A few years ago a member of our church was arrested and spent the day in jail. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, this Black man had been standing on a street corner with some friends when Chicago Police rolled up. Very quickly they had him against a wall before placing him in handcuffs and driving away.
Why? I asked. They said I was selling loose cigarettes.
I thought about my friend today when the news broke that the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner into an asthma attack that ended in his death won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Garner died, his faced pressed into the sidewalk, gasping for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Eleven times he told the officers who held him down that he was dying, that they were killing him. And then he was gone.
He’d been selling loose cigarettes.
In a letter to his nephew in 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people are, “in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
I’m thinking about Baldwin’s words of warning today because I’m remembering how my friend explained his day in police custody; it was, for him, an anticipated experience. Dangerous, yes. Potentially deadly. But also, a sort of expected tax on his African American reality. He understood that particular humiliation – hands against the wall, legs spread – to be part of the way of life under the power of those convinced of his inferiority.
I felt outraged for this man and his experience. He seemed to feel something different- a sense of the futility of convincing a nation that had long ago decided that his was an experience not worth understanding, an existence unworthy of our collective concern.
Eric Garner’s killer was not held accountable for the same reason so many other Black women and men who’ve suffered such obvious violence haven’t received the satisfaction of justice: in the eyes of this nation they do not deserve the dignity implicit to humanity. It’s not that they don’t see us, a friend told me the other day. She was responding to another example of white people erasing the voices and priorities of Black communities. It’s that they don’t believe we’re fully human.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was twenty-six years old when he was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965. Jackson had participated in a civil rights march and died trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s blows. Martin Luther King was called upon to eulogize Jackson from the pulpit of Zion Church in Selma. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him,” he reminded the community, “but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
In her portrayal of that funeral, director Ava Duvernay has King demand with righteous fury, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” It’s the question honest people will ask about Eric Garner and the countless others who’ve suffered this nation’s diseased imagination. “[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” wrote Baldwin in that same letter,” and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
But Eric Garner knew it. So did Jimmie Lee Jackson. And my friend and his friends know it as well. Their survival depends on them remembering the simple fact that this nation is uninterested – passionately, intentionally, and vengefully uninterested – in their survival.
8 The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. 9 Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. 12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 14 ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. 17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals. 21 “I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you. 22 I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.” (Jeremiah 34:8-22)
One of the challenges of commemorating Juneteenth is the tendency to view it safely through the soft-filter of history. If we received the typical American miseducation than we’ve been left with a hazy recollection of those Civil War years and the decade following when formerly enslaved African Americans began building homes, families, schools, and business only to have, in the words of Carol Anderson, white rage respond in the form of Jim Crow laws, domestic terrorism, and mobocracy. Juneteenth, a day to remember the delayed proclamation of freedom, resonates with those former days, but does it resonate today?
According to the Center for Law and Justice, the USA imprisons more people than any other country: we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners; we incarcerate 2.4 million people and POC represent 60% of those imprisoned; 1 in 8 black men in their 20’s are imprisoned; 13% are disenfranchised because of a record of incarceration; between 1997-2007 the number of women in prison increased by 832%. We spend almost 70 billion annually on prison, probation, parole, & detention. In 2015 the largest private prison corporation made 3.5 billion dollars. In 2017 the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reportedly locked up close to 40,000 people, including some children and youth who’ve been separated from their families for months at a time. Most immigrant detention centers are run by private corporations, some of the largest which have direct ties to the current presidential administration and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to its campaign.
Unjust, state-sanctioned captivity
which enriches shareholders and the politically connected is not a relic of our
past; it is a reality that continues today. It manifests in racially unjust
sentencing, in dehumanized migrants, in financial exploitation of the poor, and
– if we’re willing to be very honest – the comfortable middle-class lives that
many of us take for granted.
This sinful instinct to plunder someone’s body for my benefit is an ancient one. We see it in this passage from the prophet Jeremiah. God’s people had broken their covenant with God by refusing to free those who had sold themselves into slavery. Instead of setting them free as God had commanded, they kept them in captivity for their personal gain. And the response could not have been more direct: God condemned Israel’s leaders for breaking the covenant by enslaving their fellow Hebrews.
