Public Theology
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

August 13, 2017


Romans 12:9-13:10

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

My preaching professor in seminary told us he never, ever wanted to hear another sermon that begins with “how I came to write this sermon.” Well, he’s not here today. And he believed in forgiveness. You see, several weeks ago, I had planned out a number of Sundays, and today I was going to have the liturgist read the story of Jesus walking on water, and Peter saying, “Call me out Lord, and I’ll walk on water, too.” And of course, Peter steps out in faith but sees the waves and falls in. And I was going to preach that if Peter had such trouble, we could not longer try and guilt anyone, including ourselves, for when we lack faith.

But then the latest round of nuclear one-upmanship broke out, and a prominent voice, a pastor of a large church in Dallas, stated that Romans 13 means that the President is chosen and empowered by God to nuke bad guys like the leader of North Korea. Reading such a ludicrous interpretation of Paul’s writing, I wanted the liturgist to read the verses leading up to the passage in question and the verses just after it. Because while getting political in the pulpit is always dangerous, this was an act of public theology, and if there is one thing the pulpit SHOULD include, it is better theology. And the Congregationalist church and the United Church of Christ have been about public theology before we called ourselves UCC, and even before we called ourselves Congregationalist.

Oh, I had lined up my illustrations, I had honed a few metaphors, even gotten a homey story or two to tell. Like one does in writing a sermon.

But then Charlottesville, Virginia hit the news. And here we are this morning.

For those who have not seen the news, a group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and even an armed white militia showed up in Charlottesville for an event labeled “Unite the Right” to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. A group of clergy from every faith, and concerned people, went to counter-protest.

The night before the rally, the counter-protestors were meeting in a church for prayers, singing, and preparing for the next day. The so-called “alt-right” groups marched through town that night with torches, chanting “one blood, one soil.” For those who do not have a sense of history, this was a classic march of the KKK. The only difference this time is that the marchers did not were robes and masks. They wore polo shirts and khakis. They wore buttons and shields of the KKK, and carried confederate flags and Nazi flags, but they did not hide their faces.

To use the phrase “alt-right” covers the fact that what we are looking at here is fascist behavior, neo-Nazi tactics and ideology, white supremacy and violence wrapped up in business casual clothing.

These marchers that night surrounded a group of people and would not let them out, screaming Nazi slogans at them.

The next day, the day of the rally, a man from Ohio who was there with the neo-Nazi rally got in a car and drove through a group of counter-protesters, killing one, injuring 19 others.

The leaders of this gathering claim to be Christian, and are members of churches. Churches many of them are probably attending this morning. Churches that will likely not call out racism as sin, violence as deplorable, intimidation as a denial of the image of God and a betrayal of the values of Jesus Christ. They claim to be Christian even as they call for racial purity and violence and intimidation against those who are not white and Christian.

Even as the clothing has changed, the events of Charlottesville are not new.

Ted Jennings, prophetic Methodist minister and theologian, wrote of Charlottesville:

“When I was a child visiting my grandma in Central Florida, there came a night when my grandma told my sister and me to get down on the floor and be quiet, a row of pick-up trucks passing in the night. It’s the klan she urgently whispered, From which I learned that when a bunch of liquored up armed white men were forming a mob, ain’t nobody safe. Being ‘white’ is no protection.”

Growing up in the South and later on the South side of Chicago I have one way or another always lived under a permanent state of emergency in which the rule of law is always suspended for those unfortunate enough to be in the cross hairs of white racism, white ignorance, white stupidity, and its enforcers and instigators.

Charlottesville is no aberration. In its own melodramatic way it is the truth of a society that has always been terminally ill with hatred and fear of the other, any other; most especially those it has grievously wronged.

There as always, there is another side to this story, always outnumbered, for sure out gunned: those who refuse to be intimidated.

Which side will win the battle for the soul of this nation? I have no idea.”

What is the Christian answer to such organized political violence, such profound racism and hatred of the “other?”

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)

These words are picked up by the Gospel of Matthew and echoed word for word.

What does that mean? It means that all people are welcome here in church. I would welcome one of the neo-Nazi protestors here. BUT! All people are welcome here. All behaviors are not.

The public theology of the church must be a clear and public statement that the actions of the so-called “alt-right” has no place in a community of human beings. The public theology of the church must be like the unarmed clergy and laity who linked arms and stood before an armed white militia in witness to the fact that we will not play the games of violence, nor will we be intimidated by the ignorance, fear, and hatred that they try and offer. The public theology of the church must be Jesus, who never acted or sounded like the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

  • To those who traffic in fear and hatred, we will stand in love.
  • To those who wish to label and claim some human beings are better than others, we will stand with the least of these, and we will stand in love.
  • To those who want to win the day by intimidating others, we will stand, and we will stand in love.
  • To those who wish to hide from the news of the day, we will not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, by standing in love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.