Beautiful the faces: sermon response to the killing of Mike Brown

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This sermon was preached at East Barnard Church in Vermont on August 17, 2014.

I wanted to talk today about the beauty of the night—the velvet softness of summer nights, the piercing clarity of the stars in winter. I wanted to talk about how human bodies need darkness as well as light to function well, how night shifts are hard on workers, how our rejection of a sane balance of light and dark has wreaked havoc on our sleep and on our minds.

I wanted to talk about how easy it is to open up at night under the stars. In thinking about Nicodemus and Jesus up on that rooftop, I remembered nighttime talks in college and at seminary, nights when our souls seemed to expand as our vision failed, nights when we found ourselves in a thin place, the boundaries between heaven and earth grown transparent, even porous. There’s something so beautiful about those nighttime talks, the way we can bare our souls when we can’t see each others’ faces, the way we come to peace with mysteries too big to comprehend—yet, at the same time, the truth has never seemed so near us, so within our grasp. I thought of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip where the boy and his tiger are looking up at a starry sky, and Calvin says, “I bet if people looked up at the stars each night, they’d live a lot differently.” Hobbes asks, “How so?” and Calvin replies, “Well, when you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day.” In the last panel, Hobbes says, “We spent our day looking under rocks,” to which Calvin replies, “I mean other people.”

I wanted to talk about the many believers—from Nicodemus, to St. John of the Cross, to the poet Mary Oliver—who have all experienced intimacy with God in the darkness. I wanted to talk about darkness as a sacrament, full of spiritual truth and bodily comfort. After college we tend not to have those mind-expanding conversations in the dark, though they may continue to take place between insomniac spouses. I wanted to quote the poet Henry Vaughan, who writes of night as the time when the busyness of the day is quieted and he experiences a mystic union with God:

“There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!”

I wanted to talk about these things, but events in Ferguson, Missouri have been weighing on my soul.

I planned to talk a bit about how we need to confront our demonization of darkness because of the unintended effect it’s had on those we associate with darkness, blackness, and night. Here in the Western world, we used to call Africa “the dark continent.” Bad guys wear black hats and good guys wear white. Culturally, we have tended to equate darkness of color with dirt, uncleanness, and impurity. It’s not surprising that such dualistic thinking—blackness and darkness as bad, whiteness and light as good—has had an effect on how we perceive human beings with lighter or darker skin.

In the last eight days we’ve seen what, to African-Americans, and to those with eyes to see, is a familiar scene: the shooting death of an unarmed black man, a teenager, by those meant to uphold law and order. We’ve seen the police confront angry protesters as if, because of the color of many of the protesters’ skin, they were not entitled to the same rights citizens are promised in the First Amendment to the Constitution: the right to assemble, the right to speak freely, the right to a free press. We’ve seen the way some media outlets use subtly different words and photographs to depict Black victims of police aggression than they do for white victims. In fact, a whole website has sprung up to collect the photographs that some folks think might be used in the newspaper if they were to be gunned down. Will it be the picture of the young Black man in graduation robes, surrounded by his smiling family members, or the one in which he’s playing up the image of the gangster, grimace plastered on his face, looking for all the world like the stereotypical “dangerous Black man”? Would the young Black woman be shown in her officer’s uniform, or would the media print the photo of her camping it up in a beauty-queen sash and holding an empty liquor bottle? These are questions that those of us who are white haven’t had to wonder every time a white person is killed. We can be pretty confident we’ll be shown on the news and in the papers as our best self, a person worthy of respect, dignity, and most of all, life. Our skin color is uncritically seen as “normal” by other white folks. The associations of whiteness are almost entirely positive.

When we unthinkingly label blackness as something to fear, it becomes so much easier to dehumanize people we call “Black.” It becomes so much easier, if we are already driven by fear, to let our actions flow from that fear instead of acting in ways that recognize our common humanity, our common vulnerability to each other’s fear and violence. It becomes so much easier to perceive the “Other” as a threat, one that justifies terror and suspicion and even deadly violence. And only when it is too late do we discover that the threat was only what we projected in the first place.

It’s hard to feel, here in a very rural part of the second-whitest state in the nation, that there’s a lot we can do to grapple with all this. There are rarely protests or demonstrations, and those we do have are mostly environmental in focus. But we do need to gather and protest and demonstrate!  And there are other practical things we can do. First, we can educate ourselves. Read and watch not only the big networks and newspapers, but seek out African-American news sources, too. My goal this year is to read twelve books by non-white authors. I’m ashamed to say that, while this means only one book per month, it has still been a huge change for me. Yet it’s necessary to develop our empathy by reading, especially because we live in a place with so little diversity. We must awaken our minds.

There are classes and workshops one can take. The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, like all Episcopal dioceses, offers anti-racism workshops at least once a year. These classes both help us understand how complex American history and racial attitudes are, and also give us tools for developing our empathic imagination, and connecting us with other people, especially people of faith, who share the same commitment to racial justice. Knowledge must be complemented by empathy. We must awaken our hearts.

There are ways we can reach out beyond our state borders. We can write letters and make calls to our Senators and Representatives, urging them to draft and support legislation for racial justice. We can write letters to editors, offering constructive but critical feedback to unjust or biased depictions of immigrants and people of color. We must awaken as citizens.

We need to get angry—we need to get enraged—when our Black sisters and brothers are shot, beaten, and dehumanized in other, subtler ways. We need to insist on a prophetic witness of the church, rather than taking the more comfortable path. The preacher Sandhya Jha writes, “I am tired of the church unconsciously and unintentionally choosing unity but really choosing comfort. I am tired of the church unconsciously choosing comfort in the face of tragedy that should be breaking all of our hearts. Every twenty-eight hours a Black man is killed by police in the United States. Black men who are our sons and brothers and nephews, because we chose to be a part of a faith that says we are one in the Spirit, that we are one family. We worship a God whose son was killed unjustly by the authorities for no justifiable reason, and we denigrate the religious leaders of the time for making up disgusting justifications for why he needed to die . . . A prophetic message is a message saturated in tears and grief because real people are being harmed and God’s community is ignoring that fact.” We must awaken our grief. We must mourn.

Most of all, we need to reaffirm the beauty of God’s people, dark, light, and all shades in between. We need to affirm, as people of faith, that Black bodies are not to be feared, but to be honored, loved, and respected. Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a poem called “My People,” which celebrates his people both in the loveliness of a starry night and the strength and glory of the rising sun. He wrote:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

We Americans need a different way to understand darkness. We need to see the beauty of night in our neighbors’ faces, instead of projecting onto them our fears. We need to understand that night and day, Black and white, cannot exist without the other, that both are necessary for the healing of our souls, our bodies, and our societies. We need to restrain our impulse to give in to our fears—whether our fears of what the night contains, or our fears about those we deem “Other.” We must not fall asleep into the complacency granted us by privilege of our skin color. We must awaken. We must stay awake.

Let us pray, remembering Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and all other victims of racial violence:

God of all nations and peoples, we thank you for those brave men and women who, armed only with a faith in a God of truth and justice, stood up—and continue to stand—for equality and human rights. By the power of your Spirit help us to become change makers who courageously work to transform your world into one where all are afforded the dignity, respect and worth deserving of those made in your image. Amen.*

*Final prayer adapted from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland website at http://www.ctbi.org.uk/CBCF/648.

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