As we open our eyes to this nation – as we open our eyes to the wealth, middle-class stability, and global security built directly upon genocide and enslavement – as we open our eyes it is essential that we hear the voice of God with extreme clarity. God judges those who enslave. God condemns those who passively benefit from systems of exploitation and plunder. Or to say the same thing positively: God is on the side of the oppressed, the enslaved, the exploited, and the captives. God is a God of freedom, liberation, and salvation. And so today, as we do our best to position ourselves among the lineage of Juneteenth saints who commemorated a freedom that might be delayed but could never be denied, today the message for us is this: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.
We are surrounded by situations of captivity. There remain enslavers around us for whom our fellow-image-bearers of God are nothing more than resources to exploit. So let the Word of God speak boldly today: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We see this mandate in our passage first through God’s intention, then through Israel’s failure, and finally through God’s intervention.
12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. – Deuteronomy 15:12-15
God’s covenant allowed for a kind of indentured servitude that benefited those who’d become indebted beyond relief. On the 7th year, the sabbatical year, the land was to rest and slaves went free. But not only did they go free, there were given material resources to decrease the likelihood that they’d return to slavery.
There were two important reminders within this covenant: God rescued you and God alone is sovereign. The people’s identities were no longer determined by someone who claimed ownership over their lives. They were children of God. And only God could claim power or authority over their lives.
In this country, slave owners generally tried to keep those they enslaved from learning to read. Practically this kept them from forging emancipation papers or following news of slave rebellions. But they also feared what would happen if these women and men began reading Scripture and encountered the God of freedom.
They were right to be afraid. When enslaved people like Denmark Vesey learned to read, they began building coalitions to overthrow their enslavers. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in Staped from the Beginning, “Vesey likely spent time teaching, motivating, and encouraging fellow enslaved Blacks and challenging the racist ideas they had consumed, perhaps regularly reciting the biblical story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egyptian bondage.”
Though his rebellion was betrayed, people like Vesey saw through the slave owners’ lies to the truth of God’s covenant. They were not slaves but image-bearers of God and those who claimed ownership over them were not their masters, but rebels defying the God of freedom.
Vesey and others knew God’s intention. If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity, we too must remember God’s intentions. The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.
Do you know God’s intentions for you? Who you really are? Who God is for you?
Both the marginalized and the privileged are confronted by this covenant. You are a child of God. No one but God is sovereign over your life.
Israel’s Failure (and ours)
Understanding God’s intention helps us to see the extent of Israel’s failure, and our own.
Jerusalem was besieged by Babylon. Soon the city would fall, it’s walls and temple razed and its people sent into exile.
But at this point there was a pause in the action. King Zedekiah had been desperate. He realized that his people had broken covenant by enslaving fellow Hebrew with no promise to release them. So he called the enslavers to temple for covenant and they agreed to set slaves free [34:10]. But then the siege stopped and the former slave owners, as though the ancient spirit of Pharaoh had possessed them, changed their minds [34:11]. They took their own people captive again.
To rightly understand the history of this country we must see the persistent theme of The one group of Christians enslaving another. Early one the debate was whether enslaved people could be baptized. The answer at first was obvious. No, for then they would have to be freed. But this was problematic since these were, after all, Christian slave owners. And so new possibilities were explored.
The Virginia House of Burgesses wrote in 1699 that, “The gross bestiality and rudeness of [Africans’] manners, the variety and strangeness of their languages, and weakness and shallowness of their minds, render it in a manner impossible to make any progress in their conversion.”
The well-known Cotton Mather, believing in rigid social hierarchy between slave and master, picked up a similar theme in his writings directed to enslaved Christians of African descent. “You are better fed and better clothed, and better managed by far, than you would be, if you were your own men.”
In order to justify enslaving fellow-Christians, white people developed a racial hierarchy based on an unchangeable racial construction. In so doing, white Christians gave more authority to the racial categories of their own making than the baptismal waters commanded by Christ.
And so the state of Virginia could legalize the racist and heretical claim that “the conferring of baptisme doth not ater the condition of the person as to his bondage.”
We’ve never repented of this history. Not really.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes,
[We] are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century. The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others — of African Americans — wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston.
Each of us would strongly agree about the wickedness of slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration. But consider again the statistics from the beginning of sermon. Do they not betray our ongoing belief in the narrative of racial difference?
In an op-ed in last week’s LA Times Jonathan Katz wrote about our current immigration crisis :
Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.
Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody.
The narrative of racial difference that allowed white enslavers to baptize the women and men in their possession remains at work today. Perhaps not in our intentions, but certainly in the outcomes we’ve all agreed are the reasonable collateral damage of our empire.
