This blog borrows its moniker from another short-lived blog of mine from the middle of the first decade of the 2000’s. Its purpose was to deal with the practical applications and practice of the Christian life.
It was also a rift on Suzanna Clarke’s popular adult foray into the world of magic, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In that world, set in the time of Jane Austin’s England, the early 18th Century, magic was only theorized, not practiced. Along came two men who began to practice it again. I was always taken by how much that world resembled the church world which often breaks down into theoretical Christians and practicing ones. In the best world theoretical magicians and Christians would be working with the practicing ones.
Last week I was practicing homiletics and introducing that part of homiletical practice most fraught with risk: current events and politics. It is a place that I have ventured into in the past and have done so with as much care as possible. But I have learned it is rare to preach in that place without some push back or criticism. This past Sunday’s sermon was no exception.
As a response to the comments which I received, I decided to borrow a topic from the Wall Street Journal to add to my blog—Amplifications and Corrections, yes, with corrections needing to be admitted.
As my family and close friends will tell you, I have both political and economic world views that are connected but not always entirely overlapping with my theology. My world views are, however, only a starting point from which to encounter the events around me. In cases like Kenosha I am in prayerful engagement with God, the Bible, the news, and opinion, searching for faithful insights to what happened and how to respond.
It is with that background that I approached the issues of these past two weeks in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I chose to address those events because they appear to me to encapsulate many of the anxieties, concerns, causes of anger, and fears of our common life, exceeding COVID-19 as a cause of fear. My choice, as opposed to local choices or other examples, was determined by the amount of airtime my news sources were devoting to it and the amount of time those whom I love were devoting to it as well. Overall, the connections that congregation members made on Sunday after the sermon suggest that current events in Kenosha were on many peoples’ minds and that many wanted some means of addressing those concerns in the context of their faith.
This past week’s reading from Romans (Romans 12: 9-21) seemed to be a response to what was going on in Kenosha and the unrest in our common life, dealing with the areas that separate us—race, violence, cultural differences, and economic disparities. My choice of reading was a prayerful process, as was my choice of subject matter.
Current events are difficult to address because the information is unfolding and not complete. Even now, as we know more about what happened in the cases of Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse, the investigations are not complete. Subsequent to Sunday’s sermon, I have accessed more information.
In the case of Jacob Blake, I was not as precise nor as accurate as I could be now. The reason was that in trying not to cast judgement on what happened I was too obscure. My point in that incident was that Jacob Blake was not looking to get shot when he went to that home in Kenosha. The complications of what happened afterward may have led to the results, but there are a great many repercussions of the actions of Mr. Blake and the police, whatever may have been their initial intentions.
The news reports that I see are catching up to the broader set of facts in the Jacob Blake case. They say that Mr. Blake was the subject of the complaint called into the police. Mr. Blake also had a record and an outstanding warrant that the police were aware of when they arrived on the scene. It is also clear at some point Mr. Blake’s behavior at the crime scene was at a minimum uncooperative. From there we will still need to discern the intentions and actions of the participants in that altercation. My intention on Sunday was not to absolve or blame either Mr. Blake or the police. It was, instead to point out the tensions that are already in the environment in which we engage one another, the fragility of our relationship to one another, the anxiety that flows from these tensions, and the extraordinary potential of these tensions to lead to immense damage.
Kyle Rittenhouse is another study in tragedy, just like the incident that spurred his participation in the life of Kenosha. I do not know what possessed him to be in Kenosha and carrying a rifle. There were so many things that went wrong that night and in Kyle Rittenhouse’s actions. Addressing that violence and the protests was the responsibility of the Kenosha police and its elected officials. Mr. Rittenhouse did not belong in that environment even if we make the generous allowance that he thought he was helping. His actions were not prudentially sound, and he added to an already fraught situation. More details may come out that mitigate the intentions of his actions, but the killing of at least two men and the severe wounding of another have added to the chaos and ill will already emanating from Kenosha.
As a Christian, I believe there is too much violence in my country and there are too many killings. And, I say this in a world where I know the metrics. From 1992 until this year annual homicide rates have dropped 80% and killings by the police have dropped dramatically as well. And yet, there is still too much violence and too many killings. I pray for a world where there are neither.
I am more certain in this moment of the anxiety, fear, and helplessness that many in the congregation of St. Francis are experiencing. Paul’s letter to the Romans was written for such times when the power of the world overwhelms, and we feel small and impotent. Paul’s letter was to Christians in the most powerful city in the western world. For all of that city’s power and sophistication it was a foreboding and brutal place. What could that small and fragile group of believers do in the face of such threats?
A few weeks ago, I talked about addressing politics in Sunday sermons. You can find that article on the St. Francis blog. This past Sunday I addressed that subject. My sermon was imperfect. But it is in these imperfections that we work toward God’s purpose for us. That was the experience of the twelve and that is what happened with Paul, stretching to understand and embrace the ways of God.
This brings me back to being a Practical Theologian and the answer of Paul in his letter to the Romans. Theoretical Theologians postulate about the nature and sources of evil. They can posit these possibilities in a sanitized environment with the messiness of the world assumed away. Practical Theologians posit where we might see evil in this world and how we might respond to it. In doing so, the practical theologian assumes the risk of speaking from a place of imperfect understanding. It is two weeks out from these horrible events in Kenosha and we still have no clarity or consensus about who was the aggressor and who was the victim, and who was a threat and who was defending himself against the threat. Imagine trying to sort through the limited available information within the chaos of each moment and making an instantaneous decision. Fear and distrust create chaos, and evil thrives in chaos. And what is the antidote to this chaos? “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. (Romans 12:14-18) ”
Paul’s analysis and recommendation for living in fraught and chaotic times was my point. I will continue to be a Practical Theologian, looking for where both evil and good show themselves, taking the risk to point out these moments, and looking for the ways that St. Francis and I may respond.