Reflections on Individualisim, Transactionalism, and the way to get Free
A sermon on Elder Sunday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church
Let us read a letter to the faithful yet scattered believers, let us listen now for a word from the Lord.
I exhort the elders among you 2 to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight,[a] not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it[b]—not for sordid gain but eagerly. 3 Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 5 In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.[c] And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for
“God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”
6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert.[d] Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters[e] in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
The other day, my beautiful bright beloved son walked up to me. He gazed into my eyes and said, “Mom, what will you give me if I clean my room?” I didn’t have to say anything. I just gave him the look. You know the look. You’ve maybe even used it yourself a time or two. The side eye, brow raised, smirk on the face, energy that says “Child, you better watch out!” My son knows this look well. He nodded and moved on.
Who’s kid is this anyway? Where’d he come up with this stuff? What’d we do to get to this point- Wanting sweets for taking the dog out, requiring incentive to get his homework done? He’s not the only one.I’m to blame too: “Mom, can I use your phone?” “Sure, if I can get a hug.” My husband, Greg’s not blameless either. The other day he said to me, “Helms, if you take one for the team and go to the DMV to register the car, I’ll read yet another chapter of Harry Potter to the kids.” It’s come to this, folks. When’d our family become so transactional?
I don’t think we’re the only ones. How did we all get here? Parenting, relationships, errands, chores, activities, projects, jobs…most everything is: “What’s in it for me?...What do I get if I do something for you?” We’ll do just about anything if there’s incentive: social capital, status update, social media likes. So much has become Transactional and all about the individual.
Was it the games all that junk talking during games of Uno and Spades that got us to this point? Was it sports? Is that what made us all start looking for the ways to win the game?
Was it testing and grading in schools that got us to the point where we’re all competing?
Folks, I want to take a moment here to sound the alarm...to wake us up to the fact that our constant leaning toward individualism combined with an increasing emphasis on transaction is dangerous.
One of Charlotte’s Resident Storytellers and Spoken Word Artists helped alert me to the dangers. Recently, Hannah Hasan was telling me about a recent coffee meeting with a colleague- a white middle class young man This is a guy has a 9-5 job and yet is still able to be present and supportive in many activist and organizing meetings. He’s generous with his time and money and uses his social capital to uplift other people.
In their meeting the other day, my Hannah asked him what was his motivation. He explained this was his way of practicing atonement. Yes. I get it. I’ve told myself the very same thing. The world is broken and hurting. I and the people who have gone before me have caused harm. I must do my part to repair the wrong doing. I must follow in the way of Jesus and practice reparation- incarnational atonement.
However, when Hannah described the man’s reasoning and said the word “atonement,” she paused. The look on her face seemed pensive, wondering. I heard the “wake up” alarm ringing in my ears. “Why the look?”, I asked her, “What do you think about what he said?” She, a black Muslim woman, explained her compassion for white folks who are working by trial and error to do the work of liberation and reparation; releasing white privilege and letting go of long held, if malformed, values and status. Then she explained, viewing himself this way could potentially perpetuate a story that puts the white man in the center again. It would be easy for this narrative of practicing atonement to become just another story all about him. The sound of the alarm got louder...Hannah is very wise. She was talking about the fella with whom she had coffee. She probably also knew she was also talking about me.
Hannah was talking about me because there have been times when I’ve told myself that if I just do all the right things, God will bless me. If I play my cards right, God will show favor upon me, God will love me more. If I work hard in the subjects of sacrifice and humility, God will give me an A+. If I train in the areas of generosity and hospitality, I’ll win the game. Do you hear that. told myself...I do things...I play my cards...I work hard...God will bless me. Sounds a lot like:“God, what are you going to give me if I clean my room?” There’s God with the side eye.
Our society focuses on the Individual so much so that sometimes we convince ourselves that I can make my own way, I make a life for myself. I am the master of my domain. I am in control of my destiny. I can right the wrong. I should make amends. I must repair the damage. It is up to me to atone for my sin.
There is especially a danger in viewing Atonement as something that individuals take into their own hands...
