We’re constantly finding our oldest son reading in the most surprising places.
We’re constantly finding our oldest son reading in the most surprising places.
A president has been elected for whom money is god, for whom celebrity is currency, and for whom laws are manipulated for personal gain.
I wrote the following litany for the Sunday after the 2016 presidential election. I’m posting it now because the prayers seem as relevant today as they were then.
Leader: Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. [i]
People: Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation. [ii]
Leader: We gather in sadness and grief. We come with anger and cynicism. We will not hide our fear or cover up our anxiety.
People: Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked. [iii]
Leader: A president has been elected whose actions have abused and whose words have slandered and dehumanized.
People: Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation.
Leader: A president has been elected who instills worry and doubt in our children; who has promised to police our neighborhoods with increased militarization and racially-discriminatory tactics; who has legitimized the sexual and emotional abuse experienced by many women; whose policies oppose those struggling on the margins.
People: Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked.
Leader: A president has been elected for whom money is god, for whom celebrity is currency, and for whom laws are manipulated for personal gain.
People: Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says: “There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. [iv]
Leader: Our churches are divided. We proclaim the same Lord Jesus, yet our political loyalties are easily predicted by race. We lament the divisions and the compromised witness to the gospel. We lament the blind eyes and deaf ears of so many who would not hear the concerns from their family in Christ; who would not believe the testimonies of those who feared the presidential nominee’s ascent for how he threatened the safety and flourishing of families and neighbors.
People: You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? [v]
Leader: Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be. [vi]
People: Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? [vii]
Leader: Teach us to love one another, our neighbors, and those who appear to be our enemies. Give us your vision for the abundant life promised by our Savior even here, in this place of grief. Show us through the power of your Spirit when to resist and when to create, when to tear down and when to build up. Remind us of the saints who lived faithfully before us, often in the face of terrible persecution and suffering. Grant us their courage and joy.
People: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? [viii]
Leader: We pray for everyone who is most at risk in this political moment. For immigrants and Muslims; for those at risk of state-sanctioned violence; for the impoverished; for the vulnerable and despairing; for refugees who flee war; for the segregated, disenfranchised, and gentrified; for all of our children; and for ourselves, we pray.
People: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
Leader: The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. [ix]
All: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. [x]
Litany for the 2016 Election by New Community Covenant Church (Bronzeville) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Austin Channing Brown and the death of hope.
I recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown. I’ve written before about the way Coates’ writing often provokes people to ask whether he is hopeful, particularly in the realm of racial equity and justice. I’ve suggested that because what so often passes as hope for Americans is actually more like optimism, Coates’ apparent hopelessness is a more Christian expression of our reality than the one espoused by many Christians, privileged ones like me in particular.
Austin has also noticed this obsession with hope in how people look to Coates for some sort of comfort. She writes, “People read his words about America – about its history, about its present, about the realities of living in a Black body – and then demand hopefulness. It boggles the mind.” Indeed, though from the vantage point of those whose privilege has shielded us from this nation’s racism, maybe not. As Coates observers,
The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.
And so, rather than face the realities which Coates describes, we ask about hope. Or, rather, we ask to be given hope. To be soothed with hope.
As with Coates, Austin’s book demonstrates the madness of these questions. In particular, it is her descriptions of working within predominately white spaces that gives us an idea about the assumptions behind these questions. There is something obscene about asking the person who has described the system of oppression that constantly crashes upon her body to make me feel better. Yet, time and again, this is how it goes down. When we ask about hope, many of us are actually saying, Let us not talk anymore about your suffering or our complicity with it. Tell me, instead, that I will be OK.
For Austin, in order to remain engaged in the work of justice – not to mention the pursuit of dignity in a racist and sexist society – what passes for hope in this country had to die. “The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story.” This death, in other words, is not something to fear. And in this there is new life. Realignment. Rediscovery.”
On the other side of this death, says Austin, is the shadow of hope. From within this shadow we believe and work having shed all optimism. “It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. It is enduring disappointments and then getting back to work… It is knowing that God is God and I am not.” Though she doesn’t quite say it, I think the shadow of hope that Austin describes is one in which faith is given an honored seat. Whereas American hope demands proof, no matter how deceptive, the shadow of hope allows us to move forward, even in the deepest shadows, by way of faith.
Austin has given us something far better than the hope so many have clamored for. She’s given us the truth.
After an ad for a new church on the west side of Chicago popped up in my Instagram feed the other day, I posted this:
A handful of folks took issue with my snark; some suggested that I could be misreading the ad, misrepresenting the church’s intentions, or that I could reach out the church as a bridge builder. These suggestions all came from white people.
