Monday, September 19, 2016

THE GOSPEL OF LOVE MEETS THE GOSPEL OF GREED

THE GOSPEL OF LOVE MEETS THE GOSPEL OF GREED
a/k/a THE GOSPEL AND THE ECONOMY
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
September 18, 2016 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

Luke 16:1-15
16Then Jesus* said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth* so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.*
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’*
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

         This passage is considered one of the most difficult parables of Jesus to understand.  Why is Jesus teaching a lesson in which an unscrupulous money manager was commended by his wealthy employer for more dishonesty when the money manager wrote down debts owed his employer by others? 

In this lesson, Jesus spoke about a man who was accused of mismanaging (squandering) the business interests of a wealthy fellow. The manager was about to be fired from his position because of that mismanagement.  After he realized he was about to be fired the manager decided to ingratiate himself to people who owed his employer by marking down what those people owed.  The manager reduced what one person owed his employer by half (from 100 jugs of olive oil to 50)!  He reduced what another person owed his employer by one-fifth (from 100 containers of wheat to 80)! 

At this point the parable really becomes complicated, even morally confusing.  Jesus said the manager “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  Jesus commented that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16:8).   

The moral of this parable takes another confusing turn by the next sentence attributed to Jesus:  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (16:9). 

It is not hard to make sense of the next statement Jesus made (Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  Jesus explained that one with this summary at verses 10 thru 12.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

Many people, including people who are not followers of Jesus, are familiar with what appears to be the conclusion to the parable at verse 13.   No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth. 

But how does that conclusion apply to other parts of the parable?  Was the dishonest manager serving God or wealth by slashing the debts owed to the rich man who was about to fire him? 

Even if the amounts owed were unfair or otherwise improper, why did the manager’s rich employer commend him for not collecting what was owed after having served him with a termination notice because he mismanaged other accounts? 

And how does the example of a dishonest employee who used his position to be even more unfaithful by writing down what his employer was owed show what faithfulness means? 

The longer one ponders this parable the more perplexing it seems. 

·      What is commendable about taking what belongs to someone else (the manager’s conduct in writing down what his employer was owed in olive oil and wheat) to confer a benefit (reducing the debts owed for the olive oil and wheat) so one can befriend the people who owed the debts? 
·      What is the moral worth of friendship based on stealing from one person in order to benefit others? 
·      Were the people whose debts were reduced by the “dishonest manager” being dishonest by accepting the write downs?  Why not? 

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder is an ordained Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister who holds a Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University and teaches New Testament at Belmont University.  Dr. Crowder has written that “[w]hile many have termed the manager dishonest, he merely employs capitalistic bartering for the sake of his personal well-being.  He does what he has seen his supervisor do in order to survive.  Luke makes it clear that there is a system of financial exploitation in place and encourages those in his community to do what they have heard and seen the rich do in order to survive.”[1] 

Dr. Crowder cites Professor Justin Upkong, one of the pioneers of African biblical scholarship, for an interpretation of this parable that sheds a more favorable light on the manager based on the situation of African peasant farmers who are indebted to rich produce traders.  The produce traders have managers loan the farmers money for medical expenses or school fees for their children, and the interest rates on those loans range from 50 to 100 percent of the amount loaned.   Based on the situation of the African peasant farmers, Professor Upkong commented:  “…[T]he rich man in the story is not the benevolent grand personage he is often thought to be, but an exploiter.  The reading has also concluded that the manager of the estate is not the villain…but the hero of the story….[2]  

Dr. Crowder then adds the following commentary.

 This reading brings to life not only the image of African peasant farmers, but also the plight of African American farmers, the plight of African American families, and the plight of African Americans who have lost faith in the American justice system.  Fearing hunger and homelessness, many use a well-established, corrupt system in order to survive and meet everyday needs.  For example, supposedly “retired” senior citizens receiving Social Security checks find themselves working in order to supplement their income because these monthly checks are not enough to meet needs.  Yet any supplemental income is subject to taxes that seniors cannot afford.  Thus some seniors receive funds from these extra jobs in cash or “under the table.”[3]

Hmmm! 

