In nomine Jesu!
"After these things," the writer of Genesis tells us, "after these things" and for the very first time God spoke the same words to Abram that God has been consistently speaking to all God's children for four millennia. "After these things, do not be afraid..."
Today, after all the things we've seen and heard and experienced over this past month, this past year, this past 15 years β and if you're Black, the last fifty years;
today, "after the things" that have sickened, disgusted, degraded and terrified us;
today, finally, "after these things" have convinced us that now is the time to "walk the walk as well as talk the talk"; today is precisely the time for the word of the Lord to come to us with the assurance "do not be afraid."
Thank God we are hearing this assurance today! Because, with the writer to the Hebrews, don't we, right now, "desire a better country"? Aren't we desperately "looking forward to the city ... whose architect and builder is God"? Aren't we all tired with the movers and shakers who've fabricated our current society? Haven't "all "these things" and their effect on our neighbors
and on us made us eager to make "creatively shaping life in the city" not just our congregation's, but our personal goal?
After all these things, aren't you thrilled to hear today what God's people for four millennia have thrilled to hear and what Jesus' disciples were thrilled to hear two thousand years ago: "Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom!"
That blessed assurance β that God desires, wants, is passionate about, is tickled to death (literally "to death") "to give us the kingdom," is pure, unadulterated Gospel; unalloyed, useful Good News in times like these and folks like us who feel compelled to take action, to do good; to "creatively shape life in the city" God's way just way, lest the xenophobic exploiters of the "banality of evil" shape it their way.
Banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her thesis, applicable to our American society, is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people
who accepted the premises of their society and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of "normalizing the unthinkable." According to him, "doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on this 'normalization;' a process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable language and acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are.'"
"After all these things" we have experienced, we are no longer satisfied with "the way things are;" we want to change them. It's here that Jesus' words that we "have no fear" and one of my favorite quotes, from T.S. Elliott's Murder in a Cathedral comes into play.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.
It's great that we want to act, get involved and actively engage the radical right, especially between now and November, lest we descend into fascism. But as Christians, it's important that we act for the right reason; and the right reason is not fear.
Make no mistake, there is much to fear: the rise of racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic public expression, once considered uncivil but growing more prevalent and vitriolic, and seen by some as the basis of new laws and public policies; the absolute need for organizations like Black Lives Matter and the equally urgent necessity to support and respect beleaguered law enforcement officers β these needs are not mutually exclusive β have made us afraid. While what we fear is very real, fear about the worst that could happen cannot be the sole motivation for what we will do to make what should happen happen. The scriptures, especially the books of the prophets, are filled with descriptions of what that "better country" β that just and peaceful society God is so passionate about designing, building and creating among us. And today Jesus points us to a better motivation: not fear, but faith, particularly faith publicly active in love. Jesus has a name for us when we commit ourselves to "creatively shaping life in the city" by loving all people fearlessly, so that our society conforms to the inclusive, always-embracing, just, equitable design of God's love. Jesus calls us God's beloved and Jesus proclaims us ready. For four millennia, "do not be afraid" and "have no fear" have been God's consistent Word
proclaimed not to make us complacent, content with the banality of evil, but to propel us into the kind of personal behavior and public action that reclaims, reshapes and renews our city, state and national communities so that they more closely resemble the "better country" dreamed by God.
The banality of evil β our unconscious willingness to accept that "the ways things are" or to long for "the way things used to be" is a persistent sin that has infected us and surrounded us for a long, long time. "after these things"β after terrorist attacks, the killing of police officers, the growing need for Black Lives Matter and the now-routine divisive and denigrating rhetoric of this Presidential campaign have ripped open a Pandora's box of visceral resentment and hatred and exposed us and our children to a clear and present danger. God knows that when we act or react out of anger, resentment; when we seek to legalize or legitimize domination and control over those we arbitrarily marginalize, we are simply re-creating a new banality of evil all over again. Jesus shows us a better way for us to reach God's dream for us of "better country." Jesus shows us the means we must use to "creatively shape life in the city."
Jesus confronts the whole domination system of his day; Jesus challenges the banality of evil in his day; not with anger, indignation or fear, but by submitting to their power and enduring death on a cross; by acting from faith, not fear and responding with words and deeds of love. And God raised him from death to proclaim that Jesus' way of non-violent confrontation, Jesus commitment to act with love is the way God intends to shape the city and build that "better country" where all are welcome to eat and drink and enjoy the gifts of God together.
Do not be afraid after these things, nor during or after more of "these things" which will inevitably come. Why? Because "it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." That's the Good News: God has given us the kingdom. Now what are we going to do with it?
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York