“Think Justice!”

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A sermon preached on September 30, 2018 at the First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our hope and our refuge. Amen.

I

In July, I received a note from Ellen. She is 22-years-old, a college graduate with honors, a strong, confident young woman. This is what she wrote:

“I love all of you so much. None of this would be possible without you. My time with you had such an enormous impact on who I am, and I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done to get me to this point. You’re my family forever and always.    Ellen.”       (Written on her wedding day, July 8, 2018)

Thirteen-year-old Ellen came to us at Safe Places, an organization where my staff and I cared for women who had been abused, children exposed to violence, and young girls who had escaped the evil grip of human trafficking. When we first met Ellen, she was silent, lifeless, angry — hurt deeply in her soul. But after a few months, Ellen’s vivacious personality began to emerge. Slowly, she opened up her hurt place and let healing in. 

Ellen was eventually strong enough to be a part of our Princess Program, where girls who had experienced violence spent the summer learning and sharing, and discovering their inner courage, resilience, and sacred worth. After the summer, we celebrated the girls at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion with a grand ball, a very grand ball. 

When they put on their sparkling gowns, and the most glittering shoes I had ever seen, they believed — for at least one magical night — that truly they were princesses. Our wise staff taught them that even princesses can be violated, but they already knew that. They had lived through the humiliation of verbal abuse, the pain of physical and sexual abuse, and the long-lasting effects of emotional abuse. For many of them, it happened in the one place that should have been safe — in their homes.

II

Throughout history, we encounter stories of violence. Such is our story today, a story about how violence devastates Princess Tamar, King David’s daughter. Sometimes historians, biblical expositors and even story-telling preachers come upon stories that are hard to tell. This is one of those stories. It’s probably not included in any anthology of  “The World’s Most Inspiring Bible Stories.” It’s a story we don’t tell to our children. We might prefer to skip this story altogether. Theologian, Phyllis Trible, would call it a text of terror. And yet, it is the word of the Lord, and, as such, it offers some truths, some warnings, some questions, and maybe even a smidgen of grace.

So even though we find trouble in this text, God might just whisper, and gently nudge us to listen and to let the story reveal some important ways God calls us to do justice. 

Listen for the whisper of God in the reading of sacred scripture, 2 Samuel 13: 1-22.

In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her.

Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”

Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”

”Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.

Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”

“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

When King David heard all this, he was furious. And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.

III

Indeed, there is trouble in this disturbing text. We discover it when we eavesdrop on Princess Tamar — daughter of King David, sister of Absolom, and half sister of Amnon. We learn that Amnon conspired to be alone with her. His sly servant came up with a plan, and she ended up in Amnon’s room. After hurting her, he rejected her harshly. He called for his servant: “Get rid of this woman! Banish her from my presence! Bolt the door after her!” 

He would not even use her name.

Tamar collapsed outside the door, plunged her hand into the cooling ashes of the fire, and rubbed the ashes into her hair. As she staggered away, she tore her richly embroidered gown as a sign of her deep-down despair. Even princesses can be violated!

King David was angry, but did nothing either to punish his beloved son or to comfort his despairing daughter. There was no consolation from father to daughter, not a single trace of compassion.  And her mother is silent.

Near the end of the story, we stumble upon a tiny touch of grace when we learn that brother Absolom takes Tamar into his home. But she is no longer a princess of royal lineage. She fades into oblivion and lives out her days as a refugee in her brother’s house, a desolate woman who will never marry and bear children. But did Tamar fade into oblivion? 

I don’t think so! Tamar’s voice was not silenced. She told someone her story, and that someone heard her, and remembered her story, and re-told her story, and told it at the right time to the right person so that this story made its way into our holy scripture. Thousands of years later, we do know Tamar’s name. Across all barriers of history and culture, and if we imagine, we can hear her speak across the ages:  

“I lost my life that day. Here in my brother Absolom’s house, I am a prisoner. I will never have children that will bear my name through the generations. I will not know that deepest of joys.”

IV

So just keep silence, King David!  Stay silent, mother of Tamar! Protect your violent son at all costs. 

What a deadly picture of family violence — the violence of a brother overpowering his sister, and emotional violence because both parents remained silent.

We might ask: where were the voices of her parents? We cannot help but wonder how Tamar’s father and mother might have responded differently. But this royal family decided to keep silence to protect Amnon.

In her sermon, “The Silences We Keep,” Rev. MarQuita Carmichael Burton speaks of “conspiratorial silence.” Reflecting on Tamar’s story, Rev. Burton speaks these words:

Reclaim our voices, shatter the façade of the deadly silence we keep. . .

