Now that I’ve been home for a few weeks and thrown back into the regimen of school, work, and preparation for an unknown future, writing and sharing this sermon with my church family offered me a much-needed time of reflection about my DPF summer. I would have never chosen to preach on Amos 5——my general rule is to know that MLK, Jr. did it best and I ought not try to compete! Alas, Amos 5 really is the STUFF. It rocks. It’s everything. So bare with me.
Amos 5:10-24 (NRSV):
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!”
They shall call the farmers to mourning,
and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;
in all the vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,
says the Lord.
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
*Copied from Biblegateway.com.
In Mende (Men-dee), which is one of the many languages found in Sierra Leone, you wouldn’t say “night came suddenly.” You would say “the sky rolled over and changed its sides.”
When someone tells a horrible joke—a joke so bad you can’t help but laugh at it—in Indonesia, that’s called a jayus (jie-oos).
Have you ever experienced a deep, even painful, feeling in your gut that tells you that you’re longing for something, but you’re not quite sure what? A yearning so intense that it’s like a spiritual anguish or maybe a love-sickness. The Russians have a word for that unique melancholy. It’s toska.
Chinua Achebe writes that among the Ibo people of Nigeria, “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” In Slovenia, they say “Speak the truth, but leave immediately after.” That’s good advice.
In Spanish, the phrase used for the English word “worldview” is visión cósmica, or “cosmic vision.” They one-up the English word big-time. Instead of just having some idea of your place and role in this world, this phrase wants you to place yourself among the entire cosmos. Not only do you get even tinier, but all of that trivial stuff that bogs us down simply dissolves. It has no place among the cosmos.
We have options. We don’t have to be stuck thinking about things the same way our whole lives.
It’s fun that we can take a bland image of nightfall and spice it up with the breathing, personified imagery of a sky that rolls over to go to sleep. There are words for things and moments that we might not have words for on our own. We can give voice to unspeakable feelings. We can cherish—even eat—our words as if they’re dessert.
But the really cool thing here is not just that we can change our words, but that our words can change us and our cosmic vision. We can be more only if we know that there’s more for us to be.
This brings me to a word that we all know. It’s in our scripture today. It’s a basic word that isn’t in any way basic to practice. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Ivan rants about it. He says “I must have [it], or I will destroy myself. And [I don’t want it] in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. […] I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for […].”
What’s it all been for? This thing we do of living life together, of trying for something … for what, exactly? What’s the point? Well Ivan really believes that it’s all for justice. The word is justice.
Think about that word for a minute. Notice what comes to mind.
What is your relationship with that word, if you have one?
I just spent my summer trying to build my relationship with that word. First I need to explain what my job was.
In the Disciples denomination, we have the oldest peace fellowship of any denomination in the U.S. It began in 1935 as the Disciples Peace Fellowship (DPF). Since 1975, it has sent out over 100 people whom they call “Peace Interns” to travel to Disciples & UCC summer camps all summer long in order to teach middle and high school-aged youth about social justice issues. This summer, they chose three domestic interns (of which I was one) and two interns from Palestine. For the most part, I traveled with a Palestinian named Minerva. I flew to a different state every week and met hundreds of people, from Indiana to Texas to my home camp here in Alabama, to Iowa, California, Missouri, Florida, Washington state, and Ohio. Two of those weeks were spent at DoC conferences. You honestly have to be crazy to sign up for this, so I was perfect for the job!
So, what goes on at ‘ole church camp? If you’re thinking s’mores, singing, copious amounts of mosquitoes and bug spray, sunburns and sunscreen, bunk beds and dusty cabins, smelly kids, utter exhaustion, and processed food, you’re right. If you’re thinking lakes, canoes, hiking, arts and crafts, swimming, skipping rocks, sleeping under the stars, and talent shows … you’re right. Let’s not forget camp dances and pubescent hormones, early mornings & late nights, lots and lots of bad church camp coffee, and wildlife.
