After the first protests (in person and online) emerged in response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson it was common to hear complaints and confusion about those who protested. I experienced a bit of this misunderstanding and disagreement for some of the things I wrote in the days following the young man’s death. Of course, misunderstandings and disagreements are inevitable and aren’t generally reason enough for me to (re)explain myself. In this case, however, the events in Ferguson along with the pushback provide an opportunity to clarify why I believe protesting the killing in Ferguson is a logical, normal, and Christian response.
My reading of the Bible provides the understanding of what it means to live as God’s adopted people, including our responses to events like those in Ferguson. There’s nothing especially novel about this; people of faith look to their scriptures and traditions as the basis for their practical ethics. For example, I’ve recently spent time with some Jewish rabbis who have articulated a compelling Biblical rationale why they must advocate for undocumented immigrants. Drawing from their scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) they cannot avoid the mandate to show hospitality and seek justice for the foreigner within our nation’s boundaries.
But, to be fair, many Christians who highly esteem the Bible saw no need to speak against the events in Ferguson. I think I know why. In the (mostly) white Evangelical world with which I’m familiar it is typical to see the work of justice as peripheral to proclaiming the Gospel. One respected acquaintance recently cautioned that I should take care to keep my Christian priorities right, by which this person meant the clear articulation of the Gospel. Earlier this year another friend approvingly cited Billy Graham’s decision not to involve himself with the Civil Rights Movement because it would have distracted from his singular task of evangelism.
The problem with these separations between evangelism and justice is that the Bible makes no such divisions. The biblical assumption, rather, is that those who have known God’s love will in turn show God’s love, not simply in the individual ways we Americans tend to default toward but also in the corporate and systemic ways so much of the Old Testament is concerned with. So Billy Graham’s decision to avoid the Civil Rights Movement may have won him wider audiences, but his implied message that allegiance to Jesus required no reorienting of prejudices and systemic injustices was at odds with the biblical narrative. It’s hard to see from where in the Scripture one could make the case that such thin conversion is God’s desire or the Christian’s goal.
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” So records Matthew at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the implication being that the has-come-near kingdom would provide the backdrop for his work and words. The kingdom of heaven is seen implicitly in Jesus’ many interactions with those on the margins and more explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus’ vision of justice will always contradict our own cultural assumptions of justices, but there is no denying that his kingdom is a just kingdom whose citizens express compassion, mercy, and justice even as they proclaim the kingdom’s nearness in Jesus.
All of this, it seems to me, leads Christians to pursue justice as a natural and normal expression of our location within God’s kingdom. Our work of justice will often flounder and many times be ignored by societies bent on efficiency, but we seek justice anyway as a sign to the kingdom that has come near.
Does the apostle Paul’s directive to obey governing authorities in the book of Romans weaken any of this? No. The vision Paul articulates is of governing authorities who exercise equitable judgements and serve the common good. When the governing authorities abuse their God-given power it becomes inevitable that Christians will have to choose Christ’s rule over that of their government. In such moments, Christians will still seek to submit to the authorities even while pushing against their corruption. The non-violent Civil Rights Movement is surely our nation’s clearest experience of this theological vision.
But what of Ferguson specifically? How do the above convictions play out? Maybe it will be useful to rehearse two of the common complaints I’ve heard about those who protest Michael Brown’s death. The first has to do with the legal process; the second with where those who grieve and protest should instead direct their energies.
About the legal process, some have argued that no protests should have been registered until it is proven whether or not the police officer acted wrongly. It’s a sane point on the surface with a seemingly just logic: the judicial process in our country is the level ensuring that each of us is treated fairly. The problem is that this isn’t the logic of our judicial system. Those of us who don’t know this experientially need only to read a book like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, notice studies like this one about the racial inequities of police searches in Chicago, or push past the pundits to learn of the long history of police misconduct in Ferguson.
It only makes sense to wait and trust the judicial process if that process has been proven equitable in the past. But it hasn’t. And it isn’t. Consider then how a rebuke to wait sounds to someone who has been run over by a system that purports to serve and protect. When the protestors in Ferguson were told to wait, that justice would be served, it’s likely they were being lied to. Far too often justice has not been served to black and brown people in this country. Why should we assume differently in this case?
