Acts 5:1-11: “Accountability or Death” - Jay Bergen, April 18, 2021
Updated: May 7, 2022
In their 2014 poem “Dear White America,” the poet Danez Smith wrote,
i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. i want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children.
take your God back.
I used to say that I avoided the God of the Hebrew Bible, and focused on the Jesus of the Christian Testament. I used to say this, ignorant of the antisemitism of the statement, ignorant of the long history of Jewish interpretation that finds Divine love dripping from every word of Torah, somehow forgetting the long legacy of my people carving the name of Jesus onto the handle of the sword of genocide, of colonization, of sexual violence, of death.
If you don’t know what to do with divine violence in the Hebrew Bible, what do you do with divine violence in the Christian Testament?
take your God back.
Acts remains my absolute favorite book in the Bible. It is the story of the Freedom Church being born, a powerful story of our movement struggling and being transformed by the Holy Spirit over and over again. It has shipwrecks and prison breaks… and this mess of a story. This story, which seems to imply that the Spirit of the Lord murders two people.
I am tired of divine violence. Though I long ago learned that God does not kill Their child as payment for the souls of other people, that God instead is constantly resurrecting the whole world through Love; Though I long ago learned to believe that hell and heaven are not two doors that open or close for us based on our words, but rather horizons towards which we walk throughout our whole lives; Though I have been embraced by a God whose only role in suffering is to accompany those who mourn; I am still tired of divine violence.
This week, the God of White America murdered Daunte Wright and left his mother Katie, his partner, and his infant child grieving. The God of White America murdered eight FedEx workers in Indianapolis. He killed a thirteen-year-old Black child in an alley in Chicago. He has shot 55 children in our city so far this year.
i do not trust the God you have given us.
To hell with that God.
In our story today, this same God kills Ananias and Saphirra. But not in the way you think.
If you were listening closely earlier, you may have noticed that the text never says that the Spirit kills Ananias and Saphirra. They both fall down and die, and everyone around them is filled with fear.
I only know what to do with this story because of what happens later: In the next chapter, Greek community members raise their voices to let everyone know that they are being neglected when it comes to distributing resources. Those in power in the community - who the text calls the Hebrews - are holding onto more of the resources. After this call-out, the Hebrew leadership of the community makes one very simple decision: They put the marginalized Greek community in charge.
Ananias and Saphirra are Hebrew names. As members of the dominant group in this predominantly-Jewish community, they have been complicit in hoarding resources, for themselves and for everyone else in the dominant group. To be clear this story is not an anti-semitic trope (though it will be used by anti-Semitic Christians later on), it is a story of a conflict within a predominantly-Jewish community, one where the prophetic Jewish tradition embodied by Jesus is coming up against a very human desire for power and control, the exact desire that the prophetic Jewish tradition calls out. Acts is written by a community in conflict over whether it understands itself as “Jewish,” so there are lots of anti-Jewish things being said in it, but bear with me through this. In Acts 6, there’s a way out of this conflict: Take accountability and relinquish power. But unfortunately we are back in Acts 5.
What if what strikes Ananias and Saphirra dead is not the Spirit of the Lord, but their own fear of accountability? What if what kills them is not the God of the Israelite people, the God of jubilee and redistribution, but rather their inability to give up on the God of racist inequality and wealth-hoarding? Theologian Willie James Jennings, critiquing how the straight nuclear family has been a tool of white, colonial wealth-hoarding, calls this story “the death of the sovereign couple.” Maybe the God of Roman imperialism, like the God of White America, knew only one response to the call for liberation and accountability, and so it killed them.
Over the past three months, we have slowly wound our way, week by week, through the STAR model of trauma resilience. Starting with Finding Safety and Support, we have walked the path of acknowledgement, and reconnection, through mourning, naming, memorializing, reflecting on root causes, committing to take risks, practicing tolerance, engaging those we have hurt and those who have hurt us, and choosing forgiveness. Today, we arrive, somehow, at establishing “creative justice.”
But as Cate asked me earlier this week, “What do we do when the world keeps knocking us back to ‘finding safety and support?’” This series has always been an open exploration of guideposts along the road to healing, a road which is not the same for any two of us. But still, I do not feel much like preaching on justice after this week. Anything I might say about justice feels dead in my mouth.
Marge Piercy writes, in one of my absolute favorite lines of poetry, “The work of the world is common as mud.” So too is the work of creating justice. After this year, I am learning that there will never be a perfect moment to practice justice. We will gather the courage and resources to address this or that wound in our souls, and still it will hurt us. We will make it through this pandemic, and we will still be in a world of racial capitalism and unfolding climate devastation.
The Spirit of the Lord always visits us under imperfect circumstances, when we do not have all of our resources, when we would like for Her to come back later. Accountability does not wait for the right moment, it is forged out of the tools we have. As Philly-based transformative justice practitioners Jenna Peters-Golden and Bench Ansfield write, “There is no such thing as a ‘successful’ accountability process…. At the very least, we hope to mitigate the impact of the harm that has occurred, and prevent it from happening again.”
This morning, I am left wondering what Ananias and Saphirra needed to not be killed by their own shame and commitment to power. I am wondering what Peter could’ve done differently as a leader. What negative experiences in church made Ananias and Saphirra feel like they couldn’t be honest? As I have learned from those who practice transformative justice, we can never “hold people accountable,” people can only choose to accept accountability themselves. To put it another way, others can never hold us accountable, we must choose accountability ourselves.
Accountability is hard! As I share this sermon, I can feel my pulse rising as I reflect on the times I have stumbled over accountability, become defensive, denied the Spirit. I have done these things because I have not fully given up the God of White America.
i do not trust the God you have given us…. take your God back.
The God of White America will never accept accountability. To hell with that God. The work for all of us, especially those of us who are White, is to leave behind that which does not serve us in following the Holy Spirit. To take accountability under imperfect circumstances, to practice creative justice though our hearts are weary, to follow the God of the Torah and the Prophets and Jesus even if we do not have all the tools we might need for the journey. To heal the wounds of the God of White America even though that God still continues to lash out.
This is the moment in which we are called to transformation. Not some other time, but now.