Monday, April 8, 2013

Sermon: To tell a different story

This is a sermon that I preached last night at Kay Chapel at American University. It's about violence in the name of the Christian story, and why I think--given all that violence--we still need to tell the story of our faith. As it turned out, it was also the day when the campus remembers those who died in the Holocaust by reading names from the steps of Kay, so there was a resonance between what I was saying and what was going on outside. The texts were John 20:19-31 and Acts 5:27-32. Let me know what you think.

I. Love. Stories.

When I was a kid, I used to tell stories. I had a really active imagination, so my stories usually involved Martians or dragons or robotic superheroes. I just loved make-believe. Loved creating whole worlds that I could play in, could lose myself in.

I never kept my stories to myself. I would tell them to just about anyone who was around. My mom would sit at our computer and type up the stories that I told her. Then we’d print them out and make a book out of them, and my dad would help me illustrate them.

I’m pretty sure I still have some of those books sitting around, but anyway. That’s a different story.

Stories. What’s your favorite story?

Think about this question for a second. What’s your favorite story?

Why is it your favorite?

Who is the story about?

Last week, we walked together through a story. It’s a story that has all the elements that make for a good story. It has foreshadowing. Tension. Conflict. Betrayal. Redemption. And when we tell it, there’s a lot of singing.

Now, we find out, the story continues. There’s a “what’s next?” And it sounds like it’s going to be another good story. The story of a people transformed in order to transform the world. The story of a church.
 Earlier, we heard the first outlines of this new story. We heard about the disciples, huddled together in the upper room. We heard about their transformative experience with the Risen Christ, with this man who still bears the scars of his terrible death but now, somehow, graciously breathes out the Spirit of peace. We heard about Peter—fearful Peter, Christ-denying Peter—suddenly filled with courage, leading the apostles in front of the council, saying “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Renewal. Drama. Confrontation. Oh, yeah. This is going to be a good story.

But there is a problem with this story, or at least a problem with the way that this story has been told throughout the history of the church. A problem that makes me cringe even though I want to be thrilling to the themes of redemption and liberation hinted at in these texts. The story that we are hearing the beginning of tonight is good news, but it has not always been good news for those that the Christian community has interacted with. As it turns out stories, even good stories, can be used as weapons.

I notice, when I’m reading the gospel of John, that I cringe a lot. I cringe a lot because John uses a word repeatedly, a word that is used in tonight’s reading. Actually, in the Common English version that we heard read, the Greek word “Ioudaios” is translated as “Jewish authorities.” But traditionally, in the old King James Version and in the New Revised Standard Version that I’m used to reading, the word is translated as “Jews.” And I hear, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” And I think, instead, of all the times in the past 2000 years when it has been Jews locking doors for fear of the good Christian folks. And I think, instead, of centuries of pogrom and persecution and Holocaust. Of Christian bishops urging emperors to prohibit Jewish communities from rebuilding burned out synagogues. And then I turn to the Acts passage, and I read “the God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree,” and I wonder just how long in Christian history it took for that plural “you” to mean, not authorities or power structures but instead a whole race or ethnic group. I wonder just how long it took for this good, good story of resurrection and redemption and empowerment to turn into a story of violence, of ethnic cleansing of us-versus-them, of othering.

Of course the story didn’t start out this way. When the gospel of John uses the word “Ioudaios,” what’s being referenced is an intra-Jewish conflict. The Jewish community is being pulled apart over the issue of the messiahship of this Jesus of Nazareth character, and the fledgling pre-Christian community is not doing so well. It seems, from other texts in John’s gospels, that Christians—who, remember, are still predominantly Jewish at this time—have been kicked out of synagogues. So what we have in John’s gospel isn’t the story of Gentile Christians against traitorous Jews but rather a struggling Jewish Christian community against, as the CEB would have it, religious authorities. There are even some scholars who argue that the meaning of “Ioudaios” is better understood as “Judean,” that is, from Jerusalem and southern surrounds, in contrast to the predominantly northern, Galilean followers of Jesus.