This is why, in a previous post, I referred to Michael Brown’s death as a murder. I don’t mean to say that I know that the officer murdered Brown as per a legal definition. But I do know that legal definitions only make sense when they’re applied equally and such equality has thus far eluded our country. And so it is that a young black man like Jordan Davis can be murdered but we can’t bring ourselves to call what the white man did to him murder. Saying that Michael Brown was murdered is a small attempt to tell the truth about a system that lies about the ways that certain groups of citizens suffer and die.
Within this atmosphere of deception and twisted logic it is entirely right for a Christian to protest the death of another unarmed African American man before the judicial process has run its course. When Christians spoke out quickly in Ferguson they were doing two theologically appropriate things. First, they were telling the truth about the ugly system which took Michael Brown’s life. Second, they were giving notice to those leading the legal response to Brown’s death that they were being watched carefully. The judicial system would be held to account, judged by it’s role to issue justice with fairness.
The second complaint about the protestors I’ll consider is the one that chides those protesting for focusing too much on the past. The rationale here, as I understand it, is that while inequalities may exist, it does little good to continue reviewing how these have been expressed in the past, even the very recent past. Rather, those who wish to change their circumstances should focus on their future and do their best despite the odds. This may sound callous, but it’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed frequently in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.
There are some good reasons why downplaying history is always a bad idea and chief among them is how our present circumstances are unintelligible without a historical view. Ta-Nehesi Coates’ recent essay on housing discrimination is a perfect example of just how important this is. But setting aside such common sense reasons to look to the past, there are two Biblical precedents that should keep Christians from privileging the future over the past. We can first consider the Psalms, which over and over again give voice to a people who are looking to their history and crying to God for justice. These songs open passages of complaint to God, petitioning – even demanding – God’s righteous action on behalf of the suffering. On the other side of this backward look, we also find God’s people looking back to find their culpable role in history. From exile the people, even generations removed from the original sins against God, learn to lament, to identify themselves with those whose injustice and idolatry had mocked God.
In response to Michael Brown’s death, and the history that cannot be separated from it, it is entirely right for Christians of all races to look to the past. For some this look back will prompt the sorts of angry, fist-shaking prayers we find in the Psalms. God’s name will be invoked as protector and judge. Others of us will look back and, if we have eyes to see, will find much to lament. We’ll find ourselves back there and we won’t like what we see. For us the look back will prompt grief, repentance, and an identification with a story we’d previously held at arm’s length.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that generally it’s people from the majority culture who counsel against the historical perspective. We sense that if those who have known the oppressive heel of the society which has benefitted us look back – particularly if they are our Christian kin – we too may be compelled to look back. And maybe we know that when we do, we will be forced to put on new lenses through which to view Michael Brown and others like him.
There are very understandable reasons, subtly whispered into our society’s ear, why the protestors in Ferguson were quickly discounted and called into question. But, as I hope I’ve reasonably articulated here, for the Christian, there are far better reasons to see past these uncreative and repetitive deceits and to respond to injustice boldly in light of the kingdom that is drawing near through Jesus.
Last night Michael and I joined a group of clergy to pray and petition for justice on behalf of Michael Brown. We were already in the St. Louis area with our families for a few days of vacation and when word came about the clergy march the timing and location seemed too providential to ignore. I won’t go into the play-by-play of our evening, but the experience was unlike any I’ve had.
This morning I woke up thinking about some of the lessons I’m walking away with from our short time in Ferguson. My perspective is incredibly limited: I’m an outsider who spent a few hours in a place where others have lived their entire lives. Even so, I want to hold onto some of my experiences, despite how incomplete they are.
The Anger Is Real
It seemed that many of the protestors, like us, where from places other than Ferguson. Yet there were some locals too and it was their response that most caught my attention. In addition to the anger about Michael Brown’s death, there was also a barely contained rage about the way their city had been occupied by the police for over a week. All around were flashing lights, blocked streets, and check points. The protests from these citizens were not a show for the cameras but rage from an occupied people.
