It is a long road from being a black teen beaten by the cops to being the Borough President in what the musical “Hamilton” calls “the greatest city in the world.” Eric Adams joined the NYPD dreaming that he might be a part of much needed reform, and served for 22 years before entering politics. Today he leads the newly fashionable hipster-haven of Brooklyn, and was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, tackling the tricky issue of policing and race, a subject he knows all too well. In response to a question posed by Terry Gross, Adams responded “Who would have thought that Steve Jobs would have such an impact on policing in America?”
Let that sink in a moment. Edward Snowden warns us of the growth of the surveillance state, but the surveillance has become two-way, for every one of us has a video camera on our hip, in our pocket, in our purse, all because someone in Silicon Valley said “Hey, let’s put a camera in it.” We now have solid evidence of what African-Americans have been claiming for years about police brutality. Of course, we also have Little Leaguers hitting home runs and cat videos, many, many cat videos.
Some states have tried to make video recording law enforcement illegal, and where it is not illegal, they find other ways to punish those who would dare expose abuse. In the rough and tumble world of inner-city poverty and just getting by where Eric Garner was selling “loosies,” individual cigarettes, Ramsey Orta, the man who videotaped Garner’s fatal encounter with police, was harassed and targeted until he too was caught in a criminal act. But new laws and harassment aren’t going to make a difference. Video cameras are now everywhere, and that genie is never going back in the bottle.
Quite apart from the life and death question of racism in law enforcement is the simple reality that policing must change, as everything has had to change, as a result of one technology, one innovation.
Just ask numerous politicians that saw their careers come to an end when they were secretly recorded, or maybe cast members at the Disney theme parks, where they had to ban selfie sticks after too many people injured others in their obsession to record their every moment.
“Who would have thought it?” Who would have thought that Steve Jobs would have such an impact on policing in America? Who would have thought that one rabbi with no power, no authority, a man associated with the worst society had to offer, would change the world forever? But he did, reconfiguring and extending the Hebrew religious trajectory and gathering thousands of followers in his own time in a bold creative act.
Who would have thought an angry Pharisee, a man who held the cloaks and egged on the brutes as the first Christian martyr was stoned would go on the reconfigure that faith, and like the man he came to worship, extend it. But there is Paul in today’s reading, a man of his context, Hebrew and Hellenized, able to bridge the gap and carry the transforming message of Jesus to the Gentile world, along every road built by Caesar, across centuries and seas, iteration after iteration, until it landed right here in Blue Hill.
And here is Paul in today’s letter in his context. In his context, not ours, he lists all of those made equal in Christ, and we might let it just go by, this stuff about Jews and Greeks and slaves. After all, it has been a long time since the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery throughout the United States, eight months after the war ended and Booth let loose his deadly shot in Ford’s Theater. So we might just let it go by, this talk of Scythians and barbarians, thinking it has nothing to do with us today.
We think we can see the parts of Paul’s message that seem eternal, universal, Paul warning against sexual immorality, corruption, greed. But it is not so simple, as the culture wars remind us, with many using ancient law, especially laws on sexual matters, to oppress the gay, the transgendered, while ignoring Christ’s prohibition on re-marriage and all of that inconvenient stuff about greed, legalism and self-righteousness, the three things Jesus spoke about the most. Never mind that in the American cult, Ayn Rand is the messiah, and those who are weak deserve what they get.
But Paul is a man of his context. He was thoroughly modern, an innovator, a religious Steve Jobs, and it is this quality, this creative mind, that has driven a renaissance in Pauline studies, much of it from unexpected places, philosophers and atheists engaging that ancient angry man turned apostle. The Marxist French philosopher Alain Badiou, in his 2003 text on the saint, calls Paul “one of the very first theoreticians of the universal.”
Fifteen hundred years after Paul, Huldrych Zwingli and Martin Luther would be religious innovators, laying the groundwork for the four movements that would come to form the United Church of Christ, including our own heritage movement, Congregationalism, itself the product of the merger of the Pilgrim and Puritan movements. and from the Pilgrims that we get one of our core theologies, that of continuing testament, the recognition that we have more to learn, expressed in the catch phrase “God is Still Speaking,” which presumes that we are still listening.
Some spend all their time looking in the rearview mirror, but when do we freeze the clock, declare that one age was perfect?
In all of our celebration of the glorious years when Johnny came marching home and the Fascists were defeated, we seem to forget that it was an age of witch hunts and fear, a Commie behind every door, duck and cover under the school desk as if that might stop the bomb, an age when those same heroes turned people over to the House Un-American Activities Committee, even my beloved Walt Disney who used that hysteria to bully would-be union organizers among his animators.
We cannot forget that those same heroes became the sheriffs that unleashed the hounds on civil rights protesters and became the leaders of white power groups. Major Robert Patterson of the 82nd Airborne Division became Robert Patterson, head of the White Citizens Councils that fought desegregation and defended those who murdered Emmett Till.
Maybe we freeze it at some mythical spot in the 1970’s. Or the 1870’s. Or the 1370’s. Maybe we just ignore those who were vulnerable, oppressed in that whitewashed perfect time in the past.
The genies are never going back in their bottles, and maybe that is a good thing. Like the late great saint Phyllis Tickle, I am excited to see what will happen next, what we will become, what church will become, what America will become, because I know there never was a perfect time when everything was fine for all people. I serve a Living God, don’t I deserve a living faith?
Amos Wilder, older brother of Thornton, rebelled against an important theological task of his era, a process called demythologizing. While his colleagues were busy trying to “rid the New Testament of its mythology,” Wilder asked how we might “translate [those] mythical concepts into the mythology and poetry of the Twentieth century.”i
And for us, of the Twenty-First Century. And, if we teach our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren the skills, put the right critical and creative tools in their toolboxes, of the Twenty-Second century.
We do not need Paul’s understanding of God as punitive and manipulative, nor do we need the new law he was creating to replace what was to him an archaic law, but we can hear the spirit of truth almost twenty-one centuries later. Paul renounces lies, anger, rage, and we live in an age of lies, anger, rage. The apostle tells us to “put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.” Difficult language out of context, for here Paul is not speaking of “the one who created it” as God, Divine Father-Mother. He is referring to Jesus, the creator of the new image of what it is to be human. And what do we find in Jesus, that non-conformist revolutionary, anti-government protester, reformer, visionary, mystic?
We find a man of creativity and courage who could take the old and make it into something that was both totally new and incredibly ancient, a man who reminded us that God was always with the oppressed, that reminded us that hate, sin and death can never have the last word.
Even those who in the pseudo-religion of Americanism choose to worship the Founding Fathers must make room for innovation, for it is one of those innovators that said “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” These words are inscribed on the wall of Jefferson’s Memorial.
If we are true to our God, if we are true to our Savior, if we are true to the Spirit we claim inhabits this place, we will not work to maintain ancient and dead institutions. We will be builders, recyclers. We will be an artists colony, mixing ancient wisdom, real life, and a certain faith that God is good, that we can be inspired, creative.
Death need not win, will not win, not over us, not over this faith. Fifty years from now, may someone look back and say “Who would have thought on church in a small town in Maine could have such an impact?”