Last week, I made a statement that ruffled some feathers. I said I wasn’t ready to pray for peace. After the white terrorist attack on the US Capitol, I am not ready to pray for reconciliation. I got some feedback, and I thought I would spend some time talking today about why I am not ready to talk about unity, I am not ready to talk about reconciliation.
I said last week, I am praying for conversion. I want to explain a bit more about what I mean.
Let me start with the story from Exodus. Moses finds himself on holy ground, in front of the burning bush. When Moses hear’s God’s call, he isn’t sure. “Who am I to go to pharaoh?” Who am I? Remember, Moses doesn’t have a clean record. Moses is on the run. He’s settled in his father-in-law’s house, because he’s on the run from the law. He killed an Egyptian slave-master. Moses imagines he is last person God would want. He’s a criminal. It’s a risk.
But God says, “get going. I’m sending you.”
Moses needs to change his mind about his eligibility, about his suitability. Moses needs to, quite literally, give his life to God. God is asking for a conversion. I was struck this week that God did not send Moses to work for peace. God did not send Moses to work for reconciliation. God sent Moses to work for liberation.
Dr. King’s question
After the passing of the Civil Rights act in 1964 and the Voter’s Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King went down to Jamaica, to spend some time in reflection. His life had been arduous, on the road, in jail, worried about the threats against his life and family. After these landmark wins he took some time to contemplate what came next. After the laws were passed there were still riots in Watts, California and worker strikes up in Detroit, Michigan. Dr King took some down time in Jamaica to think and to pray. And he wrote his fourth and final book: “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community”
The Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, of Alfred Street Baptist Church in the Washington, DC area says we are still asking that question today: “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”
Dr. King’s question is still alive. Dr. King’s book strikes me as a bit like a moment later in the book of Exodus: Moses’ journey beyond pharaoh. After he accepted the call, after the frogs, and the locusts, and the passover, after the plagues, after the Pharaoh let the people go, after Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued them, after God parted the Red Sea for the people Israel and then drowned pharaoh armies, after all that struggle, they’re still not home. Dr. King found himself paying with Moses, even after the big fight was over, knowing that the journey was just beginning. You still have to choose, are you going to wander around in the desert, or make your way to the promised land.
Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?
There has been a great deal of debate in our nation over the last week and a half. Some folks said, in the wake of the attack, “this is not who we are.” This is not who we are. Other folks, including a number of my friends who are involved with the Black Lives Matter movement said, no, “this is EXACTLY who we are.” The attack on the capitol is yet one more symptom of a social disease.
We could debate the meaning and merits of the arguments until we are blue in the face. A professor of mine from college asked a question that cut through it all for me this week. He said, whether you said “this is not who we are,” or “this is exactly who we are” matters less than your answer to this question: “Is this who we want to be?” Is this who we want to be?
That question asks us to choose a direction, to make a turn. Is this who we want to be? That is a question that invites conversion. We are deciding where we go from here.
God’s promise: True Religion
In Exodus, God makes two promises to Moses. The first is pretty critical. God tells Moses, “I will be with you.” When you work for justice. When you work to set people free. God will be with you.
The reading finishes with a second promise, a crucial promise. God promises Moses, when the people are set free, after you bring them out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.
Sometimes people ask me, what makes church different than a social justice organization? Why spend time with religion, when you could do just as much, maybe more good, if you got involved in politics or volunteering.
I might point to this verse of Exodus in the future. Because for God, freedom has a direction. Real freedom, real liberation, comes when you are free to worship the one true God. In order to move toward Justice, you have to know where your loyalties lie. You have to be willing to examine your conscience, your belief. You have to be willing to give your life to the Ultimate power behind it all.
I told you last week, I am praying for conversion before I can pray for reconciliation, before I can pray for unity, before I can pray for peace. I believe our country is in desperate need of conversion.
The False Religions: White Supremacy and the Second Amendment
As deeper analysis of the riot in Washington came out, more and more stories, more and more images centered on what I can only call false religion.
The confederate flag, even Nazi symbols, were prominently displayed. The false religion of white supremacy is as old as this country. We have worshipped at its altar for a long long time. I’m praying for conversion, my own ongoing conversion, and the conversion of all of those who would disenfranchise black voters, all of those who would wear or wave racist symbols as they descended on our nation’s capital.
Here’s the tough truth. If you went to the jails and asked the rioters who have been arrested, I would bet you many of them would say, “I’m not a racist.” I know that many of the folks who gathered in Washington for the rally before the riot would claim the same. When I pray for conversion, I am hoping that hearts and minds will change.
Because there is a big difference between believing you are not a racist, and committing yourself to being an anti-racist. But friends, that is what is on offer. Conversion isn’t just about disavowing hate, it is about choosing hope, choosing love, choosing to actively actively work against the structures that continue to segregate us, the structures that continue to disenfranchise and impoverish some in our society. God offers better than just passive declarations, “I’m not a racist.” God invites us to change our hearts and minds, to work together for hope.
White supremacy was not the only false religion we saw in full display on January 6. There was a t-shirt that got prominent billing in the coverage of the riot: “God, Guns, and Trump.” If that made you chuckle, well, I’d invite you to pause. We live in a state with some of the most expansive gun rights in the country, and some of the most tragic results.
The argument isn’t just philosophical, it’s theological. Proponents of expanding the carrying of guns, in this state, often talk about how they believe God gave them the right, and the framers of the constitution enshrined it into law. In the name of “defending that right,” in 2007 Missouri legislators removed a required application to the local sheriff’s office before purchasing a handgun. Youth suicides skyrocketed. Once every four days now a young person dies by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. St. Louis city just had the deadliest year in fifty years.
I am praying for conversion, because the false religion around our gun debate is death dealing. But we don’t have to live like this. We can work for sensible change. No one is coming to take away the guns of law-abiding sport-loving folks. No one wants to make it so you can’t hunt pheasant, or elk. But a cynical politics, a cynical theology has used this debate to divide us. It’s a false theology, it really is. Another way is possible. God promises that we can beat our weapons into plowshares. We can protect gun owners AND have background checks, and keep guns out of the hands of kids. We can. There is hope, we just have to turn from the false divisions. We have to convert.
Community over chaos
When Dr. King wrote his book, he had a direction in mind. He wanted us to move away from chaos, toward community. The Hebrew word for “conversion” means “to turn around or to walk in a new direction.” When I say I am praying for conversion first, it is because I believe I need a new direction, all of us need a new direction.
Four years ago, I told you we had to pray for our new president. I never imagined I would need to stand in the pulpit and condemn so many of his actions. I really strive to be non-partisan. I have deep love and affection for friends on both sides of the political aisle. But what has dominated the last four years hasn’t just been about civil disagreement, about party. What has dominated our politics has been hateful, and vengeful, and mean. In this case, loving means praying for conversion, for my ongoing conversion, and the conversion of those with whom I disagree. It means asking together: Is this who we want to be?
Knowing that the drumbeats of the old false gods were deep, Dr. King still had faith. Faith that we would stop allowing our politics to be hijacked by the ambitions of the cynical. Faith that we would prioritize the lives and livelihood of the most vulnerable. Choose the God who hears the cry of the poor. Choose the God who asks you to step up for justice.
When I say I am praying for conversion, it is because I believe we can’t continue to allow ourselves to be pulled toward hate, toward cynicism, toward the lies of cowardly men. God is coming to set the people free. What will we choose, chaos or community?