A meditation for First Austin: a baptist community of faith
17 September 2017
Exodus 14:19-23, 26-30
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers. So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.
But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.
I. The counterintuitive nature of freedom
I just want to be free.
At times, I feel like I should introduce myself as if I were at an AA meeting. “My name is Cole, and I’m a white man,” which is to acknowledge that I am addicted to two of the world’s greatest evils – white supremacy and patriarchy. Not only am I addicted to those evils, but my life is afforded great comfort by those evils, directly at the expense of the misery of others.
Well now we’re in the water, aren’t we? Now we’re easing in.
I just want to be free.
That impulse towards freedom has led me to the most joyful and surprising places. I’ve been privileged to spend most of the last decade of my life living in community with some of the most economically disenfranchised and marginalized members of our society: people without homes. People without access to the basic human right of shelter. People who are forced to live their lives in public space. Black, brown, and white people who are forced to deal with their addictions, pain, trauma, and vulnerability on street corners instead of in private, single family households.
I live and work in Denver, Colorado alongside of people experiencing homelessness. But the work that I do operates out of a much different paradigm than the traditional charitable solutions to homelessness like homeless shelters, soup kitchens, clothing drives, and permanent supportive housing would offer. The work that I do isn’t about making charitable gifts out of my excess to those “less fortunate” people that sleep outside. The work that I have been fortunate enough to have been swept into is about being in community with people across socio-economic boundary lines, about honoring the basic human dignity of each and every person, about acknowledging the basic human rights of those that live in public space, and working to ensure that a community can be constructed where those rights and that dignity are honored and acknowledged by all. My colleagues and I believe that we cannot properly meet the needs of our friends on the streets if we can not see our friends on the streets, and we live in a society that would much rather make people invisible than acknowledge it’s own failures and shortcomings.
In Denver, it is illegal to survive outside. In 2012, my city passed a policy called the “Unauthorized camping ban,” which says that it is illegal to lie down and cover oneself with a blanket in Denver. (You have a policy like this in Austin too, it is called the sit-lie ordinance and was passed in 2014). This is a policy directly targeted at people experiencing homelessness that effectively criminalizes the outcome of the circumstances that lead one to an episode of homelessness without doing anything at all to address the real issues at hand. It is an inhumane policy, it is an evil and unjust law, and several of my friends started organizing to overturn it a number of years ago.
The organizing work that they did was on the grass roots level. They formed a grass roots advocacy organization called Denver Homeless Out Loud that sought to organize and elevate the voice of people on the streets. A few years later, a number of others of us joined in that effort with them through the platform of a cross sector advocacy coalition that brought together business owners, social service providers, faith leaders, alongside of activists and people experiencing homelessness.
That group launched a campaign called, “Move along to where?” Which advocates for Space, (i.e. land, physical places, safe sanctuary spaces for people experiencing homelessness to live) Rights, (working to decriminalize homelessness and honor the human rights and dignity of all people), and Survival (working to improve living conditions for people who live on the streets by offering public restrooms, showers, storage lockers, etc.)
That cross sector coalition started gaining some momentum last year. In November, a landowner approached us and told us that they had a piece of land where we could build a tiny home village if we would organize it. In December, we had a meeting with the mayor where the mayor committed to giving the community-planning department the directive to get to “yes,” on our project.
In January and February we met with CPD and found a zoning pathway. In March and April we raised $130k, in May, June, and July we organized 4100 volunteer hours to construct a village, and on July 21, 13 residents moved into the Beloved Community Village, a first of it’s kind, neighborhood friendly, fully permitted, self-governed tiny home village within city limits for people experiencing homelessness.
And now let me tell you, the real work has begun. But again, I say, I just want to be free.
Now we have entered into the real toil of life in community. Thirteen perfect strangers with all kinds of trauma, trying to live and operate in a self-governed, consensus-based, truly democratic community. What makes our work so different than a traditional charity model is that it is non-hierarchical. No single person in power or authority tells the residents at the village how they should live. The village residents decide that together through conversation, and dialogue, and sometimes consequences.
This has been a challenge, because freedom and liberation are a challenge. When conflict arises in the village, people’s first impulse is often to call me, tell me what happened, and ask me what I’m going to do about it. They often find themselves unsettled, when I listen and ask them if they have been able to communicate their frustration with the other person involved yet, or when I tell them that I am happy to mediate a conversation between them and the other person involved if they are ready to discuss it. I can feel the anger at times, when I tell the residents that these kinds of issues are intended to be discussed and dealt with by the village council at the upcoming meeting. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the authority to fix that for you – only your community has that authority.”
Many of the villagers at the Beloved Community Village have been so entrenched in a system since childhood that tells them they are not capable of handling their own affairs that they struggle when the power dynamics are altered and suddenly the authority, and autonomy, and power lies within them. It can be a lot to manage, and sometimes I wonder if our experiment in freedom will work at all. Truly, freedom and liberation are hard work.
