A God That Cares About Justice

Over the last few months, with a new and fresh burden on my soul for those caught in the cross-hairs of injustice and oppression, I’ve often looked up to heaven wondering when God is gonna show up and right some of the wrongs in front of us. As I wait in silence, like a lonely passenger waiting in the subway for that train that never seems to come, it’s easy to get to a place where you wonder if he cares at all.

It’s actually quite easy to assume he doesn’t.

subway

Eric Garner

Michael Brown

Walter Scott

Philando Castile

Alton Sterling

Jordan Edwards

But then I got an answer that was both encouraging and daunting: God expects his followers – the people who truly claim to be committed to him – to create the justice we all long for. He’s expecting you and I to stand in that gap. To not wait for someone else or for the right time or for the right resources – but to fight and labor for justice now!

Certainly, there is a day coming when Jesus will come back on the scene… not as a baby in need of care, but as a King ready to rule. But that’s not yet. For today, he’s called us to rise up and act.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Matthew 23:23-24

In Jesus’ day, the teachers of the law and Pharisees were an interesting bunch. I don’t like to admit it, but they thought very similarly to the ways I often think, when left unchecked. They’re more similar to us in the church today than we often concede. I’m convinced of this.

It was common practice for the Jews to tithe- to give 10% of their earnings and income each year back to God. And they were very meticulous about it. It was common practice for families to tithe from all of their crops. Even if they had a small garden of spices in their back yard, they would still give a tenth of it each year at harvest time as an offering. In fact, they were so meticulous, if there was any miscommunication or question as to whether or not the tithe had been given already, the owner of the land would give a second tithe, just to make sure it happened.

Jesus isn’t knocking that carefulness here. He clearly states that they should be following the law, which this practice was part of.

The issue Jesus has here is that they were neglecting something more important in the process. Clearly, Jesus felt the issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness were of greater importance and more central to his heart than tithing spices. Essentially, if we’re gonna get something wrong, we ought to not let it be turning a blind eye to injustice and allowing our brothers and sisters to live under the stubborn, selfish, systemic oppression that snakes its way into society.

It gets better.

If his audience wasn’t repulsed enough already, he ended with a sucker-punch to the gut with this last indictment:

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

The imagery here is profound. According to Jewish ceremonial law, both a gnat and a camel were unclean; it would be impure to ingest either one. If living today, the Pharisees would put a metal strainer over that tiny opening at the top of their Starbucks cup to ensure a gnat wouldn’t accidentally get through on their way to work… not realizing (or caring) that the night before they feasted at the dinner table on camel steak.

There were probably many examples of a lack of justice, mercy and faithfulness in Jesus’ mind as he had this conversation.

  • The woman caught in adultery – in the very act. The woman was caught… but what about the man? He was never presented before Jesus and the mob never intended to kill him. But their stones were in hand, raised and ready to kill her. A complete lack of justice.
  • The story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus for sure had specific examples in mind of this scenario playing out. A man is beaten and left to die on the side of the road, but religious people walked by and looked the other way, rather than investing and helping. A complete lack of mercy.
  • Jesus continually got in “trouble” with the law when he healed hurting people on the Sabbath. A complete lack of faithfulness.

One of the best examples is probably the day Jesus walked into the temple for worship, overcome with wrath at the blatant injustice occurring right before his eyes. People behind tables, taking advantage of the poor and destitute, using the sacrificial system set up by God in order to turn an exorbitant profit margin for personal gain.

Crazy stuff.

So… why does all this matter?

To those who don’t follow Jesus or claim allegiance to him, I think in many ways you’re off the hook here. To those of us though who do name the name of Christ, and sing his songs on the weekend, and claim him as our Savior, we have a responsibility. And when we don’t step into these conversations and speak up and create the kind of justice we all want, and when we don’t fight against the systemic forces of oppression in our nation, our message loses credibility. 

People walk by and see us tithing our mint, and dill, and cummin… and they see us doing nothing about the young black boy shot in the street last week.

And they don’t care about our message. Because to them, (rightfully so) it doesn’t matter! Our message isn’t changing their experience on the ground! 

There’s a God that cares about justice.

If you’ve been hurt and beaten down while the church passed by on the other side of the road, oblivious, I’m sorry.

It’s not your fault, and it’s not God’s.

It’s ours.

 

Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

As I’ve continued to learn these last few months- time and time again- the injustices throughout our history to people of color have not been merely individual, one-on-one discrepancies. It would certainly make the problem of inequality easier to conquer if they were simply isolated instances between depraved individuals. But what I’m finding (and I hope beginning to communicate) is that the injustices and inequality over the years have been systematic and structural. For years, the US government has twisted and manipulated the Constitution to say what it wanted it to say, and in so doing continually departed from the original intent. There’s few examples of this better than the Supreme Court case of Plessy v Ferguson. Though this decision was made in 1896, it would go on to profoundly affect the African-American experience until its eventual overturning in 1954. At the time of this writing, that was just 63 years ago.