The Tension Between Symbolic Actions And Local Solutions
Ferguson has become a symbol for the ever-present oppression experienced by many Americans. Many of the young people we interacted with last night had come from around the country to protest. They were certainly concerned with Michael Brown’s death, but their perspective was broader- systems and policies were within their sights. I thinks this is OK and probably necessary, but at some point local leadership will need to gather the local stakeholders to determine Ferguson’s strategy going forward. Hopefully the symbolic actions can be a catalyst for local voices to articulate particular strategies for this city. It would be a shame if the big picture perspective – as important as it is – were to drown out those who will live in Ferguson long after the media leave.
Chanting Is Easier Than Praying
Michael and I were under the impression that there would be organized times of prayer as we marched in Ferguson. This never happened. Honestly, it would have been hard. The noise, flashing lights, and adrenaline made it far easier to chant loudly – No justice, no peace! Hands up. Don’t Shoot! – than to pray quietly. I wondered though, driving home, what it would have been like had small groups of clergy stopped occasionally during the march to join hands a pray. I wonder if some of the besieged citizens would have welcomed prayer. I wonder whether the omnipresent police would have relaxed, even a little bit. I don’t know, but it was an important reminder that prayer is the Christian’s first choice, always, regardless of how chaotic the surroundings.
Police Intimidation Is The Worst
There were plenty of kind police officers whom we interacted with last night. But this didn’t change some important facts: some of our fellow marchers had been harassed and arrested earlier in the week; everywhere you looked were men (I don’t remember seeing a single woman officer) with guns, clubs, and intimidating vehicles; we were not aloud to stop moving and any time we did there was an officer who would quickly urge us to move. Michael and I began to breathe more easily as we walked away from Ferguson around midnight and the guns and gazes of the law enforcers receded behind us. I cannot imagine living under the constant threat of intimidation, whether on this grand scale or with the constant question each time I saw a police officer. I can’t imagine it, but there are many who can.
There is plenty that we experienced last night that will take some time to process. Despite the chaos and intimidation, I’m very glad we went. It is important that Christians show up to places like Ferguson – including such places in our own neighborhoods that will never get this attention – and bear witness. We bear witness to any way the image of God is debased in people anywhere. And, equally important, we bear witness to God’s presence and movement in the places others have deemed God-forsaken.
Since first learning about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve wanted to write. Parenting a newborn and some travel have kept me from blogging, which is probably not a bad thing: most of my initial thoughts have been articulated far better by others. If you’ve not done so, please check out these articles: The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland; Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin C Brown; Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please leave a comment with additional reflections you’ve found helpful.
With all of the good, insightful, and prophetic things that have been said since Michael Brown’s tragic and completely needless death, there is one small thing I’d like to explore here. I have in mind those white people who were surprised by the slowly revealed details from Ferguson as well as the reactions of grief and rage from that community.
It was impossible not to know about Robin Williams’ recent death. The outpouring of support, remembrance, and grief was everywhere. The conversations about depression and suicide that ensued were needed and important, a silver lining to a sad ending.
Williams died the day after the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and fire, the “language of the unheard” as Rev. Dr. King would have explained to us. On that day and the ensuing days it was common to hear and read a version of this question: Why does the suicide of an actor command so much more of our collective attention than the murder of a young man and the lament of his community?
The question is entirely legitimate and just, though any expectation that the attention to these very different deaths could have played out any differently misses something true and wrong about America. In this country there have always been some lives that matter more than others. A white, male, celebrity like Williams occupies a place within our society that cannot be ignored. You couldn’t remain ignorant of his death even if you wanted to. Michael Brown, on the other hand, occupied a very different, almost invisible place. And yes, it’s true that Williams was a celebrity and so his death within a culture of celebrity-worshippers took on added, almost religious dimensions. But consider that even after Ferguson erupted in protest and even after the ugly facts of Brown’s death began to come to life, most white people had little understanding of the story, if they’d heard of it at all.
