Turning the Tables

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. Obviously, I’m still working on the Temple Incident recorded in John 2. Doing a first-person sermon as Nicodemus is fun and has some value. But it’s also a way to punt on the real repentance issues in this text.

The systems of White Male Supremacy that structure white Christianity are not going down without a fight. It would be easy for us white liberal Christians if the whole issue were Franklin Graham leveraging his Operation Christmas mailing lists to fear-monger his racist, xenophobic, homophobic bullshit. If only the tables to be turned belonged exclusively to those “other white folks,” this would all be so much easier.

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But it’s our tables that need turning as well. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In John 2, Jesus is clearing away the obstacles to abundant life. That climaxes in a few weeks with his welcome to outsiders in John 12. It is this boundary-busting welcome that provides the final step toward his glorification on the cross. It’s when the outsiders want in that the reign of God fully arrives in John.

Nobody really wants that kind of talk in our white, mainline churches. We don’t want to go and talk to people in our neighborhoods who don’t already belong to our churches. We don’t want to keep doing hybrid worship – both in person and online – once The Pandemic has passed. That was just an expedient to keep our insiders inside. We don’t want to take nonmembers into account when we make plans for our property that might affect them. We don’t want our tables to be turned in such a way that we are guests and Jesus is the host.

That’s all crazy talk, we think. If we go down that path, we’ll end up turning over tables just like that nut from Nazareth. If we start tossing money around like it belongs to the poor people, where will it end? After all, somebody has to pay the bills to keep the Temple in business, right?

We white folks have made God’s houses into spiritual shopping malls where we sell comfort to the comfortable, serenity to the settlers, and peace to the privileged. As long as they are paying the bills, we’ll keep selling the goods. And after a while, the last one left can turn out the lights.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. When that happens, the system responds with violence. Abundant life disrupts the power of scarcity. Bigger pies are harder to manage and manipulate for personal gain. Good news for the poor is, at least in the short term, bad news for the rich. Zeal for God’s house will consume us, we’re afraid. So we set the tables back up almost as fast as Jesus turns them over.

Jesus isn’t arrested at the moment he enacts havoc, because the crowd approves of what he does. It’s only the powerful, the privileged, and the propertied who get their underwear in a bunch about the difference between a demonstration, a protest, and a riot. Jesus enacts a symbolic prophetic sign, but he turns over real tables, scatters real money, chases real livestock. When we spiritualize this into some merely verbal protest against a religious system, we let ourselves off the hook.

But Jesus enacts the nightmare of every entrenched power structure. The crowd might see the Matrix, might wake up from the nightmare, might come to know that the system was created by and for the privileged, rigged for the rich. The goal of the system is to make sure that poor, white men continue to blame anyone but rich white men. In our system, race makes that identification easier. So that’s where we start the turning.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. What must be overturned in the Church to put things right?

Before we jump to that, let’s start with me. I need my tables turned regularly. For example, I was in a conversation not long ago where a Black pastor reminded us of the ways in which White Christians have debased and destroyed Black communities. He wasn’t particularly aggressive in his comments. He simply told the truth without padding it for us white folks. I was grateful for the candor (sort of).

I didn’t hear one thing I hadn’t heard or read before. Yet, I felt my face get hot. I felt my head begin to shake. My guts started vibrating in rhythm with my lower jaw. In response to just the slightest honest input, I was ready to tip into a full-blown shame storm. To compound my response, I was then ashamed for being ashamed.

That response won’t do. But it’s necessary. “For through the law I died to the law,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20, “so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I don’t like having my ego crucified any more than anyone else does. But there’s no real life without that death.

For me, turning the tables means spending more time hearing face to face from my Black, Brown, Native, and Asian American siblings. It’s not up to them to educate and reform me. That’s my work and our white folks work together. I need to continue to render myself less dangerous and more resilient in such conversations. And I look forward to opportunities not merely to become a better person but to work as a partner with my siblings in ways to make our community better.

And then there’s the Church. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. We are called to overturn the “White Liberal Limbo” game. That is the game where we ask, “How slowwwwwww can we gooooooo?” As long as we give the most fragile folks veto power over constructive change, we will continue to maintain our systems of white male supremacy. If congregations die doing the right thing, that’s faithfulness. The alternative at this point is to be whitewashed tombs filled with the bones of people who don’t know they’re dead already.

