by Dennis W. Foust, Senior Minister
Freedom is always fragile; for women, freedom has been shattered again, and it is maddening.
More than a century ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes, an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902-1932 wrote: “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.” Holmes was known for his protection of civil liberties and his commitment to constitutional democracy.
Last Friday, June 24, 2022, every woman in this nation was kicked. Even those who don’t realize their freedoms were dismantled were injured. The majority of justices on the Supreme Court did not stumble over women; they kicked women. Conservative justices declared that women do not have the right to exercise personal freedom of choice and self-control in relation to all of their own health care decisions. This decision causes anger to rage within me. Along with many of you, I am livid over this ruling. I did not speak about this subject during worship on Sunday, in part, because my emotions and thoughts were not yet interwoven in pastoral ways. No doubt I am still weaving.
WHY I AM ANGRY: In part, my anger is due to the fact that five men and one woman who allows herself to be controlled by men can put state governments in charge of the health care decisions of women. I am bitter because the same people who pushed for this decision for government control of women’s health care choices usually support limited government control and assail taxation being used for programs to aid children who are economically poor. These same people continuously oppose providing healthcare for all citizens as well as resisting every effort to increase minimum wages for those living on $7.25/hour ($290 for a 40-hour week or $15,080 for 52 weeks – before taxes) so low-income adults can better provide for their children. These same people also screamed to the highest clouds when the government encouraged – not ordered – them to be vaccinated against COVID or wear masks to protect their neighbors. These same people do not want the government to put limitations on who should own an AR-15, nor push forward legislation to support public education. To proclaim concern for the unborn while refusing to care about children once they are born is hypocritical at best and evil (immoral, wicked, harmful, injurious, and disastrous) at worst.
However, let me be clear. The primary reason I despise last Friday’s Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade is that it goes directly against Jesus’ teachings. The primary persons who will be damaged by this ruling are economically poor women and children. As a person who strives to grow as a devout disciple of Jesus, I understand his message to be clear when it comes to caring for the poor. I resonate with the words of theologian James Cone in his book, God of the Oppressed:
“The Jesus story is the poor person story because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated from poverty and powerlessness God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity Jesus was not simply a nice fellow who happened to like the poor. Rather his actions have their origin in God’s eternal being. They represent a new vision of divine freedom climaxed with the cross and the resurrection wherein God breaks into history for the liberation of slaves from societal oppression. Jesus’ actions represent God’s will not to let God’s creation be destroyed by non-creative powers. The cross and the resurrection show that the freedom promised is now fully available in Jesus Christ. This is the essence of the New Testament story without which Christian theology is impossible.” (p 75)
As I wrote in a sermon proclaimed from the St. John’s Pulpit in 2015, “God’s good news revealed in Jesus Christ is not a product packaged by and delivered to the privileged among us. In Jesus, God appears among us as liberator of the oppressed and we are called to continue Jesus’ work. So, let’s get to it!”
ANGER AS MOTIVATION TO WORK FOR FREEDOM: So what can we do with our anger? Suppressing our anger just releases more evil in the world because it becomes redirected in inappropriate ways or it leads to physical dis-ease within ourselves. There is something better than anger management; spiritual transformation of anger into ministry. What can we do to allow God to transform our anger into positive energy so we can better continue Jesus’ work – the work of salvation and freedom? Beloved, here is what I am doing and I invite you to join me in this journey.
First, as explained above, I consider why I am angry. If my anger is caused by people working against the teachings of Jesus, I pray for God to help my anger motivate me in positive actions. If my anger is due to other causes, I pray for God to change my heart by increasing my patience and understanding and enlightening me with knowledge and wisdom. Over time, I have realized the behaviors or attitudes of other persons that cause frustration to simmer within me until it boils over as unhealthy expressions of anger. Frustration expands in me when I must continuously deal with people who express a lack of compassion or concern or when they repeatedly refuse to collaborate or communicate in positive ways about shared values. People who gossip, backbite, and lie also raise my ire. My frustration also simmers to a boil when I must continuously deal with persons who refuse to learn or who express no desire to move beyond their professional incompetence or spiritual laziness. If you are not sure how to discover these prompts in yourself, try journaling when you are angry. Themes will emerge as you review your notes.
Second, I have renewed my commitment to follow the scriptural guidance found in Paul’s Letter to the Church in Ephesus where he reminds them to live according to the way of Jesus:
“For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. So then, putting away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with your neighbor, for we are members of one another. BE ANGRY BUT DO NOT SIN; DO NOT LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR ANGER, AND DO NOT MAKE ROOM FOR THE DEVIL..Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear…PUT AWAY FROM YOU ALL BITTERNESS AND WRATH AND ANGER AND WRANGLING AND SLANDER, TOGETHER WITH ALL MALICE. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:21-32).
