"Justice & equality, not an either/or proposition": June 12 pastoral reflection from Bishop Gayle Harris

June 12, 2020

"In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; … For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

"As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:1-8, New Revised Standard Version)

“Itching ears”!  An interesting way St. Paul has with words! He is addressing the situation Timothy and other church leaders are facing as he sits in prison in Rome, awaiting his execution. This pastoral epistle written 2,000 years ago gives church leaders like Timothy ethical guidance, asserts doctrinal tenets for Christians and encourages endurance with faith in the face of suffering as the cost of discipleship. Paul seems to speak not only to Timothy and the Church in that time, but also to us today, in this modern era of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and 24-hour global cable news, all of which can lead us to truth, or lead us to wander away from truth to myths, lies, conspiracy theories and political spin, on both the left and the right of our political spectrum.

In his charge to the Church, knowing this letter may be one of his last communications, Paul reminds Timothy, and us, of the primacy of the Gospel of Jesus. He insists that we find unity in Christ, hold fast to the whole of truth and demonstratively share God’s love to all--no exceptions, even when we disagree.  Divisions were developing in the Church, along loyalties to specific apostles, from culture, differing perspectives, different emphases, and what the Church later would deem in some instances as heresy.  Paul calls the Church to know and live the faith as seen in Jesus. 

Paul knew ears were itching for a more comfortable, convenient and diluted faith, what he termed myths and “godless chatter.” Ears itching for the Church to be more accommodating to worldly power. Ears itching for validation of the individual over community, for “godless chatter” over truth. Itching from selfishness, corruption and ignobility over mercy, love, integrity. 
"For (some) will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant…ungrateful…inhuman, implacable, slanderers…treacherous…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it." (2 Timothy 3:2-5 NRSV)

Witnessing the mean-spirited invectives on some news outlets, blogs, e-mail postings, Twitter and other social media in the backlash to Black Lives Matter marches, it is clear that some have itching ears, and there are those who want to scratch those ears, some with truth and reason, some with denials and finger pointing.

Too often we have lost the long-held trait of conversing with each other, and to at times agree to disagree. It is hard to fathom people seeing the same scene on television or other media, yet taking away different understandings. It is difficult for me to fathom the myths some people adhere to, both consciously and unconsciously, that one race is superior to another, and that this country was built by and for white people. This myth is antithetical to Scripture, the doctrine of the Christian faith and to America’s founding documents which say we are all created by the same God with the same rights. Some itching ears lend themselves to be scratched with those bigoted myths and lies.

Saying "Black Lives Matter" is not to say other lives do not matter. It is saying that in the long landscape of this country's history, it has been demonstrated that black lives have not and do not matter, given the injustices of the past and of today. Of course, all lives matter! We are all children of God, created in God’s image, and loved equally by God. But right now, we are focusing on systematic injustice visited upon people by reason of race. The oppression and death of black and brown men and women in custody cannot be looked at as isolated events. For us it is akin to lynching. 

I read recently that to say "All Lives Matter" in response to “Black Lives Matter” is like attending a funeral and greeting the grieving family of the deceased by saying, “My grandmother died five years ago. All deaths matter." To say that would be both inappropriate to the moment and insensitive to those who mourn. 
Standing up for justice and equality is not an either/or proposition. Justice and equality make us stand together, next to one another, not one in front of the other. Holding me as your equal takes nothing away from you; but it does bring you closer to the God who created us both.

We need to connect the dots of discrimination, voter suppression, racial profiling and oppression if we are to talk with each other and not past each other. We must claim our whole history, whether it is a time favorable or unfavorable, and whether it is pleasant or unpleasant to do so, if we are to ever truly live by the mandate of the Gospel of Jesus, as well as the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

We have seen violence and looting in street protests. I deplore destruction of property and violent actions against another life, no matter who commits them. But the vast majority of protesters are peaceful. That too often is lost on those who only want to see the protesters as terrorists, Antifa, anarchists and hoodlums so as to help dismiss the real causes and purpose of the protests. Yes, there are some who seek to do harm in the streets. They’re engaging in the evil they say they deplore. Yet to dismiss the whole of the protesters by the actions of the few is a huge disservice, perpetuates division and injustice, and diminishes our humanity. Would we not each be so liable to be known and judged by our failings, weakness and sin only, and not our whole self in God’s eyes? We all make mistakes, have failings and sin.  All of us, no exceptions. 
Itching ears can lead us to demonize one another rather than to even try to understand or comprehend another’s experience.

We follow Jesus, who was among the politically oppressed, who reached out to the poor, the outcast, the disenfranchised. Indeed, he was one of them. Can we do no less?  Can we refuse to see? Should we not speak up and stand up as he did?

The great genius of The Episcopal Church and Anglicanism writ large is being able to walk the middle ground of understanding the full circle of life and faith, comprehensively. We call ourselves the “via media,” holding both the traditions of Catholicism and Protestantism. Our ethos is explained by using the metaphor of a three-legged stool: We value and employ God’s gifts of Scripture, reason and tradition. In these days of pandemic and of people of color seeking justice as an unalienable right, all of us must employ those gifts, together, equally and at all times. 

It is time to move from angrily dismissing one another when we disagree, and instead to use our gifts to hear one another, to learn of each other’s fears and hopes. Whether in the streets, at home or work, or with others in our faith community, we must not talk past each other. In faith we must walk together.

In the church year, we are now in the season after Trinity Sunday. The Trinity reminds us God is in relationship with us as we encounter God in relationship as Father the Eternal Majesty, as Son the Incarnate Word and as Holy Spirit the Abiding Love. May we re-engage dialog, do honest reflection and build respectful and compassionate relationships. May we embrace each other in the words of the prophet Micah:

"God has told you, O child, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris