For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. -Ephesians 4:12 (RSV)
Tomorrow morning I will stand at the pulpit after we’ve greeted one another with the passing of the peace, to prepare the congregation for the pastoral prayer. I usually lift up some concerns in the community and the world and tomorrow I will have to speak about what happened today in El Paso, when a gunman entered a WalMart leaving 20 dead and 26 wounded. This would be bad enough as we have dealt with mass shooting after mass shooting. But now we are getting word that the shooter published a racist manifesto before he went on his rampage. So, what was one fo the worst mass shootings could very well be a massive hate crime.
This has happened before in Charleston in 2015 and Charolottesville in 2017. But for some reason, this seems worse. It feels like we have crossed a dark line when it comes to race and ethnicity. Yes, we might have race-based violence, but we could tell ourselves that this was a one-off, that the bad old days of America’s racist past was just that…past.
But I don’t think we can say that anymore. I think we are entering a dark phase in American history where white nationalist terrorism strikes anywhere there might be people of color. I’m starting to feel that I and others who are persons of color have targets on their back.
David French, writing in the National Review last year lifts up that white nationalist violence is trending upward and it is infecting the American right. He shares how the white working class is going to church less and dealing with problems like the opioid crisis (though it’s important to note that opioids have been a problem among African Americans as well).
I also think that President Trump has a role as well. He is not the sole cause of racist violence, but he is a factor. His recent race-baiting- telling four women of color lawmakers to go back where they came from to calling Representative Elijah Cumming’s Baltimore district “infested,” he has made it less shameful to share racist views. You can’t draw a straight line between this shooter and the president, but because the President is considered a moral leader, he creates an environment where people can feel less stigmatized harboring racist opinions.
But it’s more than Trump. It’s in the air. More and more people are writing articles that seem to talk about either civil or racial war. The blogger bellingcat has a detailed post on on how chat boards like 8chan are helping to foment white nationalist violence. As he notes, we are not dealing with “lone wolves,” but with an actual movement that is gamifying this violence and look for the next bloodbath that should get a higher score.
So what can I say to my congregation? What can any of us say?
The book of Lamentations in the Bible asks why evil seems to persist. It was written depicting a cataclysmic event that left the writer’s society in tatters. In chapter 3 the writer shares how they think evil has won:
All our enemies have opened their mouths against us. 47 Terror and trap have come upon us, catastrophe and collapse! 48 Streams of water pour from my eyes because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
49 My eyes flow and don’t stop. There is no relief 50 until the Lord looks down from the heavens and notices. 51 My eyes hurt mek]”>[k] because of what’s happened to my city’s daughters.
52 My enemies hunted me down like a bird, relentlessly, for no reason. 53 They caught me alive in a pit and threw stones at me; 54 water flowed over my head. I thought: I’m finished. Lamentations 3:46-51
That’s what it feels like to me right now. But as a person of faith, especially as a Christian, I believe that evil never, ever has the last word. The writer continues by doing the only thing they can do: cry to God for help and believe that God will respond: I call on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit. 56 Hear my voice. Don’t close your ear[l] to my need for relief, to my cry for help.[m] 57 Come near to me on the day I call to you. Say to me, “Don’t be afraid.” 58 My Lord! Plead my desperate case;[n] redeem my life. 59 Lord, look at my mistreatment; judge my cause. 60 Look at all of my enemies’ vengeance, all of their scheming against me. -Lamentations 3:55-60
The writer knows that even though it feels like God doesn’t care, they also trust that God will answer and that God has not forgotten them.
Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! 23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness. 24 I think:The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him. 25 The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person[h] who seeks him. 26 It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance. -Lamentations 3:22-26
Jesus himself experienced pain and injustice and the feeling that God, his father had left him alone. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!” he says from the cross echoing Psalm 22. Jesus the Son of God experienced the same things we feel at times which means that God understands because in Christ God has felt the fear and the abandonment we face.
The thing is, as a Christian I have to believe that God hears our cries and our fears- even when we think that God seems silent. I believe in a God of justice that will not stand to see racism hurt people.
None of that means that we will be kept safe. It doesn’t mean that I or a friend or family member will never be affected by racist violence. But I have to trust, I have to pray to God to come and help us- to come and save us.
I know some people roll their eyes when someone talks about prayers after a mass shooting, but I think that has to be the first thing we do before we can do anything else. We have to pray for the victims and then act to make this world that we live in a better place. We have to work to combat racist violence and stand publicly against white nationalist terrorism.
We do this knowing, believing that even something as scary a racist violence will never gain the upper hand.
There is a story told about Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu during the aparthied era. It is an example of this faithful waiting, knowing that the injustice that reigns now will fall one day.
Tutu held a church service/protest rally at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town. Outside of the church were hundreds of policemen there to intimidate Tutu and the worshippers. While he was preaching, the police, who were armed, broke into the cathedral and lined the walls of the sanctuary. They took out notebooks to record Tutu’s words.
The Archbishop continued preaching, talking about the evils of aparthied and reminding those gathered that this opression would not endure. Then Tutu made a pointed statement directed at the police.
“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
And then those gathered broke into song and dance. The police were left dumbfounded.
Tutu was correct of course. The police and the whole apparatus of aparthied had already lost. In a few years, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and South Africa would become a multiracial democracy.
The passage at the top of this post reminds us that as Christians, we wrestle with things that are powerful and dangerous. There are spirits that seeks to divide and devour. But, as Archbishop Tutu says, they have already lost. It is dark now. We must pray and work for light. But the darkness has already lost.