Friday, November 10, 2017

Our Sin of Exclusion

On Sunday, I had the great privilege of participating in First United Methodist Church Dallasannual Service of Light and Remembrance, for the very first time. This moving event, led by Dr. Andrew Stoker, Senior Minister, is devoted to remembering our homeless friends who have passed during the preceding year.         

Dr. Andrew Stoker
(Courtesy of FUMC Dallas)
The event is held every All Saints Sunday, and is fashioned as an interfaith service, with ministers of other congregations and other faiths joining in offering prayers during the proceedings. One of the highlights of the event is the participation of the youth choir, who introduced the idea of this annual event to the congregation, having seen a similar event on a trip to Chicago a few years back.
The focal point of the service is the reading of the names of the departed by about twenty clergy and nonprofit leaders. After reading these names, we lit candles from a large candle held by Dr. Stoker, and walked through the pews lighting others’ candles from ours.
The language used in the service was deliberate. Reverend Andria Davis, of the Cathedral of Hope, led us in a confession: “We confess that the circle of love is repeatedly broken, because of our sin of exclusion… whenever there is insensitivity or a hardening of heart… whenever we allow inequality, whenever we permit inequity…”

Rev. Andria Davis
(Courtesy of COH)
Interestingly, this is reminiscent of a fascinating biblical passage and its subsequent rabbinic interpretation. Deuteronomy 21 prescribes as follows:

“If… someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known… The elders of the town nearest to the corpse… shall make this declaration: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.’”
The Ancient Rabbis ask what might seem like an obvious question: “Can it enter our minds that the elders… are shedders of blood?! [The meaning of their statement is], however, ‘[The man found dead] did not come to us [for help] and we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort.’”
If we translate this into modern terms, what the elders are saying is that they, as leaders of the community, have set up a system of care, to ensure that everyone’s needs, regardless of their station in society, are taken care of.
The implication of this is obvious. If we take this interpretation at face value, the Deuteronomist is taking it as a given that the elders have done this work; they have set up this system of care. For if not so, how can they make that declaration?  

Indeed, the Ancient Rabbis clarify just this with a few haunting words, later in the text, “When murderers multiplied, the ceremony… was discontinued.” Once the system of care has broken down, the elders cannot claim innocence anymore. 

There is an underlying assumption, on the part of the Deuteronomist, that is worth dwelling on: The community is responsible for what happens in its midst. It is unacceptable for them to turn a blind eye, to avert their gaze from what is happening in their midst. It is unacceptable for them to disclaim responsibility and blame the powerless for their plight, regardless of how or why they think the powerless arrived at their station. It is even unacceptable for them to wait for the powerless to ask for help or just help them on an ad hoc basis.
They must set up a system of care, they must seek out those who need help, and they must proactively engage them. And even if they do all of this, if someone slips through the cracks, they must confess, they must take responsibility.
This is what the Deuteronomist reminds us. This is what Rev. Davis reminds us. This is what First United Methodist Church Dallas reminds us. Let us hope we will heed their message.

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