Could it be that this parable only seems complicated because our religious views are more strongly influenced by the gospel of capitalism and greed than by the gospel of divine love and compassion for people needing deliverance from financial oppression?  What oppression are we choosing not to see when we read this parable? 

Are we choosing to not see an economy where wealthy people use “middle managers” to oppress others? 

Are we choosing to not consider that the “dishonest manager” may have decided to write off what were oppressive debts owed his employer before he was dismissed? 

Are we choosing to not see what this parable says about an economic system in which people become wealthy and remain wealthy by using money, and the threat to withhold money, as tools, weapons, and instruments to oppress others? 

Are we choosing to not see what this parable says about a U.S. economy built on enslaving Africans and expanded by terrorism, massacre, and land fraud against Native Americans and Mexicans?  Do we see Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Caesar Chavez, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and the many other women and men called and treated as villains because they challenged, fought, and schemed to oppose a society built according to the gospel of greed?

Are we choosing to not see what this parable says about a railroad system and mining industry established and expanded by mistreating immigrants from Asia, South America, the West Indies, and Europe? 

Are we choosing to commit the mistake made by the lectionary committee?  The lectionary committee did not include verses 14 and 15 for the lesson today.  But those verses show Jesus spoke this parable knowing the Pharisees were listening.  Look at those verses:  The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” 

Jesus said that worshiping wealth “is an abomination in the sight of God.”  That should make us think about how wealth is worshipped so much.  The Walton fortune exists because Sam Walton, his family, and the Walton corporate empire cheated their workers (calling them “associates”) for decades by paying low wages and by denying health benefits. 

By omitting verses 14 and 15 from this lectionary reading, the lectionary committee dodged this question:  Who are the Pharisees among us? 

The gospel of divine love we see in Jesus denounced religious people who ridiculed debt forgiveness. 
·      Who are “the Pharisees”—religionists—now who ridicule forgiving student loan debts? 
·      Who are “the Pharisees”—religionists—who refused to forgive home mortgage debts for homeowners oppressed by “balloon” interest rates during the Great Recession? 
·      Who are the religionists who argue that helping people who need social services is fiscally “irresponsible,” but that giving tax breaks to millionaires “sows seeds of economic prosperity?” 
·      Who are the religionists who help real estate developers and speculators take over neighborhoods from lower-income homeowners in the name of “gentrification?”
·      Who are the religionists that vote for politicians to increase military spending and buy expensive weapons system that enrich defense contractors and suppliers, and who demand that politicians slash spending for social services to people who are homeless, sick, aged, unemployed, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise vulnerable?
·      What religionists embraced a presidential candidate (Donald J. Trump) with a reputation for building his real estate empire and personal fortune by refusing to pay construction contractors and discriminating against people of color?

This is not a feel good parable because it forces us to come face to face with the gospel of greed that Jesus called "an abomination in the sight of God" and would have us reject. 

Jesus declared what Senator Bernie Sanders echoed during his unsuccessful presidential campaign—our economic system is “rigged” to favor the greedy and oppress the needy.

Jesus declared what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in Where Do We Go From Here.

 “…[F]or… years two groups in our society have been enjoying a guaranteed income.  Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and the poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client, has always been guaranteed an income, however, miniscule, through welfare benefits…. The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity,... and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag…. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.  It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent… The curse of poverty… is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.[4]  

This parable is not truly puzzling.  It only seems so because our sense of God’s truth, love, and justice has become perverted, if not deadened, by greed, the idolatry of wealth, and the way we glorify wealth and wealthy people. 

This parable challenges us to admit how Jesus denounced the way we worship profit-making, capitalism, and the way our loan practices do violence to children of God who are like the debtors who owed 100 jugs of olive oil and 100 containers of wheat. 

This parable challenges us to see that when Jesus said that the rich man commended the manager for having acted “shrewdly,” Jesus subtly showed that the rich man was over-charging.  The rich man wasn’t losing money or he would not have commended the manager for writing off half the debt one person owed and a fifth of what another owed!  Jesus commended the “dishonest manager” in the same way we celebrate the legend of Robin Hood.

