Why Won’t You Dance?:
Part One of a Two-Part Theological Reflection on Charleston and the Church
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?”
I’ve heard the words of WEB DuBois echoing behind the seemingly vain cries of so many to label this murderer a terrorist. Cries that were given academic articulation in a brilliant piece by Xavier professor Adam Clark. What is it like to be a problem? To understand that your government cannot call this act a terrorist act precisely it targeted Black people? Because calling this act terrorism would be to admit that its possible to terrorize Black people? That might open the door to the suggestion many police departments overrun with terrorists, including the one in Louisville, Kentucky where the police union wrote a letter threatening those who would dare protest under the #BlackLivesMatter banner. Further, it might suggest that vortex policing and “stop and frisk” are terrorist activities. Moreover, it just might suggest that the prisons that hold people hostage without trial for 3 years, or for years after exoneration would be better labeled terrorist camps. To call the Charleston massacre a terrorist act could mean reclassifying the bombing of a Birmingham church, the assassinations of Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar among so many others, and Bloody Sunday as acts of terror. This could lead to calling the lynching of Black bodies terrorist acts, and calling all of the people who took pictures smiling gathered around the hanging body terrorists. Which could lead to possibility of calling the kidnapping of men, women and children from their homes and families, the middle passage, and American slavery acts of terror. Ultimately it could lead the acknowledgement we have had our share of terrorists as President of the United States with their faces and names on our monuments and money. To call the Charleston massacre a terrorist act might just lead to the suggestion that the United States with our inability and/or refusal to confront our own racism, even when that racism concocts a murderous plan, tells others about said plan, literally executes plan and admits the reasons why it did so, is a terrorist nation. So because there is so much at stake, this cannot be a terrorist act. That is what it is like to be a problem.
For the last week, I feel like I have been in hiding in the aftermath of the murder of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. At first I thought I was hiding because I was afraid that a terrorist of similar racial and ideological persuasion is might come to my church and shoot me, but I soon realized this was not my fear. While the loss of life feels too tragic for words, and the racial motivations that drove the shooting have had a deep psychological impact on me that I have only been able to share in hushed tones with others were reminded that our very existence as Black people is enough for someone to want kill us, that also is not what drove me into hiding. In fact I have come to accept varying stages of that feeling as an everyday reality of being Black in what Maya Angelou referred to as these yet to be United States of America. What caused me to go into hiding, to largely ignore the news coverage, and wince out of one eye, or slightly open one ear when I have consumed the coverage was realizing the pain of Black people live with everyday, the existential pain of being Black in America is not just a problem to America, it is also problem to the church.
The existential pain of being Black in America is a problem for the American church because it exposes as fraudulent the idea that if I just come to church and pray, rather than being on the streets, I can avoid getting shot. The existential pain of being Black in America is a problem for the American church because it forces the question, “what side are you on, my people what side are you on?” onto a church that continues to overwhelmingly avoid taking sides these current issues of race. The existential pain of being Black in America is a problem for the American church because the church, even the progressive church, even the Black Church, has become comfortable with its place in the American Empire. To abandon that place in order to give theological voice to the defend the oppressed could cost money and members, it could cost friendships and family, it could cost position and privilege. It could jeopardize the illusion of a fragile peace to which we have been so desperately clinging. So we follow the call of the Jesus we have made in our image, the meek and mild, why can’t we all just get along, Jesus and we tell people suffering with the existential pain of being Black in America to just forgive, because God has a plan for your suffering.
I tried to listen to the news coverage on the Sunday morning after the Charleston shooting, knowing that churches would be front and center, and hoping that I would hear something that would help bring clarity to my foggy mind if not healing to my broken spirit. Instead, what I heard was an concentrated focus on forgiveness. Before one body was buried, before grief and lament could be expressed, before anybody who was impacted had the chance to really experience life without their loved ones, forgiveness was the nature of conversation. The worship services and community rallies in Charleston was lifted up as the model of how pain should be dealt with, and in some places explicitly called the anti-Ferguson, and the anti-Baltimore. Even when Secretary Hillary Clinton finally showed up in Ferguson, and finally was willing to ascribe and condemn a racial motive for the shooting, she was careful to talk about this being the time for forgiveness. It was a statement that she would not dared utter it Boston three years ago, or in the aftermath of Tsarnaev getting the death penalty. That was terror, we pursue terrorists with the full force of law, we execute them and we throw anyone they talked to in jail. This was not American pain, it was just Black pain. So the church must take its dutiful place singing and dancing to the tunes of American Sacred Hymnody. I just can’t sing this song anymore, and I refuse to dance.