Most of you know my oldest son and you know that, like his younger son, he is adopted. You may not know that my son can trace his ethnicity through Filipino people, Puerto Rican people, and, especially, African American people.
My son is five years old. This means that in seven years he will be twelve years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when two Cleveland police pulled up to check out this “young black male” while he played with a toy gun a friend had recently lent him.
In seven years he will be the same age Tamir was when he was confronted by a white police officer had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit to serve in his previous policing job.
In seven years he will be as old as Tamir who had exactly two seconds before that emotionally unstable, police officer pulled his gun and shot him twice.
In seven years he will be the same age of Tamir who, after being shot, was left unattended on the ground for four minutes. Rather than administering first aid to the mortally wounded child the officers tackled his fourteen-year-old sister who was running to his aid. They handcuffed her and put her in the back of a police car where she watched her brother bleed.
In seven years my son will walk in Tamir’s shoes. In twelve years he will walk in Trayvon’s shoes and Jordan Davis’ shoes. In thirteen years he will walk in Michael Brown’s shoes.
After Michael Brown’s killing, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about the despair his death elicited in so many parents. 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.
I think about my son and I think about these other sons and I think about the truth and desperation of Ta-Nehesi Coates and I feel anger.
When we consider that that it has been forty-seven years since Rev. Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis and yet we are still trying to convince this nation that Black Lives Matter, I get angry.
When we consider that it has been fifty years since the voting rights act was passed, sixty one years since separate schooling based on race was unconstitutional, and yet we are still fighting to protect voting rights and still fighting for quality education for all, I get angry.
When we consider that it’s been one hundred years since Ida B Wells shone the spotlight of her journalism and rhetoric on the rampant lynching of unarmed, innocent African Americans and yet today we face the mass imprisonment of black and brown citizens, a reality unprecedented anywhere else in the world, I get angry.
When we remember that the Civil War ended one hundred and fifty years ago yet our nation remains unconvinced about the basic personhood of black and brown people, I get angry.
When we remember that the first Africans were stolen from their continent four hundred years ago and brought to America, when the wealth and power of this nation was purchased with the sweat, blood, suffering, and deaths of the descendants and kin of those enslaved Africans, and when America has the audacity to place the blame of black suffering at the feet of black people, I get angry.
When we hear pundits lie and spin about the suffering and prejudice faced by brown and black people, when they ignore the white supremacy that has been this nation’s religion for hundreds of years, I get angry.
I’m angry this morning because what James Baldwin wrote was true in 1972 and it’s true in 2015:
The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.
I’m angry this morning because theologian James Cone is truth when he writes, “Whites cannot separate themselves from culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront history & expose sin of white supremacy.” Yet, how many of us white people are willing confront that history and expose that sin?
I’m angry this morning because of the lies our nation continues to tell. I’m angry because we kill our prophets and then sanitize and commercialize their legacies. I’m angry because my son is five and soon he will be twelve and then seventeen and then eighteen. And, if I’m honest, I’m angry because the injustices of this earth seem so entrenched that I wonder whether there is any realistic hope for anything different.
We are not the first to wonder about earth’s injustices. The young church in Ephesus who received Paul’s letter wondered about these things. Within this center of imperial and oppressive power they struggled to know how they would maintain their new identities as followers of Jesus. Like us they had to ask, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? How do we worship the Lord in a place such as this?
Our passage, Ephesians 1:17-23, shows two ways the early church answered this question. As we listen to their answers, as we see their example, I hope that added to the anger we might feel today will be hope. After all we are not the first to face the injustices of earth. We are not the first to walk closely with righteous anger.
The first thing Paul directs the church to do is to focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. Notice the passage:
17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
A simple way to summarize Paul’s run-on sentences in verses 18 and 19 would be: I pray that you would know the power of God. Not some generic power or some generic god. I want you to know the power of the living God who raised Jesus, the Messiah, from the dead. This is what Paul wants.
