In Our Outrage is Our Hope: a Sermon after Eric Garner

In the desert today, we hear about John crying out in the wilderness. He’s angry; he’s outraged. He’s making demands on the people. He’s calling them to get their act together.

I can imagine him shouting to us. He’s yelling at us about our conspicuous consumption; about the Keystone Pipeline; about the Middle East and ISIS.

I can hear him saying, “black lives matter” across the generations.

As I see people raising their hands saying “hands up, don’t shoot,” I recollect Jesus on the cross, arms outstretched imploring that they don’t know what they are about to do.

When I hear the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” I remember when Jesus said, “I thirst.”

I can hear the outrage in the voice of John. It’s because I’m outraged also.

I sympathized with a pastor I heard recently: “Saddened, but not surprised.” Nobody who has been paying attention for the last 35 years can really say they’re surprised.

We’ve sent 4 million young men to prison in an expensive effort to avoid investing in black communities. After a while, it’s hard to be outraged because this sort of violence keeps happening all the time.

All. The. Time.

Perhaps our outrage is pointless. Despair is an alternative. Or even a kind of enlightened cynicism. I can afford it, however. Others can’t.

Let’s go back about fifty years. There was a time when any white person could do pretty much anything to a black person without any impunity. Any white person could withhold wages, sell at a higher price, or commit an act of aggression without any worry about the consequences. And if you were a white person who sought to befriend someone of a different color, you could also be subject to aggression.

Think about that. Not only did black people have to regularly negotiate a system where at any moment they could be fearful for their lives, anyone who wanted to be an ally was also at risk. Diversity was not considered a positive; multiculturalism was a problem to be solved while immigrants became Americanized. Blacks, an inconvenience.

That changed, somewhat. What happened? We outsourced the violence. Yes, our formal public spaces, our commercial context, is freer than it once was. And even though our society remains segregated, the everyday habits of violence have been relocated, although not eliminated, to an extent that the violence we do see is that much more outrageous.

But within the fountain of outrage itself, is the wellspring of hope.

Why hope? Just as John expressed his outrage, our tradition teaches that in the mess, in the conflict, is how the possibility for hope pours in. It becomes a part of the mess, working and responding within the outrage. I sense this because I see more people who have begun to understand the cruelty and the precarity within which many black people live.

And this awakening might be a clue for how we understand “repentance.” The changing of the mind, this turn, is revealed in the realization by many people what the cost of white privilege is, and why the constant barrage of black deaths have become, now, even more outrageous to the public mind.

Let me admit, I can’t stand the term “white privilege.” Yes, it’s real. I can’t stand the term mainly because it’s an emotion one can’t actually have. That’s the point. It’s a position. Having privilege is the ability NOT to feel something. So people who do have this privilege are usually completely unaware. And when it is referenced by people who have it, it’s confused with the mild inconveniences one has throughout the day, like traffic stops, a bad boss, or everyday disappointments, which makes it easy for us to plausibly deny the privilege we do have. It demonstrates the truth one philosopher noted: the slave must always think of what the master thinks, but the master need not ever think about the slave at all.

The video of Eric Garner changed, forced, and magnified the issue; what was known by black people suddenly became impossible to deny. Even people who instinctively side with police officers found themselves at a loss.

Certainly discussions about privilege are remarkably clumsy to make, because it’s trying to make someone feel in a fashion that’s really difficult to have. But I take hope that there are more people who realize that this non-feeling, this privilege of inattention, blinds us to making effective political and institutional changes that will make our republic a better place, and prevent the cost of innocents being discarded.

Let’s recollect: we have tools in our toolbox so that can deepen our understanding of these relationships.

Two related parts of the Benedictine tradition, prayer and listening, strengthen our sense of empathy with other human beings. A prayer life is, in part, about exploring the minds of others, as God does. We fit ourselves into the scriptural story; and we can do this as we hear the stories around us. What is it like to life as someone differently bodied? Are there openings where I can experience it?

We might develop a sense of humility, that underrated virtue, about the stories we hear and tell. It’s alright to enter into a conversation without a sense of what the answers are, to be a little uncomfortable. John’s making a lot of people uncomfortable. He’s also uncomfortable. He’s wearing camel hair and eating locusts.

And as the church we are called, fundamentally, to be a trust building organization. We do not demonize our police forces; we commend them when the need be commended. But holding them accountable is the best way to reestablish trust. I hope one day the police will see how the blind loyalty to each other undermines their work. While there is no single solution, if you carefully look throughout the country, there are valuable experiments, from LA to Utah that are worth testing elsewhere and replicating. Even now in NYC, there’s been a drop in arrests because the government has changed its priorities. There are ways God is working; but it will require our institutions to diminish their own fear of change within their ranks.

