It takes about an hour for me to drive from my home in North Plainfield to Hamilton Square. On one of these drives I was listening to the news on NPR and I couldn’t take it anymore. I shut the radio off and asked the Lord, “How do you deal with this on a daily basis?”
"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!
[lead]VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 12/8/14)—In response to the Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury ruling in the case of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, 34 national and regional leaders of American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) have issued a statement calling for a national examination of the U.S. judicial system as well as the nation’s criminal justice institutions.[/lead] After deliberating less than a day, the grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute the white officer whose chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man, led to the Garner’s death.
The American Baptist leaders express outrage at the grand jury decision and call for change in U.S. criminal justice systems, obviously infected by virulent racism, across the country. The time is ripe for prayer and action:
American Baptists have been called to be Christ’s witnesses for justice and wholeness within a broken society. We have been led by the Gospel mandates to promote holistic change within society. As Christians and leaders of American Baptist Churches USA, we have a pastoral and prophetic concern for what we are witnessing. We are profoundly troubled by these recent events: the taking of human life by agents of the state and the inadequate standard of accountability to which these agents were held. The U.S. criminal justice system suffers from a perversion that allows the role of prosecuting criminal behavior to be converted into defending that criminal behavior, thereby subverting the judicial means of determining guilt or innocence.
We affirm the anger and grief of all people of good conscience; people committed to justice and peace; people who are outraged by the senseless killing of Eric Garner and the evolving national pattern of erecting “blue walls” of immunity and lack of accountability in far too many of our police forces. We, as American Baptists, draw upon our faith and our faith legacy to proclaim we believe that all people are made in the image of God and that the right to human dignity, to be respected and treated as a person without regard to race, is foundational to our faith.
Racism is the belief that one race is innately superior to all other races. It is the devaluing of persons in terms of their intelligence and potential for contributions to a given society because of their race by one or more racial groups who have an economic, social and political position of power in that society. Racism, whether individual or corporate, is a sin against God. With grief we find racism to be one of the most pervasive examples of sin in our country.
Therefore, with other Christians as well as ecumenical and interfaith partners, we stand in solidarity with all African Americans who continue to live in fear of the ignorant, innate, institutional racism that threatens the lives of millions of young black men, women and children every day. We recognize our individual and corporate responsibility to work for racial justice and will initiate and support actions toward the elimination of institutional racism. Therefore, as American Baptists, we:
- Recognize that violence against minorities has been a continuing factor in American society. We will challenge the covert and overt violence that is the tool which gives expression to the hatred of one racial group for another.
Recognize the responsibility to protect the rights of and support opportunities and equity for racial minorities in the political, economic, social, educational and judicial systems in this country. We will initiate and support actions to enable persons of all racial backgrounds to become full participants in and beneficiaries of the life of this country.
Will continually examine our own roles and attitudes to eliminate any vestiges of racism and we will work to witness for racial justice which is implicit in the Christian faith.
Recognize that concern for racial justice is not confined to American Baptist churches. We will work with other religious, ecumenical and secular groups with similar concerns to secure racial justice.
Tragically, racism and violence too often go hand in hand in the United States of America. In our society violence is deeply rooted and constitutes a hazard to our public health and well-being. It demands both a prophetic witness and a pastoral response by American Baptists. Modern U. S. society was born through violent ways, through the subjugation and exploitation of many of its peoples. The multiple horrors of the destruction of native peoples, the enslavement of African peoples, and the exploitation of immigrants are major strands of a web of economic, cultural, political, and societal behaviors that have inevitably led to violence.
The culture of violence is manifested both in the pervasiveness of overt acts of physical force and in the more subtle dynamics by which harm is persistently done to people. As Christians we are conscious of the violence around us, but we have often been numbed by its frequency and enculturation in our lives. Rather than being witnesses to Christ’s transformative power, we have made choices that reflect our own rootedness in a violence-ridden society. This sad reality requires continuing reflection, confession and committed action as disciples of Christ.
Racism, combined with violence, has exacerbated the strained relationship between the criminal justice system, including police action, and communities of color. American society has become increasingly violent, and police officers are called to enter that violent world and put their lives and careers at risk to protect and serve the whole society. Overworked and understaffed police departments lead to stress and strained relations. Police officers’ duty places them in danger both physically and emotionally. By being on the front line and confronting all sorts of violent activities, some police officers develop a shield of insensitivity towards persons in the community.
Violence can distort the perspective of the police, causing them to see the community or certain segments of the community as enemies. When this happens the guardianship bonds between police and community are broken and the police themselves are viewed as a threat by the people in the community. Situations of increasing animosity can develop, which are often fed by racism and emotional stress to produce an explosive climate. If unchecked, these situations will undoubtedly lead to an increase in police misconduct and police brutality. It is an outrage when excessively reactive responses on the part of law enforcement officers, who should be trained as professionals, result in loss of life.
Police officers, local politicians and community leaders — and churches as moral and social pillars in the community — must work to counter these powerful dynamics of social violence. Paul speaks about the struggle between good and evil in the book of Romans as he addressed Romans, Roman soldiers, Gentiles, Jews and Christians. He states, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a), signifying the preserving and healing capacities Christ’s disciples are to bring to the world in which they live.
