You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. — Maya Angelou
Dear Members of “the Fellowship community,”
We live in a precious time, a time of COVID-19 pandemic and a time when thousands of people across the globe are audaciously calling for an end to police brutality, symptomatic of an oppressive, racist society. Pope Francis has joined the chorus declaring racism a sin. Individual police officials, other city officials, and faith leaders have knelt in solidarity with protesters, young and old. Much of the lethargy I have felt during shelter-in-place has lost its grip.
Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is observed 50 days after Easter. This day in Christian or Church History is considered the day the Church was born. Many of you are probably familiar with the account in Acts in which a great wind swept through Jerusalem igniting tongues of the 120 people gathered in a house and the thousands who were in the streets for the annual Jewish Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: תועובש Shavuot). The diverse people began to speak in different languages. Peter was inspired and after his sermon, we are told, 3,000 people confessed their faith in Christ, were baptized, and the Church was born.
There is another account that is not as dramatic, but just as amazing and perhaps more grounding and affirming. It is a more laid-back, softer account. It too takes place in a house in Jerusalem where the disciplines had self-quarantined because they were “dis- eased,” afraid and justifiably so. Their teacher and leader, Jesus, had been executed by law enforcement officials. Why? Because he had dared to challenge their authority over the lives of the disinherited. Why, because he had talked about and devoted his life to an alternative way of living that threatened the very foundation of Roman imperialism. He put forth the idea of another kingdom, the kin-dom of God, of Heaven.
“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited…. It is a climate closing in; it is like the fog in San Francisco or in London. It is nowhere in particular yet everywhere. It is a mood which one carries around with himself, distilled from the acrid conflict with which his days are surrounded. It has its roots deep in the heart of the relations between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of environment and those who are controlled by it…. It is what is feared by the rabbit that cannot ultimately escape the hounds.” (Howard Thurman)
Certainly, they wondered if their own lives were at risk. Would they be next? I imagine they had thoughts like those penned two millennia later in James Baldwin’s message to Angela Davis: “if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” The door of the house was locked, but Jesus somehow, without unlocking the door, appeared inside the room and greeted his despairing students with the words: “Peace Be with You.” He continued to speak clarifying that it is their responsibility to keep going what he was unfolding while living among them, radical love. They were to continue to interrupt the “normal,” to bring those on the margins, the edges, those “chronically crushed” into the center of focus and care. Then the scripture says that Jesus: “breathes on them.”
This is reminiscent of the Genesis 2 passage that states: “God breathed into their nostrils and they became living souls.” They became humanity. They became human. It is the breath of God that animated the unliving into living. And, this creative, enlivening act occurs with each birth, including the birth of George Floyd. It was the breath of God on loan to George Floyd that was suffocated after nearly nine minutes of pressure where an innocent body part, the knee, was transformed into a lethal weapon. When the breath leaves, death follows. When George Floyd, as Eric Garner before him, choked out the words: “I can’t breathe, “ he was saying: “I am dying.” The breath of God was dying, being snatched away. Can there be any thing more heinous, more diabolical than to have the ability to save a dying person and refuse to do so, especially when you are the source of the impending death. Surely, this act “stinks in the nostrils of God.”
Anyone who saw the video should have been shaken to the core by such ruthless callousness. And, people of the nation and world have responded in protest, that action that argues against despair. Wendell Berry says:
The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope – and thus has hope, even if only a little.” He continues: “We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements….”
Surely, the human spirit had to protest in some way, must recoil, must affirm its own vitality in some form. Yes, lamentation was in order. Yes, I believe that the various protests and the prolonged, widespread nature of them influenced the change in the charge against Derek Chauvin to the more serious count of second-degree murder and the arrest and indictment of the other officers involved, “guilt bystanders” (Thomas Merton). St. Augustine said: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the same.”
Dr. Allan Boesak, prophetic leader in the anti-apartheid movement says: “Hope is the womb in which all these struggles are conceived and nurtured, and out of which they are all born into the world for the healing of the world . . . it is interrupted but resilient hope. . . . This hope reveals the violence and injustices at work in the systems of our world and calls for our solidarity with those robbed of hope by the brutal powers of this world, domination and oppression even as its reveals the righteousness of the strength of those who struggle and live in hope. That hope is frequently interrupted by the ruthlessness of the powers of domination and oppression. What is real is the hope that refuses to be broken, ignored, or denigrated – the hope that inspires to action.“. . . “Every new struggle for justice renews that hope; every struggle for justice is renewed by that hope, and every step in dignity is renewed by the audacity to hope.”
Berry provides an unusual perspective: “What we do need to worry about is the possibility that we will be reduced, in the face of the enormities of our time, to silence or to mere protest. … Protest that endures. . . is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
An email landed in my box from a well-respected interfaith champion for justice. In it he called on white people to stand with the pain that the African American community was facing. I do understand the intent of the email; and a question reared in my mind. Is the pain of the African American community not also the pain of white people? It is only when white people can feel the pain themselves that sustained movement to Beloved Community is realistic. It is only when the other can feel the pain of the other that healing and reconciliation truly begin. Replying to the question of what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded: “You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with your whole mind. This is the greatest and chief command. There is a second like it: you must love your neighbor as yourself.” That is, you must give God all you’ve got and quit having boundaries of help. To clear up any confusion he recited the story of the Samaritan that gave what he could for the healing of one brutalized, discarded, and left to die. Through his actions he breathed the breath of life into that man and revived the man’s life, returned the man to wholeness, to health. The pain of the man became his pain. Love entails taking one out of the category of “other.”
George Floyd was a victim of breathing while Black as were Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Aiyana Mo’Say Stanley-Jones, Amadou Diallo, Joel Acevado, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Tanisha Anderson, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Sean Monterrosa, and others. And, if we are to truly respond to his murder, we must work for profound social change, realizing policing forces have a beginning in slave patrols, bringing runaway slaves back to captivity. The Black Panther Party understood something very important. The need for policing forces is diminished when people have adequate education, housing, food security, employment. In 1966 under the leadership of Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Freedom Budget was proposed that addressed those realities, including a guaranteed annual income and the needs of the disinherited as our nation’s highest budget priority, the things that make for security and peace.
I believe this is a propitious time in the journey of this nation, a pivotal opportunity, perhaps even a kairotic moment, when the God of Life is breaking into history, into our time, our hearts with a plea, demand, call to us to get it right. I assert with Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The breathed upon, revitalized students of Jesus formed a community of love, not sentimental love. It was a love that was empowering, dangerous, daring, engaging, enlivening, revitalizing, inviting, revolutionary. They were no longer afraid of what would happen to them. They created a community where none was hungry or unclothed, that did not need policing, for they shared all they had with one another. And, this is our legacy. It is the legacy of faith communities. It is our time to make real the promises of our nation. Our Co-Minister, Dr. Kathryn L. Benton, makes it plain: “Stepping up to this, our responsibility, is what is needed now. The time for waiting is past.”
“When we go before God, God will ask, “Where are your wounds?” And we will say, “I have no wounds.” And God will ask, “Was there nothing worth fighting for?” – Allan Boesak