A Sermon Response to Protests and Violence

Originally published on the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth. http://www.ictg.org/blog/category/sermons

A Sermon Preached at Austin Seminary on November 17, 2015.

What time is it? My son asks this question around bedtime, and I know he’s asking for one of two reasons — either because he doubts it’s really bed-time, or because he senses that it’s late and that it should be sleep-time for him but his body hasn’t yet accepted that. So when he asks “what time is it?” I know the numbers on the clock mean something else to him. Either it’s “too early” or it’s “too late,” either “I should get to stay up and read some more,” or “I really should be asleep by now!”

Different times elicit different reactions from us. Time holds different meaning for us, depending on a number of factors. I, for instance, don’t know what this time means for you, what each one of you might be going through.

We cannot know exactly what it’s like right now for the students who are protesting on college campuses around the country, for those who must proclaim that Black Lives Matter in the face of blatant and covert forms of racism. We cannot know what it’s like for the people living in Beirut, or in Paris, or in Syria.

We cannot know what others are experiencing, what time it is for them, because we identify more easily with some than with others. We identify with those more readily who are most like us in terms of our own identities, our conscious or unconscious understandings of race and class and nationality.

I’ve been reading about the students at Mizzou, the students who have experienced blatant and systemic racism. And I’ve been reading about students all over this country who are fed up with what they have experienced as racial discrimination, racist epithets and threats, costumes that make a mockery of their cultures with stereotypes and disrespectful representations. I do not know what they are going through because I am a white person, and I do not understand fully what it feels like to have this happen chronically.

But then I noticed my own reaction to the terror in Paris, I had a real visceral reaction, different than my reaction to hearing about the suicide bombings in Beirut the day before. With the news from Paris, I was locked into news media outlets, trying to find some answers, trying to find some conclusive evidence that the attackers had been caught, that I, thousands of miles away was safe. You see, because the people in Paris—I identify with them. I’m not French, but it is easier for me to imagine myself being in France, because I’ve visited Paris, and the terror and fear is more accessible. An attack on Paris and I feel threatened.

Why not so with the terrorist bombings in Beirut? On the radio program “The World,” a Lebanese doctor Eli Fares explained that for many, Beirut is just another city people associate with violence and war, another city in the Middle East where violence is an everyday occurrence, which means we assume such a thing is normal, and normal is overlooked. When he saw the outpouring of support for Paris, he thought at first that it was nice to see people supporting the French, a sense of shared humanity. But he said, then when you put it in the context of [his] own city being torn apart by violence, which is not common place for Beirut, it made [him] feel that the Lebanese do not really matter on the global context. He said, even though news media reported the blasts by calling them a “Hezbollah stronghold,” this was not an accurate representation of the city. Beirut is the most liberal city in the Middle East, and while it is only 50 miles from Syria, they’ve prided themselves on making headlines for keeping it together. The country hasn’t been at war for 25 years. So these bombings were very much a disruption to their daily lives in Beirut—they were not considered “normal.” And even now, Fares says “Currently the malls are open, people are going to see the James Bond movie, even though it’s horrible. People are waiting for the new Adele album.” And when asked what he would say to the French, to the city of Paris which he loves and has lived in, he said in French: “You have a fantastic City, I love it a lot, and I will visit it soon.” And from someone who has experienced something of what they’re going through, he advises: “always seek out normality. To always look on the bright side. Things will get better.” Eli Fares.

Knowing that we will identify more easily with people who look like us means that we need to watch our reactions to those who are different from us when they call for change. There are those who have been critical of the student groups protesting racial discrimination. But before we can critique these students, we need to understand our own reactions as being much more likely to side with those who look like us. If you experienced a personalized sense of terror at witnessing the news in Paris, a fear for your own personal safety, then take that experience and apply it to things that are seen on the news in our country against persons of color or persons who look differently than you do. If I am regularly exposed to pictures of persons who look like me being treated unfairly and unjustly, then I would have had the same terrified feeling I did when reacting to Paris, a sense that I am not safe, that I have reason to fear for my life, and I would have that experience more chronically.

The book of Ecclesiastes knows something of chronic fear and suffering. This book of wisdom was most likely written post-exile. After the Israelites had been exiled, driven away from their home land, and now, they have returned. They are returning to seeing their land in the hands of others, their cities destroyed, no homes to return to. Before the exile, it had been a time to dance, a time to plant, a time to sew and love and embrace. And then, exile. Violent displacement. The times changed. Then, in a foreign land, it was a time to mourn, a time to tear one’s clothes, a time to weep. Once again, the times changed. They are returning. They are re-planting. They are coming back to homes that have been destroyed, and it is time to throw away stones. In all those places of righteousness, wickedness is now there. Times are changing.

All this change has been traumatic. They are returning to this place that was once theirs, and everything is different. The book of Ecclesiastes is a book in mid-mourning. A book written by someone looking out through the lens of chronic, collective trauma.

