Baylor University scholar Dr. Jonathan Tran looks to the early church to help us conquer today’s sins of racial injustice and violence
October 9, 2021
“I am so excited,” said the Rev. Samuel Son, the PC(USA)’s Manager of Diversity and Reconciliation, “that we get to hear from this philosopher, prophet and preacher.”
That was the cue for Dr. Jonathan Tran, associate professor of Philosophical Theology and George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor University, to start preaching remotely during a recent Chapel Service attended by the PC(USA)’s national staff, a service offered by the denomination’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion team.
And preach Tran did.
Tran used accounts of the apostles’ miraculous works described in Acts 3 and 4, tying those stories to the work that remains today, particularly ending discrimination and violence against people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
“We continue what God has been doing since he foundations of Creation,” Tran said. “Justice and mercy are foundational to Creation. We proclaim what God has been doing since then.
“We are not revolutionaries waiting for the next revolution to start,” Tran noted. “We lay claim to the revolution that was started 2,000 years ago.”
“Christ has been crucified and gloriously resurrected,” Tran said, setting the stage for the day’s biblical narrative. “A new order has come to Earth. The problem is, Earth has not recognized that yet.”
Society “is unable to do much” for the paralytic beggar at the temple’s Beautiful Gate, Tran said, other than people occasionally giving him money. Tran discussed the fear with which present-day people often react to those along the street asking for money, described in Kelly Johnson’s book, “The Fear of Beggars.”
“What is the fear — that they will harm us?” Tran asked. “The reality is, we with our privileges exert extra power over this person. We fear the reality of the injustice of our advantage.”
Peter and John tell the man, “We don’t have the means” to give what you’re asking, according to Tran. But they do have the means “to challenge the system that creates this scenario. What we do have, we give you in the name of Jesus Christ.” The man is healed. He jumps up and walks, then starts leaping and praising God.
“The happiness is irrepressible, even in the face of dehumanizing injustice,” Tran said, adding that the power of the Resurrection is that “no matter how deep evil goes, God goes deeper. This is a story in which God wins. Resurrection is a fact of Creation, the extravagance of God.”
People involved in the early New Testament church did amazing things, Tran said, giving away their possessions, sharing all things in common and caring for widows and orphans. “Maybe they thought the end of the world was coming in a couple of days,” he said.
“I rather think Acts gives a very different picture. They weren’t confused thinking the world was going to end. In the Resurrection, they understood the world had ended, and caring for people was the terms of the new world,” Tran said. “It’s a fugitive movement of awareness marshaled against the powers of the world.”
Those powers “can smell it coming,” Tran said. “Like the paralytic, they can feel it in their bones.”
Those forces of evil are marshaled today in the form of racism that leads to violence, Tran said. “If it is agreed that racism is evil and destructive, why does it persist? Who does it serve? What does it enable?” Tran asked. “We are dependent, even addicted to racism. It greases the wheels of domestic society. These are hard realities.”
That’s why the accounts contained in Acts 3 and 4 are so critical, he said. “The forces of evil are marshaled. But no matter the evil, God wins in this story,” Tran said. “We think of the paralytic in just these terms. The experience [of being healed] lifted him up. He is now like a room without a roof. They can beat him and try to stop him, but they can no more stop Jesus’ people than they could keep Jesus in the tomb.”
“We are not primarily resisters, although we do that too,” Tran said. “We are proclaimers.”
The church cannot rest on its laurels, Tran warned. But by “leaning into the Resurrection, the church can do anything.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Racial injustice & violence
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Shelby Andrews, 1001 Apprentice, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Angie Andriot, Research Associate, Research Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Let us pray
In life and in death, and in all the circumstances of life, we belong to God and we belong to each other. Thanks be to God for these blessed connections. Amen.