[Holding the Ethiopian Israelis in prayer as they fight racism in their country. Their uprising came after I finished the sermon.]
The Psalmist cried out:
God did not despise or detest the affliction of the afflicted.
God did not hide God’s face from me.
God heard when I cried out to God.
That doesn’t always feel like the truth. Sometimes it feels like everyone including God despises the wretched of the earth, the broken, the downtrodden, the hurting and the hated, the afflicted and their afflictions. Especially when that’s your story. We should extend our comfort and faith to those who are suffering, but we should also understand that may not be enough. There are some hurts that only heaven can heal and for which the balm is time.
People are crying out to God all over this world. This week we hear their cries in Nepal clearly. But they are still crying out in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and more. People are crying out to God all over this country. This week we hear their cries in Baltimore most clearly. But they are still crying out in Ferguson, Sanford, New York and more.
Before Psalm 22 became the Psalm of the Cross, the psalm Jesus prayed while dying, it was already scripture. It is a psalm associated with David, written for him – either at his request or dictated by or composed and written by someone else and dedicated to him. It is the lament of a person who is not even viewed as human, despised, mocked, abused to the point of feeling abandoned by God:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest…
I am a worm and not even human
scorned by others, and despised by the people
All who see me mock at me
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads…
They even make fun of the psalmist’s faith:
“Roll on over to the HOLY ONE OF OLD; let God save!
Let God deliver the one in whom God delights!”
But the psalmist knows who her God is and that God has been with her from birth and will be with her to and through death:
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother gave birth to me you have been my God.
It is so easy to fast forward through time and read these verses about Jesus and only Jesus. But that misses the point. Psalm 22 the lament of someone who was in serious trouble a thousand years before Jesus. That person’s prayer became part of Israel’s Book of Common Prayer because it reflected a common experience. Every once in a while, if you live long enough, you will come up against something that will make you cry out to God like the psalmist and even Jesus. Some of us are crying out to God because our post-Easter world still looks too much like a Good Friday world.
Jesus became one of us to experience what we experience. Human beings treating each other like dogs in the street, as though we weren’t all human, children of God, hand-crafted in the very image of God. Some people are still viewed as less than human and treated that way. Mahalia Jackson sang in Sweet Little Jesus Boy:
They treat me mean Lord.
They treat you mean too.
In killing Jesus, the state treated him just like everyone else. People were crucified before Jesus died and they continued to be crucified after Jesus died. James Cone makes the point that in the American context, the cross is the lynching tree.
We can’t escape the violence in the scriptures or in the streets. The violence imposed on the body of Jesus was neither the beginning nor the end of his story. And it was not only his story. His people were subject to lethal violence whether guilty or innocent on individual and national levels. The story of the Jewish people is one of slavery, deliverance, occupation and subjugation as oppressed and as oppressor and, in times of desperation, resistance, rebellion and retaliation. Aspects of the Israelite story are shared with the poor, marginalized and oppressed in every time and place, including ours.
It may not be your experience, but many poor black and brown people experience the police as an occupying force, at best daily harassment at worse lethal violence. Twenty-three years ago anger and pain boiled over in Los Angeles. Last summer it boiled over in Ferguson, MO. This week it boiled over in Baltimore, MD.
When violence erupted in 1966 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don’t think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.
Dr. King’s words are as always prophetic and challenging and ultimately cost him his life.
Will we hear him? Will we hear the voices of today’s street-prophets? Or will we allow the spectacle of violence to become an excuse to turn away? No matter what we do, God hears.
God hears the cries of all who are treated as less than fully human.
Our world, including our nation and the church have a long history of treating some folk as less than we ought as God’s children: people of color, women and same gender-loving people. Transgender, gay, bisexual and lesbian people are often targeted with lethal violence that neither began nor ended with the lynching of Matthew Shepherd. Transwomen in particular are being killed at alarming rates including here in TX. And sadly, not all churches are safe places for all people.
Our lesson in Acts 8 has something to say about that:
The messenger of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was a Nubian eunuch, a senior official of the Kandake, queen of the Nubians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship.
At the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile (now Christian) apostle Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat serving an African queendom. In order to work for most monarchs in much of the ancient world, men had to be surgically neutered, often as young boys. Most eunuchs formed intimate partnerships with other eunuchs or intact males, not the royal women they were trusted to guard. That would have been treason, earning a death sentence even without the possibility of children.
