We know what to do. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Unitarian Universalists claim the “inherent worth and dignity of all humanity.” Christians claim the Apostle Paul’s ecstatic revelation that “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female.’ Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s anointed Jesus.” Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”
Ah, yes, but …
The fabled Sunday morning worship time is still the most segregated hour of the week. White liberals wring their hands and try to introduce spirituals and drums and generally appropriate Black culture into White liturgy with little success. Why? Can the reason possibly be that we’d rather give lip service than pay higher taxes that might alleviate the cycle of poverty, ignorance, violence, retribution, and despair? Why are we constantly voting for “austerity” – a dog whistle for racial and class repression – instead of the kind of distributive justice-compassion illustrated by Jesus’s “feeding of the five thousand?” John Dominic Crossan says, “[W]e prefer to emphasize a miraculous multiplication which we want but cannot obtain rather than a just distribution which we can obtain but do not want.” Do we not want justice?
Matthew’s Jesus spells out the ground rules for living in Matthew’s Jerusalem community, bogged down in the minutiae of normal civilization. “Justice” is based on what can be proved or witnessed to by at least two, but ideally three people. The hair-splitting continues as Peter demands to know how many times one person must forgive another. But this is easy piety. Paul dishes out the rough stuff. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law…. The [ten] commandments are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” In that context, the verses from Chapter 7 of Paul’s amazing letter to the Romans cannot possibly be reduced to apocalyptic judgment upon petty sin – which is how it is usually interpreted by those who would continue to collaborate with convention. Paul did believe that the day of the Lord’s restoration of the Kingdom of distributive justice-compassion was imminent – and indeed it is. All that is required is to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light….” Just like Jesus said – the Kingdom of God is here now, all we have to do is look and listen, all we have to do is step into that parallel universe.
Ah, yes, but…
Meanwhile, back in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt after the commitment of the people to God and the later exile to Babylon might be seen as parallel metaphors. Both are mass movements of the Hebrew people from their settled existence. Both events were triggered by corporate injustice – the oppression of the Hebrew people by the Egyptian Pharaoh on the one hand, and on the other, the complicity with injustice by the Israelite nation in their own land. Moses is the leader of the exodus, Ezekiel is the prophet that went to Babylon. The Passover ritual is a blood ritual that identifies clearly who belongs to God and who does not, and Ezekiel is the sentinel – the guardian of the faith, who warns the people when they are slipping into injustice and away from God’s rule.
The story of Moses is foundational metaphor for the historic Black church. Slaves were forced to give up their homeland religion and embrace the white man’s faith. Oblivious plantation owners never imagined that the story of the Hebrew people’s enslavement by the Egyptian Pharaoh, and their miraculous liberation at the hand of a God determined to intervene to save his own, would be so easily and obviously applied to the slaves’ desperate certainty that God would act for their freedom. Blinded by privilege, “dominant”classes in 21st century Western societies still cannot imagine being identified with Pharaoh. “White privilege” is the unquestioned and unseen cocoon in which most of the middle class lives. As a white woman, who came of age in the lily-white suburbs of 1960’s Detroit, the realization of that privilege is always a shock. And the time-frame is “always,” because even after 50 years of interaction with non-white, repressed cultures at home and abroad, I still fall into attitudes and assumptions that prevent me from melding with those minds and spirits. I am always a stranger in a strange land.
In a review of the just-published Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks attempts to reassure Mr. Coates that “the American Dream of equal opportunity… cherishes the future… abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow” (New York Times: “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” July 17, 2015). Brooks tries to mimic Coates’ narrative device by writing his column in the form of a personal letter – as though Brooks were the wise editor and Coates the idealistic, angry young writer who just isn’t willing to believe the inclusiveness of the American experiment. What Brooks is unable to do is to step outside the paradigm of dominator (white) privilege and consider the possibility that Brooks himself participates in Pharaoh’s Empire. He cannot see that the “American Dream” was built and is maintained with colonial suppression by and for Pharaoh’s 1 percent.
In the Exodus story, God seems to revel in deliberately “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh, so that Moses can demonstrate God’s awesome power through nine plagues. Only when the first-born children of the top 1 percent start dying does Pharaoh relent. Then he does not stop at merely letting the people go, he throws them out. God tells Ezekiel that if he warns the people about turning away from God, and the people pay no attention, then God will destroy the people, and their blood will be on their own heads. However, if Ezekiel does not warn the people, and they turn away from God, the people will be destroyed, and Ezekiel along with them.
What kind of God is this, who seems to insist upon retribution, pay-back, blackmail, extortion – but is that what is really going on? Or are we seeing the consequences of a transformational understanding of distributive justice? In his eulogy honoring the life and work of Rev. Dr. Clementa Pinckney (June 26, 2015), President Obama said that Dylann Roof had no idea God was using him that day to teach us all the meaning of grace (the radical abandonment of self interest). The point is that the leaders are accountable for the fidelity of the people to God’s rule, which is distributive justice-compassion, and the leaders are equally accountable for the consequences of infidelity. What an interesting concept for 21st century civilizations. We may ask, who belongs to God today, and who are the sentinels?
Four questions frame the difference between the continuing normalcy of civilization and its retributive systems of control, and participation in the ongoing struggle to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion, as taught by Jesus:
1) What is the nature of God? Violent or non-violent?
2) What is the nature of Jesus’ message? Inclusive or exclusive?
3) What is faith? Literal belief, or commitment to the great work of justice-compassion?
4) What is deliverance? Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?
The answers for Pharaoh’s conventional Empire are: violent, exclusive, literal belief, and salvation from hell in the next life. The answers for counter-cultural Covenant are non-violent, inclusive, commitment to the great work, and liberation from injustice in this life, here and now. These answers provide guideposts to the authentic teachings of Jesus, and to a faith that might swing the balance to distributive justice-compassion, to sustainable, conscious life on Planet Earth. But Covenant cannot be assumed by anyone, whether blinded by privilege or immersed in oppression. Injustice must be recognized, named, acknowledged, and owned. The Ten Commandments (that great foundation for conventional piety) are irrelevant, says Paul. What matters is the radical abandonment of self-interest: “. . . make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is not about petty sin, but comfort at the expense of the environment; profit at the expense of well-being; personal advancement at the expense of relationship.
Participants in the unending struggle for distributive justice-compassion are the sentinels for our time. The proof lies in the results. Are you in?
Yes, but …
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
__________. First Light. Living the Questions Leaders Manual p. 24.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010.
Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels (4th Edition). Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2010.
Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (Third Edition, Revised and Enlarged). Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999.