The Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum Montgomery, Alabama
The Memorial site is designed to contextualize this horrific past of racial terror in our counties history. It is part of our collective history and these events should be remembered, recognized and reconciled. Comprised of eight hundred and five Corten steel markers hung from the ceiling and etched with the names of the victims, one for each county where a lynching took place throughout the United States.
The wind brings your names. We will never dissever your names nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water. There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us how you got over. Say, Soul I look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost, each name a holy word. The rocks cry out—
call out each name to sanctify this place. Sounds in human voices, silver or soil, a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony, a hymnal, handbook, chart, a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages, despised and disciplined. You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite. You will not find us extinct. You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty. You will find us here divine. You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are luminous. You are not lost to us. The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost. —Elizabeth Alexander, “Invocation”
This poem is posted at the exit of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Please give thanks for the Oakwood University Aeolians performing the inspiring hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Do you wonder sometimes where God is while people are being oppressed? I mean all kinds of oppression — racial injustice, human trafficking, violence and abuse, prison injustice, sexism, cissexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism. The list can go on and on, all the way down to specific stories about specific oppressed individuals. At that level, the down to earth level where we see a living person suffering, is the heartrending place. It’s the place where we find ourselves face to face and up-close with someone pouring out their story. It’s the place where we learn to talk less and listen more. It is for us an experience of holy listening with just one person.
Have you ever been in that kind of space listening to just one person? Have you ever been with a person suffering oppression who is freely sharing a heartbreaking story with you? I know that this kind of face to face encounter can be intimidating, even frightening. It can be beyond frustrating to listen to someone when you’re pretty sure you can’t do much to help.
There are at least two options for those of us who have a deep desire or calling to liberate those who are oppressed. We can offer what we have, even when we do not have a way to fix things. What do we have? Our presence, our emotional and spiritual support, our ability to advocate, housing assistance, financial assistance, employment assistance, safe shelter, understanding, constancy, presence, presence, presence . . .
The other option is to rail against a God who makes pronouncements about caring for oppressed people, yet seemingly does nothing to liberate them. This may not be our best option. Scripture reveals that God has a way of dealing with complaining people, and it is almost never a positive experience for the complainer. Moses comes to mind, and Miriam, and Job.
Poor, pitiful Job had a rough go of it and he wanted God to do some explaining and answer some questions. After all, he was a devout and faithful man, so why would God allow him to suffer so many losses? Right after Job is schooled by his three “friends” on several theological matters, including that he should never question God, God appears to Job out of a whirlwind. It was probably grand entrance, and then God basically says to him, ”I’ll ask the questions, buddy!”
Here’s a snippet of the long exchange between God and Job.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— 7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
— Job 38:1; 4-7 (NIV)
Job was oppressed. God was aware of it. God seemed unconcerned for too long, but there actually is a redeeming conclusion for Job. As the story goes in the last chapter of Job, God restored Job’s fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All of Job’s brothers and sisters, and everyone else he knew, went to his house for Sunday dinner and they consoled him for all the trouble he had been through. Then each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring. It worked out!
Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture, ‘Monument of Oppression’ depicts hands emerging desperately from behind bars.
“I can’t think of one single nation of the world that did not practise slavery, including among Indigenous people,” the sculptor says.
(Photo by Handout)
What does Job’s story say to us? What does it teach us about oppression? In my mind, in order to confront oppression and free persons from every yoke on a societal scale, we must first be aware that systemic oppression exists. It is stark reality! It darkens our world! Right now, approximately 40 million people are trapped in slavery in the world. One in four of these is a child. This shame that pervades and plagues the planet does not seem to disturb people very much. Unfortunately, it is in some people’s best interest to maintain the oppressive systems that benefit them, that is fill their pockets with wealth (which is the primary reason for trafficking human beings, for instance).
Systems of oppression are very large, very complex and very powerful. Ending oppression is way too big for us to tackle alone. After sincerely asking the all-powerful God to help us bring down these all-powerful oppressive systems, we can add our hands and feet to the holy project. Contact senators, representatives, governors, mayors. Urge them, persist with them to use their position to help break down injustice. Know what you’re talking about when you contact them by reading about the work the many of anti-oppression organizations that exist. Join in their work. Look for those resources at this link.
Finally, we must open our eyes to the people in our own communities who need our compassion, our concern, our caring presence and our advocacy on their behalf. It takes some creativity, some committment and compassion, a lot of courage and a covenant with our God of justice to change an unjust world. The outcome might just look something like what the prophet Isaiah described:
Is this not the fast that I choose: To release the bonds of wickedness, To undo the ropes of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke?
7 Is it not to break your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him . . .
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will spring up quickly; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry for help, and He will say, ‘Here I am. . .’
10 And if you offer yourself to the hungry And satisfy the need of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday.
11 And the Lord will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
12 Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairers of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.
— Isaiah 58 (NASB)
I don’t know about you, but I want to be among the ”repairers of the breach.” I don’t want to live in a situation where I “hope for light, but there is darkness.” (Isaiah 59:9) Instead, let me find myself looking far beyond the world’s darkness, looking to the Creator who demands justice, looking upward to claim the promise, ” . . . satisfy the need of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday . . . And your light will break forth like the dawn.”