June 20, 2015, 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B Responding to Charleston: A Homily on Fear Elizabeth Bruno
Giving a homily this week feels a bit rough. I had prepared a nice and neat talk – I even told someone I might tap dance – but in the wake of events in Charleston, I think it’s important for me to deviate from my original plans. I don’t feel particularly qualified to do so. (I’d rather tap dance.) Several of my friends from divinity school are on the forefront of these issues, involved in organization like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) or the like. To be honest, I feel humiliatingly inactive in addressing racial issues. And not just because I live in Oregon. So it’s particularly humbling for the topic to come up in this way this week. But perhaps it is perfect and I should accept with thanks the invitation to be less inactive around issues of race. In light of this, before I start, I apologize for the mistakes I will make, the things I will get wrong, for being perhaps too academic, and for any inability to really attend to what has and is happening for real people in real situations.
Last fall, when events were unfolding in Ferguson, I was touched by the clergy protests. One of my favorite professors from graduate school was involved in the protests and I was able to follow events by being in contact with her. After being arrested, she wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “Love Means Getting to Say You’re Sorry.” She argued that the notion of repentance was at the center of clergy protests – not just a call against injustice. Reflecting on how to express her involvement the clergy action to her five-year old, she decided the best way was this: “When you know you are loved, you can say when you are sorry.”
Shannon wrote, “I often hear white people respond to discussions of racism by saying “I am not racist”; “I didn’t mean it that way”; or “not all white people are racist.” These remarks miss the point that racism is systemic and institutionalized. It is not about individual beliefs or intentions. They also miss a larger theological point. God loves us, so we can admit we are wrong and try to do better.” For Shannon, who comes from a Reformed tradition, repentance is a central part of her beliefs. But she’s suggesting a kind of repentance that we don’t always think about in our stereotypical ideas of what Christian repentance is – she’s not talking about repentance for individual wrong actions like stealing cookies or being short with your child or, for that matter, embezzling. She’s reflecting what Brent has often discussed with us – sin is maybe not some sort of individual problem, although the individual is certainly involved. (Moral Man and Immoral Society, right?) Shannon suggest the clergy protests were repentance for social structures that we’re a part of. Moreover, she suggests Christians are able to do this because we are loved – because we know we are “hot messes” and we can accept that we’ve done things wrong, and can work toward doing better.
This being said, there’s something different about Charleston and this act of violence than the structural race issues with law enforcement. The way this is entangled with us is somewhat different. Still there’s something particularly wise, I think, in Shannon’s framing of this topic, even though it might sound odd to Episcopalian ears. We talk about repentance about as much as we talk about sin in this tradition. Still I think Shannon’s sense of taking ownership of what’s wrong and of acknowledging our entanglement in systems that perpetuate violence and oppression are important.
Today I want to talk about the system, and in particular about the fear that drives our social systems. My therapist has a poster in her lobby that reads, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear.” They are the words of a psychotherapist, but they echo the Johannine tradition, most notably the claim that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). We can love, I suspect, not just because we are sorry, but because we can address fear. In Mark 4, when Jesus’ disciples wake him up to calm the storm, he asks them, “Why are you so afraid?” He asks them “Do you still have no faith?”
Although it is easy to talk about racial crimes solely as based out of hatred, today I want to also address the fear that is present. I am suggesting that these are also acts of deep fear. Of all the things that stood out to me about Charleston, the words Dylann Roof is said to have spoken are the most startling. We’re told that in response to someone’s pleas for mercy he responded, “No you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country … I have to do what I have to do.” Although I want to be careful and not assume that I really understand Dylann Roof or his actions, I do think these words are worth attending to. Laced in Dylann Roof’s words is a strange sense of possession – “our women” he says, as if white women belong to white men. “Taking over the country” he says, as if the nation was a belonging. And as if it should belong to white men. Along with the sense of possession is a real sense of fear of loss.
Not only Mr. Roof’s words, but much of the language of white supremacy banks of notions of fear. Dylann took pictures of himself with the number 1488. The first two numbers refers to a popular 14 word slogan of white supremacists; “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Implicit in this slogan is not just racism and exclusion, but a concept of fear for the future. There is terror behind this – not just self-importance and violence. I draw attention to Dylann’s language because it is easy to forget how much notions of possession and control are a part of racism. Racism is about exploitation. Wendell Berry talks about this as a bigger cultural problem in The Unsettling of America, connecting our American exploitation of the earth with our exploitation of other humans, particularly around issues of race. He writes, “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them. Out of this contempt for work arose the idea of a Negro: at first some person, and later some thing, to be used to relieve us of the burden of work.”
Generally we don’t talk about these things when we talk about race. What we do talk about is privilege. And this is important – we do need to recognize our privilege. I myself have a lot of privilege – I’m white, I’m young, and I’m well educated. But acknowledging privilege is not enough. That’s because to be privilege it has to be privilege toward something. And we don’t talk enough about what the TOWARD. Berry seems to suggest our impulse to exploit is a kind of avoidance. I think this is at least part of the picture.
