The Common Good

Band-Aids or Cures?

The prophet Isaiah says that the Lord will be a stumbling block for many, meaning that the majority of us will have difficulties living the way we ought to. Working in the field of social justice only seems to add another dimension to that difficulty. Poverty, economic inequality, and eradicating racism, sexism, and the like are all issues that "progressive Christians" care about, but how much do we really say about how things got this way?

From my experience, the progressive Christian movement has shown that it can advise its constituency on how to assist in uplifting burdened communities, but I've noticed an absence in acknowledging what got us -- a collective "us" -- into places of suffering in the first place. Effective movements all have two key elements: first is a thorough understanding of the root causes of their issues in order to heal whatever the "disease" may be. The other is an unrelenting commitment to be a cure and not a treatment. Where we are right now in history begs the question: Do we want to be a cure or just a painkiller?

To illustrate my point, let's take an example from sports. The fact that Washington, D.C.'s NBA team is now called the Wizards, rather than the Bullets, is a treatment -- not a cure of the disease of gun violence in our city and society at large. The "progressive" nature of those who eventually voted and officially changed the name acted more like "pressure valves" than healers. What's unfortunate with a lot of progressivism nowadays is that we've lost sight of what's necessary -- the sacrifices and the struggle -- that's called for to break down systems of oppression and exploitation, and for a new order to rise.

What we do instead is become a pressure valve that takes a step in the right direction to relieve some pressure of a situation, but usually stops once that initial victory is achieved. There's nothing inherently progressive about changing a name. What we should be focusing on is changing the culture of violence. Ironically, from where we stand today, perhaps D.C. needs to revert back to its old NBA name, or maybe the "D.C. Militias" would be a good one if the Supreme Court, in all of its infinite wisdom, is the Truth we are satisfied with.

Let's be clear: Walking in love and faith through Christ is hard because it involves the death of things we'd rather hold onto: pride, privilege, our egos, grudges toward certain people, etc. But the Bible tells us many times that those things that make up ourselves are going to have to die in order for us to truly live through him. Hebrews 12 reminds us that we "have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood" -- or in other words, we have yet to come to a place in our struggle where we are willing to give up our ways of life, that while they may allow us to live comfortably above others, they help foster the "isms" we protest against.

To read the whole sermon, click here.

FULL TEXT: Band-Aids or Cures? - Sojourners Chapel sermon - July 9, 2008

There are few traditions in American society as widely shared and loved as sports traditions. I recently spent the Fourth of July weekend doing what I usually do: watching the Wimbledon finals with my dad, discussing the rivalries, analyzing each point, and reveling in the wins of my favorites. However, growing up in the D.C. area means you're raised in the tradition of the Redskins- not necessarily Venus vs. Serena, or now Roger vs. Rafa. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of football, but you can't grow up in this area apart from Redskins culture. During the first Joe Gibbs era when I was little and the Redskins were still dominant, I enjoyed the excitement and never questioned something so revered. It wasn't until I was older did I come to view the Redskins franchise in a different and much less favorable light.

I'm sure some of you remember the campaign to get the city's NBA team- then the Washington Bullets- to something less violent, in a city that's been crippled by gun violence. I remember pushes to have the name "Redskins" changed to something less offensive around that same time, but it never really gained any momentum despite the fact that the term is a blatant racial slur for indigenous peoples based on the pigmentation of their skin. I remember promotions at Boston Market that encouraged kids to enter in their ideas for new team names with the purchase of a kids' meal, but the efforts to change the name of what historically has been the most racist NFL franchise, were met with considerable resistance. A person can't help but wonder why in this society that proclaims to be the freest nation in the land, we'd allow this to go on without much of a second thought or discussion; but the answer is simple. It's because it's our tradition!

As we all (hopefully) continue to grow in our commitments to this movement inspired by the biblical call for social justice-- it is important to note a somewhat similar tradition that threatens to paralyze us and our efforts-- our tradition of maintaining our comfort level.

The prophet Isaiah says that the Lord will be a stumbling block for many, meaning that the majority of us will have difficulties living the way we ought to. Working in the field of social justice, only seems to add another dimension to that difficulty.

Poverty, economic inequality, racism, sexism and the like, are all issues that "progressive Christians" care about, but how much do we really say about how things got this way?

From my experience, the progressive Christian movement has shown that it can advise it's constituency on how to assist in uplifting burdened communities, but I've noticed an absence in acknowledging what got us -- a collective "us" -- into places of suffering in the first place? Effective movements all have 2 key elements, first is a thorough understanding of the root causes of their issues in order to heal the "disease", the other is an unrelenting commitment to be a cure and not a treatment. Where we are right now in history begs the question: do we want to be a cure or just a painkiller?

To illustrate my point here, let's go back to sports. The fact that our NBA team is now called the Wizards, is a treatment - not a cure of the disease of gun violence in our city and society at large. The 'progressive' nature of those who eventually voted and officially changed the name acted more like 'pressure valves' than healers. What's unfortunate with a lot of progressivism nowadays is that we've lost sight of what's necessary- the sacrifices and the struggle- that's called for to break down systems of oppression and exploitation, and for a New Order to rise.

What we do instead is become a pressure valve that takes a step in the right direction to relieve some pressure of a situation, but usually stops once that initial victory is achieved. There's nothing inherently progressive about changing a name. What we should be focusing on is changing the culture of violence. Ironically, where we stand today, perhaps DC needs to revert back to its old NBA name ...or maybe the DC Militias would be a good one if the Supreme Court, in all of its infinite wisdom, is the Truth we are satisfied with...

