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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

PRAYER LESSONS FROM JESUS

PRAYER LESSONS FROM JESUS
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
July 24, 2016 (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

Luke 11:1-13
11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father,
* hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
*
3   Give us each day our daily bread.*
4   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
*
5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”7And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for* a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit* to those who ask him!’
         Lord, teach us to pray… 

602 people have been killed during encounters with police in the United States so far during 2016, according to The Guardian Newspaper.  88 have been unarmed.  25 of those unarmed people have been black. So far this month, police have killed 54 people across the United States.  That averages two deaths a day.  During 2015, police in the United States killed 1146 people.  79 of those slain people were unarmed black people.

Lord, teach us to pray…

A gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida last month.  A gunman killed 5 police officers in Dallas, Texas earlier this month.  A gunman killed 3 police officers in Baton, Rouge, Louisiana this month.  This past Friday (July 22), an 18 year old man who had been treated for depression and complained of being bullied went on a shooting rampage in Munich, Germany and killed 9 people before killing himself.  In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by someone who ran over them with a truck earlier this month. 

Lord, teach us to pray…

In Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, war, famine, poverty, and other threats are causing people to become refugees.  Parents fearful for the safety of their children are leaving their homelands and risking death in efforts to travel somewhere they can live safely.  Meanwhile, politicians and citizens in nations that are relatively safe (by comparison) and more prosperous are complaining about being over-run by refugees.  In the United States, Republican Party presidential nominee Donald J. Trump claims that illegal immigrants threaten the health, safety, and prosperity of the United States.

Lord, teach us to pray…  

Those words take on an awesome and great deal of urgency for anyone who is sensitive about life, suffering, peace, love, truth, and justice in the face of recent events.  How do we pray given all we have seen and heard?  How do we pray for our loved ones who are struggling with life-threatening or life-ending illness?  How do we pray for ourselves and others as we try to cope with personal and public anxieties?  How do we continue to believe in prayer?

The model prayer that Jesus taught his first followers offers some lessons.

Pray!  It may seem to be stating the obvious, but Jesus first told his followers, “When you pray, say…”  Jesus told them to pray!  Jesus did not tell them to discount prayer, avoid prayer, question the need for prayer, or doubt that praying does any good.  Jesus told his followers to pray.

Remember our relationship with God!  In the model prayer Jesus left us, God is identified as our divine relative—Father!  Followers of Jesus do not understand God to be distant from us, disconnected from us, or otherwise unconcerned about us.  Jesus said, “When you pray, say:  Our Father…”

We are God’s children.  We are not moral vagabonds and orphans in the world.  We are God’s children. 

·      We are God’s needy children. 
·      We are God’s fearful children. 
·      We are God’s threatened children. 
·      We are God’s migrating children. 
·      We are God’s misunderstood children. 
·      We are God’s frail children.
·      We are God’s fallen children.
·      We are God’s oppressed children.
·      We are God’s grieving children.
·      We are God’s dying children.

Remember that we pray as children to One who knows us, loves us, and desires to be in union with us as “our Father.”

Remember that we pray as children to One who is holy (hallowed be your name).

Remember that we pray as children to One whose rule is real and true despite any and every other force we encounter in life  (Your kingdom come).  The kingdoms of this world—including any and all empires and powers—cannot and will not prevent the Holy Spirit from equipping and guiding the people of God’s kingdom.  The kingdoms—including any and all empires and forces—cannot overcome the kingdom of God!  Jesus taught us to pray with this in mind despite the kingdoms we face at work, school, home, the world of commerce, and elsewhere. 

We are needy children.  Admit that in prayer. Give us each day our daily bread is an admission that we are never self-sufficient.  We need God’s provision each day.  We need God’s forgiveness each day (“Forgive us ....”).  We need God’s protection each day as we pass through difficult situations and circumstances that threaten our sense of God’ love, presence, and strength (“Deliver us…”).  

But what happens when we pray and things don’t turn out right?  What happens when the disease isn’t cured?  What happens when the oppressors don’t go away?  How and why should we pray when things don’t change? 

According to Jesus, we are to “ask,” “seek,” and “knock.”   According to Jesus, when things don’t change the proper respond is not to give up on prayer, but to persist and persevere in prayer. 

It’s important that we remember that life with God is not like doing a search on Google.  We are accustomed to entering a search request on an Internet browser and within moments getting an answer to our question.  A few keystrokes are required to get the information we seek.  That isn’t how life works.

