Pastors, prophets, politics, & pandemics

In this month’s Joyful Journey blog, Bishop David Bard, with heart broken open, talks about the appropriate place of politics in our decision making about coronavirus and actions against racism …

I am going to begin by asking for your patience. It is often best to focus on a single topic in this space, but I need to speak with you about a few matters. Thank you for your time.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when we have all needed to find new ways to work and worship and interact, I have offered encouraging words to our pastors about their forays into new technologies. The phrase “keep it up” has come from me often.  I also want to acknowledge that doing so many new things at once can be tiring. I continue to encourage you and commend your creativity and effort. I also want to encourage you, as we are entering the summer, to make sure you take time away. Even if your vacation is now a staycation, make sure you rest, renew and refresh. The Michigan Conference is working to put together a sermon bank from which you might draw so that you can getaway. When you are on vacation, it is o.k. for you to invite your congregation to tune into the worship of a colleague for that week. Contact that colleague ahead of time to coordinate this. Find rest – a pastoral word.

Jesus displayed a pastoral heart when he invited persons to come and find rest (Matthew 11:28). He was also rooted in the prophetic tradition evidenced in the reading chosen in the synagogue in Nazareth from Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus had a prophetic heart, grounded in words like: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”; “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”; “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?” The prophetic tradition is deeply concerned with morality, with our hearts, with our souls, yet the language also shades into the political.

“The prophetic tradition is deeply concerned with morality, with our hearts, with our souls, yet the language also shades into the political.”

In recent days I have strongly encouraged us, as we make decisions about our on-going response to the coronavirus pandemic, decisions about when and how we will re-open our church buildings as tools for ministry. I ask you not to let those be “political decisions,” that is, decisions about political personalities or political parties. Engaging in good hygiene is not a political decision. Keeping social distance is not a political decision. Wearing a face covering is not a political decision. I was disheartened to hear that the granddaughter of American icon Johnny Cash was recently called a “liberal (expletive)” for wearing a mask into a Nashville grocery story. When making decisions about how we will live and work and worship together in response to the pandemic, it is about public health, the common good, and the well-being of others. These are moral concerns, but not political ones.

Yet there are moral concerns which are also political concerns, political in the broad sense of having to do with our life together as a country, not necessarily political in the narrow sense of partisan politics. One of the challenges of our time, though, is that anything that has a broad political dimension is forced quickly into narrow partisan politics. Nevertheless, we cannot let our concern that others may quickly label us politically, keep us from speaking to moral issues which are also political issues, and speak out of our prophetic tradition. One of the descriptions of the role of a bishop in The Book of Discipline is that a bishop will have “a prophetic commitment for the transformation of the Church and the world. The role of the bishop is to be a prophetic voice for justice in a suffering and conflicted world through the tradition of social holiness.”

The suffering of our world, the deep injustice of our society, has been made horribly and painfully evident in recent days by the video showing the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. George Floyd was African-American. The police officer was Caucasian. The name George Floyd joins the names of other African-Americans recently killed by law enforcement or by citizens acting as if they were law enforcement, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.

“Racism is as virulent a virus as the coronavirus, and it is also lethal.”

Racism is as virulent a virus as the coronavirus, and it is also lethal.  It is lethal in brutally public ways, as in the deaths of the individuals I’ve just named. It is lethal in quieter ways, in the effects of poverty, lack of educational opportunities, sub-standard health care, lack of access to healthy foods. These realities are rooted in our country’s history: slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, separate but equal, native American displacement, and trails of tears. The United Methodist Church has said racism is sin, “that racism is a rejection of the teachings of Jesus Christ… denies the redemption and reconciliation of Jesus Christ,” and “that racism robs all human beings of their wholeness.”

Because racism is deeply rooted in our history, it is also deeply entangled in our minds, our hearts, and our systems. It was brutally on display in the killing of George Floyd. It has been on display more stealthily in some of the recent protests in Lansing over the governor’s response to the coronavirus. To carry Confederate flags while also toting assault-like rifle evokes every white oppression of blacks in our history, and to fail to recognize this indicates that racism has blinded us to our own complicity in its insidious persistence.

While the effects of racism are felt by persons of color – African, African-American, indigenous, Latino, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and all, the problem is a white problem. It is we who are white who need to do the work. In a sermon I preached Memorial Day weekend (by live-stream), in light of all that was happening with the pandemic, and in light of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, I said, “if looking at all this our hearts don’t break, we need a heart transplant.” Working to eradicate racism is work that has political dimensions. It is moral work. It is spiritual work. It is heart work. Maybe it begins with a broken heart, a heart broken again and again by our failure to see and live toward the common humanity of all.

“Maybe [working to eradicate racism] begins with a broken heart, a heart broken again and again by our failure to see and live toward the common humanity of all.” 

With our hearts broken open, we can look inside and find those places where the virus of racism still exists, acknowledge them, and work to inoculate ourselves against their effects. We can keep our hearts broken open to hear the human stories of people for whom a traffic stop might end up with someone dying, or an arrest supposedly for forgery may end up with someone dead on the street. In the words of Parker Palmer, imagine the heart broken open into a new capacity. …  As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility … my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair, and hope.  (A Hidden Wholeness, 178).

More than heart work is involved, vitally important as that heart work is. Anti-racism work is the work of the heart, mind, soul, and the body politic. I invite you to ponder the journey as described by Ibram X. Kendi in his book How To Be an Antiracist. “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequalities as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’  The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” (9)

Such heart work, such anti-racism work, is uncomfortable and difficult, and we would rather distract ourselves. One distraction could be to focus solely on the burning, looting, and rioting that has been a tragic and unfortunate part of the response to George Floyd’s death. It is tragic and destructive and should not happen. In some places, the rioting, burning, and looting have moved beyond angry response to the murder of George Floyd to destruction for its own sake. I am unequivocal in my condemnation of those who would use the utter tragedy of George Floyd’s death to further an agenda of destructiveness. Yet while we stand against such destruction, to focus on it alone would be a distraction from the need for white Americans, especially we who follow Jesus, to do the kind of deep soul searching needed to come to grips with endemic and systemic racism. We who are white cannot let ourselves be distracted.  Our own hearts and souls are at stake.

“Such heart work, such anti-racism work, is uncomfortable and difficult, and we would rather distract ourselves. … We who are white cannot let ourselves be distracted.”

Friends, these are difficult days. I understand that in speaking as I have risk being labeled politically and therefore risk having my best advice about responding to the coronavirus pandemic ignored. I had to take that risk or risk losing my prophetic heart, which is also a pastoral heart, and right now, often a broken heart.  There are moments when sadness fills me beyond what I thought was my capacity. I experience sadness over sickness, the grief of not being with others in familiar ways, sorrow over racism ending in death in a city I know well. I have been brought near to tears listening to the stories of African-American colleagues and friends for whom the video of that killing is their realistic nightmare.

Through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, I continue to find that increasing the capacity of my heart for sorrow and sadness also increases its capacity for love, learning, growth, and even joy. God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and leads us beside still waters, restoring our soul, so we might also walk paths of righteousness and justice. Along the way, there are times for rest, take it. Along the way, there are moments of beauty and joy, savor them. And there is work to be done, for which God also gives us the grace and courage.

I am with you on this heart-breaking, tearful, and still joyful journey.

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