Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg given on June 21, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
“Upon the Murders at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC”
One of the most painful, depressing books I have ever read is Upon the Alter of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry Stout, a professor at Yale. I have read several books about the Holocaust during WWII. I’ve read about fifteen books about the genocide in Rwanda. I’ve read about the U.S. obliterating Nagasake and Hiroshima with atomic bombs, about the millions of Congolese killed by the Belgians, about perhaps 20 million Russians killed by Stalin, and maybe 30 million Chinese who died in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As disturbing as they were, I read all those books to the end. But I could not finish Upon the Alter of the Nation. It was too depressing, because it hit so close to home.
Upon the Alter of the Nation is a religious history of the U.S. Civil War. It tells how Christians of the day understood what the Civil War was all about. Of course, both sides were Christian. The North and South both believed they were fighting with the blessing of God, in the name of Jesus Christ. In my view, both sides were blind to the true calling of followers of Christ to love God and neighbor non-violently as Jesus did through his death and resurrection. But more to my point today, the book is so painful and depressing because it lays out in detail how Christians in the South justified the enslavement of Africans, and why it was their duty to fight and protect their “Christian” way of life. Through personal letters, newspaper articles, Confederate proclamations, political speeches, and tragically, sermon after sermon after sermon in the white churches of the South, people defended the position that slaves from Africa were not fully human in the same way whites are, that it was their right to own slaves as property, their Christian duty to keep them subservient, and their God approved mission to fight to defend their way of life. Reading the original words of these people is so disturbing because they use biblical quotes, they talk about Jesus and the will of God, and they use examples from the history of the church. The book was so painful because they used our language, Christian language, to justify one of the greatest evils in human history.
This matters, of course, because of what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, this week. A 21 year old white person – I can’t decide whether to call him a kid or a man – walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sat with a small group of people during a Bible Study and prayer meeting, and then after an hour, pulled out his guns and killed nine people. Nine people. People. Human beings just like you and me. Human beings whose ancestors were slaves from Africa. People we call African-Americans in acknowledgement that who they are as people is shaped in part by the tragic, racist evil of our past.
In some ways it is easy to dismiss Dyllan Roof. He dropped out of school in 10th grade, he was socially isolated and angry, he perfectly fits the stereotype of someone already disappointed with life as a young man, having little hope about the future, and who was looking for someone to blame, an enemy on whom to project all his insecurities and fears, making all of his problems someone else’s fault, so he didn’t have to take personal responsibility for any of it. It’s not mental illness, but immaturity and weak character that obviously led him to horrible evil. It is easy to see what he did as the result of personal struggles and leave it at that.
But that’s not all it is. Dyllan Roof could not have settled on black people as the enemy without the racism that is part of our society. It has been over 150 years since the end of the Civil War with its disturbing Christian arguments in favor of slavery, and it is only a fringe of racist white supremacists who put forth similar arguments today, but the beliefs and fears and sins that go along with racism are not only expressed in words – they linger much longer in actions, priorities, decisions, and habits. Even if no prejudicial word is spoken, racism can still shape our social and political lives. Even if none of us are prejudiced against black people, we still are part of the terrible social machinery that creates racism and discriminates against black people. Racism is not innate. Dyllan Roof does not arise from nowhere. This hatred is taught, if not in words, then in the patterns of our society. It is taught in the reality of our almost entirely racially divided schools and segregated neighborhoods. It is taught in the way some police view young black males. It is taught in hiring decisions, and in access to health care, and in commercials that treat whiteness as the norm, and in drug laws, and in the decisions banks make about given credit. Racism is real and we are all part of it.
I don’t know if that is difficult for you to hear or if you fully believe it and think it has taken me way too long to say it. I don’t know if it is surprising to hear me say it, or if every preacher in this church for the last 40 years has said the same thing. I don’t know if you will completely disagree, or if you have been saying the same thing to others over the past few days. But I believe it needs to be said. Racism is real and we are all part of it.
But what do we do about it? For us, as Christians, I think that’s a Biblical question. Well, first, right now, this day, five days after this attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, we grieve. We grieve because those who were killed were our people. They were our people because they were people. Just people, in the eyes of God the same as anyone else. They were our neighbors. Those who sit there in that Charleston church this morning, at this moment, and worship God with unspeakable grief, and understandable anger, no matter the color of their skin, they are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ. As one suffers, all suffer together, we suffer with them.
Then, as our scripture reading teaches, we learn to love these neighbors as we love ourselves. The translation might be a little better if we realize that that commandment is not to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. But rather to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. How do we love ourselves? This doesn’t have anything to do with how much we like ourselves or how great we think we are. It has to do with the fact that at least when we are healthy and mature, we naturally seek our well-being. We feed ourselves, we want what’s best for ourselves, we want to be proud of ourselves, we judge ourselves rather easily, we give ourselves the benefit of a doubt. We don’t think we are more important than other people, but we take care of what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is us, I’ve got me and you’ve got you.
And here’s the point of Jesus teaching, we reach the depths of love, and we reach the heart of God, when we can be as good to other people as we are to ourselves. When we can see other people, no matter the color of their skin, as equally worthy as I myself am to my care, consideration, respect, value and my love.
And then we have to make that love real, in our relationships and our society, in private and in public. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. While the church need not be partisan, everything we do it political, because politics is about the well-being of people, and that’s exactly what we profess to care about. So we have to be political. We have to care, and we have to be willing to join the fight to change things. It is a fight that played out in the personal realm, the social realm, the political realm. We can’t rest comfortably with just helping those who are suffering from racism, we have to work to end the racist habits and priorities and programs that sustain the racism.
Love isn’t love when it is left at the level of personal interaction. Love is working to change things. Love is working to lessen the impact of racism, and working to end the racism itself.
So may God help us acknowledge that we are part of the problem, may God be with us as grieve with our brothers and sisters, and God empower us to change things. Only then can we love the Lord our God with all our heart soul mind and strength, and love our neighbors, all our neighbors, in the same way we love ourselves.
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