Some of us tend to focus on the unjust and corrupt powers that surround us. And we need to see these and call these out. But they can never to be our primary focus. Because there is no life there. There is no hope there. A person lost in the dessert and dying of thirst will only find it so helpful to have his circumstances described to him. What he needs is someone with a way out of the wilderness. He needs the hope that despite how terrible things appears, there is a way out.
It’s the same for us. We have to be honest about the corrupt powers and sources of injustice in our city. But these cannot be the primary focus of our sustained attention. They cannot be our only focus. No, our primary focus must be on the one who elicits not anger but awe. Our focus must be on the one who elicits in our hearts not pain but praise. Our focus must be on the one who compels not despair but delight. Our focus must be on the one who compels not worry but worship. Our focus must be on the one who provokes us not toward apathy but toward action.
In other words, we must focus our best attention not on the corrupt, impotent, and fraudulent powers of this world, that peddle in division and destruction. Rather, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are called to focus our gaze on Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. We are called to behold the One who even now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the age to come.
This was the secret weapon held by many of the leaders and participants of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course they looked at the injustices around them; many of those women, men, and children were forced to experience profound injustices every single day. But as clearly as they could describe those corrupt powers and as precisely as they could articulate what needed to change in America, many of those individuals had an even greater and more determined focus: their Savior. And so they could experience the worst of racial injustice without being overcome by it. They could taste the venom of hatred without it ever taking their hearts hostage.
We can see this focus on God’s power through Jesus in one of Rev. Dr. King’s sermons, this one in New York City in 1967 as he made clear his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
See, it’s not simply that we focus on the only genuine and authentic power in the universe, the power of God. It’s that when we worship and esteem Jesus our lives actually change. One of the ways we change is that we begin to see the resources of heaven that are available to those of us who are citizens of that kingdom.
22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Paul says: God has placed everything under the feet of Jesus, the head of the church. Our incorporation in Jesus means that the power that is at work and available through Jesus is available to us as well! So Jesus can say things like:
18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:18-19]
12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:12-14]
As we are given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and as the eyes or our hearts are enlightened we see and worship our powerful Savior and we also discover that his power is available to us. To put it differently, when we see Jesus in his power we discover the resources of heaven that are available in our struggle against the injustices of earth.
So to the question, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? the first answer is that we focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. When the power of God is our focus all of the corrupt powers slide into their rightful place. We don’t ignore them, we don’t downplay them, but we allow them to take their rightful place beneath the feet of Jesus who will make all things right.
The second answer to that question comes on the heels of the first: We discover and utilize heaven’s resources against earth’s unjust powers. We could spend the rest of the year looking into the resources of heaven. I have time for just four.
The first resource is reconciled community. Drawing from 2 Corinthians we say that our church identity is a reconciled and reconciling people. Through Jesus God has reconciled us to himself and to one another. This would have been one of the radical implications of the Gospel to the church in Ephesus and it is no less radical today.
Reconciled community begins to deconstruct the racism we are all regularly exposed to. Social scientists call this implicit racial bias. That is, we are formed culturally to associate certain positive and negative characteristic to people based on things like skin color. But within a diverse church community, these implicit biases are not only challenged, they are slowly replaced by other, more generous and loving biases.
Reconciled community also requires that we stay. One of the defining legacies of Chicago is white flight and reconciled Community is the opposite of white flight; it requires that we stay, that we remain present. We don’t walk away from people who are different. We remain with the knowledge that we are family.
A second resource of heave that is available in our struggle against injustices is our secured identities. In Christ Jesus we have identities as God’s children that are secure and eternal. We don’t have to defend ourselves or prove ourselves. We can live with confidence from our place as beloved and empowered children of God. But there is more.
When our identities are securely in Jesus, we find that our ethnic & cultural identities are affirmed. Deep within Christian belief is that God loves us as we are. We are not required to become something different in order to be accepted. The church has gotten this wrong at times, requiring that individuals learn a new language or dress in a different cultural style. But these are aberrations of the Gospel. Our country slices and dices, marginalizes and sidelines based on skin color, accent, grammar, traditions, the shape of a person’s eyes, nose, and even height! But not within the Kingdom! This community is meant to be the place where every one of us experiences the radical hospitality and acceptance of Jesus.
