By Joanna Shenk, First Mennonite Church of San Francisco
I had a hard time getting out of bed yesterday morning. I was feeling the weight of a lot of things and wondered if it was futile and disingenuous to write a sermon that offered hope. I wasn’t feeling hopeful. I was feeling more like the title to the most recent Metallica album, “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct.” The bad guys keep winning. Vulnerable people are endlessly oppressed. And it seems like so many people don’t even have a moral consciousness to appeal to.
The whole moral consciousness thing is something I’ve having an internal argument with Vincent Harding about currently. I’m turning my extended interviews with him into a book and therefore have been immersed in his writing and thought. I continue to be amazing at the faith he has in people to choose transformation. He believed that with love, encouragement and an openness to questions, people could change. To the end of his life he was calling people to their highest human potential and calling this country to its highest potential.
What I’ve been saying to him now is, “Do you still believe that or have we crossed the point of no return? Have we finally proved we’re really only capable of self-destruction?”
Unsurprisingly, and frustratingly, the response in my spirit is that he still has hope. In reading his work I am reminded that he is intimately aware of the violence and oppression that have been perpetrated in this country from its inception. In 1981 he published the book, “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America,” which tells the story of Black resistance movements to enslavement and dehumanization. He begins with the resistance to capture on the African continent, uprisings on slave ships, insurrections during the era of enslavement and carries through to the Black Power movement. His book was the first of its kind, offering a historical narrative of consistent resistance.
So yeah, he knows the human depravity that is possible. He also knows the resiliency of a people that kept saying over and over again, our lives matter. Black Lives Matter. He writes, “How in the midst of such death and suffering could we find so much strength to love, so much determination to live, fight on, and be free? In permanent and grueling exile, how could a people dance and create songs and art, fashion institutions of hope, bear so many children of beauty? In the land of our captivity, subject to a host of attempts at dehumanization and humiliation, how and why did we become the nation’s foremost champions of human freedom and social justice?”
The book poetically and powerfully casts this vision of liberation with story after story. “Above all,” he writes, “where there is no vision we lose the sense of our great power to transcend history and create a new future for ourselves with others, and we perish utterly in hopelessness, mutual terror, and despair. Therefore the quest is not a luxury; life itself demands it of us.”
So what does this quest look like today? What is the vision we need to face the destruction, apathy and violence around us? As much as I want Vincent Harding to give us that answer, I think he would say, “That’s your work to do, my friends.”
What are the resources we have to discern our vision?
We have our personal and familial histories. How have we and our ancestors resisted dehumanization? How have we become aware of perpetuating oppression and chosen the way of liberation?
We have Anabaptist-Mennonite history, both a given and chosen identity in this congregation. How do the values of that tradition shape us to show up in the world? I’ll speak more to that later…
We have the biblical text, to frustrate and inspire us. In all of its fraughtness, it has deeply shaped the world and what it needs is people who are not afraid to interpret it against the grain of Christian hegemony.
Today I chose two lectionary texts that seemed hopeful to me. As I already mentioned, I chose them not because I was feeling hopeful, but because I was curious if they could inspire hope in me.
From the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) we have the overtures of two lovers, longing for each other. Pretty much the whole book is their ode to love, erotic descriptions of body parts and all. Through history some interpreters wanted to make this an allegory of God’s love for God’s people. It’s funny how some folks want to read the text literally, except for this part. This could definitely not be about literal, erotic love! Heaven forbid! That would be the Christian hegemonic interpretation which I am happy to leave behind.
Therefore I am led to conclude that our pleasure in love is Divine. It’s important. Somehow this text with a strong, sensual female voice was able to wedge itself in our scriptures, against the patriarchal odds. That’s hopeful to me.
To answer the question of what vision we need today, this text instructs us that our loving matters. The band Muse rocks out to the song “Love is our Resistance.” Loving relationships are the foundation of a healthy community. Hard times are not an excuse to love less, rather they are the invitation to love more fiercely. Song of Solomon 8:6 puts it this way: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.”
To live in these days we need love that is a raging flame, fierce and strong.
The other lectionary text is a messianic prophecy from Zechariah, allegedly written soon after the Babylonian exile. The people were still trying to get their bearings. Some had returned to their homeland, which was quite different from when they were taken away. Others hadn’t returned. It was probably pretty disorienting. They may have been asking, “What does it mean to be God’s people here and now? Who will lead us into a new future?”
