On Wednesday of last week, in a city a few hours from here, Loretta Lynch was finally sworn in as Attorney General, the first African American woman to hold the position. During the ceremony, she used a bible that had belonged to Frederick Douglass to take her oath of office.
Douglass was a remarkable man. Born a slave in maybe 1817 or 1818, he describes in his autobiography how he came to stand on the Chesapeake Bay, longing to cross over to the other side, envying the freedom of the boats set free from their anchoring chains, come whatever storms may. He finally escaped slavery, and became an eloquent and sought-after speaker on both sides of the ocean, on the subject of abolition. He wrote in an appendix to his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
… between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. … Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”
And indeed, Douglass did not use his eloquence only for political means, but he was also a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Later on Wednesday, at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, nine black men and women, descendants of Douglass in their faith and their civic involvement and their thirst for justice, for the kingdom of God; nine men and women were murdered by one who thought that they had no place there, no place here, no place in the kingdom of God.
Jesus told his disciples to get into the boat, let’s go to the other side, he said. And they ran into a storm.
Jesus is not here to lead us into harm. Praying in church is not what got those nine people killed. Racism, the direct descendant of the barbarity of Frederick Douglass’ tormentors, is the storm which surrounded them and overwhelmed them.
Jesus spoke peace to the storm, raised his voice above the wind and the waves, and even the wind and the waves obeyed him. And there was a dead calm.
But this one this one’s ears were full of the noise of racism and of hatred and of gunfire. Even in church, at prayer, this one, his middle name Storm; this one failed to hear above the noise of the storm the voice of Jesus calling, cajoling, pleading: Peace. Be Still.
Our Bishop, the Rt Rev Mark Hollingsworth, Jr, wrote this week from the road, in part,
In the futile attempt to make some sense of so senseless an act of evil, I am wanting to categorize this as an isolated act of a solitary and deranged individual. But of course I cannot separate myself from it; it is a reflection of a social system in which I am complicit, by my action and my inaction alike.
The noise of the storm that we call racism is still the background sound track to everyday life in this country. A black president swearing in a black AG on the bible of a former slave come good has not silenced the storm of hateful prejudice and oppressive privilege that still runs riot; far from it.
Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? asks God of Job. And even the seas obey. But not us. We will not be held back, our proud flags and our preening privilege shall not be stopped like the tide. We rage on, oblivious to the commands of peace, the arms of Jesus outstretched.
Those of us who have the privilege of tuning out the noise, those of us who do not see colour, do not hear it, I’m sorry to say, are part of the problem. If we are able to ignore the storm, it may be that we are sitting in the eye of it.
The only way to remove ourselves from the storm, to stand on the side of Jesus, is to wake up, to stand up, to step up and to speak up, and not to let up until the chaos is quelled and true peace stretches out across the waters all around us, as far as the eye can see.
I am trying. I want to stay in the boat with Jesus, full of the faith that defies all fear, speaking peace to the storm, commanding peace, calming the chaos, even clinging with the disciples to his coattails. But I know that there is a part of me that still swirls away with the clouds, oblivious of the havoc that I am wreaking. And for that, I am sorry.
Meanwhile, back on the boat, words of peace flatten the waves, astonish the wind into silence. The relatives of the slain churchgoers naming their grief and their anger directly to their tormentor, the storms that rage in their hearts, and then speaking mercy, forgiveness, peace.
I can barely imagine what is must be like for that church, for Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to come together to worship this morning. But these few brave disciples have already shown us that their faith is stronger than their fear. They do not want to become a part of the storm. They would rather stay in the boat with Jesus, come what may. In voices ripped by the wind and shredded by a rain of tears, they have stood with Jesus and spoken into the face of the storm and said, Peace. Be still.
Not without anger. Not without fear. Not without grief. Not without passion. Peace is not the absence of emotion, but the presence of God.
Peace is not the absence of passion, but the presence of Christ.
There is peace to be found, with the help of Christ, by the grace of God. But it is not the false calm at the eye of the storm. It is not found in among the blustering winds but back in the boat, shoulder to shoulder with the other disciples, awake, alert, and close to Christ.
Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the denomination of the church to which this week’s shooter belongs, also wrote this week:
I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.
There is peace to be found, not without passion, not without work, not the false calm at the eye of the storm, but the peace of Christ which passes all understanding, which makes no sense but leave his disciples dumbfounded, asking, Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?
And so let us pray for that peace, and for our part in it, using the prayer of St Francis [via the Book of Common Prayer]:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.