(Normally I like to sprinkle my essays with humor and lightness. But a few times a year, circumstances leave me so deep in thought that all I can do is speak from deep within myself...and honor the occasion by NOT forcing humor on it. This is one of those occasions.)
Today is my last Sunday before retirement. I began my ministry at the end of one protest era (the Sixties were just petering out) and I am ending it at the beginning of another.
In the last six months, rallies, marches, and pickets have sprung up across the country. The first wave of protests was small: Trump-provoked rallies against public health regulations, despite a serial killer-virus still on the loose that has now claimed over 100,000 lives. Rumbles of protest could be heard among church people against our bishops who temporarily vacated our church buildings-- which is probably the right thing to do in cases of fire...or lethal virus.
This has been a mad year: a president was impeached but not removed. A pandemic still races around the world and everyone takes shelter. Huge chunks of the economy crumble. Twenty-five million Americans lose their jobs. We say, "We have never seen anything like this in our lives before!"
But suddenly the news erupts with something that is NOT new; we have seen it often, for hundreds of years in this country: it is not safe to be Black in America. The evidence, statistical and anecdotal is overwhelming. If you don't believe me, drop me a note and I'll share what I have.
And then there is rioting and looting and plundering. Usually it is outsiders who are accused such trespasses. But people with badges also get out of control (definition of rioting) and loot families of their children, and uncles, and fathers, and mothers, and daughters. And people in high places try to put lipstick on this "official" crime by calling it law and order.
And we hear of "white privilege" and "abolishing the police." And people who genuinely want to learn and be contribute are being scolded and sent away for not being "pure" enough to take part in the revolution. Meanwhile, Donald Trump strides up to a church building, brandishing a Bible. He and his evangelical buddies fancy that he is an agent of the Lord, sent to smite protesters with the wrath of the Almighty. But he neither opens the Holy Book nor reads it. And the protests swell. And even decorated generals can't figure out what to do.
Never has my "official" retirement from ministry seemed more irrelevant to me. I find myself furiously going back to school: trying to assimilate the stories and reasoning and grief and rage that is the context of what is happening. And because I'm old, I have to work extra hard to understand and make room for what is not myexperience.
I am a Protestant minister...as in PROTEST-ant. Protestant churches were born in protest. Sometimes the protest was theological, sometimes organizational, but often ethical. But the protest was always against some form of injustice and wrong-headedness in the church itself. How can I walk away from a church that just might be on the verge of another revolution? The church, even my beloved United Methodist Church, remains a bastion of racism. Maybe the lid of the jar is loosened after all these decades and centuries of prayer and complaint. Now may just be the time to take it off! Instead of retiring, I'm scrambling to find a way back into the fray.
I won't ask for permission to enter this revolution...timid because I'm a privileged old comfortable white guy who has never had to be afraid of the authorities. I'm not standing on the sidelines just because of my white privilege. I'm coming in anyway. Those who struggle for justice could always use another ally, whether I'm wanted at first or not. For all I don't know, I do know a few things about history. And those who ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat its mistakes. And I'm tired of injustices carrying the day because of those kinds of mistakes.
The ancient Israelites looted and plundered their Egyptian taskmasters. Jesus said, "I come not to bring peace but a sword." The Palm Sunday parade, festooned with chants and greenery, was actually a protest march. Paul knowingly instigated riots in towns throughout the Roman empire. We like to howl about how the "Jews" crucified Jesus, but why do we never mention the more direct role that the police and military had in his wrongful death?
The American Revolution, of course, was seen from London as merely a rabble of rioters and looters. By all accounts, it wasn't our military that won us our independence, but rather the obnoxious guerillas and protesters, who over seven years finally caused the British to withdraw and tell us to go to hell.
In a great irony of our times, the second amendment to the constitution (right to bear arms) was designed to help today's protesters: allowing them to carry weapons to protect themselves against police and government militia. I'm pretty sure the NRA might have finally found a reason in the past two weeks to back off their absolutism on that amendment.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams in 1787:
"... The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere." In another correspondence, he also wrote, "
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Of course, Jefferson was a nice writer, but also a despicable owner of slaves and a DNA-documented rapist of women.
I make these historical observations, not to sensationalize, but to put some questions on the table: What end do we want out of all this? What means are permissible to achieve those ends? When the means we have been using for decades have not borne fruit, how can we escalate our power and pressure? Are violent means an answer? Or does violence always sow seeds of violence in the utopia we hope to at
tain? Do those who live by the sword eventually die by the sword? If power is taken by the oppressed by violence, do we not simply trade one evil for another? Or is history just a parade of tyrants? One of my mentors, Saul Alinsky, claims that only casual observers to history have the luxury of debating whether the means justify the ends. Actors in history have to do their work in foggy and messy environments. On the other hand, another mentor of mine, Martin Luther King, Jr., claims that non-violence is non-negotiable. Perhaps true change is paradoxical and both are right.
In any case, true justice and righteousness demand not just a change of faces...but a change of rules. The individual heart and our collective systems are inextricably intertwined. While we are protesting, it may be good to protest the rules that have governed our hearts, our churches, and our sense of safety and welfare. The old rules have not served us well. Long live this revolution!