Injustice & Resistance - Vince Brackett
Injustice & Resistance Intro
So it’s the weekend in our country that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King.
One of my favorite reflections on Dr. King comes from a friend of his, a Rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel
Here they are together in 1968 at a protest in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (He’s to the right of Dr. King, our left).
Heschel said this about his friend at the 68th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly… ”Where does God dwell in America today? Is He at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people's agony, devoid of mercy? Is He not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums? Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us."
I think I have my facts right that, after Heschel said this, just 10 days later was the day Dr. King was killed.
Heschel’s most famous comment was after marching in Selma with Dr. King, and he was asked: what did it feel like?
Heschel said, “It felt like my legs were praying”
I love that. — Why is marching important? Why is protest important? What does it accomplish? Well, we can answer that a lot of ways, but one is: maybe our legs can pray.
So this year Dr. King’s weekend has ended up the same weekend as a relatively new tradition of marching and protest and Resistance of Injustice in America: the Women’s March in Washington — some from Brown Line Vineyard have participated these last two years.
And all of this brings me to the teaching from Jesus I would like us to visit this morning.
Parable of the Minas
From Luke’s Gospel, chapter 19… A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas (roughly 3 months wages each). 'Put this money to work,' he said, 'until I come back.' "But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, 'We don't want this man to be our king.' "He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. "The first one came and said, 'Sir, your mina has earned ten more.' " 'Well done, my good servant!' his master replied. 'Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.' "The second came and said, 'Sir, your mina has earned five more.' "His master answered, 'You take charge of five cities.' "Then another servant came and said, 'Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.' "His master replied, 'I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn't you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?' "Then he said to those standing by, 'Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.' " 'Sir,' they said, 'he already has ten!' "He replied, 'I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them--bring them here and kill them in front of me.' "
So, the usual interpretation of this (one that I have spoken on before myself) is to understand the Master to be God and to make heroes out of the first and second servants. We take from this parable that God wants us to be industrious. The third servant is the example of what not to do: he was foolish with what was entrusted to him, he was risk-averse, and therefore he gets what he had coming. Those who are entrusted with something should take risks to put it to use. Those who create value, who don’t let their talents go to waste, are rewarded.
Which is a good message that many of us need to hear, for sure.
But this interpretation also begs some questions:
Like how do we square this business about the Master ordering his enemies to be killed with Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” -- maybe it’s just a lost in translation thing or stretching the metaphor too far, but that feels inconsistent if the Master is God.
Or, I just wonder if this interpretation is a bit capitalistic for Jesus. It’s very “more is better” and “you get what you deserve”. Isn’t that what an American would want to get from this?
We’ve talked a lot over the last year here at Brown Line Vineyard about how enthusiastic we are about learning from the Bible — because we are so enthusiastic about Jesus, and the Bible is such a window into his life and teaching — BUT learning from the Bible (like any ancient source) is not a straightforward effort. It is dangerously easy to take a given passage from the Bible out of its very specific context and culture, and read one’s own context and culture into it.
Well, a little while back I came across an interpretation of this teaching from Jesus that comes from a different tradition.
It’s from Central American Liberation Theology. And I bring it up today because it suggests: this teaching from Jesus is actually about Resisting Injustice. About protest. I wonder if this interpretation grabs you?
A different interpretation…
According to the story, the Master earns his enormous fortune (and a bad reputation) through taking land as his own (even when people don’t want him as their king), and by loaning money and charging exorbitant interest (by taking out what he did not put in and reaping what he did not sow, as the third servant put it). Also, evidently, he is bloodthirsty.
In the eyes of the Old Testament Biblical prophets, whom Jesus revered, these behaviors would have been considered godlessness and a failure to love one’s neighbor.
So the interpretation in this case is: the Master is not the God figure of the story. He is the bad guy of the story.
And, while all the other servants join in the Master’s profiteering, it is the third servant who emerges as the hero of the story, the God or Jesus figure. He will have nothing to do with mechanisms of exploitation. He doesn’t oppress the poor, even under strong pressure to conform. He speaks the truth no one else would, telling his Master to his face that this way of making money is unjust. And he is prepared to suffer the consequences for all of this.
From this interpretation, Jesus highlights the Master’s words -- “to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away” (which is basically “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”) -- Jesus highlight these words NOT to imply that he agrees with them, but to criticize them.
It‘s as if Jesus is saying, “That’s the way of things in this world. But we can pull out of that horrible game, if we are ready to pay the price for doing so.”
Jesus’ whole life is a picture of the “third servant” -- It shows us a God who is ready to “pay the price” for pulling out of and resisting the very worst exploitive, cruel, violent games of our world.
That is what God does in Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross. The games we humans play always need a loser, a victim, and God’s response to that is an inspiration!
He says, “Okay, you insist on a loser, on a victim? Then I’ll be the loser. I’ll be the victim” so no one else has to be.
That is resisting injustice. That is standing for those who can’t stand for themselves.
If we are passionate about resisting the injustice we see in America today, then this story from Jesus is an encouragement to us. We have the God of the universe on our side. God is the Resistor of Injustice in Chief.
So my question for us this Dr King weekend is: How often do I talk with God about injustice and resistance?
There are a number of reasons I ask this:
What I want you to do with this…
First, we need to draw from the source
I’m not sure any person can be about resisting injustice for a lifetime without a spiritual life — there’s a reason so many of history’s heroes of Non-Violent Protest have been spiritual.
If we try to do resistance by sheer willpower or personal conviction, I think we run real risks. Because willpower and personal conviction come and go. Maybe we accomplish great things for a season if we’re high functioning, but maybe we don’t experience the power or joy in it. Maybe resistance starts to feel more like a guilt-trip than a calling. Maybe we exhaust ourselves or burn out, and then the cause we were about loses us as an asset.
