Year B, Easter 5 May 3, 2015 The Revered Dr. Brent Was
“…for God is love.”
Almost pithy, isn’t it, that statement? It is a bumper sticker. We all say “God is love” and most of us leave it at that. That is as clear a summation of all Christian theology as is possible, right? It requires no more explanation and certainly no one is going to argue against it so we move on. But what does it really mean, God is love? Is it the act of loving that is God? The state of loving and/or being loved? The ontological, foundational conditions that allow love to happen? The metaphysical fabric within which love occurs, the “inter-subjective space” between the I and Thou and all the other I’s we share life with, is that God? I have a new therapist, a very good one, I might add, who speaks of love as seeing things as they truly are, yourself, others, the world, seeing them as they actually are, an openness to the other so wide that you can handle the truth, the whole truth about them and yourself in relation to them. Love. Our whole doctrine of the Trinity can be viewed as a vision of God in perfect and seamless relationship (loving relationship) within God’s self. The Trinity can be interpreted as God is love.
I do love all of the abstractions, but the air can get kind of thin up there for the first Sunday in the merry, merry month of May, our final Chorister Sunday of the year. What are we to do in the face of a God who is love? Well, the author of our letter this morning, which has traditionally be attributed to St. John the Evangelist, the author to the Gospel of John, he offers a very clear summation of Christ’s thoughts on this matter: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
I have been thinking about Baltimore a lot over the past weeks, this past week in particular. And New York, Boston, Newark, LA, Cleveland, and other places where riots, uprisings even have been manifesting in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police. Mr. Gray’s death is one in a series of deaths of African-American men and boys at the hands of our police forces. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, 12 year-old Tamir Rice. And these are just the ones that have made national headline news; there have been 160 or so deaths at the hands of police this year, the majority of the casualties being African-Americans. It is hard to tell exactly how many because the federal government does not collect data on police related fatalities (we do measure what we think to be important).
I have been thinking a lot about race over the past weeks and months as state violence against people of color, African-American men in particular, becomes more and more blatantly on display. We can’t ignore it. Well, of course we can, we do it all the time, but goodness, we must not, not any longer. Wow, that is the word “must” twice in an Episcopal sermon! We must not ignore race; “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.” There is a clear and present relationship between these two statements.
I am pretty ignorant about race, about race as a category of identity, about what the meaning of race truly is, about the experience of African-Americans and other people of color is in our nation and here in Eugene. I am pretty ignorant about the depth of white privilege that I, that many of us in this room enjoy. Nothing worse than having privilege and not even knowing that you have it, preaches Father Brent. (I am a bit more aware of my male privilege than of my white privilege, a bit). I am exploring this subject, reaching out to a few folks who know a lot more about this than I. We will, I suspect, make race the topic of our final Wednesday adult education series this year. I’m learning about this, trying to learn. All you teachers know how hard learning can be, how hard and how important. I hope we can find a way to learn about race together.
There is one key lesson of race that I can share that really took me by surprise and is directly related to the little story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles today, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. Often this is taken as a “triumph of inclusion” story, a testimony to the reach of the Gospel out into the wide, wide world and not just confined to the people of Israel. There is that part of it, right? Phillip didn’t hesitate when the Holy Spirit told him to approach the chariot carrying the Ethiopian official. He ran, even. And then he sat beside him and generously opened the Word of God for him. And then, passing some water they stopped and Phillip baptized him. There was no prejudice there, not against his race (skin color, Ethipoian would have meant darker skinned African from anywhere outside of Egypt, but remember, race is a social construct and the idea of race at that time would be unrecognizable to our modern eyes and modern construction of race, but in any case, a barrier was transcended). There was no prejudice against his gender status, which being a eunuch was complicated. There was no discrimination about his being a foreigner. That is all well and good. But every congratulations we as Christians can take from this reading of the story is congratulating ourselves that he was not excluded. Aren’t we magnanimous for not excluding. Aren’t we generous for sharing what we have to offer, what gifts we have to share, what teaching we have to give to the poor, black heathen. (Well not heathen, the Ethiopian eunuch was at least somewhat included in the Jewish sphere, a God-fearer though not a full convert. Isaiah and Deuteronomy conflict as to whether the sexually mutilated could be fully admitted to the assembly of God). But that inclusion, the gift of that is really still about us. His worth is in relation to what we, the majority, have given him.
One of the best educational experiences I ever had was a class called “The Political Economy of Misery” taught by Professor Emily Townes, a bright light in the world of contemporary Christian social ethics. In this class we explored sources of misery, categories including HIV/AIDS, free-trade and globalization, and race. It was at Harvard, with an overwhelmingly white student body, and I can’t remember exactly what precipitated this response, but one of my fellow students said something like, “It must be so hard being black,” and Professor Townes replied with somethinglike, “I don’t want your pity. Nothing about me wants to be white.” I had never consciously thought that African-American folks would rather be white, but her statement sort of threw my own assumptions back into my face because I remember thinking, “What do you mean you wouldn’t rather not be the oppressed minority here? Doesn’t everyone want to be in the majority?” Ahhh… no she did not want to be in the majority. (Here is an example of learning being so hard). Not wanting to suffer oppression and wanting to be the majority are two completely separate issues. And a very hard one for us in the majority to understand let alone grok. It is so hard for us to loosen our grip because we assume everyone will be or wants to be as oppressive as we are. It is not about us.
Back to road to Gaza… Did that Ethiopian eunuch, the quintessential outsider to St. Luke, author of Acts, did he see himself as an outsider? As an oppressed minority? Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…the text presents the Ethiopian as someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable.” He was treasurer of a Kingdom, a high official; Phillip was the cur, the outsider, the poor religious wacko/extremist within his own culture. But race, racism, all –isms and oppressions rely upon, are created by our inability or unwillingness to see the world through any lens but our own. That is the definition of hegemony, that the majority’s world-view is the only valid world view. That Ethiopian eunuch didn’t want Phillip’s pity, and didn’t seem to want to take over; he was just seeking the love of God.
The following is a quote from Professor James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Dr. Cone is the leading voice of black liberation theology and has taught for more than 40 years at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He’s a giant in theology, and he echoes Prof. Townes in writing:
“I’d much rather be a part of African American history, than White history. I’d rather be a part of the people who have been resisting, and creating a vision of humanity about love and justice. I’d much rather be a Nelson Mandela, a Desmond Tutu, than a part of the apartheid system that tried to kill them, so I much rather be a part of Black people’s history, King and Malcolm and that history, than a part of the history of lynching, people who lynch people, I don’t want to be that. So if being a part of that history means I’ve got to love the lyncher, yeah, I’ll do that. I don’t want to hate people who were lynched, I don’t want to be a part of hating groups, so I say for my own humanity, for my humanity, I’ll carry that burden.”
Over the next weeks and months, as the drama and trauma of riots and uprisings on the streets of our cities continue (“the language of the unheard” as Dr. King called them) don’t turn away. We must pay attention. We must see the world as it actually is. We must love and we must love on God’s terms, not on our own. God is Love, so we must love “…for those who have not loved a brother or a sister they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” AMEN