If God is a God of freedom than we must ask, Are we on the side of freedom?
Whose captivity are we benefiting from? Whose exploitation props up our privilege? Whose enslavement are we willing to tolerate for our comfort?
Whose bodies are we willing to sacrifice to the demon of incarceration? Whose families are suitable to be torn apart by border walls? Upon whose vulnerable ancestral lands will we condone drone warfare, debilitating sanctions, and the first devastating impacts of climate change?
If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity with freedom, we must confess our failure to reflect God’s intentions.
If the crucifixion of the son of God reveals anything it is that God intervenes in situations of captivity and enslavement.
God’s wrath was poured out on the people who claimed his name while re-enslaving their fellow-Hebrews. This intervention feels like condemnation to the oppressor and like liberation to the captives.
It is the oppressor’s instinct to separate spiritual salvation from physical freedom. But the God encountered by those women and men who celebrated the first Juneteenth pronouncement made no such false distinction. Spiritual freedom was physical salvation.
Jesus said of himself, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” [John 8:36] We have been conditioned to imagine a kind of spiritual freedom when we hear this promise. And that’s true, it’s just that spiritual includes everything. After all, when we see God’s passion for liberation in Jeremiah 34, we have to conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, carried that same passion.
He was born into captivity. His families knew generations of exile and occupation (. He grew up among the lynched bodies of his countrymen hung from crosses along highways. He watched generational land taxed into the hands of foreigners, religious leaders in the pocket of the Empire’s representatives, and political leaders beholden to those whose fortunes came from the plunder of war.
So what did the outcasts and the marginalized hear when Jesus pronounced freedom?
Did they satisfy themselves with heavenly promises of a one-day salvation? Did they imagine a God who cared nothing for their suffering as long as their souls had been saved? Were spiritual songs and well-delivered sermons an adequate response to state-sanctioned murder and theft? Within a situation of captivity in which they were made the laughing-stock of the empire, was it enough to know that God loved them… spiritually?
Or did they hear something else when Jesus spoke of freedom and salvation?
Could it be that when Jesus said, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, the Galilean peasants heard echoes of Jeremiah’s God? [John 8:32] The God who judged the enslaver; who refused to forget the Sabbath year of liberation and restoration, the God who pronounced Jubilee over captivity?
Might they have remembered their ancestors’ stories and songs of the God who spoke to Moses through a burning bush, who said to him:7 “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. [Exodus 3:7-8]
Is it possible that when Jesus stood in the synagogue and proclaimed, The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, those in the crowd who’d been made poor thought he was talking to them? And when he went on to claim that God, has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, those who’d been bound and bruised by the empire understood that their liberation was at hand? And when he concluded that he had come, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the entire crowd woke up to that ancient vision of Jubilee, when no one was without land, home, or dignified work; where no one oppressed or exploited their neighbor? [Luke 4:18-19]
History records that after the Juneteenth pronouncement on that summer day in Galveston, TX in 1865, some of the enslavers tried to talk the women and men they’d exploited and abused into staying.
But when a captive people who’ve encountered the liberating God hear freedom pronounced, there is no confusion about what to do next. When a people who’ve been made captive understand their true identity as the children of God, understand that God alone is sovereign and no so-called slave master can claim actual power over your life, there is no confusion about what to do next. You get free! You live free!
Because God intervenes in situations of enslavement, we can confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.
The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We live between Christ’s resurrection and his return. We live between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth Celebration. Victory has been won. Slavery and captivity have been abolished. And yet the spiritual forces of enslavement and captivity still plot their insurgencies, still coerce sinful exploitation and plunder.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. [Galatians 5:1] And yes Christ has set our souls free from the spiritual captivity to sin, but let us never reduce the liberating work of our Savior to the interior status of our souls. After all, he is the one who touched the lepers’ wounds, and rubbed healing mud on a blind man’s eyes, and offered fish and loaves to feed multitudes of hungry people. He’s the Savior who drew near to the outcasts, spoke words of life to the peasants who’d been driven from their land, and allowed his body to be rolled over by the bloody wheels of the empire… for us and our salvation.
It is for freedom that we have been set free. In a world that hasn’t heard of its emancipation, we are called to be a Juneteenth people. Among a people who assume their captivity to be final, we have been sent to proclaim freedom. To the enslavers, exploiters, kidnappers, and thieves, we are sent to brazenly and bravely announce the judgment of the God who sides with refugees and migrants, children who’ve been separated from their parents, and parents whose children have been snatched by state-sanctioned and politically-orchestrated violence.
The liberating God is looking for a generation of free people to proclaim freedom over every place of captivity. Will you go? Will you resist the tendency to so spiritualize your freedom that you pose no threat to enslavers and captains of empire? Will you proclaim the singular Lordship of Jesus Christ in response to every idol and ideology? Will you remember the chains that held you back- back from the God who created you, back from the flourishing future for which you were created? Will you remember, as the Scripture says, that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm?
The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the desperate migrant and the landless refugee. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every child whose future is assumed to be written by underfunded schools and intentionally segregated neighborhoods. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the sisters and brothers whose ancestors built this nation’s wealth with their blood and bodies. We will join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every single place of captivity, over every single dehumanized image-bearer of the holy God. Today this God sings songs of salvation, freedom, and deliverance over this captive world. Will you join him?
I wrote the following for our church newsletter in anticipation of our Juneteenth Worship Service this coming Sunday. I offer it here for those who aren’t familiar with this important tradition with the hope that others will see the many theological implications of this commemoration of freedom.
On June 19th, 1865, the Union commander of the Department of Texas arrived in Galveston, Texas and went to a prominent home at the center of the city. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years earlier, but slaveholders in Texas had kept the news from the women, men, and children they enslaved. From the balcony the commander read out General Orders Number Three.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
Having been declared legally free years earlier, Texas’ African Americans now learned of their freedom. June 19th immediately became a day to commemorate freedom, and in the ensuing years Juneteenth became an essential holiday for a people whose freedom within a racist nation could never be taken for granted.
In a chapter about Juneteenth, historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner writes about the importance of Juneteenth to formerly enslaved people’s memory.
The powerfully subversive collective memory that former slaves and their descendants preserved found its way into public space almost every year, a reminder to the nation that African Americans, while sharing a common history with white southerners, did not bow to the icons of Confederate bellicosity or deny that freedom was immensely preferable to bondage.
The free women and men who left behind enslavers and captivity made their way in a nation that rarely recognized their freedom. They were met instead with a narrative that sanitized those who had kidnapped, exploited, and tortured them. They were told that their lives were better during slavery. They walked beneath hastily erected monuments to heroes of the Confederacy.
Within this white supremacist culture, Black people’s decision to publicly commemorate Juneteenth with parades, speeches, and special church services was a conscious act of resistance, a choice to develop a “powerfully subversive collective memory.” This memory would cut through racist retellings of history. It would tell the truth about African American dignity and freedom. It would put the dominant culture of white supremacy on notice- though it had grown powerful through theft and exploitation, it’s deceptive rationale had been exposed.
Celebrating Juneteenth was not only a bold declaration of freedom for the captives, its existence was a word of righteous judgment against white supremacy and all those who buttressed it’s malicious narrative and benefited from its deadly plunder.
President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family, and the presidency. In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has. I believe the only hope for him, and this nation, is God.
This is a critical time for America. We’re on the edge of a precipice. Time is short. We need to pray for God to intervene. We need to ask God to protect, strengthen, encourage, and guide the President.
Graham has been an enthusiastic supporter of this president, overlooking the countless expressions of his character and policy decisions that have made many other Christians voice their strong opposition. His call to prayer is couched as a battle against evil in which the president is God’s chosen man to bring about the nation’s salvation.
Interestingly, Graham chose 1 Timothy 2:1-2 as the Biblical backdrop for the call to prayer:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
He seems to assume that the more the president succeeds with his agenda, the more people will be able to live peaceful and quiet lives. To which I’m compelled to ask, Which people?
This presidential administration ignores climate change and its impact on the most vulnerable, criminalizes and mistreats migrants and refugees, and prosecutes Good Samaritans who aid undocumented immigrants. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of people who are willfully excluded from the vision of a peaceful and quiet America by Graham and his ilk.
People I love and respect have been and are associated with the organizations Graham leads. I once worked with a church to raise a bunch of money for Samaritan’s Purse for their relief work in southern Sudan. It’s been particularly rough seeing this Christian leader associate himself so closely with this president.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that praying that this president would be strengthened is a prayer against the well-being and flourishing of vulnerable and marginalized people. It is a prayer against shalom. With that in mind, I offer the following as an alternative to Graham’s Special Day of Prayer.
Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them— who remains faithful forever. You uphold the cause of the oppressed and give food to the hungry. You set prisoners free and give sight to the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down and love the righteous. You watch over the foreigner and sustain the fatherless and the widow, but frustrate the ways of the wicked. (Ps. 146:6-9)
Forgive us Lord for turning away from the suffering inflicted by this president, his enablers, and his representatives. We have quickly grown callous and turned to cheap distractions to quiet our consciences. We have refused to see the humanity in the stranger and the immigrant. We have found our identity not in the shared Eucharistic blood and baptismal waters but in the idols of race and power. Forgive us.
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Is. 10:1-2)
Hold back, Lord, the wicked intentions of this president and his administration. Frustrate the agendas and policies that will increase inequity, perpetuate injustice, and further the demonic goals of racial supremacy.
Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness that would not otherwise be found out. (Ps. 10:15)
Draw near to those who have been made to suffer the pride and violence of this nation and its leaders. Comfort the afflicted and cover the oppressed. Inspire your people to costly and sacrificial solidarity. Align our bodies with those who are even now being dehumanized for destruction.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus, who proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind; who set the oppressed free and proclaimed jubilee for all. (Lk. 18-19)
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
40 years later people still remember where they were when Mount St. Helens erupted. My grandma talks about watching the news from her Washington home, a few hours north of the blast. Later that year, in the summer of 1980, she and my grandfather would drive past the smoldering mountain on Interstate 5 and collect ash from the median to show the fourth-graders she’d be teaching in the fall. The bookseller on San Juan Island told my wide-eyed sons about being near the mountain when it happened, about the way daylight turned to dusk and then to night under the cover of the ash cloud spreading across the horizon. Later he would approach the mountain, working for the forest service, and see how some trees had been burnt to a crisp except for the bottom few feet which had been covered with snow. A friend on the east side of the Cascades told us about the ash drifting down like snow, covering the darkened streets with inches of the stuff.
Everyone who was near the blast has a story to tell.
There had been warnings in the weeks before the mountain erupted: hundreds of earthquakes, small bursts of ash, and, most ominously, a bulge on the volcano’s north slope that pushed outward like some festering wound, sometimes five feet in a single day. Maybe these signs allowed the onlookers to feel prepared. Restricted zones were mapped out and residents within them forced to leave their homes.
At 8:32 on May 18th, a Sunday morning, the heaving mountain triggered an enormous landslide. Mount St. Helens immediately lost 1,300 of its 9,600 feet. David Johnston, a young geologist observing the mountain from miles away, had about 45 seconds before the avalanche of boulders, trees, and tons of earth buried his ridge, just enough time to radio his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
A few minutes later, Mount St. Helens exploded. Not from the top, as was expected, but from its side. I’ve tried to picture this moment but I can’t; it’s beyond the capacity of my imagination. The blast swept down the opening crater at 300 miles per hour, leaving behind 230 miles of scorched earth. Towering forests were peeled back to bare rock. Combined with the landslide, the volcanic blast liquified the mountain’s stores of spring snow and ice to send churning mudflows down the valleys- overwhelming the streams, covering over rivers, and relocating familiar lakes hundreds of feet from their pre-eruption locations. Videos from that day show trees, houses, and bridges tossed aside, barely an afterthought to what appears to be the mountain’s singular purpose: total and complete devastation.
Jonathan Edwards began his famous sermon in 1741 by reflecting on Deuteronomy 32:35, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.” His focus is on that vivid description of demise – “their foot shall slide in due time”- and from there Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God goes on to describe the plight of the wicked before a holy God.
From these few words, the New England preacher derives four implications. The first is this: “That they were always exposed to Destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery Places is always exposed to fall. This is implied in the Manner of their Destruction’s coming upon them, being represented by their Foot’s sliding.” God’s justified wrath against sin, says Edwards, is withheld by God’s love, but when it comes, as it surely must, it comes upon us so quickly that we are like those careening down a landslide, the sheer absurdity of our having long remained upright now undeniable as the mountain falls around us. On top of us.
This topic – the wrath of God – is an unfamiliar one to many of us. I suppose some find the idea of Edwards’ angry God repugnant, but my hunch is that most Americans, Christians included, simply don’t think about it at all. Ours are divinities of love, including the Christian God, who we imagine as benign and benevolent forces. We might occasionally get mad at God, but the American gods of our imaginations rarely get angry with us.
