Like many toddlers, Griffin could be quite stubborn and willful. He didn’t like being told “no” and he didn’t like being told what to do. When we tried to correct disobedient behavior, he would get an indignant look on his little face and retort, “Don’t say that to me. I already know that. ” Then we would have to get into a whole side conversation about being polite and respectful.
I wouldn’t be surprised if your reaction to the scripture reading today was “Don’t say that to me.”
We could be listening to a message about dutiful Martha and soulful Mary right now – that was the gospel text for this week – but the increasing levels of racial conflict and gun violence in the past few weeks wouldn’t allow me to take the easy way out.
When we look at the state the world is in, when we become overwhelmed by media reports of war, gun violence, bigotry, poverty and exploitation, we might want to respond with sorrow, rather than indignation, “Don’t say that to me. I already know that.” Leaders plead for civility, unity, human dignity and human kindness, but they’re either preaching to the choir – “we already know that,” or their words fall on deaf ears. – “I don’t want to hear it” as the powerful prey on white anger and the fear that we may lose our privileged status even as we deny its existence.
Perhaps it was in such an economic and social climate that Amos spoke. He delivers a message from God, the kind of wrathful, punishing God that makes a lot of us avoid the Hebrew Scriptures – we don’t want to hear it. It’s a difficult and prophetic message – prophetic not in the sense of predicting the future, but in the sense of speaking truth to power. God is speaking directly to a certain group of people through Amos. Amos addresses them directly – “you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” The tramplers and ruin-bringers can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so they can get back to cheating and exploiting the poor. They sell them the “sweepings of the wheat,” empty chaff and dirt along with a few stray grains of wheat from the threshing room floor. They practice deceit with false balances, putting their thumbs on the scales to make the ephah small and the shekel great. Their greed amounts to buying the poor for silver, Amos says, and selling the needy for a pair of sandals. It might be hard to hear, but according to Professor of Social Ethics at Yale Divinity School Willis Jenkins, Amos’s rhetoric is intended to overwhelm, and in doing so depicts how social evil has overwhelmed God’s people. Amos’s almost unthinkable images dramatize an almost unthinkable situation: a world in which God’s words cannot be heard.
The oppressors and the oppressed, the dominant class staying on top at the expense of others – it’s an old, old story. We already know that. Don’t say that to us. We know it, we disagree with it, even deplore it, but somehow it doesn’t change. What inconvenient truths would the prophet Amos confront us with today? The high school graduation and incarceration rates of people of color in our nation? The prevalence of firearms – not just handguns and hunting rifles, but assault weapons, .50 caliber rifles, and large-capacity ammunition magazines? Politicians who serve themselves and their wealthy patrons instead of the people who elected them? CEO’s who accumulate wealth on the backs of underpaid laborers?
We don’t want to hear that God told Amos, “The songs of the temple shall become wailings,” but it has already come to pass – in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; in the threefold increase in threats, harassment and vandalism at U.S. mosques, in the mass shooting that killed nine people gathered for prayer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the 21st century, few people find the prospect of being unable to hear God’s word as an unthinkable calamity. We’re alienated by the self-righteousness of those who claim to speak for God, and appalled by the actions of those who use religious hegemony as a tool of violence and hate. But is a world devoid of connection to Divine Love, Divine Wisdom, Divine Compassion really what we’re seeking? Last week here at Pilgrim we heard the word of God and the word was love – love God, love neighbor, love self. Another prophet of the Hebrew scriptures, Micah, boils it down to, “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
After the shootings of police officers in Texas, Rev. Traci Blackmon, The UCC's Acting Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries wrote: Ultimately, the guns used to kill those 5 officers last night and wound 6 more and 1 civilian and the guns used to kill Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, 49 mostly black and latino people who were LGTBQ at Pulse in Orlando, and the 9 people in bible study in Charleston were loaded by our common enemies, fear and hate. This same ammunition is responsible for the bombing of mosques and the burning of churches. This same ammunition fuels the escalating levels of death in our nation's streets as a result of communal violence. Irrational fear and hatred that nurses at the breast of a nation increasingly divided against itself. We must mourn them all because we are all connected. And we must find our way back to love. Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love. Love is our only hope.
The problems seem massive, insurmountable, but surely there are more ways to stand up for peace and justice than there are ways to destroy them. Who are the prophetic voices of today? The Black Lives Matter movement. White allies who challenge us to dismantle white privilege. The President of the United States holding a Town Hall meeting about race on national television. The Democrats in the House of Representatives sitting on the floor of the chamber singing “We Shall Overcome” to protest the lack of sensible gun legislation in our nation. One hundred and fifty Christians surrounding a mosque in College Station, Texas to form a human wall of support two days after shots were fired at the mosque.
You’ve heard the expression, “actions speak louder than words”? A prophetic action can speak more eloquently than a prophetic word. What do you imagine God expects the tramplers and ruin-bringers of ancient Israel to do? Start showing up for worship and paying lip service to the law, all the while counting the hours until they can hawk their wares and increase their wealth? Scripture tells us that we are called to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. To love self, neighbor and the divine source of all. To seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly alongside the Creator who has given us the potential to make life an earthly heaven or an earthly hell.
We are called to restore the marginalized, to provide comfort for the ill and addicted, to shelter the homeless, to disarm the violent and live every day as citizens of the culture of God.
The problems seem massive, insurmountable What can we do?
Work to eliminate gun violence in our nation. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence suggests:
- Follow gun violence prevention organizations on email or social media
- Get educated about the issue
- Pledge to only support and vote for candidates who support stronger gun laws
- Contact your legislators
- Volunteer with a local gun violence prevention group
- Attend legislative hearings and testify
- Make a financial contribution to gun violence prevention
Become a white ally:
- Have difficult conversations with people you care about in ways that move the discussion forward instead of shutting down, getting loud or writing them off
- Acknowledge that white privilege exists, and that we benefit from it
- Participate by marching, protesting, donating – whatever actions you are able to take in your situation
Last month the United Church of Christ presented a series of webinars on white privilege. They were scheduled every day for five days in a row at 1pm. I don’t know if you heard about them or not. My primary thought was “how can I arrange to sit and watch something online every day at 1 in the afternoon for a whole week? I don’t have time for this.” Somehow I have time to stream a TV show or movie on my computer almost every day, but never mind that. It turns out that the webinars are free and available to view anytime from the Center for Progressive Renewal. They’ve made it so convenient I’ve run out of excuses. I have made a commitment to myself to view the webinars by the end of August. Later this summer the UCC will release an adult education curriculum called “White Privilege – Let’s Talk,” designed to invite safe, meaningful, substantive conversations on race. Will we act? Will we join the conversation? Will we invite others?
Even in such a time as this, when people of different ethnicities are murdering each other in the streets, when there are more guns than people in the United States, hope remains. Why would we experience the lack of God’s words as famine, why would we seek the voice of God, if death and destruction were the last word, if life wasn’t stronger than death, if love wasn’t stronger than hate? Beloved, the improbable good news is that even in the midst of the prophetic call there is blessing, even such a time as this:
Blessing in a Time of Violence by Jan Richardson
Which is to say this blessing is always.
Which is to say there is no place this blessing does not long to cry out
in lament, to weep its words in sorrow, to scream its lines in sacred rage.
Which is to say there is no day this blessing ceases to whisper into the ear of the dying, the despairing, the terrified.
Which is to say there is no moment this blessing refuses to sing itself into the heart of the hated and the hateful, the victim and the victimizer, with every last ounce of hope it has.
Which is to say there is none that can stop it, none that can halt its course, none that will still its cadence, none that will delay its rising, none that can keep it from springing forth from the mouths of us who hope, from the hands of us who act, from the hearts of us who love, from the feet of us who will not cease our stubborn, aching marching, marching until this blessing has spoken its final word, until this blessing has breathed its benediction in every place, in every tongue: Peace. Peace. Peace.