No!  Life is more like farming.  Farmers know better than to expect a harvest within a few days after they plant a field.  Farmers know that droughts happen.  Fields can be flooded by torrential rains.  Insects can ravage the best planned crop.  Farmers know about crop failure.  But they don’t quit farming.  They return to the work season after season, year after year, whether the crops are bumper or busted.  Farming is a better examples of the persistence and perseverance needed in prayer than is Google.

According to Jesus, don’t quit praying when the police won’t quit killing us and the politicians and judges won’t do anything about it.  Ask, then, seek, then knock.  Continue praying!  Continue asking!  Continue seeking!  Remember the farmers!

But Jesus adds “knock” to the instructions on how we should carry on when things don’t change as we need.  Jesus tells us to “knock.”  And in doing so, Jesus adds another metaphor for God by telling us to think of God as Friend, not Father only. 

·      Jesus tells us to knock on God’s door as we would knock on the door of a trusty friend in a time of need.
·      Jesus tells us to knock on God’s door and assures us that God will not be offended by our persistence.
·      Jesus tells us to knock on God’s door because we are needy children and friends of God.
·      Knock on God’s door because we are not strangers.
·      Knock on God’s door because we are not enemies of God.
·      Knock on God’s door because God is too good to ignore us. 
·      Knock on God’s door.

What does knocking on God’s door look like? 

It looks like Joshua and the Hebrew people parading around the walled city of Jericho every day. 

It looks like Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

It looks like black people in Montgomery, Alabama walking to work, school, and elsewhere for a year as they boycotted the racially segregated public bus system. 

Knocking on God’s door looked like Martin King refusing to stop demanding justice for poor people, working people, war-threatened people, and other oppressed people. 

Knocking on God’s door looks like Freedom Riders sitting at segregated lunch counters while being tormented, taunted, and threatened.

Knocking on God’s door looks like civil rights protestors walking onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.

Knocking on God’s door looks like people calling on God’s help as they demand that police officers who kill unarmed people be held accountable. 

Knocking on God’s door looks like people who refuse to quit complaining about income inequality, poverty, state sanctioned killing of unarmed people by police, and politicians who will not use their power to correct those ills. 

Jesus tells us to knock!  We do not knock to awaken God.  We do not knock to amuse God.  We do not knock to inform God.  We knock because we often face forces and situations that are not solved by softly uttered petitions. 

When politicians and judges will not hold police officers who mistreat and murder innocent people accountable, it’s time to knock.

When politicians will not stop sending people to risk death and sanity in military adventures begun in the name of empire, it’s time to knock.

When rich nations will not open their borders and hearts to help desperate refugees trying to escape death, violence, disease, and poverty, it’s time to knock. 

We knock because the situations for which we have asked and searched are not changing.  We knock because we believe God loves us.  We knock because we believe God is our Father and Friend.  We knock because we are not ashamed to be seen calling on God.  We knock because God is not offended by our insistent and persistent prayer. 

Jesus teaches us to pray believing that God will hear us.  God will come to our aid. God will make a way.  God will open doors.  God will set the captives free.  God will provide bread in a starving land. God will give water in our scorched places.  God will send friends to help us.  God will turn enemies back.  God will!  God will!  God will!

During the 250 year horrors of slavery in the United States slaves prayed for freedom.  They did not stop praying despite generations of slavery.  They asked, searched, and knocked on in prayer. 

Women prayed for the right to vote from the time the United States developed a government until 1920.  They prayed and marched.  They prayed and protested.  They prayed and carried signs.  They prayed and knocked.

Peace activists prayed for an end to war in Southeast Asia for scores of years.  They prayed despite troop buildups.  They prayed and protested bombing raids.  They prayed despite being called Communist sympathizers and cowards.  The peace activists prayed and knocked. 

Jesus taught us to pray, so let us do so.  Jesus taught us to trust that our prayers are heard by our Divine Parent and Friend, whose kingdom will come.  Jesus taught us to be persistent and insistent in prayer, so let us do so.  Beloved, let us boldly, honestly, and persistently pray with the assurance that God, our Divine Parent and Friend, is able and willing to meet our needs, come to our aid, and equip us to be people of divine love, peace, joy, truth, freedom, justice, and hope.


