Sunday, July 10, 2016

LESSONS TO THE UNITED STATES FROM A PLUMB LINE

LESSONS TO THE UNITED STATES FROM A PLUMB LINE
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
July 10, 2016 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church
Little Rock, AR

Amos 7:7-17
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
   in the midst of my people Israel;
   I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
   and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
   and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’
 
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
   and Israel must go into exile
   away from his land.” ’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am* no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am* a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
16 ‘Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel,
   and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”
17 Therefore, thus says the Lord:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
   and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
   and your land shall be parcelled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
   and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” ’ 
Luke 10:25-37
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
         This sermon will ponder aloud the state of justice in the United States concerning violence by law enforcement agents in the aftermath of several recent terrible events. 

On July 4, Delrawn Small was shot to death in Brooklyn, New York by an off-duty police officer named Wayne Isaac. 

On July 5, Alton Sterling was shot to death in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after police officers grabbed him, forced him to the ground, and struggled with him.  Sterling was shot several times.

On July 6, Philando Castile was shot to death in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a community outside St. Paul, the capitol city of Minnesota. 

Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Delrawn Small were killed by police officers.  They were killed publicly.  They were killed while being where they had the right to be and doing what they had the right to do.  Their deaths occurred the week of the U.S. Independence Day holiday, the “Fourth of July.” 

The public outcry about their deaths was quick and wide spread.  Protest marches and demonstrations occurred.  Politicians, police agency leaders, and social justice advocates issued statements calling on people to be calm and peacefully await the outcome of official investigations surrounding these latest deaths of black people at the hands of police.

Then on the night of July 8, a black gunman targeted police officers during a peaceful protest march about police violence against black people in Dallas, Texas.  The gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, used a semi-automatic rifle to kill five white officers and wound several others before he was killed by police. 

These events should be pondered in the light of the Good Samaritan lesson found in Luke’s Gospel.  In that lesson, Jesus challenged a religious interrogator to understand that loving one’s neighbor as oneself requires that we recognize the plight of people who have been brutalized, victimized, and abandoned on the Jericho Roads of life. 

Make no mistake.  Poor people of all colors, and especially black, brown, and red people, fit the image of the assaulted, brutalized, robbed, and abandoned traveler who was left for dead on the Jericho Road in the Good Samaritan lesson when one examines the people killed by the police in the United States.  According to one survey (www.killedbypolice.net), 610 persons have been killed by police in the United States since January 1, 2016 as of yesterday (July 9, 2016).    148 of the dead have been black people.

The slain were summarily executed by government agents.  They were not sentenced to death by any court.  They were not convicted of crimes punishable by death by any judge or jury.  They were not charged with crimes punishable by death.  They were executed nonetheless. 

The murder of five Dallas, Texas law enforcement officers and wounding of several others by a black gunman on July 8 should and must be condemned.  Whenever anyone murders God’s children we must denounce the killing.  We must grieve the loss of life.  We must comfort mourning families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and other loved ones. 

Yet we should not be confused or deceived into believing that the Dallas murders expose some kind of national conspiracy among black people to kill police.  The Dallas, Texas murders deserve our heartfelt sympathy and support for the slain and wounded police officers and their loved ones.  The Dallas, Texas murders deserve our outrage about hatefulness towards white people and hatefulness towards white people in law enforcement.
 
But what happened in Dallas last Thursday night when one gunman used a semi-automatic rifle to murder and maim police officers is not the same as the deaths of 148 black people by police in the United States thus far during 2016.  What happened in Dallas on July 8 was that one gunman carried out a personal vendetta against white police officers.  He was wrong.  His conduct was murderous.  But Micah Xavier Johnson, the 25 year-old black man identified as the perpetrator of what happened in Dallas, did not represent the black community or black culture by his behavior. 

