“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” So begins Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address.” As in 1838, so in 2014, “the grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers” (Ralph Waldo Emerson “Divinity School Address,” 1838). At least around here, the weather of summer, 2014 has been extraordinarily mild. I cannot recall a lovelier time to be alive.
In all other respects than the weather, though, this has been a horrible summer. The murder of US journalist James Foley by ISIS was only the latest humanitarian disaster: the Israel-Hamas conflict, resulting in thousands of deaths by non-combatants in Gaza; the ongoing crisis of Central American children at the US-Mexico border; the attacks on Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. I have enjoyed the outdoors this summer both for the weather and as an escape from the pain I encounter in the news.
But speaking as an American, the most painful story for me of all this year has been the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s a hard story in so many respects. It involves yet another shooting of an unarmed African American by a white person. It exposed the multiple conflicting ways in which whites and blacks understand and respond to events. It showed a local government and police force more concerned with justifying themselves than getting at the truth. And it reminded us all that the hopes of racial justice, articulated 45 years ago in this pulpit by Dr. King, have yet to be fulfilled.
At the center of the Ferguson tragedy, of course, lies the body of Michael Brown, a young man perched between high school and college, dead of six shots—four to the body, two to the head. For some reason I don’t understand, my white clergy colleagues have been slower than our sisters and brothers of color to respond to Michael Brown’s death, just as it took us awhile to grasp the implications of Trayvon Martin’s or Emmett Till’s.
But the concerns of Ferguson are the concerns of Northwest Washington. As William Sloane Coffin, Jr. used to tell his congregation at Yale in the 1960s, “New Haven cannot be a safe haven.” So how do we, as Americans and as Christians, begin not only to understand it but respond to it? Today’s readings give us some help.
This morning’s Old Testament story turns on a stunning act of civil disobedience. Pharaoh lives in fear of the growing Hebrew population in Egypt and orders that all male Hebrew babies be killed. We are told that two Egyptian midwives—brave women named Shiphrah and Puah—“feared the Lord,” and so they disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders. They let male Hebrew babies live, and this act of disobedience eventually allowed the baby Moses to escape infanticide and grow up to be one who would lead Israel out of slavery in the Exodus (Exod. 1:8–2:10).
It is no accident that African American religious leaders have historically looked to the story of Moses and seen parallels between Egypt and America. The Exodus story points those of us in the “dominant” culture to an uncomfortable parallel with the Bible’s Egyptians. We are told that the motivation for Pharaoh’s actions was fear. As Pharaoh says, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Egyptian ruthlessness begins from a sense of vulnerability. There is an “other” in the land, and if we don’t watch out that “other” will take us over.
In the Bible’s diagnosis, human oppression and cruelty start with fear. And fear starts in ignorance. As our Exodus story begins, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” We fear what we do not know. And if we have power we find it easier to control and contain what we do not know than to make the effort to understand it. That was true in the Egypt of 1400 B.C.E. It was true in the Roman-occupied Jewish Palestine of Jesus’ day. It was true in the days of slavery and Jim Crow. And it is true in our day, too.
This morning’s Gospel tells the story that we Christians call “the confession of Peter.” When Jesus asks his companions who others say he is, only Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt.16:13–20). Now “Messiah” means “anointed.” It is the Hebrew word we render in Greek as “Christ.” Both terms signify kingly authority. King David was anointed. So is Jesus. The term has radical political implications, especially in an occupied territory. The Romans denied the Jews their own royal authority. The Jews looked for a Messiah, a Christ, an anointed king to bring it back.
When Peter realizes that Jesus is “the Messiah,” the anointed, the Christ, he is recognizing something deep and powerful about God and about us. Most of us are impressed by shows of strength—royal pomp, a display of weapons—as signs of power and authority. But Jesus is for us “the Christ,” the Messiah, the anointed one because he is effectively an anti-king. Jesus is not Caesar, nor does he pretend to be. What Caesar offers is a grotesque parody of authentic authority. What Jesus offers is the real deal. He brings compassion instead of hatred, healing instead of abuse, trust instead of threats. In this story of Peter’s confession, we see at least one person finally getting it. Real kings don’t look and act like Caesar. They look and act like Jesus. What Jesus represents is what the power at the center of the universe really looks like.
And it’s in response to his dramatic recognition that Jesus makes this surprising gift to Peter. He says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In our context this morning, what Jesus clearly means by “binding and loosing” is the power either to imprison or set free. When you get it, as Peter did, that Jesus is the Messiah; when you get it that real power lies in love rather than force; when you get it that the other whom you fear is really your brother or sister on this earthly pilgrimage; when you get all that then you, like Peter, have been given the power not only to set others free, but to be set free yourself.
Speaking as a white, American, Christian man this morning I want to say that it is time that we, with Peter, claim the power Jesus gives us to set each other and ourselves free. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus here gives us a choice: we can stay locked in the prison of our own fear, or we can loosen the chains and step towards the marginalized and oppressed people of our nation and the world. We can move toward the other in riot gear or we can move with open arms. We have a choice, and in giving those keys to Peter, Jesus gives us the power to make it.
We can make that choice first by deciding to stand with the people of Ferguson not only in their grief but in their anger. We can make that choice next by calling for a true accounting of Michael Brown’s killing and a legal process of justice. And we can make that choice by moving personally and corporately out of our comfort zones into actual engagement and with people we fear because we do not know. In empowering Peter to bind and loose, to imprison or to set free, Jesus has given us the power to liberate our brothers, our sisters, and ourselves.
It is a sad truth that the deaths of poor young people of color—in DC, in Ferguson, in Gaza, at the border—don’t seem to matter to the wider world very much. We no longer have the luxury of refusing to care when unarmed African Americans are killed by fearful whites. Trayvon Martin, shot while George Zimmerman was standing his Florida ground; Eric Garner, killed by a New York police chokehold for selling loose cigarettes; Renisha McBride, shot by a Michigan homeowner when she asked for help; Ezell Ford, a 25-year old mentally-ill man shot by California police; Michael Brown, shot by a Ferguson, Missouri officer for reasons yet to be discovered. Those of us not directly affected by this violence no longer have the luxury of staying safely in our own hidey-holes of ignorance. As Bill Coffin said, “New Haven cannot be a safe haven.” As Martin Luther King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
There is nothing more important for us American Christians at this moment in history than facing into our own fear and its implications. We no longer have the luxury of refusing to understand. Racial justice will only come about as we join with others to demand it. And when we do that—when we do the work to move with Jesus and with Moses and with Peter out of our fear and into self-knowledge and compassion—then we will loosen all the chains that bind us. And it will truly be, in this refulgent summer, a luxury to draw the breath of life. Amen.