Courage and Complicity in the Heart of Empire
Rick Ufford-Chase, PPF Co-Moderator, preached this sermon at Church of the Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 14, 2016. This sermon weaves together many issues and themes that are important to PPF (including many issues that will come up at the General Assembly in June 2016) and calls us to resist the temptations of Empire and instead commit ourselves over and over again to peacemaking, just as Jesus did in the wilderness.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
“We confess our complicity in the world’s violence and our failure to stand with those who suffer even as we pray for the Spirit’s courage to unmask idolatries, speak truth about war and oppression, and respond with ministries of justice, healing, and reconciliation.” – Affirmation 2 from the PCUSA Peace Affirmations
Presbyterians are good people. In church after church, our members provide care for the elderly and the sick and the homeless both in and outside of their own congregations. We strive, most of us, to build lives that cohere to our values. We show up when there is a natural disaster or a crisis. We refuse to use hate speech, and we call others out when they do so. We believe in basic fairness. These are the distinctive marks of what it has meant to be good Presbyterians for decades. Here’s the problem: this bar will be no where near high enough as we confront the challenge of being the church in the United States in the coming years.
Years ago, when I first started my work as a young adult Mission Volunteer on the U.S./Mexico border, I took a group to meet with the representative for the Border Patrol office in the Tucson sector. I was disarmed. The agent was friendly and good-humored and spoke intelligently. He reminded me of people in the church I had grown up in – the kind of person with whom I might have enjoyed going to a cookout or a pool party (that should tell you something about the privilege I grew up with).
After the meeting, our group went to Southside Presbyterian Church to meet with Rev. John Fife, whom I was just getting to know but who would become my own pastor for the next twenty years. I explained that I felt kind of torn about my interaction with the agent because he was so likeable. John brought me up short. “You might as well figure it out now, Rick,” John said.
The evil that we confront in our time is not bad people. In fact, I don’t know anyone who gets up each morning thinking about how they can screw up the world. The real evil in our time, the one we have to watch out for, is what happens to good people who allow themselves to be co-opted into bad organizations or systems that oppress others. Every one of us is caught in that bind. Some of us spend their lives resisting it, others seem totally unaware, and still others actually make their livelihood by carrying out the mechanisms of those institutions that oppress people.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson, learned nearly thirty years ago. As I have spent time in churches across the U.S., I’ve become convinced that it sums up the challenge to the Church – especially in the United States – in our time.
Sisters and Brothers, we are a church dedicated to a gospel of liberation for people who are oppressed while simultaneously co-opted by our existence within a project of empire as great as any the world has ever known.
Put another way, we are a people who long to be faithful even as we are beholden to dominant culture values that are antithetical to the most fundamental principles of our sacred text.
Since few people can live with two such diametrically opposed realities, we find all kinds of ways to try to change one or the other of them. Most of us, and certainly most of our churches, have become adept at interpreting scripture in such a way as to water down the teachings and the life of Jesus, often turning their meaning upside down in the interest of finding congruence in the face of biblical values that are totally incongruent with the way we live our lives.
A growing number of scholars and activists are working this set of questions. The task, they say, for a people whose central project has been to colonize the other, is to deconstruct, or “decolonize” our minds, or our educational institutions, or especially - some have suggested - our faith and our church.
The bad news – for the good people of the church - is that this is the water we swim in. Few of us who have been born and raised in the dominant culture and the dominant religion of the United States can even imagine that our way of life is not ordained and blessed by God. We are the ultimate example of what John Fife was talking about – good people trying to do the right thing in a system that is inherently sinful and that is designed to bring down death upon anyone who threatens it, yet we are fundamentally unaware of the moral bankruptcy of the system itself.
Our participation in the project of colonization, so hard for us to see from the position of privilege in the empire – is an-ever present and obvious reality to the colonized. Here are a few examples – lifted from my own life, which I suspect many of you may find yourselves caught up in as well:
We assume that education is inherently unequal because in our heart of hearts we can’t imagine giving up the privilege of inequality for our own children in order to assure basic fairness for someone else’s children.
We assume that our ability to be able to choose any unbelievably expensive medical procedure we desire must trump the assurance that every person in our community will have access to basic healthcare.
We assume that, although we are increasingly aware of the destruction of climate change that is disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color, our personal needs necessitate a huge carbon footprint which is a more immediate and pressing reality, and so our behavior does not change, and by and large we do not demand that either the corporations in which we are invested or the government change their behavior either.