We must trade in our torn robes and ashes for a bull horn and a listening ear and tell the truth of our story, so that our souls, minds, bodies and the people we say we love might be healed. 

As former silenced victims choose to no longer acquiesce to the demands of the clan elders and refuse the false healing promised by our conspiratorial muteness,  we move forward to reclaim freedom and wholeness on our terms, because we need it and so does the village.

V

In the end, it’s all about justice, and the Prophet Isaiah knew a lot about that.

Break every yoke!  Then your light shall rise in the darkness! 

You shall be called the repairers of the breach!

We have seen a breach, and from the abyss of that breach, the “Me Too” movement erupted. The movement is a wonder to behold, and perhaps the cry of “Me Too” is precisely where we find the movement of God. Secrets held for decades came out of the darkness into the light, and grief-filled silences found words. Tears flowed freely from hearts that held on far too long to painful stories.

But I wish that no person had ever needed to cry out “MeToo.” That no one had ever endured the horrifying violence that caused them to live with a silence and secrecy that held such power over their lives. 

I wish they had never felt the grief that tormented them in the voiceless spaces of their spirits. 

I wish that Tamar had always been a princess — loved, cherished, protected by her parents. 

But she was not. And so many of our sisters and brothers and neighbors and friends are not. 

We may not always know who they are, but perhaps it is most important for them to know who we are, a people committed to justice.

VI

Dear people of First Baptist Church of Christ, I marvel at the many and mighty ways you do justice — creating beloved community across racial and cultural and ethnic divides, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, seeing the sacred worth of every person. 

Can we also find ways to do justice within families? One in four of us in this sanctuary have experienced — or are currently experiencing — family violence. 

Among all the things that doing justice is, it is also being healers of the wounds that happen in the prisons of family secrecy. What does that mean exactly? 

I believe it means finding healing and gentle ways to give voice to a family’s secrets and silences. 

It means being ever a kind listener and never a judgmental voice. 

It means making sure that church is a safe and sacred space. 

It means keeping a watchful eye, always, over children, teaching them to be safe, not only from strangers, but from people they know and trust. 

It means being aware of the invisible wounds that others carry, and reaching out with tenderness that brings healing. 

If Jesus were among us today, I imagine him speaking justice to the unconscionable abuse of power that causes violence. He would call out husbands who abuse their wives, brothers who hurt their sisters, parents who harm their children.  Jesus might look into homes and cry out, “Woe to you!” 

And then, in his gentle, loving way, Jesus would reach out to the those who suffer violence, take their hands, and speak hope to despair. 

Jesus is not physically among us. but he left us in charge. So when we fail to seek justice in every place where abuse happens, we confine him. Joseph B. Clower, Jr. expresses this most eloquently in the final lines of his book, The Church in the Thought of Jesus:

If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with his tears, her heart is moved with his compassion, her hands are coarsened with his labor, her feet are wearied with his walking among men [people].

 When we accept this weighty call and this daunting responsibility, the prophet Isaiah might call us repairers of the breach!

VII

So let’s end our story . . . Yes, Princess Tamar lost her royal status. But the final word in this story belongs to the brother who loved and esteemed her, and who honored her. In the chapter following our text, we learn that Absalom was the father of three sons and a beautiful daughter he named Tamar, in honor of his sister.  

Can you imagine Tamar taking her infant niece into longing arms that never expected to cradle a child who would carry her name? 

Can you imagine her full heart as she envisions the future of Princess Tamar the Second, daughter of Absalom, granddaughter of King David, niece of Princess Tamar the First?

What a surprise from God — anointing Tamar’s wounds with a holy, healing balm! 

And this is the very foundation of our Christian hope: the faith, the conviction, the assurance, the certainty that when Tamar was crying, God was listening. 

People of God, we must repair the breach and seize this holy task: covering survivors of family violence with the compassionate cloak of justice, confronting violence wherever it casts its shadow, following God into every place where justice must overcome oppression.

On the campus of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, there is a building that faces the interstate. On that building is a huge sign declaring a strong, prophetic message to over 100,000 motorists traveling past it every day. The sign reads “Think Justice!” But it means so much more! 

It means longing for justice, praying for justice, insisting upon justice — persisting, prevailing, creating — doing justice, breathing justice — in families, in communities, and to the ends of the earth. 

Then the mighty waters of justice will roll over us, and we will wade together in ever-flowing streams of righteousness. Amen.

Sitting Open-Handed Before God

71184739-B4D2-4F2F-897E-1EAD2C2A56EAWhat is it like to sit open-handed before God? To abide with a compassionate God who knows the grief we are carrying? To sit in the glowing presence of a God who, not only knows the deep angst of our nation, but who can also transform it?

