Apathy: A National (and Religious) Crisis

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 23:  Children look on at the memorial in front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Jun
CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 23: Children look on at the memorial in front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 23, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof, 21 years old, is suspected of killing the nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

I guest-preached two Sundays ago and the lectionary Gospel text (Mark 5:21-43) spoke clearly into the wound that has been opened up by the horrific mass shooting in Charleston last month, as well as the rash of shootings over the past year by police of unarmed citizens. Mark's Gospel doesn't come up in the lectionary very much. It's straightforward in delivery, even blunt, and at the same time, confusing and awkward. The style of the text I preached on even has its own name, the "Markan sandwich," which may sound delicious, but it's really a theology term meaning that one story has interrupted into another, separating it into two halves.

In the first slice of bread, a great leader falls at Jesus' feet, begging him to save his dying daughter. Next is the meat of the sandwich, a woman suffering from hemorrhages, who touches Jesus' clothes and is healed. Then back to the bread: the now-dead girl, whom Jesus takes by the hand and orders to "get up" which she miraculously does. These may appear to simply be two stories of personal healing. But the audience Mark was writing for understood the political implications. You may have heard the '60s and '70s slogan, "the personal is political." That's exactly what Mark is showing us.

First, the impotent leader who is unable to help his own daughter, much less the others who depend on him. He's pretty much a figurehead put in place to give the people some illusion of self-rule. Sound familiar? Next, a formerly well-off woman gone broke from her medical bills without even getting any better. Does that sound familiar? Furthermore, this woman would have been "unclean" according to the religious codes, and therefore, unable to worship with her community. She has become shut out; in effect, a non-person for twelve years.

Twelve is a number ripe with meaning in scripture. It is the number of the tribes of Israel, and the girl is herself twelve, which means she has reached the age when she can marry, so symbolically, she represents hope for the future of Israel, for future generations ("tribes") which she will help to create. But there's an intriguing tidbit in Mark's story: the Aramaic words Jesus speaks, Talitha cum. Talitha means little girl, cum means get up, but it is written here in the masculine case, like saying, "Little girl, get up, boy!" The logical explanation is that Mark made an error, and we get to make fun of him for not having had grammar-check for his scroll. But what if this was Mark's awkward way of implying that although this story happened to a girl, she represents all of our children, and what appears to be a personal miracle is a sign of the political future, that God will raise up a generation out of Israel of daughters and sons that will neither be slaves to the oppressive political regime, nor to the short-sighted religious views of their culture, that will not be impotent like their fathers or needlessly shut out like their mothers. Like Mark, I pray this will come to pass in our own nation.

We are in the midst of a national crisis, and it's not random mass shootings or the killing of unarmed citizens. The crisis is that we have accepted these things as normal. This crisis is in our hearts. When we accept that it's normal that people get shot at random, when we say it's just the way it is when unarmed people are killed by an overly-militarized police force, that is not just a political crisis, that is a personal, spiritual crisis. It's as if our hearts and our consciences have gone dead. And if we who have given our lives over to following Jesus don't address this crisis, who will? Jesus says to us, like to that little girl, "Get up! Your hearts and consciences are not dead, they are only sleeping."

The personal is political. It's personal when a mother hears that her unarmed son has been shot by the police because he was confused or because he was scared and ran or because he was just a child playing with a toy. It's personal when you are legally prevented from marrying the person you love, (and thank God the Supreme Court ended that injustice). It's personal when your pastor and fellow parishioners are shot and killed because of the union of racism and easy access to guns. But we are not impotent to address these issues and it is our moral imperative to root out the apathy that has taken hold of us. We act as if grieving and expressing sympathy are enough. They are not enough. And if your priests and pastors and lay leaders are not speaking out against racism, they are not doing their jobs. But if politics leaves you cold, if your practice of faith is more personal and spiritual, Hallelujah! Jesus speaks to you as he does this woman, and says, "your faith is great, your faith will make us well, so put that faith into action." Pray about it, volunteer, get to know people from different backgrounds and races, wherever your heart calls you, but we are in crisis and act we must. Every random shooting puts more blood on our hands if we don't.

In my own church (Episcopal), our bishops took time away from our General Convention recently to hold a march against gun violence. Their prayers may not tangibly save any lives, and the election at that same convention of the first African-American Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, may not do anything to solve racism, but they are faithful attempts to go where Jesus calls us and refuse to accept apathy as the new normal.

The first line of Mark's Gospel, in his typical, awkward fashion, reads "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God." It's an odd phrase, because of course it's the beginning, it's the first line! But what Mark means by this is that the whole account he has given us of Jesus' life and ministry is only the beginning of more good news to come. It will be up to others, including us, to continue writing it. Tragedy is not the end of the story. Apathy is not the end of the story. We know how the story ends: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth...and the one seated on the throne said, behold, I am making all things new..." All of us in all the churches of America are the people who have been entrusted with that vision from our Holy Scripture, and we can see that ending even if no one else can. Let us be the people to once again lead this nation into the greater vision of justice that we see, and that we are commanded to create for this nation and for all humanity.