Ferguson, MO and Isaiah 64:1-2

Thanks to Rozella White, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Director for Young Adult Ministry, for her November 24th FB post on the ELCA Clergy page calling forth commentary and protest concerning the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson grand jury decision. I wrote the following in preparation to preach (in English and Spanish) on Sunday, November 30, 2014 at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, Texas. What follows is not a word-for-word transcript of my preaching that day (preaching is, or at least should be, a “live event”), but the basis of my thinking for what went into the message that became vocalized.

Almost 30 years ago, I lived for two years in South America. Not only did I learn Spanish and get a thorough introduction to generalized Latino culture, I also learned what was to be one of my main vocational callings: to be a missionary to white folks. Missionary, of course, is an old-fashioned word. It’s meaning, however, is still pertinent in the 21st century world. It’s my mission to bring an important message to people with whom I share common experience and understanding. It’s not that I’m superior to those receiving the message or endowed with special talents; initially and significantly transformed by what I saw and experienced in Perú, that transformation continues as I’ve worked in dual language ministry for close to 25 years in Texas.

2019 will mark the bleak 400th anniversary of the beginnings of slavery in the territory of what is now the United States. Slavery came to an official end in 1865, but its effects still linger. Unarmed Africans/blacks have suffered – including death – under the power and hegemony of whites in these lands since 1619 when the first African slaves came to colonial Jamestown. Michael Brown’s case is sadly a continuing thread in a long narrative. Where I live – Austin, Texas – Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man, was killed during a struggle with white police officer Charles Kleinert in July of 2013. Kleinert has subsequently been indicted for the death of Jackson; his trial has yet to start. Austin – the city that oozes cool vibe with all of its events and attractions – has had a number of similar incidents in the past decade where unarmed young men of color (yes, some involved in criminal activity) have lost their lives on the other side of a police weapon.

Thankfully we live in an ordered society, buttressed by law. Police forces are a necessary part of that order derived from law. We are grateful for those who serve in law enforcement, yet we also recognize that a society that has a long history of prejudice and racism, such as ours, can produce a jaundiced law and order. An order based in injustice is no order at all for a class of persons deprived of power. The power of the dominant race or class must be kept in check; power without accountability leads to domination. Ferguson, Missouri is a community of some 21,000 souls – almost 70% black and 30% white. Its police force of fifty-three consists of three black officers and fifty white officers. Ferguson is one of many ethnically minority communities in the US policed by majority white forces.

I’ve heard white folks say over the years: “Slavery is a distant memory – can’t they (blacks) get over it already?” “The civil rights era has helped transform American society – enough with the protests and riots.” “Now that we have a black president, it’s an equal playing field for all and the age of affirmative action should be over.”

This society has made great strides, socially, over the centuries. Yet, the further we go forward, new light shines to expose many other issues and concerns that need attention and correction. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr proclaimed decades ago, there is progress as time marches forward, a progress in both human potencies – evil and good. Many things are much better than they used to be, but not all things. America is not yet a society devoid of prejudice or racism.

Many people – not just whites – are upset that some in Ferguson responded to the no indictment decision of November 24th with protests and riots that included the burning of buildings and destruction of property. More than a generation ago, non-violence prophet Martin Luther King Jr. condemned riots as self-defeating and socially destructive. However, he also understood why an oppressed minority would resort to rioting: he called it the voice of the unheard.

Isaiah 64:1-2, similarly, is the loud and strong call of a minority voice in search of justice. Here’s a concept that is very difficult for many white American Christians to grasp and understand. Bible stories and histories are told in a minority voice – a voice that lacked societal power in the days of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans. The Israelites and the early Christians that speak, respectively, in the Hebrew and Christian testaments did not speak from a place of political, social, or economic power. They spoke from a place of minority status. Isaiah 64 – from the heart of Israel’s Babylonian exile in the 6th century before Christ – is only understood from a minority perspective, a perspective with which many white Americans are unfamiliar.

“Would that you rip open the heavens and come down!” Exile had ripped apart Israel socially and economically. Israel was justifiably mad at Babylon, God, and itself. The raw anger of the prophet’s voice is undeniable. Many of us – regardless of skin color and socio-economic status – have felt this same type of rage and anger as individuals when suffering through one of life’s many tragedies: loss of a loved one, divorce, an injustice. I remember when my three children were quite young, and the personal feeling of parental responsibility that burdened my heart. I can remember feeling potential rage toward God if anything were to happen to one or all of them. Was I justified in pre-loading my anger toward the heavens? Of course not – but sometimes rage is our only recourse when we are confronted with an event that overpowers us (or in my case, the fear of its overpowering potential). Every single one of us, most likely, can personally relate to such a scenario.