Yes, many of us are grieving the current state of our nation. We see our nation’s pain, just as we see the pain of the world. Yet, we who are Christ-followers live with great advantage in this pain-filled world. Yes, we grieve the divisions in our nation and lament at the ways we seem to have lost our compass of compassion, mercy and justice. We feed those who already have abundant sources of food. We provide health care to those who can afford their own. We hold open the voting entrances for those who can get there with the proper credentials. But for the people who hunger, the families that are homeless, the elderly, the children incarcerated at our borders, the prisoners, the helpless, the marginalized . . .  well, for them, we offer prayers, if we think of them at all.

So what is our great advantage? It is that our faith can carry us into spiritual realms where hope is large and dreams are possible. It is that we enjoy access to spiritual community with an accessible God. It is the spiritual luxury of quiet contemplation that opens our hearts to the whispers of God. And yes, I did say whispers of God, for it is almost always a quiet voice that beckons us into a world of turmoil. It is a quiet God-Voice that rekindles our compassionate hearts, speaks to us through the noise of discord in our nation, and shows us the good path we must follow.

We need not despair or cry out in anger or disgust. We need not attack those who seem to be wrecking our country. We need not hate those with whom we disagree. We have the great advantage of only this life task: to be silent before God, to sit in God’s presence open-handed, to pray, to listen, to seek, and then to go.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, famously known as “the nun on the bus,” offers us a glimpse into one of the ways we can live as people of faith in a fractured nation. 

Finding a way to not vilify or divide into “them” and “us” in today’s federal politics goes against . . . current custom. . . . So my contemplative practice is to attempt to sit open-handed and listen to the “wee small voice” that sometimes whispers ideas and ways forward.

Simone Campbell

Thanks be to God for the quiet whisper that guides us on the path ahead, the God-Voice that ordains us to heal our nation and comfort our world.

Hidden Away

878930EE-0F89-44EE-B45A-4352E1A8387DShe was like the moon—part of her was always hidden away. 

Dia Reeves, Bleeding Violet

Yesterday, I watched a clip from the 2018 ESPY Awards. I could not help but pause to listen to the athletes tell their stories of years of abuse by U.S Olympic Team doctor, Larry Nassar. I wondered how many years of silence they each endured, holding the horrible secret inside where it had the power to do great harm. That’s the thing about sexual abuse — it’s often a big, bad secret. Victims hold the shame in the place where they pack away their secrets, and the rest of the word hopes never to have to hear about it. So the secret is safe, hidden away, at least for a time.

But not this time! The “sister survivors” of the disgraced sports doctor’s abuse accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYS. Dressed in glittering gowns, holding hands in solidarity, more than 140 women gathered onstage to share the award given to athletes whose bravery “transcends sports,” as the audience rose in a standing ovation.

Sarah Klein, a former gymnast who said she was among Nassar’s earliest victims three decades ago, was the first to address the audience. “Speaking up and speaking out is not easy,” she said. “Telling our stories of abuse, over and over and over again, in graphic detail, is not easy. We’re sacrificing privacy, we’re being judged and scrutinized, and it’s grueling and it’s painful, but it is time. We must start caring about children’s safety more than we care about adults’ reputations.”

Tiffany Thomas Lopez, who in the 1990s played softball at Michigan State University where Nassar practiced, had a message for other victims who might still be silent. “I encourage those suffering to hold tight to your faith, and stand tall when speaking your truth,” she said. “I’m here to tell you, you cannot silence the strong forever.”

Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman was the last to speak. She was unsparing in her criticism of the adults who she said for years failed to protect the victims, instead opting to silence her and others “in favor of money, medals and reputation. But we persisted, and finally, someone listened and believed us.”

In January, more than 150 women and girls gave victim impact statements at one of Nassar’s three trials. In a Lansing, Michigan courtroom, they spoke of abuse under the guise of medical treatment, which for some began when they were elementary school age. Following their testimony, Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years behind bars.

When the years of silence ended and the women released their secrets, justice followed, relief followed, inner peace followed. Therein lies a lesson for us all. How many times have women kept silent to protect others? How many times did we guard a secret because revealing it might hurt other people? Did we realize that by hiding away the secret, we were harming ourselves? The words written by Dia Reeves is true of us:

She was like the moon—part of her was always hidden away. 

And so it is with women. There are always parts of us that are hidden away, often for many years. There are parts of our stories that we hold in our souls, secrets we would rather not speak. It seems important, though, for each of us to develop the wisdom of knowing what we should hold in silence and what we should speak. As for the big, bad secrets — well, saying them out loud breaks their power. The chains of our silence fall to the ground, broken! 

