A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 18, 2015
University Baptist Church
On New Year’s Eve, we had teenagers spend the night at our house. At one point, they were playing the game Quelf. One of them picked a card that said they needed to talk like an evangelist. So, naturally, they asked me for advice. I told them all they needed to do was speak passionately and add a syllable to every word. Repentah. Jahesusah.
Today’s word is Repentah.
Of what must we repent today? Repent of your sins. Repent of your silence, your collusion, your lack of faith, hope and love. Of what must we repent?
John the Baptist was a social critic. He challenged his followers to live their lives full of ethics. He called on people to repent of their collusion with oppression. He called on people to repent of their old ways and adopt a new way of life. And to symbolize this, John immersed people in water to symbolize them dying to an old way of life, and being born again into a life of ethics and peace and mercy and justice.
At the Mall of America, just as the consumerish Christmas rush was in full gear, another kind of Christmas rush was afoot. The latter of which Jesus might have thought a fitting way to remember his birth. 3000 people gathered to say that we as a society need to repent of our racial profiling, of our propensity to prejudge people because of their skin color, of our tendency when threatened to shoot first and ask questions later. The mall owners said that it was an unauthorized gathering and it was impeding their Christmas business. No irony there. The people just stayed put. They joined arm in arm. They started singing songs of peace. They chanted names of people who had been killed. They called on the people to repent, whoever would listen. The security guards shut down some stores and worried that violence might break out. But it didn’t. Eventually, the crowd disbursed and the leaders were later chastised and fined for disturbing the flow of commerce. Law enforcement used social media to find and eventually prosecute the leaders of this movement. But the movement could not be shut down. The need for repentance is too great and the people united can never be defeated.
This weekend we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I got up early this morning and joined 30 other people in an outdoor reading of Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham jail. We did this at Martin Luther King Park on Nicolet and 41st. Kings words were oddly contemporary 52 years later. He said,
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds…
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham…
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
I think Martin Luther King would have joined a protest like this. I confess, that I did not go. I have been on my share of marches, but I skipped this one. Why? Was I too caught up in my own schedule? My own fear, my own privilege? I can spout off in a nice comfortable pulpit like this one to like minded people and feel like I have really done something. But maybe I am part of the problem, a white liberal who finds it too easy to be silent or can only offer lip service to the cause. This is what occupies me.
I sent out an email to the congregation this week saying that I thought that it was ironic that the film Selma is playing at the Mall of America of all places. I got the following email response from Howard Johnson on Monday:
“Hello Doug, It is a bit ironic that I have just now returned home from watching the movie Selma. I was completing my junior year at Berea College when I joined fellow students and made the trip to participate in the final and successful crossing of the Edmund Pettus bridge. You talk about reliving your life--the movie brought back memories of things that I had forgotten. James Bevel and John Lewis and I were students at the College of the Bible at the American Baptist Theological seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. James Bevel was instrumental in getting me involved for two years in local marches and sit ins. John Lewis lived next to me in the dorm for one semester before leaving and becoming involved in SNCC. I really do recommend the movie--from my own memory, it is quite factual.—Howard”
How many of you knew that Howard went to Selma? Or that he knew the likes of James Bevel and John Lewis? John Lewis is one of my heroes and is presently longtime congressman from Atlanta. Both of them played huge roles in the civil rights movement. And while we wax nostalgic about Selma and Martin Luther King, we need to realize that we might not have come as far as we would like to have come in the past fifty years.
There is still economic, gender and racial inequality and it is something that we must address as responsible Christians. Just like John the Baptist preached, we must repent.
Repent of our racism.
Repent of our blindness to white privilege.
Repent of our collusions with systems of inequality.
Repent of our prejudgments of other people based on their skin color or their accent or their income.
Repent of our mindless consumerism.
Repent of our conscious disregard for the planet.
Repent of our simplistic religion that is about our own personal get out of hell free card and not about letting justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I attended a workshop at United Theological Seminary on Wednesday. It was about ending mass incarceration—the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book, the New Jim Crow. Of course, when looking at racism, white folks tend to think of it as an economic issue more than a race issue. Well that is true but the two are related. At one of the workshops the leader showed us a triangle which explains society in economic terms.
At the bottom of the triangle, you have your butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. The next level up you have your professionals. Then you may have managers, clergy, educators. And so on. Way at the top, you have the one percent. The elite. Think Koch brothers and the overpaid CEOs. Below them are the politicians. So, the key to keeping the system going, which supports the 1% is to keep the lower rungs fighting with each other. As long as they do that, then they have no time to question the system that keeps the 1% in such a position. And if you have the role of politicians to police the fighting between the lower rungs while currying the favor of the 1%, then we see how the system is really stacked against those who are not the 1%.
So on this Martin Luther King Sunday, when we remember the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, remember who is really in control. Remember that God desires that we treat one another with mercy, compassion, and love. And that we cannot have peace until justice reigns.
So we repent of our propensity to war.
We repent of our simple answers to complex problems.
We repent of our faithless belief that we can do nothing. For the life of Jesus shows us that we can and we must be bearers of the Gospel that makes us more hopeful, more loving and more wise in this world. And do it not just for ourselves and our heavenly reward. Do it because it is the right thing to do and it is the core of your faith. That is a life worth living.
So on this Martin Luther King Day, look at the world and then look in the mirror. I’m sure you will find something about which to repent. It’s the first step to being a part of the movement that John the Baptist, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and so many other courageous people lived. So, root yourselves in that courageous action of repentance and see the grace-filled fruit of vision that will sustain us.