A pastoral letter for these extraordinary times

This past week was a very sad week in our country. It seems that our country is coming undone from the inside out. Last Wednesday, in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, a white man casually entered a Kroger grocery store and shot and killed two black persons. Going out he encounters an armed bystander, a white man, who heard the shooting. He tells the man not to shoot, “whites don’t kill whites,” he said. Then mail bombs were sent to prominent leaders of the Democratic Party and known critics of the President of the United States. And on Saturday, our day was shattered with the horrific and unspeakable news of the massacre of 11 innocents by an avowed anti-Semite at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as the faithful of that house of worship were gathered for Shabbat. 

Each of these acts of murder were different. But they share a diabolical commonality - they all were fueled by racial hate. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in recent years around the world. And it came so close to home to us this week in this worst attack on Jews in America in the history of the United States. Racism, as one prominent evangelical leader Jim Wallis has said, is the “original sin of America.” That sin has not been completely overcome in our social soul. It is still there, but since the Civil Rights Movement the nobler soul of our country has for the most part cast it to the shadows. It still lurks, but it is largely in the shadows. 

But we now find ourselves living in a hyper-partisan, ideologically polarized, and adversarial discursive political environment where objective facts no longer determine the validity of truth claims. It is a time when it seems that a malignant ideological tribalism has spread in our public life where differences in perspectives or opinions have constructed an ideological arena where the rules of discourse is zero-sum: which means, in Game Theory, that whatever is gained by one side is - and must be - loss by the other.

This toxic conversational environment now permeates every level of discourse in our society. I find myself in these days making intentional efforts each day when I wake up to stay centered and grounded so that I do not unwittingly allow myself to get unmoored and be forcibly drawn into the vortex of this counterfeit discourse that steals life of its inner harmony and beautiful complexity. As a regional pastor, that concern extends much deeper and broader than my own individual commitment to stay grounded and centered. My concern extends to the churches and pastors in our regional family who I am privileged to serve. And because we must yet live out our faith in the public sphere, I am profoundly concerned with the state of the testimony of the church in public life. I am concerned for our faith community because the infectiousness of this hyper-partisan and politically polarized environment has also permeated the discourse of the church.

The perpetrators of these dastardly crimes are the persons ultimately responsible. But racial animus and fear that have lain in the subterranean crevices of our nation’s soul have been exploited in our society by cynical political leaders for their own political advantage and personal gain. And now the ambers of hate have been fanned into a conflagration. Our country is in real spiritual danger, as perhaps the church is unless it intrudes into these days of rage the voice of the Prince of Peace. Unless a firewall is raised, this wildfire of fear and hate will scorch every space where there is no firewall to stop it. The church - when it is faithful - is the only instrument of God on earth that can create the space where the presence of Jesus can be entered in. Our words matter, the voice of the church matters. For example, we cannot proclaim the good news of God’s love and the grace and mercy of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, if we do not denounce bigotry and hate. Jesus welcomed the children, and declared that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We cannot preach that without denouncing the cruel and cynical act of ripping little children away from their refugee parents as a form of immigration deterrence. 

I am calling on all the pastors and the churches of our ABCNJ family to:

  • Pray for the victims and their families

  • Pray for healing of our country and our communities

  • Utilize all your networks to contact your local political representatives to call on them to eschew the language of the politics of destruction and personal attacks

  • To ourselves choose the fast that is acceptable to God - mercy, justice, righteousness, love, peace - in everything we do and say

  • As followers of Jesus, engage with your inter-religious partners in your community in the work of deepening friendship and understanding

Jesus told the disciples that he has given them the keys to the kingdom, and that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Do we need any more assurance of courage for the work at hand?