Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20
By Rev. John Walsh
August 23, 2015
When Jill announced that she was preaching a series of sermons that would allow her to introduce herself to us and give us a window into her thinking, we were all excited to learn what was to be revealed. This week, the fourth Sunday since her arrival, the theme was to be words about Karen. Since Jill is not here today, I was asked to step in as the guest minister for today. So, let me tell you about Karen. I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.
In one of the conversations the pastoral search committee had with Jill, she asked us, for such a progressive and liberal church, why are you not more diverse? Excuse me. I thought we were asking the questions here. I responded to her question by saying we were not opposed to being more diverse. There would be little resistance to such an idea. If you want to lead us there, we would follow. In fact, we would welcome it. We would, wouldn’t we?
This week’s lectionary reading from Ephesians may be one of the most frequently misinterpreted and misunderstood passages of the Bible. The claim that ‘our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh’ (6:12) but rather ‘against the wiles of the devil’ (6:11) leads many interpreters to conclude that the passage is about a spiritual struggle on the part of individual believers and has no connection to the political realities of the world.
A more careful reading of the text shows that, in fact, it is concerned with spiritual realities precisely in their relationship to political realities. Ephesians 6:12 contrasts the ‘enemies of blood and flesh’ with the true enemies, using a five-fold repetition of the word ‘…against’:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh
against the rulers
against the authorities
against the cosmic powers
against the forces of evil.
While the first use of ‘against’ describes those whom the struggle is not against, the remaining four uses describe the actual enemies against whom believers are called to struggle. These four references move from the earthly realm to the heavenly, connecting the political realm to the spiritual. The terms ‘rulers’ and ‘authorities’ are common terms in the New Testament and usually refer to human rulers and the authority they wield (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:24; Ephesians 1:21).
For most modern readers, the idea of spiritual warfare manifesting itself in political realities may seem antiquated and irrational. Yet I want to suggest that, especially for white progressives such as many of us, it is imperative to recognize that we ourselves are often motivated by spiritual forces that transcend our own ‘blood and flesh’ and yet are ultimately inseparable from us.
Let me call your attention to the educator and activist, Tim Wise, who has, for the past 20 years, been writing and speaking about something he calls ‘white privilege’. His most famous book, ‘White Like Me’ is a gripping commentary on the way bigotry and prejudice, even in subtle ways, has shaped our society, perhaps more so today than ever in our history.
This past week, in a political rally in aa football stadium in Alabama, well over 20,000 people gathered to hear one of the most racist diatribes in this country since George Wallace last stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama. And I am amazed that so little attention has been paid to the way white privilege and white supremacy was celebrated in that speech.
Yet another Presidential candidate this past week was quoted as saying ‘…I don’t have time for Black Lives Matter…Let’s talk about things that matter.’ And others were quick to say ‘all lives matter’ in ways that can only be seen from White Privilege.
While one could no doubt identify numerous forces that animate our political reality, in this month marking the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death and the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, I want to speak specifically of the spiritual force of white privilege, white supremacy—the belief (conscious or unconscious) that white life is more valuable than black life or brown life or that of anyone different from us.
The term ‘white supremacy’ has usually been invoked in reference to vile and violent acts of racism, and most of us would rightly deny that we are engaged in white supremacy in that sense. Yet in his recent memoir Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that white supremacy in its most dangerous forms may appear to be quite innocuous or even attractive to those of us who benefit from whiteness. It is the white supremacy of liberal progressives, but it is white privilege, white supremacy nonetheless.
Coates writes of white Americans existing in a dreamlike state: ‘…I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.’ Yet if we were to wake up, Coates insists, we would recognize that ‘the elevation of the belief in being white…was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various acts meant, first and foremost, to deny [us]…the right to secure and govern our own bodies.’ Coates is pointing out that the rapists in the history of this country are not from Mexico.
What Coates refers to as ‘The Dream’ bears a striking resemblance to what Ephesians calls ‘spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.’ It is an immaterial force that transcends any particular person, yet it asserts itself in power relationships that privilege whiteness at the cost of black lives and brown lives. It is a darkness that permeates white consciousness, convincing us of our innocence while concealing the violence and dehumanization that underlies our way of life. It is an enemy that appears to be a friend, a comfortable lie against which we may not wish to struggle.
This passage from Ephesians calls followers of Jesus into the struggle against the spiritual power that is white privilege, white supremacy—the cosmic power of death masquerading as legitimate earthly authority. It calls us to relinquish the traditional armor of privilege and power and to replace it with righteousness, faith, and truth. It calls us to attack the Dream of white privilege with the love of God, which demands justice for all and not privilege for a few. It calls us to take off the boots we have used to trample down others and to strap on ‘whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.’ It calls us into the struggle against our own white privilege, which smells like peppermint but smacks of death.
Christ calls upon us, the Dreamers, to awaken. To take up the struggle. I think that’s what Jill was asking of us in that conversation with the search committee. Will we join her? Will we follow her?