Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’ Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
Last week many people were mourning. Many were angry. Many were devastated. It’s important [and essential] that people have the space to feel such things when a great trauma has occurred. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, were traumatic for their friends and family, but also for people of African descent across this country. Cries of Black Lives Matter and No Justice, No Peace have been ringing through the streets here in Philadelphia ever since. While curfews have been lifted and the largest protests have ended just a few days ago, people continue to march and protest in smaller groups, in specific neighborhoods. There is still a need for solidarity and the expression of grief, anger, and devastation. And as people lament, they also move to healing and action.
This is what I am seeing here in Philly these days. My Black friends and colleagues are working around the clock to mobilize all of us to bring about systemic change—ranging from defunding police unions and departments, changing the way police are trained, and addressing the issue of poverty and mass arrests and incarcerations in predominately African-American communities. This is where and when the real work begins. After the highly-publicized protests, marches, and rallies end. After the news coverage shifts to something else. After people change back their Facebook and Instagram profiles from solid black backgrounds to pictures of cats, dogs, and other things. After people go back to work and school and consider gathering again with family and friends. The real work begins now and here.
So to begin, allow me to offer some resources to you. If you identify as Anglo-European I challenge you to do some self-examination. Don’t flood your African American colleagues’ inboxes with questions about “what can I do?” Instead, educate yourself. Do the work. There are a myriad of books, publications, movies, articles, etc., that are free. Educate yourself on the history of white supremacism and how it became embedded in the United States institutions, including police departments. Learn about African-American civil rights leaders and what they dealt with and fought for, and what organizations like Black Lives Matter are working for today. Don’t be lax in educating yourself about white privilege and microaggressions. Also, talk to your family. Speak with relatives and family members to gain a better understanding of the racial biases existing in our households. Have difficult and honest conversations. You must do this work. Otherwise, you’ll keep holding people back from living a full life and having dignity and respect.
Those of us who are melanin-challenged [like me] MUST be anti-racist by doing the self-examination work and education work. It’s not enough to just sit on the sidelines and say you’re non-racist. Time to step up. Time to work for healing and change. We must do this together.
I’ve compiled a document with a list of publications, books, Youtube videos, Instagram videos, movies, documentaries, and TV shows. Again, not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. If you would like a copy of that doc, please let me know by emailing me.
So last week I talked about authority and who you consider to be your authority—whether it be people or things. I would like to continue to put a spotlight on authority today. Let us all listen today, with open ears and hearts, and know that vulnerability leads to understanding which leads to removing unnecessary obstacles which leads to lasting, systemic change.
As you hold in your mind your answer to the question “who is my authority” I invite you to consider the shared authorities of people who lived over 2,000 years ago in the land of Israel and Palestine, i.e. the time of Jesus of Nazareth.
Authority #1: The Roman Empire, i.e., The U.S. Empire/British Empire/insert modern-day Empire here. Basically, our working definition for empire is a group of people that first: 1] invades; 2] conquers [using whatever force necessary; 3] colonizes. This is what the Romans did, this is what Anglo-Europeans have done for centuries, including the empire called the United States of America.
Authority #2: the Roman legion=militarized U.S. police departments. Both were trained in warfare, against their own citizens. Both were weaponized with the most brutal force. Both were authorized to target certain groups of people, and to stop any protests or movements that were a threat to said empire that had occupied said land.
Authority #3: The Sanhedrin/Temple Authorities = The Christian Right/Evangelical Politics. The Sanhedrin made money off of poor people and worked with the Roman Empire so as to stay in power. They altered religious rules to make sure no one revolted. They were great at mentioning the holy scriptures when it was convenient for their agenda. The same has happened in the U.S. Follow the money. Who is funding right-wing politics and pushing policies that keep people in socio-economic traps? The Christian Right. Political Evangelicals. I have seen it first-hand. This is on record. This is why, for example, when evangelical leaders like Tony Campolo speak out against the harmful treatment of LGBT+ people, he is viciously attacked and then the money disappears. Understand that I am talking about empires, and not all individuals.
Authority #4: wealthy elites. Those with great material wealth and perceived power, be they Caesars, Governors, Princes, Kings, Senators, or Presidents—have worked with all authoritative parties mentioned previously to get elected and re-elected, to maintain their palaces of privilege, to keep far, far away from the lives of regular, suffering people. They stay in their high castles and pay off anyone they need to. They threaten when necessary. They use excessive force when the “common people” seem to be more confident. They are terrified of losing their place on the pedestal.
And so they claim authority. They rant and rave and give grand speeches and create a twitter storm so we pay attention to them and laud their words or…vilify them. They don’t care, as long as we pay attention to them and fear them. Law and order. Keep us in our place. Divide and conquer.
