I can’t watch the news anymore.
It’s filled with messages and images of fear, disorder, destruction, violence, and hate. Unadulterated hate and racism. It’s also the reason I have a love/hate with social media. People hiding behind their screens can say the vilest things.
Among all the horrible social media posts over the years, there was a single post in 2016 that sent my husband and me over the edge (since then we’ve almost become numb to all the ignorance, misinformation, and all out lies we’ve read). A “friend”, who is a conservative pastor, was commenting on the senseless and horrible killings of black men in the custody of the police. The pastor said, “As a child, I used to get upset about the idea of Jesus coming back during my life. But after the tragedies of this week, I am ready for his return more than ever!”
We couldn’t make sense of a pastor, a person who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus, essentially saying “time to throw in the towel and give up on the world.” Pastors are thought of as shepherds guiding their beloved flocks, risking life and limb to search out the one lost sheep, and this guy is like “Screw this whole flock. This stuff’s too hard. I’m going home to Jesus.” When the going gets tough in our communities and in our nation, too many Christians suddenly start wishing for Jesus’s return in order for them to make a quick exit.
There is a story in Christian scripture, Genesis 18, where readers are dropped into the middle of a negotiation between Abraham and God. At stake are the lives of those living in the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. On one side, Abraham is trying to save the lives of the citizens of these cities and on the other side a seemingly unconcerned and distant God is willing to end thousands of lives over the sins of the cities’ people (writers of these texts cast God with this judgemental-vibe throughout the Hebrew Scriptures). The tension is palpable, with the parameters of the deal constantly changing. Ultimately, after much negotiation (and a quick read of Art of the Deal [insert eye roll]), Abraham convinces God to spare the city, should he find ten righteous people. (Make Gomorrah Great Again- I can see the hats now.) Once the deal is made, the passage ends without resolution. Of course, the fates of the cities are sealed and they are destroyed, since no righteous (decent, worthy, ethical) people could be found. Pretty damn harsh.
I guess our conversation could end here, yet another example of God proving God’s disgust for sin and debauchery and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah getting what they deserved (everybody blames the gays). This negotiation between humanity and the Divine was about more than sexuality.
Haggadic traditions in the Oral Torah open wide the possibilities of what is happening in Sodom and what might be making God unhappy. Inhospitality. Greed. Theft. Deception. Disregard of the poor and the orphan. Inhumanity. With possibly the pinnacle of Sodom’s depravity being mercilessness. A narrow reading totally missing what’s really happening is one proposing “homosexuality” is central to this story, when in actuality inhospitality is ultimately what caused the destruction of this city. It was a city filled with cold-hearted, self-centered, unwelcoming egomaniacs unwilling to think of anyone’s needs outside their own.
Looking past the commonly interpreted reading of this passage, our scripture reveals an example of the dichotomy of God. The Divine is a mixture of mystery and certainty. In this passage, God is present and active in the negotiation. In the midst of despair, God is offering Abraham an active, participatory role in what is happening around him. In this back and forth, the special relationship between humanity and God is revealed. A relationship that is trying to redeem a world gone askew from what was intended.
For some Christians, rather than delving into the mystery of God and what that means in terms of responsibility and action, they choose the certainty of tradition and lean in on personal salvation. For many it means turning a blind eye to community and focusing on themselves, “hating the sin but not the sinner,” or living by an “us and them” mentality. On the contrary, we can choose to embrace the unknown of God, but that’s a very scary place to rest-- in this grey area-- not knowing exactly who God is or how God works.
This scripture embraces an example of humanity working with God, to change God’s mind. There is an active partnership between humanity and the Divine. God is involved, dynamic and changing. A God willing to change God’s mind suggests humanity can make choices to affect this world and confirms our actions are creating hope for the hopeless and a voice for the voiceless. It means we are not to sit idle, watch the world burn, build our wall, isolate ourselves, abandon our flock; instead, we should be opening our cities and advocating for those who need us most.
Further analysis of the text confirms this working relationship between humanity and God. Abraham uses the participle that translates “perhaps” (Perhaps there will be a certain number of righteous people in the city. Perhaps God will be merciful.) “Perhaps” embraces the mystery of God and shys away from the narrative of certainty.
The use of “perhaps” can express hope, or it can express fear or doubt. It does not express certainty. One can have true, sincere hope and also have fear and doubt. Having hope does not ensure an absence of fear and doubt. One can also have fear and doubt without hope. This deep despair can be debilitating and stall progress and change. We see this all the time in our politics and policies. Certainty causes us to be callous, dismissive, inhospitable, and isolationist. Certainty leads to ego. It leads to no more questioning and seeking, no grey areas, only black and white answers… and this leads to an inactive faith, a lazy faith. Afterall, faith is believing and trusting in things we cannot see or explain- things that are uncertain.
This lazy faith is comfortable with a community that is broken. Where it’s members are divided between the “haves” and “have nots”. Where the solution to problems is to place blame on outsiders, the “sinners”, the others (the caravans, the Muslims, the gays, the blacks, the poor, the sluts) and to stand silent while an “us and them” is established and walls are proposed and constructed. A lazy faith is content with the assurance and certainty their “profession of faith in God” is enough and an active relationship is no longer necessary or needed. It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around this ideology that one’s personal salvation (security for oneself in some future setting outside this realm of existence) is seen as more important than the lives of flesh and blood people outside our doorsteps-- hurting, hungry, in need of so much.
