Refiner’s fire 1: power

Last week we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, when the fire of the Holy Spirit descended upon the early church. This week we celebrate Trinity Sunday, and we confess God as three in one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But it’s even harder to celebrate today than it was last Sunday because there’s a fire burning in America today, and it’s burning brighter and hotter now than it was a week ago.

It may be the fire of destruction, or it may be the refining fire of God, or maybe it’s both. I think God is calling us to repent, as individuals, as a society, and as a nation. I think God is calling us to turn away from our authoritarian ways and to turn toward a God-shaped life.

At the heart of God is loving relationship. Whatever else you can say about Trinity, that’s what three-in-oneness and one-in-threeness is all about. Our God is social. Our God is loving. And here’s the payoff. Genesis 1:26 says that we humans are made in God’s image.

That’s all humans, not just some – you and me and anybody you can name, including that nasty fellow down the road, and his gossipy wife, too. We’re all made in God’s image. That means we are made to be, like God, lovingly social. Sadly, because of sin, we are mostly hatefully anti-social. That is, mostly we love only those poor saps who are most similar to us, and we bask in the delusion that we are superior to everyone else.

Shaped like the Trinity, we’re all bent out of shape, and we need a savior to straighten us out. God sent us Jesus, and we had to kill him because he was so loving that he made the rest of us look so bad.

Not long before Jesus was murdered by the powers-that-be, he had a brief political discussion with some of his followers. He said:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 NRSV).

Over the centuries, Christians have basically ignored Jesus’ vision of power and followed the way of empire, the way of Christendom. Still, our best thinkers have agreed that there are two kinds of social systems. There is the human way, what Jesus called the way of the Gentiles, and there is God’s way. There is the way of domination, and there is the way of humility. There is the way of Empire, and there is the way of God’s Kingdom.

Theologian Bernard Loomer speaks of two conceptions of power. On the one hand is authoritarian power, on the other relational power – coercive power as opposed to persuasive power.

Loomer says it’s a paradox that coercive power is actually weaker than persuasive power. If it were strong, it wouldn’t have to use coercion, would it? That’s why racism and authoritarianism are always coercive. They are weak, so they have to rely on violence and terror to get their way.

If you have been following the national news this week, you may sense where I am going with this.

Our world has been in lockdown because of a pandemic for three long months now, and whether we admit it or not, we’re all anxious, uncertain, on edge. Several events have tipped us over the edge.

On February 23, a black man named Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia when he was gunned down by two white men.

On March 13, a black woman named Breonna Taylor was gunned down when plainclothes police broke into her Louisville apartment in the middle of the night.

On May 25, Memorial Day, in New York’s Central Park, a black birdwatcher named Christian Cooper got into an argument with a white woman who said she was going to call police and report that a black man was threatening her. Happily, he caught it all on video.

That same evening in Minneapolis, a black man named George Floyd bought a pack of cigarettes with a $20 bill that store employees suspected was fake. They called police, who arrested Floyd. He was apparently drunk; he may have resisted. What’s crystal clear is that one officer kept Floyd handcuffed face-down on the pavement with a knee on his throat for more than eight minutes. Floyd died on the scene.

We’ve all seen the video. It’s horrifying. Why didn’t anyone do something? Well, they did. They pleaded with the officer to let Floyd breathe. What more could they have done? Even white folks know better than to argue with a cop carrying a gun.

Call it the last straw, or a cauldron of despair boiling over. You can hold people down for only so long before the rage explodes. Maybe if the timing had been different, the explosion would not have been so large. On top of a pandemic and mass unemployment and great discontent in an election year when the incumbent president seems to grow more unhinged every day, we witness the murder of a black man by a white cop. It’s the perfect storm.

Protests erupt in many cities. Some protests turn into riots. And the backlash begins. In the minds of some, the bad overshadows the good. The actions of a few troublemakers taint the whole enterprise. But if you condemn all protesters for the actions of a few, you also must condemn all police officers for the actions of a few. You can’t have it both ways.

Some politicians want to have it both ways, of course. They blame the protesters, ignoring the injustice they’re protesting. They’re lowlifes and losers, Donald Trump says.

Everybody chatters about their rights. Let’s talk about rights for a minute. As an American, you have a fundamental right to peacefully gather and protest. Protests may be a nuisance to others. You have a right to be a nuisance.

You do not have a right to deface or destroy or loot anyone’s property. You do not have a right to act in ways that endanger others. You do not have a right to threaten or harm police.

Similarly, authorities are obligated to allow and even encourage peaceful protests. They also have the right to maintain order to protect people and property. They do not have a right to use intimidation or violence to infringe on anyone’s right to protest.

