Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for October, 2018

How Long Shall Justice Be Aborted?

Violence. A single word of scripture begets a thousand words.

The prophet cried violence, screamed violence; hurled it at the skies and the God veiled within. Violence. Violence all around. Habakkuk’s people were under siege. He doesn’t tell us when he prophesied but we know ancient Israel lurched perpetually from one catastrophe to another, captured, colonized, and conveyed from conqueror to conqueror–when they were not doing the colonizing and conquering themselves. Spoiler alert: The same people, sometimes even the very same person, can be both victim and perpetrator. There was and is violence all around.

Habakkuk doesn’t name his people’s oppressor because a boot on the neck feels the same whether the foot is Assyrian or Babylonian. To some degree it doesn’t even matter because each of those nations devastated Israel. Assyria decimated Israel. Decimation was a much later Roman practice from after the time of Habakkuk but it is relevant. When Roman soldiers failed spectacularly, mutinied, or fled from the field of battle an entire cohort would be sentenced to decimation. The men would draw lots and every tenth man would be marked. The men who were spared would then have to beat their fellow soldiers to death, purging the unit of a tenth of its men, a decimal place, decimation.

The Assyrians went further. They didn’t destroy just a tenth of Israel, a tribe or even two; they enslaved, exiled, or outright killed the bulk of nine of the twelve tribes. They broke the fractured nation into two unequal pieces and depopulated the north only to repopulate it with captives from all over the empire who like enslaved Africans on southern plantations spoke so many different languages that it was almost impossible to organize and resist collectively.

The Assyrians were infamous for their tortures and brutality. Back in Hezekiah’s day they left images of themselves herding their Judean captives to torture, slicing them open, cutting them down to the bone while they were yet alive, peeling off their skin and hanging them on slightly sharpened sticks to die slowly in the sun. You could say they revolutionized lynching in their time. Whether peacetime or war you could always count on Assyrian soldiers to be spoiling for a fight. Even when they were not immediately present the Israelites lived under the shadow their immanent violence.

The Babylonians were no better. They were so brutal, so vicious that even the voices in the bible that would say Israel got what she deserved for her sins said, no, that’s too much, nobody deserves that after the Babylonians starved the people in and around Jerusalem to the point that some of them turned to cannibalism. And then there were the perpetual border incursions, annexations, and rebellions between what was left of Israel and the border states, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. And then there was Egypt, always looking for an opportunity to rebuild its empire. Habakkuk’s people were squeezed between mighty, once mighty, and would be mighty empires. Empires are born of violence. Empires are inherently violent. And empires beget violence.

Yet not all of the violence inflicted on Habakkuk’s people came from without. Not all of the violence we experience comes from outside our communities either. The violence that Habakkuk saw all around him went both ways. Violence behind closed doors. Violence on the same streets through which the prophet walks to preach the word or go to the house of God. On those same streets the bodies of young folk have been sprawled in the anguished postures of violent deaths. Some left as spectacles denied the dignity owed to every human being in life or in death.

In the same streets raped women had struggled with trembling hands to cover their bodies with what’s left of the clothing torn from them. Behind closed doors on those streets and sometimes in the street men beat women with impunity. Behind closed doors and sometimes in the street parents beat children with the same impunity. Behind other doors caregivers beat elders who depend on them, sometimes the very ones who birthed and raised them. And then there is the government. Not just some far off entity, but people, sometimes from these same streets who collude with the very empire that oppressed their own people. Violence perpetrated by the government in the name of and against those they govern by people who are no different than the ones they govern. Habakkuk’s people were under siege, from within and without. He cried “Violence!” because there was violence all around him.

I don’t know how long Habakkuk cried out. But I know he didn’t give up. I don’t know if he took a break from time to time, or if he cried out until he lost his voice, but I know he didn’t give up. Habakkuk cried out because he knew there was a God who hears. He cried out because he had expectations of his God. He cried out because he expected God to give a damn. He expected God to care. He expected God to do right by him and his people. Habakkuk is God’s prophet but he is also the people’s prophet. He doesn’t just work for God he works for the people. IN fact you can’t work for God if you don’t work for the people. There are a whole lot of folk claiming to be God’s prophets and apostles who don’t work for her folk and cannot be found in the blood-soaked streets but they always have time for a FOX News interview or a presidential photo-op. Habakkuk cried out on behalf of his people and expected God to live up to and into his expectations of God. He believed God would come through.