We pray for nonviolent demonstration and official response to the outrage that now grips these United States. Violence is not the path to justice — it is the root of all injustice. Silence in the face of injustice is not an option. We therefore cry out with a loud voice for justice in our land, plagued by racism.
We agree with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: “Anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel called to action right now.” As leaders of American Baptist Churches USA, we stand in solidarity with those bearing witness through prayer, protest, and vigil. We call for a national examination of our judicial system and other institutions spiritually perverted by racism.
It is with a sense of divine leading that we acknowledge that the God of the Bible is the God of life who calls us to shalom, the well-being of all creation. We affirm a belief that, through the biblical vision of shalom and the example of Jesus Christ, the Christian community is called to respond prophetically and pastorally to the existing reality of violence in the world. When the ambiguities and moral complexities of a situation demand that we make difficult choices, we must act as faithfully as we know how, with a humble dependence upon the grace of God.
Therefore, as a sign of our prophetic calling, we call upon all American Baptists, American Baptist churches, and American Baptist organizations to:
- Be peacemakers, builders of God’s shalom;
Work for the prevention of violence, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and just reconciliation;
Advocate for a more responsible media; and
Challenge ideologies, structures, politics and policies that lead to violence;
As a sign of our pastoral commitment to stand against violence, we call on American Baptist churches and other American Baptist organizations to do the following:
- Call on churches to preach the life-transforming power of Christ, applying this message concretely to our tendency toward violence;
Educate ourselves on the constructive use of conflict;
Educate ourselves about the violence in the media and culture and to advocate for corrective measures as part of our responsibility as disciples of Christ;
Facilitate the development of conflict-resolution teams, violence prevention strategies and nonviolent means of political and social change;
Promote the inclusion of victims in the process of creating solutions to issues of violence;
Identify and utilize effective models of healing for those who have been victimized by violence;
Join with other organizations to act locally and nationally to curtail violence.
In times like these, some are tempted to live and act as though clouds of despair are inevitable. But we are a people of passion and prayer and we continue to proclaim, along with the 19th century poet James Russell Lowell in “The Present Crisis”:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, — Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
As a nation, the United States cannot heal its broken society until there is honest reform to systems that institutionalize and legitimize racist practices and perpetuate violence.
The 34 leaders of American Baptist Churches USA below have signed this statement to express their personal perspective about the Staten Island grand jury ruling and the need for change in the U.S. criminal justice system. Their titles are included for identification purposes only and do not reflect their organizations’ endorsements.
[raw] [column size="1/2"]
Rev. Dr. Judy Allbee Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of Connecticut
Louis Barbarin, CPA Executive Director Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board
Rev. Stephen H. Bils Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of the Central Pacific Coast
Rev. Yvonne Carter Executive Minister Cleveland Baptist Association
Valoria Cheek, Esq. President The American Baptist Extension Corporation
Rev. Dr. Samuel S. Chetti Executive Minister/CEO American Baptist Churches of Los Angeles, Southwest and Hawaii
Rev. Dr. Kendrick E. Curry Interim Executive Director/Minister District of Columbia Baptist Convention
Rev. Soozi Whitten Ford Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky
Rev. Joan Friesen Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of Greater Indianapolis
Dr. Josué D. Gómez, Esq. President ABCUSA Hispanic Caucus
Rev. Dr. Larry L. Greenfield Regional Minister American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago
Virginia R. Holmstrom Executive Director American Baptist Women’s Ministries
Rev. Dr. Perry Hopper Associate Executive Director Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson Executive Director Ministers Council ABCUSA
Rev. Dr. Clifford Johnson President, American Baptist Home Mission Societies Pastor, Shiloh Baptist Church, Wilmington, Del.
Rev. Dr. James E. McJunkin Jr. Executive Minister Philadelphia Baptist Association
Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley General Secretary ABCUSA
Alan Musoke Treasurer ABCUSA
[/column] [column size="1/2" last]
Rev. Alan G. Newton Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region
Rev. Dr. Donald Ng President, ABCUSA Pastor, First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco
Rev. Dr. Anthony G. Pappas Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts
Rev. Dr. Walter L. Parrish II Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of the South
Rev. Dr. Marshall Peters Executive Minister Mid-American Baptist Churches
Rev. Randall L. Rasmussen Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of the Dakotas
Rev. Dr. Charles E. Revis Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of the Northwest
Rev. Perkin Simpson President American Baptist Foundation
Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer Executive Minister and Senior Regional Pastor American Baptist Churches of New Jersey
Rev. Robin Stoops Executive Minister and Regional Missionary American Baptist Churches of Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Reid S. Trulson Executive Director American Baptist International Ministries
Rev. Dr. Marilyn P. Turner Associate Executive Director for Missional Life and Leadership American Baptist Home Mission Societies
Dr. Deborah Van Broekhoven Executive Director American Baptist Historical Society
Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran Regional Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains
Rev. Tom Wiles Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island
Rev. Dr. Michael A. Williams Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of Michigan
Rev. Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III Executive Director and CEO American Baptist Home Mission Societies Judson Press