Sermon: Three Fundamental Human Needs
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis11.1-9, Psalm 33, Acts 17.26-31; John 10.11-16
The August 25th, 2017 issue of Time has an article by Rev. Brian D. McLaren, a leader of the emergent church movement and author of The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. McLaren was in Charlottesville as part of the clergy protest countering the Unite the Right Rally. McLaren reports: “I got to look into the faces of ‘out’ Nazis and white supremacists for the first time in my 61 years. And they looked scarily normal. They’re the guys arranging stock at the local big box store or the desk jockeys in a cubicle farm. Decent. Clean cut. Surprisingly young. And white.” McLaren then asks: “What would possess these young white men (and a few women) to chant hateful anti-Semitic and racist slogans, to shout homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs, to speak of putting Jews in ovens and driving people of color off of “their” soil (land stolen by their immigrant ancestors from the Native Peoples)?” and he observes, “That’s the question many of us are asking.”
Shortly after returning home, McLaren read “an interview with Christian Piccolini, a former white supremacist.” Piccolini said, “There are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, so they tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers.” As McLaren notes, “savvy extremists”, using the Internet, are “ready to dispense those easy answers” whether “in Afghanistan or Syria, Virginia, Ohio or Arizona.”
The draw, the attraction, according to Piccolini, is not really the ideology; “the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent.” Piccolini maintains that people become radicalized or extremist as a consequence of “searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.”
McLaren also cites Jim Friedrich’s reference to the Nazi historian Richard J. Evan’s and his description of young German men in the 1920’s who “were attracted to extremism and violence ‘irrespective of ideology.’ They weren’t looking for ideas, but for meaning…a pick me up to restore a sense of personal significance. ‘Violence was like a drug for such men…Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.’ …Hostility to the enemy de jour – Communists, Jews, whomever – was the core of their commitment.”
McLaren further informs us that white nationalist Richard Spencer, famous for his “Hail Trump!” Nazi salute following the election, understands the “desire for meaning.” Spencer’s description of Charlottesville employs religious terminology: “’I love the torches, It’s spectacular; it’s theatrical and mystical and magical and religious, even.”
Toward the end of the article, McLaren astutely observes (and here I quote at some length):
“Piccolini, Evans and Spencer himself are telling us something we need to understand: White nationalism isn’t simply an extremist political ideology. It is an alt-religious movement that provides its adherents with its own twisted version of what all religions supply to adherents: identity, a personal sense of who I am; community, a social sense of where I belong; and purpose, a spiritual sense of why my life matters. If faith communities don’t provide these healthy, life-giving human needs, then death-dealing alt-religions will fill the gap.”
So as traditional Christian institutions shrink, stagnate and struggle, Spencer and his white-supremacist allies, feeling supported by Donald Trump, are creating a violent alt-Christianity, as their counterparts in the Middle East have created an alt-Islam. They are supplying their followers with alt-liturgies, alt-mysticism, and alt-magic and are willing to smash, burn, destroy and kill for it, as they idolize their vision of “America” as a white “ethno-state,” an absolutized, divinized race and nation.
Germany also had an alt-Christianity with an absolutized, divinized race and nation.
As an aside, McLaren’s reference to the creation of an alt-Islam intrigues me. The Iraq War began in 2003. Many young Iraqis cannot remember a time when their country has experienced peace. I cannot help but wonder to what extent our Middle Eastern foreign policy has deprived Arabs of their identity, community, and sense of purpose. Walt Kelly’s character, Pogo, may well be right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Let’s return to the “vision of ‘America’ as a white ‘ethno-state,’ an absolutized, divinized race and nation.” What is the origin or origins of this vision? Permit me to suggest several at the risk of greatly oversimplifying things. First, we have the Great Chain of Being, first proposed by Aristotle and refined over the centuries until it achieved its fullest expression in the Middle Ages. This view holds that life exhibits a linear hierarchy from the lowest amoeba to God. As such, humans are the highest of the animals but the lowest of the gods. The notion of the Great Chain of Being was embraced by the Church on the basis of scriptures such as Psalm 8.4b-8:
What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or than the divine beings or angels), and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas (NRSV).
When scientific theories of race began to appear in the 1600’s, the concept of race was wed to the notion of the Great Chain of Being. Humans were no longer looked upon as a uniform species but were hierarchically classified into races on the basis of physical features such as skin color, hair color, and physical features; Caucasians were highest -- Africans were lowest. As Audrey Smedley observes, “Race ideology proclaimed that the social, spiritual, moral, and intellectual inequality of different groups was, like their physical traits, natural, innate, inherited, and unalterable” (http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-09.htm).
By the late 1700’s labor in the New World was in short supply. Many Irish and Native Americans were forced into slavery, but Native Americans were highly susceptible to Old World diseases. As Africans had been exposed to these diseases, they had better immunity; once transplanted to the New World, where were they to go if they chose to escape? Enslavement of Africans was justified on the basis that they were heathens; through slavery, their souls might be saved. The Church, through the Doctrine of Discovery, tragically justified slavery and the appropriation of lands. The resultant system of slavery was exclusively “racial,” the only such system in the world. The concept of “race” was used to justify separateness and inequality (http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-09.htm). The inferior attributes of enslaved Africans were soon extended to all Africans – slave or free, which resulted in negative stereotyping long after the abolition of slavery. We still contend with it today!
The concept of ‘race’ is not a biologically-based construct; it is a social construct which ultimately came to be employed for the subjugation of peoples. Scientists today recommend that race not be used in the study of genetics. Why not? “On average, in DNA sequence, each human is 99.5% similar to any other human” (https://www.genome.gov/10001551/genetic-variation-program/).
As a social construct, ‘race’ may have some utility in the study of social phenomena such as segregation and discrimination, but genetically, we are one people, one human family, and our very survival may come to rest on the recognition and acceptance of that fact.
Despite some current events, there are signs of hope. Much of Christ’s Church has asked forgiveness for its use of the Doctrine of Discovery as a means of exploitation and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, As McLaren and others have noted, we still have a lot of work to do. What are some of those actions?
Permit me to suggest three actions: First, the Church (that’s us) needs to think biblically about race and ethnicity. We need to recognize that God’s love extends to all; Jesus Christ did not die for some, he died for all. Our failure to embrace those who appear to be different reflects our own fears and prejudices. It is the presence of sin within our lives, for all sin is at root the failure to love. We need to study Jesus’ interaction with those who were different such as the Samaritans who were despised, and to emulate his actions.
Second, the Church needs to foster education about race and racial prejudice. We need to study how racism derives from social constructs which have become embedded in our social and economic systems through practices such as stereotyping and profiling. We need to promote programs which teach acceptance of those who differ from us. We need to recognize and to confess our own complicity, our own refusal to love as God calls us to love.
Third, the Church needs to provide young people greater opportunities for identity, community, and a sense of purpose. I recognize this is easier to accomplish in larger churches who have a ‘critical mass,” so to speak, but what do we want for our youth at St. Paul’s? I don’t pretend to have the answer or the solution. When trying to schedule confirmation classes, I found it difficult to find a time to meet due to the schedules of our youth. Transportation is also an issue. Some tough questions confront us regarding youth ministry. Given the fact that youth are our future, what do we want our youth ministry to be?
The Church, our own congregation, and each one of us have work to do. We are all called to ministry; the priest might be pretty good at some things, but not all things, nor can he accomplish all things. We have new leadership and new vestry members. It is time for us to once again consider our mission and our effectiveness.