A Different Kind of Force

Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Psalm 78:1-7

Amos 5:18-24

I Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 25:1-13

I am writing this reflection before US election results are announced, with the intent of confronting the questions the lectionary texts raise for those who dare to call themselves members of the Body of Christ, no matter who the President of the United States is, or what shape any post-election furor may take.

These are not gentle passages. Joshua presses the people who are eager to make a covenant with God, “Are you sure you really want to do this? Do you know what you’re getting into?”  The Psalmist speaks of “dark sayings of old” that must be shared to future generations.  The prophet Amos delivers God’s devastating judgment on predominant ways of worship and ritual.  The words of encouragement the Apostle offers are received by those who “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.”  Even the Gospel reading leaves half the group locked out of the party.

Before and after the election, we are confronted with questions such as these:

What are the ‘foreign gods’ we must put away in order to be faithful to our covenant with God?” 

What exactly have our ancestors told us, and what are our words and actions telling the coming generations?

In what ways are our festivals, assemblies and songs channels for justice and righteousness, and in what ways are they damming up the stream? 

What are the idols we must turn from in order to serve a living and true God?

For over twenty years, endorsers and friends of the Ekklesia Project have engaged in fervent discussions over these questions, about the healthy tension between a proper patriotism and the idolatry of nationalism, about “seeking the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” without being co-opted by the principalities and powers.  These conversations must and will continue.

The lightning rod in this present moment, of course, is Donald Trump.  As a candidate he spoke at a January 2016 campaign rally at Dordt University.  The quote that made the soundbite loop was that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and would not lose any voters.  Much less reported were his numerous references to Christians and power: ‘we don’t exert the power we should… we are getting less and less powerful… [If] I get elected president, Christianity will have power… Because I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power.”

It is one thing to support and embrace a politician and argue passionately about public policies.  It is quite another thing to entangle a faith that has the cross at its center with a raw will to power and winning.  No matter who wins the elections, Christians will not be exempt from diligently and sometimes painfully discerning what we bring to, and therefore hear from, the Bible.

Black church voices are indispensable for the way ahead because of their deep formation in the prophetic tradition (reread Amos 5).  Albert J. Raboteau writes, “African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism.  Perhaps the most troubling was this: ‘If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?’  Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions (“American Salvation”).

Some blood-stained wisdom out of the crucible of the Rwandan genocide: “Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality” (Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families).  Surrendering that power is one of the ways the white church in America can put away its foreign gods and turn from its idols to better serve the living and true God.

With intense centrifugal forces riveting our attention only on us, the Church that is shaped not only by national boundaries but also by the borders of baptism can expand our vision of what God is doing.  A friend of mine in the area hosts gatherings with community children.  All are from immigrant families now living locally.  Earlier this summer, one of his long-time friends, a Presbyterian missionary, asked if the children could send birthday cards to people from Cameroon who are in US detention centers.

I was clueless to the fact that since 2016, over 3000 Cameroonians have been killed and over 730,000 civilians displaced.  Neither was I aware that a couple of weeks ago, several human rights organizations charged that ICE officials allegedly used torture to force detainees to sign their own deportation papers.  Many detainees refused, fearing death at the hands of the Cameroonian government and because they had asylum hearings pending.  Some of those who refused to sign were placed in handcuffs. Their fingerprints were taken forcibly and used in place of a signature on a form which indicated that asylum seekers waive their rights to further immigration hearings and that they accept deportation.

In the midst of all this, the missionary shared a detainee’s letter of thanks with the children in which the Cameroonian used the word “Ekwueme.”  My friend did some research and discovered that “Ekwueme” is a hymn, sung partly in English and partly in Igbo (an eastern Nigerian language).  “The God who says and does.  You are the living God, there is none like you.”  The children have been singing it ever since. When the missionary relayed that news to the detainees – some in detention, some on parole, some on the verge of a perilous forced flight home – they burst into singing, amazed that this familiar hymn had made it to the States and was now being sung by children here.  Without a doubt, the song will continue to strengthen the resilience of the Cameroonians.  Without a doubt, a coming generation of kids have been told about, and participated in, the glorious deeds of the Lord.

I do not know what will happen tonight (Tuesday) or tomorrow or in the weeks and months ahead.  I am anxious about the potential (inevitable?) crises ahead.  I do know, though, that Jesus speaks of the wise and the foolish in this Sunday’s parable, which harkens back to the wise and foolish with which he concludes the Sermon on the Mount.  Having extra oil and building on the rock are the same thing, so we are called to be attentive and not complacent, patient and faithful and expectant in living out the life inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Nancy Hastings Sehested was head chaplain at a men’s closed custody prison for ten years, a position categorized in “the system” as “nonessential staff.”  Not only do prisons call into stark relief what we really believe about sin, salvation, grace, repentance, mercy, redemption, accountability, and forgiveness but, as Richard Goode claims, prisons also “reveal the secreted nature of the regime that creates them.”

One day while the chapel choir was rehearsing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” two singing offenders started fighting.  Nancy’s shouts for them to stop went unheeded, so she rushed to her office and called for help.   Within seconds the lieutenant and three officers arrived, quickly broke up the fight, and restored order.

Back in her office, her hands were shaking.  All her training through the years in nonviolent resistance seemed downright useless and naïve.  She certainly did not want to disregard the dangers she faced, but she refused to buckle to fear.  Suddenly the lieutenant, who heretofore had not been shy in telling her that women had no place in a men’s prison, appeared at her office door.  He pointed his finger at her and said, “You don’t like it, but you need me.  And I don’t like it, but I need you.”

She answered, “Yes, lieutenant, that’s true.  I depend on you all for safety and security.  But what do you need me for?”

“I need you to keep me from using undue physical force.  I need you to teach me another kind of force” (Marked for Life).

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