Pastor’s Corner: When God Calls Us To Address the Sins of the Land

We know that most police officers, including ones that are a part of our church family, desire to protect and serve all people in their communities, and put their bodies and lives on the line in dangerous situations. While we all recognize the need for accountability for actions and lying about encounters with citizens, we cannot solely blame police officers for all the sins of racism and violence in our culture. This is a bigger problem, but police officers are armed people on the front lines of our society’s failures. They need our prayers and our help in changing behavior and being more a part of the solution than the problem.

We hear a lot about bad apples, but when police officers or any of us choose to act on racism or pass on racist thoughts or ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether quietly or loudly, we are sinning against God’s understanding of His children and also feeding the original sin of this country. More and more people are calling for change and I am grateful that so many police officers are naming that too. There is hope that these changes could really make life better and more protected for all people, and create trust where enemy images and dehumanization have too often ruled.

When Jesus rules…when we say Jesus is Lord, we proclaim a way of being that makes a different claim on every human as a child of God. It is a claim that puts responsibility on Christians to not take the easy answer or comfortable choice, when it comes to loving our neighbors as our selves. It sounds like an easy thing to do, but it is hard, and that is one of the reasons we resist it so much and find excuses to not love all of our neighbors the same way. Jesus can help us with this labor of love, that can lead to a rebirth of values that align with the kingdom in our communities and country.

I know some of you may not fully agree with what you have seen happening in our streets. And maybe it is hard to understand why people are reacting this way, and why people are still out there, putting themselves and others at risk of spreading covid-19 along with other risks. These protests have become not just a protest against what has happened to George Floyd and others, but also represents a positive push to really make things better this time. The call is now to not allow systems to go back to normal without reform and perhaps radical change. These invitations may be greeted as threats and may frighten us or draw our ire. But I see this as a call that Lutherans should be responding to and also be making.

As reformation people, Lutherans recognize the value of reform and speaking truth to power at great risk. It is in our theological DNA! But when it comes to issues of race, we have often looked the other way or hoped things would change without our direct involvement. And we let others in the community, politicians, protestors, and even sports teams like the Packers and Bucks here in Wisconsin, take the lead on these issues. Meanwhile, our churches may remain mostly silent and the least diverse of any in America.

Today, we are being invited into more direct involvement to create change so all Americans can be treated as created equal by God with certain unalienable rights. This may make us uncomfortable, but I hope First can engage this and not fall into a fear of these conversations, denial about the need for them, or a desire to insulate ourselves from the hard work of personal and communal change.

Yesterday, our online service concluded with a postlude of “God Bless America” with the American Flag as the backdrop. And it came as a surprise to me as I wondered why it was used and how others might interpret this choice. It turns out it was a delayed request that didn’t get used for Memorial Day, but seeing it now, after two weeks of protests since George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day, makes it more of litmus test about how we, and others who may not look or think like us, may respond to patriotic images in our current cultural context.

On Memorial Day, I wrote about how I remember the veterans and their sacrifice for our freedom and others’ freedom throughout the world. My family members were liberated from a concentration camp by Marines in 1945. America has been a liberating force and hope in the world for a long time, through our diplomatic leadership and military service. But at home, we have struggled for generations to improve the freedom and equality of our own citizens who are non-white. It is acknowledging this struggle that led us to witness, this week, the public shift in how Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saint quarterback, talked about the flag. Rather than holding to his view on what the flag means, which was shaped by relatives who fought in World War II, Brees, through listening and looking beyond his own view, realized how it could be different in the lives of other Americans. For Brees, that led to a confession, many of us don’t want to make, not just because it is hard to admit we are wrong. It also feels like we need to give up our story of America in the process.

We want to believe the American Dream is a reality for all people in the same way, because that is the story most of us were taught, and that many voices in our lives may reinforce. It is not that those efforts of Drew Brees’ grandfathers’ are not valuable or part of our national or personal history, but he acknowledged that it is not the only story, and that others who are people of color see how the promise of the flag has failed in their lives and their family’s lives, as US Citizens, and even veterans, on our own soil.

We have pressed the mute button on these voices for a long time, because we have the power to do so and they are not the stories we want to hear. As this news and these voices are multiplied in our media, I know many of you want to mute them, and I understand the desire to take breaks from it because it can be overwhelming. But this is a debt we have to our brothers and sisters in this country. It is like the sin of Jerusalem that Isaiah talks about in our text today and a “bondage to decay” Paul warns keeps us from truly experiencing freedom. So as Christians, in this land, I believe we are called to not only pay attention, but find ways we can join a movement that brings this freedom to our siblings in Christ and all tour neighbors in this land. That takes prayer and patience with each other, and we all need more of that when we address issues that have so many other interests and voices involved.

I think of “God Bless America” as a prayer and call for repentance and guidance, but these faithful and earnest hymns can often be used as way of wrapping the flag around our problems in the hopes that they will go away and things stay the same. I know many sing patriotic songs and hymns with the assumption that God blesses America more than other nations. Pride in our nation and all the good it has done and continues to do is important, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have problems and sins like other nations and all human beings. Patriotism shouldn’t distract us from being patriotic, which I think means always forming, refining, and reforming a “more perfect union”, as the founders of this American experiment intended.

The way that I live my faith is that our allegiance should not be to the status quo, when we have a God that calls for change and courage to stand up to empires, and the temptations of powers and principalities. Soldiers who have sacrificed for our country have done so with such courage. When we ask for God’s blessings it is not with the assumption of freedoms, but a call to the work of citizens that want America to live into its ideals, especially the ideals that are also Christian values like equality, human rights, and love of neighbor.

For many people especially African Americans, the triumphalism and demand for allegiance to flag and country, without full rights under the law, and with evidence that their lives don’t matter the same as other Americans, creates a separation between white America and their experience. It’s been over 150 years since Lincoln quoted Jesus, saying “a house divided cannot stand”, but unlike the Civil War, the civil unrest we are now entering into is about recognizing that race has been used to divide people in our country since its inception and continues to do so. This division must be remedied if our house is to stand tall, as the beacon I believe we all want it to be. That is the American Dream we need right now, one that combines and values all of our stories as we shape the future of an America that lives up to its promises.

So if we pray God Bless America, let’s remember that it is a prayer and a call for repentance. We all need that. The nation needs Christians to be a part of change not stand in the way of it, or step aside. The values of our Christian creed meet those called for in our national creed, in the ways we love and respect our neighbors. But let’s remember that our call is to God first, and that our nations and flags cannot become idols replacing the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We are shaped by his story more than any other, and I hope we hear our shepherd’s voice louder than any other in these days of racial reckoning, and in all the voices of those he invites us to hear.

Pastor Josh