I understand these suggestions and I should probably tone down the sarcasm. But what I think these well-intentioned friends might be missing is the context wherein a white, suburban church starts a new church in an urban neighborhood which has been predominately black for many years. This is a neighborhood that saw white flight and institutional disinvestment when African Americans began moving in. For many years it was host to a high-concentration of public housing before those complexes where destroyed to make room for mixed-income housing which precipitated massive development, gentrification, and skyrocketing housing prices.
Over the generations, this neighborhood has been anchored by black churches – “gospel-centered, bible-believing” – churches. Yet now, as long-time residents are being pushed out, this suburban church enters the neighborhood.
I have no reason to doubt this church’s motives. I’m sure their pastors and leaders are capable and godly people – I really mean this! – who are willing to sacrifice much for this new ministry. But regardless of intentions, this common move for white churches to begin ministries in gentrifying neighborhoods, and to then describe themselves in a way that sounds as though the gospel has not been faithfully proclaimed and embodied for generations, this is what is frustrating to me. And, I think, sort of demeaning to those Christians who ministered faithfully long before we white folks would have ever considered coming to that particular neighborhood.
I’m not saying anything new here; Christena Cleveland and Soong-Chan Rah have both said similar things more precisely before. And yes, I suppose I could be more of a bridge-builder in these situations. It’s just that it happens so regularly in a city like ours that it’s hard to muster up the energy for yet another awkward conversation.
From her chapter on the atonement motif of blood sacrifice in The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge writes,
God is not divided against himself. When we see Jesus, we see the Father (John 14:7). The Father did not look at Jesus on the cross and suddenly have a change of heart. The purpose of the atonement was not to bring about a change in God’s attitude toward his rebellious creatures. God’s attitude toward us has always and ever been the same. Judgment against sin is preceded, accompanied, and followed by God’s mercy. There was never a time when God was against us. Even in his wrath he is for us. Yet at the same time he is nor for us without wrath, because his hill is to destroy all that is hostile to perfecting his world. The paradox of the cross demonstrates the victorious love of God for us at the same time that it shows forth his judgment upon sin.
Amen and amen!
Yesterday, on the 17th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I tweeted this:
I was thinking about that #NeverForget hashtag and wondering just what, exactly, we are supposed to remember. I think the instinct is to remember the attack itself along with the devastating personal losses along with the many acts of courage displayed that day and in the following weeks. We, the American people, are being urged to remember a day when we became victims of terror.
But – and I suppose this is a distinctly Christian concern – I wonder what else in our collective past is not so regularly brought before our memories. To only remember having been attacked while rarely discussing, or even acknowledging in some cases, our aggressions toward others seems to instill a selective, and sick, memory. I say this is a Christian concern because while Christians are certainly concerned about justice on behalf of the aggrieved, we are also always aware of our own complicity in someone else’s harm. That is, we are a people whose very identities are founded on a shared confession of captivity to sin and allegiance to a Savior.
A society that is intentional only about remembering its – real and tragic – histories of being victimized and not the damage inflicted by our aggressions isn’t healthy. Neither can it, in any accurate way, be thought of as Christian.
It is altogether probable that there is an executive of an air-polluting industry who has a beloved child who suffers from asthma caused by air pollution. In such a situation the Sympathetic Mind cries, “Stop! Change your life! Quit your job! At least try to discover the cause of the harm and do something about it!” And here the Rational Mind must either give way to the Sympathetic Mind, or it must recite the conventional excuse that is a confession of its failure: “There is nothing to be done. This is the way things are. It is inevitable.
– Wendell Berry, “Two Minds” in Citizenship Papers.
In this essay Berry contrasts what he calls the Rational Mind and Sympathetic Mind. This fictional example of the differences between the two ways of engaging the world is notable for how it summarizes our typical responses to critical issues. When faced with evidence about climate change or racial segregation, to take two common and easily-accessed examples, we are commonly told – or tell ourselves – that there is nothing to be done.
This is a lie, of course. There are plenty of small and big things to be done about the decisions we make that inflict harm upon our neighbors and the land. But Berry’s Rational Mind does not allow room for the sort of blunt truth that leads to creative possibilities. So we are left living under delusions about our own inability to make changes, about the inevitability of inequity. Telling the hard but hopeful truth requires a different mindset, one that privileges relational proximity and compassion over the faceless systems which benefit from our passivity.