Seeing Through Cruelty

When I arrive at Jackson Park, having walked briskly the fifteen minutes from our apartment and crossed the footbridge which, for me, marks the edge of the neighborhood and the beginning of the park, I instinctively slow down. In warmer months the swallows swoop from under the bridge, chasing the insects which skim across the surface of the lagoon before returning to their nests hidden somewhere beneath my feet. I often have the paths and trees to myself so, aside from the distant traffic on Lake Shore Drive to the east and Stony Island off to my right, there aren’t many noises to compete for what I’ve come listening for: the birds. Not that I actually know what I’m listening for; I don’t. Anything that sounds like it might be a bird gets my attention. And so I walk slowly, one of my ears cocked slightly toward the canopy, trying not just to hear but to listen.

Listening like this is new for me. This winter is only the second that I’ve made this walk my weekly habit and the difference between the two is that I’m just slightly more aware of how poorly I’ve noticed the birds that populate the alleys, shores, and parks around our neighborhood. I’m learning to listen, and to see.

This spring I stood still for a long time near a willow that leans over the lagoon. Small flashes of yellow caught my eye. The warbler was dancing from branch to branch, disappearing and then, suddenly, perched again within my view.

Yellow Warbler

The little bird kept circling where I’d stopped along the mulch-covered path. Why hadn’t she moved on? I wondered. Then she dropped into the branches of a very small tree, about the level of my chest, and I knew. I’d stumbled into her front yard, or maybe it was her back porch. Either way, for the rest of the summer I’d stop and look. Soon there were two small eggs, the size and shape of one of those foil-wrapped chocolates my boys might eat at Easter, a dull white and covered in brown speckles. She’d flit around my head during most of my visits, finally resigning herself to my intrusive presence and perching herself proudly on her delicately built nest.

I pointed my boys toward her nest during one of our walks and they strained to see. Eventually the eggs hatched and the mother and her young vacated their little home. They’re somewhere in Central America now- Guatemala, or maybe Panama. At least I hope they are.

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Earlier this year it was reported that, since 1970, the number of birds in Canada and the United States has dropped by almost 30%. There are something like 3 billion fewer birds today than there were then. Habitat loss from industrial scale agriculture and development along with pesticides which impact a bird’s ability to gain enough weight for migration seem to be the culprits. Warblers, like the responsible mother in Jackson Park, have been especially hard hit: their numbers have dropped by 617 million. It staggers the imagination.

When my boys walk through the park with me, looking and listening for birds, I think about these small deaths, staggering in scope. There is a meadow we walk through on our walks, the height of the grasses marking the time of year. A sign along the path informs the walker that this is the Bobolink Meadow, named after a species that used to frequent the area. Which other birds used to make the trees and fields along this lagoon their habitat? Which of the birds we are used to seeing are slowly, imperceptibly to my novice eyes, disappearing?

Black-Capped Chickadee

Reading about these massive population losses raises in me a sense of helplessness. How do we even begin thinking about reversing such a dramatic decline? There is an awful feeling of inevitability about these incomprehensible statistics. But of course, it isn’t inevitable. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) dates to 1918 and was meant to protect vulnerable populations of birds from their human neighbors, including “any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” The MBTA is an explicit acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the vulnerable birds with whom we share space and fate. It requires companies to take reasonable measures to protect birds and their habitats. But then, in 2017, the current presidential administration reinterpreted the MBTA so as to benefit industry and commerce. It’s the birds who’ve suffered.

In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action. In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found.

“You get the sense this policy is not only bad for birds, it’s also cruel,” Mr. Greenwald said.

Cruel. That’s the word I’ve returned to during this year of learning to listen and see. Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about this inhumane tendency last year, when word of the policy change was first announced.

They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human.

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In her essay, Bruenig notes that in “the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge.” This is part of what makes the deaths of so many birds cruel, but I think there’s more to it. In the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, birds and other animals are often portrayed with great tenderness; the worthiness of our concern seemingly self-evident. So the psalmist writes, in God’s voice, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:11)

This divine care for creatures is presumed upon God’s people as one of our responsibilities. In Deuteronomy, in a section of practical instructions about how to live well in their new land, the Hebrew people are told what not to do when happening upon a bird’s nest. If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” (22:6-7) Every time I stumble onto these verses I’m happily stunned by God’s concern for his people and for the animals within their care. And also by the explicit connection between the well-being of the birds and our own.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” sang Mahalia Jackson, “and I know He watches me.” But according to Scripture, my own eyes are also meant to be on the sparrows, finches, thrushes, sandpipers, and, one day maybe, the Bobolink.