In this parable the Robin Hood gospel of love meets the gospel of capitalistic greed.  Which gospel are we following?  Which gospel will we choose to follow after we reflect on this parable?  What will we do—in the spirit of God as followers of Jesus—to relieve economic oppression in our place, our time, and our situations? 

Will we draw back from the “Robin Hood” lessons in this parable?  Will we draw back from the examples of heroes and heroines who thought it better to be condemned as subversives by a society addicted to the greed Jesus called “an abomination in the sight of God” than become complicit, comfortable, and complacent about that greed and its impact on people who suffer?

God is waiting and watching. 

So are our oppressed sisters and brothers.

Amen.





[1] Stephanie Buckhannon Crowder:  The Gospel of Luke in True to Our Native Land:  an African American New Testament Commentary/Brian Blunt, general editor; Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B. Powery, associate editors, p. 175 (Fortress Press, 2007). 
[2] Id. p. 178, See also Justin S. Ukpong, “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13):  An Essay in Inculturation Biblical Hermeneutic,” Semeia 73 (1996), 193.
[3] Id. at 176.
[4] MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., Where Do We Go From Here?, from A TESTAMENT OF HOPE:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, (James Melvin Washington, editor), pp. 616-617 (HarperOne, 1996). of 

Monday, September 12, 2016

GOD DRAMA

GOD DRAMA
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
September 11, 2016 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas (9 a.m. service)
First Presbyterian Church, Little Rock, Arkansas (11 a.m. service)

Exodus 32:7-14
7 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ 9The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Psalm 14

To the leader. Of David.

1 Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
   They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
   there is no one who does good. 

2 The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
   to see if there are any who are wise,
   who seek after God. 

3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
   there is no one who does good,
   no, not one. 

4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
   who eat up my people as they eat bread,
   and do not call upon the Lord?
 

5 There they shall be in great terror,
   for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
   but the Lord is their refuge. 

7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
   When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
   Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

         Fifteen years ago a massacre occurred on this date when nineteen men armed with box cutters commandeered four commercial airliners after the planes departed the Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts.  Two jets were crashed into the World Trade Towers in New York City.  A third jet was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  Passengers on the fourth jet stormed the cockpit and forced the men who had overtaken it to crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania before it also could be used as a weapon to attack a target in Washington (presumably either the White House or Capitol). 

More than 3000 persons were killed in the attacks, including the passengers and crew members of the four airliners, the nineteen men who overtook them, and more than 400 police officers and firefighters.  Another 6000 persons were injured. 

In the face of this massacre, many people found solace in places of worship.  We gathered to draw strength from sacred writings, songs of faith, and the companionship of other grieving souls.  For some people, faith in God was shattered.  But most people fell back on some notion of faith in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and massacre. 

What happened to the nation that was moved to prayerful reflection in its sorrow?  What happened to the belief that our people should trust God for strength to persevere, heal, and grieve?  What happened to the idea that we should trust God for wisdom on how to respond to acts of religious fanaticism?  What happened to respect for and hospitality to immigrants, aliens, and strangers?  What happened to respect for religious diversity and justice?  What happened to being people committed to peace-making? 

The nation that prayed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist massacre soon put aside faithfulness to truth and justice.  We heard and heeded voices who urged us to dismiss as unrealistic or simply politically unpopular the divine mandate that we show hospitality to immigrants, respect for human and religious diversity, and commitment to fairness.  Like the Hebrews who constructed a golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai, people in the United States turned from following the God of all comfort, love, peace, justice, and mercy.
 
However, the idol we turned to was not a golden calf.  Fifteen years after the September 11, 2001 massacre, the sad truth we must face is that our idols became fear and war. 

Within weeks of September 11, fear-mongering political leaders in Washington introduced and hurriedly enacted the USA Patriot Act.  That law allowed for indefinite detention of immigrants.  It permitted law enforcement officers to enter and search a private home or business without the knowledge or consent of the owner or occupant.  It authorized the issuance of National Security Letters that allow the FBI to search telephone, email, and financial records without a court order.  The USA Patriot Act exposed us as people eager to worship fear. 

