“WE ARE A GENTLE ANGRY PEOPLE.” -Holly Near
“I wrote this song after Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed in a homophobic hate crime in 1978.
We are a gentle angry people
And we are singing, singing for our lives
We are a land of many colors
We are gay and straight together
We are a peaceful loving people.”
After the mass shootings in Charleston, 2015 and Orlando, 2016 I gave the below sermon in summer 2016 on how Christians can respond to injustice with righteous/holy/peaceful/ productive anger that disturbs things as they are, and turns tables as Jesus did. Continues to be relevant, and this table-turning Jesus was the reading today at church. You can hear the recording HERE, but below is the full text:
Charleston & Orlando are Sacred Ground: Christians in Lament + Action
Written & Preached by Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer July 5, 2016 Holden Village, Washington
Three weeks ago, dozens of people from the LGBTQ community, mostly people of color, were murdered in Florida. A year ago, black churchgoers were shot down in South Carolina. Killing rage, in sacred spaces.
Sacred: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Charleston. June 17, 2015.
Sacred: Pulse Night Club. Orlando. June 12, 2016.
Because when a church casts you out for who you love and cannot be a sanctuary, a nightclub can be. Vulnerable communities have historically been pushed out to the margins: underrepresented, ignored, underserved, attacked. And there, on the margins, beauty is made in spite of oppressors. In Black churches, in gay nightclubs. Sacred marginality, holy cocoon- in dancing together, in meeting together, in being free and fully embodied, fully self. As President Obama described: “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” This, again, was violence and hatred in a sacred space.
Right now, my inclination is to overturn tables and scream as Jesus did in Matthew when he encountered sacred space defiled
“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
I remember as a child thinking this was a scary image of Jesus. This peaceful, quietly powerful prophet, here knocking around, making messes, causing others to look. I realize now what Jesus really was: he was disturbing.
Pain like that experienced this week in Florida, committed in places supposed to be safe, is unbearable. It bowls us over. It causes pause, which should be a sign that the Holy Spirit is moving. In the most radical, justice-oriented church service I’ve ever attended, we passed the Peace not by saying “Peace be with you,” but rather “May the spirit disturb you.”
And this is my wish for us now as a Church. To be disturbed.
Because this kind of pain is not logical. It is crazy. Noted theologian and ethicist Paul Wadell acknowledges that sin (personal and social) is, in fact, craziness. It is unnatural, irrational, and nonsensical. He writes, “There is an abiding absurdity to sin because when we sin we consent to an act that harms others as well as ourselves,” which cannot bring happiness. As Christians made for unity with God, we are called to seek God through emulating Jesus and the Gospels. And because Christ revealed the best example we have of being like God, we respond to the call for unity by making ourselves more Christ-like, working to help heaven– God’s Village– to break through. So when a particular group of God’s children are targeted, facing not only institutionalized oppression through racism and homophobia and yes, Islamophobia, but also widespread physical violence, make no mistake: it is the urgent call of Christians to respond.
And because we in the Church have been entwined in these systems, have historically (and presently) co-signed on White supremacy, on Islamophobia, on excluding LGBTQ neighbors, we have to start first within our own walls. Look at ourselves.
A day after the murders in Orlando, a friend told me that that though he is religious, as a gay man he could not bring himself to participate in a local peace vigil for Orlando, as it was hosted in a church still preaching anti-LGBTQ theology. Let’s listen carefully to that, fellow Christians.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, though he loved the Church, said it well:
“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.” As a church, what should we do when we see that social sin like racism, homophobia, Islamophobia has trespassed into sacred space?
We should overturn tables as Jesus did, mourning, lamenting, disturbing.
We must be disturbed. Now is a time for Christians– particularly White Christians, particularly heterosexual or allied Christians, to remain, as philosopher of race Dr. George Yancy calls it, “un-sutured.” Yancy explains: “…being un-sutured involves a continuous process of renewal and commitment.” He suggests that this process is extremely visceral, bodily, and involves critical self-reflection and confession that we are inextricably linked with the systems of oppression that have informed our lives. For us, this looks like sustained discomfort, not to be sewn or sutured up or closed off. It is to ask hard questions, to explore our own role in the problem, and to be potentially undone by what we discover in the answers. Writes queer theorist and justice scholar Dr. Judith Butler in her book, Giving an Account of Oneself, “To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance– to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession.”
ONWARD, TO LISTEN AND BE MOVED
How can we move forward? When it comes to restorative justice, liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez describe a process for addressing oppressive systems: it starts with listening.
Here, the first role as Christians is to listen carefully to the stories and cries of our neighbors in and out of our congregations– members of color, LGBTQ members– and to believe those voices. As insiders navigating a system that was never meant for their survival and flourishing, these members have experience of not only the real pain and struggle, but also insight as to what can remedy and heal. I have too often heard dripping from the mouths of benevolent white or heterosexual Christians: “So sad, so sad. Why is there so much hatred in the world?” as if this were an inevitable malady, coming from nowhere, that we have no hand in.
