Sermons

Tell it in the Light: A Juneteenth Sermon: June 25, 2017

It’s Juneteenth time.

About Juneteenth[1]—I had no idea.  Growing up in Thurmont, Maryland, I simply had no idea that there was a day dedicated to celebrating the day when slaves were truly freed—not by official proclamation as customarily taught, but by an enforced reality, which took the form of one Union General and 2000 Federal troops arriving in Galvaston, Texas, to officially free slaves who were still held in bondage in the last Southern state in open rebellion.  Despite the importance of Juneteenth as a state holiday in Texas and observed officially in another 44 states, plus D.C., imagine my surprise to learn that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had not done everything which the majority historical narrative had commonly ascribed to it.  And imagine my learning that a full two years after Lincoln’s Proclamation, those Texas slaves had yet to be supported by the Republic that declared they were truly free.

My surprise is due to my assumption that the historical narrative that was taught to me as a child was the only primary narrative that there was.  As with so many things in adulthood (which is on-going, I might add), my education of narrative was incomplete.  I am not alone.

Where and when has the narrative which you were taught been incomplete?  If we are to be honest, many of us likely had incomplete narratives, whatever our race, our gender, our class, or our religion.   Part of mature faith is learning when and how the spiritual, religious, and social narrative that we learned as children or even as adults has been incomplete or lacking in some way.  Truth can stand questioning.  It can also withstand competing or multiple narratives being articulated and experienced.

So I am not surprised, really, that I had no idea about Juneteenth.  The fact that I was not exposed to a celebration that was meaningful to many African Americans was just another part of the majority narrative that I was exposed to—one that gave priority and preference to the history of whites, and not of persons of color or Native Americans or of women or any perceived minority.

Our bible is rich in slave narrative.  At various times in history, that slave narrative has been used to justify chattel slavery and unhealthy power-dynamics between various tribes, races, and peoples. However, our bible is also rich in narratives of liberation which is one reason why many slave owners forbid slaves going to church or the resident slave preacher preaching anything other than obedience to the master of the plantation lest the slaves rebel.  Within its complex narratives, the Bible explores the dynamics of relationship and freedom, containing powerful stories of God’s leaders and liberators– Moses, Jesus, and yes, Mary were liberators to those enslaved by powers and principalities that would bind and oppress the human spirit and human heart.

Our Hebrew and Christian forebears thought it important to teach their children about God’s presence, power, and action even in the midst of enslavement while helping those enslaved to tap into God’s Spirit to encourage their own disheartened spirits and to empower them.  Enslavement is a hard word these days to discuss in mixed groups.  For many people, enslavement is something to leave behind, an idea that belongs only to the sad dust of the past.  For these, the slavery issue was settled long ago, at least in certain overt forms.  Yet, depending on who you talk to, slavery is alive and well in the human heart, if not in its physical form, such as chattel slavery and the like, then in more subtle and insidious forms.

To whom or what are you enslaved?  To what are you still in bondage?  For some of us, it might be some form of addiction or harmful relationship, for others, it may be bondage to a particular way of thinking, a societal poison, or a repetitive behavior.  Still others might feel enslaved by their debt or credit cards, by material possessions, or a kind of workaholism that leaves no room for rest or Sabbath or spending time with friends.  Another way to ask this question would be: To what are you held hostage against your will or against your better intentions?

It’s Juneteenth time.

Scripture teaches us that while we may individually be in bondage to many things, we may also powerfully and simultaneously be held captive collectively as well.  In Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire held the poor captive thru its policies and propaganda that favored Rome’s interests, oppressed the Jewish people, and made worship of the Emperor an obligatory cult religion.  Similarly, certain ideas about the worth of the sinner, the leprous, the outcast, and the physically blind kept people in bondage and isolated from both healing and community.

Today, violence grips this nation, as well as many nations around the world.  While we could discuss the particularity of its forms, violence seems the solution far too quickly to many of our problems.  Whether we are considering gun violence, police brutality, or domestic violence, violence between two nations, or two peoples, or violence that has escalated to genocide, how we deal with our own violent tendencies has spiritual ramifications.