Habakkuk’s prophetic outcry was, “Violence!” Sometimes you just get to the point where you can’t even form a coherent sentence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies. Violence!

Habakkuk had been crying out to God. The book opens when he is at his wits end. Tired of praying the same prayer. This is wearying work y’all. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, he prayed one more prayer. How long? How long O God?Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?I been crying out to you. I been praying. I been fasting. I been laying prostrate. I been laying it all on the altar. I been doing everything I know how to do. I been crying out to you and I haven’t heard a mumbling word from you. And violence is still all around me snatching the lives and breaking the bodies of my people. How much more? How long? How long O God? How long?

The cry “How long, Holy One?” echoes from those shackled in and by slavery’s chains, through those systematically oppressed by law and tradition enforced by night riders with flaming crosses, to those shot and strangled, beaten and wrestled down by those trusted to protect and serve. It is the cry of black women whose families and bodies have been systematically ravaged by the benefactors, adherents, and evangelists of white supremacy. “How long?” is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of those on the bottom of power curves and hierarchies. It is the cry of women of all races, people of color of all genders, non-gender-conforming people, people with particular ranges of mobility and ability, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and minority communities who do not see themselves reflected in those with power over them or in the cultural norms they produce. “How long?” is the cry of a faithful prophet and likewise the cry of faithful people. For those who need it, Habakkuk grants permission to question God, not just about the state of the world, but what God is doing in it and about it. Habakkuk offers a womanish model of faithfulness through his questioning God, demanding a response, and determining for himself if God’s response is valid. Habakkuk is bold y’all.

We don’t know how long Habakkuk had been a prophet before this, what words he had proclaimed to the people and the nations. We don’t know why nothing else of him was preserved. What we do know in that when his people were being ground into the dust by enemies within and without he didn’t wait on a word from God. He went to God looking not for a word to proclaim in the midst of suffering, or the promise of deliverance from suffering, or even the promise that God was with them in suffering. Habakkuk wanted answers, an explanation.

How long Holy One…? Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. Why do you make me see wrong-doing?

Habakkuk teaches us that sometimes God comes to see about us and sometimes we have to go see about God. Habakkuk is a witness that prayer works, but you have to persevere. He is a witness that sometimes you pray and all you get is silence. He is a witness that there are no easy answers and no easy fixes. But Habakkuk is also a witness that there is a God who hears, even when we don’t hear back, even when the world is on fire, even when there is blood in the streets, even when women aren’t safe outdoors or indoors, even when children aren’t safe in church, even when legal protections are being rolled back for queer folk, even when the door is shut in the face of the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant, even when walls are being built to divide humanity and children are being put into cages there is a God who hears her people’s cry. There is a God who sees her people’s pain. And there is a God who will respond even when a mere human being asks without sin or shame, “What are you doing? We are dying down here! There is violence all around!”

Habakkuk and God had that kind of relationship. So Habakkuk had expectations of God because they were in that long-term relationship. And it was long-term, intergenerationally long-term. Here is a hard truth; every generation that cries out doesn’t get liberation in their generation. The Israelites had 420 years of Egyptian slavery, 120 years of Assyrian decimation, 300 years of Babylonian domination, 200 years of Greek subjugation, and 720 years of Roman occupation until the fall of the Western Empire. Liberation is a long-term multi-generational project. We cry to heaven for our own sakes, for the sake of our children, and for those yet to come just as our ancestors did for us during the 400 years of American and European chattel slavery, almost 100 years of Jim and Jane Crow, and down until the present day. And we are still not all free.

The work of liberation takes a long time. Folk died waiting on their freedom. We do this work–work and pray, pray and work, pray for the strength to do the work and work while praying. We pray with our bodies, standing, kneeling, marching with our fists up. We pray with our votes and driving other folk to vote. We pray and work for our freedom, our children’s freedom and the freedom of those who will come after knowing we may not see it. Not all of our ancestors died free. We work and pray for liberation any way knowing our work is not just for us. Like Habakkuk we do it for the people. We do it for the fam. We do it for the culture. We do it for those not yet born as our ancestors worked and prayed for us. And we join Habakkuk and the ancestors across time crying out:

2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Slave catchers wear new badges, free black folk are a threat for standing, breathing, blinking, selling lemonade, playing with toys, shopping, drinking coffee, using the restroom, sitting on your own damn couch in your own damn home. They’ve been trying to take back our vote from the moment they “gave” it to us. Incarceration has replaced plantation while still providing low cost labor whose lives are even cheaper. Need a chain gang? Rent a prisoner. Forrest fire? Rent a prisoner. Arrest, conviction, incarceration, execution all at greater rates per capita than other folk. There is no justice and no peace in these streets and so we kneel, and rage, and pray, and shout, “How long?!”