Well, here we find Israel. A people entrenched in a system since childhood that tells them they are not capable of handling their own affairs… A people whose basic dignity and rights have been denied, and who have been systematically and surgically kept in bondage by unjust laws that have directly targeted them… A people oppressed and enslaved, subjected to spending their lives working to support the infrastructure and economy of a class of people they will never be apart of.
Through Moses, God delivers this captive people from slavery and oppression, BUT, as they wander around in the wilderness they find themselves yearning for at least some semblance of the relative comfort, safety, and stability of their life in Egypt. We remember Israel’s cries in the wilderness. “Hey Mo! You know, life in Egypt wasn’t so bad, I mean, we were enslaved and all… we were captive… we were oppressed… but this whole freedom thing…are you sure about this?!” And so we know that freedom can be arduous, even for the oppressed… we know that it is truly a struggle… to break the bonds of captivity and leave the status quo of Empire behind. We know that freedom is a challenge, and that for a people so entrenched in a system of oppression, liberation can in fact be counterintuitive.
But in this story recounted in the book we call Exodus, God makes a way where there is no way, and the liberation theologian in me sings as Israel marches across the dry ground to freedom where they will sort out for themselves, the shape of a new and better world where, for once, the authority, autonomy, and power to create a peaceful society lies within their sacred community.
II. Confessing our location in the Exodus narrative
When I first read the lectionary passage for this morning, I honestly couldn’t believe it… I couldn’t believe that I would be so lucky as to be able to read the culminating moment of the Exodus motif alongside of you all. I imagined myself standing in this pulpit proclaiming God as the great liberator of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized… I could feel the energy in the room rising as the sermon carried on… Before long, I imagined us spontaneously striking up the band and singing civil rights songs as God turned back these pews with a “strong east wind,” and we marched on dry ground right out into the streets to celebrate and proclaim liberty and justice for all people.
Wouldn’t that be good? Wouldn’t that be fun?
But as I have sat with this text over the last few weeks… as I’ve crawled inside this story… and allowed this story to read me a bit…. my understanding of this narrative has shifted… it’s taken on a slight change of direction… as small in scale, but perhaps as important as the 8-10 degrees that separate magnetic north from True North in this part of the world.
In the last several weeks we have witnessed more evil and destruction than our eyes, and ears, and hearts can bear. We have heard white supremacists chanting “Blood and soil,” and “White lives matter,” and “You will not replace us,” on a college campus in Charlottesville, and we have tragically seen a young radical white terrorist drive his car into a crowd. We have heard that more troops will be sent into Afghanistan, and that America is not “nation-building again.” We have seen a state underwater and tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes by a super storm named Harvey, only to be followed up by an even bigger storm named Irma. We have seen wildfires ravage the Western United States, leaving the start of the school year delayed for weeks in some communities, and great amounts of smoke covering massive cities and threatening the health of their residents. We have seen the so-called, “Nashville Statement,” released by some of our not so distant Baptist cousins threatening the freedom, dignity, equality, and joy of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We have seen North Korean missile testing continue, and the threat of nuclear annihilation grow stronger. We have seen the repeal of DACA, which threatens the stability of nearly 800,000 members of the American community and workforce.
And we haven’t even mentioned the monsoon in India… or the earthquake in Mexico… or the terrorist attacks in London… and of course these are all the episodic tragedies that make the national news cycle… we haven’t mentioned the smaller daily tragedies that poor, oppressed, enslaved, marginalized people across this country and across the world face on a daily basis.
We are not living in ordinary times, sisters and brothers. We are living at a turning point in human history.
And maybe in light of our times, we hear the Exodus story a bit more clearly than we have in the past.
The Sunday of the Charlottesville weekend, Denver got organized. In less than 24 hours from the murder of Heather Heyer, organizers convened an anti-racism rally at the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in City Park. After worship that Sunday, people of faith and people of no faith made signs and headed down to the park to join the rally. In what became one of the most powerful displays of non-violence that I have ever been a part of, we took over the streets about, 1200 strong, and marched the 1.5 miles down Colfax Avenue from that MLK statue in City Park to the State Capitol building.
As we marched West down Colfax, the sky over the mountains quickly turned green and the winds picked up. Police monitoring our peaceful protest of hatred warned us that a storm was coming our way and we should consider seeking shelter. We marched on.
About a quarter-mile from the Capitol building, the kind of “Rocky mountain rain” that Guy Clark sings about, “Came, and we all got soakin’ wet.”
That’s really an understatement. It was a deluge. Rain drops the size of Texas pecans fell from the mile high sky. Water was running down the street. We were all completely drenched. Every ounce of my cotton pants and cotton shirt were sopping wet. I was completely covered in water.
