For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:14-21 (NRSV)
Last Sunday, I reflected on different names for the Triune God and how we are called to respond, especially in light of the murder of George Floyd. The following is an excerpt from my sermon. The full message and worship service can be found here.
“When we speak of God’s wrath in the face of evil, the triune God is for us Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides, and Storm that Melts Mountains.” This name for the Triune God bring power and judgment we usually don’t like to think about. Could you imagine if I used this name for the Triune God next time I baptized someone? But these are also who God is. Each comes from Scripture. We have prayed them in our prayers of petition and lament. This is the God we call on to protect us from evil in the world.
The Fire that Consumes is how the Israelites described God as they begged for Moses to be their intermediary. They had seen God’s power in the plagues in Egypt and the closing of the Red Sea on pharaoh and his army. They saw this Fire consume the sons of Aaron as they offered God that which was not holy. The Fire that Consumes purifies us from the sin and evil inherent in our humanity.
God the Sword that Divides is not about division for division’s sake. It is the division between the sheep and goats. It is the choice to look back at Sodom and Gomorrah rather than looking forward to where God leads. The Sword that Divides is the reference point. It is our choice to align ourselves with truth and grace — or our choice not to.
God the Storm that Melts Mountains names God as the one who overcomes, the one who makes the impossible possible, the one who brings life out of death — not just in the past, but today.
When death must bring forth life, when resolution must come from struggles, we can be the conduit through which God is known. We do this when we face difficult and uncomfortable things and begin to move from good intentions to action. We choose to stand in solidarity with God who stands in solidarity with the oppressed, the silenced, the enslaved, the persecuted. The murdered.
Ahmaud Arbery was not the first black civilian to be killed by white civilians. George Floyd was not the first black person to be killed intentionally by police. Breonna Taylor was not the first black person to be killed accidentally by police. Their deaths are the result of systemic, institutional racism that has been part of our country’s fabric from its beginning.
Racism is not a single act or person. I can do or say something that is racist; or I may not do or say racist things. Regardless, I have been shaped by a society that favors white skin, which mean I still exist and participate in a racist society. In Waking Up White, Debbie Irving describes racism as: skin color symbolism + favoritism + power.
Most people agree that skin color symbolism (attributing traits to skin color) and favoritism of lighter skin colors exist in America. The idea of power is more difficult for us to understand. Individually, we don’t have institutional power. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo helps us understand that 90% or more our President, Vice-President, Congress, governorships, and top military advisors are white. However, it is not only publicly recognized seats of power that exert influence over our institutions and societal norms. DiAngelo goes on to identify power structures that continue to perpetuate a culture that privileges white people. The people who decide what we read, watch on TV and in the movie theater, news that is reported, music that is produced, and teach in our educational systems are overwhelmingly white.
We are surrounded by white influencers that perpetuate stereotypes of people and assign value to them — often without us even realizing it. These same people have the power to create laws, distribute resources, and exert other influence. Even if you and I don’t have that power, we are still influenced by the skewed representations and choices made all around us.
This was difficult for me to understand when I first began to study anti-racism. I tended to think of racism to be something that individuals, organizations, or areas of the country were. Racism was the stereotype itself.
Racism was always local to me. In the same way, I thought of white supremacy as white hoods, shaved heads, and swastika tattoos. But white supremacy is the belief that white people are better than people of color. I don’t believe that’s true, but I function just fine in a society that tilts this direction in almost every way.
As I began to meet people with skin colors and experiences different than mine, I was forced to confront my understanding of racism and white supremacy. I guess I could have ignored it, but my faith would not let me.
Last year, I took my parents down to the Amani neighborhood where our mission partner, Ezekiel, is working with Northwestern Mutual to rehab an entire block of homes. The Amani neighborhood is in the 53206 zip code, one of the most impoverished in Wisconsin. In a 2017 report, 45% of residents live in poverty, 25% of homes are vacant, and the incarceration rate is between 10-34%. My Dad asked me if I was ever worried coming down here, and I said, “No.”
And I’m not.
