The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
I thought I knew what I was going to preach this week.
I’ve had it planned for weeks, and it’s why we’re behind the lectionary today. I’m fascinated by this story of Jacob struggling with God. This is where Jacob becomes Israel. This is the apex of this whole narrative we’ve been following, from Abraham and Sarah, through Isaac and Rebekah, to the twin brothers Esau and Jacob and their lives of conflict. It all comes to a head here, with Jacob waiting to see whether, after many years apart, his brother Esau will agree to be reunited with him. But before that happens, he spends the night wrestling with God and refusing to let go, even when his hip is dislocated. He holds on. In the morning he emerges, limping but alive, and with a new name, Israel. He has struggled with God, and with humans, and he has prevailed. From that moment on, he carries the name of God’s people and they carry his, and it is a name forged in struggle.
I thought I knew what I was going to preach about, because wrestling with God is kind of my specialty.
But then this week happened. And we crept a little closer to war each day, as our recklessly fearless leader threatened not only North Korea but Venezuela, angering China and Russia in the process, and continuing to hold to his picture of the greatness of America.
And then on Friday evening I started to hear reports that people were gathering at the University of Virginia, carrying torches and preparing to march and surround a church, where a number of black clergy and laity were praying for the resistance to the larger “Unite the Right” march scheduled for Saturday. I want to make this picture clear: black people were trapped in a church while white men with torches stood outside chanting, “You will not replace us!” And there were no police in riot gear, and the mainstream media was nearly silent.
Then yesterday, the main march occurred in Charlottesville. Heavily armed militias marched the streets carrying Nazi and Confederate flags, the symbols of genocide and slavery. They surrounded and attacked groups of peaceful counter-protesters. One of them drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing at least one of them. Three deaths and nineteen major injuries are now attributed to the rally, to these white nationalists chanting “Blood and soil,” a Nazi cry that declared the unique right through lineage and land to possess their country.
In the midst of all of this, it occurred to me that perhaps America, especially white America, has been identifying a little too closely with God’s chosen people.
Throughout the history of the United States, American Christians, particularly white American Christians have been thinking of ourselves as the new Israel, and this as some version of the promised land. This might have made sense in the beginning to the European immigrants who fled religious persecution. But the Europeans who came here for many reasons, not just religious, claimed this nation by taking the land from indigenous people, and built it with the labor of enslaved, predominantly black and African people who were brought here against their will, and so the promised land was only full of promise for a few, right from the beginning.
I wish I could say that was the past, but yesterday was just the latest proof that white supremacy is alive and well. It doesn’t even feel enough fear to hide anymore; the new KKK doesn’t wear sheets or masks. They show their faces, unafraid of condemnation, in the light of Tiki torches from Pier One, and the appropriation and privilege of that would be laughable if the history of white men marching with torches wasn’t so horrifying.
The most disappointing thing of all is that most of white America, even those of us who would say we aren’t racist, who find this deplorable, will be silent about the riots that happened yesterday. Or we’ll be upset by it today and forget tomorrow – because we can. We will talk about free speech, or we’ll say, “This isn’t really America” and distance ourselves from the reality that this really is America, because we can. That’s what privilege means. We can forget. We don’t have to be afraid of the next marchers with torches, or the next armed militia, or the next time we get stopped by the police, or the next random person walking down the street who thinks they have more right to exist here than we do. We can go back to our normal lives, and back to putting ourselves at the center. We can go back to thinking of this America that primarily benefits us as the promised land. Even we liberals who would never think this or say it aloud, we can go back to acting as though white American Christians are God’s chosen people.
But the fact is that this America doesn’t look much like the promised land or the chosen people of God. The Israel of the Bible – both the person and the nation – struggled, with God and with humans. Israel was not a world superpower. Israel was small, marginalized, often enslaved and exiled. If we’re identifying modern places with the biblical story, this America is not Israel. It’s Babylon. It is a country where the true people of God don’t quite fit, where they are in exile, where their role and their call is resistance to a culture that crushes the weak and the different.
We who are in the majority have for a long time thought of our nation as a close ally. I think it may be time to reconsider. It is time for us, especially those of us who are white American citizens, to wrap our minds around the fact that we cannot count on the culture or the government to do the heavy lifting of justice for us. We cannot claim to follow Jesus and then just go with the flow here, because the flow is drowning millions and millions of people. We’ve been really slow on the uptake, refusing to listen as people of color have been trying to tell us for decades about the continuing realities of white supremacy. If it took this for some of us to believe them, so be it. Now is the time. We cannot wait for another racist rally. We cannot wait for another death.
Now I know that a lot of you are out there and you are on the same page, and you want to stand up and resist this racist, white nationalist abomination. But some of you may not feel like you have the fortitude for this fight. Some of you may be afraid, because this is getting very ugly and there is real risk involved. And some of you may simply not be sure what to do.
But this church has struggled with humans and with God before, and has prevailed. This church has struggled, with humans, and with God. And you have prevailed. And we can do it again.
Most of you have been forged in faith journeys that involved struggling with family, friends, the church, and even God as you defined your identities, beliefs, and values in ways that traditional western Christianity has not quickly accepted. And yet you prevailed.
This church has been forged in its struggle with the wider church, with the law, and with God, as it grabbed hold of the open table and welcome for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This church held onto that open table, and held on to its hospitality, and you would not let go, even when the church hurt you for it, even when you wondered why God was putting you through this. You held on until morning, until the blessing came. And this church that was called irregular and subjected to disciplinary commissions is now known for sticking it out and doing what was right even when it was a struggle that seemed it would never end, and even when it hurt, and even when you came away limping.
This is a new time, and the struggle is for a different set of rights, and it’s one that is harder for us, because this time most of us are in the position of power and privilege. But you know how to do this. You have grabbed hold and not let go before. You have held on until morning, even when it was a wrestling match that seemed like it would never end, even when it hurt, even when you came away limping. You have been forged for this. It won’t be easy, and we can’t do it alone, but it can be done. Morning is coming.
Standing in true solidarity with black and brown people in this country will be a struggle. And it may hurt – because it has been hurting people of color for centuries. But if we claim to follow the example of Jesus, there is no option. We resist white supremacy, or we become complicit in it. We struggle through the night until morning comes, or we give in to it.
If we’re looking for an Israel to identify with, this is the one – the one who struggles, even when it hurts, the one who holds on til morning. Morning is coming, if we just hold on.