John Modschiedler defines violence this way: “[Violence] is a ripping apart, a tearing out (of context) … the end product of not thinking of things in relationship. Violence is a scattering. Scattering is the opposite of gathered togetherness—community. Violence is an assault on community, on belongingness, on relationship…” [2]

Tom Montgomery Fate writes, “In seminary I was taught that religion could help reduce or resolve the problem of human violence. The Latin root of the word means ‘to bind together,’ which implies a social ethic, and thus a remedy to the core disrelation and ‘ripping apart.’ But while many religious leaders and communities have modeled alternatives to violence, much violent behavior, including most wars, has been catalyzed and/or validated by religion. Perhaps the problem is the alternative meaning of ‘to bind.’ To bind also means to enslave. ‘Religious’ Euro-Americans enslaved Africans and sold them at auctions like cattle. The U.S. government limited the human species to the light-skinned, defining a ‘Negro’ as 3/5 of a human being. And our military killed hundreds of thousands of Native Americans (“savages”) in the quest for more land.”[3]

So today, in our lectionary, when we hear Jesus saying that he has come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword, what exactly are we hearing?  What is Jesus advocating if not violence in this passage?

For passages like this in Matthew, we must also remember that Jesus—in Matthew— instructed his disciples to put away their swords for he tells his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”(Matthew 26:52).  In earlier passage from Matthew, we are reminded about the cost of discipleship which is the cost of pursuing truth with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbor.  We are reminded that those who attempt to live in relationship with Jesus will often find that their relationships with society, family, sisters, brothers, parents and children are re-defined and re-organized by the love and values that Jesus teaches.  This is a real struggle as we try to sift and sort thru our own priorities and our own history in light of gospel imperatives.

What, then, does that mean for the human will to violence?  What does that mean for our own tendency for revenge or pay-back, our tendency to lord-it-over-others, or our tendency towards aggressive speech, manner, or deed?

Friends, it’s Juneteenth time.

What does it mean when our need to be right does violence to community or to relationship or to our own collective and personal ability to admit wrong?  In many cases, we will find allegiance to the gospel puts our other loyalties in perspective, if not all at once, then gradually, as we come to love the justice and people that God loves.

It’s Juneteenth time.

In terms of violence, there is an on-going debate over whether human violence is innate or something learned.  Violence begets violence and we know that those who are exposed to violent acts are at risk to perpetuate violence.  Still, the debate rages.   In an article in Psychology Today, one writer says, “In the human fossil and archeological record there is no good evidence of intense aggression and warfare until very recently, and it is associated with the advent of permanent settlements, agriculture, and social stratification. Increased social inequality and more complex political and economic systems seem to correlate with more types of aggression and violence in human societies. Interestingly, these scenarios also correlate with larger and more complex peaceful relationships amongst and between peoples.”[4]

Human beings have choices but as certain violent behaviors become normalized, choice seems rather dubious as other options can no longer become imagined or implemented or even accepted as a viable  options.

Years ago, on what was the industrial side of Frederick, MD, my brother and I used to beg my father to steer the wheels of our car in a certain section of trolley or railway track.  If he did it, we would feel the wheels of the car follow along the grooved track without deviation.  Our choices are a bit like that track.  If we follow along a particular pattern over and over again, we should not be surprised to find the wheels of society stuck in that track, or that we, as individuals, can no longer deviate from that pattern as easily as we might imagine.

