An all too familiar story

It is a story that sounds all too familiar. Those who were assigned to keep the peace. Those whose job it was to enforce law and order. Those who had power, position and authority, they saw a man. But they didn’t actually see a man, what they saw was a thug. They didn’t need to know the whole story. They didn’t need to know everything that had led up to that moment. All they saw was a thug and so with justice deferred and an unrighteous act, an innocent man is killed. Killed by those who are in charge. Killed by those with power. An innocent man executed by state sponsored violence. His crimes did not warrant a death sentence and yet innocent blood was shed.

A story that sounds too familiar.

From the very beginning he was profiled. Not just him, but his kinfolks as well. Anyone who looked like him was seen as a threat. And so even as a baby, this one who would be called a thug would be profiled. Because of the family he came from. Because of the town he lived in. This is how folks saw him and treated him. He was a target in his own country – a land that never fully belonged to him and his people. From the very beginning his life was at risk. Everything was stacked against him.

A story that sounds too familiar.

This thug, this one who was innocent and killed was the Christ.

Around this time of year it is easy to get caught up in the twinkling lights, the majesty of the story, everything being beautiful, where memories are forged and memories recalled. We gather together. We want to join in Mary’s praise and pondering. We want to be in the magical, mystical moment of Christmas.

But we are drawn always, even when we look to the manger, we are drawn to the cross. We are brought to that place of suffering and pain. Of a world that could not understand the good news of Jesus.

The cross comes, even in our Christmastide, compelling us to not look away. This is not a time to ignore the violence and brokenness. This is not a time to wish away injustice. We cannot just live in a candy cane fantasy. We must see the whole story. We see the places where Christ is crucified again and again by racism, nationalism, nihilism.

We cannot turn away because in the midst of the pain, we find the triumph. There are healers in our midst. There are those that can overcome divisions. There are messengers among us uniting communities. There are prophets today striving for justice. There are glimpses of hope even when it looks like a losing cause. Peace comes to a violent world. These are the places where we witness Emmanuel, God with us.

It is in reconciliation we see God and it is in reparations. It is in grace that we feel God’s presence and in the act of forgiving and being forgiven that Christ is born anew. It is the light in the darkness, it is the city on the hill, it is salt and light, it is shepherds and fishermen. It is not the glory of the extraordinary but the humble and the meek. It is in everyday folk and everyday acts where the walls that divide get chipped away. Where the systems that kill are dismantled. Where a new world is possible

This good news comes to us; as sure as the choir of angels proclaims it.

But we need to place ourselves in the presence of the revelation. And so even on Christmas we are drawn to the cross. Even in this holiday of Joy to the World, we see how desperately the world is hurting and need that joy. We proclaim Christ crucified.

The cross it makes no sense to non-believers. It makes no sense to the world. It makes no sense to glorify this act of violence.

But when we know, when we know how Jesus came, how he has torn down the walls between us. When we see that Jesus has brought us close – those that were near and those that were far off. When we see the healing he has brought and that by his stripes we are healed. When we see that he came to fulfill the Law and establish divine justice. When we praise the Prince of Peace. THEN, then the story of the cross makes sense. Then we can revel in the glory of the death and resurrection, of life and life everlasting.

It sounds so familiar.

And then we know. We know why the twinkling lights are so important. We know why the gospel we have heard year after year still rings true for us and gives us a new message. It is what allows us to go into a cold and unloving world full of violence, profiling, injustice, division and brokenness to say there is one who traveled this path already.

There is one who has bore the sin of a fallen world.

There is one who has come to redeem all the broken places of the world and of our lives.

There is one being born among us over and over and over.

His name is Emmanuel. God is with us.

It is so familiar.

And it is our good news.


Black Solidarity Sunday – 1 year later

Yesterday Facebook reminded me that a year-ago was the national Black Solidarity Sunday. This was organized by historically African-American congregations. It was a remarkable moment that connected Sunday morning sermons with afternoon marches and protests.

Of all the actions and rallies under the banner of Black Lives Matter, this was one of the largest seen in Milwaukee. It was by far the largest moment of participation by faith leaders and clergy. When the pastor, priest, rabbi or imam show up, they usually bring members of their congregations. People that would never shut down a freeway or disrupt a Christmas tree ceremony still found it worthy to stand together in the bitter December winds of downtown Milwaukee. It was a powerful moment.

But was it a moment or a movement? Did the call for action just fade into the holiday season or did it do any good?

The Impact

Any time large numbers are mobilized, leaders take notice. We can’t know for sure if the consistent presence of protesters joined with church-folk impacted what happened 8 days later. When Milwaukee’s District Attorney said he would not press charges in the murder of Dontre Hamilton, the DOJ immediately announced a federal investigation.

We also saw a city-wide effort led by Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn Assembly of God and Pastor Matt Erikson of Eastbrook to work toward racial reconciliation. The adoption of the Milwaukee Declaration tells the heart of pastors for things to be different.

Black Solidarity Sunday also reinforced the public cries for racial justice across the country, the need to address disparities in all sectors of society. It gave a choir to preach to.

And yet

And yet, it has had so little systemic impact. The federal investigation of Dontre’s death did not lead to charges. Instead of the long-standing cry for a pattern-and-practice investigation of the Milwaukee Police Department, we now learn the DOJ will do a voluntary, non-binding review of the department. Communities of color are still policed differently. Students of color are failed by a failing education system. Economic investment steers clear of communities of color – unless it is to gentrify the neighborhood. Incarceration. Poverty. Health Disparities.

In my own church fellowship – the whitest in the nation – race and racism permeate the institution. The Church actively works against the stated principles of desiring a more diverse denomination. I doubt most even knew there was a Black Solidarity Sunday last year. And am convinced that had it been preached in every pulpit it would not have been met with simple indifference by active resistance. That is the sin-sick soul of the ELCA.

Other churches – of every ethnic background – preach a feel-good gospel that never engages the prophetic call toward Justice rolling down like waters. I went to a funeral for a victim of gun violence. The preacher talked about the “unfortunate way she died,” but never said the words gun or bullets. Nothing was directly said about the plague of violence in our city. But you better damn well believe the sinners prayer was offered and folks were invited to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (language intentional). How are going to save somebody’s soul and not care about the conditions they are living in?

Where do we go

The movement continues. Activists will lead. Mobilized people, led by young people, queer people, people of color, will agitate, disrupt, deconstruction and continue building an alternative community rooted in justice. People of faith will be there – we always are. There will be good, church going folk hanging out with the resisters. Clergy will show up.

But until Black Solidarity is more than a Sunday, until white denominations aren’t afraid of the phrase Black Lives Matter, until a slumbering sanctuary awakens – this civil rights movement will write off faith communities. If you’re in the pews on Sunday, you’ll still see me. But if we’re in the streets on Tuesday, that’s where I’ll be too.

PC: Overpass Light Brigade (probably Joe Brusky)