The prophetic voice in Isaiah 64, however, was not an individual voice. It was a voice that spoke for the people – for the community. It was a shared experience – the pain, indignation, and humiliation of exile. And here’s where the understanding of Isaiah 64 gets difficult for American whites (defining the term as those who have at least two or three generations of forebears in the country; the circumstances of immigrants – regardless of color – are fraught with obstacles). For more than 400 years, America has been a society where the locus of social power has resided with whites. Barring isolated individual cases, whites as a people have not experienced the social trauma involved with racial bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. When my son – blonde and blue-eyed – was growing up in Austin, Texas, I didn’t sit him down and tell him the dos and don’ts of dealing with police officers. Maybe I should have done so, but it never occurred to me at the time. Do black and Latino parents – who are my co-workers and neighbors – have the same experience with their sons and daughters? They do not – I have verified it in conversation with them – and out of necessity they have to have the conversation of conduct in the presence of law enforcement with both their daughters and sons.

We who are law-abiding white folks have lived our whole lives under and within a system that, generally speaking, has worked. Go to school, work hard, and stay out of trouble is an effective formula for many. We need to understand, however, the very same formula and system has not worked the same way for many of our minority brothers and sisters. Black men are six times more likely to be jailed than white men. The poverty rate hovers around 25% for blacks (as it does for Latinos) and only 10% for whites. It is time not only to question a system that works for some and not for all, but to change it.

The season of Advent would have it no other way. “Oh, that you would come down and fix our very lives and the structures that govern them, O Lord!” For too long, we in the American church have been complacent with the message of Jesus’s coming among us as one only of personal redemption for personal sin. This is to be expected from a majority voice comfortable with the system as is. We confine Jesus’s work to the personal realm, and rob the larger society in which we live of the message’s greater effect. Jesus was and is a missionary to this world; his message is life-changing not just for individuals, but for people groups and societies. This Advent, let us see with new eyes and hear with new ears – Jesus comes not just to save us from our personal sin, but to take on societal sin and its consequences as well. He comes that joy, peace, and hope be real not just for some, but for all. God’s kingdom will have it no other way. Amen.

 

These blog posts reflect the views that I share in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, published in May 2014. It’s available at all the usual haunts, including Amazon. I write under the pen name T. Carlos Anderson; click here to read the humorous and entertaining story about the genesis of the unique pen name.

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under Commentary

12 responses to “Ferguson, MO and Isaiah 64:1-2

  1. Arlin Buyert

    Tim, a very powerful (and educational) piece and I thank you. Arlin.

  2. Norb and Geanie Firnhaber

    Tim, a prophetic piece. With your credibility. Am sending it to others. See you tomorrow as my class is concluded. It’s the kind of blog that gives me a “wish I had written that” feeling.

    Norb

    >

  3. Norb and Geanie Firnhaber

    A good friend, an ELCA pastor in Austin, preached this yesterday. Thought it to be splendid and prophetic. Yes, Advent is also a time for repentance as we know. I also preached yesterday, but I’m afraid not as pertinently.

    Norb

    >

  4. Dave Marasus

    Comments by Dave

    The laws we have today are for all people, and don’t have a color connection! Let’s have everyone abide by the laws first, and the color problems will go away!!

    Comments by Dale Meyer of The Meyer Minute.

    Ferguson and its aftermath of destruction, protests, everyone convinced of their opinion…

    “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down.” Many of us heard those words from Isaiah 64 yesterday in church. Oh, yes! Part of me is so tired with so much in this life.

    The President issues an executive order on immigration. The House sues the President on his implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Pick a network to feed you what you want to hear.

    “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence.”

    ISIS, terror cells in America, dirty bombs, feckless Europe…

    “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides You, who acts for those who wait for him.” O Lord, we’re waiting. How long before You come down and establish righteousness?

    I say that because I want to be vindicated for my beliefs and life. I presume that you do too. We want Him to show up publicly and say, “Well done” (Matthew 25:21, 23). But Isaiah goes on – this is important – “Behold, You were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (Isaiah 64:5) It’s fine to yearn for vindication but it carries the temptation of self-righteousness. Truth is, we’re all in this broken humanity together. “We are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all Your people” (Isaiah 64:8-9).

    Let’s welcome one another to Advent, and each pray that He come down and get into my heart and yours.

