Who Is Your Authority?

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Abba and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

No words will be adequate to describe the last 10 days for African Americans in this country. In fact, no words will be adequate to describe the lifetime of African Americans in this country called the United States of America, since well—forever. See, right now the headlines have all shifted from covid-19 and whether you are red or yellow or green. The death of George Floyd, coupled with the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, were, as a Philly native recently told me, “the straws that broke ALL the camels’ backs.” While well-meaning white people may have felt shock over these killings at the hands of police, Black people across the U.S. weren’t shocked but angered and saddened because they’ve seen it all before. This is nothing new. A white cop’s knee on a Black man’s person’s neck is like a horrific replay from other eras in U.S. history. Eerily similar.

It’s almost as if those who were most shocked at the killing of Black people by police had forgotten history. A history in this country of brutal violence against first the Native Americans who were inhabiting these lands, and then the subjugation of a variety of peoples, including Africans, to slavery. I mean, that’s what all this boils down to, right? If the Republic called the United States of America had denounced slavery in all its forms, and not subjected people of African ascent to such atrocities, would we be talking about a racist police force and violent discrimination? Would pioneers like Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Philly’s own Octavius Catto, have been assassinated?

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Black excellence, Black freedom. Black lives matter.

I was fortunate to be in a place in which I could participate in most of the marches/protests/rallies here in Philly that started last weekend. I have had a lot of experiences and I am still processing them. What I’m about to express is simply what I observe and also what I feel.

I said this way back in March when stay at home orders became more of our reality.

Don’t get distracted by the headlines.

Don’t get distracted.

Don’t focus on looting and destruction of stores.

I’ll say it again: don’t focus on looting and destruction of stores or building.

The message of the protests/marches/rallies were and are about exposing police brutality against Black people and a systematic racism that forces African Americans in this country to constantly be on edge. We have been gathering in Philly [and people around the world have gathered] so that those who killed George Floyd [and far too many others] were prosecuted. The protests continued because thousands of protestors and demonstrators were arrested while the police who stood by while George Floyd died were not.

That’s why.

The rallies and marches continue on because police departments are incredibly well-funded and some schools in Philly don’t even have soap for kids to wash their hands. People are still marching because Black families and individuals are denied mortgage loans and such by banks, regardless of credit history. And because it takes nearly 3 years to raise minimum wage to 12 dollars per hour in places like Philly’s international airport where the majority of the employees are Black and Brown people. And because Philly’s number working poor continues to rise, while a tiny percentage of wealthy people keep getting richer.

Look, you want to talk about grocery stores and pharmacies being destroyed or looted and I’m game to have a conversation at another time. Those most vulnerable of course need access to food and medicine. Neither am I happy about Black-owned businesses being shut down or hurt by the recent events. I’ll also have a conversation with you about how there are outside groups infiltrating these protests that are mostly white people, but yeah—let’s not distract. This is not about looting or stores. I mostly saw people who wanted to be heard. And seen. They were peaceful. And they were angry and sad and deserved a chance to express that.  

And then on Thursday, a friend of mine invited me to do a peaceful walk through her old neighborhood in West Philly. We, an interfaith group, walked down 52nd St. and sang, chanted, and kneeled. We were greeted with cheers, honks from cars, dancing and singing from people on their porches, and one lady was even so kind as to turn her car around, go home, and get water for everyone. We talked to the National Guard stationed at a shopping center. They cheered us on, talked openly with us, smiled and laughed. Birds sang. Kids played. We prayed. We kneeled for over 8 minutes, the time George Floyd has a cop’s knee on his neck, choking him. My friend reflected with us.

And yesterday, Saturday, June 6th, a massive group of thousands that began at the Art Museum steps and processed to City Hall. Kids, families, students, elderly, LGBT+ folk, people of different religions, all kinds of folk—walking, biking, chanting, singing. Groups offering food and water.  

Okay, so here’s the thing—anyone watching this who identifies as “white.” Please listen.

If you want to be an ally and I mean, truly want to be an ally, it’s about being human. It’s about being a friend. It’s about letting go of your fragility and your privilege. Black lives in this country have suffered for countless years. The United States of America, is NOT the greatest country in the world. This land was taken by Anglo-Europeans from Native Peoples. Then, this republic was built on the backs and blood of slaves. Yes, it’s brutal. We must recognize this. We must lament it as a collective community. It’s the only way to heal and move forward, to admit the truth.

I am someone with great privilege. I am called “white” because my ancestors came to the Americas from European countries; and I am male, straight, cisgender, with higher education. Institutions favor me. The systems of the U.S. favor me. I can make mistakes without much consequence. I can even break the law without much consequence. I can see police and not be afraid. I can go out in public and be myself without always looking over my shoulder. I am privileged. I didn’t ask for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true.

