It happens in every tragedy: something unspeakable happens, people speak up - sometimes competently and compassionately - and after a while, things move back to normal. Of course, it's never "normal" for the people most affected by the tragedy, but the rest of us seem to forget how much we care about this moment in time that mattered just a few months (weeks?) ago.
What happened in Orlando will forever rock that city and the LGBT community, and this senseless act of hate has sparked the usual outrage on the ease of gun access, the ways Supreme Court victories don't solve the problem of intolerance, and the rare-but-encouraging support of Islamic communities in America (you mean, they aren't a monolith???). And just as expected, after a few weeks most of those voices have already moved on to the next injustice, the next slight, in this Culture of Outrage.
Something different is happening in Chicago, where I pastor. For the multitude of shootings (50 deaths is a couple of weeks during the summer), not many churches see themselves as connected to this epidemic, which was recently declared a concern of public health. It would be the same actors - meant in the most positive and faithful sense - at rallies and protests demanding stricter gun laws. The faces at these actions used to all look the same - black and brown - and it was clear that the prevailing narrative was winning: You only get involved when you are directly affected. But after Orlando, different churches are calling me, wanting to be involved - to do something: mostly-white churches and Open-and-Affirming congregations are mourning Orlando and asking how they've missed the deaths in their own backyard. It doesn't directly affect them, but they are hearing God's call to do something beyond the two-week statute of limitations on how long a good progressive Christian is supposed to care about something.
In many ways these congregations are not only making a faithful response; they are making a Amos response.
In this week's text, Amos 7, we find Amos continuing his declaration, "Woe to those who are at ease" (6:1) and the call for justice to "well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." (5:24). You read him - his words are so relevant you can almost hear them - remind us that he is not the prophet - not in the traditional sense. He's not performing this out of some perfunctory act of tradition. This isn't what he normally does, he's a shepherd, but in the words of Abraham Heschel in his classic The Prophets: Amos chooses to agree with God, and set his life and words in alignment. Amos has been compelled to speak, and his call to disrupt others also disrupts his own life. But as we read, we see that God is not satisfied with the wealth of generations or seeing the people eat and drink in the Land of Plenty. What satisfies God is mutual relationship, and anything else is an immediate path to exile.
This will challenge believers in prosperity and those that cling to privilege: when the king threatens Amos - STOP SAYING THAT! - those that value their position and comfort are quick to comply. Would we press harder if we thought of our words not as another voice in the fracas but as God's mandate to justice? The word of the Lord hits Amos as one who is otherwise apt to mind his own business. Those who are compelled to speak should never stop speaking.
In this week's video we see a young man compelled to act to transgress the boundaries of difference, bringing together people across Milwaukee, WI, to understand and use privilege responsibly. His work is proof that Amos responses do change communities for the better.
In the same way, Colossians 1:1-14 endows believers with all wisdom and understanding, but not for the purpose of their own fulfillment; it is so justice may be made real. Even privilege has a purpose. Sometimes we see our gifts as "escape routes" in a harsh world (Rome would count as "harsh" for Christian, as an understatement). Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat (Colossians Remixed) say that Paul is calling the empire-soaked people of Colossae to shape an alternative vision of the world they inhabit.
Finally, Luke 10:25-37 is recognizable to most as the tale of The Good Samaritan. The connections to privilege, risk, and seeking deep engagement with the oppressed are begging for deeper reflection in our current context. You may even share Clarence Jordan's "targem" (Hebrew tirgem = translation) of the Good Samaritan, taken from The Cotton Patch Version of Luke & Acts. He uses the race relations in the Jim Crow South as a method to freshen up the story:
A man was headed to Atlanta from Albany and was robbed by gangsters. A white preacher came by...and stepped on the gas...a white Gospel song leader came by...and stepped on the gas...a black man came and was moved to tears by what he saw. He took the man - a white man! - to the hospital, emptied his pockets and promised to pay any outstanding bill. Which one of these is our neighbor? And the man replies, "Why, of course, the nig- I mean, er...well, er...the one who treated me kindly.
In this world of competing narratives and desperate xenophobia, this week's text and video push us to cross some important boundaries.
Bible Study Questions
1. What injustice is calling your/your community's name?
2. What might it mean to use your privilege with a purpose?
3. How would you translate the Good Samaritan story based on what is going on in your community?
For Further Reading
Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York, 2001.
Jordan, Clarence. The Cotton Patch Version of Luke & Acts. Association Press, New York, 1965.
Walsh, Brian, and Sylvia Keesmaat. Colossians Remixed. Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2004.