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Overcoming Evil with Good: A Christian Response to Charlottesville

(This is a transcript of a sermon I preached at Pasadena Community Church on 8/20/17.)

This week I thought and prayed a great deal about my message for today. The events in Charlottesville and their ripple effect around the country have caused great division, unrest and anxiety. Charlottesville is a stark reminder that racism, bigotry and hate are still very much alive in our world, and the church cannot remain silent. In fact, we are called to speak out against racism and hatred.

The prophet Micah reminds us:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. –Micah 6:8

Based on that text, one of the historic questions of the Christians faith is “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist, evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Well, there is nothing more evil than white supremacy. There is nothing more unjust than racism. There is nothing more oppressive than bigotry. So today I have decided to put our current series on hold to speak a word against the evil of racism and hatred and share what we as Christians can do to overcome it.

Like so many I found the expressions of hatred in Charlottesville shocking and revolting. Many people, including my colleagues and friends, have rightly denounced the events in Charlottesville as evil.

But you know what? It makes me sick that here in 2017 we are still having to condemn racism. Has history taught us nothing?

Although we would like to believe that white supremacy is a thing of the past, people are still fighting the Civil War 150 years later. Although we would like to believe that anti semitism is dead, it is very much alive.  Although we would like to believe that our country has moved beyond racism and we live in some post racial utopia, nothing could be further from the truth. Our culture and country is still entrenched in hatred and racism.

Of course, racism has been easy to spot and name over the last several days. It has been hard to miss. But the challenge we face is dealing with the subtle and insidious ways racism lurks in our churches, schools, businesses, and communities on a daily basis. This is why racism continues to thrive. It goes largely undetected or ignored.

But folks, make no mistake, the monster of racism lurks all around us. A Citrus Hills family woke up on Friday morning to find a racist statement spray-painted in large red letters across the entire side of their home. Dayna and James White are African Americans who have lived in that predominately white neighborhood for 3 years. This week one of the worst racial slurs in our language was written on their home.

I will never forget the first time I witnessed racism. I was a kid living in Georgia. My family and I would often visit a distant relative in Athens, Georgia. We called her our aunt. On one trip my parents had gone away for the day, leaving me and my sisters with our aunt. I went out to play and met some black kids in the neighborhood. They lived across the street from my aunt. They had a trampoline and we jumped on it. We played hide and seek. We were having a great time. Then I heard my aunt call me over to her front porch. She told me she didn’t want me to play with those kids anymore. When I asked why she said, “Because they’re not our kind of people. They are different from us you know. It is not healthy to be around them.” I remember feeling like the air got knocked out of me. I had black friends at home. My mom and dad always taught me that “red, yellow, black and white, we are all precious in God’s sight.” I didn’t understand. I left Athens feeling sick to my stomach.

You see, the problem is that racism and prejudice do not typically show up carrying a torch, chanting hateful rhetoric. Burning crosses don’t show up on lawns much anymore either. Instead, racism and bigotry show up in jokes between friends, bullying in school, alienation in the workplace, and through segregated congregations. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right. 11am on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week.

Racism continues to thrive because racial sins are most often sins of omission. The powers of this world simply do nothing about it.

So the question is how do we as Christ followers overcome the darkness with the light week in and week out when racism is not the big news story of the week? You know as well as I do that in a couple of week the world will have moved on from this headline and will be focused on North Korea or some crazy Tweet! Yet racism and hate will still be doing its damage. What are we as Christians going to do?

The first thing we must do is confront hate within ourselves and our history.

 “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” -1st John 4:20

We love quoting that verse. It’s a very important verse, but sadly much of the history of our country and the American church shows that we have ignored it.

Folks, this is difficult to face but America has a shocking history of racism, hatred and bigotry. What’s more is that the American church has supported white supremacy through the years. These are hard truths, but we cannot escape that the Civil War was about slavery and the desire to preserve it. We cannot escape the fact that white Christians used the Bible to justify slavery. We cannot escape the fact that the KKK was started by Confederate troops after the Civil War. Nor can we escape the fact that Christian men and Christian organizations supported the Klan and kept it going. To this day Christian men are very active in the KKK and do not believe it is in conflict with their faith.

