Righteous Resistance Rooted in Love
Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany ● February 12, 2017
Reading: Ephesians 2:19-22 & 3:16-21
Resistance is in the air. Resistance is the name of the rebel organization in the film Rogue One. And I love posters that take their cue from the film and carry the slogan: “A woman’s place is in the resistance!” Every day I get emails calling for resistance, pleading for resistance, offering ways to resist, and even an email from a clergy colleague signed with the word, “Resist!” This phenomenon has been true ever since the presidential election and especially in the weeks since the inauguration.
And here we are in the midst of four Sundays focused on the theme of Resistance and Solidarity. What do we mean by “resistance” and what are we called to resist? To resist is to push back, to create tension and friction, to try to slow down or halt the movement of a force to which we are opposed. Yet, resistance is not solely responsive or negative. Resistance also means taking positive action, trying to promote a vision and the possibility of a different way of living and being. When we can do that, then resistance can be life giving, even in the midst of evil.
While the immediate focus of resistance for many people are the dangerous and hateful and, yes, evil intentions of Donald Trump and the powerful people around him, these in no way capture the big picture of what we face today. Here, from one group of progressive Christian scholars, is a very powerful description our predicament:
“We no longer see the deeper historical trends as promising…. Plutocratic control means that national and global policies are geared toward the increase of wealth and power for the already wealthy and powerful. The means by which this is accomplished not only destroy human community everywhere but also devastate the natural environment…. The whole system is geared in a way that makes life for most people less enjoyable and further undercuts the possibilities of a good life in the future….
“To organize the whole world to serve ends that degrade life, human and natural, is strictly and literally insane. Yet the world’s most powerful governments, and especially our own, work with corporate wealth and manipulate [global] institutions to achieve just these ends…. [M]any believe that no other world is possible. From those who can envision no alternative, little opposition can come, only the effort to protect themselves and their families from the devastating results….”
This is not a Trump scheme or a Republican Party platform. It has been going on for decades and people with power and influence in both parties are beholden to the powers and principalities behind this historical turn. This is not even really about evil individuals. People are almost never uniformly good or evil. We are all a mixed bag, subject to our upbringing and influenced by our families of origin, the people around us, the social matrix in which we live, and the ways we have suffered, are afraid, or have been traumatized. Rather, Walter Wink, a great theologian of our movement points out, evil invests itself in the spirit of systems and institutions and becomes a very powerful force in people’s lives, sometimes causing us to become complicit with evil seemingly against our own fundamental will and desires.
How do we resist what seems so big and intractable? As progressive Christians, the first and most important way we resist is by living together in community, exemplifying our progressive Christian values of love, radical inclusion, celebration of the beautiful diversity of humanity and human culture, and solidarity with vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized people and communities. We resist by promoting a vision of a different way of living. We resist by shining as bright a light as possible for the world to see. We are light. Shine the light.
Think of the early Christian communities that faced the awesome and terrible power of the Roman Empire. They frequently suffered waves of persecution, arrest, and execution. Surely, they never imagined they could fundamentally change the empire, but they saw their faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings and way of being as a form of resistance. They were countercultural communities of resistance. The Church of the Village is that sort of community for our own time. As the Letter to the Ephesians put it, “United in Christ Jesus…we are being built up together, to be a place where God lives through the spirit.” That demands that we act as a community of resistance. We are light. Shine the light.
Another way we resist is by carrying out specific actions designed to achieve a positive good, even when they seem too small to create any significant change in the world. It must have often felt quite lonely to struggle for the abolition of slavery in the 1830s when the abolitionists were so few, but within two decades abolitionists were strongly represented in Congress and other centers of power and had a huge influence on the course of the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction. The abolitionists and those who organized and conducted the underground railroad often risked their lives and were able to save many lives. Their heroic efforts continue to inspire us today.
So, as a community of resistance, we attend conferences, we offer sanctuary, we march and protest, we promote our progressive Christian values on social media, we support what other organizations are doing, we have worship series on things topics like “Resistance and Solidarity” and we pray and we hope that combined with the efforts of others, our actions will multiply, inspire hope, and help transform the world.