And finally, we have freed ourselves! 

Growing Up Inspired: My Granddaughter and The Little Rock Nine

28332D92-A50E-4817-9663-6D13F00790D5June 16, 2012 . . . My three-year-old granddaughter standing among the bronze sculptures of The Little Rock Nine.

Her parents had told her the poignant story of The Little Rock Nine, but at age three she had no idea of the many ways their lives would impact hers. Because they crossed an invisible, but very real, line that divided black children from white children, they opened the door to educational equality in a racially divided state. Because their parents were brave enough to let their children breach the three stately doors of Little Rock Central High School, their world changed in unimaginable ways. And with that change, my granddaughter inherited the highly cherished right to equal education and all the opportunities that would follow. Because of that change, my granddaughter would grow up inspired.

In case you do not know about The Little Rock Nine, here is some background. 

On September 3, 1957, nine African American students — The Little Rock Nine — arrived to enter Little Rock Central High School only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard the night before to, as he put it, “maintain and restore order…” The soldiers barred the African American students from entering.

On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles”— into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In a televised speech delivered to the nation, President Eisenhower stated, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”

On September 25, 1957, under federal troop escort, The Little Rock Nine made it inside for their first full day of school. The 101st Airborne left in October and the federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained throughout the year.

They were nine solemn figures, nine teenagers just trying to do what every child up to age 18 had been mandated to do: go to school. Nine figures who entered the annals of American history the day they passed through the front door of Little Rock Central High School.

These nine African American students — Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now immortalized in a striking memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. The life-size bronze statues, entitled “Testament,” were designed and sculpted by Little Rock artist John Deering, assisted by his wife Kathy, also an artist. A comment from each of The Nine is found on individual bronze plaques identifying each student. Across the street sits the State Department of Education, just a few hundred yards from “Testament.” This Arkansas State Agency has been embroiled in this same desegregation lawsuit for over 50 years. 

Nine young students walked bravely, defiantly, yet filled with fear, in an act against prejudice and ignorance. These nine are heroes of every grueling story of segregation and racism in American history, every story we have heard and the millions of stories we will never hear.

So I am deeply moved by these photos of my granddaughter because there is deep meaning in each one. She seems to be looking up at the sculpture of Melba Pattillo (Beals) with what seems like admiration and awe. Dr. Beals grew up surrounded by family members who knew the importance of education. Her mother, Lois, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1954. While attending all-black Horace Mann High School, Melba knew that her educational opportunities were not equal to her white counterparts at Central High. And so she became a part of the effort to integrate Central.

B3083DBA-2BEB-4137-B162-B8CB19B4AD64And my granddaughter stands in front of Little Rock Central High, a school she may choose to attend someday, a school she will be able to attend because The Little Rock Nine took a dangerous risk to make it possible.

 

 

CCBDA845-BD2D-42E4-85B2-28749F2EA762Finally, my granddaughter stands playfully on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. I know that it is possible that she may one day proudly walk through its golden doors as a state senator or representative. That is possible because nine Little Rock students were brave enough to be a part of changing history.

 

At three years old, my granddaughter probably was not very inspired by Central High School, the Little Rock Nine Memorial, or the Arkansas Capitol. But her parents took her there to see and to learn so that she would grow up inspired. When she is older she will remember what she saw and what she learned from that seemingly insignificant sightseeing trip, and she will realize that it wasn’t insignificant at all. It may just be what motivates and inspires her to follow her dreams, because now she knows that all of her dreams are possible. It’s all about growing up inspired. It’s what we want for every child.

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Minniejean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Dr. Carlotta Walls LaNier, Mrs. Thelma Mothershed Wair, Dr. Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Dr. Jefferson Thomas, Dr. Terrence J. Roberts, you made sure that every child can grow up inspired. when you were just young teenagers. When you walked through the doors of segregated Little Rock Central High School, you did so much more . . . for every student who came after you and for my granddaughter 

 

Freedom, Liberty, Justice, and the National Anthem

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Patriotism can be defined differently by different people. A plethora of actions and ceremonies cause a lump in the throat. For me, many ceremonies, sights and sounds can create a catch in my voice and a visceral emotional response. 

Singing “America the Beautiful” (1)

Watching the U.S. Navy Blue Angels paint the sky

Singing the song written by Irving Berlin in 1918, “God bless America, land that I love . . .” (2)

Hearing the stunningly beautiful words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” (3)

Singing the hymn known as the African American National Anthem:

Lift every voice and sing, 
‘Till earth and heaven ring, 
Ring with the harmonies of liberty . . . 
Stormy the road we trod, 
Bitter the chastening rod, 
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died . . .
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast . . . (4)

And finally, watching the flag billowing in the breeze while the melody of the National Anthem floods a football stadium . . . 