Racism is connected to a large cultural sickness. It’s one of the great and central features of our nation – and this is not a fluke. It is in our life-blood and our history – not just as a random thing, but as deeply connected to our aims, our beliefs. It is a part of trying to escape, and our desire to get ahead, to be a great nation, to be great individuals, to have success and power. It’s a part of our work to overcome – but not to overcome hate or fear. We work to overcome ourselves, any flaws or faults. We work to overcome an discomfort in our lives, any loss, maybe even life itself.
In Life and Death, Harvard theologian Arthur McGill argues American has a deeply unhealthy cultural obsession with wealth that keeps people from addressing the important and essential realities of loss and death, both literal and metaphoric. “Wealth,” he writes, “is not just a fact. It is a state of mind. It is a central and taproot value” (15). McGill goes on to clarify the ways in which “wealth” operates, argues it is not just a technique of having, but what he calls a gospel of having. He writes, “[We believe] wealth is the good news that will save and redeem us from all evil” (16). McGill suggests we worship death, doing anything to avoid signs of it – plastic surgery hiding signs of aging, neatly manicured lawns hiding any decay in nature, our nursing homes keeping the elderly population safely out of sight. But this gospel of having is present not just our avoidance of death, but in our racism as well. Our racism banks of the idea of ranking and ranking is the most central aspect of wealth as a taproot value.
Race is still a live issue not just because there are some people who support ideas that certain races are inferior in some way, but because we uphold the idea that the role of a human being is to be superior in the first place. We value ownership, power, and wealth. We abuse other people, the earth, our own bodies, whatever it takes – we exploit whatever it takes in order to be good enough, to rise above. To avoid who we really are. Race is not just about privilege in general, but privilege in specific. It’s a privilege toward “success” and the things our empire tells us encompass those successes. It’s about getting ahead.
Let me return to the concept of fear: It is what fuels this system. It is what keeps us perpetually running in the hamster wheel of trying to get somewhere (of trying to be superior). And yet, in the passages from today’s liturgy, this is precisely what Jesus (and God in the whirlwind that Job encounters) rejects.
There is something special in each of today’s passages – a shared theme that can help us understand and address fear. In each, loss, suffering, or danger is presented as a storm or whirlwind. In Job 38, God shows up in a whirlwind to address Job’s profound losses and suffering. In the Psalm, God is represented as punishing his people through a storm, and then showing mercy on them by causing the storm to abate. In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul catalogues what John Chrysostom called a “blizzard of tribulations.” And finally, in Mark 4, Jesus calms the storm. We ourselves are in a cultural storm and so it is worth considering how these passages address storms.
I love that our liturgy puts these texts together because the whirlwind is an important symbol in the Jewish canon, used often in literature composed in exile. It works to make sense of a society’s suffering and to respond to it. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann has argued that prophets use language and symbols, in spoken and acted out words, to “cut through the despair and penetrate through the dissatisfied coping that seem[ed] to have no end or resolution.” The whirlwind is a symbol that powerfully acknowledges the suffering, confusion, and suddenness of the Jewish suffering. But it also is a symbol that promises things can change – a storm, after all, can pass. It is a symbol not just of destruction or suffering, but of hope.
Still, God showing up in a whirlwind is kind of surprising. Many scholars have noted how upsetting and unsettling this can be. In fact, many people are unhappy with how God is presented throughout the book of Job. Norman Hobel describes God as different in different sections, suggesting each version of God is problematic in its own way; God in the prologue is “arbitrary and selfish,” the God that Job’s friends present is “mechanical,” the God of Job is “too violent, harassing humans and creating anarchy,” and finally, he complains that the God of chapter 38 is “too remote and inaccessible.” Of course, we understand what Hobel means when he suggests God is distant in this passage – after all, when he or she does show up, God asks rhetorical questions. And what’s worse, they are rhetorical questions that don’t seem to address Job’s situation at all. God doesn’t recognize Job’s suffering at all, it seems. You could call this “remote and inaccessible.” But maybe this is a different kind of access.
In his 2008 text Violence, Slovanian philosopher and cultural critic Zizek argues that violence can’t actually be addressed head-on, but requires a side-ways approach. He says “there is something inherently mystifying in a direct confrontation with [violence].” He takes the famous statement that Adorno made – “there is no poetry after Auswitz” and suggests, instead, that “there can be no prose after Auswitz.” That is, he says violence is so terrifying that if we were to respond to it head on, it would negate the true horrors of what is or has happened.