Operation Iraqi Freedom also exposed our “golden calf” of war, as national leaders unwisely committed the nation to wage war against the government of Iraq.  Fifteen years after September 11, the world knows the United Nations weapons inspectors spoke truth when they declared that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.  Fifteen years after September 11, we have yet to confess to God, the people of Iraq, the military personnel who served in Iraq, and the families of those killed and permanently scarred physically, emotionally, and morally because of their involvement with Operation Iraqi Freedom, that we sacrificed their lives and moral wholeness on the altar of a false god. 

Operation Iraqi Freedom did not help us find the Al Qaeda leaders who masterminded and ordered the September 11 massacre.  It merely enriched defense contractors, weapons suppliers, fed our misguided sense about “national security,” and left Iraq destabilized politically, economically, and socially. 

According to a paper authored by Professor Neta Crawford of Brown University, as of August 2016 the United States has already appropriated, spent, or obligated itself to spend more than $3.6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria and on Homeland Security (2001 thru fiscal year 2016).  The Defense and State Departments have combined requests of more than $65 billion more dollars as dedicated war spending for the next fiscal year (2017).   Another $32 billion is requested by the Department of Homeland Security for 2017.  When these amounts are added to the estimated future spending needed to provide medical care and disability benefits to veterans, the total U.S. budgetary cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria reaches $4.79 trillion.[1] That money will not be spent on education, homelessness, roads and bridges, research on curing preventable illnesses and injuries, or improve our environment.

The USA Patriot Act and Operation Iraqi Freedom are examples of our “God Drama.”  As the lesson from Exodus 32 about the Hebrews who constructed a golden calf demonstrates, humans will manufacture idols rather than trust divine grace and truth.  We are easily manipulated to fear and demonize others rather than treat them as other children of God.   

The “God Drama” that produced the USA Patriot Act causes people to believe politicians who urge us to fear, distrust, and mistreat children of God who are followers of Islam.  The “God Drama” that produced Operation Iraqi Freedom blinds us from confessing that the victims of the September 11 massacre were not honored by when our government kidnaped and held people without charging them with any crimes or providing them with trials. 

Our “God Drama” resulted in us holding children of God in prison camps at Guantanamo, Cuba and in CIA prisons around the world.

Our “God Drama” led us to pretend to not know, and later act as if we do not care, that our society permitted government agents to mistreat other children of God by using “enhanced interrogation measures” such as water boarding, sleep deprivation, and other torture techniques.  We have seen over the past fifteen years what happens when a society casts aside faith in the God of love, truth, justice, mercy, peace, and hope and builds idols of fear and war because of “God Drama.” 

The lesson from Psalm 14 also challenges us to ponder what happens morally to people who cast aside faith in divine love, truth, justice, peace, joy, and hope.  According to the Psalmist, people who reject faith in God also behave as if they are not morally accountable.  Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good… Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD? (Ps. 14:1, 4) 

Fifteen years after the September 11 massacre, we have yet to demonstrate the humility to confess that the USA Patriot Act was corrupt.  We have yet to show the humility required to confess that the war in Iraq was abominable.  We may never know how many hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians have been injured or killed.  We have yet to admit we sinned against the people of Iraq by deliberately committing war—murder on a national scale—against a nation that did not threaten us and was never implicated in the September 11, 2001 massacre.[2] 

Do we have the humility to admit we sinned against the people who died and were wounded in that war, no matter where they were from?  Do we have the humility to admit we sinned against God?  Or are we so morally compromised as a society that we do not recognize the willful refusal to confess the sinful consequences of our “God Drama?”

Whether we find it comfortable or not, the Psalmist declares that there are painful consequences for the moral foolishness of rejecting the God of love, truth, justice, peace, mercy, and hope and behaving as if there is no god.  Those consequences affect the most vulnerable people in a society—described in Psalm 14 by the term “the poor”—first and always.  But the consequences do not stop with those who are most vulnerable.  “God Drama” impacts everyone and everything in a society one way or another.  Recall the $4.9 trillion figure I mentioned earlier.  That debt will hang over the heads of our children, their children, and their children! 

