Where Do We Go From Here?

Good Afternoon Beloved, 

On Tuesday night we got a preview of what the next four years of our American life will look like. Donald Trump has won what has been a very divided election, one filled with controversy after controversy, one in which hateful speech has been front and center in the campaign. 

If that were not challenge enough, just yesterday the delivery of justice was delayed by the gridlock of the jury deliberations, and a mistrial was called. Now the whole community must wait to see if the prosecutor is going to retry the case, or if Ray Tensing will be set free. 

Among the reactions to these events by those who believe in God’s work for liberation of oppressed people in the world, I have heard two reactions that trouble me. One reaction is the statement that these outcomes were pre-ordained. They say that God chose Donald Trump to be president, and we are simply actors in play that has ready been written, playing our part until the final scene. Or that God decided to let Ray Tensing walk, in order to prove to us a lesson.  The other reaction is the statement that these events in life are inevitable, “To everything in life there is a season” they say, “and this is our season under the leadership of Donald Trump.” 

Over the last several months I have tried to emphasize that the purpose of our faith and the power of our beliefs are what we are compelled to do because of them, belief for belief’s sake is ultimately meaningless. My concern with the two reactions named is that both of them can lead to a disengaged fatalism. “We have no power, we have no control, only God has control, therefore all we can do is pray.”  While such a position sounds pious and holy, and may give us something tangible to do other than being overwhelmed and feeling helpless, I believe that our faith must call us to reject these crippling and ultimately dangerous beliefs.

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A Lenten Practice for Black Liberation:

Re-Imagining the Rosary for Black Liberation

I am a Christian minister who believes in the revolutionary call of God and of the gospels both to resist the oppressive and isolating power of Empire as it appears in our time and place, and to work to bring about God’s realm of love and justice. To that end I often look for ways to connect my spiritual practices with my revolutionary beliefs. I attended a Catholic school for K-12 and spent many Religion courses during that time praying through parts of the Rosary. I appreciated the contemplative nature of the practice, even if most of the prayers did not connect with me. This year, during Lent I have decided to try using the rosary for contemplation on the struggle for Black Liberation. I am at the beginning of this process, so I welcome input. 

 

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Why Won't You Dance?

Why Won’t You Dance?:

Part One of a Two-Part Theological Reflection on Charleston and the Church 

Luke 7:31-35 

31 Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not cry.’

33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 

 

This pericope opens in the middle of a reprimand that Jesus is giving to his audience after addressing the concerns of John the Baptist and his disciples. John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod, as Luke tells us early in his gospel, and I would imagine he is at least beginning to suspect that he is never going to leave there alive.  John send his disciples to ask Jesus a very direct question, are you the one we have been waiting for. If you listened or read any of my sermons on gospel texts over the last couple of years, you probably have heard me talking about the counter-Roman, revolutionary community that Jesus is building which he refers to as the  Reign (or Kingdom) of God. In that context, I believe that John is asking Jesus, “can I die confident that I have seen the in-breaking of God’s revolution?” Jesus, then, aware that a direct answer could be seen as treasonous, tells John’s disciples, “just go tell John what you’ve seen out here.” As John’s disciples are leaving, I am imagining that there is whispering and laughing either about John’s eccentricity, the fact that he is in jail, or the type of people who would follow someone like John. I imagine this is the case, because the text says that after John’s disciples leave, Jesus jumps to John’s defense. “You all traveled out to the wilderness to see and hear John. Did you do that because you thought he had all of the trappings of Empire? No, you did it because he was a prophet. And not just any prophet, he is the prophet that other prophets were looking for” (Luke 7:24-28 NJP translation). Luke makes a few editorial comments before he returns to Jesus, which is where our text opens. It would seem that hearing the negativity directed at John (v33) and knowing the hate that he had been receiving (v34) was too much for Jesus to let go unaddressed. Jesus accuses them of wanting a Burger King prophet, a prophet done their way. John would not socialize so they labelled him with the same label given to the outcast from the region of the Gerasenes: demon-possessed. Meanwhile, Jesus socialized too much, so the labelled him a drunk. Jesus refers to them as children in the market place upset because people will not dance for them. In other words, the children, and therefore Jesus’s audience are being accused of wanting people to respond to whatever their whim is, without any regard for what is happening around them (the children are in the marketplace after all). They wanted prophets who preach God’s favor upon their national and cultural identity, without holding it accountable for the oppression that they created and were silent about in the effort to maintain legitimacy and peace within the Roman Empire. John the Baptist would not be silent about their complicity with Rome. Jesus’s life and ministry lifted up and valued the very people that Religious Leadership needed to exclude and oppress in order to maintain its illusion of power and Roman goodwill. Neither one of them participated the dance. That is why the work of John and Jesus, and ultimately John and Jesus themselves were problematic.

