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I want to discuss a very important issue  but one that will seem to be sufficiently complicated that you may not have paid much attention to what little media attention it has received and more than that, it may strike a lot of people as not being a church topic, that is, it may seem to be far too deep into the weeds of politics to be an appropriate topic for churches. I want to talk about our nation’s many moves towards voter suppression.

Now, in most Black churches, this will not be an obscure topic but in majority white congregations, today’s message might be the first time that voters’ rights or voter suppression efforts may have ever even been mentioned. But before I launch into that topic, I feel a need to lay a foundation for why I, a minister, would bring this topic into the pulpit. To do that, I’m going to have to take you to seminary with me and do something you rarely hear me doing, which is to look at the minutia of New Testament gospel language and the use of a particular word, a word that is used all of the time in churches, but which is almost entirely misunderstood. That word is “salvation.”

If I were to ask you now, based on your experiences in churches, in Sunday School, or even in some college, and I fear seminary classes, what does “salvation” mean, what would you say?

Based on how we hear it used in religious circles, we could predict that for most people, “being saved” means that they have been redeemed, they have been, as some say, “washed in the blood of Christ,” they have been forgiven of their sins and set on a path towards eternity in heaven.

When you hear most evangelicals talking about how many people were saved at a certain revival or when they tell their own story about when and how they were saved, or they are telling people how they can become saved, they are meaning that a person’s destiny has been suddenly and entirely shifted from an eternity in a burning hell into a path towards eternity in heaven when they die. Right? That’s what it almost universally means.

The word that is translated as “to save” or “to be saved” in the original Koine Greek of the New Testament is (σωτηρία) “sotoria” or “sesOken.” It appears very often in the New Testament but it is not always translated the same way.

Translation is an art form and not an exact science. Translators all have to try to render a phrase or a sentence in what they believe that the author meant to say and sometimes the translators are bringing their own religious prejudices to that conversation rather than really trying to understand what the original author’s intended meaning was.

About 25 years ago I was attending a world congress of preachers in Edinburg, Scotland where the famous homiletics professor, Dr. Will Willimon, was a keynote speaker. He kept talking about people being saved and he repeated the word so often that I held up my hand and said, “Dr. Willimon, you do realize that there is no past tense use of the word salvation in the Bible. No one in the Bible ever got saved, but it is a process verb. The Bible speaks of people being saved, a journey, a direction, a way of living but not something in the past tense.”

You can look it up in the New Testament. In Acts chapter 2, where the author describes the triumphant birth of the church as thousands are reported to have been baptized and joined the Christian movement, the author says in verse 48, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” They didn’t get saved but Acts says that they began the journey, that they were being saved.

It was a very awkward moment because Willimon was enough of a scholar to know that I was right, but he also knew his audience well enough to know that he couldn’t publicly agree with me without losing credibility with all of the evangelical pastors in the room. So, he said to the crowd, “Let me point out to you that Roger Ray said that and not me.” And from that point on, no one at the conference spoke to me again nor was I ever invited back to participate in the international congress of preachers. Which was fine with me because I never would have wasted my time and money to attend.

The evangelical church thinks that salvation, in terms of not going to hell and getting to go to heaven, is the only product that they have to sell and if they had taken me seriously on this one obviously true point, their entire religion would crumble. But you don’t even have to wade into the nuances of translation to get this point.

In the 14th Chapter of Matthew, the author describes a miraculous event in which he says that Jesus was walking on the water. And never one to be left out, Peter wants to walk on the water too, and so he gets out of the boat and immediately starts to drown, and he cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Now, does anyone believe that what was on Peter’s mind as he was sinking in the waves was, “Jesus, please forgive my sins and come live in my heart so that I can go to heaven?”

Obviously not. To be saved, when you are drowning, is to be pulled out of the water, which is what Matthew says that Jesus did. So, if being saved is not about a purely after-life spiritual transformation, you have reason to ask, “what does it mean?” I’m glad you asked:

On the slide below, I have five instances in which the word, “sesOken” is used in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Both gospels give an account of a woman who had continuous menstrual flow who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak and was healed. One was in the account of the healing of a man who had been blind from birth, another was the forgiveness of sins of a woman of “ill-repute,” and the last one was about a man who was healed of leprosy.