While National Football League players stand tall and sing as they gaze at the American flag; 

While other players place their hands over their hearts in an act of honor; 

While still others kneel because they long for America to be better.

The National Anthem should not be the focus of controversy. The American flag should not be a catalyst for divisiveness. Both are symbols of freedom and liberty that inspire deeply personal acts of patriotism. National symbols should never cause us to ostracize any individual whose patriotism looks different than our own. 

CNN’s Van Jones spoke definitively about what we know as the National Anthem controversy:

People who look like me have put blood in the ground, and put martyrs in the dirt for this country, to have it be liberty and justice for all… It is beyond insulting to have people lecture us about patriotism. (5)

   Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy

Approaching the commemoration of Independence Day reminds me to look more intently to see the acts of patriotism all around me. It prompts me to ask myself what “liberty and justice for all” looks like in these troublesome days. It moves me be a more committed advocate for freedom in all its forms. 

As a Baptist for fifty years, I have been thoroughly immersed in the Biblical concept of soul freedom, an all-encompassing freedom that is, by the way, not just for Baptists. James Dunn provides one of the best descriptions of soul freedom

Soul freedom, all freedom and responsibility are God’s gifts to humanity. God created and endowed people to be free moral agents. Soul freedom and responsibility are not invented by government, or devised by social contract. All dignity and respect afforded persons comes from God as revealed in Scripture. (6) 

For me, a part of soul freedom allows me the right of expression — to worship as I wish, to honor my country as I wish, to exercise my freedom to be the person I was destined to be. I cherish the gift of such extravagant liberty and know full well that it is a tenuous and fragile freedom. That fragility is one cause for the unfortunate and unnecessary controversy surrounding the National Football League and the National Anthem.

My heritage compels me to advocate for the right of every person to express his or her patriotism as they choose. As a child of immigrant parents, I will forever honor the American flag and revere the National Anthem. I may do it as I sing. I may do it through my tears. I may stand proudly and face the waving American flag. I may kneel in solidarity. I may cry as I remember my grandmother’s frightening journey to this country with my infant mother. I may pay tribute in various ways, but I will do it in my own way. As should we all.

So let us move forward in freedom. Let us stand fast in the liberty (7) that has made us free. Let us persist in our resolve to demand justice for all humankind. And as we do, let us go forth boldly with freedom-words on our lips:

Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom over me! (8)

Sweet land of liberty . . . (9)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Sweet justice, climb the mountain though your hands may be weary . . . (10)

Lift every voice and sing ‘till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty . . .

God bless America!

Amen.


(1) Lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates; music by Samuel A.Ward
(2) Irving Berlin, 1918
(3) Emma Lazarus, From the poem, “The New Colossus “ 1883; inscribed on a bronze plaque placed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903
(4) James W. Johnson, 1871-1938; J. Rosamond Johnson, 1873-1954
(5) Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy; https://cnn.it/2JxzD36
(6) Jamie’s M. Dunn, Soul Freedom: Universal Human Right in Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, James M. Dunn and Grady C. Cothen, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000.
(7) Galatians 5:1
(8) Traditional spiritual, arr. by Valeria A. Foster
(9) Samuel Francis Smith
(19) Jill Scott

A Prophet Among Us

51D84C45-AF36-41C2-824C-3E29EE93E434Because of the recent opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I have been contemplating the terror of lynching in our history. The Montgomery site is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with police violence.

“Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.” (eji.org)

But racial injustice is not merely art used to contextualize racism and violence. We also have the cold, hard facts. For instance, The Tuskegee Institute reports that 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites, mostly white individuals who tried to help their African American neighbors.

Who were the prophets among us who proclaimed in those days a Christian Gospel of justice?

The NAACP reports that today African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.

Who are the prophets among us in these days? Who is calling for justice, for liberation and freedom for those who are oppressed?

Across a range of human rights issues in 2017, the United States moved backward on human rights issues. The current U.S. president has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. He has emboldened racism by promoting white nationalism. He consistently champions anti-Muslim ideas. His administration has embraced policies that will roll back access to reproductive health care for women and has created health insurance changes that would leave many Americans without access to affordable health care. He has undermined police accountability for abuse. He has expressed disdain for independent media and for federal courts that have blocked some of his actions.

The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in our nation include members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, prisoners and other vulnerable groups, who endure renewed attacks on their rights. Issues of injustice include gender equity, poverty, the right to health care, immigration and the rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, criminal and juvenile justice, harsh criminal sentencing and mass incarceration,.