Zizek takes issues with Job’s friends because they come in following calamities to offer theological meanings. Zizek writes, “The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith.” Here Zizek suggests that finding a “deeper meaning” doesn’t actually address the suffering. In our current world, he suggests, we have a fake urgency around violence, pressing us at every corner, like Starbucks campaigns and charity work done by capitalistic moguls. He suggests the notion of needing to make money in order to do good is problematic, avoiding the fact that the problems that exist come out of our structure. Zizek argues that “through this fake urgency, the post-industrial rich, living in their secluded virtual world, not only do not deny or ignore the harsh reality outside their area – they actively refer to it all the time.” (7) What’s tricky, according to Zizek, is that these are mostly people who really do care – who genuinely do want to help create positive change in the world. Still, he suggests that this fake urgency keeps us from really looking and thinking about what actual solutions might require. He suggests capitalism feeds our problems and that we can’t overcome these things with a charity shaped band-aid.
Zizek attests to a kind of profound impatience in our attitudes toward violence and suffering – and that our fake urgency actually can un do us. I think Zizek is right about this, but more than that, I think God’s response in the whirlwind is connected. There is no fake urgency here. But while this does not address the direct suffering Job has undergone, this is direct in its own way. It’s a kind of directness that is profoundly similar to the directness of Jesus in Mark 4.
In this passage, Jesus calms the storm and chastises his disciples for being afraid. It’s just as odd and mysterious as God showing up in the whirlwind. The difference is that the passage in Mark 4 is one that we’re deeply familiar with. In fact, when I was a child, I read this passage to be about how magical Jesus was. It was just so cool that he could calm the storm and control nature. Yet, the older I get, the less I am convinced that this is what’s interesting about this passage. In fact, I read this story less as a child and more as a parent. If I’m honest this sounds an awful lot like a four year waking you up in the middle of the night and screaming at you, “AHHHH!!!! THERE’S A SPIDER IN MY ROOM!!!” And Jesus does what any parent would – he (perhaps crankily) gets up and takes care of the danger. But what Jesus does that I don’t do as parent is what follows. While I might try to validate my child’s fear, saying something like “I understand you were afraid, it’s okay,” Jesus does quite the opposite. “Why are you so afraid?” he says. “Do you still have no faith?” he says. Like God, who shows up in the storm totally unphased, Jesus doesn’t seem to really notice the storm. This storm is literally no thing to him. Not a big deal in the least. The big deal is the faith of the disciples. God is doing the same thing from within the whirlwind. He’s not addressing the suffering itself.
This is exactly the opposite of how we often live. After all, aren’t storms everything our culture tells us to fear? Suffering and death and loss? These are things we can’t handle, we’re told. These are things that are a sign that God is not there or that God does not love us. These storms tell us that we’re not good enough. That we’re bad. That we’re unlovable. That we need to be better. But in this passages God doesn’t seem to buy into that story. He or she shows up when Job’s been suffering and is not ostensibly worried that things have been so awful. And Jesus doesn’t seem phased by the fact his friends are so fearful. These things are not what’s worth fearing, these stories seem to say. These whirlwinds – these storms – God is not distant from them. He or she is in them or stronger than them, or they are not really the main event. In this passages avoiding storms is not the point of life, it seems.
I want to end in just a moment but I have two more things to share. The first is a reconsideration of Charleston and a final thought on how we can or should respond to racial violence in our nation. The second is me asking you to reflect for a moment on your own about the image of the storm and questions about how we should respond to violence and suffering more generally in our world.
The issue of race in our nation banks on a lot of fear. There is the more obvious, awful fear that people of color have to live with. This is awful and unnecessary fear that should not exist. This is something that we need to work to address – to fight for other human beings who are not safe because of the systems we’ve set up. But there is other fear, too. Fear in the system itself. (Or perhaps, the system itself is about fear. We want to be better than we are.) We fear suffering and death in general – we want to explain and control it. We want wealth and success to make us safe. They can’t – and they won’t, no matter how much we worship and idolize them.
If I’m honest, I don’t know how to respond with love and care to what has just happened in Charleston. But I think we need to take it seriously. I think we need to consider what privilege is for in our society – not just that it exists.
Finally, because in the end I think my words do little, and because I’m a teaching who believes in different kinds of learners, I want to ask you to spend a few more minutes will me while I play a brief Johann Burgmuller’s 19th century piece titled, “The Storm.” (L’Orage). This piece is one of his 18 Etudes that were written while he lived in France. Something about the sweetness of certain passages speaks to me, and over the years caused me to rethink my idea of what storms are. While I play, I invite you to spend time thinking about storms, whirlwinds and/or the structure of society that we live in. I invite you to think about how fear prompts fear – and how our social system is creates more fear and suffering for those around us.
I also invite you to think about Walter Brueggemann said about imagining new possibilities, about using symbols to “cut through the despair and penetrate through the dissatisfied coping that seem[ed] to have no end or resolution.” Brueggemann writes, “The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearning that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply we no longer know they are there.”