The Exodus lesson also shows that our “God Drama” grieves God.  Recall that interesting conversation between God and Moses when God speaks of the Hebrew people liberated from Egypt with exasperation.  The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people [notice they are not ‘my people’], whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’  [Ex. 32:7-11]  This passage suggests that when our “God Drama” leads us to substitute the God of justice for idols God has drama! 

The Psalmist was, in like manner, obviously grieved by the societal impact of what I am calling “God drama.” Yet, he did not end his song with despair.  The Psalmist was comforted by the belief that God is with the company of the righteous.  You would confound the plans of the poor but the LORD is their refuge [Ps.14:5-6].  The Psalmist concluded his reflection in prayerful hope.  O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad [Ps. 14:7]. 

God knows and cares about us!  God is not through with us!  God has not abandoned us!  God will deliver us, somehow!  God can restore us, somehow!  God will correct us, somehow!  The Psalmist bet his future on faith that God’s love for us is tested, but ultimately not overcome, by our God Drama! 

Our God Drama is does not trump God’s grace!  Our God Drama does not trump God’s truth!  Our God Drama does not and will not trump God’s justice and mercy! 

Yes, we have God Drama!  Yes, our God Drama conduct produces painful consequences to us and grieves God!  However, our God Drama does not and will not cancel God’s love for us.  God has a future for us brighter than our God Drama.  Let us affirm and live in the power of this truth on this anniversary of the September 11 massacre, and always. 

Amen.



[2] A measure of the moral injury from our God Drama is U.S. disregard for the death and suffering inflicted on the Iraqi civilian population by the war in Iraq.  The most conservative estimate is that 150,000 civilians were killed in direct violence.  However, that number does not include civilians killed (some estimates put this number at equal or higher than the death toll estimated from direct violence) from indirect causes, included those who have died due to lack of medical attention and disruption of the health care system that pre-dated the war.  See http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/civilians/iraqi

Thursday, September 8, 2016

AN EXAMPLE ON THE WAY RACIAL INJUSTICE WORKS

AN EXAMPLE ON THE WAY RACIAL INJUSTICE WORKS
Justice Is a Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
September 8, 2016

Two nights ago Little Rock City Directors rejected an ordinance proposed by Director Erma Hendrix that would have required new police officers to live in Little Rock.  The white directors (Gene Fortson, Kathy Webb, Joan Adcock, Vice Mayor Lance Hines, Dean Kumpuris, and B.J. Wyrick) voted against the ordinance.  Mayor Mark Stodola did not vote (his practice is to vote when there is a tie). 

Director Hendrix had the candor and courage to declare before votes were cast that racial injustice is pervasive in Little Rock, and that local civic and business leaders are unwilling to respect black voters.  She is correct.  Directors Hendrix, Doris Wright, and Ken Richardson are trying to move Little Rock policy making in ways that will address longstanding systemic racism.  But their efforts are opposed and defeated because of the way racial injustice works in Little Rock, in Arkansas, and across the United States.

In January 1969 (almost a year after he was murdered) Playboy Magazine published an essay written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which included the following observation: 

“Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive, and awesomely powerful?  The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially.  All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.”

Those words are as true today as they were when Dr. King penned them. 

Law enforcement efforts are flawed and relations between law enforcement agencies and communities of color are strained because the culture within law enforcement is “deeply racist.”  White police officers in the Little Rock Police Department by and large are unwilling to live in the capitol city of Arkansas.  Police Chief Kenton Buckner and Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, black men, opposed the ordinance proposed by Director Hendrix that would have made residency a requirement for new police officers.  Chief Buckner and City Manager Moore show that “deeply racist” attitudes and practices within law enforcement work are not corrected because black politicians and governmental officials often join white civic and business leaders in perpetuating them.   

