Injustice, Violence, and Oppression: On Loving the Lions

One of the great gifts of the Anglican tradition is what are known as the Daily Offices. The Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer includes two such services, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. These play an important role in the devotional lives of American Anglicans. A lectionary assigns specific Bible passages for use during these daily prayers, different readings for each day of the year.

Recently, the appointed psalm for Morning Prayer was Psalm 17. On that day, many of us were still in sad shock over a New York City grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer whose actions in arresting an African American Staten Island resident, Eric Garner, had resulted in Garner's death. As is so often the case where powerful poetry is concerned, when I spoke Psalm 17 aloud that morning, the words of that ancient hymn resounded with new meaning, as if I'd never heard them before. They seemed to express something like what Garner might have experienced in his panic, in his struggle to breathe, in begging--if only in his mind--for help that would not be coming.

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me;
     incline your ear to me and hear my words.
Show me your marvelous loving-kindness,
     O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand
     from those who rise up against them.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
     hide me under the shadow of your wings,
From the wicked who assault me,
     from my deadly enemies who surround me.
They have closed their heart to pity,
     and their mouth speaks proud things.
They press me hard,
now they surround me,
     watching how they may cast me to the ground,
Like a lion, greedy for its prey,
     and like a young lion lurking in secret places.
Arise, O LORD; confront them and bring them down;
     deliver me from the wicked by your sword.
Deliver me, O LORD, by your hand
     from those whose portion in life is this world;
Whose bellies you fill with your treasure,
     who are well supplied with children
     and leave their wealth to their little ones (Psalm 17: 6-15).*

This psalm gives voice to the inner thoughts of a person who faces a world of violence and brutality. A person who does not enjoy the benefits of being rich or powerful. A person who does not have treasure or wealth to leave to his children. A person who is victimized because he is vulnerable, surrounded and attacked the way lions hunt the wildebeest who, for whatever reason, gets separated from the safety of the herd.

The Bible repeatedly refers to people such as this as "the oppressed"--those who have no one to champion them, who are easily pushed around, and who are sometimes brutalized outright, by those who are politically, socially, and economically dominant over them. Jesus refers to such people as "the least of these." He made it the centerpiece of his ministry and message to deliver to them the Good News that God has special care for them, despite all appearances to the contrary. And he warned the powerful that it is by loving our neighbors--feeding the hungry, clothing the exposed, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned--that we truly love God. As passages such as Matthew 25 make abundantly clear, to love God is to find and serve Jesus in the form of the most vulnerable among us: the poor, outcast, needy, and marginal. "Whatever it is you do to and for people such as this," Jesus tells us, "you do it to and for me."

This is not an optional activity for those who follow Jesus. It is their core purpose. While we fail spectacularly in doing it, Christians are called to be the people who love and serve Jesus in and through their neighbors. We don't do this as a means to an end, but as an expression of genuine love for the God who is the one Creator of this world and everything in it.

An aspect of that same love that is easy to lose sight of, however, is the love we are also called to have precisely for the powerful, the advantaged, the privileged, those unable to see the role they play in making life so difficult for the vulnerable. What about those of us with "hearts closed to pity," whose mouths "speak proud things" as we "surround" those in our society who are not part of the dominant race, class, gender, or culture? What about those of us who, consciously or not, look for ways to "cast them to the ground" and to preserve our status by doing so? What love are we supposed to show to them? In other words, in what ways are we called to love and serve the lions?

It is not an accident that Psalm 17 refers to those in the position of dominance as beasts of prey. The Bible often compares people who oppress others to animals. This makes sense, given the theology behind such an idea: when we dehumanize others we dehumanize ourselves. When we treat other people as no more than animals, lacking human dignity, it is we who become the beasts. The job of the Christian, then, is to re-humanize the lions. We have to love the dominant back into being truly human again, just as Jesus tried to love the Rich Young Man into doing the right thing for the poor (Mark 10:21).

The United States is a nation with a complicated history when it comes to race, class, and the exercise of power. We have a very difficult time talking about these things. But our inability to confront them is warping us--all of us--and that warping makes itself felt in all sorts of damaging ways, from systems of racism and multi-generational poverty here at home to the employment of torture in secret prisons abroad. And to varying degrees, we are all implicated in those systems, every single one of us. But this is not who God calls us to be.

According to scripture, God desires us to love with a costly love, a love that says and does hard things, that names racism where it shows its ugly and dehumanizing face, that demands confessing our wrongdoing at home and abroad and repenting of it by trying to make it right, that requires the powerful to become vulnerable (just as God became vulnerable in being born as a human infant to peasant parents in a Palestinian backwater) in order to serve "the least of these." Above all, God desires us to be human beings, not lions who devour one another, who prey upon the already vulnerable among us.

This is hard stuff. It is painful stuff. And not everyone will get it or find themselves able to do it. Remember that the Rich Young Man whom Jesus loved in telling him the difficult thing he must do "went away grieving" because he could not do as Jesus asked, could not sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and become a disciple of Jesus. But those of us who count ourselves as followers of the man whose love led him to disregard many of the accepted social and religious conventions of his time, to overturn the moneychangers' tables in the Temple, to call the rich to repentance, to denounce the religious authorities as hypocrites, and to ultimately be hideously tortured on a cross have no other choice. With God's help, we have to not only defend those surrounded by the lions of our world, but we have to reach out in love to the lions among us and to the lion within ourselves in order to transform those beasts back into true humanity once again. That is likely to mean saying, hearing, admitting, and doing some very, very difficult and likely unpopular things. Nothing about this is the least bit comfortable.

But a lion is fierce and has to be loved back into humanity with a ferocity to match.

* Text of Psalm 17 from The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 601-2.