Where is justice today? Who will call each injustice by name? Where is the prophetic voice among us that will proclaim liberation?

06B7213F-F174-4BD0-9B73-D8AB170F288BWhile in seminary, I immersed myself in the study of liberation theologies. Not surprisingly, my research led me to the writings of black liberation theologian, The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone. I became what some might call a follower of Dr. Cone. I saw him as a Christ-like superhero. Much of my research and writing in those days delved into the history of liberation theology, so Dr. Cone’s books covered my desk for months.

On Saturday, I learned of his death and experienced both sadness and gladness. Glad, because of his enormous contribution to Christian theology’s imperative response to injustice. And sad, because his voice of justice is now silent. By his death, we lost a prophet, a persevering voice that championed racial justice. We lost a voice that gave the world an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that paid attention to the voices of the oppressed.

YES! “A prophet was among us.”

These words from Judge Wendell Griffen honored the prophet, Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, and named him as the central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s.

The prophet and scholar was raised in a small Arkansas town, giving him a clear view of the harsh reality of racial injustice. Dr. Cone rose up from his simple roots to become the foremost voice of his day on black liberation theology.

84C76F50-B538-4A1C-91DA-48E4357609E2Google it.

“Black liberation theology”

The first image you will see is that of James H. Cone. And then you will see image after image of him as well as a list of the plethora of books he has written and a list of the places around the world where he taught and preached.

What is my point?

First of all, I want to add my voice to those who are honoring this prophet of justice. But more importantly, I want to own and name the present reality: that there has never been a time in history that needs the message of liberation more than this day. To be sure, the horrific lynchings of African Americans in this country took place many years ago, between 1882 and 1968.BAD8200A-0958-4FBE-9241-F4E2DDEBCA70

And this is a new day, is it not?

It is a new day, a new day that has moved our society to the national shame of mass incarceration of African Americans. Consider this research:

  • By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.
  • On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.
  • The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.

(Valerie Strauss, March 15, 2017; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss/?utm_term=.8d67a553a8db)

  • In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.

(NAACP.org)

TMI . . . Too much information, right? Perhaps it is too much information, but the amount of information here barely scratches the surface of the many ways injustice has gripped our nation in these days. We can turn our backs, stop up our ears, and blind our eyes to it, but that will not change the fact that people are being oppressed, injustice is doing its horrific work, and liberation seems a distant, unreachable dream.

The people of God must be the people of God and accept the mantle placed by God on our shoulders — being a prophetic voice in a land where injustice has its way.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
(Isaiah 61:1-3 NRSV)

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 6:24 NRSV)

We are the prophets among us. Let’s act like it!

 

 

Lynching’s Long Shadow: America’s Shame

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The memorial is inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

Nothing casts as long and shameful a shadow on our history than does lynching. Lynching is a part of America’s history that we want to ignore. As a people, we cringe at the thought of it, yet do not often allow ourselves to think of it. We do not own lynching. It happened in another time in history, with decades separating us from its shame. We secretly hope that if we do not talk about it, we can move forward without acknowleding the depth of its impact. And above all, we cannot admit that such violence is still possible in this day.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a living reminder for us. The Memorial, which opened today on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.

At the center of the Memorial is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.

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Bryan Stevenson and a small group of lawyers spent years immersing themselves in archives and county libraries to document thousands of lynchings.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

 

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk:

Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman;

Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”;

Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

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A 2017 sculpture by Titus Kaphar, “Doubt,” sat amid accounts of slaves and former slaves at the museum.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

A grassy hill rises in the middle of the memorial. From there you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold, and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy. It is a striking view.

The striking exhibits and sculptures in this Memorial exist to remind us, to challenge us, to create in us a determination to always fight injustice.

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Jars
Hundreds of jars of soil from the sites of documented lynchings, collected by families of victims or community volunteers, are on display at the museum.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

May we more deeply understand our tragically unjust and violent history. May we vow to make peace and demand justice. May we never forget what happened in this nation so that it will never happen again. It is very real that our history of lynching innocent people casts a long and dark shadow upon our existence. May we intentionally work for justice so that we will no longer live in that shadow.

This blog post is words, just words. But our words are not enough. Our declarations are empty and meaningless if we do not also immerse ourselves in the hard and grueling work that makes for justice. God does not care about our words and promises. God does not accept our carefully planned events — filled with flags and crowds and songs — held in American cities and counties and town squares to commemorate our history. God demands pure and genuine righteousness that vows to do whatever it takes to create justice in our nation and in the world.