Hermit Thrush

And this is where I’m caught short. The cruelty inflicted on the birds with whom I share a neighborhood is not some shapeless, inevitable thing. It is my own. The decimation of their habitats and their young is possible, in part, because of my own dumb and distracted plodding over land that isn’t mine, that I mistreat simply by not listening or seeing.

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A few days ago, during our Christmas visit to see family in Washington, we took the 90 minute ferry ride through the Puget Sound to Friday Harbor. There’s a used bookstore there, a few blocks up the hill from the harbor, and after lunch we spent some time browsing its overflowing shelves. Typically, when visiting a used bookstore, I make stops in theology, essays, and biography. But this year I’ve added to these what is alternatively called “nature,” “nature writing,” “the natural world,” and the like. In the Friday Harbor shop I found a gently worn hardcover copy of the Peterson Field Guide for eastern birds, perfect for Chicago and other Midwestern places I’m likely to find myself looking for birds.

This beautifully illustrated book was written in 1980 and as I thumbed through its pages I couldn’t help wondering about how many of the species could no longer be found in the places they used to frequent. It’s a terrible thing for a book to be out of date because millions and millions of its subjects have perished.

Walking to the counter and paying $10.00 for that book felt, even in the moment, something like delusion. But it also may have been a very small act of hope. That, by choosing to listen and see, there still might be a world of birds and people worth saving on the other side of our cruelty.

Will there be racists in heaven?

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,

Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…

Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”

Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”

I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.

And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.

During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?

You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)

And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.

In her important new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, writes plainly about the heretical nature of racism and white supremacy.

Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.

Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.

Trying to Remember

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Yesterday morning I walked three quarters of a mile from my in-law’s home in Brownsville, TN to this roadside marker beside a small family cemetery.

James Bond, a quick internet search will reveal, was once one of Tennessee’s largest slaveholders.

By the eve of the Civil War, Bond had amassed property holdings in Haywood County alone of more than seventeen thousand acres and approximately 220 slaves. In 1859 his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn. The federal manuscript census for 1860 estimated his total wealth at just under $800,000. (By comparison, the total value of all farmland, buildings, and other improvements in the entire county of Johnson–situated in the mountainous region in the northeastern part of the state–was just under $790,000.)

The average passerby will intuit none of this from the marker standing watch over the great pioneer’s grave even though almost nothing on that marker would have been accomplished or amassed without those women and men he enslaved.

It’s not exactly a secret that James Bond owned people; people in this town know it, or at least some of them do. But seeing a sanitized version of his legacy etched in steel does reveal something about our shared memory. After all, the choice – and it must have been a conscious decision – to gloss over the source of the man’s wealth and generosity was an act of deliberate forgetfulness.

I’m sure this sort of thing is not unique to this country. It’s one of the privileges exerted by the powerful in any society to remember history in a manner wherein our forefathers and mothers retain their heroic status. But still, there is a particular way in which we forget things in the U.S.A.

In 1962 James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew. In it, he warns his young namesake about the dangers he will face from forgetful white Americans.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen 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. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Baldwin was surely thinking about more than deceptive roadside memorials to slaveholders, but it does illustrate his point in concrete and metal.

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The gravity of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper when bread is broken and wine poured out. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25) In remembrance. There are echoes here of the many times God commanded his people to remember their former captivity and God’s saving intervention.

Forgetfulness, in other words, is not normal for Christians, at least not the willful variety. Remembering is one of the choices we can make which draws us toward our Savior and into the presence of sisters and brothers. And yes, this is a remembering that centers on Christ, but at table we also remember precisely why we come so hungry and thirsty. We remember our sins, even the ones previous generations worked so hard to forget.

This week, using this helpful site, some of us posted to social media which Native American people’s land we were celebrating Thanksgiving from. It’s true that this could easily slide into a kind of meaningless virtue signaling. But, for some, it represents a decision to remember what has been forgotten for so long that many of us hadn’t even known that it could be remembered. It’s a small decision which can remind us that forgetting isn’t inevitable.

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After visiting James Bond’s grave, I walked to the small town square which is dominated by a monument dedicated to “the Confederate dead of Haywood County.” There, a block away, is a recently placed monument to Elbert Williams, a man known as the NAACP’s first martyr. For his efforts to register black voters, Williams was kidnapped by the police and drowned in the Hatchie River.

I’m not sure why the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to erect this marker so many decades after Williams was lynched, but its presence is notable. Standing in the shadow of the county courthouse is this honest testimony to an ugly past and proof that, if we want to badly enough, we can remember what was previously and purposefully forgotten.

The Offense of Grace

Photo: Stefano Corso.