The treatment of eunuchs in the ancient world and in the scriptures is similar to the treatment of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. Eunuchs may be seen as those who do not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish – this is what it means to be male, to be a man, to live and love as a man. At one point the scriptures even say eunuchs are not welcome in the house of God. But the same Isaiah scroll that this one is reading cancels out that passage, welcoming eunuchs specifically. But he hasn’t gotten to that verse yet.
The Ethiopian eunuch has no name in the text but could have been called Abdimalkah, servant of the queen, a common title that functioned as a name. Without a name we might keep calling him “the eunuch” and reduce him to a missing part of his body. Our transgender friends, family and neighbors have taught us how inappropriate is fixation on the parts of someone else’s body. We could call him “he.” But should we? We are learning how important it is to call people by the pronouns they choose for themselves.
This person by any name and any pronoun has been to worship in Jerusalem which suggests he is a Jew even though he would not be able to fully participate as a eunuch. The original audience would have known the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and the tradition that she left him pregnant and their descendants not only preserved his faith but remained in contact so no one would have been surprised that this man had been born Jewish. As a eunuch he would not have qualified for conversion.
The queen’s servant – Kandake is a title, she is the Kandake – the Kandake’s servant is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In the ancient world people read out loud just as they prayed out loud. (Hannah invented silent prayer but it didn’t really catch on for a while.) He reads from a portion of Isaiah that like Psalm 22 has come to be identified with Jesus even though it has its own separate history and origin. It is the poem-prayer of another person who was unjustly put to death, five hundred yeas before Jesus.
While he reads, Philip has followed God’s call to go down a country road with no explanation, overhears. I don’t know what Philip expected to see, but probably not that limousine. He didn’t know why he was going other than God sent him. He went to be present where God sent him and gives us a model for evangelism. He had no agenda, no pre-planned speech. He went to listen first and speak second. And Philip finds a welcome occasion to share his faith. Contrary to popular opinion, harassment is not a tool for spreading the Gospel.
The queen’s man was reading what is now Isaiah 53; there were no chapter and verse numbers then. The holy words spoke of the suffering of the innocent with the guilty and on behalf of the guilty from the time when the Babylonians destroyed their nation. When Philip tells him what these words mean, he doesn’t go back to the time in which they were written or their meaning for their original audience – he hasn’t been to seminary.
He reads the scriptures in light of the events of his days which means reading them in light of Jesus. He tells the story of Jesus and tells it well because it is personal to him. And his companion and conversation partner asks to be baptized right then and there. And in that moment the Holy Spirit builds the church through these two very different people, different ethnicity, background, social status and even different ways of living and loving.
It strikes me that these lessons are all about hearing and being heard.
God hears the cry of the psalmist as surely as God hears the cries from the streets and those of mothers like our Blessed Virgin Mother who have lost their sons to police violence. Philip listened to God. He listened to the eunuch. The eunuch listened to Philip. And God used them to transform the world, starting with each other because they listen to and hear each other. The Church has listened to these stories read and preached for millennia, but have we truly heard them?
Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see.
Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear.
Holy One of Old, open our lips that we may speak.
May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.
Death is in the house. My ancestors sang it like this:
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room.
That morning is today. And yesterday. And tomorrow. Death is in the house. So it is time to call for the wailing women to weep for us.
In the ancient Near East there was a profession that was passed down from woman to woman, from neighbor-woman to girlfriend. The initiates or trainees were called ‘daughters’ and the guild directors were called ‘mothers,’ just as the disciples of prophets were called their children. It was the mourner’s guild, called ‘the keening or weeping women’ in Jeremiah. They were trained and paid to perform the public ritual of funerals; they were funeral directors and grief counselors. These women walked with the body, wept and wailed with the family and sang and chanted hymns, psalms and laments composed for the occasion. They created space and community for the family and friends to grieve without embarrassment, and never be alone. Some guilds included musicians, both male and female, but the professional mourners were usually women.
