Sermon for 11 September 2019
Joint Chapel Service
Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod
Briarwood Leadership Center
Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD
texts for Holy Cross Day: Philippians 2:6-11 | John 3:13-17
On the morning of 9/11, I was scheduled to help lead regular Tuesday-morning worship in the Luther Seminary chapel, supporting our Dean of Students, Patricia Lull.
Things changed dramatically. As we were vested and prepared to enter the chapel, we received word that the first tower had fallen. The significance of the day was apparent. My life and my vocation took an immediate turn.
For the next year, I spoke in dozens of congregations, introducing Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. I was the only student on campus who had completed the MA in Islamic Studies, so I received the overflow of speaking requests from my professors. It was that long string of workshops that led to me being invited to join a delegation visit to the Holy Land. I thought I was going only to walk where Jesus walked. Instead, the concerns of Palestinian Christians convicted my soul and my trajectory for developing faith-based responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was set.
That longer-term path was informed by experiences immediately after 9/11. That Friday – 9/11 was on a Tuesday – I went with my professor and mentor, Mark Swanson, to a nearby mosque to stand vigil as Muslims gathered for Juma’ah prayer. We went for two reasons: 1) to offer protection and intervention in case any vigilante threats arose, and 2) to communicate, as Christians, that we valued our Muslim neighbors as fellow citizens. I still remember the fear some people had when they saw me outside their mosque; it wasn’t until we were introduced and thanked by the Imam that, for some, our presence made sense.
Soon after that, I noticed that my Egyptian friend, Magdi, a Presbyterian Christian Hebrew Bible scholar, had put American flag stickers on the back of his car. The flags were a way of signaling that he was not a threat. He is unmistakably Arab.
Those experiences have stayed with me throughout my years of encountering people and concerns within communities other than my own. A long time ago, I realized that my good intentions were not enough to be welcomed into certain discussions. Too many details about my social location – white, male, heterosexual, Christian, pastor – were barriers. If I was to be at the table, I would need to pass tests, most often in one-on-one conversations. Communities living with fear and struggling for survival cannot risk the betrayal of a white friend; you have to be all in or you’re not in at all.
Fast-forward to this past weekend. My wife, Fatemeh, is half Iranian. She was raised Muslim and deeply appreciates Iranian culture. Here in north Texas, we’re happy to be close to a few different international markets. Her father recommended one with a Persian restaurant next door.
We had a fantastic time. The food was quite good and everyone around us was speaking Farsi. One of the owners was very attentive to us. After a great deal of hospitality and joking, we introduced ourselves. When he said his name to Fatemeh, it was Muhammad. When he said his name to me, it was Danny.
This is a survival strategy. Even with a half-Iranian, Muslim spouse, and my even more fully blended stepdaughter, I am still the white man in the space. At some level, I am still perceived as a threat. He knew, from either individual or communal experience, that sharing his given name could trigger something in me that could turn out badly.
Such are the strategies for navigating white patriarchal fragility and the many forms of violence it inflicts.
In terms of US foreign policy, that fragility calls off an entire peace process in a huff and leaves no path toward additional progress. That fragility walks away from established agreements and then blames other parties to the agreement when things don’t go as planned.
On a local level, that fragility says that people who have different ethnic backgrounds, religions, traditions, sexual orientations, gender identities, or skin tones can be around, as long as they keep to themselves, don’t speak their languages where I can hear them, and don’t display their affections in my line of sight.
When white fragility is triggered, no non-normative person in proximity is safe. Our current political climate is one in which white fragility is trumpeted on a national and global scale. The same fear I saw in my Arab and Muslim friends’ faces immediately after 9/11 – the fear of not being safe anywhere at any time in the face of white reprisal – is present today in the faces of friends who are Latinx, Black, Jewish, Muslim, Queer or anything other than a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male.
We are seeing a clear generational acceptance of blending – the television show “Black-ish” has spawned a sequel, “Mixed-ish.” At the same time, we are seeing a tremendous backlash of racial retrenchment; racist ideas and white self-protection are fueling political polarization and violence. The white supremacist terrorist attack in El Paso, an assault on an entire community’s sense of safety, is just one example.
Because this fragility is emerging from contexts, meaning Europe and North America, that self-identify as Christian, and because the violence that fragility spawns is perpetrated by those seeking to defend what they see as Christian heritage, Christianity itself is implicated. The call, then, is clear: if exclusionary, racist violence does not represent the Christianity you wish to share with the world, it is time for you to stand up to those who would speak in your name.
The texts I have chosen for today are from Holy Cross Day. In our context, dominated by white evangelical Christianity, the Cross is often a symbol of division and exclusion. Indeed, the Cross has always been that when tied to power and its protection, from Constantine’s basilicas to the Crusaders’ shields. In Oklahoma and Texas, the Cross is displayed anxiously, erected on roadsides in massive displays of Christian supremacy.
The new tribalism tearing the world apart is not Christian. It seeks only to adorn itself with Christianity to cover its multitude of sins. This new tribalism, validated and fed by a new politics of populism, is overthrown by the universality of Christian proclamation.
The Cross, far from being an emblem of exclusion, is a symbol of God’s relentless, self-debasing, scandalous embrace of humanity. The “world” in “God so loved the world” and the “every” in “every knee shall bow” are the hallmarks of liberation, of human equality before God.
9/11 was a day of fear, uncertainty, and desperation. In response, the United States launched a seemingly never-ending ‘War on Terror’ that has achieved some objectives while unleashing terror for many other human communities, both outside the United States and within. In the midst of this terror and unjust suffering, God announces God’s universal, all-embracing love. In a world obsessed with hardening borders and delegitimizing the claims of refugees and asylum seekers, God embraces and receives.
This love is for you, for those profoundly different from you, and for those who would go so far as to reject this freely given gift. On our days of uncertainty, this is the solid rock on which we stand: that “God so loved the world” including even you.