Watch the service: http://oldfirstbrooklyn.org/2020/09/04/virtual-service-9-6/
Romans 13:8–14: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."
In the Roman world, the entire society was based on conquest and domination. The imperial architecture constantly surrounding Rome’s inhabitants flaunted Roman subjugation, depicting their gods, emperors, and warriors crushing Rome’s enemies and reigning over them.
Society under Roman rule was made up of stark divisions—colonizer vs. colonized, freeperson vs. slave, landowner vs. laborer, uncircumcised vs. circumcised, and so on.
These divisions operated under a law of contempt. You are supposed to hate those who are not like you. You are supposed to be superior to them. It is a pyramid structure, where each brick is supposed to rule over the bricks below it.
This law of contempt is lawlessness and death. Empire is based on such lawlessness and death, because it is based on theft: theft of land, theft of lives, theft of resources. Caring only for its own rights, empire steals, kills, and destroys all over the place, continually building its society on injustice.
Rome was such a place. And America is such a place. The overwhelmingly white American prosperity we see today was built on theft. White settlers took the land of indigenous peoples, over countless dead bodies and broken treaties. As if that weren’t enough, white prosperity was built on the backs of black slaves.
Our country’s laws were made possible by the violation of God’s law. Just like the Roman empire, the American empire constructed a system of domination, complete with divisions and hierarchies: slave vs. free, white vs. black, rich vs. poor, capitalist vs. worker, man vs. woman.
Is that love? Is that a Christian nation?
You can’t have a Christian nation without love for all people. For in Christ, the law is to “love one another.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies.
Love is the fulfilling of the law. The law says, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet, etc. These prohibitions flow from love, from a spirit of mutual respect between persons. I am not above you. I have no right to wrong you. I have no right to steal from you. I have no right to do you harm. That is the law. If I love you, I will keep this law.
Love for all people accomplishes the entirety of the law because the law exists to protect human rights, and love makes the rights of others paramount. Love takes care of people and ensures their rights are fulfilled.
So the theologian Karl Barth says, “Love is … the end of all hierarchies.”
Love demands equality. If a president is to love his neighbors as himself, he cannot assert himself as more important or more worthy than others. He cannot sacrifice the needs of others on the altar of his own needs. Nor can he place his group above other groups. For someone holding power to love someone without power, there can be no hierarchy of significance. The penniless foreigner cannot be less important than the richest CEO. That is the law of love.
White people cannot be more important than black people. Not according to the law of love.
To “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” necessitates a relinquishing of one’s imperial status. As Paul says in Galatians, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27f.). In Christ, there is no hierarchy, only equality. We are all one, so we are all equal. We can’t be 3/5 equal. 3/5 does not equal one. In Christ, we are all one. And one equals one.
Love for all people is the end of hierarchies because love asks, “Who isn’t being loved? Who is hated? Who is trampled on? Who is cast out and marginalized? Who is exploited? Who is oppressed?” Love demands equality, and it goes out and gets it if it must.
But I grew up with a different understanding of love, which was more akin to niceness. Love meant being polite and kind to all people. Love concerned how I personally treat people, and that’s about it. But niceness and politeness are compatible with injustice, and love isn’t compatible with injustice.
Love goes out into society and looks for those in need. The needy need love, and I don’t mean kindness, I don’t mean give’em a dollar, I don’t mean give’em an encouraging word. Love doesn’t just treat the oppressed nicely. The oppressed need loving care. Love seeks to meet peoples’ needs and ensure their rights.
As Howard Thurman writes in his groundbreaking book Jesus and the Disinherited, “Wherever a need is laid bare, those who stand in the presence of it can be confronted with the experience of universality that makes all class and race distinctions impertinent.” When we focus on meeting the needs and fulfilling the rights of all people, we cannot maintain our divisions. Instead, we encounter our universal humanity, and we encounter love’s demand that we care for all people.
Love is humanistic. It sees a human in need and seeks to fill that need. That is what love does.
This is why Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Because justice would be the universal meeting of needs. Righteousness would mean everyone lives fully within their rights and are not deprived of any.
So love is not blind. It sees the unloved. It sees those the world refuses to take care of, and it sees who the world takes care of too much.
