Text: Exodus 1:8-17 (Midwives disobey the King of Egypt)
As you may have noticed, I got my hair cut last week; and as always, I enjoyed chatting with my barber. Earlier this year, one of our monthly chats turned to the politics of racism. But that conversation didn’t get too far.
My barber used the occasion to tell me that he now tries to ignore current events. After the terror attacks in the United States in 2001, he stopped reading newspapers and watching TV news. The horror of it had become too much for him.
Today he gives the space he once reserved for current events over to news from the sporting world.
As with politics, sports news is never-ending. Following sport provides plenty of fodder for barber shop conversations. And sport offers competition, drama and an ongoing cascade of astonishing moments.
On the downside, sport sometimes can lead to idol worship. Many of us become fanatical about our teams.
On the upside, sport fandom seems like a mild form of idolatry to me. It is preferable to other forms like addiction, worship of one’s nation, or devotion to an ancient set of social codes and their supporting texts.
So, I can empathize with my barber’s aversion to current events, and I am OK that he keeps his focus mostly on sports news.
Many in the church wish we could also keep Sunday mornings free of political topics like racism. But this can be difficult, as the conversation last week with my barber showed. Because this fall, racial politics has invaded the worlds of both sports and church.
Last month, the U.S. President attacked Black athletes like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who protest racism by kneeling during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The President calls such protestors SOBs and wants them to be fired. He says it is more important to show respect for the anthem and flag than to protest racism.
Politics first became entangled with sports when the Star-Spangled Banner began to be sung before games. In the United States, this first happened during World War I; it was renewed during World War II; and it was codified as a practice in leagues like the NFL during the Cold War.
The Star-Spangled Banner, which became the U.S. National Anthem in 1930, uses lyrics from a poem composed by a slave owner during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. The third verse of Francis Scott Key’s poem, which is rarely sung in public, includes the following lines:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.
“Hireling and slave” refers to the British practice of freeing American slaves who joined the side of Britain and its Canadian colonies. These Black recruits were viewed as traitors by supporters of slavery like Key.
The U.S. anthem upholds a flag that from its creation in the 1770s until the Civil War of the 1860s represented slavery. Since then, it has been the flag of a country marked by segregation in the South from the 1870’s until the 1960s, the mass incarceration of 10s of millions of Blacks during the cynical “War on Drugs” of the last 50 years, and of today’s regime which has pledged to expel millions of irregular migrants from Latin America and to pursue other policies to ensure that the U.S. remains a majority White nation.
I don’t support the practice of playing national anthems before sports events. This doesn’t occur at most other public gatherings. Why, I wonder, should we mix the enjoyment of sports with pride in one’s nation, especially when so many nations are founded on colonialism, war, and genocide?
I am angry that the U.S. President is attacking the peaceful protest of Black athletes in order to bolster his support among those Whites who fear social change.
Almost as upsetting to me is the support the President gets from Christians.
On Friday, the President spoke at a summit hosted by a Christian group that was designated as a hate group in 2010 by Southern Poverty Law Center. The Family Research Council is an anti-gay Christian lobbying organization tied to James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Its mission is “to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy from a Christian worldview.”
The President received a rapturous welcome from this hate group. He used the occasion to tie his political brand firmly to God despite his racist words and actions, despite his vow to totally destroy North Korea, which would mean not just millions of deaths there but millions more in South Korea and Japan, despite his boasts of sexual assault, and despite his repeated attacks on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
If ever there was a church in need of Reformation, it is one that supports White nationalism and nuclear war; and so, I wonder if we should follow the example of Martin Luther from 500 years ago. To preserve our spiritual health, we could stand against Christians who worship idols of race and nation and who support leaders whose very brand is immorality.
This is not about supporting one type of public policy over another or one party over another. It is about resisting today’s Pharaohs, leaders who have made fear of the stranger and oppression of so-called inferior peoples into a brand.
The story we heard today from Exodus is one of resistance. The Pharaoh, who is the divine king of Egypt, is afraid of the descendants of Joseph, and so he enslaves them and instructs the Hebrew mid-wives to kill male babies born among the Israelites. The midwives refuse because they fear God more than they fear Pharaoh.
The Egyptian King claims to be a god. But it is clear he is a false idol because he preaches fear instead of faith and practices slavery instead of love and compassion.
In resisting the Pharaoh’s demands, the midwives not only make possible the birth of Moses and the tale of liberation that is associated with him. They also preserve their moral integrity.
Today, in the face of political and church leaders who promote fear and racism, we too are called to resist. While our resistance might not end oppression, it always helps to preserve our souls.
Resistance moves us away from fear of the stranger and back towards faith. It helps us to turn our backs on myths of racial superiority and on leaders who make immorality their brand.
In church, we uphold values of love and compassion not because this is always easy, but because it is often difficult. Nor is resistance always easy. The good news is that resistance can keep us connected to the Love that is our source and destiny.
In a world of rapid change, it can be easy to listen to leaders who say, “fear the stranger” and who urge us to retreat behind national, tribal or racial walls.
But when we do so, we damage our hearts and lose our connection to Love, for Love is founded in faith, not fear, and in hospitality, not exclusion.
In this time of increased racism, our resistance might not always win the battle. But when we resist racism, we strengthen our commitment to sacred values. In an era when so many church leaders are choosing to worship idols of race and nation, our resistance to them keeps us open to the Grace of the God who is Love.
Resistance to racism is not futile. It is a sure path away from fear and hate and towards a Promised Land of faith, hope and love.
May it be so. Amen.