The State of Our Society
By Dr. Bruce Prescott
First Congregational Church of Norman
November 12, 2017
1 John 3:11-18
For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.
Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
Near the beginning of every year it is customary for members of both houses of congress, members of the Supreme Court, and other high ranking government officials along with a national audience over radio, television and the internet to gather to hear our nation’s President give a state of the union address. The new year is a good time to make an honest appraisal of the decline or improvement in the health and progress of the nation that took place the previous year and to project a vision and a plan of action for the ensuing year. I think this is one of the healthier rituals of our democracy and I think something like an annual state of the congregation sermon would be a good practice in our churches.
I don’t know enough to make comment on the health and progress of this congregation over the past year, but, as you are looking for your next pastor, I know that you are turning the page to a new chapter in the life of your church. And, I have some comments to make about some drastic changes that have taken place this past year in the state of the society in which the members of this congregation must live and worship and provide a Christian witness.
Eleven days ago the American Psychological Association published the results of the 2017 poll “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation.” The survey was conducted in the month of August. This year’s poll revealed that:
Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, slightly more than perennial stressors like money (62 percent) and work (61 percent).
More than half of Americans (59 percent) said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember — a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Clearly, a broad majority of the people in our society are apprehensive about the future of our society. I share their concerns and I suspect that, whatever your political persuasion, most of you do too.
I was a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In grade school I was taught to duck and cover under my desk in the event of a nuclear attack. At home, my father talked openly about putting a fallout shelter in the back yard. Eventually, he just decided to stock the basement with saltine crackers, canned spam, and water. I was a child at the time, I did not fully comprehend the gravity of that situation.
I was barely a teenager at the height of the civil rights movement. I learned the dangers of hate and racism watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite. I saw black students being harassed by angry white adults as they integrated the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. I saw dog’s and fire hoses being used on students in Birmingham, Alabama. Those images registered on me. I had no trouble comprehending the dangers of white supremacism and it was stressful to know that my maternal grandparents harbored such racist attitudes.
I was in High School when college campuses erupted with protests against the war in Viet Nam. At the beginning of 1968 it looked like the country was poised for some significant political changes. Then, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. By the middle of 1968 all my naive idealism about the social and political environment in our country had turned to cynicism.
For a long time, 48 years, 1968 marked, in my mind, the lowest point in U.S. history during my lifetime. My mind has changed over the past year. This past year some of my deepest fears and some of my most widely expressed suspicions about the Religious Right have been confirmed.
I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church – the kind that labeled Southern Baptists liberals. They called Billy Graham a graham cracker because he preached to crowds that were racially mixed. Racism was no secret in those churches. It was out in the open. That is why I knew from the beginning that the Religious Right’s embroilment in secular politics had more to do with racism and a lust for power than with a concern morality. Jerry Falwell may have called his movement “The moral majority” but he was the most prominent leader among Independent Fundamental Baptists and he had a well deserved reputation for being a racist himself.
I left Independent Baptists and joined Southern Baptists while I was in High School, but I found racist fundamentalists there too. While serving as a police officer in 1974 a fellow officer bragged to me about his church refusing to receive a racially mixed couple into the membership of his Independent Fundamental Baptist church. That bothered me so much that as soon as I got off work that morning I drove to his church -- which was down the street from my apartment -- and asked the church secretary to give me the name and address of that couple so I could invite them to the Southern Baptist Church that I was attending. The good news is that after my pastor and I visited the couple, the couple joined our church and invited several of their friends to join the church as well. For the first time in its history, a church that was within a couple miles of an Air Force base had a sizeable group of members who were stationed at the base. The bad news is that a few long time members of our church left the church over it.
A year later I enrolled in a Southern Baptist seminary, resigned from the police department in Albuquerque, NM and moved to Fort Worth, Texas. When I arrived I gave a resume to the placement office at the seminary. I was hoping to find a position at one of the hundreds of churches in the North Texas area. Within a week they sent me to a church in Rockwall, Texas whose pastor had moved on to another church. No sooner had we arrived -- as I was being greeted by one of the deacons -- a black woman opened the front door of the church and stuck her head in -- only her head. In an instant, the deacon told her “Your church is down the street.” After preaching that Sunday, I’ve never been in that church again. I didn’t preach against racism that Sunday, but I would have if I had ever been given another opportunity to preach to them. Alas, they were no more impressed with me, than I was with them.
In 1979, the year that Jerry Falwell started the moral majority, fundamentalists started a political takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. I knew from the get-go that this movement had less to do with doctrine and theology than with racism. Key leaders of the movement were racists. They were led by prominent fundamentalist preachers who were stymied by prominent moderate preachers who for years had used their influence to block the election as president of the Convention anyone who refused to admit African-Americans into the membership of their churches. In 1975 the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas – the largest SBC church in the nation – finally agreed to admit African-American members into his congregation, and was subsequently elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But that presidency proved frustrating to the SBC’s racist fundamentalists. They discovered that the President did not have the power to change the course of the convention in one year. It took a few more years for an appellate court judge in Houston to show them that they had to elect likeminded presidents for at least six consecutive years to get control of the convention’s institutions. In 1979 the takeover leaders pledged to do just that as they partnered together with Jerry Falwell to impact secular politics. Ten years later, Jerry Falwell disbanded the moral majority and joined the Southern Baptist Convention. The rest is now several chapters of U.S. history.
