This week I agreed to participate in the creation of a video letter that is embedded below, which has now been shared on social media and by AL.com. Some folks might be wondering why. The most immediate reference was the shooting of EJ Bradford, though the issues addressed are broader than this one event. I originally intended to use this blog post to lay out supporting facts and develop my argument justifying my participation. Having watched the comments posted online, I think such an argument would not add much to the conversation.
So instead, I just want to address a few things for folks that know me or follow this blog that might want to know more about why I chose to participate in this project.
- I believe in the value of people engaging in nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. The ability to do so is part of the foundation of our country. We are far enough away from the actions of the Civil Rights movement to be nostalgic, but there was a lot of pushback at the time. A lot of folks that saw no sense in what was going on and that found the protests and actions to be unnecessarily disruptive. That’s why those clergy folks we referenced wrote their letter in 1963. When I see comments from folks on online media that the protestors should all be locked up (even if they are not presently breaking the law) or that they should be run over (which has a very dangerous recent precedent) or that they should just be patient for all the facts to come out, I believe that it is necessary to speak up and offer support. I seek to not repeat the mistakes of previous generations of dismissing Black leadership and the powerful positive effects of these actions. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience of complex issues of race, policing, violence, and oppression causes complex disruptions in communities and economies. It is supposed to.
- I believe “Black Lives Matter.” This seems a major stumbling block for folks, and I know that this phrase has political baggage. The internet commenters have all the usual jabs – “All lives matter,” “Blue lives matter,” and of course “White lives matter.”But why would a clergy person use such a charged phrase? For me, the answer is easy, because of Jesus. In Matthew 20:28, Jesus teaches his disciples that “he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” In the Gospel of John 3, Jesus teaches “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
It is clear from these passages, and as would be taught by Paul, that Jesus came to save the many — Jew and Gentile, slave and free.
That’s the big story, the one that fits neatly in quips and quotes. But things get more complicated when we start looking at the details. Jesus came to save the many, and he taught and preached that path of salvation by calling out injustice and lifting up the poor, the sick, and the outcast. In Jesus’ teaching, the salvation of the many came through the liberation of the few.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells the story of the judgment of the nations. When the time for judgment comes, the nations (meaning everybody) are sorted — the sheep from the goats. “Sheep go to heaven. Goats go to Hell.” (To quote the 1999 single by the band Cake). The sheep will inherit the Kingdom because they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited those in prison. The goats go to hell because they failed to do such things.
In Matthew 5, we are given what is commonly called the Beatitudes. Who Jesus holds up as blessed by God are not the ones that society would expect. Matthew gives us 9, and it is perhaps the set that is most often quoted and cross-stitched on pillows. But I think we need to consider how the Beatitudes are presented in Luke 6. Here they are a bit more uncomfortable, and the four blessings are followed by for woes:
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Until we white, wealthy or middle class, educated, and privileged folks (no matter how well-meaning we might be) hear our own salvation and liberation in the phrase “Black lives matter,” then I think we have to keep saying it. “Black lives matter,” within the Christian context, is not a statement of exclusion, but instead is a reminder of Jesus’ Gospel. Blessed Jonathan Daniels, a martyr in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama, described it as “we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.” When our society lives and acts in a way that demonstrates that the lives of people of color truly matter, then there will be no question that all lives matter.
To answer the more specific question of why use this particular phrase that causes so much discomfort and division, I refer to a quote from Flannery O’Connor:
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
- I believe with God’s grace, we can do and be better. I do not believe that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past. I believe we can change the course of history as it is being written. I believe that we can change our society from a culture of violence and oppression to one of life and freedom. I believe that our elected officials and those in authority can respond to a situation such as the death of EJ Bradford in a way that fosters transparency and trust, not fear and anxiety. I believe that we can change our communities where our neighbors, family members, and friends that are in law enforcement can truly be members and agents of the communities they serve, and not outfitted like a military occupation force. I have known many people in law enforcement, and I know and believe that they wish to help and serve their communities. But I believe that the current system makes it difficult for them to develop the relationships of trust and interdependence that they need.Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, this is a test of our system of justice and our community. It is also an opportunity for our elected leaders, law enforcement, Black leaders, White leaders, and leaders of our faith communities to forge a new path.
I found it particularly appropriate that this video letter was released on the Third Sunday of Advent. Our Gospel reading from Luke for this day gives us a glimpse of the preaching of John the Baptist. John’s opening line surely made his audience uncomfortable: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In response to the questions of the crowd, John perhaps gives unexpected answers. What should the people do to prepare for the coming Messiah? They should share what they have — clothing and food. Tax collectors should not abuse the system of taxation for personal gain. Soldiers should not abuse their power for personal gain. In short, they should work to create a community that lifts people up, and that is one of God’s justice and mercy.
We in December 2018 are in the season of Advent. We are preparing for the celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas. But we are also preparing for Christ’s return in power and glory. And what should we do to prepare for Christ’s coming in glory? I think the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself have given us the answer.
The title of this blog post references the collect for the Third Sunday of Advent. In this season of preparation, and in this season of tumult and uncertainty, I think it is the prayer that we need to hear:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.