Having secured identities in Christ also means that we can be protected from the co-option and coercion of the corrupt powers. In his book Liberty to the Captives Raymond Rivera points out that in different seasons the church will cooperate with or resist the powers. In one sense it is easier to resist than cooperate, but when we are clear on where our authority and identity comes from we can also cooperate without being co-opted.
The third resource of heaven is courageous truth. Jesus said of himself in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. We are followers of the Truth so we aren’t afraid to tell the truth. A great example of this is found in that same speech Rev. Dr. King gave against the Vietnam War. He knew this speech would make powerful enemies. Yet he had to tell the truth.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
As King demonstrated, followers of Jesus deal in the currency of the truth, regardless of its consequences. This means that we tell the truth about injustice We resist the tendency to soft-pedal. When media attempts to redirect our attention by talking about black-on-black crime or “thug” culture or the so-called crisis of fatherlessness, we call bull-sh*t. And we tell the truth.
We also tell the truth about Jesus .To those who think Jesus is only concerned with our souls after we die, we tell the truth about the Kingdom of justice and mercy and peace that Jesus came to proclaim and inaugurate. And to those who think that Jesus is one interesting morality teacher among others, we tell the truth about the Son of God who chose the cross to put to death the sin and rebellion within our hearts and who resurrected victoriously over evil and death.
Finally, in our struggle with the injustices of earth endless grace is another of heaven’s resources available to us. Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that salvation comes through God’s grace alone. Late in this letter to Ephesus Paul writes, 9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. But too often we treat grace as Christianity 101. In fact, grace is the air we breathe. It is the sustaining reality of our relationship with God and our status as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is the grace of God that allows us to pursue God’s justice in an unjust world. How?
God’s endless grace allows repentance and forgiveness to be normal for us. So much justice work is built on getting it right: saying the right things; knowing the right things; doing the right things; identifying the right strategies. But you will not always get it right! And if you’re counting on always getting it right it’s only a matter of time until you get it very wrong. What then? But if grace is our starting point than our goal isn’t to get it right, it’s to quickly confess when we get it wrong: when we wound, ignore, flake out. And when grace is our starting point, when we know how dependent we are on God’s mercy and grace, we can also quickly forgive when others confess their sin against us.
Endless grace also reminds us that we bear witness to Jesus regardless of the circumstances. This is and important reminder that we are not called to change the world. I’ve met many people who in their youth wanted to change the world. But things didn’t change as quickly as they hoped or in the ways they expected and so the walked away. They traded in their dream for justice for the so-called American dream of comfort and complacency.
In one of his speeches King said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” This is God’s grace, that his work is constant and gentle and eternal. And it is God who does this work with we as his representatives. Despite the heaviness of our world, God’s grace means there can be a lightness about our work.
I began by acknowledging my anger. I end by confessing my hope. My fiver year-old and five month-old sons, beautiful boys with complexions darker than mine, are growing up among you. They are growing up among a people who are learning to be captivated firstly by God’s beautiful and transformative power. They are growing up among a reconciled community; among women and men who know and love who they are; among people who will tell them the truth about this world’s injustices and the truth about this world’s Savior; among a people who will speak to them words of grace, who show them how to live this way of grace.
I remain angry. But not only angry. God, through his Old Testament prophet Zechariah, called his people, prisoners of hope. In this world of injustice, may it be true that we are prisoners of hope whose eyes have been opened to see the authority and power and resources of heaven that are at our disposal in our struggle against injustice.
On Facebook & Twitter I recently made the following statement: “To my white brothers & sisters: our participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement begins with our repentance & confession.” A friend read this and asked if I could suggest any resources for repentance. I’ll suggest one such resources at the end of this post, but I want to start by filling in my original statement just a bit.
