Common Good, Collective Liberation
A sermon delivered at Arch Street UMC
October 9, 2016
By: Rachel Ternes, Global Mission Fellow US2
Jeremiah 29 1, 4-7 (NRSV)
“29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
We’ve been hearing for many of the past weeks, scriptures from the book of Jeremiah, a prophet who lived in the time leading up to and during the exile of God’s people from Jerusalem into the unfamiliar wilderness of Babylon. Jeremiah had prophesied that the people would be exiled as a punishment from God for their disobedience. Other supposed prophets had been assuring the people and the king of Judah that God would not let them be overcome by the Babylonians, just as God had protected God’s people so far in the story. Unfortunately for them, Jeremiah was right. This scripture starts the first letter that Jeremiah sends to the people in exile, sharing with them God’s instructions on how they should live purposeful lives, even after having been kicked out of their homes and sent to a strange land.
The instructions are strange. Jeremiah tells the exiles to invest in their new city. To build houses and live in them. To plant gardens and eat what they produce. Basically to settle in, and love the city as if it was their own. God, through Jeremiah, goes as far as to say that the exiles should seek the welfare of the alien city and pray for it to flourish, because the exiles’ welfare will be determined by the welfare of the city.
How strange it must have been to the exiles to be told to pray for and invest in a city that they did not consider home. It wasn’t their home– it represented the people who had uprooted and overturned their lives. The welfare of this new city must have been a very low priority to the exiles. They had no emotional connection to the city, no history there. They did not identify with it in the way they identified with their true home of Jerusalem. And yet, here God is, telling the exiles that their own destiny was bound up in the destiny of this strange, alien city. On one hand, it’s not something that I would be really excited to hear, as one of the exiles. On the other hand, it makes sense because it sounds like something our God would say. Our God is a God of relationships. Our God wove all of creation together in such a way that our decisions and the way we live our lives have impacts that reach far out into the rest of creation. Our existence was formed in such a way that the flourishing of a seemingly separate part of creation contributes to my flourishing. Isn’t that beautiful? Seek the welfare of this city, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.
This concept that God is sharing with the exiles in Babylon, the idea that their welfare is bound together with the welfare of a city that they don’t identify with, is similar to the concept of collective liberation, a philosophy and way of working followed by many activist movements today. To describe collective liberation, I have to first talk about intersectionality, a term coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Intersectionality describes the way that all our individual identities and our systemic oppressions are interconnected and complex. That racism and ableism work together. That sexism and homophobia feed off one another. That classism and environmental degradation are intimately connected. Once you know that, and you want to do something about it, collective liberation is the response. When we fight for good jobs and fair wages, we think about how how race and gender impact that fight. We don’t put on blinders and say, this is about labor, not racism! We coordinate with groups that work for racial justice and gender justice. Because we know that our liberation from all the intersecting forms of oppression is going to be a collective liberation, and the work to get there is going to be collective work. As the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” The liberation of every part of God's creation hinges on the simultaneous liberation of every other part.
In the scripture, God instructs the people in exile to “build houses and live in them.” I can think of a building project that lives into the idea of collective liberation. I live at Serenity House, our church's ministry in North Philadelphia. The story of this building project started a few years ago, when a group of environmental studies students began working with Serenity House to do environmental projects, like reviving the back yard garden, and installing a solar panel. What was special about their approach was that they recognized that environmental justice work is intersectional, and they made that intersectionality a focus in their work. Because God created everything to be in relationship, when you work for the welfare of the earth and the green things on it, the humans automatically benefit. These students and the community members they worked with made that concept a part of their model. When a solar panel was donated to the group, it became an opportunity for new learning and empowerment for the Serenity House men’s group, through a series of lessons about solar energy and how solar panels work. That grew into a project that you may have heard about: Serenity Soular, spelled SOULAR, has gone through the process of raising money, connecting with a local North Philadelphia solar installation company, recruiting and training two young people from the neighborhood, and involving them in the solarization of Serenity House. God calls us to invest in our communities by building houses and living in them. This house that’s being solarized is already built, but we’re adding onto it, building the infrastructure, making it more liveable. The Serenity Soular project seeks the liberation of God’s natural creation by reducing energy consumption and emissions, but it doesn’t stop there. It seeks the liberation of the people of North Philadelphia from racism-impacted poverty and disinvestment, by believing in and investing in its young people and helping them develop the skills and tools to flourish in their own lives. The first two young people who were recruited have since been hired by the local solar company, and Serenity Soular is preparing to engage two more apprentices to be involved in solarizing a church down the street. This project seeks not just the environmental welfare of the earth, not just the economic welfare of the people, but the collective liberation of humanity and all the rest of creation. As Jeremiah would say, it seeks the welfare of the entire city.
