A Pastoral Letter after Washington

Note: this is the letter I shared with the Congregational Church in Exeter via our weekly e-news. I offer it here in case it may speak to you, or to those in your church.

Dear members and friends of the Congregational Church,

It has been an extraordinary week. In years to come, I believe we will look back on this week as a touchstone for our history. As I write this to you now, on Friday evening, I am unsure what the news will bring in the coming days. By the time you read this email, perhaps a new news alert will have crossed your computer screen and changed everything. 

The other night, after the Capitol building was overtaken by rioters, several dozen of us gathered on Zoom for prayer. We ranged in age from people in their 30s to people in their 90s. There were veterans who have deployed to wars and those who protested the same wars. Citizens who have lived here our whole lives and those who have chosen to call this country home. People who have “Republican” stamped next to their names on the voter rolls and those who have “Democrat”. There were those whose rights have always been guaranteed under the law and those who have only gained those rights in more recent years.

We shared our feelings about the day. People voiced their fear, sadness, and grief. They also voiced their anger. Some shared that they were struggling with their anger, as though they shouldn’t be feeling it at all. 

I confess that since Wednesday I too have been angry. I do not believe anger is a bad thing. I believe that when we are angry it is a sign that we care about something enough that it matters to us when it is under attack. Even still, I cannot remember when I last felt this level of anger. Perhaps on 9/11. Perhaps when the federal building in Oklahoma City was destroyed.

As a college student I served an internship in the House of Representatives. I remember our ID badges, and how they were checked so meticulously before we were allowed in the building. I remember how we hushed our voices out of reverence when giving tours of the Capitol building to constituents from the district back home. I remembered the feeling that, despite the vast ideological differences that have always existed in our country, that building stood as a testament to a greater ideal. Though the union may not yet be perfect, it was a sign that we would still keep working until it was more perfect. 

Every time I see a report of the crowd pushing through those doors, breaking windows, stealing public property, defiling the halls with human waste, and committing countless other acts of violence and degradation, I feel a sense of violation. Perhaps you do as well. That makes sense. The public servants that we and our fellow citizens across the country were attacked in a space that should have been safe, and the electoral votes cast by our neighbors were directly threatened. 

And still, I do not like being angry. It eats at me, and I want this feeling to go away. It is far easier to be just frustrated, or annoyed, or dismissive of the mob as a fringe group. It’s easier to be numb. At least for a little while.

But numbness is the problem. When we become numb we send the message that we tolerate what has happened. Our numbness takes away our voice. It takes away our will to act. It justifies us looking away and hoping others will fix it. As the state of American political discourse has deteriorated over the past five or six years, numbness has been a comfort to us. Unfortunately, that comfort has only led to embolden violent extremists and to allow them to believe they represent us all. 

What I’ve written so far could be written by any concerned citizen, of any faith or no faith at all. So here’s where I want to shift, and tell you why I’m saying these things as your pastor. I’ve always been clear that, while I love this country, my first allegiance is not to America but to Jesus Christ. However, it is that allegiance that informs how we are called to be citizens of this country.

Christ, in his greatest commandment, tells us that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Christ also told that we will most see him reflected not in the strong or the violent, but in “the least of these”. Christ makes it plain that our call as his followers is to look after our neighbors, particularly those who are vulnerable. We are not allowed to choose comfortable numbness when there is fear or violence. We must choose to be actively involved in Christ’s good work of transforming the world. 

This is where we come back to anger. Anger is just an emotion, neither good nor bad on its face. How it is used, however, makes all the difference. The kind of anger that desecrates a building where questions of common good are debated is destructive anger. The kind of anger that blames one’s problems on scapegoats who are the “least of these” is too. 

But then there is the other anger. It is the anger that can be found in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. It is the anger of Rosa Parks, who decided she had enough of being told to give up her seat on the bus. It is the anger of Harvey Milk who refused to be intimidated into silence. It is the anger of Susan B. Anthony as she was turned away from the ballot box. And, it is the anger of Christ overturning the tables of moneychangers in the Temple. 

Our challenge as Christians, as followers of the Prince of Peace, is to use this anger we might be feeling in constructive ways. We will not choose the path of violence, but neither may we choose the way of numb disengagement. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Perhaps I am writing this letter more to myself than anyone else, but I sense that there are others who might feel the same as I do tonight. To us I say this: there is hope. There is hope, because there is the knowledge that this is not the way things should be. There is hope because we care enough to not look away. 

Friends, whatever path you choose in the coming days and weeks, may it be the one that Christ would have you trod. May Christ lead you through these days of challenge. May you speak words of truth, even when they do not come easily. May you choose acts of courage, even when you feel afraid. And may you testify, with the very way you live your life, to the way of the Prince of Peace.

In Christ’s grace and peace,
Pastor Emily

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