In that moment, my reading of this story started to mature a bit. In that moment and the moments thereafter, I was reminded that in this story where the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, and the marginalized walk on dry ground to freedom, sisters and brothers, I am soaking wet.
I was reminded that even as I chant “Rain rain// wash away// racism in the USA,” that racism has not yet washed away within me. That even as I take to the streets to march against white supremacy on Sunday, I stand for white supremacy on Monday. I was reminded that though I may not have explicitly opted in for racial injustice, I am most definitely complicit in its tremendous impact upon the world.
The news cycles seem to want to say that the white supremacists are those evil people in khaki pants, and white polo’s armed with tiki torches on TV. While it is certainly true that those people are indeed white supremacists, it is not true that those people are the only white supremacists in the United States of America. Through such an identification we have created a targeted enemy that ascribes to some sort of most deplorable common denominator and embodies behavior that most of us can agree is just plain evil. But when we over identify white supremacy with the actions and belief systems of a few radical extremists, we fail to identify its impact upon all of us.
While most of us did not wake up and decided to practice white supremacy in overt ways, the reality is that we did not need to, because we were already born into its practice in covert ways.
We were born into a world where people who identify as white, had violently stolen land from natives. We were born into a world where a prosperous white economy was built on the free labor provided by stolen black bodies shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. We were born into a world where people who believe themselves to be white educated our parents and grandparents so that they would be able to maintain the dramatic head start they had been handed, while black children were forced into overcrowded and underfunded school houses, and given no chance to succeed. We were born into a world where white men were given the opportunity to choose the elected leaders who would represent them, while black Americans were literally threatened, intimidated, and assaulted when they attempted to register to vote. We were born into a world where redlining meant that black families were only able to purchase the land white Americans had stolen in specific districts that were more susceptible to natural disasters like flooding, closer to industrial areas where the air quality was poor, further away from assets like clinics and grocery stores, and set to appreciate at a lower rate over time. We were born into a world where for profit prison systems earn income by holding black lives in bondage and selling the items they produce so that they can add more beds, and build more prisons, and earn more dollars. And I could go on and on, but the reality is that the veil has not been pulled back far enough yet for someone like me to fully see it all.
White supremacists were there wearing khaki pants, white polo’s, and holding tiki torches in Charlottesville, but the underlying problem in America, the original sin in our country, is that we have a white supremacist system that undergirds and supports our very existence as we know it.
In the Exodus story, we learn about a God who reaches in and rescues Israel from a system no more and no less evil than our own. But as the sea returns to its normal depth, my friends, our Empire, and all of it’s horses, chariots, and riders are completely covered in water.
The reality, of course, is that when God reaches in and rescues Israel, we are all left soaking wet.
But this ancient story is not a story about God killing a bunch of empire addicted Egyptians. This is a story where God reveals God’s preferential option for the poor, as God reaches in and rescues these marginalized people from the oppressive system that binds up both Israel and Egypt.
That’s right, this oppressive system binds up Israel AND Egypt. The reality is that as we sit still and remain complicit in a system that would oppress others, we are oppressing our very selves.
In addition to being a story where God reveals God’s preferential option for the poor, this ancient story from Exodus is a paradigm-shifting story where God reveals that Egypt has really been bound up and held captive by its own addiction to empire all along. God reveals that Egypt is literally being held in bondage by its own need to systematically assert its stolen power. In this story, the veil is finally pulled back far enough to see that Egypt’s addiction to oppression is causing Egypt itself to drown.
This is what Ta Nehisi Coates is getting at when he writes, “That while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world.”
This is where Wendell Berry is heading when he says, “If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.”
We are wounded, friends. We are threatening our very own lives. We are drowning in our own addiction to oppression. The veil is being pulled back, a bit further each day, and finally we can see just how deep the water has always been.
And with all of you, I’m sure, I say that I just want to be free.
But, let me remind you, friends, that freedom and liberation are hard work – and if liberation is a challenge for Israel, it’s even more of a challenge for Egypt. For Egypt to be free, some of the most basic underlying assumptions about the fabric of society will have to be ripped apart and that won’t be easy.
III. The long walk towards freedom
If we want to be free, we will have to reconsider every aspect of the ways in which we have chosen to structure our lives, and politics, and economics, even our households, and families, and schools, and communities.
If America’s original sin is white supremacy, then all of the evil that has been systematized over time is rooted in the lie that the lives of those who believe themselves to be white are more essential than the lives of people of color. As our original sin, the logic of white supremacy is embedded in our most basic practices like the production of our food and clothing, the shape of our transportation systems, the compounding interest of our retirement accounts, and even the top down organizational structures of our favorite sports teams.