Wildlife. At the beginning of this summer, I had several fears. None of them had anything to do with wildlife. What a foolish girl I am. One bright, happy morning in the desert climate of Southern California, I arose at 6 a.m. to embrace the quiet, joyful solitude of slumbering campers. I turned around a corner and saw an overturned trash can, and a large, fuzzy creature feasting on its contents. “What a huge dog,” I thought. Silly Alabama girl. It was a bear.
A momma bear. A big, fat, momma bear, who looked at me, stood up on her back legs… and that’s all I know, because I was bookin’ it. Where does one go when evading a bear? Well, the nearest door.
What was the nearest door?
The residence of the camp nurse and his girlfriend, who were both sleeping a little too deeply for my panicked entrance into their sleeping quarters to be met with any semblance of practical instruction or comfort.
I stood in their room shaking and panicking for at least a minute, desperately hoping that they would wake up, but they never did. So I eventually gathered the courage to leave, because potentially being eaten by a bear seemed better than being reprimanded for breaking and entering.
So camp is all of that and so much more, but when I said “camp,” I wonder if anyone in this room thought of really hard and really sacred conversation. I wonder if you thought of youth and their ability to stun you any moment with their thoughtful insight. I wonder if anyone thought about topics like the death penalty being taught. That was my job: to bust up into happy camp life and hit ’em with the tough stuff.
Each Peace Intern gets to pick the topics they care about most, and we get to make our own workshops for camp. My main interest is the American criminal justice system. I taught about our prison system, with an emphasis on the death penalty and Death Row.
I also taught about racism and privilege and current events topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and tensions between the police and the communities they serve. When I spent time with the younger youth, we talked about the recent proposal to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. That opens up many conversations about change, the meaning of democracy, womens’ contributions to history, and race in America.
Of all the fun things to do at camp, teaching workshops was my favorite time of the day. I had no idea how much I LOVE to teach and how special it is to watch youth grapple with their own assumptions. Teaching social justice issues is particularly unique, because the topics are challenging and nuanced, so I will never forget the weight of responsibility that I felt this summer to be vigilant about providing the most full perspective I could while still trying to honor my own personal Truths and allowing the youth to have time to share their Truths, too.
One speaker said this summer that dignity is “waking up to the Truths in one another,” so I try to remember that when conversation feels utterly uncomfortable, that probably means we’re all waking up to something and we’re right where we should be, sitting there in that dignifying discomfort.
One question that I was asked many times this summer is why I care about prisons. I’m a generally bubbly person who happens to care about very dark things, and I really think I threw people off guard by presenting on the topics that I did. I developed this interest in high school, long before I ever met anyone who’d been affected by our prison system. Long story short is that I read books and I heard personal stories of peoples’ experiences and I can’t un-know or un-read them. That’s pretty much the answer that I gave for that question, but now that I have you all trapped here, I can give a longer answer.
It goes back to that word justice.
A common and easy way of understanding this word is with the image of a scale … having balance, righting the wrongs, people getting what they “deserve.” Our entire American criminal justice system is based on this understanding of justice. Law & Order is what we know. Trials, sentencing, and serving time is what we do. Our default setting is retributive justice that is punitive in nature, rather than restorative justice that is rehabilitative in nature. Restorative justice (RJ) is a movement to honor every individual affected by crime—no one gets left out, not the offender, not the victim, not the community, because RJ addresses the complexity of crime and tries to heal the sources of our communities’ wounds at their roots.
Just about every day I come across a new voice saying that what we’re doing with mass incarceration in America isn’t working. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative right here in Montgomery says that we have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent, and that makes our claims to democracy more than a bit suspect.
But, put everything I just said to the side. Go with me to a blank slate, as if America doesn’t have a monopoly on the meaning of justice.
In the scripture today, the lines put justice and righteousness together, like an unbreakable unit that just makes sense together: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” There’s a reason for this.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for justice, dikaiosyne, is the exact same word for righteousness. Biblically, they’re the same thing—justice IS righteousness and righteousness IS justice. Well, so what?
