Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 7, 2020
II Corinthians 13: 11-13
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will.
–Sam Cooke, (1931-1964), American Civil Rights Activist, Singer/Songwriter
Our children have gotten very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in New Orleans. The other day they confronted us. They challenged us to step up more boldly to stand up for black people in their fight for justice. They told us about how where they are, in New Orleans, they’ve been forced to confront their own prejudices, assumptions and fears. What really struck us was that they have done this willingly. They’ve gone to protests and been told they aren’t radical enough, they aren’t sensitive enough, they don’t recognize their own micro-aggressions and privilege and that if they really want to stand with black people they need to know them better, to stand in their shoes, to hear their pain and frustration and not take it personally; and they also need to know themselves better.
What amazes me is they listened. They want to understand. They want to change. At first I kind of thought they were being arrogant, but then I realized they’re actually being humble. They’re willing to learn things about themselves that make them uncomfortable and even a little ashamed of themselves. And they still come out and are on the front lines protesting.
Margaret and I listened. We were humbled by their maturity. “Out of the mouths of babes and infants,” King David says. It rubs us the wrong way when the time has come for our children to teach us. But that time has come.
We should not be surprised to hear that the justice system is deeply flawed when it comes to the treatment of people of color. We Christians believe in the problem of sin—a systemic corruption that afflicts all of humankind, a corruption so severe that the only way to address it was a radical, world-shaking change—God had to come down to earth and die. It should not surprise us that this corruption is everywhere. It is in our institutions as well as in our hearts. The mistake we make is our refusal to recognize that it’s there—our stubborn insistence that there is nothing wrong when clearly there is. Those of us who are invested in our institutions naturally want to defend them; but right now the moral challenge is radical institutional change.
Think for instance of the pedophilia problem in the Roman Catholic church right now. We’ve been talking about this for four decades now. After all these years, how in the world is this still a problem?—but it is. Individual predators have been punished; bishops have gotten fired; dioceses have paid immense amounts of numbers in damages. Yet the Roman Catholic Church still refuses to admit this is a systemic problem that is reinforced by centuries of history and corrupts the church’s ministry in the entire world. And because they won’t acknowledge the depth of the problem, the problem continues and becomes even more entrenched. Church leaders put out fires on the edges and claim they’ve solved the problem but their refusal to acknowledge the extent of the problem has simply made it worse; and now the whole forest is on fire.
That is the problem we’re dealing with in our justice system now. We’ve been putting out the fires on the edges and thinking we’ve solved the problem and now the whole forest is on fire. Until we have the humility to acknowledge how deep the problem is we’ll just keep having incidents that some of us write off as one-offs, while others of us feel more terrified, angry and alienated.
But what to do about it?
I was in a Zoom call with other local religious leaders this past Monday. We all wanted to talk about the protests, and how we all want to support black people in their call for reforms in the justice system. But we kept running into a brick wall because we didn’t know what to do. Something unusual happened in that Zoom call, something that never ever happens when you get a bunch of preachers together. There were a lot of long silences. It was that rara avis, that rare bird, a bunch of humble Southern preachers. We had some ideas, but ultimately what we all realized is that we ourselves need to change.
The Trinity is in many ways about humility. If you recall, the Trinity is that Christian theological concept that God is one, but God is also three. God is the one true God, but God is also God the Creator, God the Son who walked the earth as Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit who is the living presence of Jesus active in the world today. The Trinity has often been depicted as a triangle. But these days you’re more likely to hear theologians talk about the Trinity as a circle. I have a copy of a well-known Eastern Orthodox icon that depicts the three angels who visited Abraham as sitting around a round table together. It’s an excellent metaphor for the Trinity—three beings each co-equal with the other sitting around the round table. No aspect of God is better than the other.
This is the reason I say that the Trinity represents humility. In many ways our concept is that God is a community, with distinct personae in distinct roles—but also somehow that community is one, the one God, united fully in will and purpose and being. No one personae is ascendant over the other: they are co-equal partners, and also miraculously one being and whole.
And of course there’d be no concept of the Trinity at all if not for a tremendous act of divine humility. As Paul says in Philippians, Jesus, though equal with God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. The fact that Jesus is also God is why we even discuss the idea of the Trinity. And so humility is at the very heart of the Trinity, which means it is at the very heart of God, which means that humility is what is expected of us humans, made in the image of God.
The Trinity indicates to us that God is all in all, that God is everywhere and, in all things, and among all things. But what it tells us about ourselves is that whether we like it or not, what affects one of us affects all of us. We are a whole and each of us is part of a whole; and until we overcome the things that hurt and divide us we are not living into the image of God.
That requires humility. We know this because God in person chose the path of humility. God took the form of a human being, walked among us as one of us, became just like us, bore the same burdens as we do, shared the same joys, suffered the same terrible fate. It was that willingness to bear the human cross that empowered him to overcome the cross with the victory of resurrection.
I say with a great deal of sadness that I have not been willing to bear the cross of my black and brown siblings. I have consciously and unconsciously created barriers that have allowed me successfully to avoid seeing the anxiety that grips them, almost to a person, when they see a police car in the rear view mirror; or the frustration they feel when they get turned down for a loan that they could have gotten if they were white; or the way that we white people so often react with fear or suspicion when we see them.
Black novelist James Baldwin once made a scathing but true observation:
“Every white person in this country — I do not care what he says or what she says — knows one thing. … They know that they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they may say is a lie.”
I wish this weren’t true. But people who call Jesus our Lord and Master need to be people willing to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and to be willing to go through earth-shaking spiritual and moral change. Conversion, if you will. I need to go through the kind of conversion that honestly looks at how I willingly put on moral blinders—how I willingly avoid facing the pain of black people—how I benefit from injustices and unfairness that have been heaped on black and brown people from the day they first arrived on our shores in chains—how I am myself complicit in allowing a broken and unjust system to stay broken and unjust.
I don’t expect I’m always going to enjoy this journey. In many ways I dread it. But I don’t know what else to do. One thing I’ve learned in life is that if you don’t know how to change something, you can always change you. Or better—you can allow God to change you. I keep hearing a song in my head: Sam Cooke singing “A change is gonna come.” We pray for a change in our society because justice for one is justice for all. But what I know is that the change has to start with changing me.