Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
(James 2:23-24, 26)
For almost all of my 48 years of ordained ministry, I have advocated openly for the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society. In light of that, no one who knows me is more surprised than I am at my reticence in addressing the issues of our day. I have been confused by various versions of the facts. I have struggled with many emotions such as shock, despair, grief, disappointment, failure, and anger, perhaps made more pronounced by the long period of isolation due to the Coronavirus. I have not used my voice because I simply could not get to the place where I thought I might be able to find words that would help rather than make matters worse. I’m going to try today to state what I believe and what I believe our response can be.
Unity - I believe that it is the responsibility of leaders to speak and behave in ways that draw people together rather than drive them apart. So, I want what I have to say to cast a vision of a better future and call forth the best in people to work together for good. The work that lies before represents our role in the answer to our prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Divisive partisan rhetoric is damaging the unity that is necessary in order for our nation to pursue the noble vision of the Founders. In addition to that, the Christian faith is being used in ways that encourage disunity. Remember that our Savior prayed for his followers, “That they may be one.” Let’s tell our favorite politicians to stop the divisive rhetoric. Differences are inevitable, but politics is supposed to be about finding ways to resolve differences.
Systemic Racism - I believe that we must heal the systemic racism that continues to oppress people of color. We don’t live our lives in isolation from others. We belong to families, companies, schools, churches, political parties, communities, and many other groups. Each of those groups is a “system.” So, to say that racism is systemic is to acknowledge that the systems in which we function with others, long ago infected with the disease of racism, continue to manifest the symptoms of racism. The policies of retail systems continue to discriminate against people of color, such as locking up products intended for African Americans. The methods of restraint and degree of force used by police continue to be applied more severely with people of color. Our legal system continues to mete out more and harsher penalties to people of color, especially if they are poor and can’t hire a prestigious law firm to represent them. People of color who can’t afford private schools often continue to find themselves in segregated classrooms.
Systems don’t heal themselves. The people who live in them have to take intentional actions to transform them and heal them. Junior Warden Christopher Mullaney has a quote from Mahatma Gandhi at the bottom of his emails that sums it up: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I must address the infection in the systems of which I am a part as well as the infection in my own soul. We as Christians, especially privileged white Christians, need to get to work to heal the systemic racism that is oppressing and killing our neighbors.
Law Enforcement Reform - I believe that we must insist on law enforcement reform. I grieve the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Like so many who have fallen before them, they are victims of an unhealthy system. The involvement of law enforcement personnel in their deaths is a slap in the face of their colleagues as well as all those they are sworn to protect and to serve. So is the fear of retribution, inherent in many police systems, making other officers reluctant to intervene. I believe that most law enforcement officers serve with honor and integrity. But the consequences for those who tarnish their badge are not working. Greater accountability needs to be put in place. Some assignments given to police should be assigned to others. Painful or deadly procedures that are allowed must be reviewed and modified. The purpose of policing should be reviewed. Officers who intervene and report violations have to be protected. As we think about these issues, let us be mindful of the abuse Jesus suffered at the hands of his captors.
Protests - I believe that we need to listen to the voices of those who have taken to the streets because other methods of getting our attention have not worked. I support peaceful protests and condemn the actions of those who took advantage of the protests to destroy property, steal, and hurt others. Their actions actually interfered with the protesters’ legitimate right to assemble and speak freely. The actions of those who have used force and chemical agents against peaceful protesters, including clergy, likewise interfered with those legitimate rights. We can follow the example of Bishop Mariann Budde and sit down with protesters so we can listen and, hopefully, hear what they are trying to say. We will probably learn something and find ways to do something.
Inequality - I believe we must address wealth and income inequality in our society. The unequal distribution of resources exacerbates so many social problems and people of color are affected most of all. Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler is a reminder to Christians that we must not be possessed by our possessions. He also pointed out that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The observation that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is no longer an adage; it is a fact. Laws, policies, corporate governance that ignores this fact are doing great harm to our common life. Let’s work to understand and to change this.
God's Creation - I believe that human beings have to stop damaging God’s creation. We are called to be stewards of creation and to use its resources wisely. When people are allowed to do harm to creation, we all suffer and those who come after us will suffer even more. Let’s make sure those who make environmental laws and those who must abide by them take this seriously.
To Sum it Up - On the Day of Pentecost, the Sunday after George Floyd was killed, we reaffirmed our Baptismal vows.
- Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
- Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
- Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
To each of these questions, we answered, “I will, with God's help.”
These vows are disciplines that define us as disciples of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. In our response to the unrest, division, injustice, and outrage that is becoming a part of our daily experience, can we hold these vows in our hearts and minds and practice them as disciplines? Can we ask for God’s help to understand the implications of our Baptism for our words and actions? Can we ask ourselves, “How am I living these vows in relation to everything God has given me, the neighbors with whom I disagree and can’t understand, and my own spiritual health?"
My personal mission begins with fostering hope. I want this message to foster hope in this community of Christ’s disciples and beyond. In Paula Jefferson’s sermon on Trinity Sunday, she encouraged us to let God open our eyes. In the Eucharistic Prayer, we ask God to “open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world around us.” I’ve been praying that prayer as I’ve watched all of the horrible things I have listed above and God has responded by showing me signs of many good things as well:
I am heartened by the youth and diversity of those who are calling for change.
I am impressed by the restraint of so many law enforcement officers in the face of provocation.
I am touched by the clergy and volunteers at churches on protest routes around the country who are providing water, snacks, band aids, and listening ears to those in the streets.
I am moved by the calls for peace, justice, and reform from religious and civic leaders.
I am inspired by the examples of police chiefs walking hand in hand with protesters.
I am amazed by the people who came out to line the route of George Floyd’s funeral procession.
I am encouraged by actions already taken to begin reforms in policing.
I am motivated by the words of Dr. Shafi, Councilman in the City of Southlake, Texas: "Please join me in building strong, inclusive communities, where every person, every family, and every child is loved, respected, and cherished."
I am cheered by the children in the scenes I’ve seen in attendance at protests and other gatherings, including some of our own children from St. Martin’s whose parents are teaching them what this is all about.
So, let us daily ask God to open our eyes to see the hurt and anger and need that requires our attention and action. Let's put our faith into works of mercy, peace, and justice. May God also open our eyes to see places where God is already at work bringing faith, hope, and love in ways that heal and transform lives so that we can join God in that mission. Let us watch for those places where God’s people “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.”
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church