ENOUGH – Chuck Rush (7/10/16)

Enough!

Malachi 2:10; John 13:34

Watching the video of Alton Sterling being shot to death brought back the visceral emotions from my days as a chaplain at the Emergency Room at University Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. You see a lot of violence in the ER of an urban hospital and you see how hard it is for people to contain themselves once violence and aggression are let loose. It is like you are one way almost all of the time, and then you get afraid enough to become aggressive and violent and this whole other monster within just takes over.

In aggression, we routinely make bad judgments. In aggression, we routinely over respond. I’ve seen people just keep punching. I’ve seen trained professional police just keep punching.

And right after it is over, the people doing it invariably mis-remember what actually just took place. They remember being more threatened than they were. They remember being forced into one option rather than having several options available.

They are reflexively afraid of their own subterranean power, surprised to the point of not just being embarrassed by it… but overwhelmed by it.

Aggression and violence are inherently dangerous.

There are a very few people that possess a skill set in these high tension moments that the rest of us do not have. When tensions escalate and violence is in the process of erupting, they seem to slow down- right when the rest of us are getting hyped with adrenalin.

They seem to be able to focus when the rest of us just reflexively respond in fear. They have control of themselves when the rest of us just let ourselves come unglued. They are extraordinary. And they are very, very few.

Violence is always dangerous. Aggression is always dangerous. We think we will be able to handle it. We think we will be able to respond to it well enough. But most of the time, we do not handle ourselves well. Most of the time, we do not respond well at all.

And our acts of violence cut others so deep. They open up new portals of fate and destiny as one tragic act morphs into a cascade of other tragic consequences.  In an instant our lives are permanently and unalterably laden with a guilt and remorse that just unfolds over time in a way that we wish we could simply undo the violence we rashly committed…

Ordinary men replay these events over and over in their minds, wishing that they could turn back time to just before the violent event so that it could be somehow avoided. They turn back their character clock so that they could respond more creatively and wisely than they did in the heat of the moment.

They play it over and over in their mind until it becomes a genuine curse that they live with that mutes the ordinary joy of our living. We have a perpetually anxious conscience. The guilt from it causes us to doubt ourselves, causes us to live with a fracture in ourselves so that we doubt what grace there is around us and we cannot live out of grace or deeper love- because we are not forgiven.

Violence is spiritually dangerous. Don’t do it. Limit it by the public and by the police. De-escalate, diffuse. This is our spiritual mantra.

And I’m always surprised that our media think that ordinary police officers should be able to deploy aggression and violence selectively, ethically, that it shouldn’t be any big deal.

In the ER, when it is really happening, lots of people fail the test…  Almost all of us would fail the test.

It is much more dangerous than you might think it would be if you have never been in a violent conflict. So it is very important that we have standards of police practice that deploy restraint, limitation of force and orderly due process. We have to avoid situations like those that happened last week with Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile from ever coming to pass. Because the tragic consequences are so great.

Their blood is spilled and they are gone. Their families are torn asunder. It is not just the sobbing of Alton Sterling’s fifteen year old son over his father’s death. It is also knowing all the rage and sadness that will impair him at critical junctures as he grows up.

And, then there is the distrust of the police force which is a huge issue that has become so much bigger now that these scenes are captured in their raw footage for the whole world to see.

The misuse of police power is nothing new. 50 years ago, I was still a child in the deep South and it was corrosive then and widespread. We gave the country the movie, “In the Heat of the Night”, Rod Steiger’s riveting portrait of small town racist Sherriff in rural Mississippi.

Back then, Malcolm X was considered a strident extremist, certainly by my people. In the early 60’s he said, “Today they have taken off the white sheet and put on the police uniform. They have traded in blood hounds for police dogs.” My relatives and neighbors were insulted and annoyed.

50 years later, the words of the extremist Malcolm X seem almost tame. Not nearly enough has changed.

We can presume that neither of the police officers this week have the overt racist attitudes exhibited routinely during my childhood by law enforcement in the South, by my neighbors, by my family, by my church.

But when you watch a traffic stop for a minor violation turn into a major confrontation, and then violent, ending in death- all raw footage live stream. Over and over…

It certainly feels like we are simply voyeurs on a practice that has been going on for quite some time, but we just didn’t have to watch it up close, intimate and

uncut.

Even if our attitudes have evolved considerably, these unnecessary tragedies have continued with disturbing frequency, even over the past year. They are frequent enough that I’ve noticed that people have started confusing the names of the victims. There are just too many of them to remember their specific story, their particular life.

It is disturbing because spiritually their personal lives do matter. It is just heart breaking to read the tributes to Philandro Castile. He managed the cafeteria at the public school in St. Paul. Well liked, friendly, made good jokes, diffused the silly situations that arise in the Middle School lunch room from time to time. Remembered as a great guy.

Now dead after being pulled over for a broken tail light, then miscommunication, and then the tragic use of violence.

These tragic deaths are mangling the American Spirit, black and white.

Quite clearly, watching these videos re-traumatizes African-Americans, though our media pundits never quite articulate the obvious. These injustices tap into a deeper part of the psyche of African-Americans. It taps that deep-seated sense of inferiority and the low self-esteem that started way, way back in slavery, with overt subjugation and torture that was routine on the plantation.

At some deep subconscious level, the collective soul of former slaves remembers the nightmare all over again.