And we should not make the mistake of saying Micah Xavier Johnson received “justice” when he was killed Thursday night.  Micah Xavier Johnson was killed by police.  But he was not killed as part of any process of justice.  He was slain without having been sentenced.  He was slain without having been arrested.  Micah Xavier Johnson was slain because the police were unwilling to capture him alive after they cornered him. 

To admit that the lethal use of force against an armed and combative assailant was justified does not mean that using lethal force was justice.   Micah Xavier Johnson was not treated like a murder suspect to be apprehended, arrested, prosecuted, tried, convicted, and sentenced.  He was treated by a civilian police force the way an enemy combatant is treated in a war.  Let’s be intellectually honest and say so.

Whatever else is true, it is clear that Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile had done nothing to deserve being shot to death by police officers last week.  They had not attacked police officers.  They had not threatened police officers with lethal force.  They had not threatened anyone else with lethal force.  These black men were slain.  Their killers are known.  But their killers were not arrested.  Their killers have not been charged and released on bond.  Their killers are not awaiting arraignment. 

The consistent refusal to treat police officers who kill others under suspicious circumstances the same way society treats all other persons exposes an ugly reality about what passes for the criminal justice system in the United States.  And in that sense, it brings to mind the Old Testament lesson about the confrontation between the prophet Amos and the priest named Amaziah. 

Amos was a herdsman and farmer in Judah who somehow was inspired by God to travel to Israel and protest the widespread greed, corruption, economic violence, and materialism that defined life in Israel.  In today’s lesson, Amos (the prophet) was challenged by Amaziah (the priest) concerning a prophecy in which Amos declared that God had condemned Israel and its ruler, King Jeroboam, to downfall because of that widespread injustice. Amos had spoken of a vision in which God stood beside a wall while holding a plumb line. 

From antiquity builders have used plumb lines to make sure that vertical surfaces are straight.  Here is how one person explained its use in an Internet article I found while preparing this sermon.

In simplest form, a plumb line consists of a piece of string with a weight at the bottom, usually with a pointed tip. When you hang the line downward, the weight pulls the string taut and creates a straight, vertical line. For the reading to be accurate, the string must hang freely and the weight must be completely still. Because of this, plumb lines are only reliable indoors or on windless days.

Hammer a nail into the horizontal surface perpendicular to the surface you want to check. For example, to check if a wall stud is plumb, hammer a nail into the ceiling joist beside the stud. Drive the nail an inch or two away from the vertical surface you plan to check, for example the stud. Stand on a ladder if necessary.
Tie the top of the plumb line to the nail. Hang the weight down, making sure nothing is touching the string. Wait for the weight to stop swinging, or have a helper steady it to speed up the process. The weight should hang just shy of the floor so it is still in the air and can move freely.
Measure the distance from the vertical surface to the top of the string. Measure the distance from the vertical surface to the tip at the bottom of the weight. When the two measurements match, the surface is plumb. If not, adjust the surface until the measurements match.[1]

According to Amos, God had measured the difference in living conditions in Israel between those who lived at the top of society and those who lived at its base.  According to that divine measurement revealed in the vision to Amos, Israel’s notion of justice was “out of plumb.”  It was not straight!  And because the society had been “out of plumb” despite many divinely issued calls for correction, God had condemned the society.  You see, the only cure for an unevenly constructed wall—a wall that is “out of plumb”—is to knock it down and start over! 

Aaah!  Why should the United States be exempt from the “plumb line” judgment of God concerning police violence against poor, black, and brown people?  Why should the United States be judged righteous when it treats cop killers as murder suspects but treats cops who kill civilians as heroes?  God still has a plumb line!

Why should a society that treats the killers of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the more than 140 other black people slain by police this year as if they are above the law be considered just?  God still has a plumb line!

Like Amaziah, the priest of Bethel who sent word to King Jeroboam of Israel that Amos was threatening national security by his “plumb line” preaching, news media sycophants, politicians, and police sympathizers are treating the Black Lives Matter movement and other prophetic critics of the unjust way black, brown, red, and poor people are being abused and killed by the police as national security threats.