Part of it is that crime is not as random as many white people think it is. Bullets are not constantly flying. But it’s also because I’m a white woman. The backlash if something were to happen to me would be greater than to a person of color in that neighborhood. Conversely, if you are a Black man driving in the town I live in, especially if you don’t have a car that blends in, you could very well be stopped. I’m not suggesting anything bad will happen, but the experience will be anxiety-producing.
Last year, I was pulled over in another suburb at night because I did a u-turn at a stoplight (on red). Then, as I was driving, I couldn’t make out what was going on with the lanes and if one was a bike lane, so I was swerving a bit. I was rightfully pulled over.
The officer asked where I was going and if I was lost. I explained I wasn’t from the area and was confused by the road markings. I can’t remember if I was asked for my license, but I wasn’t asked for registration or proof of insurance. The officer let me go without a citation. In fact, he said the reason he decided to pull me over is that he saw the decals in my back window and was wondering whether I was from the area he grew up in. Would a person of color have been treated the same? Maybe. Maybe not.
So why is it that I go through life generally thinking things will work out for me? I can rely on the systems and institutions of this country to be fair to me if something goes wrong. I don’t feel out of place most everywhere I go. Even more, I generally believe I have a right to be there.
My privilege in feeling protected in neighborhoods that are not my own and my lack of angst when pulled over by the police are proof that systematic, institutional, and societal racism exists because people of color cannot claim the same. I can’t have privilege without someone being dis-privileged in the process. My privilege is based on the value of white skin over dark with a system of laws, societal norms, and expectations that ensure it.
This is what white supremacy and racism are.
While I might not consider myself a racist, I am a participant and perpetuator of racism in this country whenever I don’t push back on the benefits — the fairness, the ease, the favor — I get because of my skin color.While I might not consider myself a racist, I am a participant and perpetuator of racism in this country whenever I don’t push back on the benefits — the fairness, the ease, the favor — I get because of my skin color. #antiracism… Click To Tweet
These definitions of racism or white supremacy are not the ones I grew up with, but when we hear the terms today we are called to understand they are much more nuanced and founded on a spectrum of experience that is broader and deeper than ours alone.
When we reject these definitions because they don’t apply to us personally or fit our prior understanding, we participate in and perpetuate racism. One step in setting down a tiny bit of our privilege and becoming an agent of change is to accept these definitions – born out of the experience of people of color — rather than arguing about the semantics of them. By correlation, the problem this last week is not looting — it’s the murder of a Black man by a white police officer while three other officers looked on. And that this was not the first time. Consider the difference between these two statements:
“It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop”
“It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.”
Which statement do we believe the God who heard the cries of the Israelites, flipped the tables of the merchants in the temple, and broke down the walls of those imprisoned for the Gospel would prefer?
The Triune God that is Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides, and Storm that Melts Mountains is simmering in the unrest in our cities, is present as people take to the streets in protest, is calling us to participate in truth and justice.
The mountain of racism will not be melted in a single day. But if today is not the day we begin work in dismantling the system of racism in this country, it becomes one more day that we do not proclaim the Good News of the Gospel or further God’s Kingdom in the world. Amen.
If today is not the day we begin work in dismantling the system of racism in this country, it becomes one more day that we do not proclaim the Good News of the Gospel or further God’s Kingdom in the world. #antiracism #changestartsnow Click To Tweet
Holy God, we come before you acknowledging our unknowing.
As the psalmist says, Such knowledge is too wonderful for us; it is so high that we cannot attain it.
As we seek understanding of who you are, let us not be limited by our own knowledge and experience.
Open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to be surprised. Let us hear the stories of others so that we may experience you in new ways.
Let the challenge and discomfort of our deeper awareness of and relationship with you lead us to greater faith, a love for justice, and the courage to act.Strengthen us and enable us to grasp love’s width, length, height, and depth so that we may be filled with your fullness. For your power, God, is at work within us, enabling us to do far more than we could ask or imagine.May our lives bring you glory.Amen.
 Psalm 139:6 (NRSV)
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