I’ve been watching (predominantly Christian) folk call for men and Christian men to take to the streets in Baltimore and end/prevent the looting. I’ve heard folk say that only a man can tell another man how to be a man. While our cites are on fire and our children are being slaughtered I want to be charitable to those in my community who are surely in as much pain as I am. So I am going to allow for the possibility that they did not mean to slight all the women, mothers, godmothers, play mothers, grandmothers, church mothers sisters and aunties who have been raising boys and men and women and girls with and without help. I’m just going to sit down and weep at the thought I might have to justify why I’m out in the streets that black women are dying in too.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to do or what I can do to keep the police from shooting, strangling, suffocating and now, severing our spines in vehicular lynchings. I’m tired of praying. I feel like screaming. So that is what I will do. I know I’m not alone. I turn to the scriptures and see God says, “Call for the wailing women.”
Jeremiah 9:17 So says the SOVEREIGN of Warriors:
Reason within yourselves,
and call for the keening women to come;
send for the wise, skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a wailing over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
“How we are ruined! We are completely ashamed,
because we have forsaken the land,
because they have cast down our dwellings.”
20 Hear, O women, the word of the HOLY ONE,
and let your ears receive the word of God’s mouth;
teach to your daughters a wailing,
and each woman her neighbor-woman a keening:
21 “Death has come up into our windows,
it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
and the young women and young men from the squares.”
In this text, the sound of weeping and wailing breaks forth from Zion, the heart of God’s home in Jerusalem. Yerushalayim, the city of peace has been torn to pieces. The first stanza of the funeral hymn composed by God in Jeremiah speaks of the shame of being run out of the Promised Land that God provided. For when their tabernacles were overthrown, they had to leave, because there was nothing left for them there anymore. Even God lost the tabernacle of the Temple. For some the lost tabernacle was that of the sanctity of their bodies; many were raped, tortured and killed. For others the tabernacles lost were the sacred spaces of their God-given homes. Violence and warfare have always affected women in a particularly intimate manner.
Professionals are called to lament on behalf of the people of Jerusalem. In Jeremiah, God tells the people to consider among the weeping women and to select the wisest. In ancient Israelite tradition, wisdom was head knowledge, heart knowledge and hand knowledge. Skilled theologians, skilled poets and skilled artisans are all wise in this understanding. In Ezekiel, the prophet will call the women of the ancient African nation of Nubia to join in the lament and to weep for all of their people.
The United States were never intended to be a land of promise for African Americans. We survived and sometimes we thrive in spite of all the death-dealing structures and strictures in the law and all the social and economic structures founded on and steeped in white supremacy. There have been moments of incredible jubilation and long seasons of grief. It is indeed a time to organize and protest, interrupt and inconvenience and give voice to holy rage. It is also time to lament, weep, wail, scream and keen our grief. Voices of lamentation are being raised all across our nation and world from Nepal to Baltimore. Let me add my voice to them: We call your names. Ashé.
The book of Exodus records the journey from slavery to freedom beginning with he words v’elleh shemoth, “these are the names…” These are the names of our dead. These are only some of the names. (Courtesy of Abagond.)
2015: Jamar Clark (Minneapolis, MN)
2015: India Kager (Virginia Beach, VA)
2015: Christian Taylor (Arlington, TX)
2015: Sam Dubose (Cincinnati, OH)
2015: Sandra Bland (Prairie View, TX)
2015: Icarus Randolph (Witchita, KS)
2015: Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD)
2015: Walter Scott (North Charleston, SC)
2015: Tony Robinson (Madison, WI)
2015: Anthony Hill (Chamblee, GA)
2014: Akai Gurley (New York, NY)
2014: Tamir Rice (Cleveland, OH)
2014: Victor White III (Iberia Parish, LA)
2014: Dante Parker (San Bernardino County, CA)
2014: Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, CA)
2014: Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO)
2014: Tyree Woodson (Baltimore, MD)
2014: John Crawford III (Beavercreek, OH)
2014: Eric Garner (New York, NY)
2014: Yvette Smith (Bastrop, TX)
2014: Donitre Hamilton (Milwaukee, WI)
2014: Jordan Baker (Houston, TX)
2013: Barrington Williams (New York, NY)
2013: Carlos Alcis (New York, NY)
2013: Deion Fludd (New York, NY)
2013: Jonathan Ferrell (Bradfield Farms, NC)
2013: Kimani Gray (New York, NY)
2013: Kyam Livingstone (New York, NY)
2013: Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr. (Austin, TX)
2013: Miriam Carey (Washington, DC)
2013: Tyrone West (Baltimore, MD)
2012: Chavis Carter (Jonesboro, AR)
2012: Dante Price (Dayton, OH)
2012: Duane Brown (New York, NY)
2012: Ervin Jefferson (Atlanta, GA)
2012: Jersey Green (Aurora, IL)
2012: Johnnnie Kamahi Warren (Dotham, AL)
2012: Justin Slipp (New Orleans, LA)
2012: Kendrec McDade (Pasadena, CA)
2012: Malissa Williams (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Nehemiah Dillard (Gainesville, FL)
2012: Ramarley Graham (New York, NY)
2012: Raymond Allen (Galveston, TX)
2012: Rekia Boyd (Chicago, IL)
2012: Reynaldo Cuevas (New York, NY)
2012: Robert Dumas Jr (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Sgt. Manuel Loggins Jr (Orange County, CA)
2012: Shantel Davis (New York, NY)
2012: Sharmel Edwards (Las Vegas, NV)
2012: Shereese Francis (New York, NY)
2012: Tamon Robinson (New York, NY)
2012: Timothy Russell (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Wendell Allen (New Orleans, LA)
2011: Alonzo Ashley (Denver, CO)
2011: Jimmell Cannon (Chicago, IL)
2011: Kenneth Chamberlain (White Plains, NY)
2011: Kenneth Harding (San Francisco, CA)
2011: Raheim Brown (Oakland, CA)
2011: Reginald Doucet (Los Angeles, CA)
2010: Aaron Campbell (Portland, OR)
2010: Aiyana Jones (Detroit, MI)
2010: Danroy Henry (Thornwood, NY)
2010: Derrick Jones (Oakland, CA)
2010: Steven Eugene Washington (Los Angeles, CA)
2009: Kiwane Carrington (Champaign, IL)
2009: Oscar Grant (Oakland, CA)
2009: Shem Walker (New York, NY)
2009: Victor Steen (Pensacola, FL)
2008: Tarika Wilson (Lima, OH)
2007: DeAunta Terrel Farrow (West Memphis, AR)
2006: Sean Bell (New York, NY)
2005: Henry Glover (New Orleans, LA)
2005: James Brisette (New Orleans, LA)
2005: Ronald Madison (New Orleans, LA)
2004: Timothy Stansbury (New York, NY)
2003: Alberta Spruill (New York, NY)
2003: Orlando Barlow (Las Vegas, NV)
2003: Ousmane Zongo (New York, NY)
2003: Michael Ellerbe (Uniontown, PA)
2001: Timothy Thomas (Cincinnati, OH)
2000: Earl Murray (Dellwood, MO)
2000: Malcolm Ferguson (New York, NY)
2000: Patrick Dorismond (New York, NY)
2000: Prince Jones (Fairfax County, VA)
2000: Ronald Beasley (Dellwood, MO)
1999: Amadou Diallo (New York, NY)
1994: Nicholas Heyward Jr. (New York, NY)
1992: Malice Green (Detroit, MI)
1985: Edmund Perry (New York, NY)
1984: Eleanor Bumpurs (New York, NY)
1983: Michael Stewart (New York, NY)
1981: Ron Settles (Signal Hill, CA)
1979: Eula Love (Los Angeles, CA)
1969: Mark Clark (Chicago, IL)
1969: Fred Hampton (Chicago, IL)
1964: James Powell (New York, NY)
This is a wailing; and it shall be wailed.
The women of the world shall wail it.
Over Nubia and all its nations they shall wail it,
says the SOVEREIGN God. (Ezekiel 32:16)
What shall we do when death is in the house? Lament. Even Jesus said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Cry to heaven, weep and wail.
Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for ourselves; we need to weep for our daughters; we need to weep for our sons. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our leaders. We need to weep for our preachers. We need to weep for our teachers. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our sanctuaries. We need to weep for our nation. We need to weep for all nations. We need to weep for the earth. Death is in the house.
Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for politicians and police. We need to weep for those who perpetuate the culture of violence and retaliation, and those who fall prey to it. We need to weep for unrepentant racists. We need to weep for those who cannot see our beautiful bodies as being created in the image of God. We need to weep with rage and determination.
We need to weep for Baltimore and Ferguson and New York. We need to weep for Nigeria and Nepal and Palestine and Pakistan. Death is in the house.