There’s nothing right about the death of a white actor taking precedent over the murder of another young, African American man, but there’s also nothing surprising about it. White America exists within a bubble which filters out the abuses and indignities suffered upon black and brown people. In the late 1950’s James Baldwin traveled to Charlotte, NC to document attempts at integration. He wrote, “I was told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ there were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this, which is the usual story of ‘race relations’ in this country.” The same sentiment, with slightly different language, would be expressed by many white people today. Racial injustice is not something we think about because it’s not something we see.
If we’re honest, we’re OK with our blindness. It’s far easier to talk about Robin Williams than Michael Brown. After all, a celebrity’s death asks nothing of us while, were we to take actually see it, the epidemic of alienation, incarceration, and murder of black men demands nothing short of a total rearrangement of the American way of life. A way of life that has benefitted some of us in tremendous ways. Better to remain blind than to give up our way of life.
Of course, this is not an option for those of us who are Christians. Jesus asked his followers, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” Well, the answer has too often been yes, but it doesn’t have to remain so. But if white Christians are to begin responding to injustice we must first develop the discipline of seeing.
What is a discipline of seeing? It begins by acknowledging that there is much that we from the majority culture will not naturally see. I recently heard Dr. Carl Ellis point out that much of the marginalization that is experienced by people of color is systemic and by default. It is a marginalization that is so tied to how our society works that it is impossible for some to avoid and almost impossible for others to see. Acknowledging that my experience of America is warped allows me to begin seeing more clearly how others experience this place and its prejudices.
A discipline of seeing compels me to seek new guides. I begin to understand that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t represent something aberrant but disturbingly normal. This realization, and thousands others like it, make plain the extent of my blindness. If I am to walk the narrow path in this newly-revealed reality I will need those who can point the way. Authors, pastors, and entire neighborhoods become voices I cannot live without if I am to avoid retreating into my former isolation. These women and men of color – all with distinct stories and perspectives, all standing outside the so-called privileges bestowed upon me – become the sources of wisdom I cannot do without.
As I begin to see more truthfully I can properly lament the death of a beloved celebrity while not allowing it to overshadow what is going down in Ferguson. That is, I’m able to grieve what is genuinely worthy of grief and not just what I’m told to feel badly about.
Theres a final thing about learning to see: the death of Michael Brown and the tumult that continues in Ferguson is quickly visible and important to those with eyes to see, but their sight is not limited to a series of events at a distance. A discipline of seeing means, that though my privilege works to blind me, I will notice how the injustices of Ferguson play out in my city and neighborhood. Michael Brown and Ferguson cannot become prominent but ultimately powerless symbols for those with eyes to see. Rather, the prejudices and pressures that are at work there must also be admitted to here.
Learning to see carries this great risk for those content with blindness: seeing leads us to grieve; seeing leads us to act. An enlightened sympathy for injustice at a distances bears no resemblance to Jesus’ expectation that his followers walk with those who suffer. The discipline of seeing allows me to grieve rightly a young man’s death a long ways away while stepping into the path of those same forces of death that even now wreak havoc on my neighbors.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.
The reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?
I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
For a majority culture that refuses to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism, scapegoats like Donald Sterling will always be necessary to prove our innocence and good will. With our ire heaped on his shoulders, we can ignore things like affirmative action bering chipped away, public school segregation increasing, and new voting laws that marginalize minority voters. Is it that these things are too complicated for our minds to grasp and for our emotions to feel? Or do we know that looking closely in these directions would reveal our own privileges and prejudices?
Could it be that, instead of piling on to Donald Sterling, we should instead thank him for being our scapegoat- for allowing our more acceptable privileges and prejudices to continue unchecked?
“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.
My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.
A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.
The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)
The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.
Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.
Thanks to my friend Zach Schmidt at Bread for the World I’ve had the chance to add my name to the following letter to one of my senators about supporting the extension of emergency unemployment compensation.
March 7, 2014
Dear Senator Kirk,
As religious leaders, we are tasked with ensuring the needs of our communities—both spiritual and physical—are met. The long-term unemployed members of our communities—those who have been jobless longer than 26 weeks—are especially vulnerable as our nation continues its slow economic recovery, and there remains only one job for every three job-seekers.