I believe that in the coming decades we’re going to end up with a number of church buildings and other properties that will simply stand empty because all the white people have either died or left. Let’s make plans now to give those properties to cheated communities or to sell them and repay the proceeds to those communities. I know we white liberals are happy about justice until it starts to cost us money. But the tables of the moneychangers must be overturned if we White folks are to be freely and fully human.

It’s easy to write that knowing that reparations are unlikely to happen on any scale in my lifetime. Talk is cheap. So, we are establishing a Reparations Repayment Calendar at our house. We will give money to a number of organizations and causes that advance the agendas of racial justice and repair. From our perspective, these are not “donations” (although the IRS would regard them as such). These are repayments of debts owed for centuries.

For example, in honor of the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, we will give to the NAACP Legal Defense fund and to a local bail relief fund. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. He went and preached to the spirits who were in prison. The stone is rolled away, and the jail cell of the tomb is empty. We see a connection.

On Thanksgiving, we will give to the Omaha tribal organization. Our house stands on Omaha land. It is only ours because of the original theft based on the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery.” We can be grateful for how the land was loved and stewarded before we got here. And we can begin to make legitimate payments for the damage we have done to Native communities. We see a connection.

In Epiphany, we remember that the Wise Ones came “from the East.” We can give to the the ELCA’s Association of Lutherans of Arab and Middle Eastern Heritage. The strategy for that mission in our church is chronically underfunded, and we can make some small gift to address that need. During Lent we can direct our offerings to the Urban League of Omaha, since Dr. King’s birthday almost always falls during that liturgical season.

We can give a Pentecost offering to a Latinx-related cause in honor of Cinco de Mayo. In February we can support a cause focused on the concerns of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, since that’s about the time of the Chinese New Year.

You can see where we’re headed with this. It will be a work in progress. It will not be a substitute for any other efforts toward education, advocacy, support, growth, and further repentance. But it will be, we hope, a way to make “table-turning” a part of our ongoing rhythms of faith and life.

Right now, however, there’s something of particular urgency. Our racist former president has stoked the fires of hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The number of hate crimes against the AAPI communities has skyrocketed in the last year. In response, the AAPI Association in the ELCA drafted a statement that was approved within hours by the ELCA conference of bishops. You can read that statement here.

In addition, plans are being made to make March 21 a Sunday of prayer and lament in our churches around this disgusting rhetoric and related crimes. That’s not likely to be the most popular thing a pastor or other leaders have ever advocated. But it’s a way to set a few things a little closer to right.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In this Lenten season, we are called to be turned and to turn. How will we answer?

Stop State-Sponsored Killing in the United States

Brandon Bernard was executed by United States authorities on December 10, 2020. He was convicted of participating in the murders of Stacie and Todd Bagley in 1999. Bernard did not commit the actual murders. The one who killed the Bagleys, Christopher Vialva, was executed in September. Bernard was the youngest person in seventy years to receive a death sentence in the United States. He was an adolescent when he was convicted.

Bernard is the ninth person to be executed this fall by federal authorities after a seventeen-year hiatus in federal executions. He is the first to be executed during a lame-duck presidency in 130 years. Five more people await executions before the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021. Four of the five scheduled to be killed are black.

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State-sponsored killing has been demonstrated to be ineffective as a public-safety policy. It is not a useful practice. State-sponsored killing has been and is currently highly racialized and discriminatory in its application and outcome. It is both unconstitutional and wrong in the state’s own terms. State-sponsored killing is contrary to ethical doctrine and practice in a large number of Christian traditions. Historically Christians have argued and organized against state-sponsored killing in a variety of settings.

So why do we continue to do it?

The racialized element is obvious to anyone who can remember a few statistics. Many would argue that targeting black and brown people with executions is not a bug in the system but rather a feature. I think that’s correct. The evidence for that argument is quite clear and compelling. State-sponsored killing is the only form of legally sanctioned lynching which remains in our state and federal criminal punishment systems. Other forms of lynching continue to occur by the hands of agents of the state. But, in theory at least, these actions are crimes which can and should be prosecuted.