During the past few weeks I’ve wondered about how white people can participate in protests, marches, and movements for justice on behalf of black and brown people. This is worth thinking carefully about since the white protestors, like myself, are complicit in and beneficiaries of the very systems responsible for the injustices targeted by the protests. A white person presents at least two challenges in these settings: his presence is a reminder of the privilege and prejudice that makes the protest necessary and his formation within a white supremacist system makes his participation in a movement to dismantle such a system… complicated.
Despite these very significant challenges, there are good reasons for white people to join the struggle for justice for black and brown people. James Baldwin saw this in the early 1960’s:
White people cannot, in generality, be taken as models of how t live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks- the total liberation , in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.
Here’s what I take from Baldwin about white protestors participating in BlackLivesMatter: We must begin by acknowledging our own profound need, by the way our privilege and unacknowledged power has corrupted our hearts. We come to this justice movement not as innocent bystanders or righteous saviors. We come as desperately needy persons, not to assuage our guilt but to confess our sin and need. For many of us, the act of protesting is a quite literal repentance- we are turning away from our sins of commission and especially our sins of omission and we are turning back to our Savior and the priorities of his Kingdom.
In my original statement I wrote that a white person’s participation in the movement begins with repentance. And while it does, repentance must also be ongoing. In our discipleship to Jesus we are regularly being shown new (to us) habits and assumptions that require our turning away. This will be especially true for those of us whose society has affirmed our assumptions, desires, and fears. As we continue to follow Jesus it becomes clear that the affirmation we received as members of a dominant culture is no longer so quick in coming. The ethic and assumptions of the Kingdom of Heaven are often greatly at odds with those of our country and its privileged citizens.
Though it is ongoing, this repentance will also be specific. White Christians who are becoming aware of the destructiveness of whiteness as a social construct can feel ashamed of being a white person. This person wants to apologize in general terms for being white. But such general shame and vague repentance isn’t helpful. After all, no one chooses their race or ethnicity. Neither do we choose the history and social realities associated with them. And while the social construct of whiteness continues to wreak havoc in America, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person’s white skin.
So our ongoing repentance must avoid vague generalities. We must instead repent like Zacchaeus who, when made aware of his sin by his proximity to Jesus, repented of particular sins: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The history of race in America – a history so many white people are ignorant of – provides many specific reasons to repent: economies and institutions built on slavery; discriminatory housing policies; stolen wealth and land; education inequities; mass incarceration; cultural stereotypes promoted by the media. These are barely the tip of the iceberg and the connections to these large themes and one’s own complicit privilege are not immediately obvious to many white people. But follow Jesus long enough with an eye to reality and the connections will come and along with them the need for particular repentance.
To be fair, many white people have been Christians for a long time and are as blind to the need to repent as are many of their non-Christian peers. Without going too deeply into it here I attribute this blindness to church structures that are more determined by our country’s racialized assumptions than by any Biblical ecclesiology. In too many cases our churches exacerbate our privilege and prejudice rather than calling them out and calling us to repentance. Segregated white churches eliminate the possibility of reconciliation across cultural divides, one of the bitter fruits being white people who never submit relationally to people of color whose experiences and perspectives would provide new rationale for specific moments of repentance.
Intrinsic to Christian faith is dependance on God’s grace and mercy. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not exceptional or occasional practices for Christians; these are the very basic practices of our faith. I point this out to say that, in theological theory at least, white people ought to welcome the opportunity for ongoing repentances as a normal and natural characteristic of their faith development. I don’t mean that it’s easy, but no one who reads the Gospels closely expects discipleship to be easy. Good, but never easy.
As for resources for repentance, I think the Psalms are always the starting point. In recent weeks our church has turned to those psalms that were written during times of exile. These often speak to both the need for deliverance and the need for forgiveness.
Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. [Psalm 79]
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud. [Psalm 123]
The beginning of Nehemiah also is a great example of a man with cultural privilege repenting of a previous generation’s sins. This is tough for people who know too little of our history and value too much our individuality, but Nehemiah shows us why such wide repentance is necessary and good.
Warning: shameless financial request ahead…
I’ve been so encouraged by the online support to my blog posts and social media updates about our church’s engagement with the justice issues raised by the recent non-indictments in Ferguson and New York. Of course there have been a handful of dissenters – “stick to talking about god instead of race relations” – but these have been a drop in the bucket compared with the positive and thoughtful comments. Thank you!
One thing I’ve picked up on from some comments is that many of you want to support things like Sunday’s #BlackLivesMatter protest but you don’t attend a church or live in a community where this is possible. Some of you may even feel a bit guilty because it doesn’t seem like there is more that you can do besides showing your support on social media. To those of you in that camp I have one suggestions and two requests.
First, though places like the south side of Chicago get much of the attention when it comes to issues of injustice it’s safe to assume that these same issues are at play wherever you live. They may not be as obvious or destructive, but there are undoubtedly ways in which injustice is at work in your zip code. And there are certainly people around you who care about these things. Find them and jump into whatever small efforts are already in place. Don’t become so distracted with what’s happening over there that you miss the opportunity right where you are.
Now to the requests. Pray for us. That’s the first thing. It’s easy to think about justice issues through partisan lenses, but our church is very aware of the spiritual nature of this fight. We have to think theologically about the issues, Christologically about the solutions, and, in all things, act with courage and humility. See why we need your prayers?
Here’s the second request: Would you consider a financial gift to one of the churches in our Bronzeville community? One of the churches that has been involved in this work of justice faithfully? One the churches with the courage to protest on Sunday and the focus to continue once many others have moved on? Urban ministry is wonderful work and also very hard. Many of the financial resources that are available elsewhere are scarce in our neighborhoods, though we celebrate the many ways God provides for us.
There are many churches I could point you to who would benefit from your generosity; I’m choosing these three because they are located in Bronzeville. Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church was the first pastor to welcome me to Bronzeville years ago. He has opened many doors of opportunity to our church as we seek to serve and love our neighbors. His church is often at the lead of community development and I’m honored to be a part of several initiatives that have been started by Pastor Harris. Pastor Michael Neal of Glorious Light Church has become a close friend. He opened his church’s space to us earlier this year for a justice conference we hosted. Our churches also worship together every six months. Pastor Neal has initiated a literacy program in the neighborhood among many other initiatives focused on education and health. Both of these pastors and their churches are faithfully proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of Jesus in our little corner of Chicago. I’m very happy to urge your financial support of their ministries.
The third church? You can probably guess that our young congregation, New Community Covenant Church, would also welcome your generosity. We’re still at the early stages of this journey to justice, but in our less-than-five years we’ve taken some important steps, especially in the area of racial reconciliation. We will continue to give ourselves to loving our neighbors and building a diverse community that can only be understood through the lens of the gospel.
Would you consider a financial gift to one or more of these churches? Give to Bright Star Church here. Give to Glorious Light Church here. Give to New Community Covenant Church here. I’m spending today with representatives from these churches and other organizations as we continue our long-term work on trauma prevention and intervention in our neighborhood. Long after the media attention has moved on, we’ll continue to be praying and working for God’s kingdom to come in Bronzeville as it is in heaven.
Regardless of how you do it, please know how valuable your support and encouragement are to those of us in the thick of this work. Thank you!
Yesterday, after our worship service and monthly potluck lunch, our church joined a few other congregations in Bronzeville for a #BlackLivesMatter Protest in our neighborhood. The first photo shows the churches just as we began to march, we eventually filled in both lanes of the street. The second shows a line of clergy leading the march. I’m on the far left with two of my ministry colleagues, Michelle Dodson and Ramelia Williams.
The march went very, very well even as we all acknowledged that it was simply a small step. You can read more in the Chicago Tribune.
