Sermon: Must Antifa Bear the Cross Alone?

By David Brazil

Matthew 16:21-28

Good morning, and thank you for your hospitality.  Let’s pray.

As you’ve heard, my name is David Brazil; I’m the organizer for the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy and I co-pastor a house church in Oakland called the Agape Fellowship.  I’m also a poet, translator, editor, curator, and a community organizer beyond my professional work.

But of all the things I can say about myself, what I really want to talk about today is that I am a Christian.  I’m an adult convert to Christianity, baptized in 2014, and so I am still on the beginning of a walk that many of you have been on for many years, or for your whole lives.  (In fact, I don’t really know if I was baptized as an infant, since my parents passed away before I thought to ask, so I might well be an Anabaptist!)  My professional work is interfaith, and my co-pastor and I describe Agape as a “Christian-interfaith” house church.  So I often have to be very thoughtful about how I speak about my Christian faith, especially given the many wounds that imperial Christian hegemony continues to inflict.

But when Joanna was kind enough to invite me to come speak to you all, I knew I could speak as a Christian, to Christians.  And given the choice of the lectionary passages, it was obvious to me that I would want to talk to you about Jesus.  I love Jesus.  Jesus is the center of my life, the basis of my hope, the wellspring of my love, my rock and my redeemer.  Jesus saved my life and my soul, and continues to save me on a daily basis, and to give me the strength to love – to love myself, to love my neighbors, to love people who are challenging, and – hardest of all – the strength of love my enemies, and to pray for those who despitefully misuse me.

But what does it really mean to love Jesus, in 2017, in the world we live in, in our own hearts and in the faces of those around us?  This week’s scripture gives us an answer, in verse 24:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Notice, and remember, that Christ talks about “his (or her) cross” – the cross that any individual follower has to pick up.  That you have to pick up; that I have to pick up.  As the hymn-writer so beautifully put it, “There’s a cross for everyone/and I know there’s one for me.”  We’re gonna come back to that.

Like so much of our scripture, the familiarity and over-familiarity of this verse can close our ears to the radicality of its call, leaving us like those of whom Isaiah speaks, “ever hearing but never understanding; … ever seeing but never perceiving” [6:9].  I want to meditate on this verse in Christian community, so that we can wrestle with it together – so that I can share my wrestling with you and invite you to wrestle with it yourself – in the hopes that, like Jacob who becomes Israel after wrestling with that angel, we come out in the end with our proper names.

But to talk about this properly with you all, I need to go back to the beginning of the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, where Christ replies to the challenges of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” [16:3].  The Greek word translated ‘times’ is the plural form of kairos, a word some of you will know.  It describes the decisive moment, the occasion, the fleeting opportunity.  In Homer’s Iliad, it describes the very brief moment in which you have to let an arrow fly in order to hit your target.

And we are in such a kairos, such a decisive moment, right now.  That moment is a fascist conjuncture in our collective history.  A wicked, pitiless and cruel Pharaoh, restrained by no identifiable morality or even reasonableness, brought into power through consciousness manipulation of the worst impulses of xenophobia and white supremacy, and abetted by the venality and cravenness of those in positions of power, is now emboldening violent racist  and fascist vigilantes and paramilitaries to openly profess hate, to intimidate and assault people of color, to proclaim their sick dream of a white ethnostate. 

And we know that the rise of such paramilitaries, as in the case of the Freikorps in Germany, are part and parcel of the emergence of full-blown state fascism.  Public hate speech and calls for violence against activists and communities of color have reached, in a matter of months, a level which staggers the imagination.  Meantime our immigrant neighbors, turned into political footballs in order to stoke the fires of white xenophobia, are subject to increasingly punitive and insane laws which bear a terrifying similarity to the German race codes of the thirties that eventuated in the Nuremberg Laws, and then, of course, to the concentration camps.  It can’t happen here?  Ask the Japanese interned during the Second World War.  Ask the Native Americans.  Ask Fred Hampton, shot in his bed by the Chicago police for his work with the Black Panther Party.  Ask your very hosts in this synagogue, whose people carry in living memory the rapidity, the ferocity, and the enormity of the Nazi crimes that culminated in the Shoah. 