I think the best plan of action to be about resistance for a lifetime is to let it flow out of relationship with the God of Resistance.
People in regular relationship rub off on each other. We learn from each other, we start to notice the same things, friends even start to laugh like each other. It’s the same way with regular relationship with Jesus. The more you spend time with Jesus, praying, showing him what’s on your mind, giving him permission to speak into your life and decisions, the more his “third servant” character and integrity will rub off on you.
Second, we need non-shaming motivation
In the age of social media and our unparalleled access to information, it can sometimes feel like there are Resistance Purity Tests we have to pass. You’re a phony if you’re not ticking off all of these 17 boxes with your efforts to resists injustice.
Here’s my personal experience though; I wonder if it feels similar to any of yours? I absolutely care about global working conditions but I just can’t afford buying exclusively ethically-made clothing. I want really badly to be a part of breaking down cultural/ethnic barriers in my neighborhood, but I don’t speak spanish or arabic, and I feel just as awkward and insecure as the next person meeting someone new… So when I pick up my son from school and hang out around the playground for a half hour, I and the other white families clump together, and the spanish speaking families clump together, and the arabic speaking families clump together... I don’t totally know how to resist that.
And my list can go on. So am I a phony?
This is really important: we have got to be careful to NOT project our tendencies toward purity tests on to God. As Kyle talked about a couple weeks ago, the God we pray to here at Brown Line Vineyard is not a shaming God. He is supportive and understanding of how people actually grow: through positive motivation, not negative motivation.
Growing in fortitude and courage and capacity to resist injustice (and to accept the consequences that come with that) is just like any type of growth: we need support and positive motivation to do so.
God promises that. Even our favorite activists, writers, podcasters, speakers or whatever can not always promise that.
Third, we need a filter
The other thing about all of our access to information is, maybe we don’t feel shamed by a purity test, but we feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by the sheer number of causes it feels important to stand for.
I heard a very wise pastor and friend once say this: “You are not responsible for not doing the things God has not called you to do.”
I really feel helped by that. Because it whole-heartedly encourages me to ask God, “what is my specific part in resisting injustice right now? what specific action do you want me to take today? is there a specific cause that you want me to focus on in this season of life?”
BUT then it stops me from carrying responsibility that is not mine to carry beyond God’s specific charges to me. I believe you and I (and all people) each have a personal call from God in this, which we should totally pursue with all our hearts… but the weight of the whole world is not on any of our shoulders. That’s God’s job.
I mentioned global working conditions — I’ve talked before about how this weighs on my heart.
I want to be a more conscious and careful consumer — willing to buy the more hard-to-find and expensive products that aren’t manufactured through cycles of taking advantage of people or communities elsewhere in the world.
But, with all I can find out through a simple Google search, it feels like there are three companies in the world that are assuredly ethical, and they’re really expensive.
So I just want to avoid the issue. Because it feels overwhelming and paralyzing -- there is nothing I can do.
There was a recent episode of The Good Place that worked this idea. The joke in the show is that someone goes to the “Good place” after they die (a parody of the traditional view of Heaven) based on how many “Points” they earn in their life.
Hundreds of years ago, a man giving a flower to his mother was worth, say, 50 points.
But now, in the 21st century, because he purchased that flower online instead of picking it himself, the fossil fuels and cheap labor used to care for, pick, and deliver that flower to his mother make what used to be an obviously positive act now worth a net-negative-30 points.
It’s a very funny show. And it makes you feel uncomfortable for a purpose.
Anyway, a while back I just started showing my trapped feelings to God about “is it even possible for me to be an ethical consumer?” instead of hiding those because they made me uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
And I felt like I got an idea: For Keziah and I to try to spend just as much money on more expensive ethical brands as we do on less expensive brands with checkered ethics. Sort of a “maybe you can’t afford to go all the way, but can you afford to try to go-halfway?” solution…
Not a perfect solution. But something specific that it felt like God had for us.
And it helped me realize: it is NOT true that, just because I can’t eat the whole elephant in one bite, I can’t do anything. That’s NOT true.
Finally, we need to be activated in our everyday life
One detail I like from Jesus’ story is that the third servant stands up to the injustice that life brought to his doorstep — he resisted in the context of his “everyday”. This story is not as much about an experienced activist or prophet (although we definitely need those too!) as it is about an ordinary person who finds himself called into a moment of activism.
I think we all need this. For our everyday American lives to be interrupted by things that are higher stakes, matters of justice. For our natural human tendencies to stay in our own small, self-centered existences to be challenged. For us to find ourselves a part of the larger purposes of the “third servant” God who resists injustice.
A few months back I talked here on a Sunday about witnessing a man sexually harass a woman on the train during my commute, and feeling compelled to shout “that’s enough.”
That’s a new thing for me. I’m not a person who seeks out confrontation. I’m usually the person who pretends not to see something because I don’t like to cause a fuss (a classic argument from someone who enjoys privilege, and doesn’t realize how much they are complicit with injustice and abuse).
But God has been changing the way I look at the world, to see my world more as the third servant does. And so I found myself, in the middle of my everyday life, resisting.
So I would love to pray and bring us into a space to interact with God right now…
I know for a fact we have many people in this community who are passionate about resisting the injustices of America today.
And I’m guessing I can speak for more than just myself when I say: I want that kind of passion to drive me more. To not just be on the backburner. I want my life to be about more, about bigger, more consequential things.
These are NOT feelings we need to hide from God. God is not sizing us up with a purity test, before he decides whether to speak to us or help us. He wants to come to us, exactly where we are -- to be a source for us, a non-shaming motivator, a filter, and to activate us in our everyday.
Stand with me, and I’ll pray for us…