With an Me, Myself, and I... individualized narrative... efforts toward atonement might lead us to to vengeance and judgement. Convinced that I know best what’s right and wrong. Armed with self righteousness and holy anger. We might suit ourselves up to attack every sin. Pointing fingers. Spotting every splinter and infraction. Slapping folks’ hands for mistakes they make. Publicly calling out folks. Capturing every villian. Seeking retribution for every wrong doing. No flaw goes unmarked, no sin unaccounted for. Soon enough, we’re Batman. Dressed in black. Gloom and doom. Because we think we know better than everyone else, we’ve got no friends. We’re hiding out plotting our next heroic move. Beating evil with fist and fury.
A Me, Myself, and I narrative of atonement might even lead one to martyrdom or messiah complex. You’ve seen this plot play out lots of times... if not in life then, on television The self appointed “Savior” of the story who when lost on an island always insists on personally going on the most dangerous missions, despite being the doctor and unofficial leader of the survivors, and thus arguably the most indispensible one. He especially insists that the fair lady never ever risk her life by coming on these missions, despite the fact that she's handy with a gun and a skilled tracker. Or there’s the wise strong self imposed bearer of all burdens chooses to risk freedom by making false criminal confessions to spare other people. He passively accepts a number of undeserved punishments. This self imposed savior mentality is motivated by reward- higher status, social capital, he gets the prize- often times, the lady.
Transactional and Individualized perspective is not working. It is harmful. It is dangerous. And honestly, we just don’t have time for transactional relationships anymore.
It’s a mess out there. Have you seen the news? Have you looked at the circumstances we’re in? Desire for Power is trumping concern for people. Greed is barricading mouths from being fed and bodies from being sheltered. Violence, poverty, dispossession,...Fear, as Howard Thurman says, hounds us. As scripture says, the Evil roaring lion is sneaking around trying to find someone to attack. We’re in the midst of a storm. The Fog isn’t just rolling in. It is here. The waters are churning. The rain is pouring down. The winds are blowing. Thunder is roaring. Lightning is striking. The boat’s tipping. We’re barely able to stay afloat. You’re in the boat, hanging on for dear life, and you look pleadingly at the person across from you, hoping they’ll help you out. They say,“Hey, what’ll you give me if I hand you a life-vest right now?” The side eye ain't gonna cut it. Something’s gotta change.
Two weeks ago, Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation hosted a series of public conversations on Social Justice and the Church. Two speakers were called in to help the gathered community think differently- to explore alternatives to Individualism and Transactional relationships. To consider why people of faith are called by God to work for the common good rather than purely for themselves. To insure that all might flourish rather than only focusing on how I get mine.
The two speakers that spoke were Rev Traci Blackmon and Rev Jim Wallis, both of whom are bold and radical disciples of Jesus. Rev. Blackmon, pointed to the story when Jesus was asked “What are the greatest Commandments?” When Jesus answered Love the the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, heart and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself, he was quoting the scripture of his ancestors- Leviticus 19 where it says “leave produce in your field for the poor to collect for food, be honest with one another, do not make promises you do not intend to keep, do not make fun of others, speak up for others, don’t take revenge” - it is a litany of instructions for how to honor God by treating your neighbor with love, dignity, equity, and humanity and it ends with love others as much as you love yourself. “Loving in God is about community- society- the collective people, not about the individual.”
As Rev. Jim Wallis worked through his thoughts, he provided a helpful framework. He named the systems that we uphold- the very ones that oppress all of us, disproportionately oppressing black and brown, LGBTQ folks- he named those systems as Idols. Rev Wallis explained that the function of Idols is that they separate the people from God.
Idols have a scattering force- one that pushes us away from God and away from one another.Idols- individualism, transactionalism- all the isms serve to disconnect us, divide and subdivide us, isolate, segregate, cut us off. Break us. They make us disassociate, detached, and disengaged. Sound familiar?
Rev. Blackmon gave a powerful example of this, “What good my individualized hunger walks if WE can’t come together to rebuke the idol of consumer lifestyle that perpetuates hunger? What comes from individually sending checks to disaster relief if WE collectively do not fight against the systems- the idols- that maintains economic disparities and environmental crisis?”
Atonement is faithful communal mending, uniting, reconnecting, repairing, reconnecting- with God and each other. It is “at one ment” with God and neighbor. This is the kind of work we are called to.