A small, but powerful, act of resistance, occurred eight days ago in New York City. People getting on a particular subway car were confronted with swastikas scrawled with a Sharpie on every advertisement and window. One young passenger described it in a Facebook post:
“The train was silent as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’ He found some tissues and got to work. I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purel. Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone.
Nazi symbolism. On a public train. In New York City. In 2017. ‘I guess this is Trump’s America,’ said one passenger. No sir, it’s not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.”
That was a small act of spontaneous, communal resistance. But sometimes small acts multiply like loaves and fishes. This post has been shared nearly a half a million times! We are light. Shine the light.
In the United Methodist Church, one of the most powerful examples of active, positive resistance I have personally experienced is the work of Methodists in New Directions in the New York Annual Conference for full inclusion and justice for LGBTQI persons. I have been active in this struggle in the NYAC since 1999 before MIND was formed. It was led mainly at the time by the Methodist Federation for Social Action. In those years, our efforts struck me as fair ineffective. We mainly tried to get legislation passed at Annual Conferences and the General Conference every four years. While we got a lot of petitions passed at the Annual Conference level and this was a witness to our aspirations for justice, they had almost no impact on the actual lives of Queer laity and clergy in the church. But with the advent of MIND, our whole philosophy and way of practicing resistance changed. Rather than waiting for the denomination to decide to be just, we determined to practice justice in the face of the wider church’s homophobia and injustice. I did not imagine even ten years ago that we would see the Board of Ordained Ministry declare that it would no longer consider sexual orientation or gender identity in determining a candidate’s fitness for ordination and would no longer force Queer candidates to hide their full, beloved selves. In the past few years, we have had thousands of people and many congregations pledge to support marriage equality. Dozens of clergy have publicly told their stories of celebrating same-sex weddings and not faced church trials. And last year 15 Queer clergy came out in the NYAC in a campaign called, “We Are,” which inspired dozens more to do the same nationally and received the support of hundreds of clergy and thousands of lay persons. We are having a huge impact on the church as a whole – changing minds and helping to save lives. If you are not a member of MIND already, I encourage you to join and to sign the Covenant of Conscience. We are light. Shine the light.
Finally, If we are going to live up to our claim to be committed followers of Jesus, we cannot practice resistance without being rooted and grounded in love. In Jesus’ teachings and his own way of being, the love ethic is central and consistently demands resistance to all walls and barriers built up between people. That is why he insisted on the need to love not just our friends and family, or even our neighbors, but also our enemies. In Jesus’ era, the main enemy was the Roman Empire. To express love toward a Roman was to be seen as a traitor to the Jewish people, yet Jesus showed love to the a Roman centurion and members of his household. He taught and practiced the same love in action toward other enemies of the Jews, most notably the Samaritans.
That is very hard – especially when the ones we identify as enemies are supporting or even doing things we consider evil. Sometimes, we have to make ourselves vulnerable in the face of evil. We have to move toward it rather than running away. Katie Reimer interviewed many people this week about the difficulty of loving in the face of evil. One person responded this way:
“I think one reason it is hard to love in the face of evil is that it is way easier, and more popular, to hate. People get pats on the back for biting Facebook posts targeting people they disagree with (who may, in fact be perpetuating evil). Sometimes, we conflate love with approval, even though they aren’t the same thing.”
Remember that even Donald Trump is not made up solely of the evil he advocates. I suspect he is a very unhappy man and he comes off as quite insecure about himself and what others think of him. So I have compassion for him. I am not suggesting that you cosy up to Trump or Steve Bannon, but I am sure there are persons in almost all of our lives with whom we have a relationship and who voted for Trump or support at least some of what he is doing, out of fear, a false idea of self-interest, or even ideological conviction. We can impact some of them with our witness as individuals and through our community. They are not evil through and through. They are contradictory – like us. They suffering – like us. They experience anxiety and fear. They feel pain and experience love. They care about people around them. They are sometimes kind and generous.
Our resistance has to be rooted and grounded in love so that we can see everyone around us – the enemy, the Roman, the Samaritan, the tax collector, the Trump supporter – as a child of God, a sibling, worthy of love. Then our resistance will be seen as love and not hate. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Resistance is in the air, friends. We cannot move toward God’s vision of love and justice without it. So, join the resistance that is rooted in love! We are light. Shine the light.