In addition to the racialized, white supremacist dimension of state-sponsored killing is the punitive framework of our legal systems and of our culture. In 1885 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” Nietzsche was no friend of democracy or “the people,” but he understood that few if any humans are good enough and wise enough to punish others without powerful limits and safeguards. We can talk ourselves into our own righteousness in about fifteen seconds. After that, we can justify most any behavior.

Why do we Americans have this penchant for punishing? We live in a system of myths and metaphors which, I believe, make this kind of punishing reasonable and necessary. We believe that we get to where we are in life on the basis of our own merit (or de-merit). If someone fails in this system, they are fully and individually to blame. Punishing another for evil undergirds my belief that I should be rewarded for my goodness. Only the worthy should be rewarded, and it’s surprising how often the worthy look just like me.

I think that our penchant for punishing is deeply rooted in our national theology. I don’t believe people share some sort of religious perspective consciously. But most of us come from religious tribes (somewhere in the misty past) that subscribed to the image of a God who punishes sinners. More than that, this God requires payment in order to be good and loving. So this God requires the death of God’s own son to make adequate payment for the sins of the rest of us. If God’s own Son cannot escape the realities of the punishment system, what hope do any of the rest of us have?

I would point out that this punishment system and god are not the only images available or possible. For another way to see things, I would refer you to my post on Aulen’s Christus Victor. You can read that at https://wordpress.com/post/lowellhennigs.com/391.

N. T. Wright points out that we tend to become like what we worship. So if our god is punishing and violent, it should be no surprise that many of us are as well. However, I think the process works even more powerfully in the reverse. We worship what we want to become. Often we engage in practices and then seek a story to justify them rather than the other way around. In this culture, we want to become powerful, successful, dominant, rich, secure, and blissfully ignorant of the suffering of others. So I don’t find it surprising that we would gravitate toward images of a god that reinforce these outcomes — at least for those who are already privileged and powerful (aka white).

We don’t fall into this punitive image of God by accident or default. We must choose this particular image, and do so assertively, because the primary images of God in the Bible are quite the opposite. Yes, there are images of violence, sacrifice, punishment and execution. Those appear, however, to be the minority report and are critiqued and rejected by other parts of the Bible.

For example, there is the irritated testimony of Jonah. The cranky prophet wants a god who will punish the sinners, but Jonah knows that God is not like this. Jonah “prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2, NRSV). Ready to relent from punishing! What a concept!

Some of us Christians tend to give pride of place to the words of Jesus, oddly enough. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'” Jesus preaches in Matthew 5. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45 NRSV). We Christians cannot dictate on our own how the secular state should operate, no matter how much some Christians want to do that. But we could at least listen to our own most important voice on the matter.

I am privileged to be part of a group reading and studying Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. Who knows more about the misapplication of state-sponsored killing in our time than Stevenson? Perhaps no one. “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit,” he writes. “The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?” (page 313). Given how state-sponsored killing is structured, administered, and applied, I think the answer is obviously, “No.”

But we continue to punish, and we’re not all that particular about who gets the punishment. We live in a culture that appears constitutionally incapable of self-reflection, honest admission of failure, and willingness to make corrections and amends. In spiritual terms, we seem incapable of confession, lament, and repentance. Confession, lament, and repentance require admissions of wrong and guilt. But we assume none of the responsibility for how the lives of others turn out. Our cultural and self-serving meritocracy requires that we blame and punish someone whether that makes a real difference or not.

We Christians claim to worship the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from punishing. It may be that our greatest mission in this or any society is to nudge the needle away from retribution and in the direction of grace. Unfortunately, many Christians in this society currently are helping to move the needle decisively toward irrevocable punishment (AG Barr is, after all, a practicing Roman Catholic). In light of that, I find it unsurprising that so many regard Christian witness as unconvincing and incredible.

“Each of us is more,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy, “than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (page 17-18). If you asked me for a secular description of the Christian good news, I think I might just quote his words here. If he’s right, and he is, then state-sponsored killing is a surrender to despair and an insult to the image of God in which each of us is created. Until we stop this killing, we will continue to be a culture in moral decline and a faith tradition drowning in hypocrisy.

Here is a link to information on the ELCA social statement regarding the death penalty, adopted by the denomination in 1991:


And here is a link to information on the ELCA social statement regarding the criminal justice system, adopted by the denomination in 2013.