Church, for the sake of love, it is time to wake up. It is time to stop denying that we live in an empire built on injustice. It is time to stop turning a blind eye to the grip of white supremacy on this nation. It is time to stop denying that this country’s laws were designed to benefit white property-owners over everyone else. It is time to stop neglecting this nation’s racism and its racist history.
It is time to lay aside our escapism. It is time to wake up from our fantasies. No longer can we pretend like everything is hunky dory, like the status quo takes care of everybody.
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Trayford Pellerin. Daniel Prude. All of them were killed by police this year. The footage of Daniel Prude’s murder was released last week. Police can be seen laughing at him as he lay naked and cuffed on the ground. He suffocated under the bag they put over his head.
Mocked, brutalized, murdered, just as Jesus was mocked, brutalized, and murdered.
How long are we going to let this continue? As Bob Dylan asked in 1963, How many deaths will it take ‘til we know that too many people have died?
We know what time it is. Now is the moment for us to wake from sleep. It is time put aside tranquility and complacency and put on the armor of love.
What do you do when you wake up in the morning? You get up and you put your clothes on! And once your clothes are on, you do what the day requires of you. Similarly, we need to wake up, clothe ourselves with justice and love, and determine to do what this day requires of us.
For we can see the truth. We can see what God is calling us to. The oppressed are crying out. The groans of black bodies are ringing out in the streets. We can hear the proclamation, “Black Lives Matter” all over the world. This proclamation comes straight from heaven. And if we have an ear for divine justice, we will hear “Black Lives Matter” as a word of truth, and as God’s unyielding call to our nation.
So what are we gonna do? What are we going to bind and loose? What are we going to demand in Jesus’ name? How are we going to show our love? How are we going to help liberate the oppressed? For, as our Psalm today tells us, “the Lord takes pleasure in his people, and adorns the poor with victory.”
As a predominantly white church, and as a church that for two hundred years benefited from the existence of a slave economy, we have to start indicting ourselves, because it is easy to fall into complacency and denial.
I’m a white person, so I have to ask myself hard questions, and I have to seek out the questions that are being asked of me by oppressed people in this country.
I need to privilege black voices. I need to hear their suggestions and heed their calls to action. I need to educate myself and not expect others to educate me. I need to ask myself, How much do I know about black history? How many black stories am I hearing? What can I do to learn more?
I need to support black organizations. I need to ask, Who are the people fighting for black liberation in this country, and how can I support them? Which organizations do I donate to, and what are they doing to advance the cause of black people in this country?
If I’m in a position of power and influence, I need to ask, How can I use that power and influence to help and uplift disenfranchised people?
Educating ourselves, participating in communities of action, and challenging ourselves will be essential to becoming co-conspirators for black liberation. We’re living in a time when information is more accessible than it has ever been. We have YouTube, podcasts, Wikipedia, eBooks, audio books, online library catalogs. The list goes on. We have all the resources we need to start educating ourselves and pursuing understanding on what we can do to accomplish racial justice in our world.
And what’s more, it is love’s imperative that we do so.
We have an obligation as Christians to seek out the testimony of the oppressed in our world, and to do what we can to restore their fortunes as much as possible.
It is a sign of hope to me that we are dealing with these issues as a church. I am inspired by our Anti-Racist Reading Group, which focuses on “discussing ways that we, as individuals and as a community of Jesus, can work to dismantle racism.” This is exactly the kind of work we need to be doing. Whether you join this particular reading group or not, we should be doing this kind of thinking as a community, asking these kinds of questions, and pursuing radical change in our world.
Our past and present are defined by inequality, but our future does not have to be. Not if we are guided by the law of love. Not if we determine to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make it our mission to fill the needs and ensure the rights of all people.
Our passage from Romans says, “salvation is nearer to us than when we became believers,” and that “the night is far gone, the day is near.” I will be honest and admit that I do not understand these words. ‘Cuz it still looks like night to me! The rays of the sun seem nowhere in sight. “Salvation” seems more like a pipe dream than an imminent reality.
But, church, I’m tellin’ ya, there will be a day when justice will dawn on the world. God will execute judgments on the idols of Egypt. We will sing to the Lord a new song, a freedom song. And creation will rejoice in its creator.
We will see glory in the streets. We will see the dead vindicated. We will see the healing of the sick. We will see abundance for the poor. We will see deliverance for the captives. We will see it. We will do it. It cannot be stopped. You cannot stop the irresistible force of God’s love for his creation.