The traditional forces of liberal democracy and its civil society are powerless to restrain these forces, because fascism historically grows out of weak or moribund liberal societies – remember that Hitler was legally elected chancellor by a parliamentiary order whose power the Nazis subsequently suppressed through the use of emergency powers, for the remaining twelve years of their rule.  Here in America, we’re one Reichstag fire away.  And that could happen tomorrow.  There is basically no way to overstate the gravity of the situation, the peril that we are collectively in, or the consequences of inaction in this decisive moment – which is why I am seeking, with you all, to interpret the signs of the times.

All right, so.  Now that I’ve put everyone in a great mood, what does this have to do with our passage – If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Well, let me tell you a little story from my pastoral life.  Because I serve a congregation of mostly millennials, a fair amount of pastoral care happens via texting.  And when I shared this week’s scripture with one of my congregants, an anointed apostle in the antiracist struggle, she wrote back and said, “Our cross is white supremacy”.

Our cross is white supremacy.  Say it with me: our cross is white supremacy.

None of the presently unfolding political disaster would be possible without the mobilization of white supremacy.  And if, like me, you are of European descent, and if, like me, you strive to be a person of conscience, religious or not, we, together, have to reckon with our involvement in white supremacy, our complicity in its violence, the perks we obtain in this society.  And if, having taken on this yoke and undertaken this work, we come to positions of principled and accountable antiracism, we have to ask the question: What am I doing to defend individuals and communities of color from white terror – from physical assault by the racist state and its vigilante auxiliaries?

We’re gonna sit with that a sec.  We’re gonna pray on that a sec.

OK, great.  Now that we’re back, and that we’ve laid a good foundation together in the gospel – for on no other foundation can anyone lay – and in the signs of the times, I want to share with you what’s really on my heart to talk about, and that’s antifa.

For those of you who’ve been able to dodge a newspaper or the Internet over the past month, “antifa” is the shorthand name for antifascist activists.  They’ve been in the news a lot lately, especially since the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was murdered, and more recently and locally here in San Francisco and Berkeley. 

Antifa is associated with the Black Bloc protest tactic of dressing identically in black clothing and masking (or ‘blocking up’) with a bandanna  to protect members of the Bloc from police and vigilante reprisals.  Antifa has been the target of a lot of criticism, in secular and faith communities alike, based on the perception, promulgated by mainstream media and right-wing Internet sites alike, that they represent a willfully violent fraction of irresponsible ultra-left activists who screw everything up for everybody else.  In fact, the mayor of Berkeley has called for them to be recognized as a gang (which communities of color know is a longstanding tactic of repression) and the FBI added “antifa” to a list of domestic terrorist organizations following a 2016 rally in Sacramento.  Oh yeah, and they’re also all young and white and male.

That’s the story.  That’s a bad story.  That’s Christ before Pilate.  I’m here to tell you some of the story I know.

First of all, there is no such thing as the antifa, any more than there is the Black Bloc.  Both of these names describe tactics rather than parties or stable political formations.  Second, focus on the antifa or even “antifa” as a designating nickname obscures the fact that this is short for “antifascist activists”.  And we only have to have antifascist activists because we have, uh, pro-fascist activists – also known as fascists – both in the vigilante form and in our federal government.

(Thankfully I shouldn’t have to go too much into distrusting the government at a Mennonite church.  You all invented the radical Reformation!)

I’d also add that I hope that everyone I meet considers themselves, at least in principle, an antifascist – especially right now.  But here we get to the crux of the issue: in this season, given the signs of the times and our inheritance of a sinful white supremacy from which we of European descent benefit, it’s not about having the right views.  It’s about what do we do.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

If any man would come after me.  I don’t know about you, but going after Christ is my only wish.  Where else would I go?  I say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  So this is what I want to do, and maybe it’s what you want to do.  How will we do it?

When I think of what it means to follow Christ, my thought returns to one of my theological touchstones, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and especially his book whose English title is The Cost of Discipleship.  Bonhoeffer was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Nazi regime, and was murdered by that regime just weeks before the end of the European war.  There are all kinds of great reasons to read Bonhoeffer in this moment, but one of the best is that he is a true disciple, and can help us refine our own sense of what it means to follow Jesus.  In German, The Cost of Discipleship is called simply NachfolgeFollowing After.  So he was thinking about today’s scripture, and the many like it where people from every walk of life – fishermen, tax collectors, centurions – give up on what they’re doing to follow Jesus.

