Thursday, June 18, 2015

Which Jesus Wept? On Charleston and the Divine Identity

And when He thus had spoken, He cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!"

John 11:43

Okay, I lied when I said I wouldn't be writing during this week of vacation, but that was before the devil came to ground and loosed a hail of gunfire and death in a venerable African Methodist Episcopal AME) congregation in Charleston, South Carolina.

We know now that the devil took form in the shape of a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Storm Roof, who is now wanted for the hate crime murders (edit: domestic terrorism murders, really--and to my discredit, I should have referred to this as such from the outset) of 9 people and remains presently at large.

What we don't know, and as far as I can tell haven't the slightest interest in discovering, is whether we're actually willing to follow Christ not merely to the cross, but to take down the cross as we take down His bullet-torn body.  For, in the end, if the church is as we say it is, the body of Christ, then an assault on this congregation is an assault on Christ Himself.

Which Christ, though?  A common refrain I have seen from my friends and colleagues lamenting the news of this massacre is, "Jesus wept."

That refrain comes from John 11:35, which says that Jesus wept upon being taken to the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

But Lazarus would soon live and breathe again.  Jesus would call out to him in his ensconced tomb, "Lazarus come forth!"  And Lazarus would do exactly that.  Jesus would order the shroud and Lazarus's death garments removed from his decaying, but now living, body, demonstrating visibly and profoundly that those who hear the Lord's voice have no business wearing the clothing of death.

Lazarus lives, at least for now, but the nine souls who perished in the burning fury of gunpowder and metal live now not on earth as Lazarus, but in heaven.  For we have no bodily Jesus to undo what has been done.  The blind remain blind, the differently abled remain incapable of walking, and we see it all and shake our heads mournfully and say that Jesus must have wept.

Our Jesus, the Jesus of white American Christianity, the Jesus whose trim figure and pale skin (perhaps dressed up in brown hair instead of blond nowadays) evokes not so much the Middle East but instead an Abercrombie model, would have wept.

He also would never have then raised Lazarus.  He would have said something about not wanting to mess with the fundamental nature of the world, as unfair as it might be, because he as a white man would live longer and wealthier and healthier than, say, a black Lazarus.

The Jesus of the minorities and the margins, though, the Jesus who truly, as John the Evangelist wrote, came to earth and made His home among us, that Jesus did raise Lazarus, precisely because He could not and would not be content with the hurtful and painful ways of the world.

He could not and would not tell Martha that she would only see Lazarus again at the very end of time, which Martha herself had come to believe.  He believed in righting this wrong now, not in the distant era of the far-off future.

Will we do the same thing?  Can we do the same thing?  Can we tell the Marys and Marthas of the Charleston victims--their immediate family and friends, but also their fellow African-American churches and believers in congregations across all manner of racial lines--that we will not simply weep as our Jesus did, but stand up with a bold voice as the true Jesus did and say, "Lazarus, come forth?"

For a hate crime that took place in a state whose flag still contains the Confederate battle flag, can we do more than simply mourn and lament?  Can we say, "We don't just want you to be safe in the sanctuary of church, we need you to be safe, because if you're not safe, we're not safe?"

Can we say, "We aren't going to tell you to bring open-carry guns into a church built on the existence of a Messiah who told His disciples to put away their swords?"

Can we say, "We are so sorry for continuing to foster an environment that puts you and your children and families in a disproportionate amount of harm and prejudice because of the color of your skin?"

Can we say, "We don't just acknowledge your pain, we we acknowledge our part in it, and we want to do something about it?"

Because make no mistake, dear readers, we *have* a part in this pain and in this environment of danger and racism.  If Dylann Roof were black, I am certain there would already be white talking heads on Fox News lecturing about the evils of black-on-black crime.  If Dylann Roof were Latino, I am certain CNN would already be assembling panels of stuffed shirts to talk about immigration.  But Dylann Roof is white, and we as white Christians do not put on ourselves the same burden of soul-searching and reflection that we demand of our racial minority neighbors.

But if we cannot engage in such soul-searching now, humbling though that might be, perhaps it is time that we got out of this business of being Christian, and admit that we are no different than the cast of characters in Acts like Ananias and Sapphira, Simon and Bar-Jesus: that we are pretenders, fake heirs to a tradition that demands and craves authenticity, mere husks compared to the One whom we claim and keep claiming to follow.

Repeatedly we are told by Christ and by subsequent epistle writers that God gives grace to the humble and humbles the proud.  White American Christianity, can we reach out for God's grace and humble ourselves to make right our historic and systemic sins?  Can we live out the maxim of Jesus's brother James that by our works, God shall know our faith?

In the end, which Jesus are we, the Jesus who we take out of context as only weeping, or the Jesus who both wept with His neighbors but then righted their pain?

Weeping is not enough, my brothers and sisters.  We have to be ready to call forth Lazarus, lest we become as dead in faith as he was in life.

Yours in Christ,

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