Amen.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A RESPECTFUL REJOINDER TO A MISTAKEN CALL

A RESPECTFUL REJOINDER TO A MISTAKEN CALL
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
Justice Is a Verb!
July 15, 2016

Robert Parham (executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics) wrote an editorial last week titled How the Church can Speak up for the Thin Blue Line for the July 12, 2016.  Parham wrote his editorial after he viewed and read remarks by Dallas Police Chief David Brown made during an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN after 5 Dallas law enforcement officers were slain the night of July 8.  During that interview, Chief Brown commended the courage of police officers, remarked that the national conversation about law enforcement “is not sustainable to keep these officers encouraged” given the risks they take and the low pay they earn, and called on “this country to stand up as a silent majority and show your support for these people to keep them encouraged to protect you.” 

Parham’s column asks, “How does the silent majority speak up about the unrelenting criticism of law enforcement?”  He then offers four responses:  (a) affirm moral critique; (b) respect those in authority—“law enforcement”; (c) practice discernment; and (d) avoid rush to judgment. In calling church people to “speak up for the thin blue line” by affirming moral critique, Parham asserts that nonviolent protest is legitimate, but adds that “too many protests are violent or threatening.”  He offered no example of a violent protest.  He offered no example of a “threatening” protest. 

Parham’s suggestions remind me of something Mark Twain famously said:  “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”   

Parham mentioned that during some nonviolent protests several people have been seen openly carrying firearms.  However, the jurisdictions where that happened permit firearms to be carried openly.  Doing something the law allows is not threatening, even if others (including police officers) prefer that one not do it.  What Parham knows (“too many protests are violent or threatening”) “just ain’t so.”

Parham’s call for respect for law enforcement asks “why not advocate respect for police officers.”   Police officers are respected.  However, none of us should confuse respect for the office of protecting the public with tolerance of systemic abusive and homicidal conduct by police: public outcry about that treatment is justified and should be commended, not scolded.  Law enforcement leaders and their sympathizers (including Parham) must not treat demands that abusive and homicidal police conduct be treated the same way society treats such treatment by civilians as signs of disrespect.  They are demands for justice. 

Parham’s exhortation that church people practice discernment borrows from Chief Brown’s comment that most police officers perform well, that one or two percent don’t, and that it is unfair to judge police officers as a whole based on the misconduct of a few.  That observation would be more persuasive if the “one or two percent” were held accountable for abusing and killing people. 

Police officers who engage in abusive and homicidal conduct are shielded by systemic practices and policies.  The killers of Alton Sterling (killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana July 5), Philando Castile (killed in Falcon Heights, Minnesota), Delrawn Small (killed by an off-duty police officer in Brooklyn, New York, and Alva Braziel (killed by police in Houston, Texas) were not arrested. They are not homicide suspects.  Parham’s call for discernment should have at least acknowledged that glaring reality. 

Parham urges that church people “be slow to speak” in keeping with the admonition that we avoid rushing to judgment.  In doing so he contends that “sensational video causes us to have a hair trigger tendency to rush to judgment…especially…in the age of social media.” 

Would Parham and Chief Brown suggest that church people pretend we don’t see our neighbors being gunned to death?  Would they suggest that our unarmed slain neighbors will somehow become armed and dangerous if we wait long enough?  What would they have us wait to see?  And why do the police and prosecutors treat video of bank robberies as sufficient evidence to arrest and charge thieves but insist that video of unarmed people being shot, choked, or beaten to death by police does not support arrest and prosecution of the killers who are police officers?

Like Parham, I read the transcript of Chief Brown’s interview with Jake Tapper.  Like Parham and many other people, I sensed and share his anguish and sorrow concerning the five police officers murdered in Dallas on July 8.  We should grieve.  We should denounce the homicidal actions that ended the lives of those public servants, spouses, fathers, neighbors, and friends.  We should grieve the homicidal actions that ended the lives or three more law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana since then. 

At the same time, we must also grieve the deaths of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, and every other unarmed person killed by the police.  Parham and Chief Brown said nothing about that reality.  In speaking about the safety concerns of police officers and their loved ones Chief Brown and Parham did not mention that the families of Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, and their neighbors worry whether their next encounter with a police officer will be deadly. Their refusal to do that is not only telling.  It is inexcusable. 

Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, Shantel Davis, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, Eugene Ellison, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd., Tanisha Anderson, Kendrick McDade, Lema Baker, Mike Brown, and the other unarmed people killed by the police mattered.  Their loved ones and neighbors matter.  Parham and Chief Brown have not said so. 

Followers of Jesus who know better should not heed their counsel.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

SIGNS OF SUMMER FRUIT

SIGNS OF SUMMER FRUIT
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
July 17, 2016 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

Amos 8:1-12
8This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit.*2He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’* Then the Lord said to me,
‘The end
* has come upon my people Israel;
   I will never again pass them by.

3 The songs of the temple* shall become wailings on that day,’
says the Lord God;
‘the dead bodies shall be many,
   cast out in every place. Be silent!’ 

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5 saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practise deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ 

7 The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

8 Shall not the land tremble on this account,
   and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
   and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 

9 On that day, says the Lord God,
   I will make the sun go down at noon,
   and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
   and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
   and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
   and the end of it like a bitter day. 

11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
   when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
   but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
   and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
   but they shall not find it.
 

         Dr. Melissa Browning teaches restorative justice at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.  She is a kindred activist for social justice who isn’t afraid to look honestly at the way we live and speak truth about it.  Dr. Browning has written a brilliant commentary on the lectionary text from Amos titled Death, Injustice, and a Basket of Fruit that appears today in ON Scripture – The Bible, a weekly online multimedia resource about current issues that includes insightful commentary.  Here are excerpts from her commentary on today’s lesson:

Things aren’t always what they seem…Generally speaking, a fruit basket is a wonderful, cheerful gift.  Strawberries, blueberries, plums – or in Amos’ case, ripe figs.  Everybody loves summer fruit.  It reminds us of picnics, and parks, and cookouts with friends.  But when God sent Amos a fruit basket, it came with a foreboding little note that proclaimed the end of the world. 
God always speaks through what we know, so God shows Amos a fruit basket to create a play on words.  The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is qayits but the word for “end” is qets.  Amos, what do you see?  God asks.  A basket of summer fruit [qayits], he says.  And then we hear the reply from the Lord, “The end [qets] has come upon my people Israel…”

In the stories of the prophets, there is often a clear cause and effect.  The passage continues by saying “dead bodies will be many, cast out in every place” because the people of God have trampled on the needy, they have been “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”  In the midst of dystopia [a situation where people are unhappy because they are treated unfairly], the prophets appear on the scene to make connections for the people, showing them how the sin they have shored up in systems of injustice is now directly linked to the violence and pain they are experiencing or will experience.

Cause and effect.  A simple concept we learned in elementary school with worksheets and classroom exercises.  And here we see it again in the prophets.  If we create a society that builds violence into systems, we will be left with dead bodies in the street.

We may not tend sycamore trees and we might not consider ourselves prophets, but we’ve seen dead bodies in the streets.

Philando Castile [Falcon Heights, Minnesota], Alton Sterling [Baton Rouge, Louisiana], [Delrawn Small, Brooklyn, New York (July 4)], [Alva Braziel, Houston, Texas (July 9)], police officers in Dallas [July 8], mass shootings in schools and night clubs and malls, the state sanctioned death of those on death row, kids who die from hunger in our own neighborhoods…everywhere we look, we find death.  Cycles of marginalization, violence, and retribution are playing out over and over and over again in our midst.

These things are painful to see.  In fact, those who walk through life with privilege might never see them at all.  But this is the task of people of faith – to see and to help each other see what is really there.  God isn’t sending us a fruit basket.  God is asking us to see the pain of the world.  God is asking us to respond by rooting out the injustice that causes it.

When we begin to look with eyes of faith, we see the connections.  Not the simple cause and effect we learned in elementary school, but a web of connections where injustices collide, creating not a culture of abundant life for all, but a reality that is dystopian [miserable] for some and a picnic for others.

When you trample those on the margins, Amos tells us, things will not go well for you.  The end of injustice is coming, whether or not you have eyes to see. Will we join God in heralding the arrival of justice?  Or will we stand in the way?

…We live in a culture where the state is allowed to kill and where people of color are imprisoned at levels that are unconscionable.  Are those who believe the death penalty and our prison system are just able to see the injustice of police violence [where people are killed without being arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and allowed to appeal what the state does to them]?  Mix this blindness with the blindness of racism and it’s no surprise that white Christians are more likely to say “all lives matter” rather than “black lives matter.”  It is no surprise that a recent PRRI study showed us that 80% of black Christians believe police-involved killings are part of a larger injustice while 70% of white Christians believe they were isolated incidents.