Brian Mclaren says, “This tense moment right now in our country needs to be a come to Jesus moment for American Christianity. We have betrayed the gospel by looking the other way and ignoring the racism and bigotry all around us.”

We have to understand that fear and ignorance feed hate and bigotry. Did you hear what the Neo-Nazis were chanting?  “You will not replace us!” Why? Because much of their sick ideology is based on paranoia – that white people are going to be replaced. That fear drives so much of their hate.

This is why this passage in 1st John is so important for us:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. -1st John 4:16-18

There is no fear in love. Unfortunately, these hate groups choose fear instead of love. It is a choice. One leads to hate. The other leads to peace.

I am sure many of you have heard the old fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.”

A scorpion asks a frog for a ride across a river. They both need to escape rising floodwaters. The frog refuses, fearful of the scorpion’s sting. “But I cannot swim,” insists the scorpion. “Besides, if I stung you while you’re swimming, we both would drown.”

Still apprehensive, the frog consents to ferry the scorpion over the flood. They are halfway across the river, when the scorpion jabs its stinger into the frog’s back. The frog feels a sharp pain. Numbness begins to creep into his legs. “Now we both shall die!” the frog croaks. Adrift in the swirling water, the scorpion shrugs. “I could not help myself. It is my nature.” They both sink and drown. The end.

There is important advice in this fable of the frog and the scorpion for us as God’s people.

The scorpion blamed his actions on his nature, his circumstances, hate was his fate. You see the absurdity of that excuse in a fable? Can you see it in your own life?

I like what an article in Psychology Today had to say about this absurdity:

“Whatever our nature, we are not at the mercy of it. Just because we feel lust, does not mean we just jump the bones of whoever tickles our fancy; just because we feel anger, does not mean we get a free shot at whoever offends us. We need not marry everyone we love, or even jump everybody that turns us on. We need not pulverize everyone we dislike. Unlike guileless frogs and treacherous scorpions, we are not at the mercy of our natures. We have to keep in mind that we are always making choices. Of that, and that alone, we have no choice” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reel-life/200912/the-scorpion-and-the-frog).

Jesus made a choice too. Jesus chose out of love to come rescue us. And he had to know that we would not ride along — like the scorpion we killed him. We say it is our nature to be sinful and hateful and maybe somehow at the last minute we will change our ways and survive it all. But we won’t. Our hate consumes us and it will cost us our very humanity.

But Christ is no frog—he is God— that frog in our story died—Jesus died— but the difference in the story is that Jesus rose—he is living today. And his power gives us the power to choose how we behave in this world. His power gives us the freedom to choose love instead of hate.

What is your nature? You say you are just a blunt straight talker who calls ‘em like you see ‘em?  Or maybe you say, “Well we were just raised to think that way. It is hard to break those habits of thought.”

You are not prewired to be as you are. You are who you CHOOSE to be. You believe what you CHOOSE to believe. You are and will be the product of your choices. And I believe God will hold all of us responsible for our choices.

Is your nature to be quiet and never speak up— Charlottesville after all is not St Pete. It is none of our business. Really?  Without a doubt those were the same things people said when they came for Jesus, when one by one they killed his disciples. Hate is a choice. INACTION is a choice.

Today, our first action should be to lay all hate, bigotry at the altar and say, “Lord, we repent. We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world. Lord, we accept the freedom and power you give us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves!”

This leads to another thing we must do as Christians to overcome racism and bigotry.

Do not remain silent.

A friend of mine shared a powerful story on Facebook about an event that changed her life:

It happened twenty-two years ago while in my junior year at USF/St. Pete campus.

This was a pilot program and only 21 of us in the group. We had all our classes scheduled for us and our group typically “made up” the entire class. At the end of three years we’d have a master’s degree in special education and certification in both elementary ed and special ed. We were a tight-knit bunch.

At lunch one day, one of our classmates from our program asked us if we wanted to hear a joke. “Sure….go ahead.”

The student, teller of the joke leaned in and whispered, “It’s kind of racist, though. Is that okay?”

I wish I could say we all stood up and said, “Absolutely not!” We didn’t though. Every one of us just sat there while our table sat rigid, uncomfortable, and desperate to be anywhere else but there.