In late December, the U.S. Congress allowed emergency unemployment compensation (EUC) to expire. When unemployment rates are high, lawmakers have always made provisions to help Americans until the economy returns to full employment—namely, by passing EUC. Today, the long-term unemployment rate remains twice as high as any time Congress has previously let EUC expire. Since December, the Senate has tried and failed twice to extend EUC, and you have voted “no” both times.
When you first voted “no” in January, you said the bill needed to be paid for and that you would vote for it if such a pay-for were included. Last week, you again voted “no” on extending EUC, even though the bill was completely paid for. At 8.9 percent, Illinois has the third highest rate of unemployment in the country, and so far 109,000 of our neighbors have lost these modest but vital benefits that help them put food on the table. Hundreds more are losing benefits each week.
For these reasons, we are saddened by your “no” votes on emergency unemployment compensation, and we ask you to vote “yes” next time—for the good of our communities and for the good of Illinois.
Visit the Bread blog to see the other clergy who have signed and let me know if you know of any other clergy or religious leaders who might be interested in signing.
Here’s a lightly edited version of the sermon I preached at New Community Covenant Church on Sunday. Unlike most of my sermons this one was written quickly, after the news broke from the Michael Dunn trial on Saturday evening.
In November 2012, 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis and his friends were parked outside a convenience store in Florida when an argument broke out with the white man parked next to them about the volume of their music. The argument ended when the man, Michael Dunn shot 10 rounds into Davis’ car- some of those bullets hit and killed Davis. At his trial Dunn claimed he felt threatened, that he had to stand his ground. No gun was ever found in the young Jordan Davis’ car. Last night a mostly white jury found Dunn guilty on lesser counts of attempted murder- but for the actual murder they couldn’t agree. And so again, a young black man’s life is taken and it’s not called murder. Again, as the trial proved, the responsibility was placed on the dead man’s life to show that he didn’t deserve to die.
As Joshua DuBois wrote on Twitter last night, “Unbroken line, Emmett Till to Jordan Davis. Deadly to whistle, to play loud music. Deadly to be a young Black man in America, 2014.”
So today I want to talk about justice.
As it relates to yesterday’s verdict, I assume there are at least three groups of people here this morning: the distracted, the despairing, and the discouraged. Today I want to talk about justice by giving a word of conviction from Jesus’ life for the distracted, a word of comfort from Jesus’ death for the despairing, and a word of challenge from Jesus’ resurrection to the discouraged.
Conviction for the Distracted: Jesus’ life.
We begin with one of Jesus’ most well known parables from Luke 10:25-37.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
We tend to focus on what the priest and Levite didn’t do and on what the Samaritan did. The first two walked by while the Samaritan stopped and cared for the battered man. But the passage records something in common between the three: they each saw the suffering man. The priest saw and passed by. The Levite saw and passed by. The Samaritan saw and took pity.
Which says to me that there is seeing and there is seeing. You and I see injustice everyday, but we don’t really see. We don’t see the humanity behind the suffering. We are too distracted to see. The priest and the Levite had places to be and people that were counting on them. Heck, they had God’s work to do. We understand this. Your life is busy. Your job is demanding. Your family is chaotic. But there are a whole lot of busy people with chaotic lives who are deeply aware of the injustices facing themselves and those they love.
What is distracting you? Please don’t blame your busyness. There are a whole lot of people who would love to trade their suffering for your busyness.
Justice begins with seeing. Jesus’ entire life was about seeing those whom others overlooked: the woman at the well; the bleeding woman; the tax collector in the tree; the daughter of his country’s oppressor. The Samaritan was able to get off his donkey and care for the beaten man because he saw him. He saw, on the side of the rode, another image-bearer of God who was created for God’s glory. He saw one whose dignity and worth had been violently undermined.
Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t a pep talk how important it is to notice people. In fact, seeing is fundamental to our Christian faith. To begin with, our very salvation is precipitated on the fact that God saw us. We are like the Hebrew Children suffering under in bondage to whom God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.”