I know some white Americans think, “Well, that was a long time ago, they ought to be over it by now.” But we don’t ever really get over these things like that. And it wasn’t that long ago either.

Slavery was followed by 100 years of segregation, political disenfranchisement (so that blacks couldn’t vote). They were denied access to banking. And they lived poor, poorly educated, in their ghettos in the north and their shanty towns in the South- until the 60’s.

They lived in a parallel society, treated as a perpetual second-class people, routinely harassed by vigilantes in the South, without any recourse to the courts or the court of public opinion.

All of that spiritual negativity comes back, in a visceral instant, when unjust deaths like this happen.

And these injustices are killing the other citizens of our country because we will have revolutionary responses when a people have to live in revolting conditions.

It was so sad to read of Micah Johnson, the 25 year old, that killed 5 Dallas Police officers and wounded several others. He was a veteran of Afghanistan which made it more tragic. He could have been firing at guys he served with. But he was so full of rage, frustration, he did it anyway.

Rage routinely brings bad judgment. This time, tragically bad judgment…

For those of us of a certain age, you probably had the feeling I had, “we’ve seen this movie before” because we have.

Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers from the 60’s. When I was in middle school, we moved from the deep South to the suburbs of Chicago where Bobby Seale was on trial with the “Chicago 8” for their part in planning a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

The Black Panthers proposed taking over the policing of the ghettos where blacks lived. The level of distrust of the police and the general disrespect of the law as it was enforced in their communities led them to advocate taking over policing themselves. They were really advocating a kind of revolutionary withdrawal from white society. Never mind that this was not possible. Their frustration and cynicism about the police force actually led them to make this serious proposal.

It was a revolutionary moment in American history and it was not good.

For the next year, we had the worst riots in our country’s history. Watts in LA, Detroit, Chicago, Newark. We burned the neighborhood down. Real anarchy, real destruction. And very little genuine progress that came from those riots. We don’t want to go back to that kind of revolutionary situation again. It was socially expensive. It was not precise.

We have to re-establish a basic respect for the law and the institutions of justice in our land. If we don’t, it will kill us.

And we need to remember the higher way as well. Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

Dr. King said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.

Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

So it goes.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

We have to come together because this is not a black problem. It is not a white problem. It is an American problem. John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of all people are diminished when the rights of one person are threatened.” Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

We never directly addressed what we created with slavery in our country. After teaching on Affirmative Action for many years at Rutgers University, like a lot of scholars on the subject, I got to a point where I really wished we had just given the freed slaves “40 Acres and a Mule”- a serious proposal at the end of the Civil War. It wouldn’t have made up for what they went through but it had the virtue of trying to make some recompense at the very beginning of emancipation. It would have acknowledged our mistake.  And it might have developed some economic independence.

But we didn’t do that.

And over the next 150 years, the consequences have gotten much more complicated. I came from an overtly racist culture and a racist family. Perhaps it was easier for my generation to own a problem my people so obviously created. It was easy for me to see the ghettos in Detroit, in Chicago, in Newark, Patterson, Camden and think, “we created these”. My people created these. And we own an obligation to fix what we broke.

But when I started teaching on race relations at Rutgers, the majority of my students didn’t feel that way. The majority said, “My people didn’t come to this country until 1920 or 1940 or 1990. We shouldn’t have to pay for a problem we didn’t create. That isn’t just.”

Figuring out how to redress a long historical problem with justice became much more complicated as our fluid immigrant society evolved over the generations.

It seems to be slowly dawning on us as a nation that we simply must address these racial issues, however difficult they may be, out of a practical necessity. We cannot have blacks in our country feeling so disenfranchised that they feel the police are a threat rather than a protection. We cannot have them feel that they get less justice than everyone else. As Americans, this is killing all of us.

Spiritually, we Christians gathered here this morning, know that mere toleration is not enough. We know that people only flourish when they are loved, when they are respected and valued and celebrated for who they are intrinsically.

We worship the Rainbow God, the God that promised Noah not to ever destroy things but to love us, the God who gave us a rainbow as a sign of that Covenant, that all people on the spectrum have their place in God’s house. All people have their place in the spiritual community.

God calls the spiritual community of the Church to be salt and leaven, the things that give our food its’ flavor and cause the dough to rise so that it is delightful to eat. We are called to be a kind of living parable where we celebrate rather than just tolerate, where we take our differences and blend them in such a way that something more beautiful is created.

We worship the God who is redeeming the ugly past through the Holy Spirit transforming pain into poetic hope, pulled by the future. So, we are called to become something of a living parable in real community through love. Especially in the midst of racial polarization, how important it is to have a place where a variety of different people can come together and turn towards one another as neighbors in support, compassion, respect.

The tragic events of this week will be more difficult for our nation as a whole, where the bonds aren’t so intimate, and the issues of race unfold in different ways down the generations. I stopped to pray for our country and I bet you did too.

In that moment, I remembered the words of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus on the painful lessons of tragedy.

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget,

falls drop by drop upon the heart until,

in our own despair,

against our will,

comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

O God, we pray that our African-American sisters and brothers might experience the respect and love that they deserve. That we as a people might find common respect for the rule of law; that our beloved country might genuinely address race so that we might become healed. Sana, Domine Deus! God, save us from ourselves… Amen.

 

 

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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