Saved

In each instance, the people are said to have received salvation but in only one case was there any mention of sins being forgiven. And, in each case, the translators gave themselves permission to translate the one word, “sesOken” differently. When the event described a person with a physical ailment being healed, the translators render “salvation” as “being healed,” or, more accurately, “being made whole,” but only in the case of the presumed sexually immoral woman do they translate Jesus as saying that she had been saved.

But to the gospel writers, the woman whose menstrual flow was healed, the man whose sight was restored, the leper who was cured, were all said to have been “saved.” Let me be very specific, the gospels talk about being made whole, about being restored to wholeness and that is what it meant to be saved.

Women were to separate themselves from society when they have their period, but if a woman had a constant vaginal hemorrhage, she was always separated from society. A man who was blind from birth, was separated from society by virtue of a serious physical handicap. People with leprosy were not even allowed to segregate within a village or town, they had to go away from all other people and live in isolation. And, of course, a woman with a reputation of immorality would be shunned by family and peers.

Far from what you may have been told about salvation, at least in a more literate Biblical sense, was not about going to heaven when you die, it was about bringing marginalized people back into society . . . making them whole human beings again. If I may make a bit of an aside here . . . this was Christianity before Paul messed it up and turned it into a religion. Perhaps I’ll say more about that at another time.

That is why the Jesus of the gospels got a bad reputation for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors, for being a friend to prostitutes and the unclean. The people that the society wanted to dispose of, to marginalize, to push out of society, those are the very people that Jesus sought to save by bringing them back into the culture.

Please don’t be mad at me if this is the first time that you have ever heard salvation talked about in this way. I learned this at Vanderbilt over 40 years ago. Any pastor educated in the past two generations at a decent school already knows this and if this is different than what they led you to believe, it isn’t my fault, it is their fault because they didn’t have the courage to speak up against the prevailing superstitious thinking that salvation was about getting a ticket for the soul train to heaven. The very suggestion of which is so preposterous, you should feel embarrassed that you ever believed it.

We can blame the self-appointed apostle Paul for turning Jesus into a get-out-of-hell magical figure but if you look at the gospels through the critical lens of history, what he was, what he did, what his purpose was, was to teach compassion. I like the way that the late Marcus Borg worded it: Jesus was the teacher of radical compassion. That was his job description.

The miracles of the New Testament might have been elaborately stated in order to convince people how great Jesus was but if you look behind miracles as publicity stunts, in each case, Jesus was restoring people to the kind of wholeness that reconnected them to the society, their culture, their people. And at that level, these events do not show us how amazing Jesus was, they are not to portray Jesus as a Marvel superhero, they were, and please do not miss this point, they were to show you what you can do. Can you hear this?

Jesus was not to be worshipped, he was to be followed. He wasn’t a substitutionary sacrifice, not some God-on-a-stick to be covered in gold in cathedrals, he was a teacher, an example, he showed us what we can do. His job description was “teacher of radical compassion,” and in as much as people want to identify with him, then their job description is also “teacher of radical compassion.” This can also be said about the historical Buddha.

Now, I told you several minutes ago that I wanted to talk to you today about voter suppression and I took you to seminary on the way to that topic to make it clear, that pushing Black, brown, and poor people to the margins . . . making it harder for minorities to participate in society, to be fully human, to have the same rights as everyone else, that is not a political issue . . . that is not just conservative Republicans trying to stay in power . . . that is the powerful trying to take away the humanity of the marginalized . . . trying to turn poverty into the equivalent of first century leprosy.

The reason that David and I so often talk about racism and poverty and sexual discrimination is because so much of the cultural influence of the powerful is used to make the vulnerable broken. Preaching then, if it is real prophetic preaching, is always about trying to restore wholeness to those who have been broken by the world. It is about salvation, though we don’t usually describe it that way because it would just confuse people who are still locked into twisted church-speak.

To illustrate what I am saying, allow me to ask you this: everyone who owns a car and lives in a middle class neighborhood; how long did you stand in line to vote the last time you voted? Five minutes? A minute?