    • Dave – Thanks for taking the time to read the post. Appreciated. I hope you continue to read and interact with the blog.
      I think Pastor Meyer does a good job of explaining the whole (lectionary) text. In my preached message, I also covered the culpability issue of the Israelites – meaning me and you, too.
      Two issues remain, however, which I’ll reemphasize: 1) the challenge of our faith being more than my personal relationship with God through Christ. Are “we all” God’s people or is it (as Dale alludes to) just those who are of the same mind/politics/opinions? It’s really tough work (as it has always been) to interact and dialogue with those who differ with us. But, it’s imperative in today’s world that we do so. To see all people as God’s takes a lot of discipline and grace. 2) Most laws are good, only a relative few are not. It’s more so, as in the case of Ferguson, the application of the laws by those in power. If you have Latino or black friends, a conversation with them about these issues would be a good idea. If your friendship circles are only similarly-minded white folks (I assume you are white by the opinions you express), the status quo is simply perpetuated.
      I’m under the impression that our God is not the god of status quo continuation . . .

      • Johnleavesnoemailalas@yahoo.com

        “To see all people as God’s”

        Could you elaborate on what this means in practice, thanks.

      • John – Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to respond. It is appreciated. If you’re interested in telling me a bit more about yourself and how you came across the blog, that would be appreciated as well.
        I understand the phrase “To see all people as God’s” on two levels, with subsequent consequences. The first level is simply a matter of God as creator of us all. That’s pretty basic for those of us who are Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. In practice it means we respect life and people as creation’s greatest gift – and we know where the gift comes from. Scriptures that support such reasoning are basic ones, such as Psalm 24:1 and Colossians 1:16.
        The second level is a bit more sublime, based in a theological understanding (I am a Lutheran) that God’s love in Christ trumps all other considerations. In the blog post I refer to “discipline and grace” being necessary to put this mindset into practice. We’re not necessarily talking about eternal destiny (which is ultimately in God’s hands), but we’re talking about earthly living and interaction with others. Yes, we all need to protect ourselves and our loved ones and not walk about naively in a sometimes conflicted and dangerous world. Part of following Jesus, though, is to be (like he was) socially egalitarian – meaning, all people are seen as being made in God’s image and all people are our brothers and sisters.
        This cuts against the grain of a lot of what passes to be good religion – in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other systems – where the “us versus them” mentality rules, and is the cause of wars, terrorism, and grand portions of human suffering.
        I like Romans 12:1-2 which calls for transformed understandings – such as the primacy of love – to take Christ’s followers beyond the status-quo.

  5. Jud Smith

    As usual, Pastor Tim, your views champion the expansion of the common good. Over the past several months, since reading your excellent book, “Just a Little Bit More”, I have gained a better appreciation of this quest. It is a perspective which has caused me, personally, to interrogate my mind and my heart and challenge long-held beliefs. On this issue of Ferguson and the greater issues of prejudice and bigotry in America, I have mixed feelings. Perhaps those feelings are mixed because of my whiteness and perhaps it is my sense of justice, warped as it might be. What was it about the grand jury’s decision that seemed to violate the rule of law? Was there dereliction of duty? Were they duped? In the context of the greater cultural conflagration – centuries of prejudice in America – I suppose this could be considered one more piece of kindling on the fire. But, given the facts as I know them, I don’t see it. Still, hundreds of blacks in Ferguson decided this non-verdict justified ripping a town apart, looting and acts of random violence. As you point out even MLK understood that rioting was not the solution to effecting change. in 1994 O.J. Simpson was acquitted of a double murder of two white people. A jury of his “peers” (I won’t go there now) found him not guilty despite the preponderance of evidence. Did whites take to the streets of Brentwood, burning buildings, looting stores, overturning police vehicles? No. But then whites have not suffered centuries of prejudice in America. Perhaps that is the justifiable difference, but I don’t see that either. While I won’t go as far as Dave (above) and say that if blacks only abide by the law, the race problems will go away, I will say that for there to be any hope that race problems will go away, we all need to abide by the laws of our land. Police, whites, blacks – everyone.
    And, of course, a huge dose of Jesus at this Advent season, will help too. Jud Smith

    • And, as always, thanks for your well pondered and considered responses, Jud, including this one. It’s tough on both sides of the ethnic divide (I don’t like to use that last word, but we still got plenty of it) in 21st century USA. The day you submitted your response we had another no indictment verdict (NYC) and the funeral of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the 12 year-old boy tragically killed by police fire. After seeing a picture (New York Times article) of the air-soft (toy) pistol that the boy had with him, it makes for an even murkier situation. The maker of that “toy” pistol (somewhere in the middle of China, right?) needs to be held accountable. Kind of like the old Dan Ackroyd character on SNL selling bags of broken glass . . .
      God bless our police – we work with a great officer by the name of Ray (last name withheld) Monday nights at our food pantry put on by area Lutheran churches. What a difficult job the police have; yet, it’s pretty obvious some type of racial awareness/sensitivity training that goes beyond what has been done up to now is necessary. As you allude to, can we get the Palestinian rabbi of 2,000 years past to lead it?