The logic of white supremacy is embedded in all of our national and local problems – especially the problem that I work most closely with, the problem of homelessness. The logic of white supremacy is what led to cuts in the federal housing budget in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that were never restored and left us with mass and chronic homelessness for the first time in our nation’s history. The logic of white supremacy is what led to the creation of segregated ghettos where drug addictions were fabricated and mental health disorders soared leaving entire generations behind grappling with their trauma. The logic of white supremacy sent poor folks to the front lines of war, while the wealthy stayed home and then stripped veterans of the resources that they needed to thrive. The logic of white supremacy suggests that health care is a privilege only available to those who can afford it. The logic of white supremacy drives historic residents out of their historic neighborhoods by intentionally raising property taxes, and raises the cost of rent to the point that it requires 85 hours of work per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment on a minimum wage job. The logic of white supremacy decided to warehouse homeless men and women into shelter systems like cattle heading into slaughter rather than building housing and community that could sustain them. The logic of white supremacy expects that housing for poor folks would be on a transitional basis, while the white wealthy elite establish their permanent dwellings. The logic of white supremacy decided to criminalize homelessness when all else failed so that some semblance of plantation order and organization could be maintained.
I don’t know about you, friends, but I just want to be free.
There are two particular action steps that I’m advocating for towards our collective freedom from white supremacy that can begin to happen immediately. I didn’t come up with either of these ideas, but I’m convinced that they will both move us in the right direction. I’m convinced that they will both move us towards freedom together.
First, we need a process of Truth and Reconciliation. Brian Stevenson, and many other prominent black voices have called for this process. These leaders have acknowledged that while there have been some important structural changes that have taken place over the last two-hundred years in America, that the beast continues to reveal itself in new ways because we have not taken the time to be honest with ourselves about our sin and seek reconciliation with those that we have wronged. The call for a process of Truth and Reconciliation is an acknowledgement that we are in need of some spiritual healing, friends.
In his book, “Engaging the Powers,” Walter Wink writes, “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its concretions can the total entity be transformed, and that requires a kind of spiritual discernment and praxis that the materialistic ethos in which we live knows nothing about.” For Wink, a social system cannot be transformed unless we deal with both its inner and outer realities, and though some of the outer realities of white supremacy have been addressed, the inner realities of white supremacy have not yet been dealt with. It’s time to be honest with ourselves. It’s time to seek a process of Truth and Reconciliation.
Second, following the lead of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, Rev. William J. Barber, Rev. Dr. Dawn Riley-Duval, and basically every single black theologian that has ever lived, I’m advocating for the organization of a Reparation System. Which means its time that we start writing checks to pay back the debt we owe on this country. This country was not financed debt-free, friends. Begging, stealing, and borrowing land and labor from the bodies of people of color bought this country. Since we didn’t have the money to pay our bill at the time, it’s time we start writing checks now. Since it is unlikely that our government will organize this reparation system for us, I would suggest that communities of faith take the lead on organizing this system and start making links and connections between their communities and organizations led by people of color who are working to create the kind of racially just world where we can all be free together.
That’s really what this is about, anyway. It’s about constructing the kind of world where we can all be free together. It’s not about acting out of some form of charity whereby we hope to share our excess and our privilege with the “less fortunate,” it’s about acknowledging that we are all held captive in this system of oppression and seeking our common liberation together.
For some of our sisters and brothers, God reaches in to offer a more immediate liberation from oppression, while others of us stand there soaking wet. But even as the water rises around us, the great liberating God is there for us too, always offering us freedom. God longs to free us from our addiction to empire. God longs to free us from our bondage to the need to systematically assert our stolen power.
“Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus says in John 8.
“I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly,” Jesus says in John 10.
Even as Israel walks on dry ground to freedom, God reveals to Egypt that which holds Egypt captive.
Truly, we’re all soaking wet, but I have hope that these troubled waters may turn out to be healing waters.
I have hope that the God who rescues Israel and reveals just how deep the waters have always been around Egypt might find a way to save us too. We’re all soaking wet, friends, but I have hope that by God’s grace, one day we might all join hand in hand and march across this fertile soil to freedom.
Notes and Quotes:
“But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.” – Coates, The First White President
“It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world. There is an impulse to blanch at this sort of grandiosity. When W. E. B. Du Bois claims that slavery was “singularly disastrous for modern civilization” or James Baldwin claims that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white,” the instinct is to cry exaggeration. But there really is no other way to read the presidency of Donald Trump. The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.” –Coates, The First White President
“I don’t hear any theologies speaking to the vast amount — that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling. So what is the theologies? I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying of a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today.
And we’ve got a spirit — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.
And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.” –Ruby Sales, On Being
“Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its concretions can the total entity be transformed, and that requires a kind of spiritual discernment and praxis that the materialistic ethos in which we live knows nothing about.”—Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers
“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.
This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it. But now I am increasingly aware of the opposite compulsion. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking; perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one man, or in one generation. Surely a man would have to be almost dangerously proud to think himself capable of it. And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.” –Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” –Ephesians 6:12