Psalm 4 and Justice by Rudyard Kipling, October 1918
April 18th, 2021
Good morning beautiful people. It is great to be with you again on this third Sunday of Easter. I missed you last Sunday, but I was so glad to be with my Grandma and to see my cousin and some Southern California family. Thank you to the United Church of Christ for providing us with a wonderful worship service so that clergy and leaders all over the country could take a deep breath and sleep in! What a gift to be a part of a bigger community.
I am finding something to celebrate today with the news that we are ending a twenty year war, so I come with some hopefulness today. As we come to this time, it is our practice to pause for a moment, to let ourselves arrive in not just body, but in mind and spirit. I invite you to breathe, to notice your heartbeat, to breathe in peace and breathe out stress. And as you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
How long O Lord? We hear some version of this again and again throughout the Psalms and throughout our scriptures. How long O God? “Be not far from me…make haste to help me!” (Psalm 71:12). “I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” Said one Psalmist. (Psalm 69:3). “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek you…” (Psalm 77:1-2) How long O Lord?
I felt this question emerge in prayer this week when I learned of yet another beloved child of God was killed by a member of law enforcement. His name was Duante Wright.
Duante’s mom Katie said, "He had a 2-year-old son that's not going to be able to play basketball with him. He had sisters and brothers that he loved so much." Duante called her right before he was shot and killed. He told her was being pulled over because he had air fresheners hanging from his mirror. That is illegal in Minnesota.
Not far from where Daunte breathed his last breath, is the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who put his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes until he died. George Floyd called his mom, too, but in a different way, crying out for her. "Mama! Mama! I’m through." As he was being asphyxiated, he said these words and it made me think of Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of John. As he was dying on the cross, with his mom, probably looking on, he said, “It is finished.”
All of these men were killed by state sanctioned violence. Some might have even blamed Jesus at the time, wondering if the cause of his death was because of the wine in his system the night he died.
Those of us raised in this country, prefer to think of things in terms of individual decisions or merit. Whether it is about economic success, healthcare or racism, our default starting place in the United States of America is always the individual. We struggle to think historically or systemically. Often it is hard for us to imagine ourselves as participants in something that is bigger than us or beneficiaries in and participants in something that started before us.
But as Isabel Wilkerson writes in the book Caste, “Americans of today have inherited these distorted rules of engagement whether or not their families had enslaved people or had even been in the United States.”
We have inherited and are participants in, distortions, sometimes invisible, unless called out.
The poem Justice by Rudyard Kipling is said to be about the War of his time, but the lines felt resonant for this exploration today, “A People and their King, Through ancient sin grown strong, Because they feared no reckoning, Would set no bound to wrong… For agony and spoil Of nations beat to dust, For poisoned air and tortured soil And cold, commanded lust…
The ancient sin on which this country was founded still haunts us. It is clear that our past is present. I lament the ways it has taken me so long to see this truth. We White Americans are so intent on seeing ourselves as good people, that we are allowed to feel disconnected from or live in denial of our horrible histories. And because it is taking us so long to confess the truth, we are still participants in oppressive structures that continue to live out our past, right now in the present.
I am trying to stop staying “This is not who we are. This is not America.” Because even as it makes me cry to say it, this is clearly who we are, even if we don’t know it or don’t want to know it. Our America has from the start allowed tax payer funded targeting and harming of Black and Brown skinned people.
Here’s a hard truth: “2022 marks the first year that the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil. No current-day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved. That will not come until the year 2111.”
How long O Lord? Forgive those of us for whom it has taken so long to see the truth.
It was March 25, 1965 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, after the March from Selma to Montgomery when to the gathered crowd he said, “I know you are asking today, "How long will it take? Somebody’s asking, How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?
Somebody’s asking, How long?
“When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South..” Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long…?
He ended by saying, because "no lie can live forever."
The original sin, the lie that one group is superior to another, that one group deserves to move about the world without fear of being seen as suspicious, that lie, that it is anti-American to kneel at a football game, but somehow not anti-American to pull over a uniformed Second Lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps, Caron Nazario because he is Black and driving a brand new car with temporary plates, this sin, this lie, is still present with us.
I do believe that no lie can live forever and part of how that lie will fall, is when more of us call it out, and say it isn’t true, when more of us learn and live the truth, when more of us are willing to see what we couldn’t or wouldn’t before.
King told the crowd that day that, “We can answer with creative non-violence, called to higher ground…” And then he said “…the battle is in our hands…”
And I feel like he is talking to us now. The battle to speak and live the truth is in our hands. And as I let myself be open, I wonder if there are places where it is not reform that is needed, but a total reimagining of what it means to keep one another safe? A total recreation of the idea of public safety?
Because if the truth is that we are still putting our money collectively toward maintaining power structures that were constructed by our ancestors, with their biases built into the walls, with their fears framing the laws, then maybe we need to build something new?
Because if the truth is that what we call public safety is still living out the lie that the safety of some matters more than others, then shouldn’t we do something different?
Because I don’t have to tell you that people who look like me don’t die in traffic stops. So this tells me that we are living out our historic commitments to white supremacy, still now, when we see who gets a chance at clean water and a good education, when we see who is more likely to have a full long life.
I feel moved to do more to support liberation from this old lie. I feel moved to make amends and seek repair for the original and ancient sin grown strong still, the one on which this country was founded. This is who we are. And until more of us speak and live the truth, this will continue to be who we are. Because as Isabel Wilkerson wrote, “People who do not know that they are captive, will not resist their bondage.” We are in bondage to a painful past, captive to the worst of our innovation. And it was all legal.
Sometimes I wonder if when we pray, How long O Lord? Just maybe God whispers back, Beloved, the battle is in your hands, Be not far …make haste to help! How long?”
May it be so for all of us, for this world and the one we are making. Amen.