Hate crimes

Rev. Vicki Flippin

November 14, 2010

Diamond Hill UMC, Cos Cob, CT

Exodus 1:15-22, Matthew 15:10-20

This morning, I want to start by having you imagine, for a moment, the situations in life in which you are supposed to feel the most safe. Like being in your own home, you should feel safe. Walking down the streets in your own neighborhood, you should feel safe. Going to school, sending your kids to school, should feel safe. 

Now, imagine what it would be like if none of those places felt safe. Imagine if, every night you fell asleep in your home, you faced the possibility that someone might bomb your house and hurt your family. Imagine if, every time your child or grandchild went to school, you had to worry about them coming home with a bloodied face or maybe never coming home at all. Imagine if—every time you stepped out of your house—you knew there was a real chance that you could be violently attacked by random strangers.

Those are the kinds of fears we might imagine would exist in a third world country or a war zone. Those are the kinds of fears that prevent a society from functioning—they keep people from wanting to speak their opinions or cooperate with their neighbors or participate in their government. Those are the kinds of fears that make us desperate to bring stability and safety to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Without some confidence that people will not be randomly attacked in their own home or neighborhood or school, society cannot function. And that is the reason we have stiffer punishments for hate crimes.

I know there is some confusion around hate crimes. When I mentioned hate crimes in a group of pastors recently, one of them came up to me later and said to me, “You know, Vicki, every crime really is a hate crime. Every criminal hates their victim on some level.” I know a lot of people say the same thing.

But this is the important thing to remember about hate crimes:The purpose of a hate crime is to intimidate a whole group of people because of their race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. The purpose of a hate crime is to make a whole group of people feel unsafe in the safest of settings, to make them feel like—at any moment—they could be the victim of harassment or violence, to make them afraid to participate in society in a normal way.

And that is why hate crimes are more harmful to society, and that is why they have their own legal category.

In 2008, before I came to Diamond Hill, I had reason to suspect for a time that I might be sent to serve a church in a town on Long Island called Patchogue. Patchogue has unfortunately been in the news in the last few years. In 2008, only months after  I would have started as a pastor in Patchogue, a very high profile hate crime occurred there.

On the evening of November 7, 2008, a group of teenagers decided to go to Patchogue to harass and beat up Latinos. That night they shot a BB gunat a Latino man sitting on his own porch. The next night, November 8, they shouted racial slurs at another Latino man walking with his bike. Then they got out of their car and assaulted him. Later that night, one of those teenagers, Jeffrey Conroy, a volunteer, a mentor, a star athlete, and a son of a Sunday School teacher, took out a knife and fatally stabbed a young Ecuadorean man named Marcelo Lucero. And Marcelo bled to death in a parking lot.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like  to be a pastor in Patchogue the year Marcelo Lucero was killed. I’m guessing I would have preached about hate crimes  long before today.

But just because we don’t live in Patchogue, just because the swastika that stretched across a Greenwich street on 9-11 this year wasn’t legally classified as a hate crime, it doesn’t mean hate crimes are not our business.

As the church, we remember a time when our ancestors in the faith were targeted as a group for their religion. When they had to fear Pharaoh’s violence against their infant children. When they were fed to lions in Babylon and in Rome. When they were crucified, burned, and tortured because of their faith.

And as the church, we worship a God who stands in solidarity with the victimized and the hated, who demands that we stand against evil in the world, and who judges us by how we treat one another. If the church stands for love, then we must also stand against hate. If love is our business, then hate is too. Hate crimes are our business.

In Don’s Sunday School class last week after church, we were talking about the many problems our world faces today. And someone reminded us of a great history and tradition—of communities of faith, namely churches in this nation, taking the lead in social change and morality.

Now, let me tell you this.The Church is speaking out on the issue of hate crimes. In a big, loud way.

If you google the words “Christianity” and “Hate Crimes,” you will get hundreds of thousands of hits. And almost every website you will find is about why Christians should oppose hate crime legislation. That’s right. I said oppose hate crime legislation.

The loudest voices from the church have been opposed to enhancing government protections for victims of hate crimes.And it is very important for every one of you to understand why. Some powerful Christian organizations are telling people that hate crime legislation will infringe on the free speech rights of Christians  to proclaim from the pulpits and the streets of this nation that—in the infamous words of the United Methodist Book of Discipline—homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

These Christian institutions are making the claim that if a pastor preaches against homosexuality, that pastor can be arrested for a hate crime. And that is the reason many Christian organizations opposed expanding hate crime legislation.

Now, I want to tell you something else very important. What these organizations are saying is simply not true and, if you ever encounter this misconception  in a conversation or an email, please question it. Hate crime legislation expressly affirms  the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits the government from making any law that prevents free religious speech.

The ONLY speech that could be considered a hate crime under law is speech that advocates or conspires to commit a violent crime.

Let me say that one more time because it is really, really important. The ONLY speech that could be considered a hate crime under law is speech that advocates or conspires to commit a violent crime.

Now, people of the church of Jesus Christ, I must ask you,Is that what we stand for? Protecting our rights to incite violence against oppressed groups? Is that what we disciples of Jesus Christ stand for? Is that what we care about?

You know, I usually try to be more even-handed on controversial issues, but this just disgusted me this week. I cannot express to you how ashamed I felt when I realized that this is what church institutions are telling good Christian people. I cannot tell you how ashamed and angry I am that the loudest Christian voices are responding to hate crimes by demanding that our pastors retain the right to incite and conspire for violence against oppressed groups.

That people like Marcelo Lucero are bleeding to death in Long Island parking lots, Muslim cab drivers are being stabbed, gay men are being tortured in Bronx apartments, and the only voice from the Christian church seems to be, “We want to protect our right to incite violence!”

There is only one thing I can say about this: That this response IS UNDENIABLY, WITHOUT A DOUBT, INCOMPATIBLE WITH CHRISTIAN TEACHING. It is so incompatible with Christian teaching it makes me shudder. Truly. This is why many good people stay away from the church, things like this.

Disciples of Jesus Christ, we cannot let these voices speak for us. We must be louder. We must proclaim louder the truth—that every time hateful, racist, homophobic, prejudiced speech is uttered, every time a crime is committed that intimidates a whole group of people—That God stands with the hated, not the haters—and so must we. We cannot be silent on this because we will be drowned out.

That is why I am proud to say that your annual conference of the United Methodist Church is sponsoring a whole day symposium next Saturday in Manhattan to discuss a Christian response to hate crimes. And this will not be about our fears. This will be about our boldness and courage in solidarity with those who are victimized by violence and intimidation.

So whatever your thoughts about your conference and this denomination every other week of your life, each of you can be proud to be a part of this conference and this denomination this week. Because we are finally being loud about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And my prayer is that one day, when someone—who has been hurt and scared by violence—looks for what the Christian God has to say about hate,  that person will find, not fear, but that person will find the good news that the church of Jesus Christ offers comfort and love and justice and courage.

May it be so.