Wrong Story

[1] You don’t have to be an aficionado of YouTube to have witnessed the most profound public abuse of the Christian pulpit in recent memory.

[2] At the end of May, Father Michael Pfleger ascended the pulpit steps at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Barack Obama’s former congregation. Pfleger is a maverick, politically savvy activist priest on Chicago’s south side. He has been a highly effective advocate, benefiting tens of thousands in his community, even if it meant breaking the law and going to jail to get things done.

[3] But on this spring day, the Roman Catholic priest unleashed a vile, mean-spirited, vitriolic attack on former democratic presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton. (An immediate disclaimer: I was not a supporter of the Clinton campaign). Pfleger’s performance was posted on YouTube where millions viewed it. Millions more saw his sorry sermon on the 24-hour news channels, where he became an answer to the devout prayers of conservative bloggers and talk show hosts everywhere.

[4] In his sermon, Pfleger says he will expose “white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head.” Fair enough, but then with thick, sarcastic histrionics he mocked Clinton’s tears that appeared during a campaign stop before the New Hampshire primary: “When Hillary was crying, and people said that was put on, I really don’t believe it was put on. I really believe that she just always thought: ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white, and this is mine. I just gotta get up and step into the plate.’ And then out of nowhere came, ‘Hey, I’m Barack Obama,’ and she said: ‘Oh, damn. Where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show.'”

The congregation stood, applauded and shouted its appreciation. Pfleger then feigned tears and said, “She wasn’t the only one crying. There were a whole lot of white people crying.” This garnered more cheers from the congregation.

[5] The storm stirred by this screed moved Pfleger to issue a non-apology apology during a three-hour service the following Sunday at St. Sabina parish where he serves and is much loved for his commitment to the community. But his words rang hollow. He apologized, regretting his choice of words. But he denied that he’d intended to mock Clinton, which is impossible to take seriously given his determined performance to portray her sense of entitlement. He ranted against the media for airing his tirade. He also suggested that those who saw the news clip don’t understand “the typical dramatics I often used in sermons.” In other words, the whole mess is the media’s fault for exaggerating a mere misstatement. And what isn’t their fault is the fault of the unsophisticated, who don’t understand the aesthetics of his preaching style.

Swapping stories
[6] But the problem with his sermon–and his inability to offer a simple apology–lies elsewhere. And this malady is festers among us, too. More on that later.

[7] Pfleger swapped stories. His sermon traded the story of Jesus and the new age he brings for a political ideology about power and race that, however true or false, is not the Christian story that should be heard from our pulpits and followed in our ethics. In the attempt to be radical and relevant, he surrendered Jesus for something far less so.

[8] Our ethical convictions arise from our theological claims. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God is establishing a new people, a new reality, into which both the elitist and the oppressed are invited. All are welcomed to receive and be transformed by the goodness of the One whose love shines alike on the just and unjust, the grateful and the selfish, the good and the bad, the racist and the enlightened.

[9] God labors in Christ to tear down the ancient barriers that divide, reconciling all things to God, gathering up all the whirling elements of the universe into a single harmonious unity in Christ. The church is the community of this hope, celebrating what God is doing and shaping our communal life in ways that conform to this eternal divine purpose. Just so, the church embodies, however imperfectly, God’s holy future. It is a living witness to the good pleasure of the One who does all this according to the riches of divine grace. As such, the church invites sinners to come and join this community of grace–including the elitist, entitled and arrogant.

[10] An ethic arising from this distinctive Christian vision allows no justification for Pfleger’s ridicule. But the Christian story was not the foundation for his misbegotten sermon. His text was not rooted in Christian Scripture or vision but in a power analysis of white privilege, which he glibly offered as an explanation of Clinton’s tears–and the fears of “a whole lot of white people.”

[11] But even if he is correct in this analysis, he offers a story that produces more alienation and mistrust. There is nothing here of Christian hope, nothing that promises redemption, nothing that celebrates and invites faith in the action of Christ to bring reconciliation. He offers a vision of reality that turns the historically oppressed into a shouting crowd that can’t distinguish Christian hope from ideological anger.

[12] The cheers and applause of the congregation reveal a community that, at least for the moment, believed that anger over oppression justifies the public mocking of another human soul. This is a long way from the kind of meek, merciful, peacemaking, reconciliation-seeking community Jesus invites in the Sermon of the Mount, a community that seeks to love as wholeheartedly as God loves us (Matthew 5:48).

[13] Pfleger denounced racism as the radical, foul sin that it is. But when your preferred text is the political analysis of power and privilege, not the story of Jesus, you tend to justify the same kinds of bad behavior you denounce. And you divert the church from its vocation of seeking and discovering the oneness of heart, vision and purpose that Christ is working in all who are in him (Galatians 3:27-29). This wounds the church and deprives the larger society. For it leaves us less able to live out our vocation as a community shaped by the Jesus story, not merely by historical sins and angers or our ideologies.

ELCA racial training
[14] Similar story swapping is evident in the way training about racial issues happens in many ELCA institutions and agencies. For more than two decades, I have been attending workshops and multi-day training events focusing on racism. Sponsored variously by the ELCA churchwide organization, synods and educational institutions of the church, nearly all of these events have been graciously led by knowledgeable people of faith and good will.

[15] All the workshops provided clear depictions of racism as prejudice combined with power, revealing how white privilege and systems of oppression work in society. They pictured racism and white privilege as so prevalent and oppressive that they are unavoidable, affecting virtually every waking moment.

[16] But none of these events enabled participants of different racial groups to engage each other in creative conversation beyond the scope of the workshop. Several events frustrated their own purpose by producing hyper-sensitivity and exaggerated fears that closed mouths. This is hardly surprising. That’s what the law does, appropriately. It reveals sin, fans fear and reduces us to silence–or anger and futile self-justifications. It produces despair. But the law has no power to create new and repentant life in our souls. Nor can it reveal signs of newness of life among us and create deeper community and oneness in Christ. That’s the work of the gospel.

Missing our story
[17] What I find missing is the church’s own story, the Jesus story, including an appreciation of the treasure we hold as Christians, regardless of our color (2 Corinthians 4:7-12). Like Pfleger’s sermon, the content and structure of this church-sponsored training has traded the message of Jesus for political analysis and ideology. It expends great energy discussing the nature of power and naming systemic social sin. But it gives little attention to the particular community that is the church of Christ. And it offers no awareness that there is healing and reconciliation in Christ.

[18] In fact, most of the events I have attended could have been given in any secular business or organization with little if any change, despite the fact that all have been led by church-related agencies.

[19] Missing was any explicit evidence of faith in the power of the Spirit to create a new community that reflects the reality of God’s kingdom. Lacking faith that Christ can and does transform us, secular ideologies about race and power are dressed up to give them a Christian tinge, but the underlying story is not ours.

[20] In the closing words of his infamous sermon, Father Pfleger made a promise: “America, I need you to know that as long as I am alive, I will continue to call for love! I will continue to call for justice! I will continue to call for righteousness! I will continue to call for the love of God to overpower the hate of this country.”

[21] I hope he means it. And more, I hope it is the love of God, not something less, that shapes all our church’s responses to injustice and historical hatreds.