Words Are Not Enough
posted on June 01
Over the past weeks and months we have watched the tragedy of COVID-19 claim over 100,000 lives and counting – and that’s in the wealthiest nation on the planet. In parts of the developing world the numbers will likely be even higher. We’ve witnessed the horrific deaths of two more black men, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, perpetuating the lie that has been with us from the very founding of our nation. Sadly this lie has also been a part of our history as United Methodists in events like the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the creation of the Central Jurisdiction with the formation of the Methodist Church in 1939. It is the lie that tells us that the lives of our black neighbors really don’t matter as much as the lives of others.
And so, over the past week we’ve seen the frustration, anger, and desperation of people of color, and their allies, spill over into nationwide protests. We’ve seen major cities on fire. It all reminds me of that great line from James Baldwin quoting a spiritual…
"God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!"
In a moment like this, it is hard to know where to begin. Words are important, they matter because they shape the world we inhabit, but words alone are not enough. Our words must be embodied. As followers of the Word made flesh, the good news must take on flesh in us and have its way with us. What we say and how we live as Christians cannot be, must not be, separated from what we know about God in Jesus Christ. We don’t believe in some generic idea of “God”. We believe in and put our trust in Jesus, the brown skin, Middle Eastern Jew in whom the eternal logos took on flesh and dwelled among us. This very same Jesus was executed on a cross so that Rome could keep the “peace”. “In much the same way that black bodies have been lynched and continue to be brutalized to this day.” And on Easter God raised the brutalized body of Jesus from the dead, overcoming death making Christ, not Caesar, Lord and King of all bodies, all nations, and all peoples.
Among other things this means that our bodies matter to God. As Paul teaches, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23 In Christ the redemption and renewal of creation, including our bodies, has begun and that redemption and renewal will not be complete until God’s reign of justice and peace fills the whole earth.
The Church, as the body of Christ, is called by God and filled with Pentecost power to be a foretaste and a sign of God’s reign. Our preaching, teaching, ordering the life of the church, and sharing the mysteries of baptism and Holy Communion is not about helping people cope with life or live their “best life now”. The Gospel is not self-help. It is the radical claim that Christ is King and Lord of all of life and we can live accordingly or find ourselves out of step when Christ comes. Among other things, this means that, if the Spirit of the Lord is upon is then the ministry of the Church is about following the way of Christ and joining him in
…bringing good news to the poor.
proclaiming release to the captives
recovering of sight to the blind,
letting the oppressed go free,
and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:14-22)
So, if what we are preaching, teaching, and living as the church is not good news for the poor, or release for the captive, or sight for the blind, or liberation for the oppressed then we have ceased to preach, teach, and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our words and deeds are no longer true. And this is critical as we think about what this good news looks and sounds like to a world on fire.
I have been wrestling with what to say and even more with how to respond. I know that as a white, male District Superintendent I speak and lead from a place of significant privilege and with that privilege comes great responsibility. I cannot and would not presume to speak for my colleagues of color. They have their own voices and their own stories. I can, with humility, listen and learn. I can invite the church to sit and be with those stories and allow that truth to shape our response. I can do the important and necessary work of learning the history of white supremacy and racism, teaching that history, and then commit both to calling out the lies that are told and to telling the truth. I can leverage my privilege to hold myself, our leaders, and our institutions accountable for the ways we are silent to the sin of racism or worse complicit with the sin of racism. Because I pray for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, I can also commit to doing the long and hard work of helping create systems - economic, healthcare, educational, political, criminal justice, and ecclesial - that are holy and just, that are shaped by the life and witness of Jesus Christ.
Now, I know that as we go about this work some will complain “you’re being political”. To which I would respond, “Yes, we are. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is political”. It is not political in that it is either Democrat or Republican. It is political because we are announcing the reign of God and reminding the world that Jesus Christ is Lord and King and all lives, nations, economies, political systems, and even the Church are under Christ’s judgement and rule. It is political because as Christians we claim that our allegiance is to Christ who transcends all that would divide us. It is political because we are first and foremost citizens of the peaceable Kingdom of God where all bodies, including black and brown bodies, and the bodies of the vulnerable and the oppressed, matter.
Church we must find our voice and our way. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God demands us to speak about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the daily struggle for life for people of color, and the sin of racism. If we remain silent surely the stones will cry out. Even more, as followers of Christ - who is hope, truth, justice, peace, goodness, and life in the flesh - we must commit to practices of confession, repentance, peacemaking, and reconciliation. That is our gospel work. Let us pray for holy fire to come upon the Church anew, that we might do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God so that justice and righteousness will roll down and all our neighbors will know the fullness of life.
Come Holy Spirit.