What does that look like?
I think I have an idea...
I propose now is the time for the Escape Room strategy
An Escape Room
You know what I’m talking about? They are those rooms you can pay someone to lock you in and then you and your friends have to work hard figuring out a puzzle, using each other’s gifts and strategies to get free.
Maybe you’re like me. I’ve always been a little too scared to try one of those escape rooms. What if they lock me in there? What if I get stuck? They seem a little sketchy. Let me ask you to hush the inner critic and give this metaphor a chance. If it helps you, try to remember, it’s called an escape room for a reason.
It’s not called a “lock you in for the rest of your life” room. An escape room is a place meant for liberation
In the escape room, We have what we need to get free
With us gathered in this liberation place, are the descendants, stories and wisdom of our Elders and Ancestors. Ringing in our ears are provisions for Freedom- passed down- song, scripture, dance, healing practices. With us are rhythm, drums, and clapping of hands, Moans of blues and groans of perseverance, and celebratory Amens.
The voices of our Elders and Ancestors will both guide us and give us comfort as we escape the storm together.
It is worth repeating so that it will sink in: when we are gathered together in the escape room, we have what we need to get free. There is a whole treasure trove of tools- crafted, sharpened, and refined by Liberators of old- We have the conviction of Moses, the spirit of Miriam, the innovation of the Freedom Farmers- folks like Booker T. Washington and Fannie Lou Hamer- and the boldness and determination of the Freedom Fighters- folks like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
In the liberation room, There is an abundance of all the things we need. We have each other- all of our gifts and expertise, all of our experiences and perspectives. Every voice, every tone, every hue. Every perspective...all the logic, all the feelings, all the intellect, all the strength. Just look around this liberation room right here. Look at all the beauty, the goodness...Consider all the histories, knowledge, the best practices, the innovation, the imagination right here in this very space.
And you know what else? Jesus is in the room too. Remember the stories? The ones our Elders told us when we were young? The disciples were in the boat. The storm was raging. They were afraid and felt isolated, alone, insecure, disempowered. Where was Jesus- right there with them- walking on water- there right beside them, with them in the storm.
Look around again...Do you see evidence of Jesus with us in the liberation room? Hear Jesus saying, “Fear not, I am with you.” Do you see him working miracles, making a way out of no way? I hope you see yourselves right beside him. In the liberation space, Jesus is a colaborer, a co-creator, a co-conspirator
We are with Jesus, Sharing bread and stories, Welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, serving each other, just like that of the early church, so that all needs are met. Stealing Away, chanting and praying for liberation, mapping our way, like those who endured enslavement and practice liberation and deliverance in the Hush Arbors. Diving into the scriptures, discussing matters of faith, working out our faith in bold and radical ways like that of the Base Christian Communities who persevered persecution in South and Central America.
With the liberating power of Christ among us,
We will identify the idols
And Dismantling them.
Dismantling the idols will take time. There will be times when one gives and the other receives, times of understanding and times of doubt. For folks who have long held privileges- things like air space, benefit of the doubt, leadership positions, and access to land & titles; this will mean handing over these things. For those who have been standing with their backs against the wall, pressed down by unjust policies and governance, kept back and on the margins; this will mean stepping up, re-imagining, and recreating a world in which their previous circumstances will not ever exist.
There will be times of suffering and pain, times of sacrifice and hardship. This escape from oppression, the tearing down of all the idols, will require many attempts. Together, we will untangle ourselves from the grip of Nationalism, White Supremacy, and Patriarchy. But in order to do so, we’ll have to get at the root...which will require deconstructing habits, comforts, and routines. It will affect our homes, our work, our families, and even our church.
We are all human. Even with Jesus with us, we may feel despair or loneliness. We may get anxious or tired. We may start to think there’s no way out, that we’re stuck.
Hear these words of encouragement from 1 Peter to the scattered disconnected peoples who though seek at-one-ment with God and neighbor...to the faithful who want to reconnect and re-member ...the ones longing to get free together.
Take Courage, my brothers and sisters,The suffering won’t last forever. the God of all grace- the God of Deliverance, the God of Liberation, the Co Creator and Co Conspirator, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.