Botham and Brandt Jean and White Christian America’s Refusal to be Forgiven

When Brandt Jean extended forgiveness to the police officer who murdered his brother in his own apartment having, apparently, mistaken it for her own, I saw a poignant example of grace. Given the racial dynamics however – Brandt’s brother, Botham, was Black; the woman who killed him is white – many others didn’t see grace at all, but a tiresome and infuriating repetition of an old reality: an African American is mortally wounded by a white neighbor and is expected to forgive publicly and quickly. The word of forgiveness is a stabilizing word which leaves the racial hierarchy undisturbed and allows both the perpetrator and the supremacist system that shaped them to walk away unscathed.

First Lady Dorena Williamson, in an important article for Christianity Today, identifies the way racism distorts our understanding of forgiveness and grace.

Yes, God is a forgiving God. But we haven’t really understood the depth of that grace if all our examples of forgiveness are times when the people being forgiven look just like us. Given the long history of white supremacy in this country, we as Christians should ask: Why aren’t there videos of white people forgiving their black assailants trending on our social media? Why aren’t black accusers hugged by judges or comforted by the victim’s family members, as this former police officer was? How long O Lord?

Indeed, this was one of the many insights shared on social media following Brandt’s forgiveness. Why is it always Black people who are expected to forgive the assaults of their white neighbors? We think back to those relatives of the slain members of Mother Emanuel in Charleston who, despite the explicitly racist motivations of the murderer, chose to forgive him.

After the courtroom forgiveness, my friend Dr. Marcus Board shared an article that investigates the Mother Emanuel massacre to better understand this racialized forgiveness. In “‘But I Forgive You?’: Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of Forgiveness”, authors Andre E. Johnson and Earle J. Fisher write that when “atrocities grounded within a racist socio-historical framework explode upon our collective consciousness that causes Black pain and suffering, there is an expectation that those victims forgive their perpetrators.” Within a white supremacist landscape “white emotion usurps the affirmation of black humanity. This is why African Americans in times of such tragedy cannot express ‘black rage’ or anger.”

The authors quote an op-ed by Roxane Gay in which she explains why, contrary to this racist assumption of Black forgiveness, she will not forgive the many who murdered the worshipers at Emannuel AME Church.

What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.

These warning and complaints are more than legitimate; they are true. Yet in them I still see an example of grace, both for the reality of forgiveness to which it points as well as the reality of justice which such an act of grace creates. Brandt’s choice to forgive, I believe, testifies to something that has long been accomplished, a grace whose offense is largely lost on us until we’re confronted by something like his courtroom forgiveness. And it also calls into existence a possibility of justice- genuine justice that has long eluded the racialized imaginations of our nation’s justice system.


Despite the understandable protests elicited by Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive, I still see in him the closest example to Christ’s costly grace that this racist nation is likely to experience.

In the forgiveness offered to the woman who murdered his brother, Brandt Jean offers a window to the grace of Christ not despite our long racist history but precisely because of it. Many have pointed out the endless ways white people presume upon the forgiveness of Black people who we have purposefully and systematically oppressed for centuries. We might worry that by elevating Jean’s act of grace we are rendering it meaningless. After all, this is the sort of thing that always happen in this nation and to what effect? Black people continue to be attacked and murdered; those entrusted to protect them aid and abet their killers.

Yet to rightly understand grace in the Christian tradition, we must reckon with this offensiveness. For those willing to grapple with our nation’s racism and white supremacy, Jean’s forgiveness is unpalatable. It feels unjust, undeserved. It is. But if we are to even get close to understanding the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, we must be willing to drift into this kind of objectionable territory. The grace of God extends to us through the Christ’s bloody sacrifice – and only though it – because of our corruption and complicity, because of our propensity to sin and to sin again. If this divine grace is less offensive to us than Jean’s forgiveness it is our own fault. It is not grace that does not offend but our tepid and self-serving interpretation of it.


This is the reality to which Jean’s forgiveness points. This, for Christians, is our sure foundation. It is offensive, a stumbling block as the apostle Paul rightly understood. Yet to those who’ve realized our sinful corruption and complicity, it is the way to life. And here is where we see that in Jean’s forgiveness, and in the similar acts of grace by African American Christians over the centuries, a new reality is being created. Christian forgiveness, as a reflection of Christ’s grace, is creation-al and allows for the possibility of true justice.

In Luke 19, when Jesus invites himself over to the despised tax collector’s home, Zacchaeus responds to this grace in a public and accountable manner.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The assumption, readily understood by Zacchaeus, was that Jesus’ grace required a costly response. By accepting it genuinely, he had to repent of his previous way of life which had depended on the exploitation and oppression of his neighbors.