It’s in Nachfolge – The Cost of Discipleship – that Bonhoeffer unfolds his famous distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.  As he saw it, the comfortable Christian church of his time had adopted “cheap grace” –grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.  I usually describe “cheap grace” as the idea that we can just put our feet up and sip on our mai tai because God’s got it covered.  Paul said grace not works right y’all?

Grace without the cross.  All right.  Then what’s costly grace?  Bonhoeffer continues that “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus”.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.  Gracious – saturated with Christ’s grace.  But we must take the first step and deny ourselves.

As those who benefit from the sin of white supremacy and racialized capitalism, how are we denying ourselves?  How are we following the call of a Lord and master who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friend?”

That’s what Jesus did for all of us.  And that is what antifascist activists are doing right now. 

This nation is built on an unquestioned white violence which keeps racialized others in line.  It began with the native American genocide and the commencement of the Atlantic slave trade, it continued through the reservation system and Jim Crow (among many other examples), and it is present today in the prison-industrial complex that disproportionately targets black and brown communities for incarceration, and in the racist police apparatus that murders people of color without consequence. 

Cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates calls white folks ‘The Dreamers’ in part because we get to sleep through all of this if we so choose.  The absolute core privilege of white supremacy is getting to ignore racialized violence inflicted on others than can never happen to you on the basis of your race.  You can always go home.  You can always turn off the TV.  You don’t have to worry every time your kids leave the house that they will be murdered by the police because of the color of their skin.

But as for me, I can’t not get involved.  I can’t not speak out.  As a Christian, as a human being.  I have to recognize the many obvious and not-so-obvious elements of my privilege – the same way I have to recognize my privilege as a cis-man within patriarchy and heteronormativity, as a First World citizen in global capitalism that immiserates billions to ensure the comfort and convenience of people like myself, as an able person in an ableist world – in so many ways.  I have to deny myself, to find the core of sacrificial agape that allows me to love my neighbor as myself, exactly as myself.  In the words of “Ella’s Song,”

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

But oh my Lord, David, what does this have to do with the antifa?  Well I’ll tell you.  From what I can tell, and in total contradiction to the narratives presently swirling, antifascist activists are among the only ones truly responding to this call to deny oneself, and to lay down their lives for their friends – and even for absolute strangers, on the basis of antiracist solidarity.  Remember that fascists murdered our comrade Heather in Charlottesville – and that we who were organizing response to local white nationalist incursions did so in full awareness of the fact that such murderous violence could be brought here. 

The people who came out to defend the mass march were ready to face stabbings (like the ones that happened in Sacramento last year), chemical weapons (which were in fact deployed), and potentially firearms.  Their bravery inspires me, in fact it staggers me.  It seems to me that Christians have a lot to learn about our call to follow, from this example, if we can ignore Imperial TV’s narrative of the situation.  (What do you think Imperial TV’s account of the arrest in the Garden was like?)

So we deny.  Then we take up our cross.  As I mentioned above, this is always our cross, the one that’s just for us, our life, our moment in history.  I repeat the words of my congregant and comrade: Our cross is white supremacy.  I know my cross is white supremacy. 

I also know that the cross was punishment reserved for insurrectionists and those who challenged the empire.  It was reserved for slaves who incited rebellions.  It was reserved for those who challenged the status quo.  One of the greatest crimes of the imperial church, the church since Constantine that has been in collusion with the state right down to the present, has been to spiritualize the gospel until we believe that the cross, that our cross, is some pietistic metaphor.  It’s not.  It’s what we’re called to do that’s hard, that’s impossibly hard, through whose very impossibility Christ’s grace and God’s glory shine through, because we know we couldn’t have done it ourselves.  God told Paul my grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in your weakness [II Cor 12:9].  Paul says we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the power belongs to God and not to us [II Cor 4:7].  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me, and I believe you can too.

