An Aroma of Life and Death – Reflection on Charlottesville, VA

clergy in charlottesvilleSince the aftermath of Charlottesville, VA and the blatant display of racism, I have continued to reflect and pray. Like many across our county, my heart broke when I saw the hateful carnage of white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying torches. A mob of hate chanted bigoted slurs, waved Nazi and confederate flags, and used clubs, fists, feet, and even a car to beat those who gathered to oppose them. It was a demonic display of hate that has festered in our country for centuries.

I must admit, I was angry when our president did not fully condemn the violence and name the hate groups for who they are. I was angered again this week when he passed blame on “many sides” and emboldened the hateful rhetoric. I posted on my Facebook this comment on Monday:

Today our nation witnessed a failure in moral leadership from our president. Having had an opportunity to speak about unity and empathy, his combatant nature and painful    words added fuel to an already blazing fire. I’m glad to see many Republican and   Democratic leaders speaking out against the president’s press conference today. I hope their words can translate into action as we all seek to discover ways to unite our             country.” 

I know some disagree with my assessment and that’s OK. I stand by these words and believe them to be true, but as I have further reflected, I believe the statement only goes so far. The president is not the only one who has failed in moral leadership. We, the Body of Christ, have failed to be a strong moral voice in our nation.

As the Body of Christ, we have hid behind our political parties and ideologies as if they are Gospel and Good News. They are important and necessary for a democratic society. Both sides have much to offer the world, but they are not Gospel in and of themselves. Jesus is Gospel. Jesus, alone, is Good News to all and for all. It is in moments of human-caused tragedy where I think the limitations of our political systems to fully address and wrestle with the complexities of human brokenness become crystal clear. Politics, while important, cannot not fully address the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1).

As those who are “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20), we have looked to our government to be the moral barometer, hoping they would figure out deep rooted problems like racism for us. In essence, we have relegated our Kingdom influence and values to governmental systems and institutions. Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. We are the influencers and moral-shapers of culture. And no, not in a religious right or left mentality—if you would just vote for the “right” candidate all would be well—type of influence. I’m talking about when God’s people decide to abandon all systems of the world and to live into a new Kingdom thats values are so radically opposed to and different from the world, that we stand out as unique and as light in darkness. The government should be turning to the Church for guidance because we should be leading the way toward justice.

So, then, how do we begin to tackle some of the deep issues like racism as Christians?

First, as the Body of Christ, we must confess that we have neglected and ignored racism in our country. We hoped that it simply would go away. However, we have never truly faced our tainted past, both as a nation and as a Church. We have ignored the truth that our nation was built on the back of slaves and through the near eradication of Native Americans. We’ve never fully owned and confessed that the Church often sanctioned and participated in acts of human degradation, and we’ve allowed the ideals of triumphant Americanism to overshadow our mandate to “love our neighbors as our self.” We can’t talk about racism in our country as if it is an anomaly. We must talk about racism as a reality that has been perpetuated and often sanctioned by the Church. It’s our dark truth. And one we must face. We must confess where we have failed to live into God’s Kingdom—a Kingdom where everyone is an image bearer of God.

Confession, then, becomes the doorway we must walk through. In the opening of Matthew’s gospel, both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come, and both declared that the repentance was the means by which one enters the Kingdom (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). To enter into God’s Kingdom is to leave behind another kingdom. Through confession and repentance, we leave behind the world’s ideologies of power, self-protectionism, self-preservation, individualism, hate, anger, and sin. Letting the world go, we then walk into a Kingdom that proclaims there is no more “Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” We adopt the personal and corporate identity that “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

A great congregational prayer that embodies this need for confession can be found here:

Second, after we confess and repent, we then live our daily lives by a new Kingdom reality. In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul tells the people of God that they are the “aroma of Christ” that “spreads in every place” (2:14-15). The people of God become an aroma to the world that influences and shapes it. Paul goes on to say for some we are an aroma of life, while to others we are the aroma of death. For some, loving our neighbors and seeing all people as image bearers of God becomes life giving. It’s a fresh aroma that speaks life into dead places.

For others, however, being the aroma of Christ threatens their worldview. This is why love, especially the love of a Christian, is so controversial and causes so much commotion. When Christians love their neighbors, it exposes systems and people that work to marginalize and oppress their neighbors. For these institutions and people groups, Christians become the aroma of death.

I was not surprised to see clergy present at the Charlottesville protests. There have been images floating around the internet showing clergy linked arm to arm with stoles draped around their necks leading anti-protests. It’s a beautiful image of being simultaneously an aroma of life and an aroma of death. For those who have been brutalized and marginalized they were life-giving. They spoke up, raised their voices, and were love incarnate. But for the mobs, they were the aroma of death, standing against their oppressive rhetoric and violence. And like Jesus, when love incarnates into dark places, evil reacts with violence. Jesus promises that if we follow him into the dark places of the world, we will be persecuted.

So where does that leave me as Christian and pastoral leader? And where does that leave you?

I must confess. I must confess that I have been too silent, stood too far on the outskirts of the issue, and have hid behind the comforts of my own privilege. I must confess that the Church, and my local church, have much work to do in regards to race. I must confess that my politics will not solve the problem, but certainly can be a part of the solution. I must confess that I don’t know all the answers, but I serve a God who does.

I must walk into a new reality day after day, letting go more of the ways of the world and picking the way of the Kingdom. I must walk into dark places, not as a messiah, but as a suffering servant. I must walk into the Kingdom that continually challenges all of my bias and privilege. I must walk into the Kingdom that calls me to love my neighbor with every ounce of my being, most especially when it is costly to do so.

I must confess, repent, and walk in the Kingdom. For those of you who call Jesus your Lord, I pray you do the same.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)










One thought on “An Aroma of Life and Death – Reflection on Charlottesville, VA

  1. Wonderful reflection. Your words can give us courage to do the next right thing. A simple smile, or nod, or greeting can demonstrate an individual code to love thy neighbor as thyself.

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