I want to start by saying something prophetic and maybe even a little bit foolish. I don’t believe Trumpism is the future of this country. What’s happening to this country is not a lasting revival of nativism and xenophobia, but the death rattle of a dying ideology. For nearly 40 years now, Americans have selfishly turned to their own interests, deregulated and corporatized the economy, and refused to pay sufficient taxes to keep up infrastructure and institutions. They have blamed everyone but themselves—government, immigrants, welfare queens, young men of color from the inner cities–for problems caused by their own ideology and choices in the voting booth. As a result we are living in a time of extreme social polarization, and economic inequality unseen since the Gilded Age. We’re living in a country that despite being the richest and most powerful in the world, seems completely unprepared for life in the 21st Century.
But I bring you a message of hope; I have taught members of the next generation. They’re the most well-educated and diverse generation in the history of this country. I have worked with them in Red State Louisiana and Blue State California, and I can tell you they’re not into Trumpism. For the most part, they see themselves as part of a global community and economy. For the most part, they’re more aware of racial justice and LGBTQ justice, and immigrant justice and environmental justice than I ever was at their age. The backlash we’re seeing in the current regime in Washington is a reaction against a rising tide of queer people, people of color, children of immigrants, people of many religions and no religion, and veteran and newly awakened feminists getting ready to wash away the unquestioning status of power and privilege of the heterosexual Christian white male. (As someone who represents three of those four identity markers, I have to admit I am both thrilled and a little nervous!)
The inevitability of this change doesn’t mean that we are not in a time of great danger. I was absolutely disgusted by our president’s comments this week about immigrants and I’m sure you were too. And at this time especially the Dreamers, these 800,000 young people who have never known another home than America, and who are being used as pawns in a sick political game are especially in need of our prayers.
But I’m here to tell you, the current regime and the people that put them into power are sandbagging against a flood tide. They are going to be washed away by history. The country is changing. We are turning inside out.
I didn’t come here to make a political speech. I’m just sharing with you my analysis of the situation we’re in. But the changes that are on their way do have spiritual implications. I’ve done a lot of activism in the LGBTQ community over the past 17 years or so. For a long time, those of us who were involved in the religious arm of this work thought of ourselves as a kind of Religious Left movement. A counter to the Religious Right. And we took pride in our toe-to-toe confrontations with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family and the Westboro Baptist Church. We saw these people as our adversaries in the fight for justice.
But around the time of last year’s election, I had this epiphany about the work I had been doing in the religious left. That maybe we had been focusing our ministry and advocacy towards the wrong people, by trying to counter the religious right. Maybe what we really needed was to be a religious left, for the left.
I wasn’t alive during the 1960’s and in my lifetime I have never seen the kind of progressive activism we’re seeing today. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, but it also concerns me a bit. Because I can see some of the pitfalls these movements may be falling into. And I just have to wonder, as a proud card-carrying member of the religious left, if I might have something to offer to my fellow citizens of the justice-seeking community.
It became apparent to me when I was working with LGBTQ secular activists that we often wanted a lot of the same goals, but we were expecting a different process for how we were going to get there. When I was working with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I remember attending a high-level meeting in DC of leaders of the LGBTQ rights movement about the necessity of increasing outreach to religious communities. One of the attendees at this meeting was Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly-gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. And he kept talking about reconciliation and winning over our opponents and winning hearts and minds by showing love. And afterwards, I was unpacking this meeting with our executive director Matt Foreman. We were wondering if we could work with Bishop Robinson. And I remember Matt exclaiming, “He’s just too damn Christian!”
I think one of the major differences between the religious left, and I want to be clear that in using that term I’m including all people of faith and spirit who are concerned about social justice regardless of your politics, or your theology or non-theology, is that we have a different sense of time. People in progressive political movements are always looking to what’s next. The next election. The next social justice struggle. Their timeframe is ten steps down the road. And that’s fine. There are always people who want to be living on the edge of social change.
But my sense is as people of faith and spirit, we are called to have a more complex relationship with time. We’re called to live in the ‘already but not yet.’ What that means is that we’re anticipating not just the next election or the next social justice movement, but the Kingdom of God. This is an eschatological vision, that in the fullness of time, divine righteousness will reign, justice will happen, and love will be revealed as the ultimate power in the universe. It’s an expression of spiritual time rather than material time. If we have the insight to see it, we can see this kingdom, or kin-dom, breaking in all around us—the already—even as we await the fullness of its flourishing—the not yet.
I think this is the point of the Gospel verse from Matthew we read this morning. There’s a lot of kind of patriarchal language in this about bridegrooms and virgins, so I just want to update this parable a bit. You know how sometimes you might have friends that meet and fall in love and they start to form a relationship. You’re just so happy for them, because these wonderful people who you know have found each other. And then, an invitation comes in the mail, to a wedding or some kind of community celebration of their love for each other. You’re just thrilled. You mark your calendar or make your travel arrangements. Once you get to the church or the venue or wherever it’s happening, and you’re part of the community that has gathered there to bless this relationship, there’s that moment of anticipation before they show up. There’s already something really magical that’s happened in these people finding each other and finding love, and beginning to build the bonds of family, and community of support. So you’re already happy for them. But in that moment before the ceremony begins, you’re sitting there in joyful anticipation, wondering what it’s going to be like. What will they be wearing? What kinds of rituals of blessing will you be taking part in? How will they talk about or symbolically represent their love for each other?
