Growing up, I remember going to public school and, every year, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. day. We would watch documentaries, read books, and study his “I Have A Dream” speech. We were told that Dr. King had inaugurated a new age in American history, that we were beginning to see that dream being made a reality. That we were a post-racial society.
It is a beautiful dream.
But this Thursday we were once again woken up from that dream with the sound of gunfire as our world experienced another tragedy.
Nine people, gathered together in a church for prayer and Bible study, were executed by a terrorist with a gun. This was not something that happened in some far flung corner of the Middle East. It happened here, at home. It happened in Charleston. The victims were black. The gunman white. The motives: hatred and racism.
Reality once more shattered the bliss of dreaming.
Amid the social media outcry and calls for prayer and support, I read the following mournful lament from a friend:
— Kathy Khang (@mskathykhang) June 18, 2015
Over the past year our country has been rocked by the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott. In each of these deaths the victims were black, the perpetrators white.
Now I’ve heard the spin and the debate. I’ve heard the commentary. But the point remains: King’s dream of a society in which “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” still seems so far away. Our country still has a race problem. And to those who doubt it, read the headlines.
Nine black congregants of a historic black church are dead and, once again, the perpetrator is white.
And my greatest fear is what will happen on Sunday morning in church. Because if this Sunday is like any of the Sundays after Ferguson, New York, and North Charleston then what I will hear is…nothing. Silence.
Our sermon series will continue. We’ll pick an familiar text from the lectionary and talk about Jesus and the Gospel. And there will be silence.
I say this fully aware of the fact that I belong to a denomination that is 96% white and whose upper leaders are all men. And I say this knowing that there will be some in my own community who will say and many others who will think, “Well, commenting on such social problems is not the responsibility of the church. We are supposed to preach the Gospel.”
But to those who would prefer to move on with the business of the church, I must ask, what business of the church do you speak of if not to..
…Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. (Romans 12:15-16)
To those who would prefer to just move on with the liturgy and pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”, then I must ask, which kingdom if not the kingdom in which..
…I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)
To my white brothers and sisters, I must ask the question, are we ready to mourn with those who mourn? Are we ready to stop and listen to the cries of our black brothers and sisters who are a part of Christ’s body and who are weeping at the loss of their friends and loved ones?
But more than this, are we will to actually do the work of the church? What I mean is, are we ready to start listening to our brothers and sisters when they talk about the pain and difficulty of living in our racialized society? Are we ready to actually begin living as a Revelation 7:9-10 community today?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put the calling this way:
The Christian ethic asks, then, how this reality of God and of the world that is given in Christ becomes real in our world. It is not as if “our world” were something outside this God-world reality that is in Christ, as if it did not already belong to the world borne, accepted, and reconciled in Christ; it is not, therefore, as if some “principle” must first be applied to our circumstances and our time. Rather, the question is how the reality in Christ—which has long embraced us and our world within itself—works here and now or, in other words, how life is to be lived in it. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God.
Bonhoeffer believed that it was the responsibility of the church to address such social problems, because the church is the place in which the reality of God in Christ is to be most fully lived out.
The church is supposed to offer solutions for the world’s unsolved problems, thus fulfilling its commission and restoring its authority…The message of God’s love for the world places the church community into a relationship of responsibility for the world. In both word and deed, the church-community has to witness to the world concerning its faith in Christ, to work on removing any offense, and to make room for the gospel in the world. Wherever this responsibility is denied, Christ is denied; for it is the responsibility that corresponds to God’s love of the world.
My appeal is that we would learn to mourn with those who mourn, but more than this, to dare to make a dream a reality. A dream in which the kingdom of God looks less like a Sunday morning in America and more like a community in which men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation worship together before the throne and before the Lamb. In which the reconciling grace of God is not simply proclaimed, but embodied in our communities.
It begins with what you do on Sunday. It begins with what you preach. But it continue on Monday, as you reach out to the local AME church and pastors in your community to let them know you are praying for them and for their church; as you pursue relationships with you brothers and sisters in Christ who may look different than you, but who share the same dream and pray the same prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”