Have you noticed that the operative word that our politicians use these days is “fight.” They assure us that they will fight for this cause or that cause because, no doubt, they believe a fight is what the people want. And, maybe they are right. And, I don’t think it is just semantics. It would be a different thing if “fight” were used rarely; if there were a shock factor to the word. It would be a different thing if the more obvious and appealing phrases were, “I’m going to pour my heart and soul into a solution,” or, “I’m going to work creatively and collaboratively and tirelessly on this issue because real lives are at stake.” Instead, we get talk about “winning,” as if real political solutions to complex social issues were ultimately about points on a scoreboard and not the lives of people who matter.
I believe we are more and more paralyzed by a culture of violence. I believe we don’t know how violent we are. In 1961 on his way out of office, 5-star general and US President Dwight Eisenhower, warned the country about the dangers of a growing military industrial complex. He bemoaned a looming arms race with Russia because of its effects on the country’s ability to build schools and hospitals (and address other priorities for that matter.) As a way to keep the complex from getting out of hand and endangering our democracy he worked diligently to cut the Pentagon’s budget, which now would earn him accusations of being un-American. His parting words from the presidency were, “We must learn how to compose differences, not with arms but with intellect and decent purpose.” But, we haven’t learned. Our investment in the ability to destroy human life has grown so much that to be opposed to it is seen by many to be immoral.
Obviously, Eisenhower didn’t deny the need for the military, and that’s not what I’m doing here either. I’m saying that violence is a part of our culture, more so that we know. I’m saying that things are out of balance. I’m saying that we haven’t invested in intellect and decent purpose as much as we have self-interest and the threat of power over and against those whom we see as threats.
This is why I was so moved by January’s words to me. “If I have to suffer more for there to be a church of radical love, even love for my enemies, then I will.” Her words struck me as being radically non-violent in a context where a certain kind of violence – the violence of silencing the well-intentioned other – was widely accepted. I wondered how, given the pain caused to her, she was able to hold the position she held. I wanted to hear testimony and know her faith, but of course I didn’t ask.
In their own ways our scripture passages today each talk about being ready for God. In Isaiah the people thought they were ready. But the prophet tells them how their solemn assemblies and religious rituals mean nothing to God when they ignore the oppressed, the orphaned and the widowed. A religion like that only keeps them unready for God. In Luke Jesus says, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.” Be ready, for maybe he’ll come in the middle of the night. Who knows! The point I take here is not the second coming or some end-time rapture. It is, rather, the uncontrolled, continued, grace-filled and surprising comings of Christ into our lives and the world as it is. Are we ready for those comings? Are we conditioned to receive them? Are we able to celebrate and be a part of those comings?
In a compelling article that I recently read in the Christian Century Andrew Root suggests that most of us are not. Our “immanent frame,” or the cultural context that inevitably forms us and shapes our capacities to observe and interpret reality, has no room for God-readiness. He says, “God is in the background, and our day-to-day, moment-to-moment attention is on material things… Most people, he continues, are unwilling to stop paying attention to what society deems most important.” I would argue that violence is as much a part of our immanent frame as our focus on material things because both are ultimately rooted in the cultivation and protection of an autonomous self able to find meaning and purpose apart from our creator.
I’m going to send you a Youtube link and I want you to watch it. It will take 30 seconds out of your life. It shows 6 people passing basketballs to each other as they move around through a circle. Three people have white shirts and three have black. Your job as the observer is to count how many times the ball is passed between the people in white shirts. Seconds into the video a black gorilla walks into the circle, waves, and walks out. Since I’ve told you this you won’t miss it. But, in the original experiment half the viewers do. And in fact, most of them assume that those who claim to have seen a gorilla are either crazy or liars.
That’s just to say that our immanent frames are powerful. God-readiness in a me-first, violent world is not easy. That’s why January so impressed me. She was God-ready, and through her I believe God spoke. It is not easy to love our enemies in a world that is set up to threaten and kill them. It is not easy to love our neighbors as ourselves in a world that doesn’t understand that we are meant to be the image of God to and for and with one another. It is not easy to trust in God in a world that teaches us to trust primarily in ourselves.
The world needs a new immanent frame. It needs an alternative culture to the one at hand. It needs the witness of a people committed to these “not easy” things. It needs a people whose peace passes understanding because it comes from a God who has conquered the world and all it’s death in order to rise anew in hearts that will receive him. My friends, where do you think the world will find such a people if not right here in Christ’s Church; if not in people whose lives depend on worship, and prayer, and loving service to our neighbors, and deep, intimate fellowship with our God?
 Andrew Root, “Forming a people who pray,” The Christian Century, July 3, 2019, page. 20.