Empires in Jesus’ time look very similar to empires today.
Which is why the egalitarian community that Jesus sought to create and see thrive was a counter-culture idea. See, we who identify as “Christian” particularly in the U.S., if we were raised in Christianity as a person that didn’t experience much discrimination or suffering, the faith of Christianity was a nice thing to have. It gave us some kind of comfort or status or community. But for many others, both in the U.S. and around the world, Christianity was a faith of liberation and desperation. People were marginalized and harassed. They felt like sheep without a shepherd. They were targeted for the color of their skin, their nationality, their gender, their socio-economic level. And the teachings and life of Jesus resonated with them. Why? Because Jesus stood up to the empire, the brutal forces against the poor, the religious elites. Jesus marched on Jerusalem and turned tables. Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus gathered a group of followers to walk together in celebration of their right to be fully alive. Jesus wanted them to be safe and to have access to abundant life. And then Jesus experienced what MLK did. People were being harassed, targeted, violently attacked, marginalized, and even killed. At the hands of the empire and the wealthy and even the religious leaders.
There’s a shift, see, in Jesus’ ministry as he gets closer to Jerusalem. Jesus knew from day one that things weren’t right in society. But if you follow the story, Jesus of Nazareth changed as the story came closer to its end. Jesus saw that people were suffering more than he ever could imagine. And he was angry. He was devastated. He was moved so much so that Matthew’s writer accents Jesus’ emotional reaction to the condition of the people. The Greek word is esplagnisthe, an exceptionally strong statement. The word is associated with the bowels. The bowels. Jesus was moved to the depths of his being. For the people were “skinned” or “mangled” in their condition. They were “thrown down.” Harassed doesn’t say the half it.
Friends, the same thing is happening today. People of African descent are harassed and mangled and thrown down. Native Americans are harassed, and pushed out, and ignored. People from all over the Americas, who were here long before my Anglo-European ancestors, are told that they don’t belong. They are put, by authorities, in cages and detention centers, just as people of African descent are arrested and put in prisons.
Empires, you see, use whatever they can to survive, including the creation of false ideology that they propagate with world maps, history books, movies, books, religious teachings—you name it. This U.S. Empire has used this concept of “race” to oppress people of African descent [and Amerindian, Latin American, Pacific-Islander, Asian, just insert category here]. We are ONE human race. Sure, I am melanin-challenged or pale-faced, but I’m a human just like anyone else. The notion that there are separate human races is a vicious lie. Cultural and linguistic heritages, yes. They are real. Part of human expression. But race? Just stop.
This is why people of African descent in this country keep seeing the same pattern, again and again. Because the empire doesn’t want it to end. Africans were brought here as slaves. They fought for their freedom. But then the empire created segregation. They fought for freedom yet again. Then the empire made sure they were poor and didn’t have access to education. And made sure that they couldn’t vote. And they fought for freedom again. And then the empire made sure that it was extra difficult to vote. And they keep fighting for that right. And then, the empire amped up police forces and militarized them. And arrested people of African descent and kept them in prisons. This is the only way the empire could “legally” keep them from having rights to live fully.
The empire doesn’t stop, you see, until WE stop them. Until we don’t see them anymore as an authority.
You see, don’t you? Jesus of Nazareth understood this. He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t go into Jerusalem with guns or swords or tanks. He marched with a bunch of marginalized people into Jerusalem to face the powers, to speak truth to them. Because they feared that. They feared most the people who were awake to what they were doing and to the lies they were propagating. They feared the phrase “no justice, no peace.” They were well aware of the prophet Isaiah’s predictions about the fall of empires that demonized the poor and marginalized. They saw it coming. They were terrified.
Look, friends, it’s a time to be awake. The systems and societies built around us are just facades. The elites in power and the empires are not real life. We have to be willing first to accept the history of the empire and the sickness it brings to all of us. Only in this way can there be healing. When Jesus of Nazareth talked about authority it was never law and order; instead, it was serving the most vulnerable, healing the sick, restoring people to life. Bringing respect and dignity to all people. Folks have been reeling for a long time. In the last two weeks a lot of us have finally woken up to this and now we are reeling too. And in cities like Philly and all around, people are kneeling. Not just to remember lives lost like George Floyd, but to say enough is enough. Reeling to kneeling to healing. Friends, we are all made to be agents of healing in this world. In order to do so, we must first recognize the ways we participate in the empire. We must admit the empire exists not to help us or protect us, but to separate us. And then, those of you who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, we must walk together, in solidarity and unity, protecting the most vulnerable and marginalized, we must expose those so-called authorities who are spreading the virus of imperialism, and we must build communities of justice, and honesty, and compassion.