A Gathering Voices Post by Leslie D. Callahan
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It was never lost on Africa’s sons and daughters that there were boundaries to the vision for American constitutional democracy. Black people, and even the Framers themselves, saw the hypocrisy in a vision of liberty framed by slaveholders in buildings constructed by slave labor and sustained by a slavery-dependent economy. As President Obama noted in his pivotal speech given during his candidacy in 2008, successive generations of Americans “through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk” did their part to advance a vision of “a more perfect union.”
This week reminded again of the limitations of the still imperfect union. Ferguson Missouri, a northern suburb of St. Louis, became the center of attention as civil unrest emerged in the aftermath of the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown. Unarmed, Brown was shot dead in the street amidst a conflict with “peace officer” Darren Wilson, stopped for the capital offense of jaywalking. Witnesses to the shooting described Brown¹s last moments with his hands raised in the air and pleading “Don’t shoot.” Soon our screens were awash with images of militarized police force taking over those same streets, wearing camouflage and riding tanks, tear gassing residents and detaining journalists.
Mouths agape and with tearful eyes we wondered, “What can we do when the heroes and heroines are gone? What do we do in the face of the still imperfect union?” We do not trust the police to keep us safe. We do not trust the civil rights establishment to speak to our disappointment and rage. We awaited a word from the President, our President, and we got a nodding reminder that this is America, accompanied by a caution to settle down and behave ourselves. Even the crowds of protesters were imperfect, not all righteous or reasonable, not all in it for justice.
Consider then the word of God to the people of God: “Maintain justice and do what is right for soon My salvation will come and My deliverance will be revealed.” (Isaiah 56:1)
With exultation we greet every intimation that we are God¹s elect, chosen, favored! But in the church we too often proclaim the blessings of salvation, liberty, and well-being only for ourselves and our closest kin. Thus, the larger majority Christian culture can remain oblivious and indifferent to the injustices of our society, even daring to wonder what terrible thing Mike Brown must have done to warrant his execution on the street while on the way to visit his grandmother. Even black Christians with a narrow view of salvation, might opine that something in the “behavior” or in the spiritual covering of Brown or the protestors was askew and that a bit more piety could resolve it all. Insiders always rejoice to hear the word of salvation because they erroneously assume that salvation ends with them.
Yet in the text I hear a call for a more expansive theological vision reminding us that God¹s purposes extend beyond our boundaries. Inclusion of the “foreigner” and the “eunuch” challenges even earlier biblical assertions about the boundaries of the holy community. This vision invites in us a reorientation of our understanding of who humanity and even who family is. The stranger is welcomed, whoever the stranger is, into the sanctuary of the God whose house is a “house of prayer for all people.” Those already inside are called, as the people of God always are, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Those who have been outside are invited to do the same. Entrance into beloved community is wide open.
When I talked about these matters in my own congregation I had some specific strategies that fit our situation. Those strategies may not correspond to every community but I¹d like to offer the general suggestions: Resist vigilantly the tendency to dehumanize those who live outside of the boundaries of what we generally regard as “our” community. It may seem a small thing to do, but the cultivation of the capacity to be self-critical about our easy narratives of insiders and outsiders in our everyday living will make it easier in times of crisis to question dehumanizing images of the “other.” This means that we have to oppose sources and resources that feed the “insider/outsider” view of the world, including those in church. Ultimately, it is holy work to cultivate your imagination for a deeply inclusive community. Continue to think about how to see your congregation and neighborhood as reflections of the kingdom/kin-dom of God.
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