Lenten Series: Holy Week
It is Holy Week. This week is always hard for me, as I am impatient to get to Easter without having to go through Good Friday. On Palm Sunday, I am always moved by the way my parish remembers the story of Holy Week; we enter into the service with a raucous celebration, part of the joyful crowd welcoming Jesus into the city. Later in the service, during the reading of the Passion, we are once again a part of the crowd, but this time we shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” I think many Christians struggle with that change of heart, and our own complicity in the persecution or oppression of others. Holy Week really brings that home for us.
In this election year, it seems that we are once again faced with our complicity in the persecution and oppression of others. Last week’s letter issued by the House of Bishops highlighted this by saying,
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others.
I am sure you have witnessed this in your own communities. I have heard loving, compassionate, thoughtful, and faithful people say things like it’s only “natural” that Americans are nervous about the influx of refugees or it’s an “instinctive” reaction for police officers who feel frightened to shoot first and ask questions later. (Please read the pieces in this series by Wendy Karr Johnson and Charles A. Wynder, Jr. for additional perspectives on these two assertions.) As a sociologist, I bristle at the idea that our reactions are “natural” or “instinctive,” and that we cannot unlearn them. This might lead us to believing that fear of the other is somehow inevitable.To me, the contemporary political climate in which we seek to blame, deport, persecute, or even kill the other is the modern-day equivalent of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Perhaps we are more like the crowd condemning Jesus, or Peter who denied him, than we would like to believe.
So how did we get to this place that the Bishops described in their letter? I believe that is a question we need to consider very seriously as a nation, and as a church. We like to believe that we would have implored the governor to release Jesus rather than Barabbas. We like to believe that we would have been stronger than Peter, that we would not have denied Jesus three times. Yet Holy Week reminds us of our humanity, our frailty, our weakness, and the times when our own comfort and perceived safety take precedence over the comfort and safety of others. Right now it is very easy to point the finger at another political party, people who live in a different community, people who are seen as part of a “power structure,” people who are viewed to be troublemakers, etc. It is so easy to blame all of our problems on those who are not like us, and to feel fairly confident, self-righteous even, about the correctness of our own views and beliefs, and the wrong-headedness of others. And that is the problem. We forget that it is we who shouted, “Crucify him!”
But we are good people, aren’t we? Yes, I believe so with all of my heart, soul, and mind. And I believe that the crowd who laid down palms for Jesus on Sunday, and then shouted “Crucify him!” on Friday were also good people. Yet I wonder whether our narratives about who we are impede our ability to engage in real, meaningful reconciliation and justice-making. Do the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves actually prevent us from living into our baptismal promises to honor and love one another? I ask this because I often encounter Episcopalians who have a tremendous sense of pride in our church’s commitment to racial reconciliation. I share their pride, their enthusiasm, and sometimes relief that we have made this commitment. But what will that look like on the ground? Saying that we are committed because we passed a resolution is not enough. Being proud of our public identity as an inclusive church is not enough. Each of us is called, I believe, to discern our own gifts and vocation for engaging in these important ministries and commitments. I believe that involves stepping back and asking “why” we will invest in ministries of reconciliation and justice before we begin to discern “what” we will do and “how” we will do it.
I often meet brilliant, gifted, and loving Episcopalians who have a sense that there is a “right way” to engage in this ministry, and they want to get there quickly without wading into the messiness that is the hallmark of most ministries of justice and mercy. But there is no quick fix, no one right and true way, and no expert who can tell you what to do. If you haven’t grappled with why you want to do the work, you will quickly lose steam, and perhaps even move from a lack of enthusiasm to resentment. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that a reason like “because we passed a resolution” will not lead to a sustainable ministry of reconciliation and justice-making. If we are not clear about why we want to pursue racial reconciliation, we may be waving palms and celebrating during this year, only to find ourselves shouting the equivalent of “Crucify him!” when the going gets tough next year.
I believe in the power of reconciliation as a gift from God. I also believe that we cannot engage in reconciliation without atoning for our own role in systems that benefit some while exploiting and oppressing others. The ministry of reconciliation is not one with a tangible endpoint, or a “final victory.” It is necessarily ongoing, and requires our consistent and unflagging commitment to justice-making in a context of love and mercy.
We simply can’t get to Easter without Good Friday. We cannot hope to engage in ministries of reconciliation without recognizing and atoning for our complicity with power and privilege. And yet, we are Easter people, believers in the power of the Resurrection. I pray that together we can more deeply discern the “why” of our ministries of racial reconciliation and justice, and allow the hope and promise of Easter to inspire us to engage in a critical, faith-filled, and loving discernment of who we are and Whose we are. That is my hope for Building the Beloved Community.
This is the final installment of the EPPN's Lenten Series "Engaging the Beloved Community." You may find the previous reflections here. If you would like to have each week's reflection sent to your inbox, go here.