Last Saturday I began to learn of the events of Charlottesville. I stated that, as a follower of Jesus and a graduate of the University of Virginia, I found this repulsive. Later that evening, knowing that many would worship in local churches the next morning, I invited us to lay our racism at the altar and ask God to remove it from us.
On Tuesday, the Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops of The United Methodist Church met in Atlanta. Bishop Sharma D. Lewis led us in a devotional on the last few days in #Charlottesville. She described her ministry in response to these events, calling the people of Virginia to prayer, action and continuing dialogue. She has ministered to the surviving spouse of one of those who died, who is a United Methodist. She asked us to name our feelings about the events of the weekend: I used one of the words I wrote on Saturday, that it was repulsive. I also mentioned words like "sadness,” "heavy,” "tired,” "privileged” and "troubled.”
She then asked us to invite Jesus into the conversation. What would he say? I heard these words from the Lord: "I will not leave you comfortless.” I thought of the processional of hatred on the lawn of the University of Virginia, where I studied, and I heard his words, "I am the light of the world.” I claimed his promise of "Peace I leave with you, not as the world gives.” And I heard his warning: "Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom”.
My mind then went to the great hymn of Charles Wesley. How can the chains of our racism fall off? How can our hearts, the hearts of all of us, be freed?
Then she led us in a service of reclaiming our baptismal vows. We were seated next to each other. And so Bishop Hope Morgan Ward asked me the question:
"Ken, do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?”
And I answered, “Yes.”
And then she asked, "Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
And I answered, “Yes.”
I touched the water and placed it on my forehead, and then asked these same questions of Bishop Bill McAlilly. And on it went, around the circle.
As bishops we have been consecrated to give spiritual leadership to The United Methodist Church in the Southeast. Bishop James Swanson of Mississippi challenged us, the white members of the college, and especially the white males, to speak. And so I will add to what I had said earlier in social media: We remember the heritage of slavery, racism, injustice and genocide, but we do not celebrate it. We can only celebrate the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1). We can confess that we have sinned, in what we have done and what we have left undone. We can confess that our complicity in this history has compromised our witness to the God has created us all in His image (Genesis 1). And in these dark days of our beloved nation, we can claim the promises of our baptism, which is our primary identity--in Christ--and ask our Lord for the power to become the people we profess to be.
Moving forward, and from a strategic perspective, we will benefit if evangelical and progressive Christians find common ground and voice in saying "no" to the alt-right movement and white supremacy. This is happening, if we are willing to listen. And the seriousness of this form of prejudice, bigotry and heresy requires that we get out of our ideological camps and echo chambers and stand in the gap for those who are the targets of this kind of racism. And that we appreciate those who are willing to stand in the gap with us, but who might not begin at the same place or know our motivations or experience or theories. And this is happening, too.
We need deeper understanding. We need to know the history of our nation, especially the history of the American South. We need to know the history of national socialism. We need to know the biblical heresy of racism that led to our divisions as Methodists, and we need to read the Barmen Declaration, which was a theological response to the Nazi movement. The persistence of strains of white supremacy combined with violence is a threat to the world that God loves. We need statements. We need to speak with moral clarity, and our words are best shaped by the deep well of the biblical prophets (Micah 6.8). I ask preachers to speak clearly from the pulpit, from the scriptures about where we find ourselves in this present moment. At the same time, we avoid self-righteousness—all have sinned (Romans 3; Isaiah 6). We can speak prophetically and with humility. We use the language of “us” and not “you” when we call for repentance and conversion of the heart and mind. But we cannot be silent. If we are silent the stones will cry out (Luke 19.40).
I also find Richard Rohr's insight to be compelling: "The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same." So how do we create multi-cultural churches where people of all races read the Bible together, pray together, worship together, watch over one another in love and speak the truth in love together? How do we create such churches that by their very existence make the kinds of marches that happened in #Charlottesville absurd? These churches exist, all across Florida. And before you lament that not enough of them exist, how are you helping to create one of them?
We need to create Christian communities that embody an alternative to hatred, as expressed, for example, in the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-16). We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And this will happen as we open our Bibles, as we kneel at our altars, as we receive the grace of the body of Christ, and, yes, as we will fulfill the promises of our baptisms.
I join you in prayer for our church and our nation, even as I remember the words of Thomas More:
“The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labor for.” (UM Hymnal, 409).
Click here for the President of the Council of Bishops statement.
Click here for the General Commission on Religion and Race statement regarding the events in Charlottesville.
Click here for the UMC.org racism resources webpage.