People change, whether we like it or not. We grow or we decay. We move toward our true self or we betray it. That goes for individuals as well as communities. And an indispensable part of becoming who we aspire to be is facing who we actually are.
That’s one of the lessons of the story of Jesus’s baptism. And that lesson was starkly underscored by the seditious assault on the United States Capitol last Wednesday. Let’s start with a brief review of events and then turn to what Jesus teaches us about where we go from here.
A large, ragged mob stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of a valid presidential election. Incited by the President and deluded by conspiracy theories from the likes of QAnon, they broke through police barricades and invaded the halls of the Legislature.
By turns stunned, anxious, and angry, I heard voices say, “This is not America.”
Our highest ideals are freedom and equality. We agree to respect our democratic processes and institutions precisely in order to defend and preserve those values.
Other voices said, “This is America.”
America is stained by white supremacy. Banners, flags, and sweatshirt logos announced its presence. The mob was overwhelmingly white. And we are left to wonder at the strikingly inadequate measures taken to protect the joint session of congress. Last year, a phalanx of heavily armed police guarded the steps of congress in preparation for Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Both observations are true. And in order to move toward a healthier and holier place, we need to come to terms with them both.
This is not America. It is not who we aspire to be. Our founding and abiding vision is to be a community that nurtures and guards the infinite worth of each individual regardless of race, creed, gender, language, sexual orientation, social standing, or economic means.
And yet, this is America. It is who we actually are.
Already in 1619 whites were enslaving blacks on these shores. Our Constitution made allowances for the Southern slave-dependent economies.
The Confederacy seceded from the Union in order to continue the practice of chattel slavery. Jim Crow laws evolved to ensure the power and status of whites after the Civil War.
Moreover, the land we all live upon was taken by force from indigenous people. Since the arrival of Europeans in 1492, the indigenous population has declined through violence and disease by 90%. That’s roughly 55 million people. White supremacy has been with us from the beginning.
Facing this reality is difficult. But it’s a necessary step in healing. In order to become who we yearn to be, we need to face who we are right now. And as I mentioned above, that’s one of the key lessons we can draw from the story of Jesus’s baptism.
John had offered a baptism of repentance as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. He wasn’t telling people to clean up their act in order to present their tidiest selves to Jesus in hopes of avoiding damnation.
Instead, he urged them to take an honest look at their lives in order to experience a crucial epiphany. Right in the midst of the beauty and goodness we treasure there’s pain and cruelty. Affection dwells alongside contempt and indifference. Extravagant wealth and agonizing want reside next door to each other.
This is not who we long to be. Not really. When Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he wan’t telling to do something alien to our nature. He was reminding us who we most truly are. The image of the loving God. But we can’t get there from here. Not on our own.
And this is precisely the epiphany John hoped his listeners would have: Christ is offering us the transforming love we need to grow into our true selves. In our individual life and our common life.
Repentance is an honesty about ourselves. That honesty prepares us for what God’s transforming love has in store for us. That love propels us toward who we were created to be in the first place.
That is really where we want to go from here. We want to grow toward our true self. And the key is to acknowledge that we are all in this together. I cannot get there without you. And you cannot get there without me.