Public education remains practically segregated because attitudes of political, business, and social leaders are “deeply racist.”  The January 28, 2015 takeover of the Little Rock School District, ouster of the democratically-elected and majority black Little Rock School Board by the Arkansas Board of Education, and ongoing conditions within the Little Rock School District show how “deeply racist” thinking and policy-making by local and state political, business, and social leaders (including religious leaders) have taken political and fiscal governance for the Little Rock School District from voters.  In 1957, black leaders opposed Governor Orval Faubus.  The 2015 takeover and ongoing effort to deny democracy in the state’s largest school district was and continues to be enabled and defended by hand-picked black political appointees on the Board of Education.  Yes, black people can be enablers and defenders of “deeply racist” thinking and policy-making.

During the September 6 Little Rock Board of Directors meeting Vice Mayor Hines and Director Kumpuris agreed with Director Hendrix that the residency ordinance debate exposed the glaring distrust and discord between black people and the police.  At best, their comments were no more than lip service.  I and others were insulted.  We don’t need socializing.  We need systemic change.  It’s absurd to think, and offensive to suggest, that the attitudes and conduct that killed Eugene Ellison and Bobby Moore III will be corrected by having black and white people “have a beer together.” 

Racial injustice continues in Little Rock, in Arkansas, and across the United States because of “deeply racist” thinking and policy-making.  Racial injustice continues in Little Rock and Arkansas because “at large” politicians initiate and can count on black political functionaries to defend “deeply racist” thinking and policy-making.  Racial injustice continues because too many people are unwilling or afraid to do what Directors Erma Hendrix, Ken Richardson, and Doris Wright tried to do Tuesday night—challenge and change “deeply racist” existing policies and practices. 


Racial injustice will end—in Little Rock, in Arkansas, and across the United States—when people oppose, disrupt, dismantle, and eradicate the “deeply racist” thinking, policies, and practices that routinely control the way things work.  That requires a lot more than chat and chew sessions, polite dinners and banquets, and photo opportunities.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

HOW GOD VIEWS JUSTICE

HOW GOD VIEWS JUSTICE
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
August 14, 2016 (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church
Little Rock, AR

Psalm 82
A Psalm of Asaph.
1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
   in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
2 ‘How long will you judge unjustly
   and show partiality to the wicked?
          Selah
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’
 

5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
   they walk around in darkness;
   all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 

6 I say, ‘You are gods,
   children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
   and fall like any prince.’
* 

8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
   for all the nations belong to you!

         Psalm 82 is attributed to a person named Asaph, a Levite who established a guild of Temple singers, and appears in a collection of psalms that begins with Psalm 73.  In this Psalm, Asaph envisions a heavenly trial—a “divine council”—of important beings.  God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment (Ps. 82:1). 

The defendants are subordinate deities to God—“lesser gods” if you will.  These less powerful members of the divine order are charged with judicial misconduct.  How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps. 82:2).  

We don’t know what the word “Selah” means.  This Hebrew term appears only in Psalms and in Habakkuk 3, and separates passages within a psalm.  I have come to think of “Selah” as similar to a punctuation mark.  “Selah” punctuates a psalm.  “Selah” instructs psalm readers and singers to pause a bit, allow a thought to sink in, and give ourselves time to ponder it.

So let’s ponder Asaph’s vision of divine beings on trial and charged with favoritism.  They are charged with being partial “to the wicked.”  In Psalm 82, Asaph envisions that favoring the wicked works to oppress people who are vulnerable, and declares that doing so amounts to judicial malpractice! 

In this vision, the Psalmist imagines there is no escape from the moral gaze of God even for what the elders of my youth would call “big shots.”  “Lesser gods” can’t get away with violating divine justice. 

The divine standard for righteous judgment is clear.  Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Ps. 82:3-4). 

Those in power have a moral obligation to protect vulnerable people from oppression.  Protecting weak, orphaned, poor, and otherwise vulnerable people from oppression by the powerful is not a matter of political correctness.  This is not a partisan political position.  The duty to protect weak, orphaned, poor, and otherwise vulnerable people from oppression is about morality!  It is a question of right and wrong!

It is not right when judges allow vulnerable people to be mistreated by the powerful.