May God lead us in making it so. May God help us to step out of lynching’s long shadow and walk in the light of justice and righteousness.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

— Amos 5:23-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Broken, Waiting World

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Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ― L.R. Knost

When I was in seminary so many years ago, I worked part time in the Development Office, that extraordinary place that dreamed up words designed to gain support for the seminary and to tell the world what we were about. The one creative theme I most remember, because we made it our catch phrase and printed it on everything, was “We’re out to change the world!”

Some students left the seminary, degree in hand, and did just that. The rest of us labored mightily and did everything we knew to do to change a world that most assuredly was waiting and broken. What a mission!

I must admit, that short statement from seminary days became my personal quest. In every ministry position, I tried to change the world, much to the dismay of my parishioners. I took on every worthy cause as my own challenge to change the world. I committed myself to justice and set my face toward hope and healing for every person suffering injustice and indignity. It became a life-long quest, a personal commission. And what’s more, I sincerely believed I could do it, at least for the first few years I spent banging my head against various walls.

The song lyrics “to dream the impossible dream” come to mind. For those of you who may be too young to know about the magic of the 1964 Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, I must give you the lyrics of the song that was the pronunciamento of the primary character, Don Quixote, and that almost instantly became the credo that many people of God embraced in trying to change the world.

To dream the impossible dream …
To fight the unbeatable foe …
To bear with unbearable sorrow …
To run where the brave dare not go …
To right the unrightable wrong …
To love pure and chaste from afar …
To try when your arms are too weary …
To reach the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star;
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far:
To fight for the right, without question or pause;
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause.

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable star.

— Lyrics by Joe Darion

Today, as I watch military strikes against Syria and know that our country has not welcomed desperate Syrian refugees, I am painfully aware that I did not change the world. I worked in Uganda after the devastation of Idi Amin, but I did not change the world for millions of Ugandan widows and orphans.

I worked with persons who were sick and dying in hospital ministry, and I did not change their hopeless world of suffering. I have written letters, contacted government officials, participated in demonstrations, and signed hundreds of petitions, but I have not changed the world.

It has indeed been an “impossible dream.” And yet, I believe that I lived into my call from God and followed every path God placed before me. I faced off against what I viewed as evil many times and was deeply, demonstrably angry many times. But always, my mission remained in the center of God’s gentle grace and love. How?

I learned along the way — finally — that changing the world God’s way means holding tightly to lovingkindness, compassion, love and gentleness. The Scripture in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) says it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“Change the world with gentleness,” God might say to me.

While others stand for bigotry, racism, violence and war, change the world with gentleness. While leaders refuse to welcome refugees who long for a safe haven for their children, change the world with gentleness. While the highest positions in this country are embroiled in collusion, corruption, lies, greed and unkindness, change the world with gentleness.

This is a broken, waiting world that yearns, not for my righteous anger toward the world that is, but rather for my gentle hands of healing for the world that can be.

Change the world with gentleness? How? Why?

Because “Gentleness is not weakness. Just the opposite. Preserving a gentle spirit in a heartless world takes extraordinary courage, determination, and resilience. Do not underestimate the power of gentleness because gentleness is strength wrapped in peace, and therein lies the power to change the world.”

― L.R. Knost

May God lead us all in the paths of righteousness and gentleness. Amen.

Dear Students Marching for Our Lives,

5C1D4656-F263-49DD-8CC3-44E1AA6A3695Let us pray with our legs, let us march in unison to the rhythm of justice, because I say enough is enough.”

— A Parkland shooting survivor.

Dear students,

Yesterday you sat in classrooms all over this country. Today you are marching all over this country, all over the world. Teachers, parents and other supportive adults are marching with you. We older folk marvel at your commitment and your resolve. We are proud of you. We cheer you on and pray that your efforts will bring positive change.

You are marching to demand that your lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools. You are relentless and persistent in your quest to end gun violence. You are standing tall, lifting your voices to proclaim “Enough is enough!”

Every day, 96 Americans are killed with guns. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children between six and seven years old were killed by a gunman, 7,000 children age 17 and under have been killed by guns.

Today, thousands of you have gathered to call violence by its true name. You are calling out the adults. You are confronting the NRA. You are challenging all who put their own self interest above the safety of our children,You are marching today for those who died and those who live. You are marching for the children who will be in classrooms in years to come, little ones who still have the joy of innocence. You are marching for their lives. You are marching for them. You are marching for all of us, and we thank you. Our hearts are with you,

For each of you, I offer this prayer.

God who holds ouryoung in your arms of grace,

Make of us a people who hold our children in the highest esteem, who give them respect and encouragement, who take their fears seriously, who commit ourselves to their safety and protection.

Protect them, God, as they march for their lives today.