Weep. Wail. Cry. Scream. And may the God who hears, hear and heal and help us.
Even without the litany of horrors that have made 2014 a year to forget if we could – hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted, sold and raped into slave marriages, their teachers and male classmates slaughtered, a plane with all souls aboard inconceivably disappeared into thin air, another plane from the same airline is shot down as Russia invaded and annexed Crimea – this Christmas is marked by violence the likes of which I have no comparison in my lifetime.
The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and lack of consequences faced by their killers are the tip of an iceberg of death. Black boys and men and, women like Renisha Boyd and girls like 7 year-old Aiyana Jones are being killed with abandon, particularly at the hands of the police. Black people are being killed by police at rates ranging from one every 72 hours to one every 28 hours by some accounts. (These accounts cannot be verified because of the lack of reporting by individual police departments.)
The racist biases against black people in this country and individual internalization of that bias lead to the disparate treatment of black folk at the hands of police. Unarmed black people, including children in their beds are shot to death and armed white folk are not even checked to see if they are in compliance with Open Carry and other firearm laws while white cop-killers are brought in alive to stand trial.
Too many black families are grieving the loss of their loved ones, many during these holidays and holy days. And many of us mourn with them, not as they mourn, but we mourn. And some of us are afraid for our brothers, sons, fathers, nephews and husbands. It is all too much. How can this be Christmas?
What does Christmas have to say to our broken fearful hearts? I’ll tell you the truth, the promise of eternal life is not comforting right now, neither is forgiveness of sins. I want to know what Christmas has to do with, say to, say about black life being snuffed out in American streets with little consequence.
There is one reason I haven’t thrown my bible against the wall and walked away long ago. One word actually. Immanu-El. God with us. God is with us. God is with us, dying in the street. That comforts me.
Mahalia Jackson’s Sweet Little Jesus Boy is one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is a poignant articulation of how much the story of the poor Babe of Bethlehem has in common with that of the black person in racist America. It is decades old, originating in Jim Crow and still relevant.
This Christmas I remember Jesus born to a fast-tailed girl and God was there, with her. Pregnant, single, presumed promiscuous. I remember a marginalized man, born into a world in which his people were subject to brutality at the whim of the people who oppressed his people. And God was with them. I remember a man who didn’t stick around for long eventually leaving a single mother to manage on her own, but God was with her. I remember a man whose protests against the powers of this world, including the collusion of some of his own folk led to death row. I remember a sorrowful mother told in his infancy that she would feel pain like being stabbed in the heart because of what the world would do to her child. And God remained with her. Even when the state executed her child and placed his bloody corpse in her arms.
The violence of this Christmas season is not new. It is not new for African Americans who survived the Maafa, slavocracy, Jim and Jane Crow, state-supported lynchings, the prison industrial complex. We have survived because God has been with us. It is not new in the history of the world. We will survive trigger-happy police trained by their fear and society’s racism to demonize and exterminate black people. We will survive because God is with us.
We will survive and the world will change. Empires, conquerors and oppressors fall, rot and die and the world continues to turn. Another favorite song is The Canticle of the Turning, a modern take on the Virgin’s hymn, The Magnificat. Mary’s response to threat of death she was under as an unwed pregnant girl in a society that policed women’s bodies and sexuality with lethal violence was to look back at how her people made it over because God was with them. Mary looked back to one of the Mothers of her faith, Hannah who would be known as a prophet in Judaism – perhaps she was by then – Hannah for whom tradition teaches Mary’s own mother was named.
Hannah sang that God is a World-Turner (using the imperfect signaling future or even present action). Mary sang that Hannah’s prophecy was true (using the past tense). The empires that occupied Hannah’s Israel were long gone. Mary’s Song survived the empire that oppressed her and executed her son.
Finally (but perhaps not finally!), Immanu-El is with us in death and beyond death, transforming death into life.
The violence of that first Christmas, and of this one, those between and those to come will never have the last word because God is Immanu-El. God is with us. We will survive. We will thrive. And we will turn this world around.
The fires of your justice burn in us and will not be extinguished. With you we proclaim that our black lives are sacred. And this crucifying, lynching world does not have the last word. It is Christmas and you are Immanu-El. God is with us.
If you cannot be merry or happy this Christmas, be blessed. Blessed Christmas.