Third, I have set boundaries to help me deal with these frustrations and points of anger. At times, I have needed to limit my time investment in a relationship or a situation. At other times, I have decided to practice what I have learned through a Mennonite friend – Carefrontation. Carefrontation is different from confrontation. In carefrontation, I approach the person or the group by saying, “I am feeling some dissonance in our relationship or in our group and I care about you or us. So, let’s name what it is that is causing this dissonance with the understanding that we care so much for one another that we cannot allow this dissonance to go unaddressed. The purpose of carefrontation is not to blame but to dissolve the dissonance. Setting boundaries, for me, has also included returning to the observance of a day off and some occasional time away from the pressures of work.
Fourth, when I realize a situation is producing anger within me, I set aside some time to consider potential plans for addressing the situation. This hour or two of focused attention usually provides multiple positive options to consider. For example, since last Friday, I have set aside time to determine what I can do to be a faithful steward of my justifiable anger over the Supreme Court ruling motivated more by political perspective than the laws of our democratic republic. Thus far, I have called both offices of our North Carolina senators and my congressional representative to proclaim my voice. I have also determined to write this long article in an attempt to be helpful in practical ways. In addition, I have decided to preach a sermon series this next year on Our Baptist Heritage of Freedom. I have also initiated conversations with some colleagues to explore ways we can be supportive of all women and girls during these times of increased abuse against their freedoms. I have also reached out to a few of the persons and families to whom I have ministered through the decades who would have been impacted tremendously by this SCOTUS decision; women and girls who have been raped and who have made decisions based on their overall health conditions. Over time, we will identify other ways our anger can motivate us to continue the work of Jesus – the work of redemption and freedom.
SOME SUGGESTED FIRST STEPS: Here, I offer three ideas for us to transform into praxis.
1. Let Us Amplify Our Baptist Identity and Message by Championing Freedom.
In her sublime volume of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne Robinson reminds us: “Freedom and the sovereignty of the individual conscience are ideas that in early American culture and in precursor movements in England and Europe arose together and informed each other in important ways” (p 5). One of the movements that precipitated this rise of valuing freedom and sovereignty of the individual conscience were the Baptists. Today, attacks on individual freedom and religious freedom are on the front pages every week it seems. So, one of the first steps we can take is to reaffirm our commitments to freedom – freedom in all its expressions.
Several years ago, a Roman Catholic priest was asked to speak in a Baptist congregation on a Wednesday evening. The idea was to help Baptists better understand the Roman Catholics of today. During the Q&A period at the end of the session, a Baptist woman asked, “What one thing do you admire most about Baptists?” Without hesitation, the priest pronounced his one-word answer: “Freedom.” Whether you have roots in Greek Orthodoxy, Methodism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Ecumenism, or Anglicanism, if you are part of St. John’s, you have hitched your active faith to a Baptist church that has practiced freedom for a century. In these early years of our second century, let us amplify our Baptist identity and message by championing freedom.
2. Let Us Ask, ‘What is God’s Revelation in Jesus Calling Us to Do in This Situation?’
In his excellent book, The Road to Character, David Brooks notes how so many commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passions and trust their feelings as they find their purpose. He suggests a different approach to the discovery of purpose. He admits this approach was more common in the past than today when we overly emphasize independent autonomy. But I like his questions – maybe because I have asked these questions throughout my life. He suggests we ask, ‘What does life want from me?’ ‘What are these circumstances calling me to do?’
One of my favorite Baptists was Walter Rauschenbusch. He is considered to be the founder of the Social Gospel Movement. Yet, he truly emphasized that devout disciples of Jesus should be servants of God who are joining God’s work in social situations. In the next few years, I will guide us in some readings of Rauschenbusch, conversations about how his thoughts give a theological foundation to our servant church expression as we consider intentional missional actions that express our calling today.
3. Let Us Increase Our Diligence to Collaborate in Unified Effort Focused Upon God’s Light.
In her intriguing style, Barbara Brown Taylor presents ideas about Learning to Walk in the Dark.
She observes how we use the concept of darkness to describe negative, lonely, and frightening experiences. “I am in a dark place right now,” she quotes a person as saying. Honestly, each of us has been in a dark place a few times. If you have not been in a dark place, you are not paying attention or you’re not being honest. Yet, our world’s night brings stars into view and allows us to see the moon. In other words, darkness provides the opportunity for you to focus more on the light rather than all the other things light allows you to see.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together to explain how he and others lived together as a unique fellowship in an underground seminary during the Nazi years in Germany. In this short volume, he notes: “The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity” (p 26).
THEREFORE, as we move through this summer of scattering, please begin to move your heart (and your habits) to pray for and commit to an autumn of regathering and refocusing our energies on our collaborative and unified efforts as God’s people following Jesus as we continue his work.
Until then, try to not stumble over any dogs. 😉