This same dynamic of intra-communal conflict is at play throughout the book of Acts. The author of the single document that we know as Luke and Acts goes out of his way to absolve Pilate of the death of Jesus, emphasizing the insistence of the Jewish community on the crucifixion of Jesus. But as Barbara Reid writes, “When Jewish Christians spoke of Jews who put Jesus to death, the intra-Jewish nature of the conflict was clear. But when Christians who are no longer Jews speak of ‘the Jews’ as being responsible for the death of Jesus, there is a whole other nuance that fuels anti-Judaism. Luke’s narratives must be understood in both their historical and theological contexts, at the same time, they must not be used to foment anti-Semitism.”[i]

But oh, how our Christian narratives—our Christian stories—have been used to foment anti-Semitism. The story of the crucifixion, with the Jews as the enemy, the killers of Christ, fueled Christian violence against Jewish communities, from riots to pogroms to the ovens of the Holocaust. It was Christian theology—the Christian story about God—based, ostensibly, on the biblical texts, that made this violence possible. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners makes this point, that German anti-Semitism, based on Christian theology and a certain reading of the Bible, created the atmosphere in which genocide could occur.[ii] Our Christian story was wrapped up in the need for violent scapegoating. Our story, our text, was used as a weapon, as a tool for writing other people out of the story. 

Now much work has been done, after the Holocaust, to disassociate biblical interpretation from this pernicious anti-Semitism. But Jewish people are not the only victims of our Christian tendency—can we call it our human tendency—to write people out of stories. Other religions have been the target of our stories-as-weapons as well. I’m thinking particularly of the stereotypes and the fear directed toward Islam, from the blood-drenched saga of the Crusades until today. The story relies on the exclusion of others, of people of other religions, in order to secure the particularity of Christian salvation. And we look to some of our favorite Bible verses and we see the shadow of this looming exclusivity. We see John 3:16, that favorite verse for signs at football games, and we read “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” And somehow instead of the love of God, and instead of the statement against condemnation that appears in the very next verse, somehow this verse comes to mean “You must accept Jesus or you must perish.” And we hear John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” See? Look! It’s in the Bible! If you don’t believe in Jesus, then you are excluded. You are written out of the story.

(This is bad exegesis, by the way. But I think it’s representative of the way these texts have been interpreted over the centuries and throughout modern times.)

Now maybe it’s natural for religious stories to exclude other religions. But the way that the Christian story has been told over the centuries and right up until our current time has been perfectly willing to write people out of the story within the Christian fold. It will come as no surprise to you to hear me say that our texts have been used as weapons against women. I mean, there’s the obvious proof text passages. 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Or 1 Corinthians 11:3, “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of the wife.” But those passages are the easy ones to critique, to say, “Well, those are just the product of a certain sociohistoric context.” But there are parts of our story that are much closer to home, I think, that have been used to commit violence against women. How many women experiencing domestic violence have been told that the abuse their husbands are pouring out on them is simply “the cross that they have to bear”? How much Christian theology has centered around God as an abusive Father, pouring His—and I say His here on purpose—wrath out on a victim Son? And if an abusive Father, why not an abusive husband? And I could go on and on about texts from the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah that picture Israel as an unfaithful wife and proceed to use language of violence and shame against the feminine depiction of the people of God. So often, too often, the texts that we draw on for our Christian faith have been used to silence women, to hurt women, to write women out of the story.

Of course, the latest fad in violence done in the name of the Christian story is that which is committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk, whether Christian or not. And again, we can go to the Bible for our prooftexts, for those seven clobber passages that are used to tell gay people that they are inherently wrong, unclean, less-than. During the recent rallies at the Supreme Court in response to the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 court cases, one journalist went and talked to young people who were rallying against marriage equality. He had them write the reason for their opposition to gay marriage on a pad of paper and then snapped a picture of them. Almost every single one of the young people he talked to used some sort of pseudo-Christian argument to make their case that marriage should be between one (cisgender) man and one (cisgender) woman. As Peter Gomes, the late Harvard chaplain and himself a gay man, writes: “Although most contemporary Christians who have moral reservations about homosexuality, and who find affirmation for those reservations in the Bible, do not resort to physical violence and intimidation, they nevertheless contribute to the maintenance of a cultural environment in which less scrupulous opponents of homosexuality are given the sanction of the Bible to feed their prejudice and, in certain cases, cultural “permission” to act with violence upon those prejudices.”[iii] To Gomes I would add that even when overt violence is not acted out against gay people, the violence of closets and of silencing—with all the depression, self-loathing, and all too often suicide that results—is not to be underestimated. For so long LGBTQ people have been the scapegoats, pushed to the margins and written out of the Christian story.

I could go on, of course. I could talk about all the biblical arguments for chattel slavery in the United States. The violence done in the name of the Bible against indigenous people, including ongoing violence against Palestinians sanctioned by the land promises of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The violence of colonialism. I imagine you get the point.