As people of faith and spirit we’re called to live in that moment of anticipation, when we’re waiting for the brides or the grooms to arrive. That tense moment when time gets stretched out between the already of their beautiful relationship and the not yet of its blessing and consummation.
This sense of spiritual time is something we can share with our friends in the justice-seeking community. There may be some direct ways this could benefit the community as a whole.
I remember a time during the fight for marriage equality when I felt a need for this stretched out sense of time, this understanding of already but not yet. Marriage equality has always been a controversial topic in the queer community. Where some people have seen marriage as an affirmation of rights and social recognition, others have seen assimilation, a desire to sacrifice what is unique about our relationships to a heterosexual norm. I am sympathetic to these arguments. We assign too many of the benefits of our society on the basis of legal marriage.
Fred and I were in south Louisiana when the Obergefell decision came down from the Supreme Court in 2015, which essentially made marriage equality the law of the land. People in the South have always been a little more traditional about marriages and family, and among our circle of gay friends during that time there were a flood of marriages.
One of the couples we knew were these two guys who were part of our gay Mardi Gras Krewe, the Krewe of Apollo, Phillip LeBlanc and Tim Lege. And I’m sharing their story with their permission. Phil and Tim have been together for 24 years. They have two children and three grandchildren that they absolutely dote upon. In 2015, Phil and Tim had the distinction of being the first same-sex couple ever married in Iberia Parish, Louisiana. As soon as the word came down that Louisiana was going to comply with the ruling, they called each other, left work and rushed over to the courthouse. They specifically went next door from Lafayette Parish where they lived so they could get their marriage certificate in Iberia Parish, because that’s where Tim’s family is from. This tells you something about the meaning of family in the South, and how important it was for these two to have their relationship woven into the tapestry of their community.
The next day they found themselves on the front page of the Daily Iberian with the quote from Tim, “I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.” So everybody in the community got to read about this couple, the two most unassuming Cajun guys you could ever meet, and their love for each other and their pride in their family.
When we got together with them over dinner along with other members of the Krewe later that week, they told us the story of their marriage with great excitement and you could see the joy on their faces, and maybe even a little shock that they had ended up being these gay rights pioneers.
All they had done is what they had always wanted to do—which is that the minute their relationship could be legally recognized in their home parish, in their home state, to drop everything and run to whatever magistrate, or clerk, or public official was available, and declare their love publicly for each other.
And as we were sitting around that table listening to stories about their relationship and their family, I just had the sense that I was witnessing a holy moment. That recognition that here was a place where the Spirit, the Kin-dom, the Community of God was breaking into our world in real time.
Those of us who are people of faith and spirit—I think we have a sixth sense about these things, almost like a Spidey sense that starts tingling when we become aware that the holy moment is happening. This is the “already” part of the “already but not yet.” And it’s something we really have to offer to a justice-seeking community that is often already ten steps down the road when something good happens.
That ability to say, “Hold up, this is important. Let’s have a moment of gratitude.” That even as there is always more justice to be done, that it is okay, in fact it’s right, to celebrate our moments of victory. Because for us, it’s not about simply winning the next battle, or the next election, but being part of a larger process of divine righteousness being brought to fruition in the fullness of time.
So these were really consequential times we were living through in 2015 when that marriage decision was handed down. And unlike Iberia Parish, where Tim and Phillip were married, there were other places where elected officials tried to hold out against marriage equality. The most infamous case took place in my home state of Kentucky, in the Appalachian foothills of Rowan County. This was where county clerk Kim Davis refused, based on her religious beliefs, to issue licenses to same-sex couples. This set off a firestorm of reaction from those who believe in marriage equality, or even just the rule of law, and rightly so. Ms. Davis was defying the Supreme Court and abusing her power as an elected official.
But then I started seeing some of the comments on television, and on social media about Ms. Davis. People who claimed to be for economic justice said Ms. Davis should quit her job immediately, when often, in Appalachia, government work is the only way of getting a decent wage and real benefits. People who claimed to support in women started making fun of Ms. Davis’ appearance, her long straight hair, her lack of makeup, her simple clothing—completely unaware that her appearance was an expression of religious modesty for a Pentecostal woman, no different from a hijab for a Muslim woman, or the bindi that a Hindu woman would wear on her forehead. People who claimed to believe in all family arrangements mocked Ms. Davis for having been married three times. None of these comments were appropriate or helpful in this situation.
Although Ms. Davis’ actions represented an abuse of power, we have to remember that as people of faith and spirit we are called to a different standard of grace when it comes to our adversaries. We are called to do no less than to love our enemies; to bless those who curse us; to pray for those who oppress us. And in that teaching, I don’t think Jesus meant a prayer of, “Dear God, please let this awful person see how stupid they are and change.” We are to pray for our enemies as we would for a family member or a friend who has harmed us in some way. In the hope and expectation of reconciliation.