In the 2020 election, in Georgia, in some predominantly minority voting places, people waited as long as 10 hours. 6 hours was not uncommon. This happened because, ever since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2012, the former slave holding states of the south have been reducing the number of polling places in minority districts even as the number of voters has grown by the millions. 

This is obviously an undeniable effort to undo the Civil Rights Movement. They cannot take away the right to vote from minorities, but they can make it so difficult that many will not be able to do it. This indefensible and horrible move on the part of Georgia didn’t keep enough Black voters away from the polls so after that election, Georgia made it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in line to vote.

This, I submit, is not politics. This is racism. You see that don’t you? I went to some lengths earlier to explain to you why David and I preach about racism and poverty. I hope that you can see that talking about voters’ rights is a spiritual issue more than it is a political issue because its root cause is evil, it is racist, and if other preachers are not talking about voters rights then I think that they have some “splainin” to do.

After we had record voter turnouts in 2020, 19 states passed legislation in 2021 to suppress votes. The worst of them were Florida, Georgia, Texas, Montana, Iowa, Arkansas, and Kansas. It is now almost as if Johnson’s landmark Voters Rights Act had never been passed and racism is making a solid return to these United States and yet, where, pray tell, is the voice of the religious community? Silence is assent. Is this ok with white church goers?

There were 25 million votes cast in the 2020 presidential election. After a year of investigations into potential fraudulent voting, there have been 475 possible cases of fraudulent voting identified, most of them were people fraudulently voting for deceased family members and they were Republicans voting for Trump.

Still, 475 cases of fraud out of 25 million votes, that is one in every 53,000 votes. A statistically insignificant number. And yet many states are enacting laws, and Missouri is one of them, requiring that every voter show a government issued photo ID in order to vote. And a good friend of mine said to me, “Why would you object to that? Everyone has a drivers’ license or a passport?” Really, everyone? Who might not have a drivers’ license or a passport? People who are too poor to travel outside of the USA or to own a car. Or, let’s say, 11% of the people eligible to vote in the United States, 21 million people.

This is what white privilege looks like. I have had a drivers’ license for so long, I can easily assume that everyone has one because, well, shoot, who doesn’t have a car? These states know that voter fraud is rare and not having a photo ID is common among minorities. Let’s not be stupid. This is not about voter fraud, this is about voter suppression, specifically suppressing the votes of the poor, most of whom are minorities.

Trump cast doubts on mail-in votes because people who don’t own cars and the elderly often prefer to mail their votes in. Southern states have shortened the early voting period and cut out Sunday voting to stop Black church from bussing voters from church to the polls in their popular “Souls to the Polls” programs.

In every state, the Secretary of State oversees elections and since 2020, four states have elected Secretaries of State who claim that the 2020 election was rigged, even though it obviously wasn’t. Nevada, Alabama, New Mexico, and Indiana have all elected Republican Secretaries of State who say that they would have overturned their states’ elections in 2020.

Folks, we have been too passive these past few years. We elected a dangerous sociopath to the Presidency in 2016 and even though he has been out of office for a year and a half, we still talk about him every day because his fascist influence is still alive and well in this country. 

We have endured the unethical and illegal appointment of unqualified right wing lunatics to the Supreme Court, changing the nature of our Judiciary for at least a generation. And now, especially in Texas, even minimum wage part time election judges are made to fear for their lives, just for safeguarding the election process.

I’m an election judge in my voting precinct and I can tell you that I hate doing it. You have to go for boring training sessions and then put in a 16-hour day on election days which are just tedious but, I can tell you, in the course of a 16 hour day, I find it necessary to remind the other judges of what the laws are about asking for photo IDs or helping voters to mark their ballots. 

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There are people all around us who no longer believe in democracy and are willing to tilt towards the kind of fascism that will take humanity away from the poor and from minorities and the only thing that will stop that is if persons of good conscience and courage will step up and get involved. So, people, please. Never fail to vote. Be involved in voter registration drives. Give people a ride to the polls. Be an election judge. And if you possibly can, run for office yourself.

As Ellie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.