Phil Helsel, a pastoral theologian, wrote an article [forthcoming] about Ecclesiastes and collective trauma. Collective trauma, he says, is more than just isolated events, but instead is something chronic, something that tears apart communities, that hovers over the air and leaves individuals with a sense of broken-spiritedness. Helsel writes that this book of Ecclesiastes was written under colonial oppression, and that the psychological effects of collective trauma can be read between the lines. Collective trauma – something that is long-term, ongoing, chronic – destabilizes community and creates an overarching narrative that the world is not trustworthy. Collective trauma is more than isolated events of personal trauma. It eats away at the fabric of communal life.

As I turn to the news, I see evidence and further instances that perpetuate our collective trauma as a society. And when I say “our collective trauma,” I mean that there are many sources of trauma that persons in our society are experiencing. There are intersections of oppression that lead to everyday traumas relating to race, gender, class, age, abilities, and sexual orientation. We need to understand more deeply how we all walk around participating in these systems of oppression, in some ways as the oppressed, and in others as the oppressor. And in either case, “there is no one to comfort us.” The collective trauma that results from these interlocking oppressive systems threatens to tear us apart as a community.

So what do we do? When times are extremely hard for some, and less so for others. When we do not know the times that each of us experience in any current moment. When some are in a time of war, and others at peace. Some are silent, and some are speaking. When all of these times are happening to different people, what sense do we make of it all?

Well, first we name it. We name the collective trauma as the wickedness of our inherited racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and able-bodism, our nationalism and xenophobia, and our feelings of religious superiority over those from different religions and traditions. We name the collective trauma that is our love for violence and our greed for domination. And we identify ways to change laws and systems that make the world more equitable. We look for ways to bring peace and justice.

And in the meantime, we also seek to mend the ties that have been broken as a result of this collective trauma. We understand that some are in a time of needing to tear away, and that others are needing a time to sew up. We accept that all of these different times can be happening all at once across our society, and even in our own community. And we know that no one can tell another what time it is for them — each of us must describe it for ourselves.

So what wisdom do we gain from Ecclesiastes? Well, a persistent refrain that seems to be the author Qoheleth’s response to collective trauma is in the frequent admonitions to enjoy life, to enjoy one’s work, to enjoy being in community with others. To try and have fun. And while that sounds like a meager response to trauma, it also makes some sense. When a community is experiencing collective trauma, there are no ties, there is no trust, there is no way of bonding.

But when we can laugh together, when we can sit around a table and have a meal together eating really good food, when we can share together in life’s pleasures, sometimes, maybe sometimes, we can regain some of those communal ties that have been broken in the aftermath of collective trauma.

Biblical scholar Eunny Lee writes in her book The Vitality of Joy, that God in Ecclesiastes authorizes humanity to enjoy life — that to enjoy life is in fact an ethical mandate in the face of suffering and oppression.

But while we seek to enjoy life in the face of death and fear, we do not remain silent in the face of injustice — we must continue to speak out wherever we find injustice. We also maintain a commitment to ourselves in the midst of fighting for greater equality that we allow ourselves to enjoy living this gift of life that we have been granted. And one of the ways we enjoy life is through shared meals, both informal and those that are more structured. Every Tuesday, for instance, we at Austin Seminary gather around this table to share a meal that has been ritualized through two millennia. This meal is at times somber, but it is also called “joyful.” A joyful feast.

A few weeks back, Professor Asante Todd preached an excellent sermon here in chapel and then presided over the table. As I was coming up to receive communion, the piece that he tore for me from the loaf was accidentally bigger than he intended. But, because it was already broken, I went ahead and took the whole piece he had broken off. Now I am talking, this was one big piece of bread, probably the size of my fist. So, I dip it in the chalice, and just shove that whole thing in, trying to get my jaws to make it somehow smaller as I return to my seat with chipmunk cheeks. I don’t think I was done chewing that piece of bread until chapel was over! It felt like a mistake, a gaffe, even a sacrilege to be laughing during communion. I mean, this is the broken body of our Lord. It’s a time to be serious. But maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe the laughter I enjoyed in that moment was meant for me, a small taste of the delight and joy that can come from this table, even in the midst of the tragedy and violence of Christ’s death. We are called to not let death and oppression have the last word. We are called to enjoy life, even in the midst of all that seeks to destroy it.

In this sacrament, we at Austin Seminary recognize that we are tasting the goodness of God and we celebrate that we have been grafted onto the body of Christ, sharing together with our brothers and sisters all over the world a bond that cannot be broken despite trauma and injustice and oppression. This feast helps nourish us to go out and celebrate our shared life together, to laugh together, to love together. To hold onto this precious gift of life and drink from it deeply. To challenge injustice everywhere, and to have fun.

​“I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.” God has appointed a time for each of us to do the work God has prepared for us. While some time that work may feel like a heavy burden of carrying the weight of the world’s suffering, hold onto life. Hold onto joy. Hold onto the love of God and share that love with others. Amen.

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