I Am a Racist

This post also appears in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s GraceNotes

I am a racist. I was born to it. So were my parents, and their parents before them. The potential for racism is woven into my humanity. The presence of racism in my life is as pervasive as the air I breathe.  

First, racism is an expression of one of the most basic forms of sin: self-justification. “Us and them” dichotomies are always about improving my standing at another’s expense. Racism is an “us and them” construct that is based on the lie that the color of your skin is constitutive of your humanity. As Merriam-Webster defines it, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates defines it more broadly: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”  My capacity to be a racist (or misogynist, or elitist, or any kind of “-ist”) is grounded in my desire to divide my world into us and them for my own benefit. “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

Second, I can’t escape the racism of the culture around me. An old Hasidic proverb says: “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” If you live in America, racism is like the horseradish surrounding the poor worm. You just don’t know anything different. You can’t even see the sin, unless you get to the edge of the jar and can somehow look to the other side of the glass. Even then, escape is nearly impossible.

The truth of our racism as a nation is inescapable. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Award winner, professor, poet and bestselling author, says, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Jim Wallis, author, pastor and leader of Sojourners, in his book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America states the truth in a way that always shakes me to the core: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”  Imitating Isaiah 6:5 – I am a racist, and I live among a racist people. (Isaiah 6:5)

I want to be clear. I am not a White Supremacist actively seeking the destruction of other races. Neither am I one who rationally believes any of the nonsense about how racially different people are, inferior, flawed, lazy, stupid. I have confronted racist behavior in public, in my congregations, and in my personal life. That said, I have also failed at times. I have failed to say “NO!” when I get offered something before a person of color standing in the same line. I have remained silent when someone utters the racial epithet or tells the cruel racial joke. I have been the recipient of grace and blessing when I didn’t even realize it was taken from someone who had darker skin.

Just because my best friend is black does not mean I’m not a racist. It is simply that by the grace of God (which this friend embodies) I’ve been able to transcend the sin of my people and my soul in what is a small step for humanity, but a big leap for me. Dealing with racism begins with admitting its strangling hold on our culture, our nation and my own soul. Dealing with racism starts with my own repentance – every day – as I resist and reject falling into the cultural notions about my “inherent superiority” because of my color (or lack thereof). Dealing with racism is becoming aware that telling people to “go back to where they came from” is a hurtful and historically racist thing to say and stopping myself from saying it for that very reason.

Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor writes in his book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America, “Passivity is the new engine of systemic racism. You just have to believe that this is the way things are.”  Being an active racist who utters inflammatory words or engages in hateful, violent behavior and being a passive racist who does nothing or ignores the truth fuels the same sin and feeds the evil that still works to destroy us.

I am a racist. I am called by my faith every day to beat back the lies and evil that try to tell me I am superior to someone because of my skin color; to resist racist speech, thought, violence, injustice in my own life and the life of the world. My place is to stand with those victimized by racism and against those who perpetuate it. Of this, I am certain, because Jesus is my Lord (a Palestinian) who told me to love everyone – no matter what.

“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”
― Elie Wiesel

Pax Christi – Tim Olson, Lead Pastor

I Don’t Believe in (G)od

I recognize that for a pastor’s blog, the title of this article might seem like click-bait. I cannot claim total innocence on that front. I can, however, say more precisely that I do not have faith in the (G)od discussed in current debates about whether God is real or not.

I have friends who are self-described atheists. They ask me to prove that God exists as an objective reality. Some measurable, mathematical, physical accounting must be made in order for God to be tangible; to be real. I understand the request. I also have friends, colleagues, and people of faith who want me to make a “case for God” because they are absolutely certain that objective arguments exist and can be made. They want me to help. I understand the desire.

Writ larger than my own world, there is the neo-atheist movement of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al. who assert that with no objective proof of God, religion is a childish means of manipulation or an ignorant means of explaining big questions. On the other side, there is the Creation Museum in Kentucky which takes on the challenge and builds an objective argument for the existence of God, offering explanations and theories that point to a creator who is an objective player in the grand scheme of the universe.tillich

My problem is that, if I am to talk about God in the most general terms (which is not really my wheel house – I’m a preacher and speak of God in particularities, mostly), I don’t believe in the God creationists and fundamentalists are sure exists. Nor do I believe in the objectively provable God that atheists demand.

Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, points to the gods they seek and worship saying,  “(God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:27-28) The very fact that we are points relentlessly to a ground for that being. Paul’s roots in Hebrew scripture, which posits the name of God as the mysterious, I Am (Exodus 3:14) lead him to a God larger than objective reality.

St. Augustine said, “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Existence itself rests beyond our finite limits. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Objectifying God makes a lower case god, who is, in fact, largely about manipulation and denial as the atheists insist and as the fundamentalists forget.

In the fact of our existence and the consciousness that our existence is beyond us, Paul Tillich points to God as being: “The fact that man never is satisfied with any stage of his finite development, the fact that nothing finite can hold him, although finitude is his destiny, indicates the indissoluble relation of everything finite to being-itself.”

The reawakened contemplative tradition is reconnecting with this understanding of God through the teaching of people like Father Richard Rohr, who says, “This utterly grounds our deeper notion of God as Being itself, rather than God as a Being, alone and apart.”

David Bentley Hart is a professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and an astute (if not sometimes a little arrogant) voice for this classic understanding of God. He asks this question of those who demand – on both sides of the question – an objective proof of God. How, after all, could the existence or nonexistence of some particular finite being among other beings provide an ultimate answer to the mystery of existence as such?” ― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As to what this has to do with Jesus Christ, well, that is a word for another day. I will say that this deeper, non-objective understanding of God leads to an encounter with Jesus Christ that is far beyond what the materialism and objective world can offer. That Christ is the incarnation not of some objective force within creation, but of the ground of being itself — well, that is ultimate good news.

Let me leave you with a quotation from Hart which summarizes what I’m getting at much better than I can manage: “God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.”
― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Pax Christi, Tim Olson

 

copyright © 2019 Timothy V. Olson

 

 

Grace Has Appeared…

On this Festival of the Nativity of Our Lord, we remember that “grace has appeared bringing salvation to all.” (Titus 2:11). That “we are” instead of “are not” introduces the question of God as the ground of being for all things. Once we ask that question, the next is whether being is just one random thing after another or whether being is somehow benevolent. In Christ, “grace has appeared” to tell us that the ground of our being and existence is bent toward benevolence. love, and life. Blessed Incarnation to all.

Jesus, Fig Trees, and the End of the World

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The season Advent, however, seems to throw a wet blanket on all the jingling bells and decked halls. Scripture readings (Luke 21) turn to images of the end of the world and collapse of heaven and earth. Not very festive, it seems. That makes the preacher a bit of a buzz kill until we see that Jesus proclaimed a word of great hope in the midst of the destruction and death of this world. The fig tree puts forth leaves declaring summer is at hand and a harvest is on the way. Jesus is that fig tree, and our salvation is at hand.

Advent 1 – Holy Trinity Lutheran Church – December 2, 2018

Me? A Saint?

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)

Paul addresses his letter to the “all the saints” in Philippi. As the letter unfolds, it is clear that not everyone is well-behaved or “saintly” in this congregation. In fact, he seems to suggest some people should know their place and be humble when he mentions the “bishops and deacons” after everyone else. It also becomes clear that he is not speaking just to some of the “good folks” at Philippi and ignoring the bad ones. Paul’s address is for everyone, equally.

So, what have they done to deserve such an accolade? After all, “saint” is reserved for special people, right? “Saint” must refer to those who exhibit godliness and righteousness in a special was and give the rest of us an example.  According to my Greek lexicon, the word Paul uses, which is regularly translated as “saint,” means, on the one hand  “to be holy, morally upright, pure.” That’s a high bar I’m not sure I ever clear. But the word also means, “to be set apart to or by God, consecrated.”  It is the word used to identify the covenant people of Israel – all of them.

Paul was talking to all of the Philippians. Paul is talking to you. Martin Luther taught that we humans are, in Latin, “simul justus et peccator.” That means we are saint and sinner, simultaneously, often not knowing which. We have been set apart for God, consecrated to be a holy presence in the world. And we screw up just as much as anyone else. Through God’s mercy and grace, we always get invited to get up, turn back to the way of Christ, and be saints.

Servants Wanted

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)

The apostle, Paul, writes to the congregation at Philippi from prison. The place of his imprisonment is debated. I agree with those who say he is in Rome awaiting trial before the Emperor – likely, Nero. As we know, Nero was, well, nuts. A pathological narcissist who sought only to aggrandize himself. Paul is in real trouble here. Instead of writing a “woe is me” tale from his cell, Paul is filled with joy and concerned about everyone but himself. What is up with that? Seems his serving has landed him in jail.

