Independence Day 2020
As I write to you, I am close to one of the original sites of American conquest--Plymouth, Massachusetts--of the lands of an indigenous people, the Wampanoag. More than on any Independence Day in my memory, in our nation many of us are naming anew that the prosperity and greatness of the United States of America was built on the sins of uncompensated annexation of land and slavery. Or as Alexander Hamilton sings to Thomas Jefferson in the song “Cabinet Battle #1” of the musical Hamilton, (which we have been watching since it was available for viewing yesterday):
“A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor
Your debts are paid 'cause you don't pay for labor
‘We plant seeds in the South. We create.’ Yeah, keep ranting
We know who's really doing the planting.”
I am reminded in this season in which we reexamine the history of slavery and white privilege in our country of the quintessential Biblical story of power, sin and election: David and Bathsheba. King David, overcome with desire, takes the wife of his soldier Uriah, impregnates her, and has Uriah killed. David pays for the sins of conquest and murder with the life of his and Bathsheba’s first born and with ongoing troubles as the prophet Nathan prognosticates. But David also solidifies his power, and with Bathsheba now as his 8th wife, has the son Solomon who will become the wise and most successful ruler of the Israelite monarchy. Prosperity and greatness built on sin.
I do not know what, as a nation, we must do to account for the sins of our forebears: the nation’s firstborn have died long ago. Naming the sins of our forebears, acknowledging the consequences of those trespasses is a start. Reparations or financial investment in indigenous communities and to support African American asset development are some of the ideas again being actively discussed in legislative bodies. I do not know how our nation can best account for the sins of our forebears this Independence Day weekend. But I do know that the Church has something important to contribute to dismantling racism in the present, because we know sin, we know it and its destructive effects are real, and we have the language and the spiritual and communal mechanisms to address sin if we choose.
I am deeply grateful to St. Matt’s small group, the Wellness Group, especially member Sharyl Corrado, for leading our congregation this month in the initial phase of examining our complicity in racism but also our power to counter it. It is my hope that in the coming weeks and months this core group along with others in our congregation will come up with recommendations for how we might as a congregation recommit ourselves to dismantling racism, as we have in the past explicitly dedicated ourselves to LGBTQ discrimination and the marginalization of the Deaf.
First and foremost, I believe, we must clearly speak out and act up against acts of violence against African Americans and unequal judicial system treatment of African Americans and other persons of color. We must advocate for laws and practices that create equity in social systems and financial systems and asset development (business growth, home ownership etc.). But we must also look to see how the institution of the Church—the ELCA and even St. Matthew’s—maintains hierarchical power structures that privilege whiteness among other markers like maleness and wealth. Our self-examination will certainly be sobering, and may be painful, but it is critical if we really want to claim we are an ecclesia semper reformanda, an ever-self-reforming church, committed to the love, liberation and restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As challenging and at times frightening as this moment is—because of the lethal threat of the Coronavirus and the real danger of abusive political power—we find hope and strength in the God that promises forgiveness, healing and restoration in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Take heart, beloved people of St. Matthew’s, take heart in God’s promises. Let us continue to make God’s vision of justice, beauty and peace our loadstar. Be witnesses to one another and the world of God’s mercy, love and justice, so that we can continue and one day complete our work for the Gospel.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).
Peace and blessings on this Independence Day weekend!--PS