Back in September I wrote a piece for SheLoves Magazine about how working with those on the margins completely undid me, and how some days I look around at all the suffering in the world, it straps like a weight to my chest, and all I can do is grieve. Towards the end I write my hopes for myself and other believers, how we might live in light of all the suffering in the world. In part of it I wrote, “May we be a voice for the oppressed. May we speak prophetically to the oppressors. If they do not listen, may we scream and kick and shout.”
It was a post I was proud of, it contains the state of my heart these days. A friend shared the post on Facebook and someone commented “Scream and kick and shout?” with the obvious implication being screaming, kicking, and shouting is a bit much.
I was being poetic—using visual imagery to communicate that we should not be silent if we see people being marginalized and oppressed. There was a bit of hyperbole there, yes. I agree this is not the best way to go about making change, literally doing those things. And, those who know me in person know I err on the side of quiet reflection – rarely could you find me screaming, kicking, or shouting, even with people I disagree with quite profoundly.
But still, something about that comment stayed with me.
In the post, I talk about ways friends of mine are seriously suffering – people who are despised refugees, persecuted believers, and victimized children. These are outrages. But, instead of being outraged about these injustices, the problem this individual had was with my saying we should scream, kick, and shout about oppressors? Even if I was literally screaming, kicking, and shouting, is that really a greater fault than calling out oppressors for oppressing people? Is standing up and screaming worse than people being deported without a fair trial?
These questions are important, because when we equate good manners with holiness it can take us into some dangerous places. It means we start preferring decorum over justice; saving face over preserving life; respectability over responsibility. And when that happens, we end up getting mad at the men taking a knee during the national anthem more than we get mad at the number of unarmed black men who are being killed by police without accountability.
It’s, then, having prominent Christian politicians and senators commend the winners of the Super Bowl for taking a knee at their victory in order to give glory to God while disparaging the ‘lack of respect’ of players who took a knee all season to protest the deaths of hundreds of unarmed black men.
It’s pretending that God cares about a game more than God cares for the innocent black men and women who were shot and killed, who continue to be shot and killed, without justice or recourse, or any indication that this practice will stop or be curbed, or even cared about by policy makers anytime soon.
The message being sent is that good Christians are those who don’t upset the empire, who behave according to the rules, who don’t rock the boat and give God the glory things like a sports game that I think God really, truly could care less about who wins.
Jesus wasn’t about decorum as an end unto itself. Or social respectability or not offending or stepping on toes. He was about bringing in the kingdom, and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to join in on that work wherever I find myself.
I’ve been accused lately that my writing voice has become a little too much, a little too angry.
While I am also many other things, and write about these too, yes, I am angry.
I’m angry because the last few years I have been broken (emotionally, but also physically) and this brokenness has changed some things about how I approach my faith. Because I desperately want the church, especially the affluent white church, to learn how we can love our neighbors better and I keep getting pushback I’m being a little too much, that I’m too political now. And instead of being upset that slaves made the clothes most people wear, or that Christians are banning the strangers we’re supposed to love, or that people who work two full time jobs are still homeless, or that people in the wealthiest country in the world go bankrupt over medical care, I get feedback that instead of tackling these things I should share instead about all the lovely things God is doing all over the world.
Jesus overturned tables, and I think there are still things worth flipping tables about. (Though I hope to do so metaphorically, but, you never know.) I try really hard to speak the truth in love. I know there’s a difference between a smoldering flame and a raging fire. But to some in the church the very nature of speaking and wrestling through uncomfortable things is found as unloving. Angry.
I might be angry, but it’s because I care about people. So, while getting caught up in politics isn’t an intention or joy of mine, getting caught up in the lives of my neighbors is, and, turns out, the two overlap by quite a bit.
As James Cone said in the 1960’s, “while churches are debating whether a whale swallowed Jonah, the state is enacting inhuman laws against the oppressed.”
If we think anger about injustice is wrong or impolite, is that not conflating virtue with niceties? With good manners? I need to simmer down because the only good Christian witness is one that is conservative in all her ways?
When I read the Bible, it becomes pretty clear to me that it isn’t a book of happy stories, or of the people we regard highly (prophets, women, and disciples, among others) being people who were good at reeling it in necessarily.
Among other things, Jesus told people to stop giving tribute to the empire (which at the time was the Roman government). When they came to get him because of these statements he asked them, “Am I a dangerous revolutionary?” (Luke 22:52, NLT) At his trial before Pilate, the accusation against him was that he’d been leading people astray by telling them not to follow the rules of the Roman government – of not being submissive to the ways they ruled over them. Of not being stand up citizens or occupied persons.
This doesn’t necessarily give us an excuse to throw off all our manners, or to stop treating individuals with respect. But we should question it when it gets in the way of caring for others the way Christ tells us to. It doesn’t mean we get to act like jerks. In fact, I’d argue, it makes us far more compassionate people as we try to empathize with those who are hurting, instead of packing up their suffering into a box with a neat bow labelled “disrespectful,” “overreacting,” or worse, “deserved.” Or with a shrug and labelled “God’s will,” as though God doesn’t will us to build more just communities and societies.
I was rendered speechless last year while at an event, there was a gathering of young Christian guys in the armed forces joking openly, flippantly, jovially, and multiple times, about “dropping warheads on foreheads.” These men go to church and love their families and I’m in no way suggesting they’re not true believers, or that they are in need of grace more than I am. But they put on suits, said please and thank you, and joked – took delight in – conversation about killing people made in God’s image.
For such respectable and nice people, they still find certain strangers and neighbors lives disposable. I cannot fathom how the church can shape swords into plowshares when this is supposed to be the culturally stand up image of what a follower of the Prince of Peace looks like today.
I may be angry, but I think my anger is more in line with the teachings of the one I’m trying so hard to follow than acting as though good manners equates kingdom come.
Fairlie Sim · April 5, 2018 at 10:34 pm
Last year our Pastor lead a short devotion on the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree. Something I had never really understood before. It appeared to be a lesson about faith which did not make much sense to me. Thankfully, our Pastor put the story in context – it was immediately after Jesus had cleansed the court of the Gentiles from the corrupt money changers and merchants extorting people who were simply wanting to worship God. Matthew records a beautiful picture of the blind and lame then coming to Jesus for healing. The cursing of the fig tree was a warning to a religious system that was no longer bearing the fruit of righteousness – it was more concerned about protecting a system and those at the top of it. In many ways the Western church is in a similar predicament. Thanks Beth for being willing to challenge that and in doing so being a prophetic voice to people caught up in a religious system that desperately needs to humble itself before God while there is still time.
Beth Watkins · April 8, 2018 at 5:22 pm
Thank you, Fairlie! I enter this ground with a fair amount of trepidation, but I have to speak what I feel is true (though I am always want to keep learning!). You are someone I respect a great deal, and your words mean a lot. Thank you, friend. Lots of love to your family!
Brian Christensen · May 21, 2018 at 5:41 pm
Keep on going. God has brought me out and is continually removing the vestige of political idolatry that was in me. So much so that my son (atheist/agnostic) that sometimes will get his extended family angry when he post articles from Sojourners – happy to see someone speaking against the ‘merican form of religion. There’s a Christian blogger (TallSkinnyKiwi – friends for years) that reminds me of sacrifice…what it means. Thanks for your words and voice…
Beth Watkins · May 22, 2018 at 11:44 am
Thank you so much! I think we all have idols we’re dismantling ourselves from in one way or another.