Church and Society

The Church Must Speak

A Pastoral Message to the Congregations of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey                                                                                                                               January 13, 2018

 

Dear ABCNJ Family,

Our regional family is unique in all of the regions of ABCUSA because we are blessed with racial and ethnic diversity that mirrors the kingdom! The members of our more than 280 churches come from every continent on this planet, except Antarctica, and has made us who we are and shaped our peculiar witness for Jesus Christ. Our region has no real ethnic majority. This is what makes us a singularly unique region in our denominational family because, together, we represent the humanity of God’s desire.

Our life together is held and animated by a 3-fold vision: we are “Christ-centered, Mission- focused, and Pastoral in spirit.” Being centered in Christ requires us to walk on the path that Jesus has set for us, and that path always leads us to mission, and we do mission with a servant heart and for the sake of Christ.

It is within this unique ministry context where we as American Baptist congregations in the state of New Jersey strive to live out the grand declaration of the Apostle Paul that, “Jesus himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). As a regional family, we are committed to breaking down any wall that prevents us from being with one another. We have not fully arrived to that heavenly ideal in our journey, but our striving defines who we are as we commit to the journey of making the reign of God in Christ visible here on earth as it is in heaven.

In recent days, in a meeting at the White House with legislators to discuss immigration reform, the President of the United States referred to Haitians and people from Africa (and of course, by extension, people of African descent) with vulgarity and hateful rhetoric, and singled out to stigmatize Haitians as disease-bearing, modern-day lepers. ABCNJ has 24 Haitian American Baptist congregations - 16 in New Jersey and 8 in Florida. We have 2 African congregations. Our sisters and brothers of African ancestry - Haitians, Africans, and African Americans - comprise 1/3 of our total regional family. The words that came out of the President directly demeans and dehumanizes our sisters and brothers who we deeply cherish and love.

As followers of Jesus we must speak out and denounce, in his name, words that fan the winds of fear, divisiveness and racial hostility - not only in our diverse regional family but in our diverse nation, and call these words to repentance and proclaim in its place the fierce conviction that the reign of God’s love is now here. This is not about partisan party politics, because the ultimate allegiance of the disciple is to Jesus Christ alone. We are called to speak to power the truth that sets free, regardless of who is in power. This is what it means to be Christ-centered. From Moses to Esther, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, the people of God were always called to set people free from oppressive captivities, and to speak truth to power. When the Herodians (religious collaborators of the empire) attempted to trap Jesus into admitting allegiance to the emperor, Jesus told them to “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The church’s voice is muted when it abrogates its prophetic voice by surrendering its allegiance to earthly power.

The church is the embodiment of Jesus on earth, as Jesus was the very embodiment of God. We are called to bring the presence of Jesus in every space we inhabit and change the world. Tomorrow we commemorate the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a great American Baptist who gave his life to the struggle for racial equality and economic justice through non-violent and peaceful resistance. He called all of us to realize “The Beloved Community”, a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings. The Civil Rights Act was passed and enacted because of his leadership. It was not legislators who transformed American society, it was the church.

The Holy Spirit’s work of love remains unfinished in the world. The church must speak. We shall overcome.

 

Rev. Dr. Elmo D. Familiaran                                                                                                                     Interim Executive Minister and Senior Regional Pastor

Days of Thunder, Days of Rage

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"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" Collosians 1:17 (NRSV)

The recent horrific acts of murder and terror in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria and Mali have reminded us that we still live in a world inhabited by violence, hate and evil. These recent and almost simultaneous upheavals of violence and hate have shaken the foundation of our faiths, our trust in the moral order of the world, and our confidence in the basic goodness of humanity. As we try to find a semblance of meaning, and long to be caught up in a centrifugal force that can wound as tightly back into the center in this decentering disruption of rage and violence, fear is covering many places like thunder clouds. And here in the United States, as this phenomenon takes place and is inevitably mixed into the quest for power during an election year, the public discourse that consumes all the news broadcasts throws into bold relief the deep ideological fissures in our culture. As a pastor and student of culture and society I cannot but look at life, and the world, through theological eyes. And what I see through those lenses during these days of grave social disruption concern me very much as to how the voice of the church is being heard - or not heard. In the midst of the din of absolutizing public conversations about fear, and the deluge of rhetoric that exploits that fear for personal gain, it is no wonder that it is also a time of great moral confusion for many of us.