Actually, this changes everything. All that stuff about the scale and getting even and just desserts … it doesn’t have any place in the cosmos of biblical justice. Biblically speaking, if a person is going to be served justice, they’re NOT going to be getting what they DESERVE; they are going to be getting what they NEED. There’s a very big difference there, and maybe I can prove it.
Let me tell you a story about a man I once met from Alabama named Anthony Ray Hinton.
In 1985, when he was 29 years old, he was accused of murdering two men. The only evidence against him was a shabby link between the bullets used in the crime and a gun that belonged to his mother. The link was actually disproved, and they had no fingerprint evidence or eyewitnesses. Anthony did have an alibi: time cards proving that he was at work at the exact time of the killings. But that was no matter. He was sentenced to death anyway.
In America, you have the right to an attorney. That doesn’t mean that you have the right to a good attorney. Anthony was a poor black man living in rural Alabama. He was given a court-appointed attorney, who wrongly thought that he only had $1,000 to pay for a ballistics expert. That attorney ended up hiring a one-eyed retired civil engineer who out-rightly said that he didn’t actually know how to use the microscope they gave him.
Even many years later, when the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) here in Montgomery took on his case and disproved the so-called link between the bullets and his mother’s gun, the state of Alabama refused to grant Anthony a new trial. It had been over 15 years since the sentencing. Alabama considered the case dead, undeserving of their time and definitely not worth the risk of losing credibility as a system that claims to grant impartial justice.
So EJI took this case all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 2014, SCOTUS ruled Anthony’s original attorney “constitutionally deficient,” especially because no single person in thirty years actually had any credible link between the bullets and Anthony.
When I told this story to my campers, I always asked the same series of questions after it.
What would it be like to lose thirty years of your life?
What would you miss out on?
What would it be like to enter back into the world?
Would people want to hire you? Do you still have rights, and do they even matter if the stigma of being an ex-death-row-inmate is stronger than the reality of being a human being?
Is there any amount that the state can give you that can repay the damage of such a loss?
Do you still have family? Do you still love each other?
He wasn’t a man of money or of influence. He didn’t happen to know the right people or have the right luck. So our courts decided with ease that Anthony wasn’t worth their time, and they maintained that narrative for about 30 years, and his story isn’t unique—it’s not unique at all. This happens all the time. Anthony is the 152nd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973. Human beings easily disappear behind the cracks of systemic injustice. There is no way Anthony will ever get what he deserves. It is not possible to compensate for the loss of thirty years of life spent one injection away from death.
In the scripture today, Amos is railing them for the crime of deciding that the poor are not worth their time—not in the courts, not in the streets, not in their religious festivals, nowhere. In one of the best lines in all of scripture, we read, “I HATE, I DESPISE your religious festivals, your assemblies are a STENCH to me” (emphasis added). Amos plops the uncomfortable but dignified Truth into their party by saying that God already decided for us that EVERYONE needs EVERYONE to do the right thing—to do justice. No need to make the call that this person or that person doesn’t deserve our time, because God said they need to get it anyway.
Justice as righteousness changes everything because it’s no longer possible to exclude anyone from this task. Nobody in this room deserves righteousness but everybody in this room needs it.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan realizes how messy this world is and how elusive justice is, but he still concludes that it’s all worth it. It has never even existed to him, but he knows he needs it, just as we know this world needs it. But are we as eager to be the hands that make it possible? Is the thought of never seeing it scary enough to haunt us in our graves?
MLK, Jr. said “Justice is love correcting that which works against love.”
We are to be a body of people that doesn’t punish our way to justice but that loves our way to justice.* The only way to do this incredibly hard and counter-intuitive task is to constantly translate the bogus narratives of our world into narratives of possibility.
I’ve spoken my Truth, so now, in keeping with that proverb from Slovenia, I must leave immediately.
*Props to my incredibly insightful fellow Peace Intern Matthew who said this to me once. He says everything beautifully.