  6. Johnleavesnoemailalas@yahoo.com

    “Thankfully we live in an ordered society, buttressed by law.”

    Indeed. Our society got to where it is thanks to the rule of law and the foresight of the founding fathers to separate state/religion and the law.

    So why bring religion into it, isn’t it counter productive? The law should be applied to all, equally. That’s it. Getting into religion in this sense is dangerous because it’s usually done with cherry picking of specific examples while ignoring various facts like how in various religions love of our fellow men is just for those who have the same beliefs as we do and not to all man kind. The notion that all humans are equal and should be treated as such is secular and again we have to thank the genius of the founding fathers for understanding this.

    ” It is time not only to question a system that works for some and not for all, but to change it.

    The season of Advent would have it no other way. “Oh, that you would come down and fix our very lives and the structures that govern them, O Lord!””

    Instead of hoping and praying that someone else fixes it for us, we should acknowledge the problem, think about it, and fix it ourselves.

    Maybe start with the fact that most churches are segregated and ask why.

    Would the majority of Christian White Policeman treat a white atheist the same as they would treat a white christian? Of course not.

    Focus should be on strengthening the rule of law and reducing corruption. Everything is built on that.

  7. Johnleavesnoemailalas@yahoo.com

    “John – Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to respond. It is appreciated. If you’re interested in telling me a bit more about yourself and how you came across the blog, that would be appreciated as well.”

    You are possibly the wisest person I came across so I found my way here. I don’t know much about religion(s) so if you find any of my comments as improper feel free to not post them or delete it. Absolutely understandable.

    “I understand the phrase “To see all people as God’s” on two levels, with subsequent consequences. The first level is simply a matter of God as creator of us all.”

    OK, so this is clear.

    ” Part of following Jesus, though, is to be (like he was) socially egalitarian – meaning, all people are seen as being made in God’s image and all people are our brothers and sisters.”

    Does this include people who believe that our own beliefs are wrong? And if I believe what I believe, isn’t it my responsibility to save other people from going to hell? (sorry for the simplistic questions). If we accept all religions is equal than what is the sense of my own religion? Surely other than politically correct thinking we all think and believe that our own religion is the one and only true one. Isn’t the Bible full of examples of vengeful and violent behavior against people who question God or believe in other Gods? Why should we be any different? We should do what we can to help black American because peace and calm is our incentive — does the Bible have anything in this form of thinking? Thanks, and again feel free to not post this if this is not the place to write it.

    • Again, thanks for your interest, John. You ask pertinent questions. I’ll give a general response hoping that it covers most of what you are asking . . .
      What would it be like if we took the heaven/hell question out of the equation? I’m one of many religious leaders today of the opinion that the heaven/hell (something in the future that is, essentially, out of our control) fixation sometimes works against what Jesus called us to. To the contrary, Jesus said “one day at a time” and “seek first God’s kingdom and his justice and all these other things will be taken care of.” Jesus’s words more so focus on how we treat one another in God’s name and how we love one another in the world today. Heaven can wait, as the phrase goes, and eternity is in God’s hands and when the time comes – God will do what God promises. In the meantime, even though it can be really difficult at times – here on earth – we are called to share love without discriminating. Happy and joyous love, tough love, and love behind the scenes for which its recipients don’t even know about – this is what we are to be about as Christ’s followers.
      The 9/11 terrorists, in part, did what they did because they believed they had the promise of paradise waiting for them. Moderate Muslims rightly call the 9/11 terrorists “extremists.” They weren’t focused on peace (which for Muslims is paramount as is love for Christians) – just as extremist Christians in this country calling themselves the KKK weren’t/aren’t focused on love.
      As we both know, religion has been and is the cause of much good and much that isn’t good in this world. It does some of its best good when it brings peoples (who are different) to greater acceptance and love one of another. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 3:8). Love, compassion, and service are the highest form of religious expression. Whether it be a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or _____ (fill in the blank) involved in these acts of highest expression – thanks be to God.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s