Our place within the Kingdom of God; our identities as children of God; our rescue from sin by the hand of God… all of these exist because God saw us. He saw our plight. He saw sin’s oppressive hand on our backs. He saw us and he came down to rescue us.
And there’s more: Jesus’ life was about making blind people see. In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:19-19 he quotes from Isaiah to lay out his agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now Jesus certainly came to with good news for real poor people and real prisoners and real blind people and real oppressed people. But as the Gospel’s also make clear, every one of us suffers from spiritual poverty and blindness. And Jesus came to heal that blindness so that we would no longer be bound within our own small worlds like the priest and Levite.
Listen: Jesus came to save you from your selfishness. He came to make it possible that you love your neighbors; really love them- as much as you love yourself. Jesus came to rescue you from the petty distractions and idols that have consumed your devotions and attentions so that you might actually see this world in all of its ferocity and pain and wonder. So to the distracted there is a word of conviction: Wake up! Jesus came that you might see.
Comfort for the Despairing: Jesus’ death.
For those who are not distracted, the murder of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Haydiya Pendleton and the Dunbar High School student earlier this week cannot help but weigh heavily. These injustices, along with the lies and systems that seek to legitimize them have begun to grind you down.
It’s not that you don’t want to have hope it’s just that it always seems misplaced. Regardless of who the mayor is or police chief is or schools CEO is it’s the same story. Some of you hear the news of Jordan Davis’ demise and you immediately think of your own sons and daughters. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last night,
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
The Psalmist could be praying on your behalf when he asks of the Lord in Psalm 94:3-7,
How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
To the despairing and the doubting I can only hope to point to the one who well knows your grief. He is the one the prophet spoke of in Isaiah 4:3-5,
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Here is the Bible’s seemingly impossible claim: God’s justice was accomplished when the universe’s injustice came crashing down onto Jesus’ innocent head. That is, on the cross where Jesus hung the monsters of evil and wickedness and destruction that have wreaked havoc on our world and in our lives turned the full force of their violent fury onto God’s perfect Son.
And it was here at the cross, despite our complicity with the very evil that crushed Jesus, it was here that our salvation was accomplished. It was here the poor heard the good news that the kingdom of heaven was theirs; it was here that prisoners learned that their jailer would answer to a higher authority; it was here that scales fell from blind eyes; it was here that oppressed bodies were unshackled and ushered into freedom.
So despite the despair and doubt that some of you carry, the cross of Jesus compels me to speak to you boldly this morning. The cross does not allow me simply offer my sympathy or my empathy, as important as those may be. The cross does not allow me to offer small words of comfort; little bandages for gaping wounds. The cross does not allow me to explain away the ugliness of last night’s verdict with catchy phrases or spiritual slogans. And while we must acknowledge the despair and doubt; while we must lament together another act of justice- what the cross does not allow us to do is to grant more power to these unjust acts than they actually posses.
You’ve heard me say it many times and I will say it again from the shadows of Jordan Davis’ un-vindicated death: What the forces of evil meant for our destruction, God absorbed for our salvation. What was meant to kill us, God bore so that we would live. What appeared to the entire world as God’s defeat was, in fact, the place where God’s victory was accomplished.
And while the cross has profound consequences for our salvation and God’s restoration of all things- the cross has equally profound consequences for every single place in our world where it seems that evil is winning. Within the reality of God’s coming kingdom, there is not one tragedy that cannot be redeemed.
Does this sound callous or like a shallow cliché? I promise you, it’s not. The cross of Jesus signals to every power and principality of evil that their days are numbered. It is a reminder that their power is finite and their end secure. It is a proclamation that God is holy and just and not to be trifled with.
I know this requires faith. But consider again in whom we place our faith. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So let me nudge the despairing just a bit more. If indeed God has overcome the troubles of this world through the suffering and broken body of Jesus – one who knew the face of injustice and oppression – then there is no situation of injustice that is beyond hope.
