Sin Is The Problem — That’s the Cure? (for Julie)

My friend Julie LaBarr asked me to write something Christmas-y and I had been hoping to write an upbeat piece for awhile, without leaving the world of troubling race issues permanently, but as I explained to her, “stuff keeps happening”. It’s been a difficult second half of 2014, with all of the death and mayhem in the streets this summer, followed by the quiet “death and mayhem” of the courts, and the resulting “death and mayhem” which followed. All of these things keep happening, and they are big things.
It’s easy to lose perspective, but the little things keep happening, too. The sun comes up, the sun goes down — every day. Kids go to football games and later proms, and graduate. People move and meet new friends. People adopt dogs or cats. People fall in love and get married. In nature, the food supply still supplies. In New England, we have Autumn and the colors of the seasons. All of these give us hope, or comfort in the midst of a mad world — both mad as in “angry” and mad as in “insane”. For the brief minutes or hours that we do these things, we lose perspective on the big things and regain our perspective on the small things — the things which really matter…
And then, there’s babies. Babies seem to rebuke the death and mayhem of the Big World simply by their existence. A child is born into the world and the world of its parents stops. Facebook now lights up with pictures of Billy or Sue while the mother is pregnant, just after birth, when the child says their first word or walks or even potty trains. Nuclear war? Yeah, but my kid just said “Da-Da” or “Ma-Ma”!
In the old days, though, it was the same way. We took pictures or passed out cigars or had baby showers or had the relatives fly out all, all because a child was born. My children witnessed the birth of a calf this year and were in awe. There is something about the promise of new life — any new life — that makes us feel good. When it is our own children, it is incredible. Even my female clients, with their drug-addled lives and trauma histories are changed by the birth of a child. Maybe for an hour or maybe for a day, they are hopeful and strong for the baby. Sometimes, that hope and protectiveness — love in two of its forms — lasts forever and they get their lives together, for the sake of that child. Marriages often stay together “for the sake of the children” and — while this isn’t always a good thing — people also work on their troubled marriages and things get better for the sake of their children. Besides, it’s really hard to see your child and not believe that you were at least once in love with your partner.

Deny it all you want, this is — for a period of time — our reality. It’s a lot to put on a kid, but it is where we find hope, and innocence, and warmth– at first, within the placenta, then amidst the poop and pee and snot. A woman in my wife’s parish gave birth recently and my girls (who hadn’t even seen the baby yet) were screaming with joy, alternating with “awwwwww” and “what’s it’s name and how big is it?!”. The kid hasn’t even done anything yet, and they have changed our lives.
Christians take this reality seriously — really seriously — at Christmas. This child, in a stable, surrounded by animals and the stinky shepherds who watched them is an archetype of all that is good and possible in the world. In our mind, the baby doesn’t cry or poop, it just radiates goodness. It is, in a word, innocent. And if we say this about our own kids whom we know, then we really say it about Jesus whom we dream about, put our hopes on, and worship on Christmas.
When we are at our own children’s birth, if there’s sin (and that’s a big “if”) in the child, nobody sees it. There is only joy, and love, and excitement. Multiply that exponentially and you have Jesus’ innocence. People also respond with joy, and love, and excitement, because they remember, in the core of their being, innocence and they respond. The archetype of “innocence” is hard-wired into our brain and we know its reality deep in our souls. But, we as adults know all too well the reality of our world. Who in the world would want to bring a child into this?
With all the options out there to prevent pregnancy, why would anyone choose to raise a child in this going-to-heck-in-a-handbasket world? And yet we do.
The general consensus around here is that the world is getting worse in its depravity, indifference, and cruelty to each other. Childbirth and the possible re-birth of innocence in our lives is the greatest rebellion against the world that is imaginable. Hope, love, and innocence are genuine defiance to our depression, our fear, our violence.
The baby Jesus was born in the politically oppressed community of Israel, occupied by the Romans, and yet he didn’t hate any of the people around him. Our own children may grow up in poverty, surrounded by hatred, racism, and all sorts of political oppression. But at the moment of birth, they don’t hate anyone either. In Jesus’ case, he didn’t learn hate either and he didn’t teach hate either. The rest of us human beings somehow do.
Still, at the moment of birth, no one I know imagines that they’re raising another soldier for hate. The future is not written yet, and the promise that this child — despite all odds — will be the one to fix the world, will at least make it a better place — opens up all sorts of possibilities in the child, but also in us. The child’s innocence draws out the innocence, the hope, the possibilities in us.
We are reminded that that innocence, that hope, that possibility lives in us in the present tense. We could be cynical, but at that moment, we forget all of that. We remember that there are other choices of how to live, because we experience other choices. In that moment, we embody the hope of the world as much as the baby does. Our perspective changes for the better. That is what Christmas is about.
Amidst the family dysfunction, the political dysfunction, the chaos and so on of the holidays — including loss of loved ones for some of us — we become more than functional inside ourselves and it shows outside of us. That’s why the day of Christmas is generally so peaceful.
We Christians like to speak of Jesus’ saving us on the cross of Good Friday and Easter, but here on Christmas we are changed in a real, palpable way. Besides that, any day a child is born to anyone, they are changed in a palpable way. This is why non-Christians, on-again-off-again Christians, even people with no faith at all, can celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.
May we each find, remember, treasure and nurture the innocence, hope, possibilities remembered at the birth of this particular baby, and may we practice it all with the birth of our children.