Back to the text. Instead of the term “righteous person,” a more accurate substitute is “advocate for the least of these.” What if God is looking for advocates who are trying to restore and redeem the hurt among them? Ultimately, Abraham reaches the conclusion these advocates are nonexistent and these communities are “destroyed, condemned, undone” by their inhospitality and lack of social justice.
A community can only exist when its people truly care for each other. We, as Christ-followers and advocates for justice and mercy, have to be courageous and prophetic in our decision-making for the future of our community. We have to be willing to question God, boldly. It is through the questioning we find hope and purpose and an active partnership with the Divine. This exercise in negotiation forces us to no longer abandon our community when times get tough; instead we stay, we dig our heels in and help create change, healing, and restore hope. We must challenge our selfish impulse to wish for heaven and wade deep in the mystery of the Divine. We must double down and work that much harder to redeem the here and now-- not for our future salvation but for our community’s current reconciliation. Remaining silent, not challenging unjust power will destroy our communities. Miguel de Unamuno makes this point beautifully, “live in such a way that if there is nothing beyond death, it will be an injustice.”*
A lazy faith cannot be an advocate for change, it only exists for self-preservation and maintaining the status quo. A lazy faith, lives her life and makes her choices with the end result of “making it into heaven,” while an advocate for change, lives her life for those around her. She makes her choices for the here and now… for those hurting now, for those hungry now, for those in deep despair now:
for immigrants being caged and separated from their families,
for those being discriminated against because of their sexual preference or gender identity,
for women being told their bodies and genitalia and choices are everyone else’s but their own,
for Jews and Muslims and black people dying in their places of worship,
for black boys and men dying at the hands of men in power and walk free,
for children dying in classrooms,
for mother’s dying in childbirth,
for seniors dying in cold houses,
for trans women dying for being themselves,
for veterans dying from suicide at alarming rates,
for addicts of all ages/races/genders dying in our streets,
for those without access to healthcare, clean water, medication, food, shelter, education, and equal rights.
Many Christians and politicians are constantly referencing the Bible, what Jesus says, and what God commands Christians to do. Some politicians let their conservative faith influence their politics, smearing the lines between the separation of church and state in dangerous and destructive ways. Holding citizens (of differing religious views) hostage to the conservative interpretation of the rules and principles of a single, solitary religion. Our politics, our policies, our laws and legislation are created to protect the rights and freedoms of the people.
One of those rights is the freedom of religion, in which we choose the faith we will follow. And then, the faith of our citizens can inform and influence the way we interact with and treat one another. Contrary to the ignorance of many Christians, other faiths and religious groups are not anti-morals and anti-values. While a man named “Jesus” may not be in their Holy texts, many religions teach the same values, ethics, and virtues of peace, love, compassion, service, and justice for the suffering that Jesus taught.
What does all this mean for us? It means hope matters. Where one person is hopeful, where one person is good, where there is even the smallest flicker of light… God will be present and darkness will not prevail. Even though I am just one person in this huge movement, my silence would be the true sin.
We can advocate on behalf of those being hurt by joining in peaceful, meaningful protests, by signing our names to petitions to hold our political leaders accountable for their actions. We can write letters and leave messages with our representatives day after day. We can show our children a different way, a way of love, acceptance, and compassion for all people. We can be agents of peace and reconciliation in our communities by creating safe spaces to have dialogue and positive discussion among all types of people-- Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, black, brown, white, gay, straight, lesbian, queer, bi or pan sexual, cis gender, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, demigender, people with a disability, people with addiction, people with illness, people living in poverty, people of all sizes and shapes and everyone else in between (if I left you out... YOU TOO)... all the people-- without one group or another disrespecting, invalidating, abusing, or staking claim on who God is, how God works, who God, and what God wants.
Being a person of hope doesn’t eliminate the fear and doubt and discomfort that comes with being an advocate and agent of change, but one person can impact an entire community- restoring hope, reconciliation, and mutual respect. Perhaps you are exactly the advocate your community needs right now…
*Culpepper, Alan R. (2002). Eternity as a Sunrise: The Life of Hugo H. Culpepper, Mercer University Press. pg. 222
This piece is an adaptation of a sermon called A Flicker of Hope preached at the Church at Ponce and Highland by Rev. Carra Greer and her husband, Brian Greer, on July 24, 2016. It has been revised and significantly rewritten to reflect our country’s ever-changing political context.
Just a few Blogs and Authors I follow:
Momastery by Glennon Doyle https://momastery.com/blog/
Brian McLaren https://brianmclaren.net/blog/
Nadia Bolz-Weber http://www.nadiabolzweber.com/
Rob Bell https://robbell.com/
Donald Miller https://twitter.com/donaldmiller?lang=en
Barbara Brown Taylor https://barbarabrowntaylor.com/barbara-brown-taylor/blog/
Anne Lamott https://twitter.com/ANNELAMOTT
Shane Claiborne http://www.shaneclaiborne.com/
Brene Brown https://brenebrown.com/
Jen Hatmaker https://jenhatmaker.com/home.htm
*I’d love to diversify and add… send me your recommendations.