The “preferential option for the poor” does not suggest that God does not love all of us. It’s simply suggests those with struggles in life have a special place in God’s care because they need it most. And it’s also to suggest that we ought to have a special place in our hearts for those facing life’s struggles
Let’s start by recalling those words at the beginning of the reading we heard today from the book of Proverbs: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.”
And then let’s look at a few scenes in our world over the past weeks.
There’s the heart-rending image of the corpse of a three-year old Syrian boy on the Turkish shore of the Mediterranean. Aylan Kurdi has become a haunting symbol of refugees around the world, fleeing from war, seeking hope in the midst of a risky journey to a new land.
There’s the tearful image of the widow of Houston, Texas Deputy Sheriff Darren Goforth at his memorial service on Friday. He was gunned down apparently for simply wearing the uniform of a law enforcement officer.
There’s the images this Labor Day weekend of clashes between workers and employers – sometimes in an organized fashion with labor unions seeking to empower workers, sometimes in the stories of harshness in hi-tech workplaces like Amazon or overseas in a garment factory in Bangladesh.
And on this Labor Day weekend, there is the news that the unemployment rate for African-Americans in Wisconsin is the highest in the nation. We know about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system right here in Dane County, the shockingly high death rate nationally of young black men, sometimes in confrontations with police, sometimes in confrontations with one another.
It’s a depressing litany. So what are we to do?
The letter of James offers a bit of guidance with an ideal held out to the earliest followers of Jesus.
“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters,” wrote James. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”
There’s a theological term for that. It’s called the “preferential option for the poor.” That’s not to suggest that God does not love all of us. It’s simply to suggest those with struggles in life have a special place in God’s care because they need it most. And it’s to suggest that we ought to have a special place in our hearts for those facing life’s struggles as well – particularly if we are better off, have better health, have a sense of being in a comfortable place.
Sometimes that means giving up a bit of our security, our wealth, our power.
The turmoil over immigration in Europe –and in our country – is one place where that plays out right now.
There was a touching moment in Hungary last week. As you may know, the government of Hungary acted harshly to block the flow of refugees from Syria trying to pass through their country. But when some of the refugees began to move across the countryside, ordinary Hungarians were out there with food and water, clothing and care, to help them get to a safe place, offering a counterpoint to the official actions.
We have seen the same thing in our country as churches along our southern border take in immigrants in the face of personal and political hostility. These are folks living out the preferential option for the poor that James was writing about.
The landscape for workers in our nation has changed dramatically over the past few decades and some of the old models for protecting working conditions and safety and wages have frayed. That, however, does not lesson the need for finding ways to make sure people in workplaces can have dignity on their jobs, recognizing that in this economy, it is hard to protect yourself in a workplace as an individual. You are at the mercy of the good graces of those in charge.
But I think the real hot button issue for us in the context of what James wrote has to do with race relations. As much attention as we pay to it here at Memorial and in our community, it is still a topic that can make us uneasy, that can polarize, that can propel us to seek comfort in the familiar.
Take that simple little phrase “black lives matter” that has become so powerful and so divisive.
The first response from many is “but don’t all lives matter?” Of course they do.
And for people involved in law enforcement, for those of us who have friends who are police officers, there is an acute awareness of the lives of police officers are on the line every day. Their risks have been accentuated in the past year by the killings of three police officers – two in New York City, one in Houston – who seem to have been targeted simply because they wore a uniform.
Closer to home, we heard the story this week of neighborhood Madison Police Officer Caleb Johnson surrounded by an angry crowd as he tried to arrest a woman who was attacking a man – a crowd where someone shouted: “We need to start killing these officers.”
So let’s be clear that police lives matter and let’s be grateful for the skilled response of Officer Johnson in a tough situation. And let’s remember that law enforcement officials take risks that most of would never be willing to take and be grateful for their work.
But let’s also remember that the phrase “black lives matter” reflects a long history in this country where black lives have been treated as far too expendable.
There was a wonderful post on the social media site known as reddit a few weeks ago that offered a good explanation. It was by someone with the user name “GeekAesthete.”
“Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say ‘I should get my fair share.’ And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, ‘everyone should get their fair share.’
“Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also…
“The problem is that the statement ‘I should get my fair share’ had an implicit ‘too’ at the end: ‘I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.’ But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant ‘only I should get my fair share,’ which clearly was not your intention.”
Let me suggest then that to respond to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” is to miss the point that black lives have been too expendable for too long.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was an assertion that black lives mattered, that black deserved equal treatment with whites on buses, in restaurants, at the voting booth.
The history of black America is filled with, as The New York Times noted last week, “cases in which African-Americans died horrible deaths after being turned away from hospitals reserved for whites, or were lynched — which meant being hanged, burned or dismembered — in front of enormous crowds that had gathered to enjoy the sight.”
While the phrase “black lives matter” rose to prominence now in the wake of blacks dying in confrontations with the police or in police custody – and there have been far too many of those cases – it has a much broader meaning than that.
It is a call to remind those of us who are white, who have power by virtue of our race and often our gender, that indeed “all lives matter” and that for too long, black lives have not mattered as much.
To take it back to theological terms, Kenneth Pruitt, a lay Methodist leader, wrote : “One helpful way to begin to think about #BlackLivesMatter theologically is as a parallel to Jesus’ claims in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who mourn,’ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ etc. Countering Jesus’ claims by saying, ‘All are blessed’ or ‘All are poor’ …shifts the focus away from the marginalized and towards those in power.”
And that takes us back to the letter from James that we heard today.
“My brothers and sisters, do you – with your acts of favoritism – really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
We continue to work here at Memorial with ways to open our doors to all, to connect beyond our own walls with those in our community who come from different life experiences that the ones common among us. It’s not easy. It’s hard work. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. And we are not done yet.
Let me refer to a study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. They looked at the racial and ethnic diversity among religious denominations in this country.
Do you know who the most diverse are?
At the top are the Seventh Day Adventists. Then there are the Muslims, where the mix is primarily black and white, then the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then the Buddhist where the mix is primarily white and Asian, and then the Catholics, where the mix is primarily white and Latino.
The United Church of Christ? We’re 22nd on that list, with 89% of our denomination being white, 8% black, and 2% other. We’re still working on filling in that rainbow that is one of our most beloved symbols.
As we begin another program year here, I hope we each look for opportunities to help make that rainbow symbol more a reality in our lives. It’s a symbol of both diversity and hope, a symbol of God’s promise of what can be – of what will be.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” asks James, “if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”
Let me end with a poem and a few comments from a very successful African American. They both speak to that notion of how we see those in our midst and how we all need to get past the masks we wear that can hide the realities around us.
The poem is by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-American poets to find wide acceptance among white audiences. This was in the very late 1800s and early 1900s. This poem is called “We Wear the Mask.”
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Rick C. Wade cites that poem in a column he wrote for The Washington Post after Dylan Roof gunned down nine African Americans gathered for a Bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C. Wade has served in both the state government of South Carolina and the federal government. He has been a business executive and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. He wrote about the masks he wears and that we wear:
“For black Americans, our mask is our unspoken anger, disguising our deep disappointment, and reining in our resentment over a still-evolving history of racial insult and injury — all in the name of coping and getting along with the larger white community. We’ve bottled up our anger and turned our pain inward in the form of self-hate and defeatism. In some cases, we’ve turned our anger on each other.
“For too many white Americans, their mask is the willingness to overlook the racial disparities that still persist in our society, and the unwillingness to grapple with the obstacles facing black Americans…”
It’s our challenge to grapple with those obstacles, to see them as common concerns, not concerns of an isolated group. It’s our challenge to remember that the struggle for freedom, for equality, crosses centuries, crosses traditions and is never really over. We’ll sing about it with #7572 – “When Israel Was in Egpyt’s Land” and we are reminded of it by scripture passages like the one from James.
Let’s sing the first three verses of #572.