by Michael Usey
My friend Brett Younger, a pastor in Brooklyn, opened his sermon last week this way. Do you ever feel like you are drowning and people think they are helping you by describing the water? The pandemic has led to a lot of advice that states the obvious and misses the point. For instance, the title of this article is better than the article: Seven Ways Mentally Strong People Can Handle a Pandemic. Who would not read that? We are trying to manage our daily lives, adjusting to new realities, taking care of our children and/or parents, and dealing with financial stress. We feel anxious and more than a little traumatized. We need ideas on how to get through this. Here are their recommendations:
1. Limit your exposure to the news. That makes sense, but if you are trying to get through a pandemic you want to know what is going on.
2. Accept your feelings as normal. This sounds like good advice, but if you are crying, knowing that it is normal to cry only gets you so far.
3. Limit social media—especially Facebook. That is fine, but when you cannot see your friends, you at least want to see pictures of your friends, on facebook.
4. Have self-compassion for your own lack of productivity. First, “self-compassion” is a curious phrase. Secondly, saying it is great not to get anything done might not be the best advice when you want to get something done.
5. Limit toxic people. C’mon! Who is not toxic right now? Everyone has toxic moments during a pandemic. And some are literally toxic, infected with the virus.
6. Focus on self-care. When we cannot be near many of the people we used to spend our time with, we can’t get many of our needs met, so we are already focused on self-care.
7. Know your needs—especially if you are an extrovert. Listen, if you are an extrovert, you have long ago figured out that a quarantine is not going to be a good time for you. Some advice does not seem like much help. You are lying on the ground with a broken leg and someone says, “You should run more.”
I’m wondering if this text from Joshua will be any more helpful. One commentator wrote, “It is more difficult to determine any positive message Joshua chapter 7 might have for the church.” Ouch. It’s not a lectionary text, which means most congregations will never hear it preached. Joshua is already not a popular book because it’s misunderstood as merely being a colonizer text, how the children of Israel “take over” the land of Cannan with tribes and kingdoms already there. I have a theory that North Americans neglect the book because it reminds of the blunder and sins of Christopher Columbus. I understand: how can you discover a land with people in it? If I discover your car, and you’re in it, is it my car? Plus this book is a prooftext for the zionist movement in Israel. But a closer reading reveals that the text is more subversive than merely a conquest narrative. Indeed, it recounts repeatedly how native Cannanites were included into what became Israel. Even so, College Park preachers never shrink back from difficult texts, no matter how dusty they may appear. And here again is our summer preaching theme, Questions God Asks.
When chapter seven opens, Joshua is sending spies to Ai (Hebrew for The Ruin) to see if they can take the city. The spies report back that the battle will be a cakewalk, and recommend not sending the full-on army, but merely 3000 (!) soldiers. This Joshua does, but they do not take the city and they lose somewhat badly. Joshua’s army has overwhelming numbers, yet they are repelled and lose 36 warriors. Joshua, recognizing a theological defeat when he sees one, goes full extra: he “ripped his clothes and fell on his face to the ground before the Chest of God, he and the leaders throwing dirt on their heads, prostrate on the ground until evening.” At which time he cries out to God a right cringy prayer, ending with, “Listen, when the other Cannanites hear about this, it’s going to make you, YHWH, look weak and incompetent.” Big Yikes.
This is when God asks the question for Joshua, and perhaps also us: Stand up! Why have you fallen on your face? In other words, “Why are you groveling?” So God says in effect, I see that you are repenting, that’s cool, but what are you doing about what you did wrong? So I see that you’re sorry, all well and dandy, but what are doing on your face? Why aren’t you about righting this wrong? Quit groveling and do the right thing!
Those of us in the church are pretty good at repenting, at recognizing how we have hurt others, ourselves, and creation. It is one thing to be sorry for sins, either personal or corporate. It is another thing entirely to do something about them.
In Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, it’s 1965 in Baltimore, and Ian is a 17 year old who belongs to a version of the ideal, apple-pie household. Still, his parents are somewhat taken aback when their oldest son, Danny, decides to marry Lucy, a divorcee with two small children. Soon thereafter a baby girl, Daphne, arrives. One evening, Ian, feeling pressured by too much babysitting, expresses in harsh, unforgiving terms his doubts about Lucy’s loyalty to Danny. His shocked brother commits suicide and shortly afterwards, the bereft Lucy overdoses on sleeping pills. Overwhelmed by guilt, Ian visits the Church of the Second Chance where Reverend Emmett leads, and where he asks God for forgiveness. Emmett asks him after the service if it worked.
Ian responded, “And I honestly believe it might have worked. Oh, it’s not like I got an answer in plain English, of course, but … don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m forgiven?” “Goodness, no,” Reverend Emmett said briskly. Ian’s mouth fell open. He wondered if he’d misunderstood. He said, “I’m not forgiven?” “Oh, no.” “But … I thought that was kind of the point,” Ian said. “I thought God forgives everything.” “God does,” Reverend Emmett said. “But you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.’ Why, anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation—concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.” “But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?” “Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course.” Reverend Emmett tells him that, to make amends for his wrongdoing, he must drop out of college and raise his brother’s children. The rest of the book is about what happens next. Anne Tyler is trying to send the same message that repentance without concrete actions isn’t enough.
