O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
The cry of Habakkuk almost 2600 years ago is one that has been ringing in the streets of our nations these past several weeks. How long, Oh Lord? In the past two weeks there were two similar verdicts in two different cities grand juries decided not to indict police officers involved in the deaths if unarmed African American men. As a result of these decisions we have seen protests and riots happen throughout our nation. While most of the protests (contrary to media reports) have been peaceful. Many of those protesting have cried the lament of Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long… how long shall we cry… how long will injustice prevail?”
Before Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was Eric Garner in Staten Island, NYC. Footage filmed by a bystander shows Eric Garner being wrestled to the ground in a chokehold by an NYPD officer before turning limp. The father, 43, can be heard gasping ‘I can’t breathe’. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital. Protests have erupted in New York after a grand jury failed to indict the officer responsible even though his death was ruled a homicide.
Before Garner, there was Jordan Davis. Before Davis, there was Renisha McBride, before her, it was Rekia Boyd. Before Rekia, there was Trayvon Martin. Before all of them there was Tarika Wilson and her infant. Before them, there was Emmett Till.
After Eric Garner and Michael Brown, there was 12 year old Tamir Rice who was gunned down by the Cleveland Police Department, after they had mistaken his pellet gun for a real gun. Just last week there was the shooting of Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix. Police officers thought that his bottle of pills in his pocket was a gun. From Ferguson to Staten Island to Phoenix we can hear the lament of Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long … how long shall we cry…how long will injustice prevail?”
Meanwhile, many in non-African American communities wonder how long must we endure such protests, with people shutting down interstates, and with riots and looting every time people disagree with a verdict determined by the justice system? “How long do we have to listen to this?” some wonder, perhaps even wondering why a preacher, and a non-white and a non-black preacher at that, is even talking about this. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of white people in America trust our justice system to arrive at just verdicts. They don’t understand why people can’t accept that the evidence presented did not justify an indictment. The majority of white Americans trust police to do their jobs, acknowledging the incredible challenges facing police officers these days. “How long will people keep playing the race card?” some wonder.
Here lies the divide and the problem. According to that same Pew Survey, while the majority of white people expressed confidence in the integrity of the Ferguson investigation, 76% of African Americans expressed little or no confidence in the process. That survey happened in August, long before the grand jury’s decision was announced. When it comes to expectations about police, Pew reports 46% of African Americans have very little confidence in police, compared to just 12% of Anglo’s. This is nothing new; it has been true for generations in this country. This disparity shocks many people. In fact, the realities defining the lives of African Americans in our country are virtually unknown by the vast majority of not just whites, but all non-African American people.
I have an African American friend who attended seminary with me and has been one of our greatest supporters when we planted our church. He graduated with me and since then had numerous opportunities to use his gifts and talents to advance God’s kingdom. Calvin was just recently asked to be president of Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa. I love Calvin and have always appreciated his friendship and kindness to me. He’s worked hard and God has opened great doors for him. The reality is that Calvin beat the odds. Statistics show that he is three times more likely to live in poverty, ten times more likely to be incarcerated, and twenty-one times more likely to be killed by the police. I’m sure Calvin’s family probably taught him how to beat the odds – not just by working hard and doing well in school, but also how to live as a young black man in this nation.
In a recent Washington Post article, Lawrence Otis Graham, an African American Ivy League educated attorney in New York City shared the rules he gave to his teenage sons. Rule number 1: “Never run while in the view of a police officer or security person unless it is apparent that you are jogging for exercise, because a cynical observer might think you are fleeing a crime or about to assault someone.” Other rules included carrying a small tape recorder in their car, and if ever stopped by the police, make sure it is recording… Never leave a shop without a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, so that you can’t be accused unfairly of theft… Do not go for pleasure walks in any residential neighborhood after sundown…If you must wear a T-shirt to an outdoor [public event,] it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school emblazoned on its front. I never had to teach those rules to my children.
Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald put it this way in an opinion piece last week: “Too many — not all, but too many — white people still live in air castles of denial, still think abiding injustice and ongoing oppression are just some fairytale, lie or scheme African Americans concocted to defraud others. Or else that these things are far away and have no impact on their lives.” His words convicted me. How long, O Lord? That was Habakkuk’s question. It’s the question on the mouths of many this day.
How does God respond? God responds with a challenge: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” That’s what we’re told in Habakkuk 2. The English translation is weak. The Hebrew is better translated, “Write the vision, make it plain, so that one who reads it will run!” The vision offered by the Hebrew prophets was the vision of Zion, the city of God, the vision that the prophet Isaiah speaks about , where swords are beaten into farming tools and spears into pruning hooks; where nation shall not lift up sword against nation and where we will study war no more; a vision where the wolf lives alongside the lamb, the calf and the lion and the grazing together, where they will not hurt or destroy or gun down or mistake toy guns for real guns.
[pl_blockquote]This vision informs Jesus’ vision for the world, the kingdom of God Jesus brings, the beloved community that draws near in him; a kingdom of justice and mercy and love, a community where the hungry are fed, the sick healed, the homeless housed, the demons exorcised, the sinful forgiven, the sad comforted, the lonely welcomed, the outcast included, the hopeless inspired, the dead raised to new life; a community no longer defined by Jew or Greek or free or slave or male or female, or black or white or brown or some other human construct of race that divides us, but a community united in love where all are one in the one who embodied such love for all. That is God’s vision for the world. In a world so divided along racial lines, lines carved into our nation’s soul by generations of institutional injustice, and systemic racism, this is the vision we the church are called to hang from the ramparts, to make plain, so that one who reads it will be inspired to run the race of faith with perseverance.[/pl_blockquote]
What does it look like to present the world that vision? This past week we got a glimpse of it in Portland, Oregon. Twelve year old Devonte Hart was born into poverty with drugs pumping through his body. According to one account, “by the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect.” When he was seven, he and his two siblings were adopted by Jennifer Hart and her spouse. Reflecting on that experience, Jennifer says, “People always tell us how lucky he is that we adopted him. I tell you, we most certainly are the lucky ones. …He inspires me every single day. He has proven doctors, psychologists and teachers wrong. His future is most definitely not bleak, he is a shining star in this world. His light shines bright on everyone on his path.”
Last Tuesday, Devonte and his parents went to a Ferguson rally in Portland, Oregon. There was a police barricade set up for crowd control. Facing the police in riot gear, Devonte was afraid. He stood trembling and weeping in front of the barricade holding a sign that read, “Free Hugs.” After a while one of those helmeted police officers, Sergeant Bret Barnum approached Devonte with an extended hand. He posed some basic starter questions, “What’s your favorite subject in school? What do you like to do in the summer?” Then he asked, “Why are you crying?” Devonte shared his fears about police brutality toward young black kids, and Sgt. Barnum responded, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Then pointing at Devonte’s sign, Sgt. Barnum asked, “Do I get one of those?” And they embraced. Unknowing to them, their embrace was captured by a freelance photographer.
In a world where we too often wonder, “How long?” write the vision; better yet, embody it. Make it plain; so that all who witness it will be inspired to run, to work for a different world. In a world too often defined by division and violence and injustice, a world where fig trees seldom blossom, and fruit is hard to find and people are too often cut off from one another, may we join Habakkuk, rejoicing in the Lord; exulting in the God of our salvation, who makes our feet like deer, to run with perseverance the race set before us, keeping our eyes fixed on the vision, God’s vision perfected in Christ Jesus, our coming King. Wait for it. It will not tarry. Such a vision is worth the wait! Such a God is worth our worship.
** Unfortunately we had some technical difficulties with the recording of this video so there are some parts missing, but you can watch the rest of the sermon here.