The rich young man in Luke 18 also understood the nature of the Christ’s grace. Having been told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he “became very sad, because he was very wealthy.” Though their responses differed, both the wealthy young man and the corrupt tax collector understood the nature of the grace offered by Jesus. Accepting it required a complete reversal of their previous ways of life. They would become new people, living in harmony with the righteousness and justice of the Christ.

This, I think, is what white Christians persistently misunderstand about grace. Roxane Gay’s indictment of us is dead on: we want absolution. So we cheapen grace, desecrating the costly sacrifices of our Black (and Brown and Native and…) neighbors. Or to put it differently, we reject the gift that is being offered for a counterfeit of our own diseased imaginations, one that justifies our ongoing oppressive ways. In this context, it’s reasonable to think that the most gracious thing a Black Christian can do is to withhold forgiveness so as to not, in Jesus’ evocative phrase, cast their pearls before swine.

What would it look like for Botham Jean’s murderer to receive the grace offered by his brother? It would mean confessing her sins and dropping her defense. It would mean reflecting honestly on the ways her imagination and assumptions have been infected – like mine – with, in Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, the malicious narrative of racial difference. It would mean living in solidarity with those, like Jean’s mother, Allison, who tell the truth about police brutality and political corruption. It would mean losing her life in order to find it.

Were this costly grace to be received it would lead to justice. Like Zacchaeus, recipients of this grace give themselves to repairing what we have exploited. There is no spiritualized absolution here, only sacrificial and accountable action.

This is what Christ’s costly grace can create. It is a reality in which the woman who murdered Botham Jean becomes a new person. That white America, as shown not by our occasional tears or social media shares but by our sustained actions, has for centuries refused this grace is evidence not that Brandt Jean’s offer was not genuine, but that we have not genuinely received it. The fault is ours alone. As are the consequences.

Living Justly Amidst Moral Complexity

I’ve started a personal newsletter which, so far, I’ve been posting weekly. I’ve not yet figured out its connection to this blog, but something I wrote for it seems to fit here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. In it he shows how central the nation’s debate about slavery was to its understanding of its identity. In the introduction he writes,

It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil, not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed. “Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of the United States.

Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically, as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine, for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?

I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as David Blight shows in his recent biography, his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before us?

“…life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-glorifying…”

Could it be that in the West the presence of the demonic is muted not because demons have ceased to exist or never were, but for the precise reason that no one fights against nothing? Perhaps, as long as lukewarm faith exists, perhaps the demonic need not be troubled nor trouble themselves. While the purpose of the Christian life is not to irritate demons and incur their wrath through spiritual attacks, a quasi Christianity that is washed out and bears little resemblance to what is epitomized in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and demonstrated in the account of Jesus in the Gospels is also bankrupt in holiness and power. It is probably that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times – through to our current times – has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral, morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-Glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended… We seem to have exegeted (almost exorcised) the power out of the Logos and propped it up with philosophy.

I’ve been thinking about this passage from Esther E. Acolatse’s fascinating book in the aftermath of this weekend’s massacres in El Paso and Dayton. I understand how it is that people who are not Christian can ignore the spiritually malevolent forces wreaking havoc in our violent society. But what about the Christians? Those who are more liberal in their disposition are clear about the profound problem of gun violence but their strategies rarely seem able to even acknowledge the existence of, as Acolatse says, the demonic. On the other side are the conservatives who, while often acknowledging what Paul calls the spiritual forces of evil in Ephesians 6:12, are ideologically unwilling to apply this belief to the terrors of gun violence.

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear me next say that this strange relationship to what Jesus assumed to be a normal part of the Christian life – that is, engaging with Jesus in the battle against immaterial evil – seems to me a characteristic of white Christianity. There are plenty of churches where this bifurcation has been avoided. It is to these Black and immigrant churches that the rest of us would do well to turn and humbly learn from if we are ever to do more than mourn the impact of an evil we have thus far been barely able to name.

Proclaiming Freedom

 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. 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)

Band at the 1900 Juneteenth celebration at Eastwoods Park

Introduction

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.[1]

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.

God’s Intention

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.

Denmark Vesey

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.”

Cotton Mather

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 [2]:

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.

God’s Intervention

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. 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.

Conclusion

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?


[1] https://eji.org/news/private-prison-population-skyrockets; https://immigrantjustice.org/staff/blog/ice-released-its-most-comprehensive-immigration-detention-data-yet; http://www.cflj.org/programs/new-jim-crow/new-jim-crow-fact-sheet/; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/04/us/migrant-families-contractors-campaign-contributions.html

[2] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-katz-immigrant-concentration-camps-20190609-story.html?fbclid=IwAR2NlZtTN1IVophhiTjel9N0cHJWrOU-Fi0ybS3wpg2EhFMueM207On0tkg