The prophet recorded in Zechariah had an answer for them. The leader you need will be humble and riding in on a baby donkey. In the NRSV translation we heard that this king is “triumphant and victorious.” Other translations say the king is “just and having salvation.” It’s obvious that the Christian tradition is excited about this prophecy being fulfilled by Jesus. That’s worth naming but it’s not the point I want to make.
What I found interesting in learning more about this passage is that the messiah is not Divine. This messiah is not offering salvation but rather has been saved by Yahweh and is therefore humble because he knows that Yahweh fights the battles, not him.
After the description of this messiah, we have these verses, which accordingly to scholars are actually about what Yahweh is doing, not what the king is doing. Hence, we can read it in this way.
“Yahweh will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and God shall command peace to the nations; God’s dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
This kind of king may have been a disappointment to those who wanted some vengeance against the people who exiled them. However, they are told that God’s dominion of peace will be over all people, including the non-Jewish ones.
Verse 12 includes the curious phrase “prisoners of hope.” In preparing the sermon I learned it could be referring to people who were held captive by a hope that actually wasn’t Divinely inspired. They were held captive by the hope for a king that would vindicate them rather than a humble one who trusted in the power of Yahweh and not weapons.
What answer does this text offer us regarding the vision we need for today? It reminds us that the way of the Divine does not seek revenge or trust in the power of militarization. This is a bold and prophetic vision as much today as it was then. It also invites us to ask if we’re prisoner to hopes and expectations that we’ve conjured up that aren’t actually in keeping with the world we need.
This last question is the one I want to keep asking and pondering. Could it be that the kind of movement organizing that worked in the past to awake people’s moral consciousness is not the primary organizing strategy we need now? Could it be that it’s no longer useful to talk about reclaiming the soul of a nation that appears to have never really had a soul (at least in terms of the dominant narrative)? Could it be that a baseline of morality does not actually exist for those steeped in what bell hooks calls imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?
I’m not just being cynical here, but am wondering if we need a different starting point than the movements of the past since today is different? I also don’t assume I’m the first person to ask these questions, nor am I authoritative in my answers. Rather I’m offering my first attempt to publicly articulate something that I’ve been trying to make sense of for awhile.
Along with Ta-nehisi Coates I’m not convinced that the arc of the moral universal bends towards justice. He says it bends toward chaos and ends in a box. But that doesn’t mean we give up. It just means it might be time for a reorientation of hope.
My hope can’t be dependent on people gaining a moral consciousness. The drive for freedom among enslaved people in this country was not based on the number of masters who had a moral awakening and realized slavery was wrong. I am going to be a prisoner to my hope if it’s waiting for the arc of the universe to finally bend toward justice.
Ta-nehisi Coates articulated it in this way to his song in “Between the World and Me.”
“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be… And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”
I think the struggle that Coates talks about is the quest that Vincent Harding named in “There is a River.” The struggle quest, if you will, calls us to live lives of integrity right now and find meaning in that rather than weighing our participation on whether or not it looks like the good guys win in the end.
“Why God are you letting all this happen?” doesn’t seem like a useful question since I don’t believe in a magical God who is in control of everything and makes it all happen for a reason.
I believe in a Divine presence who is with us in our suffering, who laments the oppression of this world, who rages at injustice, who does not trust in horses, chariots or drone warfare, who proclaims peace, who celebrates erotic passion and empowers us with a love that is stronger than death.
We have many resources within the Anabaptist tradition to equip us for the struggle quest that is our calling. We have stories of resistance and enemy loving and institutional building that cared for vulnerable peoples. We haven’t been a people that expected nation-states to understand us or even fellow Christians. We have been a people of struggle because that was the only way we could maintain lives of integrity. They may have taken our bodies at certain points in history but that did not silence our testimony.
May we continue to claim this heritage of struggle born out of a vision of Holy Spirit-empowered discipleship. May we continue to follow in the way of a humble Rabbi who was willing to be put his life on the line for a liberating way of being in world.
One recent example of people being on this struggle quest was the movement at Standing Rock. In Naomi Klein’s new book, “No is Not Enough,” she writes about how the community created there was embodying a different way of being in the world. It was a coming together of people who were deeply rooted in spirituality and a vision of a life-sustaining world.
This vision, rooted in the long history of Indigenous resistance and resilience, empowered them to protect what they knew to be sacred—the land, the air, the water, humanity—in the face of brutal violence. The question of whether they won depends on your vantage point. They succeeded in creating a domain of peace where Indigenous, stolen and settler people lived, learned, prayed and struggled together.
So Uncle Vincent, that is my answer to what our struggle quest looks like today. Thank you for being part of our great cloud of witnesses and cheering us on.