True close listening means both seeking out the neighbor inside and outside of our church & living room walls and diagnosing our own role in social sin. We must be reading and watching, educating ourselves and not depending on marginalized groups to train us as true disciples who live the Gospel in word and deed, but looking for ways to take responsibility a train ourselves. Church leaders and members, we can take racial literacy classes and schedule documentary screenings, preach on racial justice, sponsor speakers, and ensure that our church libraries contain works on reconciliation. We can become openly LGBTQ-friendly parishes or denominations, welcome queer families and their children, partner with Pride organizations, host discussions on theology that includes rather than excludes. We can participate in interreligious dialogue, offer no easy generalizations about other religious traditions.
Though systems of oppression and social sin are nonsensical, we must believe that they exist and profoundly affect the lives of millions. And they affect us. They hurt us. Many bold, prophetic voices in scripture were at first held in disbelief or ignored, from Moses’ calls for Pharaoh to free the Israelites, to Mary Magdalene’s announcement that Jesus had risen from the tomb. We too must be receptive to the unthinkable, open to the inconvenient. Bearing witness to the voices and cries of lament from victims and their families, and our own internal cries that this is not right, this social sin is illogical and unhealthy for all of us.
Liberations theologians who recommend listening also warn against passive acceptance that this world is evil but heaven is the reward. Instead, they acknowledge that in Jesus we see that God’s Village has broken through into this world, and it is our role as Christians to usher in that Village of justice and creation on earth.
ACTION BEYOND THE RATIONAL
Here we are tempted to form a strategy. To lay out a step-by-step process for the game plan. But strategic plans can be a form of sanitizing a process that must be felt deeply. Sin is nonsensical and visceral, and we must feel moved to respond.
We sob for those who died in Orlando and in Charleston. We sing to remember them. We dance to honor them. We cry out in confusion and disbelief that they are gone. Black Catholic theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale Massingale describes that a practical, technical approach is no match for injustice, which he says is “impervious to rational appeals and cognitive strategies…Logic alone seldom compels action in the face of indifference…. We cannot save ourselves solely through rational analysis, study, and planning.” Massingale notes that oppressive systems like racism, homophobia, Islamophobia instill “selective sympathy and indifference” that “numbs us to the reality of injustice and makes us calloused and hardened to it manifold harms.” The truth is that we have to feel this. We have to be bowled over and shocked and knocked down because oppression does numb us. I for one will not be numb. I will read of the victims and their families. I will listen to their cries. I will be angry and confused. I will ask if writing these very words will do any good. I will mourn.
In her book Undoing Gender, Dr. Judith Butler explores mourning and lament in the queer community. She writes:
“I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.”
HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING: LAMENT THAT DISARMS COMPLACENCY
I close with this story. A year ago after the mass shooting in Charleston, President Obama gave his eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Black preacher and senator gunned down at church. In his speech, our President paused, took a deep breath next to his fellow Black leaders on stage, and started to sing. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” Newspapers around the world reported not on the logic of his message nor the feasibility of change, but on his voice, gathering a moving choir of witnesses. This June around the country and the globe, during Pride month, the LGBTQ community and allies gathered in queer community hubs: in clubs, in parks, in the streets, at Stonewall: shouting for those senselessly lost. Raising angel wings, singing the same Amazing Grace to drown out voices of hate. And they still are. We still are: Singing. Dancing. Flags flying. Quoting Harvey Milk or Judith Butler, prophets with sacred messages to provide balm or fuel or both.
In his description of lament, Fr. Massingale describes the resolution of the song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in the following way: “This spiritual, then, exemplifies a core characteristic of the lament genre: it expresses the reality and pain of evil and suffering, and yet is more than mere mourning or catharsis. The act of lamenting overcomes psychic numbness and stunned silence in the face of evil. Its wails, cries, and pleas tear asunder the veil of complacency and the shroud of immobilizing fear. Lament facilitates the emergence of something new, whether a changed consciousness or a renewed engagement with outer events. It is indeed a paradox of protest and praise that leads to new life.”
Fellow Christians, especially those of us who are in positions of power or privilege: it will not do for us to be immobilized by actionless, sanitized, private grief. “The lament of the socially privileged” (that’s many of us) “is also a stance of hope that human wrongdoing is not God’s final act in the drama of personal and social salvation,” says Fr. Massingale.
The Christian Church has been among the worst culprits in perpetuating injustice and abuse over history. But Christians can unite in a powerful voice for justice because, grounded in the good news of the Gospel, we radically believe that there is improbable life after death, and a thread connecting us that cannot be severed by gunshots. Are we brave enough to experience and name lament at the insidious lack of welcome in our own churches: For LGBTQ folks, people of color and others? I have hope.
Fr. Bryan Massingale agrees, “Hope demands a genuine ambiguity, where there is at least some possibility–however remote– for substantial change…” he concludes, “When one is doing the work of justice, one cannot fail, for one is doing the work of God.”
Lamenting, unlearning, becoming undone, remaining un-sutured, then moving to act–it is hard work. It is God’s work. And we are called to do it. Now.
May the spirit disturb you. Amen.