Lewis Gordon, Professor of Philosophy and Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, explains, “If we look at people across time, we begin to realise that, ultimately, a lot of the issues of the 20th & 21st Century are actually linked to problems in the Centuries which preceded them.” Quoting Aimé Césaire, Gordon explains that Hitler was not an aberration, but a manifestation of European values…because ultimately what Hitler was doing in Europe is what Europe was doing in the global south…as these were activities permissible only on people of color or people of what was called the third world.[5]

Gary Slutkin is physician, epidemiologist, infectious disease control specialist who has addressed epidemics in places such as Somalia and Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and other places.  Based on what he has seen and what he knows of epidemic death, he believes that violence in America and elsewhere is a chronic disease.  He found that the greatest predictor of violence is a preceding case of violence.  What he and others have noticed is that violence is contagious and follows particular patterns.  He is now the CEO of Cure Violence which runs programs in various cities in the U.S., along with places of turmoil around the world.

Based on a health model, Slutkin formulated a program with others that addresses violence in 3 ways: by interrupting the transmission of violence thru detecting and finding first cases and hiring violence interrupters who have credibility, trust, access and training, 2) finding those who have been exposed to trauma and violence and preventing future spread thru outreach and 3) shifting societal norms, by remodeling and building group immunity.  The 1st experiment of this was in West Garfield neighborhood of Chicago and resulted in a 67% drop in shootings in what was, at the time, one of the most violent areas of the United States.  His program and others like it are attempts to address violence directly by understanding that violence can be prevented, can be addressed, and can be overcome.[6]

The Israelites who were freed by Moses from the oppression of Pharaoh and his minions were also quick to turn on Moses when hardship and bickering increased and they were no longer in their comfort zone.  Collectively, the Israelites believed that they had traded one kind of oppression for another, brick-making for wandering hungry in the dessert, the known oppression for the unknown terror of the future.

I wonder sometimes if some of us—particularly those of us who have lived relatively free from oppression— have a kind of terror of the future.  It is obvious that our society is struggling towards a future that ensures greater equality and visibility for those who have not experienced the kind of reconciliation and redress that our holy Bible promotes and envisions.  We have wandered and we are not altogether sure of our current leaders whether they be prophets, politicians, or community leaders.  We are not altogether sure of ourselves.  But we do know, don’t we, that God wills our collective freedom as a people together, and as a people who need each other to survive and to thrive.

Somewhere along the line, we human beings placed our wheels in a track that said that we could not thrive without someone else’s oppression or even without their demise.

It is high time, it is Juneteenth time, to come together to change that narrative before our wheels become permanently stuck in violent mode.

What do you need to do today to change your narrative?

Derek Flood, author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross writes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail…Violence is most dangerous when it masquerades as good. In the past people sought to justify violence against children, claiming it was ‘for their own good.’ Today we hear the argument from law enforcement that their use of violence is for our own protection. However, as we are increasingly seeing, the actual result is that we are all less safe. Violence has long been our country’s national savior. It’s time we recognized it for the empty idol that it really is. It’s time we found better ways of dealing with our problems. Rather than finding reasons to justify violence, we need to be looking for better and more effective means for addressing problems. We have lots of hammers. It’s time we learned to use the many other tools at our disposal.”[7]

Sisters and brothers, you might not know how to address the violence in our community at large.  But you do know how to address the violence in yourselves.  You do know a better way, a Jesus way, to ask the questions that will get you closer to the vision of God’s people living together in harmony.

You do know Jesus.  Ask him to help you, to help us.

It’s Juneteenth time.

 

 

 

[1] For more info: http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

[2] As qtd by Tom Montgomery Fate, “The Nature of Violence,” Feb 24, 2014. http://www.humansandnature.org/nature-violence

[3] Tom Montgomery Fate, ibid.

[4]Agustin Fuentes, Ph.D. “Bad to the Bone: Are Humans Naturally Aggressive?” Psychology Today, April 18, 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/busting-myths-about-human-nature/201204/bad-the-bone-are-humans-naturally-aggressive

 

[5]  Lewis Gordon, “Disposable Life,” https://www.historiesofviolence.com/special-series

[6] See https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_slutkin_let_s_treat_violence_like_a_contagious_disease

[7] Derek Flood, “Ferguson and America’s Love Affair With Violence,”HuffPost, updated October 25, 2014.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-flood/ferguson-and-americas-lov_b_5702949.html