Monday, July 27, 2009

"You have got to be kidding"

Rev. William Barber looked up to God and proclaimed, "You have got to be kidding".

It was a very human reaction to God's mandate, "Love your enemies." In front of his Greenleaf Christian Church congregation on Sunday, June 28, Barber tried to reconcile the two perspectives.

He read from Luke 6:27-28: "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." To which Rev. Barber stuttered, "You... have got... to be kidding".

Rev. Barber knows our culture. He knows our nature. And he knows our temptations. But he also knows what God asks of us, in spite of it all. He continued, "To be a diciple of Jesus is to recognize that he is demanding. Jesus has this crazy notion that his followers should serve others rather than themselves. You have got to be kidding. That I am required of my discipleship - the cost of my discipleship - is to put others before myself - You have got... to be kiddin'."

"He expects us to show integrity when nobody's looking. He expects us to love. But not just people who on occasions have a bad day. He wants us to love folk who are enemies every day and show no sign of changing. You have got to be ..."

Nearing the end of our SOfAR pilgrimage, Rev. Barber had invited us to join his congregation for services at Greenleaf Church in Goldsboro. As we neared the church that morning, we saw a crowd gathered in on the host asphalt. As we came up to them, they called to us, they applauded us, the walked up to us a hugged us, thanked us, and gave us bottles of cold water. No one minded that we wore T-shirts and shorts, while everyone else was decked out in their Sunday finest. It was a warmer welcome than we could have expected. We were carried on a wave into the church. We brought in our walking sticks, crosses and our banners, and layed them down near the altar. Scott was asked to introduce us to the congregation. We sat down and waited for Rev. Barber to preach.

"Loving your friends in a capitalistic society is smart - they might have a stock tip. Loving your [spouse] or loving your friends - all that is is enlightened self interest. You love them, you get something out of it. It's altogether another thing when we got to love an enemy, someone who has your disgrace or your destruction as a goal." Rev. Barber went on, using humor, his deep booming voice, his charisma and commanding presense, to deliver a sermon about three not-so-simple words. We thought we knew what those words meant but soon realized there were new dimensions we had not explored.

"God says we gotta love 'em because God wants us free, and you canot be free as long as you hate someone."

Rev. Barber told the story of how Nelson Mandela invited one of his jailors to sit on the platform with him during his presidential inauguration. Visiting the jail where he had been incarcerated; it's horribly hot in the summmer, icy cold in winter. The political prisoners were forced to do hard labor in the lime quarry; digging the lime made them go blind. Mandela spent 27 years there for something he did not do. When asked after his release, "Weren't you angry?". President Mandela didn't give hime a lie. Rev. Barber parahrased Mandela's response: "Yes. And I was a little afraid, considering that now I had the power, and what I might do with it." What if you had the power to do back to folks everything they did to you? Mandela went on, "When I felt that anger welling up inside of me, I realized that if I continued to hate them after I got outside the gate, then they would still have me. And so I decided, I wanna be free. So I had to let it go because there was no way they were gonna lock me up for 27 years and God deliver me and then I get out and still be bound up."

Rev. Barber explained, "If we live up only to the world's standards, there ain't no need to be Christian. The world says, 'Hate works. Violence works' They lie to us and tell us '[the death penalty] deters crime.' But the hate doesn't work, living by the sword doesn't work, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth doesn't work. If it worked, you wouldn't have to have a New Testament that brings into fulfilment all that could not be fulfilled in the Old Testament."

Rev. Barber began the story of his conversion from death penalty supporter to death penalty opponent. "God, you got to be kiddin. Someone kill one of my children? You ain't gotta ask the law to kill them."

"What got me was not all the statistics. I know it didn't deter crime, because you can't deter crime with a crime, and the death penalty is a crime because we're killing innocent people. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill' and he did not put an 'i.e.' example on the end of that with a parenthesis. He didn't do an editor's note. He said, 'Thou shalt not kill.'"

When Rev. Barber was teaching in college, the class was debating the death penalty, both pros and cons. When some students asserted, "If someone kills your loved one, you cannot forgive them," one quiet student asked to speak. She said, "You all are discussing theory. But my family was there. A vicious person had killed a loved one - in fact, it was my sister. I want you to know that last week, we visited him in jail. I want you to know that we asked the judge not to give him the death penalty. I want you to know that my family believes in his deliverance and we hope that one day we will be able to come and look at him through the bars and know that now he is our Christian brother." I said, "Woman, you have got to be kiddin'." She said, "No, I love the Lord. I met Jesus and Jesus did something in my heart and in my family's heart."

He followed this with another story where parishoners whose daughter had been murdered asked him to speak against a death penalty sentence against her murdered. The told him, "We do not want our daughter's life to be marred with the blood of another person."

As we repeated throughout our pilgrimage, we believe that Christian faith and Christian church teachings are clearly against the death penalty. This passage, "Love your enemy", is clearly one of the reasons. Rev. Barber challenged us to look at it another way. Yes, we should strive to love that person, even though they may have committed a horrible act of violence. But to love them is to act as God wants us to. To not love them is to turn away from God, to reject God, to reject the possibility that God can act through us, that God can be a healing force in our lives, that God can redeem this sinner just as he can redeem us for our sins,
that God does not know how to free us to do is will.

So, we choose to believe that this forgiveness, even this love, is possible. We choose to free ourselves from hatred. We choose to let love conquer hatred and violence.

Rev. Barber started the sermon that June morning with the words, "I contend that the whole Christian experience in miraculous." Some day, we believe that the Christian experience will play a major role in ending the death penalty. Indeed, that will be miraculous. No kidding.

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