Remarks for Vigil in Response to Chapel Hill Murders
Delivered February 16, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister, at a vigil at the University of Connecticut sponsored by the UConn Asian American Cultural Center’s Pan Asian Council
Good evening, friends.
I bring you greetings this night on behalf of the people of the Storrs Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. But more than simply greetings, I hope to offer up among us today our collective sorrow at last week’s murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, together with our communal commitment to stand together in solidarity with all who face bias, discrimination, oppression, and injustice in each new day. At this time, of course, we hear that calling toward solidarity ringing out once again from our Muslim sisters and brothers, as the hand of violence and fear has struck them once again.
Among my fellow Christian sisters and brothers, many—if not most—of us are preparing in just a couple of days to begin the holy season we call “Lent”, a time we take each year in the weeks before our Easter celebrations for simplification, introspection, more-intentional prayer, and other acts of spiritual preparation. This season of Lent begins for us with the observance of Ash Wednesday, which is one of the two most somber and solemn observances each year in Christian worship. A significant focus of Ash Wednesday worship in most Christian traditions is on confession, praying with bare and cutting honesty before God and recognizing our brokenness and admitting the multitude of ways that all of us have fallen short of the life God intends for us.
As this day of confession approaches in the midst of our mourning of the shootings in Chapel Hill, I cannot help but think about the ways in which we Christians should—or, better in fact, must—confess our significant complicity in anti-Islamic sentiment violence. Even though the hatreds of last week’s shooter were purportedly against all religions and theistic understandings of faith, nevertheless, our country’s biases against Muslims govern our society’s response or lack-there-of, the form taken by our outcry or lack-there-of, and even the news media’s coverage or lack-there-of. The ways Christians and Christianity stand by and fail to condemn these acts of violence, and moreover, the prejudices that support them—these are sins. They are sins that we must confess. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit,” sings the words of the Hebrew psalm (51) to which Christians turn on Ash Wednesday. “A broken and contrite heart, O God,”—prays that psalmist—“you will not despise.”
There is deep in the soul of the Hebrew faith, the tradition in which the Christian faith also finds its roots, an admonition to treat fairly those persons of difference residing among us. In the book of the Hebrew Torah called ‘Leviticus’ by Christians, the command is clear: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34). And likewise, later, in the book called ‘Deuteronomy’, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). The truth is, of course, that our Muslim sisters and brothers are not “aliens” among us in this country; they are not strangers. They are us; they are fellow citizens and neighbors. And yet for far too many of us of Christian faith, and for the wide swath of Americans who are not actively religious but from whom some at least nominal cultural sense of Christianity is the operative religiosity, we still see these sisters and brothers as strangers and aliens. Even we at Storrs Congregational Church know more about where our next door neighbors at the Islamic Center park their cars—as we occasionally have the peaceful tussle over our shared parking lot—than we know about their faith and their personhood. Our Muslim sisters and brothers are right here next to us, and in fact are a part of us, and yet for most of us Christians, still our treatment of them falls short even of what our faith says the stranger and alien deserve.
In the Christian faith, we do not practice things like confession and penitence simply to wallow in our own brokenness. We recognize with full honesty our shadows so that we may see all the more clearly the light that beckons us from beyond into a new day, into the fullness of life abundant that God intends for each one of us. I am saddened that Deah, Yusor, and Razan have been denied the fullness of what this life yet held for them. As for myself, as one who worships the one God known in various ways and by various names to Jew and Christian and Muslim alike, I pray for reign of God to come and break in among us, fulfilling that vision spoken of in Christian scriptures of the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” standing together as one diverse body together before the great glory of the divine (Revelation 7:9).