The Rev. Peter Faass
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . . Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey . . . But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Whew! Clearly John the Baptist was not an Episcopalian. You brood of vipers! Even in our worst internecine disputes we Episcopalians cloak our anger and disdain for one another in polite language. Bless your heart; did you really think you would be cleansed of sin with your hypocritical life-style?
What about John’s diet? What place-setting fork do you eat locusts with anyway? I wonder what we would do if John showed up in church some Sunday morning?
John the Baptist did not mince his words and he did not cut a proper figure. What he did do was preach the truth in love, which is the point of a prophet’s whole mission. John was fearless. His faith was strong and his trust in God resolute. Whenever John saw evil – in the state, in the established religion, in the crowds that gathered around him - he rebuked it.
When King Herod married his brother’s wife – his brother was not divorced by the way – John railed against the king’s immoral behavior. When the leaders of institutional religion feigned repentance of sins to receive John’s baptism, he called them out on it. Let’ face it being called a viper is not a compliment in any age. If people were living lives that ignored God, John upbraided them.
John’s message can be distilled down to one simple phrase; clean up your act. The Messiah is coming and we have serious work to do to prepare for him.
That work is this: You need to repent of your sins, which means facing the chasm between who you believe you are and who you actually are. It means bringing light to the dark places of your life by asking hard questions of yourself and engaging in the challenging work of amending your life.
John was a light that lit up the dark places, preparing people for the greater light that was coming into the world, so that they could repent and be light themselves. There is no better way to prepare the way of the Lord than that.
In our Collect today we prayed that God “give us grace to heed [the prophet’s] warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer;”
How might we heed the prophet’s warnings, repenting of our own sins and preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ?”
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is St. Nicholas Sunday. St. Nicholas is the predecessor of our American Santa Claus, whose origins are rooted in the New Netherland’s colony and the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is a delightful celebration of gift giving, limerick writing, music, great pastries and conviviality. Yet Sinterklaas is a celebration in need of redemption because it is marred by one very disturbing component that undermines its joyfulness. What mares the celebration is St. Nicholas’ helper Zwarte Piet or Black Pieter. In the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas, the saint comes from Spain and is accompanied by Moorish servants who give out gifts and sweet treats to good children and apply a switch to the bottoms of those who are not good and take them back to Spain. These servants are the Zwarte Piets. This finds its origins in the days when Spain occupied the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. On the face of Zwarte Piet seems harmless enough, at least to many people.
The problem with the Piets is that they are white people in black face, whose lips are exaggerated with bright red lipstick. The Piets also don frizzy haired wigs, gold earrings and harlequin outfits and they act like simpletons. In other words the Piets are white, colonialist era, caricatures of Africans.
We are familiar with this depiction of Blacks in American history, which is rife with similar imagery. I am reminded of this watching the 1940’s film Holiday Inn where the white actors perform the Lincoln’s Birthday skit in black face. Watching this scene makes me cringe. How could Whites have been so callous, I think? Yes, it was a different era, but still.
In some ways, Americans have made progress with our racism. And clearly, as we have poignantly discovered over the past several years, we have made very little progress indeed. The Dutch find themselves in the same predicament. Some folks understand that this racist caricature is wrong, while others are adamant that it is not, claiming that Piet is an integral part of Dutch culture.
This camp insists Piet is not a racist depiction. He is black from the soot he acquires when he comes down the chimney, they protest. This is a disingenuous argument as the Piets are already black when they arrive in the country with St. Nicholas three weeks before the holiday. This argument is also undermined by the fact that the Piets clothes are immaculate; only their face and hands are black. Let me ask you; who goes down a chimney without getting their clothes dirty?
Many protest – sometimes violently - the racism charge, saying Zwarte Piet is an innocent part of a children’s holiday. They believe no harm is done; that’s it just plain fun. They accuse those who make that claim of racism as are being politically correct.
I will observe that it is almost to a person only White people who defend Piet. The large Black Surinamese population in the Netherlands have protested Zwarte Piet as have a growing number of Whites. But many Blacks have also been cowed into not being too outspoken for fear of retribution.
A New York Times Op-Ed piece several years ago, prominent Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, said this: “Until recently, Black Pete was uncontroversial. Not because the Dutch are particularly racist, but because Sinterklaas, like the royal family, is sacred in the Netherlands, perhaps because of a dearth of other, specifically Dutch traditions. A matter, in other words, of conservatism . . . [but the Sinterklass tradition is] even more important [to the Dutch] today, given the view that, in order to safeguard the Dutch national identity, homegrown culture and folklore must not be tampered with — a view expressed primarily, though not exclusively, by the extreme right wing [and I would observe xenophobic] Party for Freedom . . .
As the defense of traditions has grown stronger, so has the criticism that Black Peter is a racist holdover from the Netherlands’s colonial past. In January 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government stating that Black Peter perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens and constituted a “living trace of past slavery.” This year, many municipalities are banning the black face, opting instead for either rainbow Piets or White Piets with a simple smudge or two of soot.
The irony imbedded in this controversy is that the Netherlands is a nation with enormous pride in its rich history of tolerance and acceptance for the marginalized and persecuted peoples of the world. According to the historian Russell Shorto, the country is arguably the birthplace of Western liberalism. Yet the Netherlands is clearly a place where there is a chasm between what much of the population believe they are and who they actually are. There is a dark, blind spot – one of profound Pharisaic hypocrisy – that needs a prophet’s refining fire to redeem it.
Why do I tell you about this controversy in another country 4,000 miles away? You might think it is because of my own Dutch ethnicity. That certainly drives me. I am ashamed by this obdurate refusal to see the unrepentant sinfulness of the continued defense of Zwarte Piet.
But more importantly I relay this issue to you because the Zwarte Piet issue has undeniable parallels to the use of the Chief Wahoo symbol by the Cleveland Indians; an issue we continue to struggle with here in this city.
Defenders of the Chief Wahoo emblem use many of the same arguments made by those Dutch defending Zwarte Piet. It is innocent and harmless fun, they say. There is no racist intent it’s just a caricature. It is an integral part of our history, our culture, and our identity. Those who think otherwise are just being politically correct.
As in the Netherlands, Clevelanders supporting Chief Wahoo are mostly White. My sisters and brothers, the attitudes of those who defend Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo are dark places that need the light of the Gospel shone on them to illumine them for what they are: institutional racism.
Preserving an emblem that causes pain, discomfort and offense to people who are Black or Native American is wrong. If protecting one's cultural heritage requires offending and thereby diminishing the inherent value of another group of people, it is not worth conserving. Because of that, Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo need to be tossed into the dustbin of bad history. To say that is not to engage in political correctness, it is to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is take the Gospel seriously.
We are called to be voices in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Today, in our own culture that call to prophetic action becomes increasingly urgent as the diminishment and hatred for others rears its ugly head and threatens the wellbeing and human rights of many. As in the times of John the Baptist, God calls us to speak the truth in love about sinful, dark behaviors that threaten this nation- even if it means offending people, even if it means literally putting ourselves on the line - especially with those who refuse to confront their own sinfulness. This may mean we need to start with ourselves.
Advent is about preparing our lives for God who, taking human form, became one of us, to help us recognize and repent of our sins, and to learn to care for each other – particularly the most vulnerable and despised among us.
May we as followers of the One we prepare to receive into our hearts this Christmas, do just that, beginning here and now.