(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Galatians 1:6-17)
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back into the earth; for heavy are the mountains, heavy are the seas.
These words from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke were used as meditation to violence during a conference on Worshipping God in the Face of Violence. This conference brought together churches across the US dealing with violence in their communities, from a church in San Bernardino to a church in Boston who dealt with the bombing, to other communities. Donyelle McCray, professor of homiletics/preaching at Yale Divinity, spoke of the continuing impact of the Middle Passage, the slave trade, on African-American preaching today. She called on us, the entire church, to be accountable to both the living and the dead. That pastors as preachers are to take up the prophetic mantle and call congregations to examine their selective amnesia about their history and their complicity to violence. Preachers are to ask: “What are the bodies at the bottom of the Atlantic asking of the church today?”
What are those who died last week in Las Vegas, asking of us today? The largest mass shooting in recent US history, surpassing the Pulse shooting last year in Orlando. Yet, a friend reminded me that this is in recent US history. The largest mass shooting was in reality the massacre at Wounded Knee with over 200 men, women, and children, shot and killed. And tomorrow, Columbus Day, in which we often praise Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Yet, it was this discovery that unleashed centuries of oppression, and violence to indigenous peoples, which still continues today. These discoverers brought with them in one hand the sword, and in the other hand the cross. That if the peoples would not submit to European dominance they would be cut down, slaughtered. And those who did submit, would have their languages, traditions, and practices abolished and destroyed. There is a telling example of this in the Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan. There is a statue carved and crafted by indigenous hands, the Christian discoverers cut off the top of it and bore a hole in the base. They literally planted a cross into it, showing the dominance and power of the Christian faith over the heathen practices and beliefs.
In my own life, I began to examine the Christian complicity in this history at AMBS. I learned of the missions to the Dakota Indians by various mainline Protestant denominations, especially the Episcopal Church. The Episcopalians were considered lax with the Dakota Indians, letting them continue some of their practices and use their native language. However, these same missionaries also pushed for the reservation system. When the reservation system was being established, the Dakotas either fled or fought back. Yet this ended in them being rounded up in prison camps. And on December 26, 1862, 38 Christianized Dakota men where led to their death in the largest mass hanging in US history on a single platform. It is said that these Dakota men chanted the song we sang at the beginning of our service tonight [Many and great, O God. Words by Joseph R. Renville, tr. Philip Frazier], as they were brought to the gallows. We are accountable to both the living and the dead.
So, what can we learn from our Scripture reading tonight? The letter to the Galatians is unique for Paul’s letters as it is written to a geographical region and people group, not a specified city like Corinth or Ephesus. The Galatians or Gauls were a people crushed by the Roman empire. They had little to no favors from the empire, unlike the port cities, again Corinth and Ephesus. The people were seen as barbaric and at best they could be used as mercenaries for the Roman empire. And it was with these people that Paul was concerned with the rise of the Judaizers those who believed that in order to be Followers of the Way, the people must meet all the obligations and demands of the Jewish law. That they were to literally and figuratively to look more like the worshippers in Jerusalem. It was this concern that Paul strongly denounced those who brought another gospel. Another gospel, besides the gospel of liberation, which is good news for the poor. The word used here is anathema, a term that became used by the Church as a means of control and dominance of those who did not believe the same doctrine as established by the Church. However, Paul is using it here less to describe someone with a different doctrine, but a different way of living. Paul uses this term rarely, and it shows up at the end of his letter to the Corinthians, accursed are those who have no love for the Lord [1 Cor. 16:22]. That those who preach another gospel, which has no love, no life, and no liberation, are accursed. We are called to live into a gospel of liberation and love.
We turn to Deuteronomy, this people who have been in bondage and slavery for centuries are now being given a choice between life and death. They are being given a choice, a people that for centuries, who did not have the luxury of being given choices. Yet, we know how the story progresses. That the narrative of them entering the Promise Land, is a narrative of conquest and annihilation of entire people groups. Yet, they are reminded over and over of this choice, either life or death. So how are we to be accountable to the living and the dead, those who died this past week in Las Vegas, and the indigenous persons who have died, since the discovery of the Americas? We as people of the Way hold fast to the belief in everlasting life. We are to choose life, to believe fully that death does not have the last say. That we have the choice each day to live into the gospel of liberation and life. That death has not power over us, that even with our selective amnesia and complicity in violence, we are still being given the choice today between life and death. Choose life.