On a related note, one of the more disheartening responses to these race-related events has been that of self-purported Christians. Some have posted crap along the lines of “calm down” or “focus on the Gospel” (to which I suggest they read this). More people, however, have said nothing, choosing not to take sides. And by their silence, they have actually chosen to take a side. As a person of faith, it confounds me when Christians think Jesus would have stood on the sidelines. Throughout his entire life, he did anything but that. The guy was neither feckless nor neutral. He did not wait feebly, going to and from the temple, praying quietly for the world from the comfort of his home, until a spaceship took him back to heaven. It confounds me—confoundsme—what some Christians think this faith is all about.
My stance on the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is not merely a result of working in journalism (oh, that “liberal media”), living in an urban area, and having loved ones of different races and backgrounds. Faith compels me in a way that not even my most progressive sensibilities can. But it is also that which reminds me to extend forgiveness to those who don’t get it. And sometimes I think that’s the hardest part for me.
Our friend Esther is her typical insightful self in this piece about Ferguson and Eric Garner. I’m especially glad for the way she identifies faith in Jesus as her rationale for pursuing justice, even as she wonders at how many Christians miss the connection.
I’ve had a few requests asking about how our church worshipped yesterday, taking into account the non-indictment from Ferguson. Below is a lightly-edited version of my sermon. However, the most impactful part of the service were the testimonies given by eight members who told us about their responses to the news. After each person shared the church responded by praying a portion of a psalm.
Update: The podcast is now available and it includes the testimonies shared by eight members of our church.
Advent: Lament and Longing
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season that reminds us of the time when God’s people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Our passage, Ezekiel 34, was written during that waiting time: Babylon had conquered Judah; Ezekiel and others had been carried into exile; The Temple had been destroyed. Advent reminds us of the longing and laments these people felt as they prayed for God’s rescue to come.
Advent also reminds us that we await our Messiah’s return. We share with those ancient exiles the bitter awareness that life is far from what it should be; we share with them the hope for the Messiah to come and make all things right. Because things are not right.
When Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18 year old, college-bound, African American man with no criminal record was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When the young man’s body was left in the middle of the street for four hours in the August afternoon sun, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When law enforcement responded to protests with tear gas and military grade weaponry, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a town like Ferguson can be 67% African American and yet 93% of arrests made by the mostly white police force are of the town’s black citizens, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When Michael Brown’s personal life and motives are picked apart by a media looking for some reason to justify his killing, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When the same state that ruled against the enslaved Dred Scott’s legal suit challenging his enslavement in 1847 releases video showing Michael Brown stealing a few cigarettes as justification for his death, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a grand jury meets for three months under the direction of a county prosecutor with close ties to the police department and a history of racial bias and decides not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When so many American citizens question the innocence of these slain men while conveniently overlooking our nation’s pathological robberies: we took the first nation’s land before taking their lives; we stole black bodies from Africa and placed them within a white supremacist system of cotton fields, Jim Crow laws, systematically designed ghettos, and money-making prisons; our towns and tax systems benefits from undocumented brown bodies who do the work we’re unwilling to do for wages we’d be offended by… we are reminded that things aren’t right.
Oppressive Shepherds and Opportunistic Sheep
In response to their new situation in Babylon, the exiles wanted to know what they were to do. Their king was dethroned, they’d been sent into exile, and now the temple was destroyed. In response to so much trauma and suffering, what were they to do? I was texting with a friend this week about the news from Ferguson and, at one point, he replied, “I’m not doing enough.” Like the exiles, we want to know what to do. But the Ezekiel passage doesn’t tell us what to do. Instead Ezekiel makes clear that nature of the injustice suffered by God’s people and it tells us what God will do about it.
Verses 34:1-16 are directed to the shepherds, those in positions of power and leadership. Woe to you writes Ezekiel. God is angry with them for what they’ve not done as well as the ways they’ve abused their power.
You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.
As a result of their unjust rule, the people are scattered, wandering, and being devoured.