Last Monday, we witnessed one of the most bizarre moments in American history.

Late Sunday night, when protests in Washington got way out of hand, Trump was hustled to safety in a bunker in the White House. He later explained that he was only “inspecting” the bunker – something every president does in the middle of the night, right?

He decided that the episode made him look weak, so he needed to make himself look strong. On Monday night, at a Rose Garden press conference, he proclaimed himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters” but claimed that protests in Washington were the work of domestic terrorists.

At that moment, National Guard troops were clearing a nearby peaceful protest in Lafayette Square using flash-bang shells, rubber bullets, and pepper or tear gas. It was still a half hour before curfew. The protesters had every right to be where they were, but they were forcibly removed so that Trump could parade over to a nearby church and pose for photos holding a Bible.

This atrocity brought quick and sharp reaction from mainstream Christians. It’s desecration, they said, blasphemy, idolatry. On the other hand, brown-nose evangelicals like Franklin Graham thought it was great.

Think about it: Peaceful protesters were cleared so that Trump could stage a photo op using a Bible as a prop. This is typical behavior for a reality TV celebrity. For him, everything is a prop for a photo op. Nothing is sacred, certainly not the Bible, or the Constitution, neither of which he appears to have ever read – or if he did, nothing stuck.

What happened to “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? What happened to “Blessed are the peacemakers”? What happened to “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? What about “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”? (Matthew 5:3-10)

Let’s circle back now to the two kind of social systems, the way of domination and the way of humility, and the two conceptions of power, coercive and persuasive. On the one hand is the way of the world and the way of empire. On the other hand is the way of Jesus and the way of God’s kingdom.

Trump’s way is the world’s way. It is not the Jesus way. Trump is obsessed with not looking weak. The Apostle Paul tells us, “God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27 CEB). If Christ is with me, Paul says, “when I’m weak, then I’m strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 CEB).

Telling the nation’s governors that they’d better get tough, Trump says: “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.” Sadly, the dominant conception of power in Trump’s head is domination. But that is the demonic way, not the way of God.

It’s true that many evangelicals are in love with domination and power. Writer Katherine Stewart calls it Authoritarian Christianity. It’s the worship of control, the worship of power. It’s not the worship of God. It’s far from the way of Jesus.

We are in a volatile moment in our country’s history, maybe in human history as well. This is a moral crisis. We need a moral revival. What we need, black pastor William Barber Jr. says, is a moral revolution.

Lafayette Square in Washington is only steps away from Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Thirty-one years ago Chinese authorities stormed Tiananmen Square to stop pro-democracy protests. Troops fired into the crowds, killing hundreds.

We think that can’t happen here. If National Guardsmen can brutally sweep peaceful protesters out of a park without provocation just so a politician who admires brutal dictators can stage a photo op with a Bible, why can’t it happen here?

Some people have noted that when Trump holds up that Bible in that photo op, it’s upside-down. No matter how he holds it, his understanding of humanity and power and God and goodness are upside-down.

We are a people in need today. We need leaders who will unify us, not divide us. We need leaders who seek not to dominate but to persuade; leaders who want to make peace, not war; leaders who stand with the oppressed, not the oppressor; leaders who are humble, not proud; leaders who thirst and hunger for righteousness; leaders who understand that real strength comes only from God.

We need leaders who can bring us together as a society to create real and lasting change so that the American dream can finally become a reality for all.

What I’ve said may have upset some of you. You’re messing with politics, preacher. Truly, I am. As I’ve said before, Christianity is inevitably political because it’s about our society, our polis, the Greek word behind the word “political.”

Christianity is political because it deals with the way we try to live together under the reign of Christ in a society that does not recognize Christ as king. But as political as my comments may be, they are not partisan. I don’t care what party Trump belongs to. I do care that his conception of power is demonic, not Christlike, and because he has such influence, the truth matters, and the truth must be told.

Some observers suggest that there are two viruses in our midst – the coronavirus and the virus of racism. I maintain that there are three viruses – coronavirus, racism, and authoritarianism. These three form an unholy trinity that mocks our three-in-one God.

Events have lit a fire in us. It may be both a destructive and a refining fire. I believe it’s the fire of God telling us that it’s time to get our act together. It’s time to turn away from our racist, power-mad, plague-prone ways, and turn toward a God-shaped life.

I hope you can say Amen to that.

This message was delivered to Edgerton United Methodist Church, live in an outdoor service, and online, June 7, 2020,  Trinity Sunday.                   

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