(A slightly revised version of this morning's sermon, at All Saints' Littleton NH.)
"The Christian response to injustice is not passivity. It is not responding by saying, "it is because of our sinfulness" and then moving on.
The Christian response to injustice is turning over the tables to reveal the truth of a God who is always on the side of the oppressed.
It is responding non-violently in a world that demands violence.
It is naming the racism, sexism, classism, all of the isms that seek to separate God's people from God and each other.”
Jay Smooth, founder of New York's longest running hip-hop radio show, writes on the decision not to have a trial concerning the death of Eric Garner by a New York City policeman:
"The man is unarmed. The chokehold is banned. The coroner ruled it a homicide. It is on video. None of this matters. I can't breathe.”
The past weeks have seen two grand juries issue decisions not to have a trial concerning high profile killing of black men by white police officers. It is important to note that these were not decisions of weighing the evidence to decide whether or not the officer was guilty or innocent, only whether or not their use of power warranted a trial.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.
Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable….Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment….Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception.
I can't breathe…
Mike Kinman is the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis. He has been in the midst of things ever since Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. He wrote a reflection on the “Sacrament of uncomfortability”:
"Because of our privilege, many of we who are white have for most of our lives been able to avoid extreme discomfort, to view things like racism as "issues" that we either choose to engage or not. But now, these voices are telling us it's not optional anymore. That we have to deal with it or they will "shut it down.”
And we are uncomfortable ... and confused ... and afraid ... and annoyed ... and even angry.
And we find ourselves just wanting it all to go away. More and more over the past week, people have come to me saying how weary they are of the protests and "how come 'they' can't do something positive" and "why can't 'they' just tell us what they want" ... with the subtext being "so we can get back to being comfortable again." And shouldn't I be doing something productive and reasonable instead of encouraging this nonsense?
I feel that pain. I feel that weariness. The learning curve for we white people on this one is so, so steep (I know it is for me) because most of our own previous experiences of pain and weariness ... though certainly profound and real to us ... have not prepared us to encounter the extraordinary pain and weariness people of color have in this country just trying to live every day of their lives.
Jesus was never one to preach comfortability. In fact, the Gospels paint a pretty clear picture of a Jesus who invited us to leave our places of comfort behind and follow him. To give up something good for the sake of something better.
To have faith and a willingness to risk.
To embrace the sacrament of uncomfortability.
That is where Christ is calling us today. To resist the temptation to flee from the uncomfortablity, to lash out at the uncomfortability or even to reach for the quick and easy fix for the uncomfortability.
If uncomfortability is a sacrament, and I believe it is, then we need to lean into it ... to dive into it even. We need to feel it deeply, knowing that it leads us to the very heart of Christ.
If you are annoyed, angry, confused and weary by the demonstrators, I really do feel you. This is a hard time. But Christ calls us to do what is hard and promises to walk with us every step of the way. So I urge you, instead of lashing out or throwing up your hands in despair ... instead of dismissing the protesters as "thugs" or criticizing their methods ... instead lean in.
There are lots of slogans out there right now, and arguably the loudest is the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER”.
"The apostle Paul teaches us in the New Testament that when any one member of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer. Russell Moore, just yesterday, spoke out on behalf of Southern Baptists saying: “We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.”
This is one of those instances where, yes, members of the body of Christ, citizens of this nation, neighbors, and friends are suffering. And we need to listen.
And we need to knock off the passive aggressive response ALL LIVES MATTER. We all agree with that. Right now we need to declare with one voice, until things really change, that yes, indeed, #BLACKLIVESMATTER”
Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis wrote this after the grand jury verdict:
"The past three months have challenged us to 'walk the walk' as a congregation. As a community that embraces Jews of color, and has always been committed to challenging the injustices of racism in St. Louis, we could not stand idly by as Michael Brown's death touched a nerve throughout the nation, and forced St. Louis to confront the reality that there are two Fergusons, and two Americas. We have police officers in our congregation and our families, yet we must not be afraid to demand accountability from law enforcement that practices racial profiling and provocation and has done so for many years. Our core values of being a civil-minded and justice-seeking congregation guide us and challenge us to be part of the budding solution. I stand with the protestors because they are calling for a serious confrontation with institutional racism and I believe that we all need to do this work. I stand with the protestors because they have kept the peace for over 100 days by promoting non-violent civil disobedience and providing ways for many who are frustrated and angry to express themselves through marching, acts of civil disobedience and building memorials to those who have died, and by showing us what democracy looks like."
So far, we’ve heard only from white voices. The call to listen deeply goes farther.
The great African American writer Langston Hughes published these words in 1931:
“That Justice is a blind goddess Is a thing to which we black are wise. Her bandage hides two festering sores That once perhaps were eyes.”
Michael Brown's family's stated: "Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference.” As these grand jury decisions were announced, and people took to the streets, black persons also responded online. These are just some of the responses of people I saw: some are well known persons, others not. It's not about whether you agree or disagree with everything that follows, but rather, that you take in what people are feeling and saying:
To believe that the United States is post-racial requires an almost incomprehensible inability or unwillingness to stare truth in the face.
— Michael Khords (@MichaelKhords) December 3, 2014
As it stands, there is no amount of force an officer can use that isn’t unjustified, regardless of the situation.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 3, 2014
10. Do not talk about reconciliation if you are not willing to take a reconciling step. Don't pray for justice if you won't work for it.
— Joshua DuBois (@joshuadubois) December 3, 2014
Systemic racism. Emptiness. Anger. Sadness. Heartbreak. The concerned people of the world ask, where is justice in America? #Ferguson
— Omar Moore (@popcornreel) November 25, 2014
@BroderickGreer Me too. I can't remember when I've felt so sad and even lost.
— Crystal S. Lewis (@CrystalLewis) December 4, 2014
Facts are facts. I don't have them all. But I do know I fear for the lives of Black American males. This is my reality.
— Lecrae (@lecrae) November 25, 2014
What should we say to our sons who have been told this is a “different America” than the one their grandparents grew up in?#FergusonDecision
— Michael Steele (@MichaelSteele) November 25, 2014
Body cameras aren't the key to justice. Without accountability, nothing will ever change. The family of #EricGarner deserved better.
— Edward Bowser (@etbowser) December 3, 2014
And I expect justice. I expect Justice. I expect Justice. I expect Justice.
— Austin Channing (@austinchanning) November 25, 2014
Our democracy is a work in progress( at best). It is our job to create a nation that has not yet been born.
— Otis Moss, III (@om3) November 25, 2014
Cynicism is easy, destruction requires no thought, movements take work, require courage, demand commitment and mandate love. #Fergsuon
— Otis Moss, III (@om3) November 25, 2014
There's something perverse and sad about that. No one has more hope in this country than Black people do. Honestly.
— Tọ́pẹ́ Fádìran (@graceishuman) November 25, 2014
"Regardless of the outcome, this entire process has been a farce, inside a cruel joke, wrapped in an insult." @VanJones68 #Ferguson
— Van Jones (@VanJones68) November 24, 2014
I didn't know it was possible to feel more unsafe.
— Ashley Ford (@iSmashFizzle) November 25, 2014
If you don't know and understand why are so many people are lamenting, please learn to mourn with those who mourn #evangelicals4justice
— David Bailey (@davidmbailey) November 25, 2014
What d'ya mean, 'what we gonna do?' We gonna do what we been doing: fight, march and pray. In that order. #FergusonDecision #wewhobelieve
— Renita Weems (@somethingwithin) November 25, 2014
You don't have to be surprised to be heartbroken.
— Tayari Jones (@tayari) November 25, 2014
Marin Luther King, Jr. quotes abound everywhere, sometimes, ironically, in criticism of protesters. Three years after the “I have a Dream” speech, King sat down with Mike Wallace. He still advocated non-violence as the ultimate way forward, but was clear in his understanding of when violence happened:
“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.”
"A riot is the language of the unheard."
---Martin Luther King, Jr.
In many ways, Littleton NH seems worlds away from all that is happening. And yet, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I witnessed so many of these reactions in real time, concerning both the Ferguson and Stanton Island decisions. You can likely tell that many things said by African Americans caught my attention, but perhaps because I am now expecting a child, it was this response by Petty LaBelle on Twitter that keeps coming back to me:
My 7 year old son just said: "Don't worry mom. If we want to live, we just have to stay home". I'm turning off my tv. My heart just broke
— Petty LaBelle (@d_Sassy1ne) November 25, 2014
The next morning, she rallied, and proclaimed:
I don't have the answers. What I do have is an opinion on these times....and a child who now has so many questions.
— Petty LaBelle (@d_Sassy1ne) November 25, 2014
In 1962, James Baldwin wrote these words in his book ”The Fire Next Time”:
"Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.