Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday sermon: Guilt by Association

Aaron Harvey did not grow up where I did. He grew up in Lincoln Park, in southeast San Diego, the territory of the Lincoln Park Bloods.

Aaron, who is black, grew up with his three siblings just streets away from both sets of grandparents, who had themselves moved into the area with their kids in the 1950s before gangs came to dominate the neighborhood.

By his high school graduation, Aaron had become a documented gang member in the eyes of the state. All such documentation required was three instances of either being seen affiliating with documented gang members; displaying hand gestures affiliated with a gang; frequenting gang areas; wearing gang dress; or having gang tattoos. He had been photographed by police twice for talking with friends who happened to be other documented gang members outside his grandparents’ house, and, on his Facebook page, he had flashed gang signs for the Lincoln Park Bloods, an “L.” Unfortunately for Aaron and many of his now-documented friends, this “L” is also a sign of school pride for the Lincoln High Hornets. And on Facebook he was wearing green -- the color of the Bloods . . . and the Hornets.

Residing in California’s gang database is itself no crime, but it may soon become one. Aaron and fifteen others were arrested and are being tried for “conspiracy” in killings by Lincoln Park Bloods gang members though prosecutors admit that those arrested had nothing to do with and had no knowledge of the crimes. Rather, their conspiracy charges stem from the prosecution’s assertion that these men benefited from the crimes in the form of street cred. While a judge recently dismissed Aaron’s case, it may still be appealed by the District Attorney. Could it be that Aaron’s real crime was growing up in Lincoln Park?

This 27-year old has been stopped by police over fifty times in his life, stops that often involved being handcuffed while waiting in the back of a police car. He has no criminal record.


Now I’ve been stopped by the police one time in my life, for speeding, but the officer eventually let me go without a ticket. My other encounter with the police came during my senior prank in high school in Rancho San Diego in East County. I helped envision and carry out the plan in which a group of us arrived at school early and parked our cars around the circumference of the parking lot, so that as students arrived they began parking all the way up the emergency access way to the school, creating a traffic nightmare for the sheriff’s deputies to detangle that morning. We blocked access, even emergency access, to a public high school on a school day, and no one got in trouble. It was a good thing Aaron never tried this at Lincoln High.


In tonight’s Passion story there is an easy-to-miss detail. Jesus has just been arrested, his allies scatter, and only Simon Peter and “another disciple,” whom tradition holds is John, follow to see what would become of their beloved teacher. Apparently John is “known to the high priest,” which gets him and Peter through the gate at the high priest’s residence. Peter is immediately suspected of belonging to Jesus’ troublemaking band, and his denials begin. But where does John go? Why doesn’t anyone question him? Indeed, John disappears from the text as the narrative focuses on Peter’s betrayal and Jesus’ mock trial. It’s easy to imagine John shaking a few hands and sliding easily into the back of the dark room where Jesus is being accused. If he was known to the high priest, surely other rulers and priests associated with the Temple knew him, too.

But what does it mean that John didn’t say a word while he witnessed the hours-long harangues and false testimonies, the internal religious debates and the rulers’ deliberations as to how best to present Jesus as a political threat to the Romans that demanded crucifixion? Could John have used his social influence to stop this building capital case against his Lord? And what does it mean that I didn’t say a word, didn’t show up to the vigil, didn’t even post on Facebook, to support Aaron Harvey as he faced his charges of conspiracy? Could I have joined others in using my social influence to stop the DA’s use of a new guilt-by-association approach to prosecuting documented gang members?

Many of you may not feel that you enjoy the same social privileges that I do as an educated, white, straight, male, American citizen. And most of Jesus’ disciples presumably did not enjoy the social privileges of John. But what did those other disciples say or do in the crowd that morning when Pilate asked which prisoner to release? Did they yell “Crucify him!” too? Surely they were there, feeling safe enough for the moment among the many. What if they had raised their voices together? Perhaps others may have, too?

I wonder if we, together, will raise our voices and our collective social influence to stand against racial bias in our justice system? Will we comprehend the systemic ways the Ferguson police department discriminated against their African American neighbors, will we hear the racist song chanted from a fraternity in Oklahoma, will we see the bus filled with Central American refugee mothers and children turned away in Murrieta as the police did nothing, and will we say, enough? In the name of God, enough!


We might this time. We might next time. Because there will be a next time. Jesus knew his, and our work, would continue -- which is why from the cross he connected John with Mary, his mother. He knew we’d still need family and friends and that we’d need to muster all the social influence we could as his disciples in the years ahead, for a movement’s power depends on its people -- even the cowardly, the ones who were in the room and remained silent, even those who yelled “Crucify him!” to save their own skins -- even disciples like us.

The fact is, I didn’t speak up for Aaron because I was afraid, I am afraid, to die. I don’t mean this as much in the literal as the figurative sense: I mean I’m afraid of dying to my ego, to my position, to my money, to all that I hold on to when I stay silent, when I do nothing, when I help maintain the status quo that benefits me. Isn’t that the true conspiracy? Isn’t that the true guilt-by-association? Ah, but there are no federal marshals knocking down my door.

No Roman soldiers or Temple police ever came for John, either. Even the one that Jesus called the beloved disciple watched in silence as our Savior was condemned to death. John, too, was afraid to die.

Jesus took up his cross with courage and care, and hung upon it in pain and in love. Under his cross, I find myself next to John and Mary and Aaron Harvey and our District Attorney, seeking healing, seeking salvation. From his cross, Jesus calls us into deeper relationship with each other, for such relationships are the powerful foundation of his movement of love and justice and peace in this hurting world. And because Jesus knew what would happen next, he prayed and is praying for our courage, for it is not easy to make justice whole in this time and place. And on the hard wood of the cross he held up our fear of death in all its forms to see what God would make of it -- what God would make of fear, what God would make of death.

The Rev. Colin Mathewson

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