And speaking theologically, I have come to believe that, contrary to the conservative atonement theologies that say that Christ had to die on the cross to placate the angry Father, the real work of the cross was Christ meeting human hostility to God with divine love – a divine love that goes all the way to death in solidarity with the human race and its suffering.  I insist, with John, that God is love, and that Christ “broke down the dividing wall of hostility” and gave all of us the power to meet human hate, appearing now in the form of structural racism and white supremacy, and repay it with love – in the words of a song my wife admires, to eat their hate like love.

But not cheaply.  But never cheaply.  It was not cheap for Christ, it cannot be cheap for us.  Remember, Paul says, you were bought with a price [I Cor 6:20].

This brings us to the last and hardest conversation, and that’s nonviolence. 

News has been dominated by images and videos of scuffles in Berkeley, and the local and national conversation has therefore been focused on “the problem of antifa” rather than the thousands of people out in the street alongside them, let alone the racist white nationalists whose invasion of our communities occasioned the mobilization in the first place.  In the faith community, there’s been a lot of conversation, and frankly a lot of breast-beating and piety, about nonviolence – calling for a distinction from, or even a denunciation of, militant community defenders. 

I know I am speaking in the house of a tradition with centuries of commitment to pacificism, and as a former commie turned Christian-commie, I have wrestled for many years with the conflict between the unjust antagonisms visible in this world and the call to non-resistance.  And I have come to feel that, just as Bonhoeffer spoke about cheap grace and costly grace, many in the Christian community, especially white folks, are under the spell of a very cheap nonviolence, when what is really called for by the signs of the times is a costly nonviolence – the nonviolence of the cross, which endures imperial violence in sacrificial love, unto death, to break down the dividing wall of hostility.

So I want to wrestle with this question with you, in Christian community – back to Jacob and the angel – so we can find our proper names.

And if we are antiracist, a good point of departure is opening our ears to the voices of communities of color.  Many African-American clergy walked with us on Sunday in Berkeley, and their public statements as well as our personal conversations after the march largely square with the witness of Cornel West, who said about his experience with fellow clergy in Charlottesville, “we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, [who] saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that. “

For example, Terry de Grace Morris, a queer black theologian who coordinated a safe house for Sunday’s march, and who definitely don’t take no mess, wrote: “Listen: we may not like their chosen tactics.  We may disagree with their violence.  But if your behind is caught by some white nationalists/white supremacists or some other new name that simply stands for today’s version of the KKK, and you black, you queer, you got an accent, you woman, or don’t believe that Jesus saves, you better pray to God (or your favorite deity) that Antifa comes to rescue you.  The police?  Well… good luck with that.  Leave antifa alone.  #antifasaves.”

Likewise Pastor Ben McBride of Oakland, a powerful voice of Black liberation in the local Christian community, wrote words white Christians must meditate deeply upon: If you have a problem with #Antifa, I’m not listening until you demonstrate a bigger problem with the #KKK, #Nazis, and police violence.

And Ben’s brother Michael McBride, a pastor at The Way church in Berkeley, co-authored a New York Times op-ed this week entitled ‘Waiting for a Perfect Protest?”  (Great question.)  Drawing historical parallels from the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the authors write:

The reality — which is underdiscussed but essential to an understanding of our current situation — is that the civil rights work of Dr. King and other leaders was loudly opposed by overt racists and quietly sabotaged by cautious moderates. We believe that current moderates sincerely want to condemn racism and to see an end to its effects. The problem is that this desire is outweighed by the comfort of their current circumstances and a perception of themselves as above some of the messy implications of fighting for liberation.

They conclude by reminding us:

Each of us should realize that what we do now is most likely what we would have done during those celebrated protests 50 years ago.

(If you can’t say Amen say ouch!)

So these voices of Black leadership call on white Christians to recognize that antifascists are protecting them, are laying down their lives because they have chosen, out of solidarity which is just another word for love, to make themselves vulnerable to enemy violence, to massive state repression, and to social misunderstanding.  Well gee… that sounds like someone else I know.  So my question to you and to all is: must antifa bear the cross alone?