It is not right for judges and other rulers to favor the wealthy.

It is not right for judges and politicians to manufacture ways to save corporations and investment bankers from bankruptcy by extending lenient payment arrangements and forgiving debts, yet refuse to write off debts and show leniency to homeowners who are “upside down” on their mortgages and people saddled with debt from student loans.

It is not right for judges, prosecutors, and other politicians to allow police to violate the rights and threaten the lives and mental health of people who are poor, people who are black, brown, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and immigrants.

It is not right for the powerful rulers—lesser gods if you will—to treat the vulnerable status of children, people who suffer from mental illness, and people who are women as an excuse to pay them less than what other workers are paid.

It is not right for rulers to favor employers over workers. 

It is not right for rulers to give drug companies a moral license to jack up the cost of life-saving drugs so that poor people suffer and die in disproportionate numbers.

According to Asaph’s notion of divine justice, any system of justice that shows partiality to the wicked and oppresses the vulnerable is morally indefensible and illegitimate, no matter how politically popular or powerful it may appear to be.  Justice is not about political correctness.  Justice is about divine and moral accountability!

The “Selah” in Psalm 82 calls us to ponder what happens when politicians, judges, and other “lesser god” entities show favoritism to the “wicked” and uphold oppression of people who are poor, needy, orphaned, and otherwise vulnerable.  We know what happens to the vulnerable when that happens.

We know because we remember how unarmed Michael Brown Jr., “Mike-Mike” to the youth and elders who lived in his Ferguson, Missouri neighborhood, was shot to death August 9, 2014 by Darrin Wilson, someone who had a sworn duty to protect his life. 

We know because we remember how Mike-Mike’s dead body lay uncovered in the middle of the street where he died for almost five hours in 90 degree heat two years ago.

We know because we remember how the prosecutors turned what supposed to be a grand jury investigation into whether Mike Brown’s death was a crime into an opportunity for the police officer who killed Brown to use cultural incompetence and racism as an excuse for killing him.

We know what happens to vulnerable people when the rulers favor the wicked. 

Eric Garner’s killer gets off without being charged with choking him to death.

Mike Brown’s killer gets off without being charged with shooting him to death.

Freddie Gray’s killers get off without being found guilty of breaking his neck.

Eugene Ellison’s killers get off without being charged with shooting him to death. 

Homeowners are forced into bankruptcy while mortgage companies get government bailouts.

What Psalm 82 reminds us, however, is that God holds the “lesser god” rulers accountable who favor the wicked and allow the wicked to oppress people who are vulnerable.  Psalm 82 speaks of divine judgment on “lesser god” rulers who favor the wicked.   The Psalm ends with a prayer that calls on God to “rise up” and “judge the earth, “for all the nations belong to you.”  (Ps. 82:8)

The lesson of Psalm 82 is straightforward.  Unjust rulers will fall!  They will fall because they operate from a morally unstable position.  Systems of injustice and the people who operate them are doomed to the judgment of God who will not show favoritism and who will not be bribed, bought, or bullied.

         That lesson also presents a challenge to the rest of us.  We must choose whether we will defend systems of injustice and the people who operate them to oppress the vulnerable or whether we will join God in condemning and overthrowing them.  Are we propping up systems of oppression or helping God tear them down and replace them?  

         Are we standing with God and condemning systems of injustice and the “lesser gods” who operate them?

Are we standing with and making excuses for the perpetrators and enablers of systemic injustice?

Are we standing with the vulnerable against the wicked?

Are we standing with victims against their violators?

Are we standing with oppressed people against their oppressors?

Are we standing with working people against wealthy wickedness?

Are we denouncing those who call on vulnerable people to keep silent about their oppression?

Psalm 82 carries a solemn warning to anyone who will not stand with God against the systems and rulers who oppress the vulnerable and reward the wicked.  At verses 6 and 7 we read the divine sentence on the “lesser gods” that committed judicial malpractice.  I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince. 

God will overthrow the “lesser gods” who favor the wicked and powerful over the vulnerable.  Let us help God do so, not prop up the wicked. 


Amen.