How long? How long will black women have to fear sexual assault from men inside our communities and homes in addition to the predation of colonizers? How long? How long will our children in Flint be poisoned by their own government? How long? How long will the wicked prosper? How long? How long will liars thrive? How long? How long will lying, hypocrisy, cheating, violent rage, and a history of sexual assault be qualifications for leadership? How long?

Then the God who is Immanu-El, Emmanuel, God with us, with us in our suffering, the God who welcomes our heart’s cries even when other folk say you can’t talk to God like that, the Holy God who accompanied her people in freedom and captivity, answered her prophet’s cry. She didn’t say, “I call prophets; you don’t call me.” She didn’t say, “Don’t come if I didn’t send for you.” She said, “Baby, I got this. I got you.” God said, “I been planning my work and working my plan. Empires fall. Colonizers get colonized. Conquerors get conquered. If you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it.

Then Habakkuk, bless his heart–if you’re from Texas you know that’s not really a blessing–Habakkuk says, “What else you got?” Boy, don’t you know that you’re talking to the Living God? You can’t just come out of your mouth any way you want! But Habakkuk and God are in a serious relationship; they got a thang going on. They know each other well enough to know how they can talk to each other because there is the kind of respect and trust that comes from putting in the time. Habakkuk and God had been together long enough to be comfortable in that thing.

But yet and still, Habakkuk comes correct:  Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die.

After giving honor to the head of his life and protocol to the one he knew to call, Habakkuk gave God a piece of his mind. The Chaldeans? The Chaldeans are your plan? They are seriously bad news and need to be on their way to their own judgment:

HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk gives God a piece of his mind. He doesn’t hold back. He tells God his whole mind, continuing past our lesson. It is this almost womanist Habakkuk talking back to God because she or he loves the people so much who draws me to this text. Habakkuk is in good company. Job teaches us that crying out and talking back to God is not limited to prophets. Job also teaches not to worry about whether anyone else thinks our theology is correct or even if everyone else thinks we need to apologize to God, say your piece anyway. God is big enough to handle it. Rebekah and Hannah teach us that you can cry out to God on your own behalf. And the Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us that crying out to God is not limited to Israelites. There is a God who hears and will hear anybody and everybody.

God hears. Even when God does not intervene. Even then God is with you in the midst of the violence. God is with you when you are violated. God is with you on lockdown. God is with you in the streets. God is with you when you’re calling God on the carpet for the senseless violence all around and arguing with God about how to handle it.

Having said his piece Habakkuk waited on God. Sometimes you have to wait.

I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…If God tarries, I will wait for God…

For it is God who makes all things new. It is God who tears tyrants from their thrones. It is God who sets the captives free. It is God who holds wicked men to account for their wicked deeds. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. It is God who will set us free from every unjust structure. It is God. It is God to whom Habakkuk turned. For it is God who will not only deliver us but it is God who will strengthen our arms to tear down and uproot every structural oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia and to strike down ever policy, law, bias, and hatred that props them up. It is God who accompanies us in the Spirit, in the Word, and in the world. It is God who came to be one of us in a woman’s intimate flesh. It is God who subjected Godself to the frailty of human skin. It is God who lived and loved, cried and died as one of us. It is God who stood against the colonizing gospel of empire perched on an upraised cross. It is God who refused to give death the final word. It is God who turned the world upside down, inside out, and shook the saints out of their graves, rising to commission the apostles to the apostles, women whose words about life and death, violence and violation would be scorned to the present day. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. One day. Amen.

 

The lesson in three parts with three readers; my translation.

(Narrator) Habakkuk 1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

(Habakkuk) 2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

(God) 5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it. 11 Then a spirit swept them; and they passed through and became guilty; they whose own strength was their god.

(Habakkuk) 12 Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die. HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. 13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?