How will white folks, Christian or otherwise, who are even now indulging in cheap nonviolence, on Facebook or anywhere else, have the metanoia, the change of heart, to enter into the costly nonviolence that puts them into a relationship of solidarity with communities of color directly affected by racist violence?

And how will we reckon with the question of violence as followers of a Lord who instructed Peter, at the time of his arrest, to put away the sword?  I would note first of all that, as my co-pastor noted, Peter had a sword in the first place – Christ’s people were traveling with weapons.  John’s gospel records that Christ made a whip of ropes to drive the unrighteous out of the Temple, so we seem to see Christ armed too – not with a deadly weapon, but with one sufficient to repulse those who are doing harm to the people of God.  So let’s think about that together.   I would also remark that Christ chose to rebuke Peter – not to turn him over to the Romans.  Christ’s people were always very clear about who the Romans were, and would to God that we could be clear too.

In coming to a close, I want to lift up two treasures of the Mennonite tradition that have inspired me in recent weeks, and which I hope can help us think about this complicated issue together.

In writing of radical Anabaptists who were martyred  in the spring of 1535, en route to the short-lived kingdom of Münster, Menno Simons wrote:

After this had transpired, the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul.  I reflected on my unclean, carnal life, also the hypocritical doctrine and idolatry which I still practiced daily in appearance of godliness, but without relish.  I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith […] .  But I myself continued in my comfortable life and acknowledged abominations simply in order that I might enjoy physical comfort and escape the cross of Christ.

This was the turning point in Simons’ faith journey, and the move towards the non-magisterial theology that founds the Mennonite tradition.  It is a call, from the inmost heart, to love and care for those who, imperfect though they may be, are seeking to follow God’s call of love and justice.  And need I repeat to a Christian congregation that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?  I was loved in my imperfection, so likewise let me love those who I may feel are imperfect, that they may come to know of Christ’s grace and mercy.  I had lunch with a friend of mine who was in Sunday’s bloc this past week, and before we ate we sat and prayed together.  Remember that these folks are our friends, our neighbors, and even our congregants.  (Maybe more of them should be our congregants.)

More recently in the tradition, I have been moved and inspired by what I have learned of the work of Vincent Harding thanks to my friendship with Pastor Joanna.  In an essay on his work, she reports his words from a 2011 interview:

Those of us who talk about the way of nonviolence have a great responsibility to see what it’s like to be “with our back up against a wall” and to see what our response would be at that point. And how we would find and nurture and receive the grace that could make it possible for us to respond in a creative, nonviolent way.

And recalling Harding’s call at the 1967 Mennonite World Conference for scholar witnesses to visit places of violent revolution around the world and learn why revolutionaries had arrived at their positions, I would call on all of us who are engaged in antiracist and, I hope, antifascist struggle, to come into deeper relationship with those whose views and strategies may different from ours.  For me this is a key part of the meaning of Christian witness – becoming all things to all people, so that by all possible means we might save some.

My colleague and comrade in Christ Nichola Torbett wrote, after Sunday’s march:

Might the media narrative of the day have been different if those of us who are drawn to nonviolent tactics had negotiated with antifa to try driving out the fascists through nonviolence? I don’t know. If there is anyone brave enough to try it with me, let me know.

I’d like to try it.  Would you like to try it?  Would we all like to try it?  Or would we like to go home, to continue in our comfortable lives and acknowledged abominations simply in order that we might enjoy physical comfort and escape the cross of Christ?  Consider this your altar call.

We will enter a different time in our national history when we as Christians stand up in radical discipleship to commit to antiracist struggle in sacrificial love and solidarity; when we put away the cheap nonviolence of criticism and symbolic theatre to enter into the costly nonviolence that stops the machine; when we heed Bonhoeffer’s exhortation that “we are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”.  Indeed, we will enter the kingdom.  But we will only get there through denying the benefits that accrue to those of us of European descent, of taking up the cross of this moment of nascent fascism and white supremacy, and of following Christ in the walk of sacrificial love, knowing that his grace is sufficient for us, knowing that Christ makes family wherever he goes, knowing that the light was in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it, knowing that we can do all things through him who strengthens us, knowing, believing, and rejoicing in the One who taught us: Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. 

Thank you, God bless you, and let the church say Amen.

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