Friends, the only way to combat the embedded racist and horrifically xenophobic systems in society is for those of us with privilege to know the history, to accept it, and then to admit that we are part of it.

And I am a part of it.

I am racist. I am. I was born in this system, benefited from it, and I continue to be invited to use it for my own benefit. I admit that I have not done enough to fight these systems that have given me so much privilege. I need to do more. I must strive to not just be non-racist, but anti-racist.

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And that leads me to ask you: who is your authority?

Because this passage from the Christian Bible, namely the Gospel of Matthew, is all about authority. Jesus of Nazareth, in Matthew’s Gospel, is portrayed differently. Jesus is less flesh and blood, and more a teacher by example. Matthew, in general, focuses more on what Jesus taught than on who he was. That being said, this passage is yet another example of how things can be used for the purpose of benefiting some and oppressing others. This very passage is often used to affirm a doctrine, a dogma of the Christian church, namely, the Holy Trinity, i.e. God in three persons: traditionally: Father, Son, Holy Spirit or Creator, Christ, Spirit. Now Jesus of Nazareth never, ever taught any such thing. In spite of that, the Holy Trinity was declared the only acceptable Christian doctrine of God by the Emperor Theodosius in AD 380, then it was made official by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, and all opposing views were banned and suppressed.

See, the doctrine of the Trinity was imposed by Greco-Roman rulers. It was and is top-down. This doctrine elevates Jesus of Nazareth to equality with God, so that Jesus then became a figure to be worshiped and less a person to be followed. Now look, I am not saying that everyone who finds meaning in the doctrine of the Trinity is imperialistic or somehow forgetting to follow what Jesus taught. But the doctrine itself comes from a place of imperialism and rulers who imposed it on the lower classes, and then kept imposing it. It became a way to keep people in their place.

And of course, that’s completely the opposite of what Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught. Jesus stood up against the Roman authorities and even the religious Sanhedrin authorities. Jesus turned over tables [yes, Jesus destroyed property and a building, folks, in protest]. Jesus staged a peaceful protest that began on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on a donkey, with palms and cloaks thrown on the road while on the other side of the city, the Roman Legion waited with swords to squelch any possible revolution. Their form of tear gas and rubber bullets.

So this is my problem with any doctrine that comes from a place of imperial power and is then imposed on people. Such doctrines tell us who are authority is and we better obey it, or else. And this has been gnawing at me for quite some time. Because some of us, if we’re honest, have given great authority to people and even things. We give authority to the police department–so much so that even when individual police commit horrific acts we still hesitate to criticize them. We know deep down that of course police departments are built on a racist system because duh—look at the number of African-Americans who are arrested or beaten for committing no crime. Compare that to the number of white people with guns who are super aggressive with cops and nothing happens. We know this, but we still hesitate to champion police department reforms. Because we consider them an authority.

Likewise, we look at politicians—whether state or local or federal—as authorities. We rarely look at them as people who are supposed to be serving us. This is why, in spite of the horrific acts of current politicians in the federal government and in state governments, some of us still refuse to call them out and, we may even still support them/vote for them. We also give great power and authority to institutions like schools, corporations, and even churches and other religious institutions. But what if they fund terror and violence and racism and prejudice? Will they still be authorities for us? I challenge you to ask yourself that question: who and what are my authorities?  

And then, consider. If you identify as a Christian or at least wish to be somewhat familiar with the teachings of Jesus and are open to learning from them/acting on them—let’s do this. Jesus did not teach us to be subject to higher authorities that impose things on us and seek to keep us in our place. Jesus did not support systems whether in religious or government institutions that sought to divide people, push down the poor and most marginalized. Jesus crossed over into places like Samaria [which was illegal for a Jew to do] so as to expose the lies of prejudice and hate that imperial systems teach us from the time we are born. For Jesus, the authority was the love of Yahweh that manifested itself in people. Jesus taught love, but not this passive kind of nice love that we often think. The love Jesus taught and lived out was to bring freedom to the enslaved and captives, love and dignity to the hated and marginalized, a love that brought people together and overcame fear.

What if our authority was love? What if our main authority was love? Love for ourselves, love for others. That’s our authority. No justice, no freedom. No love authority, no systemic change. If we seek to experience the reign of love that is God’s beloved community, we must make this happen ourselves. We must recognize, especially those of us with white privilege, that our white fragility and silence only hold Black people [and many others] back from being loved and valued. Black people have made and are making this country a freer and more just place. We can follow that lead. Let’s get to work. If our authority is love. If our authority is love.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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