How Do the Faithful Oppressed Pray?

            As many people, Black and white, but especially Black, are watching the trial of ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, it is safe to say that many are waiting with bated breath. The instances of white officers getting away with shooting and killing Black people have been too many; even in cases where videos have captured the actions of the accused officers, making many believe that the justice system would have no choice but to arrest, indict, and convict the accused, they have been acquitted or exonerated before even having to go to trial.

            It is not a sure thing that Chauvin will be convicted. If he is not, I was asked, what will happen?

            I don’t know, but I do know that internalized pain eventually erupts; one can only take so many hits to his or her concept of and need for justice before the pus that forms from the untreated wound caused by injustice pushes its way out.

            What, then, or how …do the faithful oppressed pray? What types of prayers are pastors of Black congregations offering to and sharing with their members? Or are they praying about it at all? Are they avoiding the elephant in the room because, frankly, they do not know what to say or how to say it?

            There has been a frustration that many Black pastors, theologians and scholars have grappled with for generations. William R. Jones wrote, Is God a White Racist? James Cone tackled the problem of a God whom the Bible says is no respecter of persons, but who has not interceded and stopped white supremacy – which supports the dehumanization and criminalization of Black people. Cone’s answer was the development of Black Liberation Theology. Black people  have wondered where God is and why, if and since God shows no favoritism, hasn’t God stopped the insanity called white supremacy?

            The frustration with God by leaders of oppressed people shows up in the Bible. Moses, pegged by Yahweh to lead the Israelites from Egyptian captivity to freedom, expresses the frustration in Exodus 5:22-23, saying, “Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people. (italics mine.) 

            Many Black faith leaders feel Moses’ frustration. God has, in fact, been manipulated to act as a protector and supporter of white supremacy. Throughout American history, white Christians – in both the North and the South – believed and preached that God was in favor of segregation and against the mixing of the races in any fashion, including education and burial, thus, they preached the rightness not only of segregation but of lynching as well. Many white Christian hailed their God as one who supported and ordained their cultural leanings.

            God looked the other way, it seems, during the violence carried out by whites against Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. In history, God has certainly either looked the other way or refused to see – and stop – the violent desecration and ruination of entire black communities perpetrated by white people who believed Black people did not and should not have the right to vote. “Good Christian” white people resonated with the words of one Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, who said, as he riled up white people to violent insurrection against black people and the government in Wilmington, North Carolina because the whites resented the power of the Black voting bloc and their considerable presence in state government, “Here in the most quiet and conservative of the original 13 states…we are reduced to the pitiful necessity of choosing whether we will live under the domination of Negroes…” (David Zucchino, The Wilmington Lie, p. 147) Whites in Wilmington did, in fact, succeed in murdering hundreds of Black people in that 1898 insurrection, destroyed Black homes, churches, and communities, and were successful in driving Black people out of office – and keeping them out until the early 1970s.

            As the Black residents of Wilmington saw what was going on, the religious leaders urged them to pray, assuring them that God would hear their prayer and stop the murderous rage of their white brothers, but to no avail. The riot and insurrection went on as planned – and in the end, the whites revised the story to read that it was Black people who had instigated the riot and that they had only retaliated to save their lives and the lives of their families.

            There are many accounts of Black people praying against those who oppressed them, but in spite of the prayers, the attacks and the oppression that is a part of an Empire run by white supremacists have continued.

            What, then, do the oppressed pray? How do the faithful oppressed have conversations with God and what is the desired outcome?

            It spite of the prayers of Black and other oppressed people, white supremacy has not disappeared and is not in danger of doing so. Do we pray for the ability to hold on? Do we pray for new vision and new tactics? Do we pray for new leaders? We have done all of that; we have held on and the nonviolent direct action taught by the Rev. James Lawson and practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is probably the reason more Black people have not been killed by white supremacists with guns.

            But at the end of the day, what should be the corporate prayer of the faithful oppressed? What should we be praying now, in light of the quest for justice for George Floyd and unprecedented voter suppression laws being created? ? How do faith leaders train their people to handle their hurt, frustration, disappointment and anger over racial oppression that never ceases?

            Surely, there must be an answer and some specific words that can be codified and shared with us all as we wait, with bated breath, to see if a murderous police officer will be punished for what he has done.

On Pseudo-Christianity

I have long said that if a person cannot, will not, or does not follow the words of Jesus, then that person cannot call oneself a Christian. As Christians, we are called to imitate the way Jesus lived and to follow his words. Short of doing that, a “religious” person who attends a Christian church cannot claim to be a Christian. At best, he or she is a church-goer.

The president this week “disagreed” with Jesus’ lesson to us to “love our enemies,” and he doubted the faith of those who say they pray for their enemies. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-politicization-of-the-national-prayer-breakfast-is-unholy-and-immoral/2020/02/06/529518e4-4931-11ea-bdbf-1dfb23249293_story.html) Jesus said for us to do that, most starkly in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, the president rejected the words and teaching of Jesus as his “enemies” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senator Mitt Romney listened,

It has been interesting to listen to people marvel at African Americans voice forgiveness for the persons who have killed their loved ones. The most recent example of a black person forgiving someone was Brandt Jean, who publicly forgave the white police officer who shot and killed his brother as he sat in his own apartment. (https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766866875/brandt-jeans-act-of-grace-toward-his-brother-s-killer-sparks-a-debate-over-forgi) His act did not endear him to many; in fact, many Christians – black especially but others as well – have scoffed at Jesus’ directives to forgive, to “turn the other cheek,” and to treat enemies with respect.