God is not interested in our groveling; God is invested in our actions, our restorative justice–what are we going to do to try to make things right? We Christians can be pretty good about repentance, metanoia, a turning from what we’ve done wrong. Rebbe Eliezer taught in the Mishna, Repent the day before you die, which of course then means daily, and for a number of us, this is our spiritual practice. But, then, once we have learned to be better, then it is time to do better. It’s the heart of NT prayer to talk to God about something wrong, something that needs fixing, either in us or the world, THEN to get up and do something about what we just prayed about.
Following this sermon Christian sings Bruce Cockburn’s song The Trouble with Normal. Cockburn wrote it in 1983, 37 years ago, yet the lyrics are fresh from today’s news:
Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local Third World’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse
Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and the landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse
Unless we act on what we know we have done wrong, the new normal will always get worse.
Last weekend Ann and I were in Charleston, SC, for Brant and Madi Williams’ wedding, after which we toured the so-called Old Slave Mart, a 200 year old building where humans were bought and sold; it’s the last extant antebellum auction gallery of enslaved humans. It was, as you’d expect, horrific, sobering, and deeply disturbing. 40% of all enslaved Africans in America arrived first in South Carolina, which means 4-8 million enslaved people, survivors of the deadly middle passage, were sold there. This was the first indoor slave mart; Charleston had 40 outdoor slave auctions, but this one was created because the outdoor ones horrified visitors from Europe.
Many of these slaves were almost immediately put to work in South Carolina’s rice fields. Period writers wrote that there was no harder, or more unhealthy, work possible:
[Enslaved people] ankle and even mid-leg deep in water, on which floats an oozy mud, and exposed all the while to a burning sun which makes the very air they breathe hotter than human blood; these poor wretches are then in a furnace of stinking putrid effluvia; a more horrible employment can hardly be imagined.
In fact, these Carolina rice fields were charnel houses for African Americans.
Overt legal slavery ended because people not only repented of this evil, but finally did something to end it. And the work of those abolitionists is not yet finished. So let us continue to repent of our racial sins, both personal and corporate, by all means. Let’s appreciate that DC’s NFL team might be renamed and that Lost Cause statues are coming down. But let’s not stay on our faces, but rather stand up, and push for real change, such as ending immunity laws, reconsidering the manner in which 911 calls are answered in Greensboro, providing more funding for community social workers and mental health professionals, and repealing cash bail. Let’s continue to devote ourselves to reading, learning, and listening to POC’s history and experience that we have neglected. I could certainly say the same about the threats to women’s and LGBTQ rights, the ongoing ecological crisis of warming and extinction, the continual defunding of public schools, the overt corruption and racism of our leaders, the imprisonment of children in cages, and the hunger and poverty that dehumanizes people right here in our city. Pick a place where the Spirit is attacking evil, and stand up with God there.
Two American heroes died this week. Rep. John Lewis and an American Baptist minister, the Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and friend to MLK, Vivian participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across our country. He also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal. Like his followers, Vivian was arrested often, jailed and beaten. In 1961, at the end of a violence-plagued interracial Freedom Ride to Jackson, he was dispatched to the Hinds County Prison Farm, where he was beaten by guards.
In 1964, Vivian was nearly killed in St. Augustine, America’s oldest continuously inhabited city and, at the time, one of its most rigidly segregated, where he had joined Dr. King in an extended campaign of peaceful protest. On an Atlantic beach, roving gangs of whites whipped Black bathers with chains and almost drowned Vivian.
Accompanying Dr. King on a voter-registration drive in 1965, Vivian confronted Sheriff Jim Clark outside a courthouse in Selma, where 1,400 Black voters had been barred from registering. As television cameras rolled, Rev. Vivian asked Sheriff Clark to admit 100 Black people lined up behind him — just to get in out of a lightly falling rain.
“You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.” As he told Clark this, as the media recorded the encounter and several dozen protesters looked on behind him. “And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it.” Clark responded to Vivian with a vicious punch in the mouth, knocking him to the ground. Vivian did not retaliate physically, but pulled himself to his feet and kept speaking as police shoved aside and ultimately arrested him.
Just weeks after the incident aired on national television, thousands of people gathered for the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. And before the year was out, Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Vivian received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in 2013. But in an interview recorded for the honor, Vivian reiterated his call to action, saying that the work for racial and social justice was far from finished. “Do what you can do and do it well,” he said. “But always ask your question: Is it serving people?”
YHWH asks Joshua and maybe also us, “Why are you on your face? Stand up.” And maybe we can get into some good trouble together, as John Lewis liked to say. “Good trouble, from here to November and beyond, good trouble. Link arms, y’all.”