I could go on, but given the topic of peacemaking this morning I’ll finish with this one – Even we who call ourselves committed peaceamakers too often succumb to the temptation to bless the use of our overwhelming military might to respond to the latest, greatest evil that the world has ever known.
We’ve grown accustomed to a never-ending war on terror and to casting ourselves not as military aggressors but instead as benevolent saviors who are making the greatest possible sacrifice in order to confront the latest lunatic who we believe threatens the world. Since 9/11 – in apparent ignorance of the ways in which our economy is entirely dependent on a flourishing military industrial complex, we’ve lurched from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein in Iraq to Al Qaeda to Mohammar Qaddafi to ISIS in Syria– each time insisting that this regime or this man or this threat is the evil to end all evil yet invariably feeling less secure with every passing military aggression we bless.
We see the barbarism in the kidnappings and beheadings of innocent civilians, yet we appear to be unaware of the horror of our own military’s drone attacks that take place in the same region on a daily basis. We are horrified by bombings in Paris, but fail to summon significant empathy as the State of Israel bombs the civilian population – killing thousands - in Gaza and the United States looks on with tacit approval and continues to unquestioningly provide military aid to the effort.
We are – in the words of this second affirmation before us this morning – complicit in the world’s violence. And the question of complicity is exactly the dilemma with which Jesus is confronted in the text before us this morning – perhaps offering a primer for what it will take for us to resist the easy seductions of the empire.
Here’s how Luke tells the story. In chapter 3 we establish the clear reign of the Roman Empire and locate the high priests of the people of Israel within the power of that empire. Then John the Baptist appears – baptizing all who will come and inviting them into a life of repentance which he makes clear will demand a new set of rules – caring for the poorest of the poor and refusing to take advantage of those over whom you have power – essentially – ignoring the rules of the empire.
Then Jesus comes along and is baptized by John himself, and is filled with the Power of the Holy Spirit, and he goes to the desert wilderness to fast and to pray and to prepare himself for what he must do.
Once again - Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are told, he returns and is immediately tempted by Satan:
First with creature comforts – food at a time when he is famished (we might have excused him for agreeing to turn the stone into bread. After all, he has been fasting for forty days.)
Second with Power – I will give you power over all the kingdoms of the world – I offer you the empire – Satan says.
Finally with mocking – show me your power, Satan says. If your God is so powerful why not prove it to me on my terms
Friends, do these temptations sound familiar to you? Because they do to me. I find myself tempted all the time to place my comfort over others. I see our hunger for power as a nation cloaked in the language of nation-building and the need for security. I hear the echoes of the third temptation in the swaggering, boastful language of our politicians and political candidates.
And still – Jesus says no.
Finally, Filled with the Power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus walks away from all the glitter that Satan promises and opts instead to take on the principalities and the powers, and by Luke’s accounting, he is almost immediately in trouble for it with his own people. You and I don’t want someone questioning the accommodations we’ve made with Empire, and neither did those of first century Galilee wish to question their own accommodations.
In fact, in the very next story following the text before us this morning – the people of Jesus’ own synagogue become so enraged that they attempt to throw him off a cliff to his death.
Resist – Jesus says. Be “Filled with the Power of the Holy Spirit”
Resist the seduction of empire. Decolonize your mind. Stand firm for the values of the prophets who have held us to account for millennia. Move to the margins, care for the poor, give up the comforts of the empire and risk everything to stand with me.
We are called to practice resistance. For the church in the United States, this is the fundamental challenge of our time. Failure to do so not only guarantees our irrelevance and demise as an institution, it demands it. As Christians we are brought up to believe that God is always pained by our lack of faithfulness, and is unafraid to see us lose everything when we are unable to summon the courage to be faithful in the face of great cost. If we don’t have that courage, we have no right to call ourselves people of God.
What would it look like for the church to make a moral claim on that kind of courage? To decolonize our faith. To become a peace church. To seek an alternative to the empty promises of military aggression - chasing the fantasy of a security that can only be bought through right relationship.
Perhaps this is one of those churches that will lead the way. Just as the U.S. Army is seeking “a few good men,” so should the Presbyterian Church (USA) be seeking a few churches that are willing to lead the way into an entirely new way of being church – a de-colonized, non-supremacist, empire-resisting Peace Church.
A tall order indeed. May we summon the greatest courage of all – the courage to be peacemakers from the heart of the empire.
The courage to be “Filled with power of the Holy Spirit.”