Let's be clear: Walking in love and faith through Christ is hard because involves the death of things we'd rather hold onto: pride, privilege, our egos, grudges towards certain people, etc. But the Bible tells us many times that those things that make up ourselves, are going to have to die in order for us to truly live through him. Hebrews 12 reminds us that we "have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood" -- or in other words, we have yet to come to a place in our struggle where we are willing to give up our ways of life, that while they may allow us to live comfortably above others-- help to foster the "isms" we protest against.

My pastor in North Carolina used to say that the power of God in all of us is the power to love and serve others, yes. BUT! It is also the power to repent - sacrifice - and then to reconcile. We've got the first part pretty much down, but the last two need some attention, in order for our ministries to be effective and sincere. As important and beautiful as it is to 'spread our wings of love' - so to speak - in this movement and lay the groundwork for what a just society looks like, it's equally necessary to 'uncover our roots', and have a firm understanding of how society came to be as it is.

A quick example of this is what's going on right now in Manassas. Some of you may have read in the Washington Post recently about a situation in Manassas, VA where a man erected a large billboard on his property with a message that proclaims his frustrations with our immigration policy and the city's treatment of immigrants (legal or otherwise). The billboard essentially traces the history of European-American imperialism as being the force behind the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the disenfranchisement of blacks under Jim Crow -- in big, bright letters for everyone to read. Now, this is primarily a First Amendment rights issue, but the reactions to the billboard (by mostly European-Americans) are what's most troubling -- and what should be of concern to us. And yes, some of what's being reported is coming from church-going folk! One storeowner and head of the town's Business Association said of the wall "When you see something calling you a racist, it takes away from the positive image you're trying to portray."

But seriously, let's think on that for a moment. The situation has brought about some our least attractive traditions! When someone publicly recalls, a very true and well-documented history of exploitation, murder, forced assimilation, and segregation, our present tradition tells that person to STOP! Your comments are making me uncomfortable! Keep the truth to yourself, and let me continue comfortably in my own tradition of denial!

Now, some of you may have responded in a similar manner to this woman. But for the most part, you might say something like: "well her comments don't reflect me. I'm very kind to immigrants. In fact, I even volunteer to tutor immigrant children on the weekends, etc, etc." Still, very few people seem to be invested in publicly addressing the roots of our American past and the inherent biases of the system that continue to oppress people. I've been told many a time, that it's relatively pointless to discuss these matters because it's 'too negative', 'overstated' or otherwise 'in the past'-- when we need to be focusing our energy on making our future as bright as it can possibly be!

But hold on a minute. Let's think about this too. Where in the Bible is it implied that the journey toward truth and away from sin is going to be easy? The truth of the matter is, none of this is easy or comfortable. Paul says in Galatians that we're "imprisoned under sin", meaning that our 'sins of today' are being built on the foundation of our 'sins of the past', and even though we may intend otherwise, we contribute to a way of living that makes our situation worse! In the case of the billboard, refusing to acknowledge and engage our racist-- and in terms of immigration, severely hypocritical past-- we are doing our people and our movement a great disservice!

I have a piece of paper taped to the wall of my cubicle, a section of James Baldwin's introduction to his play "Blues for Mister Charlie" that describes this sort of sinful imprisonment and what this element of our tradition looks like. He says that 'what's almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great, and so unspeakable, that the acceptance of this knowledge would literally lead to madness'. So to compensate for that, what we too often do, all of us, in order to protect ourselves, is 'compulsively repeat our crimes' -- and in doing so, enter this kind of 'spiritual darkness which no one can describe.'

We have another American Tradition though, greater and more a part of our being, than the aforementioned unattractive ones - The pursuit of truth and the courage to act upon it. This tradition led founding fathers and some of the great leaders we revere, to question the divine right of kings, the idea of noble blood and the inherent Inequality of man. This led to social, political and scientific breakthroughs never before seen or imagined on our Earth.

So we don't have to continue along in the unattractive traditions. We have another option. We can do better. If it's true-- and I believe it is-- that all people are made in God's image and we all belong to each other as parts to the body of Christ, then we have the duty of getting to know each other and being honest with ourselves.

Let me be clear- this is not about playing the "blame game" or anything of that sort. We all have to be disciplined in this pursuit of truth, in the pursuit of God, if we hope to liberate future generations and not repeat the mistakes of generations past.

So what does it mean to pursue truth? What would that look like? In the July issue of the magazine, we had a review of the documentary, "Traces of the Trade", which is the story of the journey of Katrina Browne, a young seminarian who takes a journey to Ghana with her family to retrace their slave-trading past. She felt God telling her that if she was willing to delve deeper into her history, if she was available to God in that way, that the result could be the vehicle to drive some real healing and reconciliation work. She didn't brush actions of her ancestors off as something archaic and irrelevant. She didn't get lost in an internal battle against the feeling of guilt. She did what she was supposed to do. God had tapped something in her heart leading her in a pursuit of truth, and she had the courage to seek out where that truth was leading her-- as uncomfortable as I'm sure it was to arrive for the first time at Cape Coast...

We mustn't be afraid of having a similar courage, and we mustn't be afraid of the implications of unveiling truth. When we allow ourselves to be truly available to God to work on us and open us up to honesty, we are either so affected by it that we spend our lives working to make a positive difference on earth, or we close our eyes, and --consciously or unconsciously -defend the way things are.

Make no mistake and listen to closely - there is no middle ground. Christ demands everything from us - we must lose our lives as we've known them in order to save them. Like MLK said: breaking silences often means that we are subjecting ourselves to a "vocation of agony" but must do it. Amen? Amen.

Alexis VaughanAlexis Vaughan is editorial assistant at Sojourners. She preached this sermon at Sojourners chapel July 9, 2008.

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