A meditation for Beloved Community
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say,
Here I am.
Allow me to be forthcoming, this is a sermon about race and politics.
“Who are you voting for?” Let’s take a straw poll. All those voting for… just kidding. But seriously, “Who are you voting for?” It’s an important question in this election, especially in a swing state like Colorado.
Given the scope of Christian history, however, I would suggest that a more integral question might be, “Why vote?”
As a follower of the first century teacher named Jesus of Nazareth, “Why would you vote in a 21st century American election?”
If that question bothers you, I understand… But don’t give up on me just yet.
In the early days of Christian history in Roman occupied Palestine, let’s just say that Christians were not being handed a ballot and asked to vote. This question of “who to vote for” was not a conundrum that they faced. They were not a-political, of course. Their faith, at its core was a political rebellion. In a world that professed the Lordship of Caesar, early Christians rebelled and pronounced that Jesus was Lord.
My faith was transformed when I read a book by John Howard Yoder called, “The Politics of Jesus.” For Yoder, Jesus is a political figure, and his life on earth in first century Roman occupied Palestine was a form of a political manifesto.
Now, if you’re thinking that this book will tell you whether to vote for the democrat or the republican in the upcoming election, then you’ve missed the point. For Yoder, and others who have so well articulated our Anabaptist faith, Jesus’ life was a political manifesto because of his refusal to embrace the rules of power, force, and coercion. Jesus walked head first into conflict and in doing so established a new kind of society right there in the shell of the old… that was dedicated to peace, love, justice, mercy, and liberation.
The early church understood this. They gathered in defiance in one another’s homes as a declaration of the new society oriented to the Pax Christi, the peace of Christ, which took the sword from the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, and transformed it into a banquet table where there was no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
But over the course of time, things changed. In the 5th century, upon the debatable conversion of Constantine, Christendom developed, and suddenly power, force, and coercion were on the table as part and parcel of the Christian tradition. The sword entered Christian history in a new way, and the crusades could not help but follow.
This is the history, of course, that our Anabaptist tradition would emerge from. A group of young friends studying in Switzerland who declared that Martin Luther’s reformation had not gone far enough, and in a world where baptism into the state church was equivalent to the modern birth certificate – the action that made one a legal member of the state, a group of friends re-baptized themselves and declared the beginning of the radical reformation.
Before too long, a Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons did the same thing, and our Mennonite heritage was born. What did we encounter as our form of celebration? Chains, bondage, refugee status, burning at the stake… the same forms of celebration that the early church encountered.
So we wonder who we’re going to vote for… but there is a more integral question, “Why vote?” Why choose to participate in the political process of a nation-state whose position in the world is determined by force, power, military spending, and securing borders?
Give us the Ballot
In June, I was in Greensboro, North Carolina hanging out with a couple thousand Baptists. Greensboro is the site of the historic lunch counter sit ins, where students from Carolina A&T and the local high schools filled the Woolworths lunch counter day after day, until the economic pressure compelled the store owner to serve them in spite of their black bodies.
Eventually, the same kind of pressure overcame several white leaders across the south, as in the case of the Montgomery bus boycott, whites could literally no longer afford to refuse service to blacks. They needed their money, regardless of the color of their skin.
While I was in Greensboro with Baptists thinking about the racial tension in America, Representative John Lewis, sat down on the house floor and staged the first ever sit in the US House of Representatives.
This, of course was in response to the nightclub shooting in Orlando, and the countless other shootings that have taken place across our country in my lifetime. Lewis, and other house leaders wanted to vote on a gun-control measure.
As John Lewis was interviewed that evening about what he hoped would come from his political action, he said, “Just give us the vote. We want a vote.” Later that evening, the house floor began to sing, “We shall pass a bill, we shall pass a bill, we shall pass a bill, someday.”
In Greensboro, I found myself feeling completely moved and inspired. It felt as though I was watching the movement unfold all around me. Lewis’ comments outside the house reminded me of a speech that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave on the steps of the Lincoln memorial in 1957. This is a far less famous speech, than his iconic, “I have a dream” address, but it is no less important, even today.
This speech was titled, “Give us the ballot—we will transform the south.” King gave this address on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s passing of Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down “separate but equal,” laws and mandated the integration of schools across the south.
In his speech, the Rev. Dr. celebrated that decision, but noted that it had not come without opposition. Three years later, the south was still entrenched in defiance of that decision, the legislative halls rang out with words such as “interposition” and “nullification.” Amidst the defiance, black bodies, and black voices were completely suppressed.
In this speech, King pointed especially towards the conniving methods that were still being used to prevent black folks from becoming registered voters, and he did so with these powerful lines, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.”