Why are Christians disagreeing over an issue that the biblical texts address when they are reading the same Bible? Or for that matter, why are Muslims disagreeing over an issue that Koranic texts address when they are reading the same Koran? Why are politicians disagreeing over an issue that the U.S. Constitution addresses when they are reading the same U.S Constitution? For any of us - especially Christians, for I am one - to think that these binary understandings of the world and morality can be resolved by simple argumentation - or simply impugning, invalidating and demonizing those who disagree with us - misses the critical role that our ideological habitat plays in shaping the way we understand the world, life and all its complexities. Prior to the utterance of words that come out from our mouths and minds over a particular issue, comes the work of the ideological filters that reside in our assumptive worlds - our ideological habitats - in melding, forming, refracting, conforming and particularizing reality so that it correlates to the ideological habitats wherein each of us dwell. And so is it uncommon for readers of the same sacred text to disagree over its meaning? No. More decisively, is it uncommon for readers of sacred text to pick and choose certain passages to prove the rightness of one's perspective while dismissing or glossing over other passages in the same sacred text? No. Is it possible that we do so  - not in the quest for truth but, perhaps unwittingly - to justify one's own ideological perspective? Yes. So which way is it to "true North?"

As human beings our perspectives are inherently limited and provisional. In John 5:33-40, we find a very important teaching of Jesus on the method by which we arrive at the deeply held convictions that form our understanding of the world around us. The religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, were "experts" on the reading and interpretation of the Torah. But as they are often recorded in the gospels, they always accused Jesus of violating the Torah - the Law. In this passage in the Gospel of John, Jesus unpacks and exposes what really is at the heart of their arguments, and what ultimately is at stake when we do not examine the purpose and design of our perspectives. Jesus was explicit in saying that he did not come to change nary a "dot or tittle" in the scripture. Rather, he came to "fulfill" it. In this passage he affirms to the Pharisees that, indeed, the scriptures speak about life. Then he introduces a radically new hermeneutic: "But you do not come to me that you may have life!"

Fear dislocates the equilibrium of our inner worlds and awakens the yet unredeemed spaces of our humanity. In the chaos we instinctively seek order, and in that desperation to restore order the path of least resistance is to find someone on which to blame the "dis-order." While acts of terror and murder have tragically occurred in these recent days in other parts of the world, it is understandable that the recent acts of murder in Paris have dominated the news because it is Paris. The attacks took place during the massive migration of Syrian refugees to the west, inflicted by murderers based in Syria. And so it has become easy to stigmatize an entire race for the sins of a few in the midst of the chaos. Broadcast and social media are saturated with debates on how we in the United States should respond to the Syrian refugees. Binary worlds have once again been created - compassion versus national security. But are they exclusive of each other? Is this a false choice? What really lays in the crucible? And being it an election year, the political peddlers of fear are having a brisk business these days and, frankly, I have been appalled by some of what I have heard recently especially from the mouths of professing Christians. Even the incarceration and internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during WWII are now being invoked as a moral precedent for how to treat Syrian refugees!

Pope Francis from the Vatican said recently, in his grief, that in a world that still wages war and refuses to seek the path of peace, the festivities of the "Christmas Season" becomes a charade. Let us not forget that above everything else, even "beyond the sacred page" (from the great hymn, "Break Thou the Bread of Life") , Jesus calls us to come to him, the Word become flesh - because in him everything is held together. Do our actions look like Jesus? Do our words sound like Jesus? Does our compassion look like Jesus? Do we love like Jesus? The Advent Season is upon us - a sacred time for Christians as we enter into the spiritual discipline of preparing for the coming of the Prince of Peace. In a time of great disconnective energy, the audacious proclamation of the gospel in the Book of Collosians is muted - that in Jesus Christ, in him, everything holds together. So we are to "unmute" the voice of the gospel. As followers of Jesus we are called to be peacemakers, obligated to do what is good and just, to be aspirants for what is beautiful, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.

Proclaim, hear and do!