The case is named after a man named Homer Plessy. From just looking at his light skin complexion you wouldn’t be able to readily tell that he was black. However, on June 7, 1892, Plessy sat in the “White” car of the East Lousiana Railroad and identified himself as black. This wasn’t an accident of ignorance. His intent was to deliberately make an issue out of the Jim Crow laws of the day- legislation designed to separate the races- knowing full well it would get him arrested and hoping it would end up in the Supreme Court where it could produce change.

Like so many African-Americans who have risen out of the history books, I so admire Plessy’s courage and willingness to sacrifice his own freedom for the good of his neighbor. There’s something very Jesus-like about that. He was not violent in his protest of the wrongs around him, but yet firmly resolved to challenge the ideologies of inequality protected by the law.

He was arrested, and eventually the case did make its way to the highest court of the land. His lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendment.

In 1896, the ruling came down.

Listen to these DEVASTATING words by Justice Henry Brown, and try to follow the (twisted) logic in his statement. It is mind-boggling to me the LENGTHS they had to go to in order to safely continue the injustice within the confines of the Constitution:

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races. … The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”

Of the seven Justices, there was just one that spoke words of dissent to the decision- John Marshall Harlan. He could see the carnage awaiting if this went through and tried to speak reason… but to no avail. Look at his words in this excerpt from his statement:

“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. … The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.”

In hindsight today, we can see the very prophetic nature of his words.

One Justice spoke up. The other six went along with the prevailing thought of the day.

Today I wonder how the landscape of our history would have changed if just three other Justices on the bench engaged a little bit deeper with the checks in their soul in the moment… if just three others had the courage to side with Harlan?

This is yet again another example where the silence of a few contributed to the harm of many.

When we today see injustice or inequality, do we speak up? Are we so afraid of our social status and standing that we remain in the shadows… when our neighbor is dependant on our voice to change the cultural tide?

#OurHistory

Remembering Thomas Moss, 1892

The story of Thomas Moss is one I’m convinced everyone needs to hear.

It was March of 1892, the year when lynchings in the South were at an all-time high. The number of lynchings for a single year would never be higher than in 1892.

Thomas Moss was a highly respected postman within the black community of Memphis, Tennessee. Seeing an opportunity for some healthy competition, he started a grocery store called the People’s Grocery. The problem was, it was across the street from another grocery store, one owned by a white man named William Barrett. The effect this had on his customer base enraged Barrett to the point that he hired some off-duty deputy sheriffs to vandalize and destroy the store. Moss and two of his friends, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart, not knowing who they were dealing with, resisted the attack and before long, a gun battle broke out, wounding several of the deputies. As a result, Moss, his two friends, and 100 other black supporters were arrested. A few nights later, Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were dragged out of their cells, taken to a deserted railroad yard, and shot to death.

No trial.
No witnesses.

One of the reasons this particular account is so significant is that Thomas Moss was a friend of the now famous Ida B. Wells. Like many middle-class African-Americans, she had believed the myth that only low-income blacks were lynched for heinous crimes. Wells now couldn’t escape the fact that even innocent middle-class black people could be targets. As a result, this event sent Ida B. Wells on a crusade to lift the carpet of these lynchings up and expose them for what they really were.

The prevailing narrative of the day used to spread fear was that these lynchings were a means to “protect white women from rape” and that avenging a wrong by lynching was “manly”.

I found this chilling quote from Rebecca Latimer Felton, a former slave owner and women’s rights activist: “When there’s not enough religion in the pulpit… then I say lynch. Lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.”

I realize this is hard to look at. But it’s so important that we not ignore it. Just as it’s important to visit the Holocaust Museum and remember the horrific events in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, it’s important that we remember what occurred just a few generations ago.

Depending on the historian, there were nearly 5,000 recorded lynchings between 1882-1968, 73% of which were of African-Americans. It’s important to note that these are the number of RECORDED lynchings. There were many more that never hit the record books.

These lynchings ranged from simple, quiet events with only a few people present, to large festivals with huge crowds of spectators. Admission by ticket was not uncommon.

People were coming out to these LIKE A FREAKIN’ MOVIE ON FRIDAY NIGHT.

It disgusts me to even write that.

Yale Professor, Jonathan Holloway said, “In its own grotesque way, slavery afforded a level of protection for blacks. It certainly wasn’t there after emancipation. Of course, that is not a defense of slavery, but that is just sort of an element to consider in this equation.”

If you go to the link below, you can see a collection of postcards with actual pictures from some of these lynching festivals collected by James Allen. They are hard to look at, but I want to encourage you to do so. http://buff.ly/2kB55Oe

About these images, historian Leon F. Litwack wrote: “The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another.”

That last line is really, really important.

“This was … the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another.”

As if the horrors of slavery weren’t enough, the lynchings of the 1880’s through the 1960’s again and again and again told the African-American community that their lives didn’t matter.

#OurHistory

ida-b-wells-websitepeoples-grocerpeoples-grocery