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I See You. I Hear You. I Believe You.

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 07

Texts: Psalm 133 and Colossians 3:10-17

     What a week it’s been. I confess that I am angry. Angry, and sad, and oh-so-tired. We live in a nation that makes a spectacle of violence. Violence against black and brown bodies—always—on endless rerun. Violence against women—always somehow normative—an unending performance of power over. Sexual violence. Gun violence. It has all been in the news this week.

Just a “heads up” that I will be referring to violence this morning. Not at all in a graphic way, but because I find it necessary to speak of the events of the week. Knowing this, please take care of yourselves.

Seven police officers shot in South Carolina. Graphic footage of the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago. And, of course, the spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. The whole world watched as an entirely credible witness—Christine Blasey Ford—testified publicly that Kavanaugh had assaulted her when he was 17 and she was 15. The world watched, and in the end, Kavanaugh was confirmed.

What are we to tell our children? How shall we speak about these principalities and powers that have our nation in their clutches? How do we speak to this moment of collective trauma? As people of faith and conscience, we must speak, and we can only begin where we are; there is no other place to start.

As a Christian ethicist, I am trained in feminist theology, womanist theology, Black theology and liberation theologies. I want to acknowledge the important differences and sometimes fraught histories of these liberation movements, especially the long—and sometimes painful—dialogue between white feminists and womanist theologians. But that is a topic for another day. Today, I want to lift up a principle shared by all liberation theologies.

Usually implicit in my framework, today I want to make this principle quite explicit. The starting point for liberation theologies is human experience. Always. Lived human experience.

This means that the starting point for theological reflection and ethical action is to listen attentively to each other’s lives and hold them sacred. It means we take each other’s stories seriously. To begin with experience is to signal, “I see you. I hear you. I believe you.” And that, in itself, is powerful.

As a young student in Iowa, African American journalist Tayari Jones recalls a moment of powerful awakening. She tells of the day in 1991, during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when she—among 1,600 Black women—took out a full-page ad in The New York Times. It declares, “We believe Anita Hill.” (1) Here’s a partial copy.  (Hold up sheet.) A form of testimony and solidarity and Black sisterhood. A statement that says, I am with you.

This week, 1,600 men signed their names to a full-page ad in The Times. “We Believe Anita Hill. We Also Believe Christine Blasey Ford,” it said. I am indebted to Times journalist, Lauretta Charlton for calling this to attention and drawing the parallel. (2)

To listen is powerful. To believe each other is powerful. To hear the truth of each other’s lives is powerful.

To begin with experience means we must be willing to look into the ugly face of injustice, oppression and violence and see how they distort and damage us all. From the vantage point of liberation theologies, naming the material and spiritual violence of systemic oppression is a sacred duty. For, at the heart of the gospel is a command to love our neighbor and especially to care for “the least of these.”

As I stand here this morning, I confess I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone preach about anger. And I’ve seldom heard anyone preach from a place of anger. I know that some consider anger “unchristian,” and I understand that some have a low tolerance for this particular emotion. It’s a prickly one. It’s unpleasant, powerful, even—sometimes, scary.

I know that talk of intimate violence stirs up all kinds of difficult and painful feelings, because so many of us have been impacted by violence. If we are not directly involved, we know someone who is. And—of course—we are all steeped in a culture of pervasive violence.

As I speak, I am also keenly aware of the labels put on women who speak their anger. Shrill, Irrational. Hysterical—that dreadful word derived from the Greek word for womb. And still, I must speak. 

I understand it’s complicated. Reporting sexual assault is emotionally and procedurally complex. I understand that finding the appropriate container to adjudicate and to hold alleged perpetrators accountable is difficult. As the UCC Chaplain at Harvard, I have received Title IX training and instruction from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR, for short).

I understand the complex issues involved in reporting, keeping confidentiality, supporting victims of violence, and protecting the rights of alleged perpetrators.

I understand the confusion and difficulty on college campuses that arises when there are multiple pathways to accountability—a system of civil law enforcement in the wider community, and a parallel system of campus regulations and policing. It’s complicated.

But, still, we must speak. And we must begin where we are. So maybe, this week, we begin with discouragement or grief, cynicism or despair.

I don’t know how it is for you, but I have come to recognize that for me, cynicism is the opposite of faithfulness. If I clothe myself in the full metal jacket of cynicism, I can distance myself from painful feelings of disappointment and rage. Because—I tell myself—I already know things will go badly. And therefore, I’m not disappointed or hurt or despairing when they do. It may offer emotional protection, but cynicism is not a faithful response. We need to feel each other’s pain and our own. This can be life-giving, even freeing.

Maybe, this week, we begin with anger. Our anger can be a signal that something is terribly wrong and must be dealt with. Anger is powerful. It is full of energy, and like any energy, anger in and of itself is value-neutral—neither morally good nor inherently evil.

Anger can be used to destroy. But it can also be harnessed for good. Anger can fuel protest and energize movements for justice. Anger can be a faithful response to injustice.

To experience anger does not mean we must resort to violent acts. In fact, just the opposite is true. If we face our anger squarely, we get in touch with the power of the human spirit to resist, to speak out, to organize, and, above all—to act in love. Maybe this means we vote, or get involved in political organizing, or run for office, or listen to someone tell their story of survival and resistance. Maybe we tell our own story. Maybe we simply hold each other with tender hearts. We act in love. And this is the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, the One who takes our humanity seriously. Who listens deeply and sees us as we are. Jesus, who takes our human experience so seriously, that he enters into it fully, suffers and dies under the systemic violence of a powerful empire. Jesus who loves us so much, and holds us so tenderly, that he gives himself to us completely. He gives himself for us.

Today is World Communion Sunday. I would have had a great deal more to say about that, were it not for the need to speak to this cultural moment. But I will say this…

World Communion Sunday began in the Presbyterian Church in the 1930s and soon spread to other Christian denominations through the Federal Council of Churches, predecessor of The National Council of Churches. It is rooted in the ideal of ecumenical cooperation. And the celebration of the eucharist, or Holy Communion is at its very center. (3)

Today, we share a feast of life. And as we do so, we remember our kindred from all around the world who are also sharing this sacred feast. Christians from China and Australia, Zaire and Ghana, Latvia and Ukraine, Peru and Paris, who are sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion.

We come to Christ’s Table of Love, keenly aware of our divisions, confessing our brokenness. Angry or grieving, discouraged or despairing, we come seeking hope for the world. We come to the table set by the One who is hope for the world.

At this table, holy and beloved, may we let drop the cloaks of discouragement and rage, the garment of cynicism, and be touched by Christ’s peace. We come in humility, because we are all in need of Christ’s healing. Here, at this table, may we be clothed with heartfelt compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience. May it be so.

1) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/us/black-sisterhood-in-the-shadow-of-the-brett-kavanaugh-hearings.html

2) Ibid.

3) https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/3201/world-communion-sunday-why-we-do-it-and-how

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