Help them to know that their resilience and persistence might just change the world.

Make every city where they march a welcoming place, filled with people that open their hearts to the message our children speak.

Assure our children of the love that surrounds them and of the support that enfolds them. Assure them of our love and respect for them.

Continue to embolden them to demand change.

Infuse them with the courage to stand and the strength to speak truth to power.

Grant them an extra measure of perseverance.

Guide their steps. Ennoble their conviction.

Calm their fears and soothe their anxious hearts.

And may their reward be a world free of violence, communities infused with peace, classrooms that surround them with understanding, acceptance, protection and learning.

For your deep love for our children, O God, we give you thanks.

For your compassion toward our young who have been so deeply harmed, we give you thanks.

For your comforting presence with friends and families who have lost people they love, we give you thanks.

For your tears mingled with our own as we mourn the loss of innocence our children have experienced, we give you thanks.

For your abiding protection and mercy in our violent and frightening world, O God, we give you thanks.  Amen.

*****

Fast Facts

  • Organizers of March for Our Lives expect millions of people to participate in today’s marches.
  • Acting out of their profound grief, students from across the country are fearless, empowered and motivated to speak out today as part of the March for Our Lives movement that was born out of the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 students and staff members.
  • President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sent a handwritten letter to the students of Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School commending them for their “resilience, resolve and solidarity in helping awaken the conscience of a nation.”
  • Today, there are marches in over 800 sites across the country where students are still “calling BS.”
  • Marches are also taking place all over the world.
  • Florida students have planned a voter registration effort as a part of the march in Washington, DC.
  • The message of these students is “never again,”

 

A Change Is Gonna Come

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Emma González … ‘These young people will not sit in classrooms waiting.’ Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

Half a century ago, on March 7, 1965, state troopers beat down men and women who were participating in a peaceful march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. That same day, radio listeners around the country might have heard Sam Cooke singing a song he had written and recorded several months earlier, but which could have been describing the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

In “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke moves from bigotry and bloodshed to hope and beauty in barely three minutes. If you listen to the record today, you will hear a story that continues to be relevant. (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wEBlaMOmKV4)

Sam Cooke’s rough, sweet voice — a voice that is blues-born and church-bred, beat down but up again and marching — still rings.

A changs IS gonna come . . .

That message of hope rings out still in these troubling days through the passion-filled voice of Emma González, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as she addresses a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale just days after a gunman entered her school in Parkland and killed 17 people.

A change IS gonna come . . .

We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because . . . we are going to be the last mass shooting. We are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students. The students who are dead, the students still in the hospital, the student now suffering PTSD, the students who had panic attacks during the vigil because the helicopters would not leave us alone, hovering over the school for 24 hours a day.

If the President wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and how it should never have happened and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association. You want to know something? It doesn’t matter, because I already know. Thirty million dollars.  — Emma González

A change Is gonna come . . .

Just hours after the mass shooting, other students turned to social media to discuss gun control.

Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns.  — Carly Novell, a 17-year-old senior; editor of the school’s quarterly magazine.

We need to do something. We need to get out there and be politically active. Congress needs to get over their political bias with each other and work toward saving children. We’re children. You guys are the adults.  — David Hogg, 17, a senior; Stoneman Douglas student news director

Wherever you bump into someone, there is the fear that they’re the next shooter, and every bell is a gunshot. I feel like some change is going to come of this.  — Daniela Palacios, 16, a sophomore at another Broward County High School at her first protest.

A change IS gonna come . . .

And it will be our bold and compassionate children who will lead this nation into that change. Like so many Americans, I was disconsolate when watching the TV news of yet another school shooting. But then I started watching the students, and I saw the girl with the buzzcut, Emma González, wiping back her tears, mourning her dead classmates while demanding change.

Like her schoolmates, Emma is in trauma, but she is organizing. She and many of her classmates are directly challenging the donations of the National Rifle Association to Trump and other politicians. There will be school strikes. There will be organized resistance. These young people will not sit in classrooms any more. They refuse to become another tragic statistic. “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” said a weeping González.

As I remembered this week what happened  at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, at Westside, a school in my own state, I remembered feeling anger and despair. But today, for first time in a long time, I feel hope. I see true leadership as kids are standing up for one another and fighting for their lives.

Let us stand courageously beside these children, our children, and do what we can to create change . . . letters to Congress, phone calls, posts on social media, marches and demonstrations, hand-lettered signs, letters to the editor, VOTING for change. What can you do?

Emma González, Daniela Palácios, David Hogg, Carly Novell . . . and thousands of other children who are crying out, ENOUGH!

They give me hope.

A change is gonna come!

May God ennoble each of us to make it so.