Our family of four recently spent two nights in the campground nearest to Mount St. Helens. We made the 200 mile drive south from the Puget Sound – our temporary home during our family vacation – because for the past two years our youngest son, now four years old, has been infatuated with volcanoes. His knowledge of the geological forces at work in these mountains far exceeds mine, and I was an environmental studies minor!
We couldn’t actually see the mountain from the campground – we had to drive a few minutes for our first glimpse – but we were able to make the short hike to where the mudflow had overwhelmed the nearby creek. We saw it as we approached through the dense forest, a growing patch of sunlight that eventually became a sort of dusty river plain. The ground turned an ashy grey and was littered with pumice, carried all these miles from the volcano. Even now, decades later, it was easy to see how the eruption had sculpted the valley. The following day the road to Mount St. Helens followed the mudflow for miles, our imaginations recalibrating the power of the mountain we were on our way to visit.
We were lucky to awake to sunshine and clear skies on the morning of our visit. Wildfires are once again ravaging the western United States and the skies in Washington had been hazy, reducing visibility to a mile or two at times. At the Johnston Observatory the ranger told us that two days earlier, the same mountain that rose so clearly across the valley from us was invisible from where we stood. The millions of acres now burning around the country are not natural. A warming climate and increasing development in dry areas provide the flammable potential for human error: ninety-five percent of these fires are started by us.
The four of us gazed intently at the crater, pointing out the still active lava dome inside it and the way the downed timber pointed the same direction, away from the blast. We imagined the destruction, thankful that a different kind of devastation, at least on that day, wasn’t obscuring our view.
The biblical wrath of God that Edwards described comes rapidly and unexpectedly. The prophet Ezekiel describes it as a hailstorm, a spreading pestilence, a fire, and most often, as being poured out onto its recipients. But as surprising as it must always seem to those peering the other way, Scripture reveals God to reserve his wrath for two predictable human activities: idolatry and injustice. So the jealous God will not tolerate the lesser deities so often propped up on hillsides and valleys by his people, idols like Baal and Molech who demand sacrifices of human flesh and sexual exploitation. But neither will God turn a blind eye to injustice.
Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn, with no one to quench it, because of your evil doings. (Jeremiah 21:12)
It’s a daunting standard. Injustice, in God’s eyes, is not only committing unjust acts; it includes the absence of justice, of failing to confront the oppressor and thief.
There is nothing arbitrary about God’s wrath. It erupts with fury, an “almighty merciless Vengeance” in Edwards’ words, but there is always a righteous logic when it finally rains down. God’s wrath is always instigated by his people’s idolatry and injustice.
According to the US Geological Survey, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 released 24 megatons of thermal energy, about 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima during World War II. We heard this horrifying fact more than once during our two-day stay near the mountain. We also learned that, compared with other volcanoes throughout history, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was relatively very small.
But it’s the comparison itself with the atomic bomb that most interested me, a comparison between a natural disaster and one purposefully inflicted by people upon other people. The former, far greater in power, claimed the lives of 57 people; the latter killed tens of thousands.
The churches I’ve known have generally been hesitant to speak about God’s wrath. A caricature of Edwards’ angry God is so thoroughly instilled in our society’s imaginations that many of us have felt the need to round out the picture. Over time, we’ve simply stopped thinking about God’s anger. I think we’ve also stopped thinking – if we ever had – about our own anger. Yet the bomb dropped on the citizens of Hiroshima and the fires advancing throughout the American west have me wondering about our collective unacknowledged and unchecked anger.
Anger, or wrath, is probably not how we think about the infernos of our own making. We frame our disasters as inevitable consequences of our wars or the unfortunate costs of our freedoms. Some think of them as our selfishness enfleshed; others as catastrophes totally unrelated to our choices. The explanations for the ways we destroy one another and our planet are many, but I wonder if our anger – rage, maybe – plays an outsized role.
Human retaliation always exacts a higher, vengeful cost than is necessary. Our atomic bombs are the obvious example. We are capable now of inflicting total and final vengeance upon the entire planet. Similar observations could be made about how we incarcerate people and, despite so much room for error, execute them for certain crimes. Our judgements are not fair and they are not equally distributed. As a nation we respond to horrifying attacks by unleashing our own horror, trading our thousands of lives for thousands upon thousands of our enemies.
