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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

Woke

Yesterday was the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when law enforcement beat Black Americans who were marching for their right to vote. The attack came as marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which had been named for a Confederate brigadier general, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and U.S. senator who stood against Black rights. Marchers were greeted with billy clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas. Victims included the young activist John Lewis (in front of picture below) whose skull was fractured and voting rights activist Amelia Boynton who was beaten unconscious.



What was the situation in Selma that prompted the protest? In the 1960s, even though Black Americans outnumbered white Americans among the 29,500 people who lived in Selma, Alabama, the city’s voting rolls were 99% white. Attempts at voter registration were thwarted at every turn by judicial and law enforcement authorities.


Many years ago I had the opportunity to stand on the Edmund Pettis Bridge as part of a Sankofa journey sponsored by my denomination. The word Sankofa is an African word that literally means “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Unfortunately, the word “woke” is being used today to make taboo our being able to learn from the mistakes of our past. The assumption is that history doesn’t repeat itself, that we are beyond that now. For a minute the death of George Floyd made us question that assumption. But the anti-Woke movement has restored our self-righteous dignity, with the help of that mysteriously undefinable boogeyman called critical race theory. What’s interesting is that many if not most anti-Woke folks, including presidential candidates, claim to be Christians, people who claim the Bible as their ultimate authority.


I read the Bible a lot, and if there is a common thread throughout the Bible it’s that history almost always repeats itself, even when there's progress. I’ve often quoted Rob Bell who says that if you take all the sin out of the Bible all you have left is a pamphlet. Most of the sins are repeated sins. The hope is that by reading the Bible we won’t repeat the sins of the past, but we do anyway, even if we’re God’s chosen people, whether we’re an ethnic group called the Jews or an international community called the church.


We’re a couple weeks into the Christian season called Lent. Its focus is on the cross and the sins that put Jesus there. My sins, our sins. As part of the Lenten liturgy of our little worshiping community I’ve been reflecting briefly on each of seven identities connected to Jesus because of the cross: Riveting Revealer, Righteous Representative, Cosmic Victor, Sacrificial Lamb, Liberating Spirit, Suffering Servant, Living Lord. While “Riveting Revealer” sounds a bit cheesy, it speaks to the dramatic fashion in which the cross revealed two essential truths. I’ll frame them through a description of the gospel that has stuck with me over the decades. It’s found in Brother to a Dragonfly, an autobiographical work by 1960s Baptist minister and civil rights activist Will Campbell. Preacher Will is sharing a brew with a local who says to Will, “Just tell me what this Jesus cat is all about. I’m not too bright but maybe I can get the hang of it.” Will was told he had to limit his description to ten words. Will didn’t think very long before he said, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” That, my friends, is the riveting revelation of the cross. First truth: We’re that bad. Second truth: God is that good. To be woke biblically is to acknowledge that we put him on that cross. Knowing myself, it would be foolish to think otherwise.


At my last church we hung a sign in front that we kept up during most of my tenure there: “No Perfect People Allowed.” I heard through the rumor mill that a few neighbors complained at first. I’m not sure why. Our neighborhood had a lot of challenges. I knew that because I lived there, and I knew I wasn’t perfect, far from it. But in the midst of all our imperfections there was also goodness and beauty. Sharon and I lived on a narrow street where the houses were packed on top of one another. It was hard not to get to know your neighbors, and we loved that about our neighborhood. We miss many of them. We also miss chatting with the neighbors that walked into the church’s café and thrift store.


Including Ted. Ted first introduced himself to me when he was resting on a low brick wall across the street from the church. He said he liked sitting there when worship ended on Sunday mornings. He said he could imagine Jesus appreciating the variety of people that walked out of our building. (And this from a self-proclaimed Satanist, though I always sensed that he told people that just to get a rise out of them.) Eventually I met Ted’s mother who, interestingly, was a lifelong member of a local church in my denomination. Ted and Shirley would often sit together in our café. Fortunately, Ted was usually on his best behavior when mom was there. Ted actually lived in an apartment above the thrift store. You could say he came with the property. He almost died there, but died instead in a nursing home shortly after a heart attack.


Ted had it hard growing up. His father was a violent alcoholic. His mom finally left with the kids. Now in her 80s, she wore her suffering gracefully. And now I’m remembering that the word Lent actually means springtime. So ultimately it’s a hopeful season, not in spite of our sin, but because of it. That’s the paradox of Christianity. The gospel writer John wrote that "the Son came from the Father full of grace and truth." Notice the order. It's because of God's grace that we can handle the truth about ourselves. I'm praying my anti-Woke brothers and sisters will eventually remember that.







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