After what seemed like forever, another student spoke up and said, “Well let’s not hear it then.”

She said what we were all thinking, but in the awkwardness and shock of the moment, could not find our own voice to shut it down.

That was truly a pivotal moment in my life. I was ashamed I did not have the voice my friend had found when she took over the task and shut it down.

Every year that I taught school after graduating in 1998, I would start off my classroom culture with that story. Of course the kids assumed I was the one who stopped it.

“No. I’m embarrassed to say I did not speak up, but a friend did and we went on with our lunch.”

I told them as I drove home that day it was all I could think about. I vowed on that day I would not ever stay silent again.  In my silence, I missed an opportunity to do the right thing. I encouraged them to take a different path when faced with a difficult choice or challenge.

In my silence, I missed an opportunity, but I learned an unforgettable lesson in life.

“The only way for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, to say nothing.”

Some may say, “It is just a joke!” A seemingly harmless joke is where it starts. Racism becomes acceptable, normal, through a joke. People become desensitize to it and it can only escalate from there.

Parents, your kids are listening to the jokes you tell. They are also listening to hear whether or not you stay silent in the face of racism.

We also must do the following if we are to overcome hate and racism:

Overcome Evil with Good

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. –Romans 12:21

One of the most tempting things is to be so disgusted and angry at hate and racist groups that we respond with hate. “Beware in fighting the monster, lest you become the monster.” We can’t overcome hate with more hate. We can’t overcome division with more division. Richard Rohr’s said: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same.”

Christ taught this 2,000 years ago – you can only overcome evil and hate with goodness and love. One of the central meanings of the cross is the only thing that will defeat hatred is love. Hatred just breeds more hatred. Love wins.

We seek power. Jesus seeks to wash feet. We seek to win. Jesus puts others first. We seek to be the best. Jesus seeks the best in everyone. We seek revenge. Jesus forgives.

We need more than peaceful protests. They have their place but as Christians we need to be living love in our homes, schools, communities, and churches.

I recently read a book by an FBI profiler of murderers and serial killers. He was quite a cynic. I guess you would be too if you did what he did! At the end of the book I was quite surprised when he said that if most of the serial killers he had studied had been shown more love they would have been different people.

 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” –John 13:35

Let me show you two photos. The first is an image of hate. A young man who is so full of hate and anger he is screaming anti Jew, anti black, pro nazi slogans at the top of his lungs as he marches with a bright torch.

The second image is a young black Charlottesville, Virginia police officer who is risking his life to protect the very people who protest his very existence. He wears no hood. He shouts no threat. He has one function: keep the peace. Now THERE is a man I admire. Like Christ, he is showing grace to those who hate him.

This man is a school resource officer at Charlottesville High School, Darius Nash.  When Nash was questioned about his role he replied, “I don’t feel like I’m a hero for it. I swore to protect my city and that’s what I was there to do. I don’t think it makes me a hero. I’m just doing what I believe in.”

“I am just doing what I believe in.” Imagine how much different this world would be if we as Christians left worship today and lived our lives simply doing what we believe in – speaking out against racism, loving our enemies, and showing compassion to the world.

Shortly after I came back from that trip to Athens as a kid I went to a VBS program at my church in Atlanta. During a break I was playing with kids on the playground. There was one black kid not part of our VBS group who was also playing on the playground. I believe his mom worked at the church. I remember wondering why he was not part of the VBS program. I befriended him and then when it was time to go in I invited him to join us at VBS, and he came along. Remember, no one is born a racist. It is taught.

As the teachers walked us back to our classroom, I kept thinking about my aunt in Athens and wondered how my teachers would accept my new friend. When we arrived at our classroom it was time for punch and cookies. I watched as one of the teachers with a cup of punch and a plate of cookies came to our table and served my new friend first. Then she gently put her hand gently on his back and said, “Charley, introduce us to your new friend.”

At that moment I was relieved. It cancelled out that event in Athens and reinforced what I knew in my heart and what my parents had always taught me – that all people are created equal – all of us are children of God.

In that small moment of acceptance and love my teacher demonstrated how we overcome the darkness with the light – by being the light, one day at time, to one person at a time. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.

 

 

 

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