“So,” he said, “Our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”
“Give us the ballot,” King said, and we will pass anti-lynching laws.
“Give us the ballot,” and we will fill the legislative halls with folks devoted to justice.
“Give us the ballot,” and we will place judges on the benches of the south who will do justice and love mercy.
“Give us the ballot,” King said, “and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954.”
I find that message to be so powerful. “You’re saying you can’t implement this law… you’re saying it’s too much too soon… give us the ballot, we will implement it.” From the voice of a man whose history was one of slavery and suppression, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself.”
And here I am asking, “Why vote?” what a privileged question.
By all means, we should vote, to the extent that we vote to “loose the bonds of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.” By all means we should vote to the extent that we continue to trace our founding narrative, which is the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth who walked head on into conflict in the midst of the Roman Empire, and in doing so established a new kind of society dedicated to peace, love, justice, mercy, and liberation.
“Yes on T! No Slavery!”
Now, I’m not telling you the top half of your Colorado ballot will do that this November—though, I would urge you to talk with folks who continue to be oppressed and enslaved and ask them who they want to see in office and by extension give them the ballot, give them your vote— but I think there is an amendment on the bottom half of this ballot that will “loose the bonds of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.”
I’m talking about amendment T, of course. The proposed amendment to the constitution that would remove the exception clause from the Colorado constitution that effectively permits slavery in instances when someone has been convicted of a crime. (A proposed amendment that was unanimously approved in both the Colorado house and Senate earlier this year, mind you.)
As Coloradans, but most importantly, as followers of Jesus, we don’t believe in slavery of any kind and it’s time that our founding document reflects that. It’s time that we move to remove that exception clause and eradicate slavery in all forms. Because words matter. The words of our founding document form the world that we come to inhabit. So here we are saying that we believe in equality and justice for all, but we’ve allowed this harmful institution called slavery to continue to hang in the air for 150 years after its eradication because we have failed to remove it entirely from our imaginations.
Words matter. It’s time that we move to remove the exception clause.
Truth and Reconciliation
Now, this is where the Amendment T campaign ends. And it’s important that I emphasize this.
As we tell our friends and neighbors about this bill and how important it is that we “Vote Yes on T” in the November election, people might have questions for us… questions like, “Why does that still matter?” or “What impacts might that have on the prison system?” etc. It’s important that we pivot, and turn the conversation back to the task at hand, which is striking harmful and antiquated language from our state constitution.
“We are against slavery as Coloradans, and so it’s time that we make our founding document reflect that.” End of story.
But it’s not really the end of the story, and since this is a safe space, I want us to imagine what this might mean for us as a community.
Because I believe that the removal of this exception clause is exactly what we need to begin the process of racial healing across this state and this nation…. And perhaps even across our families, and our own lives.
Black leaders and activists across the nation have rightly stated that this country has never had a process of truth and reconciliation that would enable us to be honest with ourselves about our original sin of slavery, and then move forward towards racial justice, towards kinship, towards love of our brother and sisters.
This is precisely why we continue to see racial tension growing in this country.
We’ve let this go on for far too long. We haven’t been honest with ourselves and acknowledged, as Michelle Obama did recently, “That we wake up in a house built by slaves.”
We haven’t been honest and acknowledged that we enjoy the freedom and opportunity of a nation built on the backs of slaves… And that even as chattel slavery has gone away… that we have continued to take slaves in new forms across our history… that we have continued to devalue black bodies, and black lives through systemic oppression… and that our “success” in life is directly linked to this oppression.
Bryan Stevenson is working on a new project. He’s trying to raise around $20 million to erect a Memorial to Peace and Justice in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial, which would focus on remembering the lives of the thousands of people who were lynched on American soil would be the first of its kind, but that is not why it’s going to be called the Memorial to Peace and Justice. It will be so named because the memorial will challenge every county in the country where a lynching took place to claim a piece of the memorial and take it back to their county and erect it there.
In so doing, Stevenson is inviting counties across the country to be honest about our history of racial oppression. To truly name it for what it is, and to ask for forgiveness.
And I wonder how we could be a part of that process as a community? How could we be a part of a movement towards a process of truth and reconciliation? How could we be part of a movement to be honest about our history of racial oppression, name it for what it is, and ask for forgiveness?
Amendment T is the beginning. Or it’s another beginning… it seems like we have had so many beginnings, but we have yet to move towards racial justice, much less kinship and love.
It’s past time to “loose the bonds, and let the oppressed go free.” We can’t wait any longer. As a people created to be a new society dedicated to peace, love, justice, mercy and liberation… It’s time, oh it’s past time, to let freedom ring, and let the process of truth and reconciliation begin. Amen.