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Beyond discomfort: A way toward personally responding to hatred and evil

photo of woman praying at memorial for synagogue shooting victims
REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
A memorial near the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Jered Weber-Johnson
This past Sunday I stood in front of my congregation wondering if I had words that could capture and express our collective grief and anger to God. This week we were reminded again and again of the ugliness that resides in our nation — the slaughter of 11 innocents at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; the execution of two unarmed citizens in a Kroger, gunned down for the simple act of shopping while black; the bombs mailed to members of the press, philanthropists, and leaders; even the inurnment of Matthew Shepard at the National Cathedral reminded us of the continued violence and discrimination against the LGBTQI community that has not gone away since Matthew’s death in 1998.

What’s more, if you blinked in the news cycle, you might have missed the local story of St. Thomas freshman Kevyn Perkins, who woke last Friday to a racist slur scrawled on his dorm room door. If you were to read the comments section under this story (and, yes, I know, you should NEVER EVER read the comments), you would stumble across vitriol enough to make a Klan member blush. Interspersed in this more blatant racism is a subtler form of discrimination. Comment after comment “wonders” if the kid made this whole scenario up? Is he just trying to get attention? It would appear that for many in our community, this seed of doubt is all they need to silence Kevyn’s voice, disregard his story, and go on pretending like things are just hunky dory in our world, that this kind of overt hatred just doesn’t happen all that much anymore. Alas, the data says otherwise. According to a recent study from the Department of Justice we now know officially what many of us suspected intuitively, that over half (54 percent) of all hate crimes go unreported to law enforcement. Even if some stories are made up (heavy emphasis on “if”), there are far more instances of hate, a majority in fact, that never get told.

Our discomfort with looking the hatred and evil that lurks in plain sight, manifested in the lives of leaders and bosses and the powerful, is too much for us. So, we hush, we discredit, we doubt, and we silence.

This may be the ugly truth of the world in which we live. But, as I told my congregation this past Sunday, Christians have practices that can transform us into people capable of so much good. Practices like prayer, reconciliation, giving, serving, and forgiveness, can cultivate the best in us — things like generosity, gratitude, hope, and love.

These are not just sentiments — they require discipline and hard work! We have to practice certain habits of life, over and again, to cultivate them. And, these things become tools in our toolkit for the hard work of resistance. They equip us for the equally hard work of building, with God’s help, a more peaceable world. Gratitude, hope, generosity, and love help galvanize us for the work of pushing back against the market’s insistence that we and our bodies and our work are all commodities. They make us people capable of welcoming the stranger and the immigrant, capable of respecting the dignity of our black, brown, white, rich, poor, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans neighbors. They make us capable of hearing and believing those who are crying out for mercy.

I reminded my congregation this week of the French village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose residents harbored more than 5,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Their story, reluctantly told decades later, when they began to receive recognition for their bravery, yielded this humble response: “How could you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done.” Not a single Jew who happened upon the village or who came to them seeking refuge and asylum was turned away. The response of the villagers was rooted in an ethic and worldview deeply formed by the habits of their faith. These habits and the virtues they created, empowered the village to do what had to be done. The day after France surrendered to the Nazis, the village pastor preached a sermon wherein he said, “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit.”

At the end of the day, our job as people of faith is not to bemoan the state of the world, or to come inside the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque, merely to be comforted. Nor are we called to come into those spaces to think holy thoughts which we can promptly set aside when we re-enter the real world. For Christians at least, to be the church is to practice those things like gratitude, faith, hope, and love that shape us into people capable of doing what has to be done, to believe victims, protect the innocent, welcome asylum seekers, comfort the grieving, and stand up with all our will and lift our voices and votes in resistance against those who would do evil in our name.

The Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson is the rector of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. 

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/05/2018 - 06:06 pm.

    I would just say that it’s best to defend yourself and those around you from evil (bad people) by exercising your natural right to self defense (right to carry firearms).

    • Submitted by Jered Weber-Johnson on 11/06/2018 - 03:58 pm.

      Hi Bob. Thanks for commenting. Without debating the efficacy of firearms as a way toward greater safety in society. Some evils and some violence are not solved and cannot be deterred by weapons. Guns cannot reduce racism and xenophobia. Guns won’t solve sexism and hate. As a Christian I a must also wrestle with the words of Jesus that call me to not respond to violence with violence. There must be another way.

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