Peace,

John

An Open Letter of Apology to My African-American Friends

My God, this is horrible. After recent events, and as a follower of Jesus, I feel like a disciple at the cross today, watching a friend die, or living with the possibility that they might. The last time I felt like this was when I thought of my daughters on the day of the Newtown shooting. They weren’t shot that day, but what if they were? My life would never be the same and I would be upset until the day I died.

My White brothers and sisters don’t hear of your plight because they don’t know you and our media never tells your stories in any sort of way that seems moral or spiritual or decent people.

I, however, am different. People may not know it now, but nearly 20 years ago I was the only White clergy person in the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance — the ostensibly Black Clergy group. I helped bring an African-American church into our church’s building, and met my wonderful friends, the Claytors — Benny and Gerri and their daughters. I was the chair of my local denomination Committee on Racism. I led a suburban/urban camp for the CT Conference UCC, and — in one of the proudest moments of my life, at the behest of some congregants, was acknowledged for my work with diverse communities in Bridgeport by the CT State Senate.

I should be proud of all of this, and I am. But today it is also the cause of my shame. All of this is speaks to how much I knew about your situation….Yet, here we are nearly 20 years later, and you are dying. I can’t imagine a worse fate for either of us, but mostly for you.

Ferguson is just the start. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we have heard more and more and more and more stories of policemen and African-American men getting killed which give testimony to the African-American condition in this country. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, I have heard about an African-American woman who was standing her ground against her violent man and the law that got George Zimmerman off didn’t apply to her. The list goes on.

This last thing, though, kills me emotionally. In Ferguson, the Grand Jury was given the WRONG burden of proof to determine Darren Wilson’ s guilt. The Grand Jury heard from the defendant, which is not supposed to happen. The officer involved went home with the evidence. His superiors talked to him for hours privately. His gun was washed off! The police militarized and attacked non-violent demonstrators — all to protect the man they feel killed Michael Brown. Darren Wilson is a problem, no doubt, but he is by no means the only one. The ADA, the clerks, the lawyers, the police, the National Guard ALL conspired to prevent justice from happening.

As the stories come of 12 year old being shot by police and a man who — after being beaten by police was charged with destruction of property because he BLED ON the uniforms of those who beat him, after those stories become more and more frequent, somehow I — who knew how bad things had been — had forgotten to watch after you. I had been led into a false sense of security while places like Ferguson, MO existed.

I was aware of concepts like systemic racism which are vague and require proof to the White community. But I was also aware of the harsh realities of my African-American friends, brothers and sisters. But, somehow, if someone had told me that whole communities like Ferguson still exist in America in 2014, I would not have believed it.

But here we are and I am shocked. You are dying because of our sins. You are dying because slowly we stripped away your rights and your growth and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything when the clerk in the grocery store or the bus driver gave you a dirty look. I didn’t say anything when someone told a racist joke, or portrayed President Obama as a monkey or… or … The list went on.

Now, if anything happened to my friend Greg or Margo or Gerri or Bennyta or any of the Black clergy in Bridgeport or anywhere else, it would be as if someone shot my daughter or my wife in a senseless tragedy that I should have seen coming.

But, while racism has put you on the cross because of our sin, I am aware that God will not let this stand. God and the Christian community can and should redeem the whole country, perhaps world, in the face of such tragedy. It has happened before and it can happen again. We can learn from the unnecessary death of Innocents who are confused with the guilty. We can learn from what seems like a summer of slaughter and we can say something about the stray look or the angry man with a gun or the police academy cadets who think it’s good to be aggressive. We can protest the mayor or council person who makes what they think is a cute racist remark . In short, we can repent.

A lot of us out there think that “repentance” means saying you’re sorry. It means more than that, though it’s a good start. The Hebrew word for “repent” is “shoov”, which means “turn around, go back” and it means return to the way it’s supposed to be with God and each other. THAT is what I want us to do today. But as one of my 12-step friends says, “if you walked 10 miles into the woods, you now have to walk 10 miles OUT of the woods.

It has been far too long that we as a nation have been walking into the woods. It is time to turn around, it is time to “shoov”, it is time to repent. It is time for us to travel TOWARD the dream of one of AMERICA’S greatest men ever, Martin Luther King, Jr, rather than away from it .

I, for one, pledge to try to keep my eye on the sparrow and keep walking out of this weird place we’re at in this country when we know better. I knew better. I should have paid attention. We all should have. But never again, brothers and sisters. Never again.

If any of my Black friends around the country were to die because of the way are in this country — for driving while Black or walking while Black or shopping while Black — I would grieve for the rest of my life because they were my FRIENDS. But at least I’d know I was walking in the right direction. For now, all I’ve got is “I’m sorry” . It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Peace,

John