…In the wake of the horrific murders in Dallas, Shaun King reminded us that as we speak against the violence that took police officer lives, we must also admit that Micah Johnson is a product of the society we have created.  King uses the analogy of baking a cake as he talks about the bitter ingredients that formed our society – from the genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery to modern-day racism and a society that has more guns than people.  King then asks, “How did we expect this would turn out?  Did we sincerely think that we were going to pile bitter ingredients on top of each other for years on end and not get something what we see in Dallas right now?”[1]

…The prophets continue to call.  Do we see a basket of summer fruit, or dead bodies in the street?[2]

         So I put the question to you that God put to Amos.  What do you see when you look at this society?  Do you see a society built on justice?  Do you truly see a society that is “exceptional?”  Do you see a society that is a model to the world of fairness and opportunity for all?  Do you see summer fruit?

         If so, have you forgotten the dead bodies?  Have you forgotten that the wealth of this society is built on a foundation of dead bodies? 
·      Dead bodies of indigenous peoples.
·      Dead bodies of African slaves.
·      Dead bodies of workers (who have often been immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific Islands [including children]) who died while working in conditions that were plainly unsafe.
·      Dead bodies of the lynched.
·      Dead bodies of low income people who died in the military in service to this nation’s addiction to military adventures.
·      Dead bodies of people killed because we love guns more than we love peace.
·      Dead bodies of bullied LGBTQ persons.
·      Dead bodies in the street!

Do you see our signs of “summer fruit?”

         At Amos 8:7 we read:  “The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds, Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it…?’”  At verse 10 we read:  “I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”

The Fourth of July fireworks and festivities this year began a week of mourning.  Our national leaders called us to mourn five slain police officers, and we rightfully did so. 

But our leaders have not called us to mourn people like Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd,  Eugene Ellison, Monroe Isadore, Shantel Davis, Amadou Diallo, Tanisha Anderson, Kimani Gray, Troy Davis, Renisha McBride, Lema Baker, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, Jr. 

Our self-proclaimed “religious” nation has stubbornly refused to mourn and repent from its ongoing legacy of state-sanctioned injustice against marginalized people.  The rising death toll of people slain by police and our refusal to hold police who kill civilians accountable is proof that we remain unrepentant about state sanctioned injustice despite all the pleas we hear from people for “reconciliation.”  The people who now are calling for “reconciliation” must be reminded of a Biblical formula:  no repentance, no reconciliation!  Repentance must always happen first.  Only then can reconciliation begin.     

The “summer fruit” prophecy Amos was inspired to proclaim from God to Israel spoke of judgment by famine, but a different kind of famine.  The time is surely coming, says the LORD GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it [Amos 8:11-12]. 

Has our famine come? 

Despite meetings of police and community leaders and despite press opportunities like the one last week—where President Obama and other politicians pimped the pain of family members of people slain in police-involved killings—and despite everything else, we have not found the way to justice.  We have not found “the word of the Lord” for justice. 

Rev. Dr. Emile Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and a leading scholar in womanist ethics and liberation theology, writes about the result of our famine very clearly with these words. 

We are living in a world and a nation in which we have to say over and over again that #blacklivesmatter as we view the videos of Alton B. Sterling’s death at the hands of two Baton Rouge police officers or Philando Castile’s death at the hands of one police officer in Falcon Heights.  It’s a shame that Black folk and our allies have been saying this since this country became a republic and united itself around the notion of freedom.

But we began this on the bad foot of Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 that declared that, for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved Blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state.  Enslavement written into our founding document is something we have never fully reckoned with as a nation.  And we have been reaping this bad seed of a beginning ever since while trying to ignore the fact that we do not legally, politically, socially, or theologically practice the belief that all lives matter.[3]

Do we see the injustices, or are we blinded by privilege so much that all we can see is “summer fruit?” 

Do we see how this society has ignored the cries of marginalized and oppressed people since its beginning? 

Do we see how this society designed, constructed, financed, and continues systems of injustice? 

Do you see us wandering and seeking to find answers to mass murders, police-involved killings, mass incarceration, and so many other obvious social ills?

Do we see the signs of divine judgment on this society because of its rampant and systemic injustice? 

Has our famine come?

What do you see?   

Amen.



[1] SHAUN KING, Micah Johnson is the making of America’s own racist creation, NY Daily News, July 8, 2016.
[2] MELISSA BROWNING, Death, Injustice, and a Basket of Fruit, ON Scripture, July 17, 2016.
[3] EMILE TOWNES, The Problem We All Live With:  Bearing Witness, But Never Finding Justice, Religion Dispatches, July 10, 2016.