But if the truth be told, had not the words of Jesus been pounded into the psyches of black people, we as a people would have been long gone. We did not have any support for our lives and our rights – not from white people, not from the system, including Congress and the US Supreme Court, and we did not have the same access to weapons as did white people. Nonviolence saved protesters on the street; struggling to “do” the words of Jesus saved the souls and spirits of protesters as they continued to fight their enemies on a daily basis.

In a book I wrote some years ago, Forgive WHO? The Struggle to Obey God’s Awful Command, I examined this directive given to us by Jesus. It is as distasteful as it is difficult. It makes one feel weak because the natural human inclination is to fight stones with stones, and yet when the playing field is so uneven, it is a given that the powerful have more stones they can access, and therefore to wipe out their opposition.

The power of Jesus’ words is their ability to empower and strengthen people, who show a weird love – the love of God – and stand in front of their oppressors in spite of their pain and anger. It is doubtful that anyone “forgives” his or her enemies right away; that seems humanly impossible, but the words of Jesus become seeds in bruised souls and begin to sprout even as the victim of evil works to breathe through their pain. The act of forgiving first helps the one who has suffered an attack or affront from any number of sources. It is the highest, most supreme show of strength one can exhibit.

Those who do not, cannot, or will not forgive display what hatred and anger and resentment does to one’s spirit. The president is an example. He only wants revenge; the desire is eating at him, so intense that even in a “prayer breakfast,” where supposedly devout Christians have gathered to honor God, he cannot hold his pain within him, and he openly disavowed the words of Jesus the Christ.

And the Christians-in-name-only applauded him and laughed, which says at least to me that something is awry in their souls as well.

There is much confusion about forgiveness. Forgiving doesn’t mean you become best friends with the one who hurt you (no need to set up a time for “tea and crumpets), but it does mean that you lose the visceral reaction you experience when you even think of what the person has done to you. It frees you even as your abuser drowns in bitterness and anger.

What we have seen this week in this president and in the religious nationalists is a love of power, not of Jesus. We have heard – and will continue to hear and see – his words of anger and contempt for those who he deems as being his enemies, and he will spew his venom all over this country and everything he touches.

He and others might claim to be “Christian,” but they cannot be. They adhere to something that can only be called “pseudo Christianity,” something which has no foundation and teaches nothing about how to be one’s best self in the face of abject evil and attacks.

Those who fight with fists claim that they are strong. Dictators, who cannot stand to be criticized or challenged, and who kill and/or destroy anyone who does either, also claim to be strong,  But their quest for absolute power, and their willingness to put God and the instructions for life given by Jesus the Christ on the periphery of their lives, makes them the weakest people of all.

A  candid observation.

Being Careful About What You Ask For

At the beginning of a series of sermons I did on prayer, I shared with the congregation that I was praying that my prayer would lead to a life-changing experience.

Well, I got my wish!

You always hear old people say, “be careful what you pray for,” and they say that for a reason. It’s because when you put the desire of your spirit “out there,” the universe receives it. The universe definitely received my prayer request…as did God.

The experience of having such a powerful prayer request granted has thrown me off just a bit. I should have specified what kind of life-changing experience I was looking for. I knew that I felt inadequate as a pastor, I knew that I felt, actually, like a failure in that capacity. But I also knew that in the areas of being a pastor where I am good, I was really good.

Well, God has jokes. God answered my prayer. I have resigned my role as pastor. I am scared out of my mind about what my “next steps” will be. I believe that God is faithful…but I don’t know what my life will look like after November 30 of this year.

In this place of newness, I am learning new things about God, and about things I have always believed in, like, for instance, baptism. There are three symbols of baptism, as listed in the Bible: death, burial and resurrection. Certainly, in some experiences, in order to be transformed, the “old” us has to die and be buried before the new “us” can resurrect. I am convinced, however, that baptism is not a single  event, but is, rather, a series of experiences. In other words, in this life, we “die” rather frequently as we move closer to becoming who God intends for us to be and do. We cannot move forward until the “old” us dies …and is buried.

Well, the “old” Susan has taken her last breath. Burial is pending…but so is resurrection.

This dying, being buried and then being resurrected, while it sounds nice, is rather painful. While I have complete faith and trust in God, I do not like the pain of dying. It really hurts!  And yet, nothing new can come until something old has died. Even as I write this, the leaves of summer are dying and falling to the ground.

I wonder what the United States would be like if it allowed the “old”  United States, you know, the USA that was founded on a principle of equality but has moved forward in a culture based on inequality and oppression of  “the least of these.” Indeed, my reading and finding out that our own country had deep involvement in the Eugenics Movement, has sobered me. I wonder what would happen if our country would “own up” to its sins of oppression and discrimination, and ask God for that spirit which still exists to die, what our country would ultimately look and be like.

We would hurt for a bit, but we would be transformed. After death and burial, newness comes. It is inevitable. I know…because I am living it.

As we are in this 2012 presidential election cycle, I find myself, a woman who asked for transformation and who is getting it, asking God to show me my transformation means for my life, my work and my ministry. I wonder if President Obama or Governor Romney have transformation of our country and its policies on their minds.

Probably not.  Too painful. Too involved.

But if a new USA could arise out of this election, and if that resurrected USA could begin to see “the least of these” in a new way, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Nothing new comes from something old.

A candid observation …