The Eternal Sin
I. Charlottesville, VA
Many of us today have our minds focused on two distinct things: first, the horrific events in Charlottesville, VA, during the last two weeks, and second, the promise of yesterday’s outpouring of people of good will in Boston, MA, who celebrated our nation’s diversity and unity.
The “Unite the Right” protest which began on August 11 and ended on August 12, was convened by known fascist sympathizers, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites. The counter-protest was led by ecumenical faith groups, moderate and liberal Christians, progressives, and racial and ethnic minorities. The “Unite the Right” protest ended in violence, primarily motivated by the so-called “alt-right,” who brought forward the frightening images of torch-lit KKK rallies and lynchings of the past. The local police department failed to maintain order. And a counter-protester, Heather D. Heyer (a 32-year old Charlottesville native), was killed in a horrific way by a Nazi sympathizer, James Fields, who had travelled to the “Unite the Right” protest from Ohio. Many have recognized the eerie similarities between the tragic death of Heather Heyer and the stoning death of Christianity’s first martyr, Saint Stephen. I commend to you Chapter 7 or the Acts of the Apostles for further study in this regard.
As Christians, what should our response be to these events? Is there really, truly, a “moral equivalency” between those groups like the KKK who spout hatred in the name of a Christian God, and those progressive, ecumenical, and faith-based counter-protesters who were calling for racial and ethnic tolerance? What about the allegations of violence perpetuated by the so-called “alt-left”? What does God call on us to do in response to the Charlottesville protests?
II. Exegesis: Words & Actions, not Thoughts
I wish we had time to delve into these questions, because they raise important issues about the state of race relations in America today, about the alarming rise of fascism and the resurgence of the KKK, and they raise important issues about our own President, who at times appears to be siding with the “alt-right,” who comprise a large portion of his political base.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us that sin comes from our evil intentions – what comes out of our mouths and hearts – rather than violations of earthly laws, such as the Hebraic law of the Pentateuch, or Torah. These foundational religious texts proscribe, for example, what to eat, what not to do on the Sabbath, and how to remain clean.
Ever the revolutionary, Jesus told his Jewish audience that it was hypocritical for them to insist on strict observance of Hebraic laws, while at the same time engaging in sins of the mind and heart: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander.
During Jesus’s day, as well as in many conservative Jewish communities today, failure to punctiliously follow Hebraic law led to serious consequences, including expulsion from the synagogue. In other words, being shunned by the church. This meant that such person would be disconnected from their Hebrew community. Failure to strictly observe Torah law meant being excluded from the economic and social networks of their time.
Jesus taught that the Pharisees and religious leaders had made the worship of God a matter of rules and traditions, not of praise and worship. The Torah laws had gotten in the way of worshipping God. And so Jesus emphasized that laws that are irrelevant to loving God may be broken, as long as one remains pure in heart and intention.
This is Jesus’s message for today: When Jesus says, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him “unclean.” Jesus wants us to be pure, but purity does not come from things like hand-washing or eating animals with cloven hooves, as the Pharisees believed. To Jesus, these were just window dressing. Jesus teaches us that to be right with God has nothing to do with the unquestioning adherence to external, earthly laws. Being right with God has everything to do with what is inside us.
III. What is God Calling on us To Do?
Our response to the events in Charlottesville, VA, follows directly from today’s Gospel lesson. It is plain to see that those who protest in the name of love are on the right side of history. Those who protest in the name of the true Jesus Christ – those who call for racial equality (based in love), for the elimination of hate (based in love), and for the protection of our Jewish brothers and sisters (based in love), are living out today’s Gospel. They do not defile themselves by their speech.
On the opposite side, those who protest in the name of hate, in the name of racial superiority, and against Jews and Judaism, are on the wrong side of history. Jesus would never condone hatred based on racial, ethnic or religious differences. This is because Jesus calls us to love our neighbor with “radical hospitality.” This radical hospitality is a show of unconditional love. And it is clear who in Charlottesville, VA, were motivated by hate and who were motivated by unconditional love.
We must be clear that the display of unconditional love for our neighbor does NOT mean that we must be silent in the face of hate. Nor does it mean that we must be frozen by inaction – for a love of God with mind and heart demands action. Here are some things that have been suggested as action items to respond to the Charlottesville crisis:
- We must foster a climate in which we meet public displays of hatred and hate speech with collective resistance and condemnation.
- We must build on the progress we, as a society, have made in race relations over the last fifty years.
- We must recognize the places where the healing power of Christ’s love has yet to take root and strive do what we can to foster progress.
- We must practice personal vigilance that opens our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit in places where our own attitudes and prejudices remain unredeemed.
- We must stand alongside our brothers and sisters who are the victims of racial oppression, anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.
- We must contradict efforts of those groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to wrap their prejudicial behavior in the mantle of the Church or the Constitution.
- And finally, we must support the lawful prosecution of anyone who incites violence or commits murder in the name of any creed, secular or non-secular.
As Christians, there is only one response to hatred. That is love. We must show by our example that Christians will not tolerate hatred falsely clothed in a Christian veneer. As Christians, we will not tolerate fascism, racism, Nazism or anti-Semitism. We must not “turn the other cheek” in the face of an enemy that is willing to prop up its philosophy of hatred. We must engage in organized Christian action that leads with love. It is only through these exemplary actions and intentions that we can truly say that our love for God and for our neighbors is motivated by our Christian witness.
Let us pray. Loving and gracious God, help us to understand that the shock, dismay and grief coming out of Charlottesville, VA. Help us to understand that the events of these past two weeks will be a turning point for the United States and our global United Methodist Church. Show us the way to break our silence and speak out against racial hatred, intolerance and bigotry. Help us to share the collective responsibility to restore health to our communities and healing to those affected by recent events in Charlottesville, VA.
As followers of the Prince of Peace, help us to create non-violent communities where people with different political and religious views respect each other. Help us to articulate the vision of the beloved community where no person feels endangered on account of their social, racial or cultural identity. Help us to examine our own hearts for the prejudice that contributes to attitudes of supremacy or hatred, or to violence, or silence of fear. Teach us, Lord, that peacemaking and reconciliation always begins within.
May it be so.