·      Like Amaziah, these people have religious respectability.  There are some preachers and other religious folks among them.
·      Like Amaziah, they are entrusted with moral authority. 
·      Like Amaziah, they have access to power. 
·      Like Amaziah, they have become infected by the forces and factors responsible for the glaring preferential treatment given people in law enforcement who abuse and kill others. 

And like Amaziah, they would rather silence Amos-like prophetic critics of that abusive and homicidal situation that is pervasive in law enforcement.  Like Amaziah wanted to silence Amos, the police sympathizers want to shut down the Black Lives Matter Movement.  Like Amaziah wanted to banish Amos, these people are trying to banish people for insisting that this nation and its law enforcement culture be judged according to God’s plumb line. 

But the judgment of the plumb line requires and deserves to be prophetically announced.  The God of the plumb line judgment knows that justice in this society is not straight.  The God of the plumb line knows how our society and leaders protect police who kill civilians.  God of the plumb line knows how people are disproportionately victimized, abused, and slain by people in law enforcement. 

The God of the plumb line knows our society has consistently, deliberately, and disproportionately behaved this way in its dealings with the Native Americans, in its dealings with Africans, in its dealings with Latinos, and in its dealings with poor white people. 

The God of the plumb line also knows the difference between Amaziah-like priests eager to apologize for and defend the mindset within the culture of law enforcement agencies that protects and perpetuates the inexcusable abuse and slaughter of civilians by police and Amos-like prophets who denounce what is happening.  Black Lives Matter Movement protesters are Amos-like prophets of God’s plumb line justice! 

Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile now join the constantly growing list of people killed by the police in the United States.  These children of God did not die accidental deaths.  They were slain!  Don’t get it twisted.  The conduct of Micah Xavier Johnson does not prove there is national conspiracy among black people to attack and kill the police.  The deaths of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile and the long and terrible history of black, brown, and poor people expose the culture within policing and the wider society that tolerates and defends police who terrorize, target, traumatize, and slaughter black, brown, and poor people. 

It is time for people with Amos-like vision to declare lessons to this nation from God’s plumb line.  This nation’s wall is tall, but it is not straight!  It is well moneyed, but not straight!  It is glorified by religious and media sycophants, but it is not straight!  It is not the same measurement at the top and bottom.  It is not straight on purpose.  The wall of justice in this society is deliberately out of plumb!

God knows our wall is not straight.  God knows we have refused and rejected appeals to straighten up.  God knows we’ve killed, ignored, and otherwise persecuted Amos-like prophets.  God knows we’ve concealed and shielded killers who were cops while imposing the most severe punishment against suspected cop killers such as Micah Xavier Johnson.  God knows.

And God knows how to fix a wall that is not straight.  God will bring the wall down.  God brought down the wall of slavery that was started at the birth of this nation and stood for more than 250 years.  The Civil War shows that God can bring a wall down!

God brought down the wall of Jim Crow segregation that was built on the ruins of the toppled wall of slavery.  It took another 100 years, but God brought Jim Crow’s wall down!

In the same way, God will demolish the evil system that tolerates, protects, and defends abusive and homicidal behavior by people in law enforcement!  God will bring the Amaziah-like prosecutors, judges, preachers, politicians, and pundits down!  And God will continue sending Amos-like prophets to declare the vision of God’s plumb line. 

Be God’s Amos-like people!  Speak God’s judgment against this crooked wall!  In the name of the plumb-line holding God, demonstrate against the wall.  Denounce the wall.  Protest the wall and those who would preserve, defend, and support it.  Oppose and defeat the prosecutors and judges who prop up this crooked wall.  And know that God will demolish this wall!

Amen.



[1] Stephanie Mitchell, How to use a plumb line, http://homeguides.sfgate.com/use-plumb-line-48561.html.

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