What about the churches? Are Baptist churches full of racists?
In 1987, I took my first full-time pastorate at a church in Houston, Texas. The church was in a blue collar, working class neighborhood. Many of the men worked in oil field related industries like the chemical plants that dot the ship channel. That church was one of the first Southern Baptist churches in the nation to start a daycare for working mothers. Then, in 1957, a year after the Supreme Court integrated the public schools, they were one of the first Southern Baptist churches in the nation to open a private school. It was a church that was just down the street from what once was the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. Among its former members was Louis Beam, Grand Dragon of the Texas chapter of the KKK. He, more than anyone else, is credited with inventing the strategy of “leaderless resistance” in response to the FBI’s ability to disrupt their racist work by planting informants within their organization. The church voted to remove Louis Beam from its membership shortly after the FBI placed him on its 10 most wanted list.
A younger generation of leaders in the church repudiated the racism of the past and before calling me to be their pastor agreed to work with me to get the school integrated and accredited – which we did. We even hired an African-American teacher at the school. We were also successful in getting a few very faithful and brave African-Americans to join the church. Then, to my surprise and theirs, I discovered that the man who for years had been teaching the Senior Adult Bible Study class was propagating the beliefs of the white supremacist Christian Identity cult. We moved him out of his teaching position within a month.
Christian Identity uses coded language to teach that all people of color are the spawn of Satan who must be exterminated in a great race war to make the nation pure and safe for God’s chosen people – White Christian Americans. It is the doctrine of Timothy McVeigh’s handbook, “The Turner Diaries.” It is also the doctrine of many in the “alt-right” movement that has come out into the open and using less coded language this past year.
So, one reason why this past year has been so discouraging for me is that racism has been openly ascending again in our society. It is a message of hate that actively opposes the message that we as Christians have been called to proclaim. That is what our text for the sermon this morning says.
John returns to a familiar message. It is a message that is familiar to all of us because we have heard it from the beginning of our pilgrimage as Christians. The message is simple and direct -- even the smallest child can understand it. The message is that we should love one another.
But there is a competing message, a message that is anathema to all of God’s faithful children, and a message that has also been around from the beginning. It’s as old as Cain and Able. It is a message that sows discord and division instead of welcoming and affirming acceptance and community. It is a message that is spawned by fear and insecurity, that is nurtured by envy and resentment, that hardens the heart to produce hatred, then explodes in anger, and, that sooner or later, leads to homicide and/or genocide. It is the way of death.
“He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
The way of life is the way of love and genuine Christian love is not some sentimental feeling or a fleeting emotion. The love John is talking about is defined by the cross:
“We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
And, just to make sure that we don’t think we are off the hook until we are face-to-face with a martyr’s death, John gives a practical, everyday application of what it means to lay down your life for the brethren:
“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
“Sees a brother in need” – that is the crux of the issue. Some want to define brother as narrowly as possible. Is it a blood brother? Or a Christian brother? Or a conservative fundamentalist brother? Or a straight white anglo-saxon brother? Just exactly who is the brother we are commanded to love?
I think if John were here today he would be asking, “How does the love of God abide in those who support a vote to limit disaster assistance to our brethren and fellow citizens in Puerto Rico?” In American society, I think that at the very least fellow citizens ought to be counted among the brethren – or, since the people in Puerto Rico are predominantly of Hispanic descent, is this just another example of the ascent of racism in our society?
If John were here today I think he would be asking “How does the love of God abide in those who support a vote to limit and cut off financial assistance and services to those who are impoverished, elderly, sick and disabled in our state?” At the very least fellow citizens of our own state ought to be counted among the brethren -- Or, is this a sign of the pharisaical attitudes that prevail in our society. After all, it was the Pharisees -- not Jesus and his disciples -- that viewed poverty, illness, and disability as evidence of divine punishment for sin.
Didn’t Jesus say that inasmuch as you have ministered unto the least of these – his brethren – you have done it unto him.
Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you? or thirsty, and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger, and take you in? or naked, and clothe you?
And he answered them saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
The least of these – that’s who Jesus calls his brethren. Those who are strangers at the gate, poor and sick, down and out, outcast and neglected.
The truth is, for Christians the command to love is universal. We are not commanded to love only those who are close to us, those who look like us, those who think like us, or those who share the some exclusive, narrow band of faith. We are commanded to love everybody – particularly those who are strangers, impoverished, widowed, disabled, and outcast. All people are our neighbors – even our enemies. Yes, Jesus commanded us to love even our enemies.
And John finishes by getting right to the point. He tells us to stop giving lip service to love and make sure we put love into action.
“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
There’s a lot of lip service to love in American Christianity. Many modern Christians, particularly those who call themselves Baptists and evangelicals, have lowered the bar until the Christian faith is losing its credibility. They are turning the “good news” of the gospel into bad news.
We need to make the message of the gospel “good news” again.
Sacrificial, self-giving love in action is the bar. Lip service love is worthless.
John didn’t belabor the point and neither will I. We all know what we need to be doing.
Loving in deed and in truth is where the rubber meets the road. It’s time that we get going and get busy.
Just do it.