In many of his letters, he began by reminding the people of his calling — an apostle, one called by God. There is a certain authority that goes with that claim. With the Philippians, however, he says his title, his calling, is simply “servant.” The Greek word is doulous. It is usually translated “servant” or “slave.”  In either case, the word implies ownership, being subject to a master, working at another’s direction.

I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide on a career, a path in life, being a servant or slave was not what I had in mind. I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to be served. That is one reason I hate buffets – I like the food brought to me. The real world however, taught me that I was always going to be serving somebody. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it” You Gotta Serve Somebody, in which he sings “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” We do get a choice in whom we will serve.

That’s what Paul knows. As a servant of Christ, and in turn, a servant of the Philippians, he is serves in complete freedom. It is as Luther taught in The Freedom of a Christian:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

See, Christ has set Paul free. As Christ’s servant, Nero had no hold over him; death would have no hold over him. In fact, later he will say that he prefers death – except that he is better off serving the Philippians because they need him. (Philippians 1:21 ff) Christ’s mercy and grace allow Paul to seemingly risk everything to serve Christ, serve the Philippians, serve the world. Yet, it is no risk to him at all, for Christ is a gracious master.

If you could be free of worrying about what others think; what passes for conventional wisdom; what you might lose – because you have gained everything with Lord Jesus, would it make a difference? Would it bring joy like Paul has as he sits in prison?

 

copyright © Timothy V Olson, 2018

 

Election Day 2018

The 2018 mid-term election is finally here. Like most of you, I can’t wait for the cessation of political advertising. The campaign season has not revealed our best selves, but our worst. It leaves me with the feeling in my gut like I’ve just done something or seen something shameful. We can’t blame the politicians for this completely. We’re the ones who respond to the fear mongering, the tribalism, and misinformation of a campaign season far too long for anyone’s good.

Beyond the campaign itself, tomorrow’s election will be claimed as a victory for some and a loss for others. The losers will cry out over the state of the union, and the victors will declare that their vision, and even manipulative tactics, have been vindicated, even endorsed. Neither response will be true. As divided as we are, the results of the election are likely to leave all of us losers, because the gridlock and incivility that have become habits will still rule.

That said, we must vote. It is a civil responsibility for every citizen. People have died for your right to vote. It dishonors their sacrifice to discard your duty. All the rhetoric I hear that demonizes the “government,” that makes “government a necessary evil” or worse, the enemy, is cynical to the point of evil. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressman and government officials, but the voters of this country.”

As a Christian, we have a spiritual duty as well. Some folks think that separation of church and state means that Christians should leave faith at home and not bring it into the public square. That’s nonsense since the separation only applies to the government’s establishment of religion, not my application of faith to my citizenship. God works through the imperfect rule of government to sustain order and some modicum of justice and peace. The “left hand” kingdom of this world is still part of Divine providence, even if not an eternal one. Cyrus of Persia was seen as an instrument of God’s deliverance of God’s people, even though he worshipped other gods. Luther is credited with saying that he would “rather have a just Turk (Muslim) for a ruler than an unjust Christian.”

As Christians head to the ballot box, I think there are a few things we should remember. First, it says in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul means that while we have citizenship in some nation (he was a Roman citizen), our primary, our ultimate citizenship is not to a nation that will pass away but to a reign, initiated in Christ, that will not. That means, for me, that my allegiance to Christ stands above, and sometimes against, my allegience to party and nation.

Second, we should never make the mistake of thinking that the candidate we are selecting is ordained by God or some manifestation of the truth. Government on this earth is always fallible and broken. There are no leaders who are saviors or our superiors. Democracy does not establish elected kings. As C.S. Lewis says, “The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Third, no one we elect will save us. No one we elect will ruin us. Only God has those powers. In the end, God will prevail. That means that the reign of God revealed in Jesus Christ is what will ultimately come to pass. This reign cares for the poor, establishes peace, reconciles people, brings enemies together and sacrifices for the sake of neighbor. Seek candidates who do these things.

When I vote, I give my vote away, because that’s what Jesus teaches. By this I mean that I will not allow my own fear and self-interest to sway me – no matter how hard the candidates try to scare me. Freed in Christ, I use my vote to vote with those who have the least power, the smallest voice, and the biggest struggles. If I pray for the sick, imprisoned, oppressed, hungry and hated, then I have to vote with them.

May God grant us peace in the face of change – or the lack of it. May this election somehow, someway move us toward our better selves.

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson