Ezekiel 34: 1-6, 11-16 (The Voice)
I recently introduced my daughters to a movie musical called “Hairspray.” One of their friends was in a local theater scaled-down production of the show and I thought that the girls would enjoy seeing the Hollywood version. If you’re not familiar with the movie, Hairspray – a movie based on a Broadway musical that, in turn, is based on an earlier non-musical movie – tells the story of an American Bandstand-like TV dance show in 1959 Baltimore. It uses fun music and great dance numbers to give a glimpse into the struggle during the Civil Rights era when schools, businesses, and even TV programs where deciding whether to integrate blacks and whites together. Towards the end of the movie, a few of the white characters join their new black friends in a candlelit protest, marching down the streets of Baltimore as Motomouth Maybelle (played by Queen Latifah) sings about the struggles of her community as they fight to be accepted. “There’s a dream in the future,” she sings, “There’s a struggle, that we have yet to win; And there’s pride in my heart; ‘Cause I know where I’m going; and I know where I’ve been.”
The girls and I had fun watching the movie and it served as a nice history lesson. I spoke with them a bit about how African-Americans used to be oppressed and how people of all colors had to come together to convince the government to change racist laws and policies. We talked about why, sometimes, people had to march in the streets in order to be noticed and to hope that they would be heard.
As we turned off the movie, Motormouth Maybelle marching down the streets of Baltimore in 1959 was replaced with a live image of thousands marching down the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Here I was framing this great racial struggle as something from the past, something that was over and done with, and yet CNN was showing me that we haven’t come nearly as far as I’d thought.
We have a problem in America. And it’s a problem that I have the luxury to ignore if I want. It doesn’t really affect me. I can walk down the street and not worry that people assume the worst about me because of the color of my skin. I don’t have to worry that the first thought the police will have about me is that I’m a dangerous criminal. If I march down the street or raise my voice in protest, I may be called “annoying” but I won’t be branded “a thug.” I have the luxury to ignore many of the problems in our country and, chances are, my life would not be any worse. It would be so much easier and more comfortable if I could just stay out of it.
It’s Christmas time! I’d much rather have the refrains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” going through my head. Instead, the refrains that I hear are “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe” – the chants of protesters echoing the last moments of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s lives. I want this to be a time of fun and celebration, not sadness and tension. Last Thursday night, protesters disrupted the lighting of the Christmas tree on Boston Common and many of the families in attendance felt the same way: why disrupt a fun Christmas event with all this anger and grief?
While I struggled with my thoughts and feelings this week, I pulled up a copy of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a letter dated April 16, 1963 that Dr. King sent to many publications and addressed to: “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” As I read his defense of the use of nonviolent resistance to fight racist and unjust laws one section in particular hit me like a ton of bricks:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
The Hebrew prophets addressed an audience of people thousands of years ago who were waiting on the birth of a Messiah. They pictured someone who would come and save them from all of their problems. They expected someone to come and to fix the world for them. During Christmas time, when we celebrate the birth of the one we call “Messiah,” I wonder if we are still expecting the same thing. We’re waiting for someone else to come and do the hard work, someone else to make the difficult decisions, someone else to come and make the pain go away.
This to me is one of the most important reminders of Advent: we want to think that the birth of the Christ child made everything okay, but the truth is we still have a long way to go. And the truth is: no one will save us from ourselves. We have to be willing to participate in helping to heal our world.
Our world is broken. When God spoke to Ezekiel condemning the leadership of Israel, God said “Woe to the shepherds of Israel whose only concern is to protect and nourish themselves! Isn’t a shepherd’s job to look after the sheep? Yet you exploit them in every way. You devour their fat, make soft clothes and blankets out of their wool, and slaughter the best sheep for your table. Meanwhile you don’t take care of the sheep at all. … You have led them with neglect, ruled them with harshness, shepherded them with cruelty!”
Our world is broken. The system that has been created with the mission to “serve and protect” is instead being armed to defeat the communities they should be defending. Systematic racism is a part of every institution in our nation – it has always existed and is so ingrained that good intentioned white moderates like me are blind to it until the media decides to take notice, even when the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are unfortunately not as uncommon as we think.
Our world is broken. And I play a part in its brokenness every time I turn a blind eye to what’s going on. Every time I say that I don’t want to think about it or talk about it or do anything about it. Every time I choose to believe or that the system changed with the Civil Rights marches in the ‘60s or that it was all fixed when we elected an African-American president or that the world was made perfect when the Christ child was born 2000 years ago.
We want shepherds to lead us. We want someone else to set the country on the right course. We want to believe that our police and our politicians are beyond prejudice.
Instead, we need to turn to Jesus as our shepherd: not a shepherd who picks us up and carries us but one who leads us down righteous paths. We are called to follow, finding peace by actively pursuing justice and equality. Jesus didn’t help people who only looked like him. He didn’t stay silent because he was worried about causing tension. He didn’t decide to wait for a better time to point out when something was wrong.
We must make a commitment to follow the right shepherd. Even when we are lost, “[God] will seek [us] and bring back every last stray. [God] will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.” We need to begin talking openly and honestly about the systematic racism that exists and has always existed and we need to be honest about whether we choose to support it or to work towards tearing it down. We need to open our eyes to how our lack of action is just as bad as lending our support to a broken system.
Our world is broken. We haven’t come as far from the world of Hairspray’s 1959 Baltimore as we should have. But during this season of Advent, I can believe that it can get better. The birth of Jesus continues to give me hope – hope that the a world of peace is still possible once we all get out of our comfort zone, speak the uncomfortable truth that many of us are the beneficiaries of racial privilege, and put in the hard work of fixing what’s broken. If we can begin to do that, if we can follow behind Jesus our shepherd, I have faith that we can move farther forward than we’ve ever been.