“What it like to be a problem?” 

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Lies, Murder, and Why We Need to Wake Up

A reading from Isaiah 5 

I’ll sing a ballad to the one I love,

    a love ballad about his vineyard:

The one I love had a vineyard,

    a fine, well-placed vineyard.

He hoed the soil and pulled the weeds,

    and planted the very best vines.

He built a lookout, built a winepress,

    a vineyard to be proud of.

He looked for a vintage yield of grapes,

    but for all his pains he got junk grapes.

“Now listen to what I’m telling you,

    you who live in Jerusalem and Judah.

What do you think is going on

    between me and my vineyard?

Can you think of anything I could have done

    to my vineyard that I didn’t do?

When I expected good grapes,

    why did I get bitter grapes?

“Well now, let me tell you

    what I’ll do to my vineyard:

I’ll tear down its fence

    and let it go to ruin.

I’ll knock down the gate

    and let it be trampled.

I’ll turn it into a patch of weeds, untended, uncared for—

    thistles and thorns will take over.

I’ll give orders to the clouds:

    ‘Don’t rain on that vineyard, ever!’”

Do you get it? The vineyard of God-of-the-Angel-Armies

    is the country of Israel.

All the men and women of Judah

    are the garden he was so proud of.

He looked for a crop of justice

    and saw them murdering each other.

He looked for a harvest of righteousness

    and heard only the moans of victims.

 

I am writing (or more accurately, rewriting, and even more accurately rewriting again) this piece a day after Loretta Lynch, the standing Attorney General, was in Cincinnati. AG Lynch is the same person who issued a statement to “condemn the senseless acts of violence by some individuals in Baltimore” while at the same time urging the need for careful examination of the police force who bears the responsibility for killing Freddie Gray. Today is also the day that a group of my colleagues had a press conference in which they were inviting Major League Baseball’s commissioner to enter the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, a press conference that was interrupted by protestors who equated diversity with “white genocide”. Moreover, I am writing in the immediate aftermath of the White House releasing its blueprint for local police reform along side the decision that federal government will no longer sell certain militarized weapons to local police agencies. 

The attempt to equate #BlackLivesMatter to white genocide, the swift and unambiguous condemnation that fell on an oppressed community who actions cost no one their life, while promoting diligence in examining the only actions that cost a human life, and a conversation about reform that has highlighted by cosmetic changes (drones instead of militarized aircraft, police body cameras) instead of serious substantive change; lead me to believe that there is a deep-seeded misunderstanding of the injustice that is occurring in our time, of how this injustice is impacting the United States as a whole (we as Black people are not the only ones being beaten and killed by police needlessly) and a corresponding inability to talk about what real justice and real reform is and should be. 

I will admit that prior to last August, when #Ferguson blazed its way onto the national stage after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, I had become lulled to sleep by  cynicism. I knew there was a need for police reform. I have my own stories of being pulled over needlessly, held for hours, illegally searched, and disrespected for being Black. I have also heard the stories of other brothers, many much worse than any of mine, that speak to the vastness of this problem in major cities, small towns, and rural communities all across this country. I just did not think it would ever change. If cynicism put me to sleep, apathy held me there. Believing that nothing would change, it became easy to stop caring. Yes, I would be mad when something happened to me, or to someone I knew, but this was life in the United States. Keep your pants up and your music down and try not to draw attention to the fact that you are… well that you are alive…because a wrong encounter with a police officer could easily end that. This is what I told myself, and possibly others in the deepest stages of my cynical-apathetic slumber. It is one of the reasons #Ferguson so important to me personally, it jarred me out of sleep and reminded me that the need for change was more important than the feasibility of change.

