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An Invitation to Transformative Justice - Sermon on Acts 7:55-60 - John Bergen, May 10, 2020

Updated: 7 days ago

“Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”


Today’s scripture is a lynching. I wanted to preach this week on a continuation of my sermon last week about belonging, or maybe talk about Mother’s Day, but today’s scripture is a lynching.


There’s no way around this. Stephen might as well be named Henry Smith, 17-years-old, tortured and burned to death in front of ten thousand people in Paris, Texas in 1893.


Stephen might as well be named Zachariah Walker, beaten and burned to death by a crowd of dozens in Coatesville, here in Pennsylvania, in 1911. Those involved in the lynching were charged but acquitted.


Stephen might as well be named Ahmaud Arbery, shot and killed by two white men while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia on February 23rd, 2020.


Today’s scripture is a lynching.


And I’ve found myself wondering: Why? Why tell this story?


The Bible is full of stories of horrific violence: Rape, murder, genocide. Sometimes, it is graphic violence committed against the protagonists. Often, the text ordains the violence and rape of many characters. Sometimes, the narrator seems neutral. These are hard stories to read, harder still to read to young people. No wonder so many of us hold the Bible at arm's length, or leave it on the shelf.


Add on to this the thousands of years of violence against black people, indigenous people, Jewish people and other non-Christians, women, queer and trans people, all justified by reference to scripture. Why tell this story?


In some traditional Mennonite households, there might be only one book besides the Bible and the Hymnal: The Martyrs Mirror. This six-hundred page collection details Christians, especially early Anabaptists and Mennonites, killed by the state. The first story in Martyrs Mirror is the story of Stephen. The book was written both to encourage and to haunt early Mennonites: This is the bloody pathway on which your ancestors walked.


The Martyrs Mirror runs in the same vein as the Book of Acts. Both are written after a time of persecution. Both make heroes out of those who have died. Both call us to live lives worthy of the radical commitment of our ancestors. That’s one answer to the question of “Why?”


But today’s scripture is a lynching.


Hero-making is dangerous. It reduces the complex humanity of those killed. And it reduces the humanity of those who did the killing, who cheered, who sold body parts as souvenirs, who held the coats. It makes them villains and absolves us, those who have not actively participated in a lynching, of our responsibility. And the terrible truth is that those who commit horrific acts of violence come from somewhere, were raised by someone, in a context where this violence was possible. We are woven into the same fabric.


Ultimately, hero-making tells a story of two separate groups of people: The heroic and the villainous. Isn’t this the way the religion of Empire has taught us to see the world? The saved and the damned?


It is dangerous to try and make theological meaning of immense suffering. Often, there are no adequate words. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, reflecting three decades after the Holocaust, offered this famous working principle: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”


I wonder: What story can we tell about our faith that can sit beside Stephen without denying our connection with the mob? What if we told stories that acknowledged that there is a piece of us with Stephen when he dies, and a piece of us with the mob closing in, and a piece of us with Saul, holding the coats, standing silently by?


What if there aren’t good or bad people?


What if we are guided here by the framework of transformative justice, a practice developed and refined by women of color dedicated to acknowledging the full humanity of both survivors of sexual violence and those who cause harm. Transformative justice builds on the practice of restorative justice in that it seeks healing, justice, and accountability for ending abuse, while also transforming the ongoing social conditions that allowed the abuse to occur. At its heart is the safety of the person who was harmed and a commitment to changing the conditions that made violence possible in the first place.


Transformative justice is messy, hard work. It is not mandatory work, it is an invitation. It is initiated by the survivor. It seeks to hold people accountable within their community. Like Mary in the garden on Easter morning, it glimpses a world without crucifixions, by understanding how crosses get built in the first place.


Transformative justice might ask, “What does Stephen’s family need? Who can meet that need? What support and education does the mob need to understand the impact of their violence? What support and education does Saul need to understand his complicity? What work could the mob and Saul do in the community so that this won't happen again?”


Fundamentally, it asks, “Why?”


The writer adrienne marie brown says that,


To transform the conditions of the ‘wrongdoing’, we have to ask ourselves and each other ‘Why?’

Even – especially – when we are scared of the answer….

‘Why?’ makes it impossible to ignore that we might be capable of a similar transgression in similar circumstances.

We don’t want to see that.

Demonizing is more efficient than relinquishing our world views, which is why we have slavery, holocausts, lynchings and witch trials in our short human history.


“Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”


Today’s scripture is a lynching.


There are no heroes in this story. And no villains. There is a victim, there are people who murdered someone, there are those who stood by and did nothing. There is Ahmaud Arbery, there are the two white men who shot him, and there is the community and the long shadow of crosses and lynching trees, a shadow we too live under.


So this is a sermon about belonging after all. We are woven into this world together. None of us are free until all of us are free.


This scripture is an invitation to pause and reflect on the stories we tell — about ourselves, about faith, about the world. It is an invitation to think about how we tell stories that are rich, and complex, and as honest as we can muster. To listen deeply to people who have experienced violence, to listen to the parts of ourselves that have experienced violence, so that we may understand how to heal a world that allows such pain. It is an invitation to approach each other by asking, “Why?” It is an invitation to continue a journey of healing, part of the same pathway our ancestors walked.


In her book on transformative justice, Ann Russo shares this quote from the theologian Sharon Welch, who writes:


Where does this leave us in our work for justice, in our attempts to build and sustain community?

We are not ushering in a new age.

We are not part of a grand cultural revolution.

We are not fighting the war to end all wars.

We are, quite simply, like all the generations before us, and all the generations that will come after, learning to walk.



Image source: Suzanne D. Williams via Unsplash

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