Challenge for the Discouraged: Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, many of us this morning simply feel discouraged. You’re not distracted. In fact, you’re profoundly aware of the harsh realities surrounding us. You know that although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for it. You know that while the USA has 5% of world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, with a disproportionate percentage being people of color: 1 in every 106 white men; 1 in ever 36 Hispanic men; 1 in every 15 black men are imprisoned. You know that since the 1960’s the unemployment rate for African Americans has consistently been double that of whites. You know about the impact of redlining, housing covenants, and state-sponsored segregation enforced by bank lending policy. You know about the bamboo ceiling in the workplace that encourages the model-minority myth for Asian Americans while excluding them from top levels of leadership. You know about Hispanic immigrant churches that today are gathering in fear, wondering who will be deported next, what child will be left without a parent.
No, you’re not distracted. And You’re not despairing either, though you can imagine getting there. No, many of us feel tired, worn out, and discouraged. We relate to the disciples, walking home after the crucifixion. Not sure what happened, but sure that it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. And it’s not wrong to be discouraged; this life provides plenty of fodder for discouragement. But, even in moments of profound disappointment, discouragement can never be the only word.
If the Distracted are convicted by Jesus’ life, the Despairing are comforted by Jesus’ cross, then you – the Discouraged – can be challenged by Jesus’ resurrection.
One of the great surprises of the story of the early church is how the disciples could morph from a discouraged group of people returning to their homes after Jesus’ death to a bold community after the resurrection that is unafraid of the very same individuals who killed their Messiah. The key to understanding this transformation comes in the closing lines of Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2:36. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” In other words Jesus’ death and resurrection are not only the surprising way through which God rescues us; they were also God’s strategy to accomplish victory over all of God’s enemies, over every source of evil and injustice.
Peter, the same disciple who once told Jesus to quick talking about going to the cross because would-be Messiahs who die on crosses are failed Messiahs; that same Peter now acknowledges that it was through Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection that his kingdom has now been inaugurated; it is coming; it is breaking in.
Earlier in his sermon Peter says that God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a magic trick. It wasn’t an amazing miracle to convince us that he really was God. His resurrection is a victory; a victory over death itself; a victory that establishes his authority as King and Lord and Messiah. His resurrection is, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, like the first fruit of a harvest- it is evidence of what is to come in a world that still rejects his reign, where death still demands our fear and submission. But this king, Paul goes on to write, will rule until that day- when he “hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “[1 Corinthians 15:24-26]
What does this mean for the discouraged among us? It means that when Jesus sent out his disciples after his resurrection to represent his kingdom, he did so a conquering king. When Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he is reflecting the authority that comes from accomplishing our salvation on the cross and rising victoriously over God’s enemies – including death – at the resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection calls us to action. Not in some vaguely spiritual way where everything is going to be OK. In fact, earlier in Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” [10:16] No, the resurrected and victorious Jesus has sent those who confess him as Savior and King into the real world. The King has come to the world and we are sent as his representatives, his ambassadors, and his witnesses to proclaim with our words and our lives that a new kingdom is coming. We are sent to show that the powers of evil that seem entrenched, insurmountable, and irresistible have, in fact, already been defeated. Their thin power is based solely on uncreative lies and systematic deception.
The resurrected Jesus has sent us with words of life on our lips and the power of the Holy Spirit in our bodies. We have been sent to the young men who heard once again last night at the verdict of Jordan Davis’ killer: your life is cheap. We have been sent to underfunded classrooms that reek of lowered expectations to demonstrate a dignity and value that cannot be bought. We have been sent to courtrooms, newsrooms, boardrooms, and political backrooms and other places of power to remind they powerful that there is a King to whom they will answer. We’ve been sent to family members and neighbors who tacitly approve of systemic racism.
You see, followers of Jesus are like the Samaritan- we are called to acts of compassion and mercy when we come across injustice. But there’s something else. At some point we have to ask why it is that innocent travelers keep getting beat down on the Jericho road. Yes, we’ll patch you up and pursue your healing, but followers of Jesus are called to travel further up the Jericho road to find the source of these travelers’ misery. This is the work of justice. We are called to those places in the world where God’s will for humanity’s flourishing is opposed; we are called there to invest our lives, to pray with our hearts and our bodies- God may your will be done here as it is in heaven!