(Photo courtesy CNN.com)
I missed blogging last week because I was travelling to Washington DC to see my oldest nephew become a Bar Mitzvah. It was a great time of celebration and seeing family. Now that I am back, I want to pick up my series on the Apostolic Fathers by exploring a small passage from The Shepherd of Hermas. It is one of the more interesting books of the Apostolic Fathers (and certainly the longest). There are many elements and passages from Hermas that I could focus on (and I will probably do at least one more blog from this intriguing book), but the passage I want to highlight today will serve a discussion on current events.
The work is probably from several periods with certain sections arising at various points from the late first to the middle of the second century (Holmes, 447). The passage I want to underline today is from chapters 9 and 10. Hermas, goes up to a field accompanied by an elderly woman who will show him “what you must see” (9:2). Hermas sees an ivory couch (9:4) and is instructed by the woman to sit on the couch (9:8), but he is prevented from sitting on the right side and instead told that he must sit on the left (9:9). Hermas is not a fan of being told to sit on the left and the woman notices. She responds, which leads us to the main section that I want to focus on:
“”The place on the right side is for others, who have already pleased God and have suffered for the sake of the Name. But you fall short of sitting with them. But persevere in your sincerity, as you are now doing, and you will sit with them, as will all who do what they have done and endure what they have endured.’ (9:9)
“‘What,’ I asked, ‘have they endured?’ ‘Listen,’ she said: ‘scourgings, imprisonments, severe persecutions, crosses, wild beasts, for the sake of the Name. This is why the right side of holiness belongs to them, and to anyone who suffers because of the Name. The left side belongs to the rest. But to both, to those sitting on the right and to those sitting on the left, belong the same gifts and the same promises; the only difference is the former sit on the right and have a certain glory.'” (10:1)
So, before I continue, I want to state that I know that this passage was written during a time when persecution of Christians was widespread and a very real possibility for most if not all Christians around the Roman Empire. The historical context of Hermas would suggest that the way we read the passage quoted above should center on persecutions in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
That said, I want to draw a link between this passage and a very alarming problem facing people in the United States right now: the rampant persecution of black Christians in this country. By now, I am sure you have heard of the shooting in Charleston at an AME Church Bible study two weeks ago. Nine people were killed in an awful hate crime. However, many people are just now hearing about the number of churches that have been burnt in the two weeks since Charleston. At least 6 predominantly black churches have suffered damage and destruction from fires in several states throughout the South, many of them suspected to be the work of arsonists. The latest, a church fire in South Carolina, is now believed to have been caused by a lightning strike, but the fact remains that black churches in the South are being targeted, attacked, and, often, destroyed.
This is where I want to draw the connection with the Shepherd of Hermas. We have seen above that Christians who have faced horrible suffering get a special place at the ivory couch in Hermas. Hermas himself is not allowed to sit on the right side of the couch because he had not undergone such trials. While the “promises and gifts” remain the same for both camps, there is a “certain glory” for those who have so suffered. I feel that many white Christians in the US (a group that I would put myself in as well) have literally no idea what our black brothers and sisters face today (and have faced over hundreds of years in this country). This happened during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and is still happening today. Often you hear phrases like “racism is over,” or “don’t play the race card,” to basically downplay the struggles of black men, women, and children. Such statements are most often uttered by white individuals. Racism affects black communities in many ways, and even houses of worship are being targeted.
I think that the most poignant part from the Hermas quote above comes when the elderly woman says, “persevere in your sincerity.” Christians must continue to be sincere with regard to the struggle of black Christians in this country. Engaging in endless debates about gun control and the confederate flag (although they can help enact real, positive changes) must not overshadow or ignore the more prevalent issue in this country: the continued racism and bigotry that black individuals face, even when they go to church. In order to drive home the point: how many of you knew about the problem of black churches being burnt in the South before the most recent “lightning strike incident?” It had not been discussed, it had been overshadowed, and isn’t that part of the problem?