God of Justice who declared black lives matter at the dawn of creation by scooping up a handful of black earth with which to craft humanity in the image of divinity,
We thank you that our radiant blackness is neither accidental nor incidental to your glory.
We join you Holy One, in your lament for the stolen lives of your precious children: Trayvon, Rekia, Mike, Renisha, Tamir, Ayanna and so many, many more. And we partner with you in righteous action to transform this sin-sick world.
We pray your heavenly benediction on those assembled [here], those who will protest and those who will not or cannot. We bless those protesting in other places around this nation and world proclaiming that black lives more than matter but that black life is sacred, and your very image.
And we pray your earthly benediction on and with us, for you are Immanuel, God with us. We pray your protection and know that you are with us in the streets because you are a ride and die God. Lastly we pray for the work: the transformation of the culture of policing, prosecuting and the entire unjust justice system. We pray for those police officers and citizens whose hearts are full of hate and fear. Touch them with your love in and through us. And let us together dismantle white supremacy that all black life: gay, straight, bi, trans, women, men, children in their beds, felons on lock down & homeless teens in the street will survive and thrive because we matter. Black life matters. Black life is sacred. Amen.
Soldiers Police officers asked John the Baptizer, God’s servant, “And we, what should we do (since we have been moved by the Gospel to be baptized)?” S/he said to them, “Serve with integrity.”*
*Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
When I was an army chaplain I called this the Soldier’s Gospel. It was important for soldiers to see and hear that their military service was not prohibited by their faith, particularly at a time when non-violence is often lifted up as the only way for Christian, religious or other ethically guided people.
Serve with integrity.
I find myself turning back to that text in these evil days. The models of policing that are dominating our public and private spaces are thuggish, brutal and lethal. And, they are shaped by the racism that pervades our country and our institutions so that individual police officers, without regard to their own ethnicity, violently perpetuate institutional racism. Yet neither policing nor police officers are inherently evil. They are part of a system, of structures which shape their policies and tactics and their own perceptions and responses.
Serve with integrity.
Perpetuating race-based stereotypes is not serving with integrity. Integrity is a difficult path. It means acknowledging and dealing with your own individual racism and that of the system in which you live and work. It means taking a hard look at your own arrest statistics and those of your department. It means coming to terms with the way your own biases shape the way you see, respond and police. It means operating against your biases against black bodies – seeing black boys as men, black girls as promiscuous, black women as prostitutes and black men as thugs. Serving with integrity means holding yourself, your sister and brother officers and your department to a higher standard.
Serve with integrity.
The work of dismantling racism and reversing its programming in public and private, individual and corporate. Police officers have a sacred trust and responsibility to protect and serve, assess, de-escalate and respond appropriately. Lethal violence should always be a last resort.
Officers, we need you. We need to be able to trust you. In the name of all that is holy and humane: Serve with integrity.
I am proud to have co-authored this statement with my colleague Dr. Keri Day on behalf of the Black Church Studies program and Faculty of Brite Divinity School:
The Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School, along with administrators and members of the faculty, lament the recent decision by the Grand Jury not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown. We believe that a trial jury should determine whether the facts of the case warrant a murder conviction. We mourn Mike Brown’s death and believe that racism is subverting the due process of justice in the Ferguson Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office. The ongoing criminalization of Mike Brown hinders compassion, care, and fairness not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but across our nation. The cry of Job 34:17 – “Shall one who hates justice govern?” – is an apt warning to America, insofar as racism erodes the legitimacy of our law enforcement.
We at Brite Divinity School stand with the Mike Browns of America. We demand that public institutions be held accountable for their chronic, oppressive, and often violent bias against African Americans. “Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). African Americans are routinely desecrated by America’s law enforcement and justice system. We feel outraged by such inhuman practices and trace their roots to a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the sacredness of black bodies. We deplore the widespread criminalization of African Americans, we denounce the structural racism that corrodes our society, and we join those who embody justice, compassion, and respect for all people. Let us work together toward equality and fairness in our social, political, and judicial systems.
A reading for Advent and a meditation:
Isaiah 59:7 Their feet run to evil and they hasten to pour out innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, violence and brokenness are in their highways.
8 The path of peace they do not know and there is no justice in their pathways.
Their courses they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.
