The following was read on November 13, 2016 at Van City Church in Vancouver, Washington.
On the morning after the 2016 election, the words “Go back to Africa” were scrawled on the inside of a Minneapolis bathroom above the campaign slogan of the president-elect, “Make America Great Again.” Similarly racist, xenophobic and misogynistic propaganda found its way to windshields and doorsteps, to social media and emails—to the lips of the passerby on crowded street corners in broad daylight.
Perhaps further stirred to frenzy by these events, protests erupted around the country. Effigies of the president-elect were burned in the streets. In my own neighborhood one initially civil protest evolved rapidly from peaceful discontent into violence and arson.
Early the following Sunday morning, one famously former-Christian musician announced online: “Pastors, you have a chance to tell the whole truth this morning.”
For the people of 2016, ours was an election precluded by nihilism. Long before the ballots and the panic and the outrage, the election season had exposed and agitated an awful wound that has long marred the face of America: We are a people of pain and idolatry. These things were here all along—neither this election nor its outcome has birthed them, but these things have been driven to the surface like a wound so hideous it can no longer be ignored.
Born on an ocean of red, our nation is a roiling 240 year-old tsunami littered with the screaming debris of violence, hatred, and the pursuit of some god to rescue us. And so we are afraid. Afraid of one another, of ourselves.
To stave off this crushing paranoia we appeal to the gods of military, the police force, guns and ammunition, to the right or to the left, conservatism, liberalism, republicans, democrats, some candidate, some vision of a country crushed into such a shape that we might fear no longer.
This idolatry is, in short, the oily black heart of all that stands in obstinate defiance of the Creator God.
And though it is not without its glimpses of beauty, its moments of virtue—this is the country (and the world) we know and call home—torn asunder by the talking snake and the evil of man. Given the choice, the world sees before it the benevolent savior who would rule it with kindness, and next to him a sad parade of other options.
And the world shouts: “Give us Barrabas!”
Give us our kings, our political parties, our wealth, our protection, our militaries, our legislation! These things will save us, without them, we will not be saved! According to every poll, every statistic, it is the evangelical Christian most politicized, most given over in the idolatry of the Empire. They have forgotten the poor, and the oppressed. They have forgotten the king.
A cursory reading of surveys and social media feeds reveals that amongst those who deny systemic racism, those who disregard the oppressed, those unconcerned with sexism and misogyny, those hostile to the foreigner and the refugee—these are the very same who claim the title christian.
And yet one can not follow Jesus and continue in racism, in xenophobia, in disregard for the oppressed.
As it is written in 1 John: 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. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
The world will always clamor in pursuit of its idols. But oh, how we should grieve to see the church go with it!
Oh that we should lament a day in which the church joins the world in its hope that a president might save or doom us. For to the apprentice of Jesus the great resounding hope is that whoever rules the empires of the world—the true King of the universe remains. Before him we kneel, before all others we do not.
And yet I must confess a twinge of panic, of fear, that I felt on the night of November 8 and on into the days that followed. And as my fear subsides, I do not believe that God was “in control,” that he pulled the strings, that he secures every outcome. A great many outcomes, I believe, are rendered certain by you and I, by consequence, cause and effect, and by the evil one. And no, I will not say that things will be lovely, or easy, or safe. Perhaps they will not. Perhaps they would not have been either way.
Certainly the Apostle Paul knew this well when he drafted a letter to his friend Timothy, in which he writes:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
This, Paul writes, as Emperor Nero sits comfortably at the helm of the Roman Empire. Nero, who dipped Christians in oil and set them ablaze to light his garden at night. Nero who crucified followers of the way, who fed them alive to dogs, who is said to have ordered the executions of Peter and of Paul himself.
But before he did, Paul asks Timothy to pray for Nero.
No, it was not God who determined the rule or the work of Nero. No, it was not lovely, or easy, or safe. And yet the response for the follower of Jesus was to do good. To pray, to live peacefully, quietly, to be godly and holy.
And though our nation is not Rome, nor Nero our emperor—we live in a time of great pain and great struggle. Disciples of Jesus are called today as we have been for 2,000 years to mourn with those who mourn: To concern ourselves with the cause of the oppressed, the poor, the refugee.
I implore you: Listen to the voices of the ostracized, those shoved cruelly to the margins of society. Amplify the words of the oppressed. When the picket sign and the passive aggressive tweet fail, the mission of God must carry on.
Disciples of Jesus: Cast off the paralyzing shackles of hate and of fear and don instead the love of our King. Disciples of Jesus: Belong to no democracy, to no nation, no empire. For the disciple of Jesus, allegiance is directed to neither a political party, a president, a flag, a military, nor a country—but to a King and a kingdom. Here our hope rests. Indeed, this King reigns in the season of our joy and in the season of our pain. He reigns in the day of peace and in the day of discord.
In our day of sorrow—the ever-increasing chasm between the right and the left, between the rich and the poor, the exposure and aggravation of racism, sexism, police brutality, classism, xenophobia, violence, and fear—let the disciple of Jesus kneel in submission before the great refraining command of God: Fear not.
In the words of novelist Frank Herbert:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Come, let us follow Jesus together that we might love our Father in heaven and love our brother, our sister as ourselves. We can not be the people of God if we refuse to mourn with those who mourn, if we do not plead the cause of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the refugee. We can not be God’s people if those of us who are privileged behave as though we are not, and ignore the pain and suffering of the less fortunate.
Let us demonize one another no longer. “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5v14-15)
Those far from God look to see him today shrouded by a haze thicker than yesterday. Those on the margins shudder with fear—the black community, the gay community, women, immigrants, muslims, refugees—the church must recognize their pain and their fear and see them so that we might say: Let me show you what I have learned. Fear not.
Hear me when I say, history testifies that by ignoring and betraying the way of Jesus, it is the very people who claim to follow him that have directly contributed to this season of sorrow. It matters not how innocent or complicit you imagine yourself to be—the work of Jesus remains for all who carry his name.
As the apostle Paul commands:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Where we have failed in this, we have failed as disciples of Jesus.
Of course, the great resounding triumph of the king of kings is that all hope is not lost, and though there will be consequences for the sins of the past, hope waits on the horizon. Hope that rests not in a candidate, and hope that cannot be extinguished by a candidate. Let the world clamor for and despair over its rulers and kings, and let the church show a better way. Let the church be the light of the world.
So come, let us follow Jesus together.
Let us reject fear as we reject every king but Jesus. May his love rule our hearts and our minds, and may his love rule our every thought and our every deed. May we quench the cycle of hatred and violence by refusing to act as its conduits—and when the anger and the malice find us, may we pinch the foolish flame between our fingers and see the wick burn no more.