The Black Visions Collective recently published a video I want to share with you: https://www.facebook.com/LitBLVC/videos/699869394157446/UzpfSTUxNjYxMjIxNDoxMDE1NzQzOTc0NDYxNzIxNQ/ It’s so short and so full of meaning. It really gets to the heart of the matter doesn’t it? Breathing is a fundamental right. And yet white supremacy has infiltrated our air and we have turned breathing into a privilege that is patrolled and policed.
The apostle Paul said, “Hope does not disappoint us.” I’ll get to the rest of the passage soon, but let’s just focus here for a moment. “Hope does not disappoint us.” On Thursday, I had the privilege of attending a training session led by ISAIAH communications director, Minister Ja’Naé Bates. She explained that we are in a narrative struggle. “We must seize the story,” she said. Whether or not we succeed in bringing to birth a new society in which everyone has room to breathe will depend greatly on the story we tell, the story that prevails in the mind and heart of the public.
There are a powerful few who have a profound economic interest in keeping things as they are. They use divisive, “dog whistle” messaging to stoke racial fears, feed economic resentment and instill disgust with our political life. We know that the narrative they are pedaling simply isn’t true. We have seen with our own eyes the cross-racial solidarity that is emerging in this time. We can imagine how a shared prosperity will make us all safer. We can feel joy bubbling up right now, joy that comes as we build a truly inclusive community.
In the Letter to the Romans, Paul urges the reader again and again to be “in Christ,” to have the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ. Faith, in Paul’s mind, means participation. Faith is allowing our bodies and souls to be formed in the posture of Christ. Sin is systemic, as close and intimate as breath. And sin is deceptive because it mimics what gives us life. And yet, at the same time, the energy, love and grace we call Christ also permeates the air we breathe, filling our lungs and our limbs with vision and strength. In his commentary on Romans, Michael J. Gorman writes:
A focus on transformative participation . . . can already be found in the early centuries of the church, especially in the East. The influential theologians, Irenaeus and Athanasius, basing their view in part on Paul, understood salvation as follows: “God became what we are, so that we might become what God is.” Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
In this week’s gathering to pray with the scriptures someone mentioned struggling with the refrain from a parent that “suffering builds character.” After pondering Paul’s words in the context of Romans as a whole, I came to think he is not spouting platitudes. By “suffering” I believe Paul means something specific: participation in the cross of Christ. This suffering is not forced upon us. It is freely chosen. It is the conscious decision to align ourselves with the posture of Jesus. It is giving ourselves in deep presence to a world in pain. It is showing up in the solidarity of love. It is standing with, marching behind, and kneeling beside all those yearning to simply breathe.
I am struck by the posture of kneeling in these days. When the faith leaders, led by the Black clergy, marched to the intersection of 38th and Chicago, we knelt in the street and prayed the Lord’s prayer. When I participated in the “Defund the Police” march led by Black Visions, we took a knee on the grass to call on the power of African Ancestors. And we again knelt on the pavement before the police union, thousands breathing silently together. There is a deep reverence in this posture. It is humble and vulnerable and yet strong and graceful. It is an acknowledgement of our connection to something greater and our willingness to submit to that power. And yet taking a knee is also a protest. Kneeling forces us to experience in our bodies the brutality of the knee that suffocated George Floyd. It is a gesture that resist and rebukes the power of that murderous knee. It is a posture that embodies the fullest truth—that the lives of black, brown and indigenous people are sacred and beloved.
Those of us who are white can never fully understand the suffering white supremacy inflicts on our siblings of color. For this reason, we also cannot fully inhabit the cries and gestures of protest. Our role is to support, amplify, and protect. Our mission is to take up Christ’s posture of loving solidarity, Christ’s embodied ally-ship. Sharing, in some limited measure, in the suffering of our neighbors, we are like athletes who gain endurance. It’s not that we learn to be more patient with the pain of creation. It’s very much the opposite. We grow in the strength and firmness of our refusals to accept injustice. We learn to tolerate the discomfort and danger of resisting oppression. This endurance born of loving solidarity becomes our very character. We take on a new identity as people who are “in Christ,” people who die and rise with Christ. We die to the world that is. And we rise to a new day, a renewed, reimagined creation. And that, my friends, is how we get to hope, the sort of hope that does not disappoint us.
I want to play for you some of what Minister Bates of ISAIAH said yesterday in her testimony before the MN House about the Re-imaging Safety Act:
Regarding the question of what will happen next with policing and public safety, I am trying to lean in and listen to black, brown and indigenous folks who know far more about the subject than I do. It’s completely natural that talk of defunding or abolishing the police might sound extreme to those of us who are white, might make us feel uncomfortable, fearful or confused. However, when I am tempted to dismiss these ideas or seek to dilute them with calls for compromise and reform, I’m going to just pause. And try to learn more and listen more. Will you pledge to do the same? Because I know that my gut reaction is my white privilege and white fragility speaking. I have not had to live with a knee at my neck I do not have the right to decide what safety looks like and feels like for those who have. I am going to stay focused, and help others around me stay focused, on the core issue here, which is that some among us are suffocating. And the work of creating a community in which everyone can breathe is urgent and important. And it is our work.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” My friends, these words could sound like yet another call for patience with incremental change. I’m not hearing them that way. I’m hearing that our ancestors have labored, in love and faith and hope, and some have given their lives, to bring us to this moment. We kneel on this sacred ground, at this holy crossroads, with generation upon generation of activists and prophets, educators and martyrs. We must “seize the story.” It is up to each of us, in our own circles of influence, to proclaim the narrative, to paint the picture with our words to model with our bodies: a new way is possible; a new creation is being born. The story we choose to tell right now will make all the difference in the story that future generations tell about us. Let us take up the posture Christ. Let us live and move and breathe in Christ’s deep and abiding hope, for hope will not disappoint us. Amen.
 Preaching Romans, p. 61