Now I don’t know about you, but I can probably count on zero fingers the number of times I have prayed earnestly for my enemies in the past few weeks. This is probably one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings.
But Jesus advised us to pray for our oppressors because he understood that the ultimate sin—the original sin—if you will, is the objectification of other human beings. Abuse of power and privilege are undoubtedly acts of objectification, but that doesn’t mean we can counter them with more acts of objectification towards those who are abusing power. As Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Because we live in the already but not yet of the Kin-dom and community of God, we are inclined to be peacemakers and conciliators. Even as we call out violence, injustice, and oppression, we don’t have the permission to surrender our empathy towards our adversaries’ humanity.
This is what Martin Luther King was saying when he talked about the beloved community. Living in the beloved community does mean that wrongs are righted, and those who have been denied what is rightfully theirs are granted justice. But the beloved community is also about both the oppressed and the oppressors being freed from the systems that control and degrade them. This isn’t so much a matter of progress in the political sense, as it is a matter of transformation, in the spiritual sense. The theological term we use is metanoia, a complete conversion, a turning of the heart and the mind.
This idea of the beloved community and the vision of what that looks like is another opportunity we have to be prophetic to the justice seeking community. I’ve found there’s never any problem naming the social ills that demand change.
But if you ask people, “Okay, so what would the world look like if everything came together in a just and equitable way?” I often hear things like, “I don’t know, Denmark?” Well, Denmark has its own problems. They have a rising nativist right-wing faction in government right now. And I don’t want to live in Denmark. I don’t like smoked herring. I’d like to see what a more just and equitable society might look like in the United States.
As those living in the already but not yet of the divine community, we have a wealth of images and ideas of what justice and peace might look like. We have the image of the Peaceable Kingdom, from Isaiah 11:
“The wolf will lie with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.”
And earlier on in Isaiah 2:
“In the last days,
God will judge between the nations
and she will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they study war anymore.”
One of the most important of these American visions of what the kin-dom and divine community looks like comes from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” We tend to hear these words quite a bit around this time of year, and I think we kind of take them for granted. We often forget the historical context in which this speech was given.
The summer of 1963 was the culmination of a blistering summer of protest and civil unrest across the country. A time of great fear and violence against those involved in the civil rights movement.
It was a year in which George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, began his term by pledging to support “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In April of that year, Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham, for his organizing efforts there, which was where he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” May 2, and 3rd 1963 there was the “Children’s Crusade” in Birmingham, in which high school students were attacked by police dogs and fire hoses, just for trying to City Hall. On June 11, 1963, Governor Wallace made a symbolic stand against the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and he had to be removed forcibly from the campus by the National Guard. That same night, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field organizer for the NAACP was shot to death in front of his home and his family, by a White Citizens Council. In the 10 weeks leading up to the March on Washington, there were more than 758 demonstrations in 186 cities, resulting in 14,733 arrests.
It was during this time, during what Dr. King called “The legitimate summer of discontent,” that he chose to ignite the imagination of the country with a new vision of justice in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
“I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
There is a reason he chose to single out these states, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, because of the immeasurable challenge they posed to the movement for civil rights. It’s important to remember just how unlikely this dream looked in the summer of 1963. King’s vision was not one of social progress, but an eschatological vision, a prayer for metanoia – for a seemingly impossible transformation and conversion in some of the most segregated and hard-hearted areas of the country.
And it’s this vision of beloved community that he evokes in the final line of the speech, in which the oppressed and the oppressors will be freed from the unjust systems that debase them:
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Imagine that vision happening today. Imagine the queer community being able to join hands with Mike Pence and Kim Davis, imagine immigrant dreamers being able to join hands with Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, imagine police officers being able to join hands with Black Lives Matter activists, to sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”
That’s how radical the vision of the divine kin-dom, the beloved community is. Now I want to be clear in invoking this vision, I’m not saying that oppressors don’t have to repent of their oppressions and seek restitution and reconciliation with those they have harmed. This also doesn’t mean that victims simply give up their cries for justice in order to bring about an uneasy and unjust lack of conflict. But it does mean that the vision of the justice we’re ultimately called to imagine, as people of faith and spirit, as believers in the already but not yet, is restorative justice. A justice that leads to reconciliation.
We’re told to watch for this justice with the anticipation of the wedding party waiting for the betrothed. To keep our lamps filled with oil, ready for the tiniest sign that justice is about to be done, and restoration is about to happen. We are told that our current suffering is the birth pangs of a new creation. To hope for things not seen.
So let’s speak prophetically. Let’s share with our fellow justice seekers our vision not just of political victory, or even historical progress, but the real possibility of moral and spiritual transformation.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Because justice could show up at any time, and the celebration could start at any moment.
(Sermon by Richard Lindsay given at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, CA, Martin Luther King Sunday.)