William H. Lamar IV: Sentiment isn't enough to combat oppression

Members of the Proud Boys march during a protest Dec. 12, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

A pastor whose church in Washington, D.C., was vandalized by white supremacists urges his fellow Christians to avoid feel-good responses and instead act in community to disrupt systems of oppression.

I am sitting at my desk opening mail. Stacks of it.

A business envelope from Ohio containing five handwritten pages. High-end, heavyweight stationery from Connecticut. A holiday card from South Carolina with a photograph of children standing before a Christmas tree holding a Black Lives Matter sign. A postcard from Pennsylvania with a big heart drawn in red crayon.

We have been flooded with support since our church, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., was vandalized by white supremacists in December. Two Black Lives Matter banners -- one at our church and another at Asbury United Methodist Church -- were destroyed during a violent demonstration.

Good people have sent checks, money orders and cash to encourage and to strengthen us. Emails, calls and messages have cascaded in from around the globe. The light of God burns brightly in the hearts of so many. That light has indeed put some of the shadows that mark these perilous days to flight.

I have opened the mail. Now comes the real work. I must open myself.

I must stop resisting and yield to the powerful energy of the spiritual stirrings inside me. These stirrings occur when the dust, from which we were made, is persistently beckoned by the divine.

When we attune to them, when we shun distraction, when those silent stirrings are so loud that they can no longer be ignored, we can travel to the place where humanity and divinity meet in us.

Sometimes our humanity and divinity dance. Often our humanity and divinity wrestle.

People wrote that when they heard what happened to Metropolitan, they had to do something. When we hear of the violence, the exploitation, the oppression and the pain in our world, our spiritual stirrings move us. I’m sure the recent mob attack on the Capitol building will only intensify this feeling.

I appreciate every gesture and am thankful for every kindness that has been shown to our faith community. At the same time, I have grown weary of the impulse to quiet deep spiritual stirrings by acting sentimentally.

Sentimental responses assuage our discomfort as much as they share light and love with those who have been harmed. Doing something sweet for people who have suffered, especially in response to spiritual stirrings, can teeter on the edge of escapism. It can shield us from doing the hard work of figuring out why people suffer and how we can alleviate that suffering.

We turn the page feeling better about the situation and ourselves, but the systems that make suffering possible remain unchanged.

The mystical energy roiling inside us demands a response. But many will never respond with anything other than kind gestures. Some of us must admit that no matter how deep the awakening we experience or how vast the pain of others, we will not commit to anything but the nice response, the easy response, the feel-good response.

I have been there. I have felt the impulse to take out my William H. Lamar IV stationery and write my way out of my responsibility to the world. I am sure you have, too.

I am convinced, however, that these “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 NRSV) stir us for more than kindness. We are being called to disrupt this world and to co-labor with God as God inaugurates the new heaven and the new earth.

The church, Christian organizations and seminaries are largely agents of ecclesiological, institutional and theological sentimentality. Too often, people leave worship feeling close to God and good about their neighbors but unmoved to disrupt the visible oppression outside their sanctuaries.

People volunteer at Christian agencies and deliver food and visit the infirm, but they will not disrupt the exploitation that renders people hungry or sick.

People graduate from seminary convinced that their orthodox sermons and successful stewardship campaigns will usher in God’s realm, but they will not challenge the racialized, capitalist economic orthodoxy that extinguishes hope among the struggling people in their communities.

The gospel puts us on notice that sentimentality is not the aim of God’s reign. In Luke 4, Jesus is said to be full of the Spirit, full of those spiritual stirrings and that mystical energy that demand a response. After he reads from Isaiah, he declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

This is not sweet. This is not someday there will be justice, equity and peace, so I’ll just wait around for it to happen. This is incarnate, fully human, fully divine disruption.

And this is not profitable. It’s not the kind of disruption that makes money. This disruption values humans more than capital.

According to Luke, Jesus intends to disrupt systems that cause poverty, imprisonment, sickness and oppression. Jesus intends to disrupt how economies and relationships are ordered.

As I look at our damaged property, our damaged city, our damaged democracy, I have to ask: Where is this Jesus? Where are his followers?

Disruption requires community. This is not solo work. Jesus called to himself disciples, a fellowship of disrupters-in-training. The great disrupters in our history moved within robust communities that loved them and stretched them.

The spiritual stirrings you feel -- the ones that prompt you to write lovely and heartwarming letters -- are in fact moving you to more challenging action. They are calling you to be in fellowship with others who share God’s vision for the world.

Disruption also requires confrontation. In Luke 4, Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

I will never forget a masterful class that I had with Ronald J. Allen, professor of preaching and the Gospels at Christian Theological Seminary. Allen said that the Spirit drove Jesus to pick a fight with the devil.

Imagine that -- Christians are called to pick fights with the demonic, not just to feel bad about evil.

My humanity and divinity dance when I disrupt the powers and principalities within myself, within the church and within the world. My dance partners make it all so much funkier. We have joined with God in co-creation and have seen oppressive systems weakened and lives transformed.

The mystical, spiritual energy inside us is calling us to move beyond sentimentality and to move to the music of disruption. Shall we dance?