Monday, August 28, 2017

Who Are We In This Charlottesville Moment?

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of August 26-27, 2017.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings. I have always been enamored with the human side of Jesus. I know theologians have long debated the exact nature of his divinity, and some scholars and church officials over the centuries have sought to minimize or erase his human side. I prefer to think of him as someone fully human that achieved great insights.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mathew, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?”and then more directly “who do you say that I am?” What is going on here? To be clear, most Jesus seminar scholars believe these are not the words of Jesus, but the construction of Matthew, written some 80-90 years after Christ’s death. As such, what these words likely reflect are the conditions of a budding institution in this period and the struggles of a community to portray Jesus. They may also, I would argue, give us some insight into the human side of Christ, a person whose very human questions may be particularly relevant to us today.

I can imagine at least three possibilities for ways to think about Jesus’ questions. First, is this a moment of self-doubt for Jesus? Is he wondering what have I gotten myself into, where is this going, who am I, and what am I to do? Or, second, is he concerned about what others think about him? That is, is he essentially asking what are the popular kids saying about me? Or, lastly, does he already know the answer to these questions and is he simply querying his disciples’ understanding?

I’m skeptical of the second and third possibilities. I believe that Jesus was sufficiently grounded that he would not have been too concerned about what others were saying about him. The third option, that Jesus knew the answer and was simply probing the disciples, seems to be the favored explanation by several scholars I read in preparation for today’s reflection. But this explanation annoys me. In large part because what follows is Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here Peter purportedly gets it right with his mentor, effectively becoming the class brown noser (and can’t you just imagine the other disciples rolling their eyes while this happened). Jesus then goes on to say that Peter “is the Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” He is promised the keys to the reign of heaven, and furthermore, considerable power: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” It’s this text that often has been used to justify the church hierarchy, as well as the authority to determine who is welcomed and not welcomed into the divine. This foundation for institutional power makes me uneasy and I also question whether Jesus, a fierce critic of the religious authorities of his day, would have ever spelled out so clearly a vision for institution building.

I like the first explanation, that Jesus is asking these questions in a moment of self-doubt. For me, this is a particularly human moment. Here we have the most grounded of people, a man with powerful spiritual insights, essentially asking his friends, who am I? Where is this all going?

Who am I, who are we? What are we to do in this particular moment? I have been thinking a lot about these questions recently, especially in the wake of the events two weeks ago in Charlottesville, VA. At that time, neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched. They carried guns, burning torches and shouted slurs of hate. Then one in this group got in his car and drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, wounding dozens and killing a young woman. Our president then vacillated, alternating condemning and excusing what happened.

The first part of what happened is not that unusual. As a kid in Chicago in 1977, I remember neo-Nazis marching in the suburb of Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish community. While the community sought to bar the march, the Supreme Court upheld the neo-Nazis right to free speech and allowed the march to go forward. No, the expression of hate is not new. But the unabashed violence which ensued in such a public space in Charlottesville, and the way our president reacted, is different. Our president equivocated in condemning those who perpetuated the violence that day, violence committed in the name of hate.

Who am I? Who are we? What are we to do in this particular moment? Part of me wants to focus on the failings of the president and, like the Matthew community, focus on institution building. We need strong institutions that endure over time so that less than perfect individual leaders do not drive our collective train off the rails. I get why the Matthew community wanted to build a church. I understand why we need government institutions that transcend individual propensities.

But I am not sure if this is where Jesus would have focused his energies. To be clear, Jesus was not shy about calling out the failings of those in power. This is also a theme that runs through the Old Testament. In fact, in today’s reading from Isiah, we hear about Shebna, the manager of the palace, who is prone to excess, and is therefore removed in favor of Eliakim. But, as we learn time and time again in the New Testament, Jesus’ focus was more often on the community, on teaching people how to live together, how to love, how to forgive one another, and always welcoming the outcasts into the fold.

Like the human Jesus, it is natural to ask at a difficult juncture who we are and what we are to do. I believe Jesus would have held the perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions, and then encouraged us to love, forgive and welcome the alienated and those troubled by hate. Of course, loving and forgiving those afflicted by hate is no easy task, especially when they commit acts of violence. But love and forgiveness can come from unexpected places. The father of Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville, VA, said that “people on all sides need to learn to forgive each other.” He then said, “I include myself in forgiving the guy who did this . . . I just think about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.' I hope that there comes a positive change in people’s hearts, in their thinking, in their understanding of their neighbor.”

I don’t know, if put in a similar situation, I could be as forgiving as Heather’s Dad. I am, frankly, challenged to understand and forgive white supremacists and racists. It helps me to start with empathy, to imagine myself in the shoes of such a person. This is not to condone their thoughts and actions, but simply to try to understand how one could get to this place.

If I’m honest, I must admit that my maternal grandmother was a racist. She was a hard scrabble woman who grew up in western Pennsylvania and was the first person in her family to get a college degree when she became a registered nurse. Unfortunately, my grandmother also would occasionally make racist comments, which thankfully, my parents would challenge. My parents would also take me aside after the fact and explain that her comments were wrong and inappropriate. I loved my grandmother unconditionally, yet I also knew that she had this inappropriate, racist side. But what if my parents had not challenged her, what it they reinforced what my grandmother had said? This helps me begin to imagine that I could just have easily been raised a racist. As the character Mrs. Pell in the film Mississippi Burning said: “Hatred isn’t something you’re born with, it’s taught. At seven years of age, you get told it enough times, you begin to believe it. You believe the hatred, you live it, you marry it.” This allows me to begin to understand & empathize with those afflicted by hate. This is not to excuse any violent actions, but I can imagine myself being in their shoes, full of rage. Seething with hate and resentment is not healthy for oneself or the community. In this case, I would need help. I would eventually be grateful for those who reached out to me from other side.

President Obama has said that “while we are taught to hate, we can learn to love.” For example, “Life after Hate” is a non-profit in Chicago, founded by a former skinhead, which works with former neo-Nazis to help them shed their hateful ideology. This group shows people love and compassion, exposes them to the people they once hated in productive and constructive ways, and helps them build self-confidence. Groups like this are showing us a different way forward.

In conclusion, we are a Christian community. We are all human. We are all imperfect. While we need to hold each other accountable for our actions, we also need to empathize, forgive, and help people to learn to love, even in trying times like these. While we should expect appropriate behavior from our leaders, we must also acknowledge that they may be a symptom of deeper problems in our community. Jesus calls on us to welcome and forgive the estranged and the lost. It is in this healing of uniquely human problems that lurks the divine – the essence of Christ.

Thank you.

I may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at I am grateful for the input I received from the Cabrini Word Team, and the valuable feedback from my spouse, on my thinking in this reflection.