But I think the wildfires we ignite, along with other less obvious examples, are also expressions of our anger. We know why these fires burn hotter, longer, and more frequently. We know where we shouldn’t build our homes and suburbs. We know how we could slow the climate’s warming. Yet we don’t. For many reasons we don’t, but could one of those reasons be a simmering anger at being shown the limits of our humanity? Like Cain, we respond with fury at being told what we must do. The creation groans under our insatiable appetites and we, children of wrath as the apostle Paul says, will not listen.
A couple of weeks after our visit to Mount St. Helens, our family drove slowly past a smoldering mountainside in northern Montana. Wisps of smoke gathered into small clouds and roadside signs warned of fire crews entering and exiting the highway. From our car, we peered up into the hazy forest not quite able to grasp the size of this one fire. The next day we read in a local newspaper that it was still relatively small but expected to spread rapidly.
I began thinking about the eruption of Mount St. Helens as a picture of God’s wrath at one specific moment during our visit. Most of the exhibits and ranger talks highlighted, with good reason, the volcano’s devastation. Our time near the mountain was filled with descriptions, photos, and short films showing the landslide and ensuing eruption from every possible angle. We heard eyewitness accounts of the the apocalyptic-like hours and days that followed. None of this made me think about God’s wrath.
That moment came during our second day. At the observatory looking across to the crater, my wife and I sat with our two young sons listening to a ranger. Almost in passing he told us that three days after the explosion, on the same ground covered by what would come to be recognized as the word’s largest recorded landslide, a small herd of elk were seen crossing the ash-covered slope. Their hoof-marks and droppings left behind the first seeds after the blast. Within 72-hours the mountain had begun to heal itself. Those elk are what made me think about the wrath of God.
Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon with the purpose of saving people from hell but maybe his intent can be widened. Despite his vivid descriptions of divine anger and judgment, Edwards does not hesitate to desperately urge his congregation to run to this same God, the source of wrath. “And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.” The God of wrath, Edwards preaches, is the God of salvation. The God who cannot look away from idolatry and injustice will neither look away from those who flee to him.
The Psalmist believed the same:
Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:11-12)
So did the prophet Nahum, in language that evokes an erupting, crumbling volcano.
The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it.
Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:5-7)
I thought about God’s wrath when the ranger mentioned the elk because God’s wrath is so unlike ours. How else can we be urged, straight-faced, to take refuge in the mountain that has just exploded before our eyes? Why, given the experiential rubrics of our own collective expressions of anger, would we throw ourselves onto the mercies of a wrathful God? But the wrath of God is not like our atomic bombs, wildfires, or execution chambers. The wrath of God is not retaliatory, not vengeful in the way we express it.
God’s wrath is so different from ours because God is so different from us. Our collective anger is rooted in selfishness, ego, and pride. In simple contrast, using biblical language, the Lord is good. That is to say, God is always merciful, forgiving, and kind. And yes, righteous too. God’s wrath, then, is expressed not from the absence of goodness, but as an expression of it. And in its aftermath lies healing and restoration. Lakes and rivers are restored, meadows and forests take root again. What our own collective anger leaves behind couldn’t be more different: poisoned bodies and lands, disenfranchised communities, skies choked with haze.
Unrighteous people like us will, in our unacknowledged anger, turn to idolatry and run headlong into injustice. We will worship anything other than the one righteous God and our idol-worship will inevitably lead us to acts – individual but also corporate – of tremendous oppression. We articulate our sins against God by disdaining our neighbors and abusing the earth. We, an angry people, stand in want of God’s wrath.
In Romans 5:1-10 Paul tells us that Jesus Christ saves us from God’s wrath. His atoning death did so, in fact, even as our idolatry and injustice placed us deservingly under judgment. This good news is, I think, the extent to which most American Christians think about God’s wrath. If at all, divine anger is remembered in the past tense, something not especially relevant except, as Edwards exemplifies, as a means to urge others to flee to Christ’s salvation.
Yet those of us who claim Jesus as Savior must also accept him as Judge. When we diminish the wrath of God against idolatry and injustice to something that no longer concerns us, we are left vulnerable to an uglier kind of wrath- our own. And so we trade healing redemption for retaliatory vengeance. We seek refuge not in the mountain but in our weapons. We accept the warfare we’ve fomented, the prisons we’ve erected, and the infernos we’ve kindled as the reasonable price of vanquishing the wrathful God. In place of the divine Judge, our own unholy judgements inflict death, only and always.