So here’s the question: why not just throw it all out? Why, if the Christian story has been accompanied by, and has fueled, so much violence throughout the centuries, if our texts have been used to write so many people out of the story, then why should we keep the damn thing at all? Why should we read the texts, why should we listen to the stories?

Here’s why I think our Christian stories matter. Because they point the way to the risen Christ. And this Christ, this risen Christ, is the Jesus who knows what it is to be written out of a story. To be pushed to the margins. To be violated, abused, killed. And it is this Christ—this risen Christ who still carries the signs of trauma in hands and side, wounds that Thomas can touch—who, against all reason, breathes the Spirit of peace out onto the disciples who betrayed and abandoned him. This wounded, this traumatized Christ comes to us from the margins of the page, from the places of crushing pain, and gives us the ability to tell a new story. Gives us new lenses to read this old, old story.

This risen Christ, this resurrected Jesus, calls us to question any place in our story that excludes and scapegoats, because if we read with the eyes of Christ we read with the eyes of the excluded and the scapegoated. This risen Christ, this resurrected Jesus, transforms Peter and the rest of the disciples from marginalized voices huddled in a room to empowered voices that must obey the call of a God of justice and of peace rather than any human authority of violence and dehumanization.  When we read our texts, when we tell our stories, in the Spirit of this resurrected Jesus, we find that our texts can no longer be used as weapons. That we can no longer engage in the project of writing people out of the story.

Because, you see, we are an Easter people. We are an Easter people, and something fundamental has changed. Something that leads us to challenge, like Peter standing before the council, the violent side of our shared story.

What’s your favorite story?

Who is it about?

Who is included, and who is not?

Let me tell you my favorite story. It is one that I have probably told before. You might have heard it in this very chapel, but I think it is worth retelling. The story is about South Africa, in the depths of the struggle against apartheid. The white South African government had outlawed a march against apartheid, so the organizers of the march decided instead to hold a church service at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Then-bishop Desmond Tutu was preparing to speak to the gathered marchers when the doors to the cathedral burst open. In poured members of the dreaded apartheid secret police, making no effort to conceal their identity. They carried tape recorders and pads of paper. The message was clear: speak up, and your name will be taken down. You will be recorded. And we will find you. And we will find your family. And you will regret that you did not hold your tongue.

Desmond Tutu surveyed the situation. The menacing agents. The terrified congregation, eyes moving fearfully from him to the intruders. What would he say? How would he respond?

He began thoughtfully. “You are powerful,” he said. “You are very powerful.”

“But we serve a God who will not be mocked!”

And then, spreading his arms wide in a gesture of welcoming and smiling widely, he proclaimed: “Since, in Christ, we have already won…we invite you today to join the winning side.”

The response was tremendous. The congregation began singing and dancing, and the pressure of their movement slowly moved the secret police out of the cathedral and onto the street. From fear to celebration. From huddled in a room to saying, with Peter, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Now the thing about this story is that when it happened, there was no way, just no way, that Desmond Tutu was right. The anti-apartheid movement was not the winning side. It was, very decidedly, the losing side. But a decade later those same protesters would be dancing in the streets of South Africa celebrating the fall of apartheid, and who knows but they might have been joined by some of those same secret police agents who had been tasked to intimidate and brutalize them. The anti-apartheid movement was carried forward by a hope in the resurrection, a hope that challenged not only state-sanctioned but also church-sanctioned dehumanization and violence. The scapegoated, traumatized Jesus, emerging from the margins of the story to breathe peace.

Friends, we are being invited, today, to meet this resurrected Jesus. This might mean positioning ourselves in some scary places. In the margins of our collective stories. In fearfully locked rooms. In the places within our narratives where prejudice and scapegoating rule the day. In places of trauma and pain. Because it is from exactly these places that the risen Christ emerges, breathing peace. This risen Christ is calling to us, today, from demolished homes in East Jerusalem, from bomb-shattered streets in Syria, from poverty-ravaged and abandoned urban and rural landscapes in the U.S., from psychiatric wards and homeless shelters, calling to us. Calling to us to, today, to tell a different story.

Calling to us, today, to join the winning side.

[i] Barbara Reid, “Notes on Acts,” in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon, 2003), 1959.
[ii] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Vintage, 1997).
[iii] Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (Harper One, 1996), 146.

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