The Christian church has not always been known for its rollicking sense of humor, but it’s nonetheless a common enough joke that we here in the United Church of Christ worship a God of rainbows and sunshine, and follow a Jesus who loves us just the way we are, and doesn’t ask us to do anything particularly hard. Sin is a dirty word in our circles, reminiscent of guilt and shame and the dusty old religion.
There’s a hint of truth to those jokes: we don’t think of sin as arbitrary rule breaking, and we worship a God who offers radical love to all people. But they’re wrong, too: we do believe in sin, and we believe Jesus Christ calls us to work against its power in the world.
Sin is the thing – the power, the force – of hatred, of fear, of division; sin divides us from one another, from our better selves, and from God. We see it in the mundane carelessness with which we treat each other and the earth; and we see it in more pernicious forms. These days, in this country, one of the clearest examples of sin plaguing our culture is the sin of racism.
We have said it before – from the pulpit, in Bible study and elsewhere: that racism in this country is real, it has political and social power, we are part of it, it is part of us, and that it is a clear and direct contradiction of the way of Jesus and everything the church should stand for. We have named it again and again: after Charleston, after the murders of innocent Black men and women, after the deaths of queer people of color in Orlando. We have mourned it, the ways it runs counter to our deeply held belief – as Christians and Americans – that all people are created equal.
We keep talking about racism, because it is our fervent prayer that God will break through our blindness and help us see the racism in ourselves, in others, and in our political life. We pray to be emboldened in our stand against racism, and in our willingness to open our ears, eyes and hearts to the experiences of our brothers and sisters who bear the burden of our society’s brokenness.
Last weekend, our nation – and the world – witnessed a white supremacist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, VA. White supremacist and racist are the right words to use, not simply “alt-right,” which makes this seem like a normal spectrum. There is nothing normal about this gathering of people. Their message was racist, and anti-Semitic. It was violent, and echoed the words of the perpetrators of genocide from generations past.
They gathered in Charlottesville because the town has been engaged in the good work of confronting its racist history and had determined that one step was removing the statue of Robert E. Lee from a place of honor. The townspeople of Charlottesville wanted to work toward reconciliation, and that was an affront to white supremacy, whose representatives descended on the city in order to insist that there would be no reconciliation; that their hatred was warranted and powerful, authoritative and right.
A counter demonstration was planned. Clergy and people of faith and good will gathered peacefully to insist that violence, that racism, intimidation, and hatred are wrong. Sinful, even. A white supremacist, one of many who had gathered there, armed, drove a car at 40 miles an hour into the crowd of peaceful protestors. Then he reversed and struck them again. One young woman was killed, dozens injured.
The danger from this armed mob was not imagined, nor was it met with the threat of violence from the protestors. We are proud of all our clergy colleagues and others who gathered in Charlottesville to counter hate. If you were watching coverage on CNN, you might have heard from the Rev. Traci Blackmon, head of UCC Justice and Witness Ministries.
Now, this is a free country. White supremacists can believe whatever vile thing they want. We never have been able to and cannot now simply banish hate, and the free speech rights of the rallying white supremacists were not suppressed by the city of Charlottesville, who only stepped in as the mob acted on its violent rhetoric. We cannot pretend this hate does not exist, but neither can we sit by silently. We must state clearly, forcefully, and non-violently, that it is wrong. It is against the way of Jesus, and it is against what we believe this country stands for – that all people are created equal.
We mention this here, now, with care and at length, and did on Sunday in worship, for a number of reasons, but also because, unlike following Charleston and Orlando, the response from the leader of our country has been inadequate, and dangerous.
While it is true that on Sunday, President Trump noted “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence,” he then continued: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. On many sides. On many sides.”
That’s not acceptable. That’s false equivalence, intended to avoid singling out racists for criticism. In the following days, the president has revisited the topic, first on Monday, offering a stronger statement of condolence for those injured, but then on Tuesday walking back and again insisting on the responsibility of counter protestors, calling them the “alt-left.”
His words are irresponsible, and intended to obscure the truth: that racism and white supremacism is surging in our country, and that it is counter to who we are, as a nation and as those who call ourselves Christian long to be.
We have work to do, all of us: in naming the sin in ourselves and in our society as it divides and harms, in condemning the actions of white supremacists and those who would give them implicit support.
Mike preached on the book of Esther on Sunday – a story of the persecution of an exiled minority. Esther, the hero of the story, is called to courageous leadership – in the absence of wise leadership from the king and his advisors – for a moment such as this. This is our moment, may God grant us wisdom to love and serve in the way of Christ.
We will host a discussion and time for prayer in the Chapel Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. All are welcome.
Rev. J. Michael Solberg, Senior Pastor
Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan, Associate Pastor