The first time I heard the “N word,” I was 7 years old. My grandfather, who lived with us, was reacting in anger to a news story. It was 1968 and the civil rights movement was in full swing. My father’s response was swift and made clear that such language would not be tolerated in his house. It made an impression on me that I remember with crystal clarity more than a half-century later.
What we learn in childhood stays with us. Years later, I had a minor role in a high school production of “South Pacific” with the memorable lyrics:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
A friend decided last Sunday to attend a primarily African American church in Buffalo, close to the site of the mass shooting that took place the day prior. He wanted to support the community that was shattered by the loss of 10 men and women, including security officer and Lockport resident Aaron Salter, Jr. His 4-year-old granddaughter sat beside him, and at the end of the service slipped out of the pew to meet and hug a black girl across the aisle. After doing so, she turned to her grandfather and said, “This is my best friend.”
Children innately know that other children are simply that — they are all potentially friends to be known and loved. Children only become hate-filled adults when they are influenced by others along the way.
On Thursday, I drove down to Jefferson Avenue to pray. I parked my car and joined the crowds of people milling around. Many were hugging friends and even strangers as they reached out to others in friendship. Memorials had sprung up on various corners, filled with flowers and hand-written notes. There was a sense that people just needed to be there; to see if an answer could be found to what seems so unthinkable. There were a lot of tears.
Our reading from Revelation (21:1-6) is a picture of the “new heaven and new earth” God is preparing for all who long for a better future. It’s described as a transcendent realm where death and mourning and crying and pain are no longer. In that place, the values of God’s kingdom reign supreme, and the hatred and injustice that permeate human hearts and results in unimaginable atrocities are banished forever. In the meantime, we live in this world, this side of heaven, and life is often drenched in tears.
The other scripture (John 13:31-35) is one of those “famous last words” moments as Jesus is in the Upper Room with his disciples. Judas has just exited to engage in an act of betrayal, and Jesus has the presence of mind to deliver what may be his most important and profound instruction: “A new commandment I give you; love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
Hate crimes are by definition at odds with Jesus’ new commandment. These acts of terror are increasing, with hatred toward those of different races and religions fueling violence. As much as I’d like to believe that at this point in history we humans would have evolved past the urge to kill or otherwise harm those who are different from us, these tragedies continue.
Some things are uncomfortable to talk about. Racism is one of those things. It’s ugly and it evokes all kinds of feelings and hurts, as well as objections and defenses. It’s easy to avoid, just like it is easy to change the channel when the news is too difficult to watch. But that doesn’t make it go away.
• • •
A young African American man stood beside me on Jefferson Avenue holding a big white sign with blue letters that read, “Non-Violence Begins with Me.” The determination to be non-violent is a personal decision, but I believe widespread community response is also needed to reduce death and injury.
On Wednesday, a high school friend named Rob who has spent his adult life and career on Capitol Hill in Washington sat on my porch for an hour as we caught up after 40 years. He was in Buffalo in response to the shootings and was connecting with Black community leaders. For many years, Rob was prominent in self-described right-wing lobbying efforts for high-profile social causes.
During the last several years, Rob’s perspective and efforts have changed direction, based on what he saw and experienced on the inside of the political world. A few years ago, he was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary titled “Armor of Light” which showed what happened when he, as an evangelical leader, urged people to use a moral and biblical lens to consider common sense measures to guide how guns are accessed. He lost virtually his entire following and his financial support base as a result of doing so.
We talked about that topic on my porch and how both of us honor the 2nd Amendment and the right to own firearms to hunt and to protect our families. Yet we shook our heads at the ability of a teenager whose brain development is still several years away from maturity to legally purchase a semi-automatic rifle. The fact that he had previously threatened to shoot students at his high graduation school made the situation all the more unbelievable.
It seems to me that we have moved further and further in our society to the extremes, to a place where the most important matters can only be discussed and decided in terms of “all or nothing.” Surely, we have the ability to examine issues of public safety and make nuanced decisions that protect freedom and also prevent unfettered access to instruments of death.
