Monday, August 21, 2017

Binding and Loosing

One of the privileges (responsibilities?) given to Peter and his successors is to bind and loose. In Matthew 16:13-20, which we will read this Sunday, Peter identifies Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God," and in response Jesus identifies Peter as the rock on which he will build his church. Part of what comes with being the rock, it seems, are the keys to heaven and the power to resist the attacks of hell. Jesus describes that authority by saying, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." But what does that even mean?

Often it's thought of simply as the authority to forgive sins. I suspect that has something to do with other passages in which Jesus gives his disciples/apostles the authority to forgive sins (e.g. John 20:22-23). In fact, this may be what Jesus had in mind, but, at least in recent generations, Peter's successors seem more interested in the forgiving and not the retaining, in the loosing and not in the binding. We don't talk a lot about binding. Whatever Peter and his successors bind on earth will be bound in heaven. What does that mean in the twenty-first century?

Of course, maybe I have no business discussing this. I'm not a successor of Peter. I am a presbyter ordained not at the hands of the Bishop of Rome but by another successor of the apostles. And, as a presbyter, any authority I have is loaned to me by those successor bishops in the sense that I have been called to share in their ministry of pronouncing the forgiveness of sins. In my ordination, I was reminded that, as a priest, I am "to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to [me]." No where in my ordination rite (or the sermon, as I recall) did it mention anything about binding, but binding seems to be an important consideration for these times.

I'm trying to move past Charlottesville, but I just can't seem to, and I think that's a good thing. Truth be told, I'm still struggling to move beyond Charleston and Trayvon Martin and the Pulse nightclub, but I think that struggle is a good thing. I may want to move on, but I feel God calling me and the church to dwell in that place of tragedy and heartache and injustice until God's kingdom comes. I want to move past them because I know that there are other important things for preachers to say and write. Seth preached a sermon about the need for unity in this time of struggle, but people left church yesterday wanting even more. I want more. But I also know that if we spend another Sunday and another one after that and still another after that preaching about racism and bigotry and the powers of hell we will have done a lot of talking and probably not a lot of doing. And the world needs doing.

That's why binding and loosing seem so important right now. There are people in positions of authority who have the power to bind up symbols of racism, legacies of oppression, and the people who stand for them and cast them into the fires of hell. That means purging our churches and our public spaces from symbols of slavery like the Confederate battle flag, statues of Confederate generals, and memorials to individuals who are celebrated not for a life spent promoting the kind of goodness and freedom we articulate in the Baptismal Covenant but for fighting against them. The people who have that power are rectors and bishops and governors and presidents. In so doing, they will not be casting Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis into the fires of hell--only the act of celebrating the oppression that they have come to represent.

As with any polarizing moment in our history, there have been multiple strong and impassioned responses to Charlottesville. Almost everyone has condemned unequivocally the hatred and bigotry espoused by the neo-Nazis, the KKK, and the alt-right, who in moral terms stand indistinguishably with them. But then we all remembered that this protest was ostensibly about the proposed removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, and, not long after Heather Heyer's body had grown cold, people moved past mourning her tragic death and began to discuss and debate the removal of other Confederate monuments. I have seen posts about how President Lincoln said that he would have been quite happy to allow slavery to persist as long as the tax revenues from the south were still flowing into Washington's coffers. I have seen posts about the black troops in Confederate units volunteering to serve in order to preserve a way of life that they loved. I have seen posts and comments on posts that compare Robert E. Lee to Adolf Hitler, and I have seen other people mention that Lee never owned slaves.

Although I am a student of history and a pursuer of the truth, I don't really care what of that is correct and what is historical fiction. I don't need to know what was going through the minds of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis to know that the slavery for which the Confederacy stood is wrong. I know the difference between a statue that commemorates the public service of slave-owner like George Washington and one that commemorates the fight for slavery by a non-slave-owner like Robert E. Lee. The significance of neither of those generals can be fully articulated by labels or statues, but the significance of those statues can be fully understood by observing the people who are marching with tiki torches, making Nazi salutes, and shouting words of hatred all in the name of preserving them.

It doesn't matter whether an alt-right demonstration is being planned for your community. If you live in a town or worship in a church in which memorials to hatred that have not effectively been turned into testaments of equality are still standing, it's time for people with authority to bind them up. For an example of such a "turned" symbol, consider the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was named for a Confederate general who served as a U. S. Senator and as a Grand Dragon of the KKK. It no longer stands for hatred. Pettus has been robbed of his legacy. The blood of the martyrs and the remembrance of the faithful has purged that metal span of its oppressive identity. We can march across it as we would walk across the grave of its namesake--as victors over the evil for which he stood. But statues of Confederate "heroes" in public squares? Images of the Confederacy in stained-glass windows? Plaques praising those who fought to preserve a slave-driven economy? What we bind on earth is bound in heaven. What we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Those are strong words. That's a strong authority. What we as leaders say and do has an effect on the extent to which something is seen as belonging in heaven. Are we really willing to say that symbols of slavery belong in the kingdom of God? If not, it's time to bind them up and cast them into the fiery furnace.

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