Verses 34:17-31 are directed toward the sheep, the people. Some of them, according to Ezekiel have taken advantage of the unjust system created and maintained by the shepherds. Ezekiel charges them: You’ve eaten your fill then trampled the pasture so others can’t eat; You’ve muddied the water so others can’t drink; You’ve abused the weak sheep and driven them away.
And what will God do about the wicked shepherds and opportunist sheep?
23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
This is pointing toward Jesus, the Messiah anticipated by the exiles and their descendants right up until that surprising night in Bethlehem. But look closely and see that the metaphor of shepherd is closer to a righteous judge.This shepherd will remove corrupt leaders. He will judge those who have benefitted themselves through an evil system.
What Will You Do When The Shepherd Returns?
The exiles awaited this “one shepherd” to come. We await his return. So how will you respond when this good shepherd and righteous judge returns? There will be many who great his return with celebration and relief. There will be some, like the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, who will be terrified because their opposition to this return king has been unmistakable.
And then there will be others of us who are like the fat sheep in this passage and like the goats in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46. In response to the righteous judge this group will respond, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ Those within this group know there is something wrong with our world. We know, on some level, that game is rigged. We know that our nation resembles a democracy to some and a kleptocracy to so many others. But because we generally don’t feel the wickedness of our society we are quickly distracted. We choose to invest in the small circle of our insulated existence rather than the lives of the overlooked and oppressed.
And here is the truth according to God’s word: the judge will pronounce sentence on those powerful people who oversaw the unjust system AS WELL as on those who quietly benefitted from the unjust system.
Which group do you fall within? If you’re unsure, imagine for a moment that Jesus returned today. Imagine the realization that the good shepherd and righteous judge had come to make all things right and new. What would you feel? Would you run to greet this shepherd and judge, knowing that your salvation and vindication had arrived? Would you run the other way, knowing that your day of hollow and wicked rule had come to an end? Or would stand frozen in uncertainty? Unsure of what the Messiah’s return means for someone as middle of the road, as under the radar, as inconspicuous as you? As me?
Jesus In Ferguson
As much as we want to know what to do in the aftermath of Ferguson, as much as the exiles wanted to know what to do in the aftermath of their desolation, Ezekiel is more interested in what God will do. And what God does in the face of such evil is to send us a shepherd, a servant, a prince, his only Son.
And the trajectory of Jesus’ life makes it very clear to us where he would stand in the streets of Ferguson:
His motives are questioned and his reputation slandered.
His body is dehumanized so that his execution could be justified.
He dies in the afternoon sun, a spectacle meant to remind the onlookers who holds the power.
In life he is marginalized and in death he is brutalized.
Are we talking about Michael Brown or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about 12 year old Tamir Rice or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about John Crawford shot in a Wal-Mart or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about Marissa Alexander, imprisoned for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband yet unprotected by the same stand your ground laws used by others, or are we talking about Jesus? Yes.
This is what God’s salvation looks like. We start with what God does, and because of what God does through Jesus and because of HOW God does it through a broken and bruised body, we in turn must look at the black and brown lives that are continually being broken and bruised, not in spite of how our society works but precisely because of how our society works.To paraphrase Ta-nehis Coates, a society structured around the dehumanization of black and brown people is having its intended effect.
And Jesus, the Bible makes clear, stands with those on the receiving end of our society’s violence.
I won’t wrap this sermon up cleanly or neatly. All we have done this morning is acknowledge the reality experienced by so many in our world, a reality we walk back into now. There very well may be things for you to do. But start instead with what God will do and ask yourself how you will respond on that day. How will you receive the returning shepherd and judge? Will you run to him in relief and joy? Then do so now, carrying with you every emotion and thought that you’ve known this week. On that day will you run the other way, knowing that your days of vapid and abusive power have come to end? Or might you be like the fat sheep or the surprised goats, frozen in uncertainty?
The possibility for a joyful reunion exists for all of us, but it requires that we embrace the cross of Jesus and all of its implications.
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.