9 Therefore justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us;
we hope for light and look – there is darkness! We wait for brightness yet in gloom we walk.
10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those without eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those fat-with-health as though we were dead.
11 We growl, all of us, like bears; like doves we moan, moan.
We hope for justice, but there is none; we wait for salvation; it is far from us…
14 Justice is turned back and righteousness stands far off;
for truth stumbles in the public square and right cannot come in.
15 It is truth that is lacking and, whoever turns from evil is plundered.
The HOLY ONE saw it, and it was evil in God’s sight that there was no justice.
16 God saw that there was no one – and even God was appalled that there was no one to intervene:
19 Yet they from the west shall fear the name of the HOLY ONE OF SINAI, and those from the east, God’ glory;
for God shall come like a pent-up stream that the Spirit of the HOLY ONE drives forward.
There will be no candle of Hope this year. Hope is no longer enough. There will be no candle of Peace this year. For there is no peace without justice. There will be no candle of Joy this year. There are too many empty places at the table to rejoice. But there will be Light. Light that shines in the darkness illuminating injustice and indifference. The lights I kindle will join with the lights others kindle and expose the depravity that steals, kills and consumes our children and, those complicit with it. This Advent is a season of preparation. We have work to do. Stay awake. Stay awake to injustice. And stay awake to justice, wherever it may be lest we despair. Stay awake. Or, as we say on twitter: #StayWoke.
Translation by Wil Gafney, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Live recording from 22 Sept 2014 including my talk: Turning Tables and Snatching Wigs: A Biblical Response to Ferguson and Forney
Girls, black like me, abducted to be sex slaves and not for the first time, not for the last time. Tweet this
Abandoned to their fate, all but forgotten. It looks like no one will #BringBackOurGirls. Some of them have brought themselves back.
Hundreds of people lost on a flight and then again hundreds more lost on the same airline shot down, intentionally murdered. Their bodies disrespected, left to rot in the fields for days, perhaps looted. The investigation thwarted. Justice mocked, denied.
A war of disproportionate violence targeting civilians, killing children with reckless abandon, demolishing hospitals, ambulances, schools and refugee centers. And I am complicit. My government, my tax dollars, my army, backing and funding the slaughter and resupplying ammo with one hand while lightly wagging a finger with the other. click to tweet
A black man STRANGLED (lynched?) by a police officer on a city street on video. tweet The flower of black manhood has been shot down in the street like a dog. Left to lay in his blood for hours. tweet this Followed by a police response straight out of the manual of Bull Connor. Riot gear more up-armored than US forces in Iraq. tweet
I have been stunned into silence by this summer of horror. I could not blog. I could not shape a paragraph. I don’t know if I could have preached. Instead I tweeted, I prayed, I raged – keeping vigil in the age of social media.
The story of Job came to mind: for seven days and seven nights his friends sat with him in stunned silence. They did not open their mouths in theological platitudes. They sat with him, they looked at him, they listened to him. When they did open their well-intentioned mouths spilling forth the normative theology of their day it was of no use to God or Job. Job’s rage, including and particularly his rage at and with God, was right (alright, righteous) with God.
All kinds of rage is simmering in the cauldron of this summer. It is not all righteous but some of it is. tweet that The Church does not have a good track record of responding to holy rage – particularly of black folk. It kills prophets. tweet
May the angry words of our mouths and the righteous rage in our hearts fuel the work of our hands and be acceptable in your sight O God of Justice. Amen. tweet prayer
It’s in the soil. It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s as American as apple pie.
Racism perfuses the soil and soul of Ferguson MO as it does everywhere in these (dis)United States and the Western world. click to tweet It is our legacy and the stuff shaping the building blocks of this nation.
We’ve scraped it down to the bedrock in places but never removed all of that poisonous soil. So it putrefies, befouls and infects the soil and all that we have built upon it. Like the United States of America, our (in)justice system and penal code.
The Church is build on that racist soil. Which is why the Church, its structures, images and people are affected and infected by racism. We have failed to expose and eradicate the racism in our midst.
The police of Ferguson MO reflect an American reality. They are not an aberration. tweet
At the root of this race-based violence is more than a rejection of the civil rights of African Americans as citizens; rather it is a fundamental rejection of the human status of Black folk. This is a theological issue. I invite religious communities and the Church in particular to begin to have these discussions anew.