During crises where there is a loss of life, people are quick to say “don’t politicize.” And yet all substantive societal change takes place through political process. And we who are citizens are the ones who make that happen. And the ones who are citizens in any country and who also claim allegiance to Jesus as followers have to figure out where that allegiance informs every issue of public policy.
No one can or should tell you what you should believe or how you should vote, but reminding members of the body of Christ that your faith and understanding of scripture is a primary determinant in shaping those decisions should be obvious and not controversial.
• • •
Years ago, I moved to a small town on the coast of Maine to be pastor of a historic Methodist church that had fallen on hard times. One day, a 101-year-old woman began crying while I visited in her home. She had a story to tell me, but wasn’t sure if she should. Eventually, she shared just enough information about the church’s past association with the Ku Klux Klan to get me researching an otherwise unmentioned chapter of that church and its history.
Most people today are unaware that the KKK was most influential during the 1920s and grew to over 4 million members. Chapters sprung up throughout the United States, most notably in the midwest and New England. The pastor of the church I served 70 years after that timeframe was the Grand Klaliff, second in command for the Klan in the state of Maine. During a period of four years, the KKK was the dominant social and political organization in that community, and many who were Klan members were also members of the Methodist church.
The story the elderly woman told me was about a large group of men in white hoods that marched into the church during a Sunday service. They handed the pastor a check to cover the cost of a new furnace. In the next few years, the church invested all of its available money in the KKK, and when the movement collapsed in 1927 after a scandal involving national leadership, the church lost all of its money. Worse, the church’s association with the Klan soiled its reputation irreparably and it never recovered its health or any real influence for good in the community.
The focus of the KKK in the 1920s was new immigrants, most specifically those from Ireland. Protestant clergy, including the head of the church I served, preached week after week about Protestant supremacy and the evils of new people who would take their jobs and be loyal to the Pope instead of the United States. Replacement theory is not new. It is a long-standing means of creating fear of the “other” and stoking hatred toward those who look or think or believe differently.
The people who started … Lockport United Church of Christ, that resulted in the New England-styled sanctuary we sit in today, were unapologetically anti-racist. It may seem to some to be a historically interesting point to say that a church had abolitionist beginnings, but I think the real impact of saying that has been lost or at least diminished with the passing of nearly 200 years. The group that stood up to those who wanted to downplay the matter of selling human beings and forcing them into labor and separating family members from one another faced fierce backlash.
Abolitionists were often deeply unpopular in their faith communities. People quoted the Bible to them in efforts to support slavery. They likely urged friends and family to stop being controversial so that everyone could just get along. But some refused to be quiet. They stood up and spoke clearly against the racist belief that some lives don’t matter. And here in Lockport they walked out and marched one block down the street and established a new church that would not be timid in the face of injustice.
• • •
Jesus said, “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
What does it mean to love a neighbor in Buffalo or in Lockport who looks different? How do we take action to support those who are hated and to be sure that they are safe?
Maybe for you it is speaking up when someone tells a joke about persons of another race or refers to a Black person they do not know as a thug.
Maybe it means studying up on weapon legislation and deciding how you will lobby or vote based on good information and your own discernment, rather than on someone else’s opinion.
And it may certainly mean asking persons of color what they need in order to feel valued and safe, rather than assuming we know all we need to know about others.
I asked my daughter to read over my sermon, and she reminded me that it’s easy for me as an extrovert to show up at a rally or speak from a pulpit, but that her quiet nature leads her to counteract racism in much different ways. And then she reminded me of that little girl visiting a church in Buffalo last week, showing love in a simple way by reaching her hand across an aisle to make a friend. Loving others and pursuing justice happens in many ways; some are loud and public, and some are quiet and very personal. All are needed.
You probably saw pictures of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres players and coaches serving up meals on the street in Buffalo this past week. They wore T-shirts with a simple message: “Choose Love.” Jesus’ commandment is for us to love our neighbors, all of them. But love is always a choice. How will you choose to show the love of Jesus this week?
May that glorious vision of a place where tears are banished be seen right here on earth. Amen.
Rev. Richard A. Danielson is the pastor at Lockport United Church of Christ. This was his sermon delivered on May 22.
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