OPENING OUR MOUTHS
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
August 16, 2020
Texts: Isaiah 41:17–20; Mark 7: 31–37
Yesterday saw the eightieth day of protests in Portland, Oregon. Comparatively speaking, it was not as violent as the nightly protests have been in the past. About 30 people from an alt-right group, some with automatic weapons, held what they called a Patriot Prayer rally. They met the Black Lives Matter group and both sides began by shouting at each other.
There was a scuffle as the two opposing sides fired nothing more than paintballs at each other. The night before, Friday, a group of several hundred persons descended on the offices of the police union. Prepared with gas masks and heavy wooden shields, they were met with crowd control tactics that did not include tear gas as had been used on previous nights.
Portland is not the only city that has had such protests and clashes with the police. Yesterday afternoon a group in Chicago tried to shut down the Dan Ryan Bridge, a major entry point to downtown Chicago. Faced with an overwhelming number of police who swarmed the group of 200 or so and used tear gas, arresting those who refused to move. And these two cities are not the only ones where violence became the rule of the day. Fortunately New Jersey protests have not led to that kind of violence.
If we look at what we might call the history of American anger, the anger of so-called ordinary people over the centuries, we will see that there has been a long and not so noble history of mobs and crowds. I am not just talking about lynch mobs whipped into stringing up blacks and Jews in the South during Jim Crow days; I am talking about the populist anger that has been an undercurrent in our past since before the days of Andrew Jackson and his attempt to close down the Bank of the United States in the 1830s.
This populism has an ugly underside, something that comes more from resentment that some people have more than others. In some ways, it comes from the sense that our national promise should be everyone is rich and no one is poor.
Partly this is because since the 1950s we have been a middle-class nation, due in part to that incredible social experiment known as the G.I. Bill that allowed many who had never been able to afford higher education to attain it. We also gradually became a stock-owning one, as 401(K) plans and internet day-trading knit an implicit partnership between financial wizards and nearly everyone with a decent job.
The result has been a social sea change in the United States. We have become preoccupied with money and making money but we have lost touch with each other, become isolated from each other and from the ground of our being, God. At the heart of it, I think this isolation is at the core of the rage we see being expressed. People who are isolated from each other, who have no connection with each other search desperately for something to unite them. Anger at the way things are is what connects them.
Issues of money and equality have become intertwined with issues of race. The Black Lives Matter protests are about more than the abuse of police power. I believe they are about the fundamental inequities racial and ethnic minorities experience in America today. As one protester in the Roseland section of Chicago commented, “there are no real grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables; we are forgotten by the city that uses us to clean the lush buildings downtown.”
As a nation, as a people of faith, we need to turn things around. When Jesus healed the deaf man, he also gave him the power of speech, “opened his mouth,” as the Gospel writer put it. It is time for us to open our mouths, to speak a dangerous truth as did Paul and Silas, landing them in jail. Paul freed the slave girl from the power of her oppressors by speaking truth to power. Paul faced the power of evil that had possessed a person and faced it down. And that is what we need to do to free ourselves from the evil of hate and anger that is overtaking us.
The core of our anger comes from our lack of faith. Faith is not just going to church on Sunday, singing some songs, listening to a sermon, and going home to live as we lived before we ever showed up at worship. Faith is living faithfully and caring for each other. It means taking responsibility for each other just as Paul took responsibility for liberating the slave girl from the demon that possessed her.
How do we liberate ourselves from the demons that possess us? Anger and hate are demons, no doubt about it. People become angry when they feel disempowered. To be sure, many of us feel like we have no control over our lives, that someone else is making the decision. People become angry when they feel deprived. Many of us now feel deprived of our expectations of what our lives were supposed to be like. People become angry when they feel overwhelmed. And don’t we all feel so overwhelmed by the world around us? Add to all that feelings of inadequacy at our inability to make change in our lives and anger becomes a firestorm difficult to contain.
One way of taking on the demons of anger and hate is to speak openly about how those demons are affecting us. We need to do more than merely “understand” the anger that people have. The word “understand” in that context could sound condescending and that is not what I mean when I say “understand.” We need to understand it in order to better address those demons by empowering people so we as well as others are not so overwhelmed.
We need to move ourselves and others beyond feelings of deprivation and inadequacy by being positive forces for change, by opening our mouths to speak on the critical issues of the day, issues that affect each of us individually and collectively as a society. As Christians, we should do so from our theological underpinnings.
Our faith gives us a framework from which to not only address important social issues but to act on them. Jesus wasn’t crucified just because he made a deaf man hear but because he opened the man’s mouth. Paul and Silas didn’t go to jail because they healed a slave possessed by a demon; they went to jail because they liberated her from the oppression of her masters. Jesus and his followers set about to create a fundamental change in the world they inhabited and those in power didn’t appreciate the fact that they would lose in the bargain.
The Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill put it very well when she wrote that we are the agents of God’s creative spirit and that God’s will for a world where all are treated as children of God can only be accomplished through us. Countering hate and anger will not be easy; it never was. But, with God’s grace and God’s creative spirit acting through us, we can do just that. We just need to open our mouths and live faithfully.
Let us pray: Pour on us your creative spirit, O God, so that we may be agents of your mercy, messengers of your love, and instruments of your peace as was our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the One who shows us the way, Amen.