I was recently reading an article by Eva Kor, who is a survivor of the Holocaust. In 2014 she went to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she had been sent as a child with her twin sister. While she was there, she was approached by a group of German students. Germany has worked hard to make sure that the history of the Holocaust would not be forgotten. Some of the students, meeting a survivor, began to cry, still feeling guilt over the actions of decades past.
She said to them, “Why do you feel guilty? Have you done anything wrong? You weren't even around back then. Now you are feeling guilty and wasting your wonderful energy on something that doesn't help anyone. Instead of that, if you really want to do something for me or other Holocaust survivors, then take every opportunity you can to do the small acts of kindness, to make your world just a little bit better than it was before. Guilt will never empower you to do that. Your action doesn't have to be expensive or big. If you see a piece of litter, pick it up and throw it in the trash can. Maybe that won't save the world, but you have made that little corner of the world better and you can build on that. Or if you see a person who is kind of withdrawn and doesn't seem to have any friends, go up and talk to them. Try to become a friend, even for a short time. Be aware of your world and try to make it better."
This morning I was going to preach using the image of Jesus calming the waters to talk a little bit about how I came to the place of putting more focus on silence and seeking peace through the gospel. I’m going to save that story for another week though some of what I feel called to say applies to my thinking about the killings in Charleston. A young, white man (a member of the ELCA) walks into the historically black church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He sits in a Bible study for about an hour and then starts shooting, leaving nine people dead. According to some witnesses, before he started shooting he told the group that he was there to shoot black people.
How can we respond to such a story? The hatred that is present in this form of racism gets beyond me. It is the product of many things, probably some mental instability that allows a person to cross the line from racist attitude to violence. Also the many teachers who are out there willing to give lessons in racial superiority and hatred. Also a culture which, while it for the most part denounces overt racism, quietly tolerates more subtle forms of racism, the assumptions that create a school to prison pipeline in minority communities, the easy use of racial profiling, or just the simple double standard.
And somewhere at the root of it all is fear. It is the fear that I cannot lift you up without being pulled down myself. It is the fear that if your lot in life improves my lot in life will get worse. It is the fear of losing control, of becoming an outsider, of having to look at the world from a different point of view.
Anyone who works with fear, stress and anxiety can tell you that when you are afraid, it is not a good time to make important life decisions. Our brains are not wired that way. When we are afraid, we become extremely focused on whatever it is that we are afraid of, whatever it is that we see as a threat. This is a great tool when you are trying to run away from a wild animal. It is not particularly helpful when you are afraid of an idea or of a stereotype. In fact, it becomes quite dangerous because people who are afraid are not rational. People who are panicking will often do or say whatever they need to in order to get away from what they see as a threat.
This is where the image of Jesus standing in the midst of storm and saying, “Peace. Be still,” is powerful. Jesus stands in the midst of the chaos and confusion and tells everyone to calm down. That “Peace. Be still,” wasn’t just for the winds whipping around; it was also for the disciples who were in a panic. When it was over, Jesus asked them, “Why were you afraid? Don’t you have faith?” But in panic faith was replaced with fear and belief replaced with the reality of a sinking boat.
I also think that this is where silence and stillness can be helpful for the church. In our society we want swift reactions, a powerful reaction to a powerful offense. Silence forces us to slow down, to think, listen and respond rather than react. As the families of the victims stood before Dylann Roof and offered words of forgiveness rather than hate and revenge, we saw a response and not a reaction. Now I think there is a place for candlelight vigils and civil protests that often follow in the wake of tragedy, but sometimes when these types of event are held, you will hear people saying they are attending so they can “get past” the tragedy. But maybe we aren’t supposed to get past the tragedy, maybe we are supposed to live with it awhile. Maybe we as a community of faith of mostly white people are not supposed to get past but to live with Charleston, with Baltimore, with Cleveland, with New York, with Ferguson. Maybe we need to spend some time thinking about what these events mean for us in our context. What do they point to about the society in which we live and the assumptions we make about the way things should be?
And we also need to think about how we will respond. And again I mean how can we respond with faith rather than react with fear and anger. That response can and should take the form of acts of solidarity like vigils and connecting to the victims of tragedy. It can and should take the form of advocacy like letters to our leaders or formal protests of injustice.
Yet, in addition, I would also encourage you to consider the thoughts of Eva Kor, with which this sermon began. There is a lot in the world that we cannot control. Where we have the most control is the 4 foot bubble of personal space that surrounds us, that space we psychologically claim as our own wherever we go. First, seek to make that space a space of kindness and calm. Seek to make that space a space of love and peace. Seek to make that space a space of equality where people are treated fairly. Seek to make that space a space where Jesus says, “Peace. Be still.”
Because racism and hate often don’t start with a grand gesture (they may get there, but they don’t start there). They start with small life lessons, small injustices, small acts of fear. And perhaps they will be ended with the help of large actions; those are the ones that history will remember, but they will truly be ended by many small acts of kindness, courage, compassion and reconciliation. May God inspire us to look at the chaos of racism, injustice and hate and hear the words of Jesus, “Peace. Be still.” May God inspire us to be the people who can carry this peace with us and share it in a hurting world.