What’s happened is along a few other cultural shifts. The institutions that held authority have demonstrated their limits, how they easily succumb to human pride and fear. Who can trust the government since the Gulf of Tonkin led us into war and Watergate covered Nixon’s treason? Who trusts priests after the pedophilia scandals? Can you trust a corporation after Enron? But this is also a source of hope; for as this dissolution continues, we may find places for grace to enter. We must find new ways to organize ourselves when the older institutions fail us. This is, in part, our modern challenge.

But let us hold the outrage as a gift. For the outrage itself is evidence that there is a world worth hoping for.

John’s outrage was, a herald, a call, a warning, a proclamation – for once he had see the world for what it was, once he could see what had not been seen, once understood that a new world awaits, and the prince of peace would soon enter the world. Without that understanding, would he have even been in the desert, telling us of things to come?

On this side of Easter, we say that through our outrage we trust in the world to come; we say that we have not given up on the world, and anticipate God’s entrance. Let His work be unveiled. Come Emmanuel.

The Manhattan Declaration

An obscurantist piece of theological and historical illiteracy, featuring a who’s who of the old time religion, including the man who wants to be the mostests, Fr. Duncan.

God Bless Them. May they be called to repentance.

Hugo says it’s cheap.

The Rev. Dr. Christian Troll is thinking strategically. Fr. Tobias would rather be in the Bronx.

On Repentance and Raising Money

A friend of St. Barts once came in to the church to discuss raising money. He suggested an ambitious plan, and we began talking about what people seek and need in their congregations.

He grew up in the parish (mid 40’s), but wandered before finding his own path. He said that he wished that the church had given stronger instruction about how to live and be transformed in a way to find peace and wholeness in the light of God’s presence. His comments were provocative and intriguing. He was talking about repentance.

He was not talking about repentance in the fashion of a street-corner preacher yelling in the public square. You jerk. Don’t you know that God despises your carnal thoughts and contemptible fashion sense? Most of us think that when we are asked to “repent” we’re asked first to feel bad and then obey what someone else, who is more perfect and uptight, tells us is good for us. And for a lot of Christians this means mainly rules about sex, tax cuts, and swearing.

This sort of repentance may be useful for some people. It can be exactly what they need to hear: stop drugging yourself, holding others accountable for your own actions, and get on the straight and narrow. Repentance in this sense means making verbal proclamations about what one believes and then changing what one does. You agree to what I, your priest and spiritual father, tell you and you are magically altered into a different, more holy, better person.

I wish I had that sort of magic wand some days, although I’d probably have to use it on myself.

But there is another way of understanding “repentance.” In fact, my friend used the word “transfiguration.” They fit neatly together. Repentance in the Greek is “metanoia” which is derived from the word for mind, thought and understanding. In some places scripture repentance is a conversion, and in others it suggests remorse.

I think that Episcopalians are wary of the part that emphasizes the total depravity of human consciousness that a few medieval theologians suggested. Rather, we rightly acknowledge that our conversion to the spirit is about joy and empowerment. It means sometimes saying “stop” or “no” so that we can better understand what the divine “Yes” means. It’s hard news sometimes.

I wonder if repentance means understanding two things that are very difficult in this day. The first is that we do have limits, and that limits are good. I encounter this fact when I get a bottle of wine at a local store: too many and I become disempowered. The human mind can often only handle a limited number of choices. It makes us more free when we do this to ourselves.

The second is that the good life is a committed life. It may be running, it may be music, it may be self-discipline, and it may be supporting a community of friends, but without commitment, life doesn’t happen. It just floats on by. It passes quickly. As the wisdom writer puts it, we become unmoored, like vapors.

And to be committed to each other often means a “changing of the mind” – a repentance. Especially in a day when it is the thoughtless God of convenience, inattention and immediate gratification that commands our lives so utterly. To make that conversion is hard work, and most of us will make it in fits and starts. It does require tenacity, self-examination, and vigilance (it sounds, perhaps, like dieting), but in a community of loving souls, all things are possible.

There are rewards. Saying no to some things means saying yes to others. I have spilled miso soup on my computer, which means that when I come home I am computerless, and yes generally it is a drag.

But for that reason, the other evening I had the unexpected opportunity to spend an evening in quiet meditation on my porch, with a cigar, just considering God, the world, and its utter beauty. I was given the opportunity to say “no” to the allures of the internet, and to say yes to the world.

Not that I will always be so wise to make that choice. But I slept better that night.