In the scripture, God instructs the people in exile to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Guess what? The Serenity House neighborhood is following this instruction too! The collective liberation seed that those students planted branched off into another project that I’ve been very involved in. There is a vacant lot around the corner from Serenity House that for years had been good for nothing but dumping trash and being a dangerous eyesore. Before I started serving here a year ago, some neighbors and community members decided that something needed to be done about that lot. They started dreaming of a space where North Philly neighbors could grow and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables, where children could play and learn and feel safe, where elders could sit and relax, and where everyone could cultivate community and a sense of neighborhood pride and self-sufficiency. A year later, we now have The People’s Garden, a beautiful space around which a diverse, intergenerational community has formed. As people came together to plant the seeds of sunflowers, tomatoes, collard greens, carrots, they were also planting the seeds of new friendships. The children, who are some of the most dedicated gardeners in the neighborhood, helped the fruits of the earth grow, and in return they had the experience, very unique and special for urban kids growing up in a food desert, of knowing where some of their food came from, and feeling the empowerment of helping to create a plate full of carrots and tomatoes from some tiny seeds. “Plant gardens and eat what they produce.” I think the prophet knew that when a community comes together to plant a garden, they can’t help but begin to think intersectionally. My neighbors know that by investing in the flourishing and welfare of the People’s Garden, they are investing in their own flourishing.
The world we live in today can sometimes feel like hopeless Babylonian wilderness. The terrible incidents of racist violence seem like they will never stop, and the white supremacist cultures and structures seem determined to make People of Color live like exiles in their own lands. Women are treated like objects and subject to violence and discrimination, and our culture defends and celebrates the men responsible. Native people with a deep understanding of the connectedness of the welfare of the Earth and the welfare of humanity, are seeing their sacred land ripped out from under them to be turned into a pathway for the dangerous products of dangerous oil extraction processes. Queer and trans people are experiencing physical violence, spiritual violence, psychological and emotional violence, often at the hands of our own Christian church. The greed and shortsightedness of corporations, governments, and organizations (including the United Methodist Church), are prioritizing profits over people, and contributing to global climate change, and the results include increasingly severe natural disasters that have the most impact on the the world’s poor people, and People of Color. Almost 900 people have been killed in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew in the past few days. [Edit: as of 10/11/16, the death toll is 1000 and counting.] The same greed and shortsightedness are fueling war and destruction all over the world. Is this what wilderness looks like? Is this what exile feels like?
Some other prophets around at the same time as Jeremiah were prophesying a victory for Judah, saying that Babylon would be defeated. They were wrong, and Jeremiah called them out as false prophets. We would like to believe that some prophet, or politician, or church leader will appear and solve all these problems, end all this oppression, but that’s not going to happen. God says that it’s up to us to work together like neighbors facing a hostile world, to think not only of ourselves and the issues that affect us clearly and directly, but to seek the welfare of the entire city. The collective liberation.
Serenity Soular and the People’s Garden make it look easy. But it’s not always easy. Just like the exiles probably didn’t like being told to invest in a city they didn’t identify with, to be honest sometimes I don’t like being told to invest in an issue that doesn’t seem to impact me. We fail sometimes. An example: I recently read an article on how the new policy platform of the Movement For Black lives, (a movement that for the most part can teach all of us a lot about collective liberation, with their understanding of the way racism is in cahoots with capitalism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia), how their platform is lacking in disability solidarity. This is a huge oversight, as the majority of people who have been murdered by police in the US were disabled or deaf. The struggle for liberation from white supremacy must happen hand-in-hand with the struggle for the welfare of people with disabilities. Even the Movement for Black Lives will have to stretch in that regard.
There is another example of a failure to seek the welfare of the entire city, going on here in Philadelphia. Later today, many of us will be walking over to the Gayborhood for Outfest, a block party in celebration of National Coming Out Day. While we are dancing and celebrating, we cannot ignore the stain of racism that exists in the Gayborhood, and that had been getting more attention in recent days and months. Last week, a video surfaced of the owner of a popular Gayborhood bar addressing customers of color with racial slurs. It has sparked a lot of anger, for good reason, but many queer people of color have said that they are not surprised. That racism is the standard in many parts of the Gayborhood, and that for decades certain clubs and bars have enforced dress codes that are meant to subtly exclude Black people. This stain is made so much uglier by the fact that it’s white LGBTQ people, who know what discrimination feels like, who are guilty. Maybe they somehow don’t know that queer justice is bound up together with racial justice. But now we know. We know that, if we are to seek the welfare of the entire city, we cannot accept racism anywhere.
It can be a difficult mental shift, to live into collective liberation. Our culture teaches us to be obsessed with getting ahead, with being a winner instead of a loser. It teaches us to care only about the issues that we think directly impact each of us, and even to compete with other causes, other movements. But God teaches us that we are all one body, and if we don’t work together, across lines of identity, for God’s justice, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
There is a lot of violence and injustice out there. The wilderness can seem overwhelming. But we do not need to lose hope. God is with us. God has provided a way for us to overcome the oppression, and God has even given instructions. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Working in solidarity with groups we don’t identify with can be difficult, but what’s even more difficult is trying to change the world alone. We can’t do it alone. But victory over racism and sexism and homophobia and environmental degradation seem so much more possible when I know that it’s really all one struggle, and we are all working together. In your welfare, I will find my welfare, and our liberation will be collective.
Rachel is a young adult missionary serving through the United Methodist Church's Global Mission Fellow US2 program. She serves at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia, PA, and at Serenity House, where she also lives. She is halfway through a two-year term in the program. Rachel served as one of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition scholarship recipients monitoring legislation during General Conference 2016. Check out her blog.