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Month: October 2017

When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

Racism and prophetic protests against racism are part of the Biblical message. I wonder why we hear so few sermons in our churches about this moral issue.

Perhaps Stassen and Gushee (2016) are correct that the dominant white culture (to which I belong) has taken a social evil and neutered it by reducing it to the level of individual relationships while protesting that we are nice people. That argument does not work in groups where we hear the stories of people and groups that have suffered from oppression and prejudice embedded in the structures of economics, law, education, and social relations.

In this blog I want to give two Biblical examples of racism and the protest against it for a higher ethic of justice, equity, and mercy.

The Good Samaritan

A well-known expression of racism is found in the gospel of Luke. Luke 9:51 marks a key transition in the mission of Jesus. He tells his followers that they will leave Galilee and begin the long journey to Jerusalem. The chosen route takes them through Samaria, a region with an ethnic population that has a troubled relationship with Hebrew people.

Jesus sends messengers ahead to request hospitality. However the elders of the community reject this traditional duty because he was traveling to Jerusalem. The Samaritans considered that their temple on Mount Gerizim was the legitimate place for the sacrifices stipulated by the Torah.

Two of the disciples request permission to pray for fire to come down from heaven to destroy the village. I read this as a genocidal petition with an appeal for God to utterly blot out the people of another ethnic group for a perceived offense. Jesus rebukes them and moves on to another village.

The protest is found when a lawyer asks Jesus to define the term “neighbor” (Luke 10.29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which a despised foreigner is faithful to God’s law.  The story is meant as much for the disciples as it was for the lawyer.

A House of Prayer for All the Nations

I submit that there is an earlier example. After the Babylonian exile, there were tensions between the returnees and the people who had remained in the land. The former exiles had the advantage of political power through their connection with the Persian Empire under Cyrus. The Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah show concern for a pure bloodlines. Marriages between former exiles and the daughters of the people of the land had contaminated the holy seed according to those in positions of power (Ezra 9.2). The solution was to send away wives and children of these intermarriages.

The protest is found in the third section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66). The prophet speaks into the social situation of post-exilic Jerusalem and the surrounding area. He encourages his listeners to maintain justice and do what is right (Isa. 56.1). He advises that the temple will be a house of prayer for all the nations (56.7). Foreigners joined to the Lord will be admitted to the temple and eunuchs will be welcome in the house of God (Isa 56.3-8). At the close of Isaiah, God speaks that he will gather people from all the nations and that some from these foreign ethnic groups will serve as his priests (Isa. 66.21). There is an inclusive prayer in Isa. 64.8-9.

O Lord, you are our father;

We are the clay, and you are our potter’

We are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

And do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.


Embedded racism is such a destructive force in the USA and Canada. Surely we do not need to be convinced. We need to ask questions about doing justice and loving our neighbor across boundaries of race and ethnicity? I don’t think we can leave the protest up to professional athletes!

I am bold enough to make a few suggestions for pastoral leaders.

  1. Confession is important. Can we confess before God that we live in social settings with a history of racism? Can we ask God for forgiveness and for direction in living by the standard of his kingdom?
  2. Can we expose our congregations to stories of people whose experience of life is different from our own? My seminary ethics class listened to a Youtube speech of Dr. Cornell West speaking about racial justice. We realized that our tendency was to evaluate social issues from our personal perspectives rather than from those who have suffered from the oppression of the dominant culture.
  3. Can we seek to build relationships with other people in order to enter more deeply into their experiences. In Canada, the challenge is to build relationships of equity and repentance with Indigenous people. Majority caucasian churches in the USA are challenged to share their congregational life with African Americans and Latinos in particular. We should expect suspicion and questions about our motives. People from other groups will be looking for attitudes that are patronizing and bear messages of superiority. A contrite heart and broken spirit are more compelling before God and before those who feel pushed to the margins.
  4. Can we discover some shared projects in which caucasian people serve in secondary roles? We do not always have to be the leaders.

Racism is offensive to God who created every human in his image. Let’s do something about it.

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The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

Students in my Christian Ethics class at Ambrose discussed an excerpt from Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations (1992) on Monday.

I was not surprised that no one had previously heard of Havel. The relative lack of public recognition of is not surprising. We do not pay much attention to political leaders outside of North America unless they threaten us or represent a major power.

Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). Subsequently he was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Prior to entering into the political life of his country, Havel had been a dissident who was imprisoned by the communist government. The Velvet Revolution, which he led, was credited as a major factor in bringing down communism is Czechoslovakia.

It is important to know his background. Havel’s reflections on political life were forged in the heat of the furnace of experience.

I have listed below some of the things that impressed the students in my class as they reflected on his writing.

  1. Havel believed that there was a moral nature to politics. He attempted to nurture a sense of “higher responsibility” in conducting his duties as president. One aspect was to cultivate goodwill, decency, and respect for others.
  2. He recognized evil in the way political candidates displayed “… an extravagant hunger for power.” “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” He also understood that he had the same inclinations and was required to begin the work of moral renewal in his own heart. “As in everything else, I must start with myself.”
  3. He had a lifelong commitment to non-violence. “Communism was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity.” “Violence only breeds more violence.”
  4. He tried to use the office of the president to as a model for the larger government. He encouraged “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.
  5. He saw himself as a servant who had moral duties to the community and to future generations. Although not a professing Christian, he understood that he would answer to a higher power. “… we are observed from above, … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten…”
  6. He displayed what the New Testament calls steadfast endurance in times of discouragement. “I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”

We spent class time reflecting on two questions:

  1. How does the political morality of Havel compare to Jesus’ teaching about the virtues of leadership that were to guide his followers? The context of a European president is, of course, very different from a Galilean rabbi and his disciples.
  2. Is there one thing that each of us could learn from Havel for use in our own context where we are leaders by position or by influence?

I leave those questions with the readers of this blog post.

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