St. John’s and Anger
Twice over the past week my phone has been inundated with texts and tweets and Facebook messages. On Sunday folks were asking, “Do you know St. John’s is on Fire?” On Monday the question came, “Have you seen the video of the President outside St. John’s?” I was ordained at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square. I was married there. I spent my first years of ministry there, preached my first sermons, counseled undocumented immigrants with kids in that nursery. If that church is holy ground for anybody, it’s holy ground for me. To see the president use my former church that way made me angry.
But if I’m only angry because a president I disagree with tried to use my church, friends, I’ve got to tell you, it’s not enough.
Later Monday evening, I learned that in order to pull his stunt the president ordered the park and the area around the church cleared with tear gas and rubber bullets, But friends, if I am just angry about what happened on Monday nights to protestors, I’ve got to tell you, it’s not enough.
What are you angry about?
As I took stock, I realized my initial anger was misplaced. What happened on Monday was a distraction. We can’t afford to be distracted. The real injustice isn’t a stunt in front of a church. The injustice that continues is the injustice that has been with us for over 400 years. The structural violence against black and brown bodies, America’s original sin, continues unchecked. I should be angry about George Floyd’s death, about Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin.
I should be angry that members of my congregation have to have “the talk” with their children, not about sex but about how to de-escalate, how to behave around the police if you are born with dark skin.
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. On this day we celebrate that God is three in one, one in three. The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has written that the Trinitarian reality “by definition defies dualisms.” God does not participate in our “either/ors.” God does not acknowledge our “greater than/less thans.”
And so, on Trinity Sunday, I want to push back into my anger. Because it would be really easy to say, well if he is for Black Lives, if that preacher is for George Floyd, if that minister is for the protestors he must be against the police. He must be angry at the cops.
Being angry at the police isn’t enough.
But friends, I think being angry at the police isn’t enough, especially if your anger is limited to the particular officer who killed George Floyd, I am convinced, isn’t enough. Pointing to one officer, deciding that this policeman a bad apple, it isn’t enough. I can’t be against one cop.
Get angry, but get angry at the whole damn system. I use that term theologically. The system damned George Floyd. The system damns folks that look like George again and again. The police officer who killed George Floyd had 18 prior complaints for use of excessive force filed against him. Why was he still on the street? Why did he still have a badge? Why wasn’t he already in jail? If a system kept a cop like that out on the street can’t be called damning, I don’t know what can.
This week, I had to think not just about about the so called “justice system,” but about the systems that raised up this officer. What about his school? Did he go to church? The officer who killed George Floyd was not taught, not taught thoroughly enough, that George’s life was precious. All along the way institutions, teachers, pastors, communities, we damned George Floyd because we failed to raise up a police officer who knew how precious George’s life was in God’s sight.
We failed George Floyd when we built a system that allows a white woman, when she is asked by a black man to put her dog on a leash, to feel she can call the police. It tells you who the system was built for, and who it was built against. It’s time to take apart the whole damn system.
Preaching especially to white people: what are you going to do differently?
As a white person, I’ve got to acknowledge, today I am mostly preaching to myself and to my fellow white people. We have to do better. It is a privilege to worship in a congregation that reflects the diversity of our neighborhood. Yes, it is a privilege to serve with a vestry, a parish board that reflects that diversity. And I don’t feel I am speaking out of school to share with you, a lot of our black leaders are tired. A lot of our black leaders are guarding against hope. Because they’ve been here before. They’ve seen protests. They’ve heard the calls for justice. And here we are again.
So, my question is really for my fellow white folks: What are you angry about? This Trinity Sunday, I ask you, are we going to do differently? Are you going to email the black woman on your executive team, and ask if you can join in the diversity work she has been carrying on the company’s behalf? Are you going to email your mayor, and ask that the city review the use of force authorization for the municipal police force? Are you going to review the curriculum you teach about Dr. King and make sure folks know how much work is left? Are you going to give money to black institutions? What are you going to do differently?
Image of the Trinity
There’s an image of the Trinity I love, it was conceived by the Afro-Caribbean American Episcopal Priest Marc Bozzutti-Jones. It was written by an iconographer right here in St. Louis. This icon plays with a tradition. There are three figures seated around a table. But unlike unlike in the traditional Trinity all of the figures are clearly women. At the center of the icon is a strong black woman with dreads down to her shoulders, on her left hand is an Asian woman, on her right is a woman who could be Latina, or Middle Eastern. And the cloth covering the table they gather round is a rainbow flag.
I love this icon of the Trinity because it incorporates into an image of God a whole host of identities our traditional images have left out. And it reminds us that saying we believe in the Trinity means we believe in a God who can handle co-equal diversity. We believe in a God whose very life is made up of diverse persons in unity. God doesn’t demand uniformity. God doesn’t privilege one identity over another. And all of us, all of us, every human being, in all of the infinite ways we are diverse, we are all made in God’s image, in the image of God we were created.
Do we treat human beings as if they are created in God’s image? Do we bear witness that Black Lives Matter to God?
We say that we believe that every human being, every human being, is created in the image and likeness of God. Yet in the six years I have lived in St. Louis, I’ve had to be out on the streets. And, if I’m honest, I don’t like protesting. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary. I’d prefer not to have to protest. But three times our streets have filled with Black Lives Matter demonstrators, three times, because it is obvious that what we proclaim with our lips is not being lived in our public lives. We have to do better.
If we are going to do better, we can’t let ourselves be distracted. Don’t let your anger get stuck on something small, something trivial. We have an opportunity to turn the tide against America’s original sin. Do not let yourself be distracted, by love for a building, by a political party. Don’t be small. Tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and in the years to come, George Floyd is depending on you. In our board rooms, in our city council meetings, in our classrooms, in our church: Will we bear witness to our belief that black lives matter to God?