We have become so accustomed to our own ruthless wrath that it can be hard for us to imagine another way. Paul helps us.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
Here is a vision wherein a people have renounced their own wrath for God’s. A community that welcomes God’s vengeance is one that also renounces persecution, deception, and retaliation. They will be known for their orientation toward blessing, solidarity, harmony, humility, truthfulness, forgiveness, peace, and compassion. They will be a people of worship and justice. They will reject the death-dealers who levy ever more devastating judgements upon their enemies and their enemies’ children and their enemies’ lands.
This community will come to know that God’s wrath is better than theirs.
I wouldn’t have chosen to visit Mount St. Helens. There were other places I’d have preferred to visit during our stay in the Pacific Northwest. I think the same is true for my wife and older son. But we each love the four-year-old and so we joined him in his pilgrimage to the mountain he’d been talking about since he began forming sentences. The car was full of our typical chatter on the morning we drove up to the volcano. And then my wife pointed through the windshield. “Is that it?” We all got quiet, watching as the blunt peak, larger by far than anything around it, rose through the haze. The road followed a creek up the valley and we began noticing how it had been widened by the torrent of mud, water, and debris decades prior. Soon we could recognize how everything around us, the entire landscape, had been shaped by the blast.
The silence in our car – a rare occurrence – continued and something in me changed as we drew near to the mountain. I was glad we had come. I wanted to get closer.
Independence Day is always a good day to re-read Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, given to an abolitionist group that had gathered in Rochester on July 5, 1852 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass – the former slave, abolitionist, and renowned orator – used his speech to draw attention to the absurdity of African Americans celebrating a holiday which did not include them in its nostalgia for independence. For him, America’s sins against slaves and former slaves were never more obvious than on the day the nation celebrated its freedoms. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
In the very next paragraph the masterful orator anticipates his audience’s objections to his purposefully blunt language.
But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed.
Douglass has identified a tendency that remains potent in 2018. He identifies – after, I imagine, having encountered it countless times among his white abolitionist allies – a reaction to his harsh language that demanded he shift his tone from denouncement to argument, from castigating his white audience to more gently helping them see the work that remained to be done.
This is the sort of thing that is common to hear today when advocates and activists precisely and directly oppose injustices perpetuated against, say, migrants and their children or, as is currently playing out here in Chicago, young victims of gun violence. Reacting to plainly spoken demands for justice, well-meaning people ask for more time, more understanding, even more empathy from those who are suffering. So, for example, those working for an equitable public school system that will serve all of its children are chastened that they must understand how bureaucracies and governments work and that, if they did, they would be more gentle with their critiques. In fact, these advocates, and the underserved families they represent, understand exactly how these institutions work since they’ve experienced firsthand how resources are consistently allocated for the privileged at the expense of those on the margins of the city’s power structures.
But Douglass will grant not a single inch to these kinds of banal requests: “I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” He goes on to list a number of arguments his hearers might wish him make, arguments that are so plainly obvious that they are an offense to those Douglass represents. “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?” And then: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body?” And then, with fire:
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?
The fundamental mistake that Douglass’ fellow-abolitionists consistently make is one that remains with us; they move the focus from the wrongs of the sufferer to the emotions and perspectives of the advocate. He’s sick of it!
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.
Those who are offended by unequivocal demands for justice would do well to remember that our offense is nothing compared to the outrage experienced by those who suffer injustice, outrage that is exacerbated by the entrenched reticence by those of us who have the capacity to right what is so obviously wrong. We are not the point. Our feelings are not the point. Our comfort is completely and totally besides the point!
What then, if not argument and persuasion? What tact did Douglass take a decade before the Civil War, when freedom for enslaved people was far from a foregone conclusion?
For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
It’s not that Douglass chose fire over light as a way to vent his righteous anger. He believed, rightly I think, that convincing the comfortable was a battle without end. Beginning with the perspectives and concerns of the privileged meant never extending beyond the limits of extraordinarily limited imaginations. It would require constantly negotiating between delicate white sensibilities and bloodied black bodies. It was an immoral negotiation and one in which he was no longer willing to be implicated.
If they were to move forward into the battle with him, Douglass’ abolitionist friends and allies must leave behind their tender feelings and patriotic delusions for something more difficult, more honest, and, as Douglass concluded that day, more hopeful. Of course, to those of us steeped in the patriotic privileges of this unjust nation, this way will not feel hopeful. But that, in Douglass’ pursuit of lasting justice, was exactly the point.
This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.
Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.
When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.
Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.
Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”
The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.
Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.
What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status. We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.