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Even Ishmael's Life Matters

22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 

 

On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested while riding a Montgomery bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Four days later she was convicted for breaking segregation laws, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, and that launched a public campaign that had been in planning for quite some time.  While King and Parks became relatively instant civil rights legends, it took a longer time for Claudette Colvin to be celebrated as well. If you are not aware of her name, you are probably not alone. It seems that only recently that Colvin’s story has begun to be told regularly despite the fact that she was arrested for the same “crime” nearly 9 months before Parks and was also a plaintiff in the federal court case in 1956. As historians have told the story, the difference between the story of Colvin and the story Parks is that Colvin was an unwed, pregnant teenager, and she was not seen as being respectable enough. 

 

Neither this story nor its underlying tensions are unique. Respectability is a often played game, at times with serious stakes on the line. It is why in the court case with Trayvon Martin, in the media Mike Brown, and in any number of cases of similar magnitude, the character, and thus the worthiness of the victim was brought into question. “We are not missing out on much” is what the underlying message seems to be. “We can accept this loss, regardless of how unnecessary, avoidable, or illegal the killing was.” 

 

In this Biblical text, Isaac was the son of promise, given to Abraham and his first wife, Sarah, who was considered to be too old to be able to have children. Abraham and Sarah are often celebrated because they showed great faith as they waited for years for Sarah to become pregnant, and thus started the generational line of succession that has been invoked in plenty of Baptist church prayers (God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). This passage is often lifted up because it not only demonstrates Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, even if it means the death of the son he’s been waiting his entire adult life for, but seemingly there is also Isaac’s trust in his father to the very end. These actions and their apparent motivations seem to establish Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac as the first family of faith. But what if this Bible story was about more than blind faith? What if this Bible story was about Abraham being forced to wrestle with his own failings as a father? 

 

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Shut It Down

Luke 18: 1-3 Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

4-5 “He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

6-8 Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”

 

We are seeing more now than our nation has in half a century, an unrest that is erupting in cities across the United States as people who have been too long forgotten are starting to rise up and speak in one voice a cry that speaks both an ancient truth, and a modern reality, “Black Lives Matter”. But as protests are emerging in places previously unheralded as Ferguson, Missouri and places infamous as New York City and West Baltimore, Maryland protest has emerged as more than speech, it has taken the form of destruction of property and in times more recently, the injury of the very police forces whose members have continued to kill people in the streets and in the back of police cars with no cause and little regard for life. As people are trying to make sense of what is unfolded, we have heard everyone from political officials to news pundits and from police officers to pastors talk about the two protest groups. The one is the “peaceful protesters, those who are coming together to chant and march and express their disagreement with the system as it is. Everyone applauds this group. They are the spirit of democracy, their visible leaders become celebrities on social media, and occasionally on mainstream media as well. In a time when we long for heroes whose humanity is as plain as their courage, these, mostly young people are stepping into that space with a remarkable charisma. The “other”  protest group has been called agitators, criminals, and opportunists. Their words are not celebrated, in fact they are not even remembered. It is their actions we remember, and overwhelmingly condemn. These are the ones who burned the QuikTrip in Missouri and the CVS in Maryland. These are the ones who have thrown rocks at the windows of businesses and police cars, and even at police. These are the ones from whom any leader or activist who is connected to money bends over backwards to create distance. Protest can be celebrated as long as it is safe, non-intrusive, and most importantly non-violent. This, is after all the lesson we learn from the patron saint of protest, Martin Luther King Jr. and from Jesus, is it not?

This text in Luke offers what I believe is a non-traditional glimpse into the value system of Jesus. Luke sets certain interpretative parameters on this text in his editorial comment about this parable being about prayer (1). It is therefore both easy and understandable to follow the Occam’s Razor theory of Biblical interpretation and say that this parable is, indeed about, and only about prayer. However I want to lift up what I believe are parallel and non-contradictory truths that can be mined out of the text that speak to the protest moment we are in now.

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