The Crucible of Justice
June 07, 2020
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.
As a young person, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones couldn't understand why her father always flew an American flag in their front yard.
He was born into a sharecropper’s family on a white plantation in Greenwood, Mississippi. He grew up in a white minority state that subjugated its black population through unspeakable violence. Police murders of black men were commonplace. Like millions of black Southerners, his mother packed him and his two siblings up and headed North to escape their life of slavery by another name. They got off the train in Waterloo, Iowa, only to realize Jim Crow was there to greet them.
Like many black Americans, her father, at age 17, joined the army in the 1940s to escape poverty and with the hope that if he served his country, he might finally be treated as a citizen. But the military treated him as inferior to white soldiers. After his discharge, he worked menial jobs for the rest of his life.
So the fact that he insisted on flying the American flag never made sense to his daughter. His patriotism embarrassed her. Only years later did she realize that her father knew far more than she did. “He knew,” she said, “that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”
Then she goes on, in her introductory essay to The New York Times' 1619 Project, which rexamines the legacy of slavery in the United States, to describe in compelling detail how this country was built, both physically and economically, by enslaved people and the profits made from their labor--and not just in the South. Nearly every institution established in the colonial period and first century of our founding, including our church, benefitted beyond our ability to calculate from enslaved people’s physical labor and extracted wealth--something that we are just coming to terms with now.
Equally compelling, Hannah-Jones argues it has been the African American’s struggle for freedom and civil rights that has helped this country better realize the promise of America. “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written,” she writes. “Black Americans fought to make them true, not only for themselves, but for others. . . black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different--it might not be a democracy at all.” (1)
Let’s be clear about one of the events of the past week: the President of the United States threatened to use military force against American citizens. At the same time, federal officers were sent to disperse peaceful protestors from Lafayette Park outside the White House. The Africian American mayor of his city stood her ground. She stood the ground for all of us. The debt to Black America in this democracy continues.
Crucible is the word that keeps coming to my mind to describe this moment in our lives, in this nation and its history. An actual crucible is a container in which metals or other substances are subjected to high temperatures, to test or transform them. Crucible is also a word to describe a severe test or trial that we experience--a refining fire, to use an image from Scripture--or one in which different elements interact, leading to our transformation.
This we know: the issues that we've been talking about non-stop for the last two weeks have been with us for a very long time. In a sermon he gave three weeks ago, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III described the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in his Atlanta neighborhood in February as having tested positive for “Confederate COVID 1619--a disease,” he said, “that is often asymptomatic; and spreads through human contact, rhetoric, ignorance and family relations.” (2)
Another term for this disease is white supremacy--the belief that white skin is the norm from which all other human beings deviate; the white body is the standard by which all other bodies shall be measured. This belief--this disease--is the foundation of a racial hierarchy that white Americans are reluctant to talk about but that perpetuates disparities that speak for themselves. Disparities in health care; in educational opportunity. Disparities in employment and life expectancy. Disparities in the so-called criminal justice system. Disparities in outcome when interacting with police.
There is nothing new about a white police officer killing a black man, but this week, for all manner of reasons, our response is new. The heat is rising. We’re all being mixed together. We might actually have an opportunity to change some things in our country and our world that have been crying out for change for a very long time. Think of that possibility: what if the time is now?
Another term for a crucible moment is kairos--a Greek word meaning “opportune time.” It differs from chronos, or ordinary time, that passes from one moment to the next. Kairos time emerges out of crisis, which, as my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us, is also opportunity; Kairos, she says, rises from chaos that is pregnant with the presence and possibilities of God.
So dare with me, you who are people of faith or who wonder if faith is possible, to hold this moment before the mystery we call God. Moments ago we heard two young people read the sweeping story of Creation as told in the Book of Genesis. With each miracle of creation, God declared that it was good, that it was good, that it was very good. God created humankind in God’s image, God declares that we were good. At the essence of creation, of our very being, is this potential for goodness as a reflection of God’s essential good nature.
Creation was not a one-time event; it is, in fact, an ever-evolving phenomenon. God is always at work creating life, giving life, cherishing life. That’s a faith statement. I grant you that there is ample evidence to counter this notion of essential goodness in God, the universe and certainly in us. But there it is for us to hold and to claim: God is good. This world can be good. We can be good.
For Christians, Jesus is God’s definitive response to the brokenness of it all, the brokenness in us: Jesus is God’s very being in human form, walking with us, being with us, suffering and dying alongside us, forgiving us for all the ways we fall short of the goodness for which we were born, and through his example and in his power teaching us how to love.
In this country, Christianity is unduly influenced by the ethos of individualism--as if the salvation we experience in Jesus were an individual experience only. It’s not. It’s deeply personal, say, but salvation in Christ is universal and communal. We also tend to place too much focus on the life that awaits us after death, which I understand when death approaches or when life here is really hard. But Christianity is an earthbound faith, meant to focus our attention here, building the Kingdom of God, by grace and with courage, here.
So when Jesus says “I am with you always even to the end of the age,” first of all, the you is plural.” Jesus is with us. Second, he is here. And if one of us is suffering at the hand, or the knee, of another of us or the systems some of us have created, where do we suppose Jesus is in that situation? Consider the cross, and you’ll find your answer. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry asks essentially the same question when he says to us, “What would the sacrificial love of Jesus look like in this situation?” Then go, he says to us who follow Jesus, or try to go, and do that.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to go, to do my part. I want the Church I lead to do our part, to help bring some good of the nightmare we’ve been in; to wrench grace out of unspeakable tragedy; to make real and meaningful restitution for the sins of the past that are still visited on far too many; to rid our institutions of embedded racism, however we can. If this is a, indeed, a kairos moment, pregnant with the possibilities of God, friends, we don’t want to miss this. We don’t want to miss this.
I have to tell you that some of my colleagues and friends who aren’t white have been saying for quite some time to me and other white people that there are some things only we white people can fix. The race problem isn’t theirs, they say; it’s ours, and we’re the ones that have to solve it. I hear in their voices both fatigue and exasperation: Would you please show up for this struggle, they ask me, time and again. Would you show up for the struggle that actually benefits you and your children? Would you do the work we can’t do? Would you please do your work?
In the same breath they remind me, and all of us, to take a breath--which in this moment is a pretty generous thing to say. Take a breath, they say, and remember that white supremacy wasn't invented yesterday, and it won’t go away tomorrow. They acknowledge that many white people have, in fact, been working alongside them for the Beloved Community for a long time. It just hasn’t been enough. And on our watch--my watch--some things have gotten worse. In the last three years, some things have gotten a lot worse.
But if this is a crucible moment; if this is kairos time, if we show up, we will be empowered by that power. We need to show up, for all our sakes, for God’s sake. If we show up, we can help redeem the time; we can move the needle on some of the most needed change. If we show up, we’ll be given our part. We all have something important to offer. We all can do more than we think.
The Creator God is busy creating a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus is right where we would expect him to be. The Spirit is blowing through our land. The only question you and I need to answer is, “Where are we?”
As for us, and this house, this Cathedral and this Diocese, we will serve our creating, liberating, life-giving God, and we will still show up after the cameras have turned off and the crowds disperse, to continue the hard work of Justice.
(1) Nicole Hannah-Jones, “America Wasn’t A Democracy,” in The 1619 Project, The New York Times, 2019.
(2) The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, The Cross and the Lynching Tree:A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery