We’re not sure what to make of the Ascension Day Story, the one that has Jesus rocketing up into space without benefit of a rocket or wings.
Actually, the whole story seems more than a little embarrassing in the 21st century: Ascension Day seems like a throwback to a time when miracle stories and hocus-pocus tales were believed as historically accurate reporting rather than allegorical tales full of metaphors and symbolic stories.
Even today, many people who think they are Christians seem to take at first glance the clunky literalism that some read into the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension.
So what do we make of this story if we don’t take it literally? If we don’t ask God to be a magician?
Perhaps we see the Ascension Day story as a sign of God’s deep and unending love for Jesus and thru Jesus all of us. Perhaps we see it as a signal that God’s abiding love will metaphorically speaking carry us away when we die. Or perhaps we see Christ’s ascension story as a suggestion that as Christians we are also called to ascend to higher ground. Or, as Barrack Obama likes to say, that when others go low we –– we go high.
Lord knows there’s a lot of low going around these days. A few days ago, a White House staffer said John McCain – who is home with terminal cancer – didn’t matter anymore “because he was going to die anyway.” And today that employee still has her job. Maybe we need to remember on this Ascension Day that when others go low –– we go high.
And those taking the low path have not been limited to those in Washington, D.C. In the weeks, we’ve seen reports of how low some folks will go. CNN ran a story this week titled: ‘At Yale, Starbucks and everywhere else, being black in America really is this hard.’ Time and again, we’ve seen media reports which bear this out – and many of these reports have sparked the creation of specific ‘hashtags’ to help people discuss racism in America in online forums like Twitter and Facebook.
- The hashtag #blacksitting could have referred to the police action which removed two African Americans from a Philadelphia Starbucks.
- The hashtag #blackworkout could have referred to the LA Fitness manager who threw out a black man who belonged to that gym.
- The hashtag #blackairnib could have referred to the police action when a neighbor became concerned at seeing three black women leaving a home they rented through airnib.
- The hashtag #blackgolf could have referred to a golf course called the cops on group of black women or playing too slow.
- The hashtag #blackshopping could have referred to three African-American teenagers who were falsely accused of stealing from a Nordstrom Rack store in Missouri.
- The hashtag #blackstudying could have referred to a black Yale graduate student who took a nap in her dorm’s common room and found a white student had called police.
- And the hashtag #blackBBQing could have referred to the woman who police to stop some black folks from using a barbecue at Lake Merritt in Oakland. That’s right: in Oakland.
One common thread in these stories – and there are many – is who called the police. The police were not called by an African American or an Asian American. The police were not called by an undocumented worker or a Latino. The police were not called by a Native American. In each of these incidents, a white person called the police. Which brings home the simple fact that American racism is a problem created and maintained by white Americans. And it is up to us white folks to end it.
What place does our church have in all this?
Fifty years ago this month, the Rev. Philip Berrigan, then the priest of a small Catholic Church in Catonsville, Maryland, sparked an international storm of controversy. He led a group of nine antiwar activists to a Knights of Columbus banquet hall that was being used for the draft, went inside, took some draft cards outside and burned them.
Deborah Holly was a member of that church. In those days, a time when African American Christians too often has to sit in the back of Maryland’s church, Deborah and her church friends would march right in and sit in the front row. Here’s what she remembers from that time:
“If you’re gonna be in a church,” Deborah said, “you’re gonna be about justice.”
Hear that again: “If you’re gonna be in a church, you’re gonna be about justice.”
So how are we in this church “gonna be about justice?” That’s something we all get to decide as a group and as an individual. Each of us has a different role to play – part of mine, in this case, is as a white Episcopal priest fighting racism amongst white people.
Being an Episcopal priest means I have completed the anti-racism training offered by this diocese. But that’s not enough. We need to move beyond training our lay leaders and clergy. We need to have more white deacons and priests taking the lead in publically arguing against racism in the white community. We need to have more white clergy preaching this kind of sermon. We need to have more churches that share – as we do – stories that detail the way racism makes it hard to be black in America.
And we need more people in our church who join in this conversation.
Why? Because if we fall silent then those who hate will win. They will feel emboldened. They will act in more outrageous ways. Do you think those white supremacists and Nazis who marched in Charlottesville would have been so quiet of late if the nation had not erupted in criticism and scorn? Edmund Burke said it best: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
So what can you do? It is as simple as adding a positive personal endorsement and sharing some of these stories about racism with your Facebook friends or followers on Twitter.
You can add your voice in personal communication with others to make clear that the continuing obsession that some white Americans have with racism is not OK.
Together we can find new ways to reach out to the white folks in our neighborhood and engage them in this discussion. And our actions can speak for our church to make clear that racism is not a Christian value; that race-based hatred is not what Jesus would do, that the God we know is not a white God.
Part of our work must also reflect our fundamental belief that, as St. Paul writes in Galatians 3.28:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In other words: there is no longer white or African American; no longer Latino or Asian American; no longer Native or Hawaiian American. Instead, we are all one in Christ Jesus; brothers and sisters; children of God. May we rise to this call. Let us pray.
Precious love, your ascended Son promised the gift of holy power. Send your Spirit of revelation and wisdom, that in the blessed freedom of hope, we may witness to the grace of forgiveness and sing songs of joy with the peoples of the earth to the One who makes us one body.
May God’s people say: Amen.