Defeating Despair

Jonathan L. Walton preaching at the Knafel CenterSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard. 

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
1:3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
1:4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2:2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
2:3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
2:4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

My son Elijah Mays is an aspiring actor. Like anyone who is interested in the arts I figure it is never too early to introduce children to the greats. If he wanted to be a musician, it would be Frédéric Chopin and Yo-Yo Ma. If he wanted to be a singer, I would introduce him to Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin. A writer? Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.


But since he wants to be an actor, particularly as an African-American male actor, I already have him practicing the monologues of Walter Lee Younger.

Some of you may remember this character as the protagonist of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In the Sun. Walter Lee is literarily recognized for the depth of his despair, as penned by Hansberry. And he is cinematically remembered for the powerful onscreen performance of Sidney Poitier in 1961.

Walter Lee Younger is an underpaid limo driver full of dreams that are repeatedly dashed. Younger is a son, husband, and father in a world that only sees him as a threat and a menace. Thus Poitier's depiction of Younger captures all of this complexity. Poitier's eyes capture the frustration and fear of failure—a frustration and failure which blind him to the familial love and support that surround him. These same terrified eyes reflect the racism and rage that have overtaken Walter Lee like a dull, chronic fever. This is why Hansberry was brilliant in naming this play. For Walter Lee Younger truly captures the poetic prose of Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore
And then run
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet

Maybe it just sag
like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

My friends, I think about this kind of despair; I think of this sort of dull fever of defeat when I read the prophet Habakkuk. In today's lesson, this prophet from the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE is having a crisis of faith! He is disillusioned. He is angry. He is heartbroken.

Habakkuk is disillusioned about corruption. King Jehoiakim of Judah was known for exploiting the poor and less privileged. The corrupt king often utilized enslaved labor to subsidize his own lavish building projects. He maximized his own profits by treating human beings like beasts of burden.

Habakkuk is angry about inequality. The ruthless and unbridled accumulation of wealth by the most powerful is against God’s standard of righteousness. “The law has become slack,” Habakkuk laments, “and justice never prevails.” It seems that so-called "law and order" in Judah is little more than a euphemism for inequality and injustice.

And Habakkuk is heartbroken over suffering. The mighty army of the emerging Babylonian empire destroyed Judah's already fragile alliance with Egypt. With no means of protection against its enemies, the nation was a sitting duck.  Judah was an easy target for Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire.

This is why the prophet is at his wits end. He is at his wits end with corrupt political leaders; corrupt political leaders who declare love for God, love for nation, and love for the people. Yet Habakkuk is not fooled. Their faith, patriotism, and morality is a cynical performance of piety grounded in fear, not faith.

He is at his wits end with cautious religious leaders; cautious religious leaders who extol the virtues of peace and calm. Yet Habakkuk is not fooled. When religious leaders privilege peace and calm over showing love and securing justice for the most vulnerable, they are no longer God's prophets. They are little more than priests of the Empire.

Finally, it appears that the prophet Habakkuk is at his wits end with what he perceives to be a complacent God. This is what causes the prophet to cry out,

“How long? How long, Oh, God, shall I cry out for help and you will not listen? How long?  How long will I cry out violence and you will not save? How long.”

Habakkuk continues to register his dissent with God. “It’s one thing for our leaders to be corrupt. I get that. It's one thing for our religious leaders to be cautious and cowardly, I can even expect that. But when I turn to you, God....When I turn to you and it seems like my prayers fall on deaf ears, and it seems that you've gone on vacation, then it's becoming hard for me to keep the faith.”

Habakkuk is not being prideful or self-righteous. To the contrary. He is professing what he knows to be true about his God. This is why he rhetorically asks:

“Aren't you the Holy One? Are you not the One whose eyes are too pure to behold evil? This is why, oh God, I need your help to understand our current reality. For it seems that the gulf of inconsistency between what is going on in our world and who I know you to be is growing too wide for me to wrap my mind around. God I need your help.”

As I stand here this morning, I am going to assume that some of you can identify with Habakkuk. I am going to assume that many of you know what it's like to look around and lament the state of our society while it seems everyone else is solely concerned with a reality television existence. I can assume that many of you know what it's like to decry structural and physical violence while watching others fan the flames of hatred and intolerance. And I assume that some of you know what's it's like to feel like an odd duck or all alone. You are made to feel this way because you actually want to use your education and career for something other than making the cover of Forbes magazine.

Yes. I assume many of you can relate to the prophet Habakkuk. You look around and wonder what kind of world do we live in. I want to make this point, particularly for the students among us. Don’t let anyone tell you that it's just your youth talking! Don't let anyone tell you that it's just your naïveté. And do not let anyone tell you that it's just your idealism clouding your judgment. These are legitimate questions to ask. What have we become? Who are we? And how long will God seemingly remain silent?

What kind of world do we live in? The bodies of children washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, as parents would rather risk their lives at sea rather than face a certain death in Syria. 96 children have been killed and hundreds more injured just in the past seven days in Aleppo alone. How long, Lord?

What kind of country is this? What would fill a young man with so much hate and rage that he would shoot a gun or plant a bomb in a crowd. Whether Charleston or San Bernardino, whether Newtown, CT or Chelsea, NY; whether the movie theatre in Aurora, Illinois or the nightclub in Orlando. These are our children that we have failed — both the victims and the perpetrators. How long, Lord?

And what kind of society do we live in? What kind of society treats mental illness with prison, and unarmed drug offenders with police bullets? What kind of society condones officers that shoot first and make up answers later? What kind of society thinks so little of police officers that we don't believe that they can and should serve all American citizens with decency and decorum rather than intimidation and violence? How long, Lord?

I want to suggest this morning that you and I must be mindful and careful. While it is appropriate to cry out to God, “How long?” And it is understandable that we will at times become frustrated with the ubiquity of injustice in our world. We cannot allow our frustration to lead us to a cynical place. We must remain mindful of the damaging effects caused by the dull streams of despair. For over time, slowly but surely, despair can wear on our faith in what is right and what is good. 

Though we see the biblical archetype of evildoers as those that pervert justice and flaunt the weapons of malevolence with pride. In reality, however, such wicked and evil people are rare.  The real problem in life is not the problem of the wicked; it is the problem of the indifferent. The real moral problem in our society is not with those who willfully act terrible. Those people are rare. But rather the real moral problem is among those of us who have developed a tolerance for evil and suffering. And it is this growing tolerance over time that tempts many of us to throw in the moral towel. Cynicism erodes our ethical core. Like the seemingly innocuous impact of water rushing along the rocks, we do not pay attention to its erosional impact until it’s too late. What we thought to be an immovable moral core ends up displaced and transported downstream. 

This is why I appreciate God’s response to Habakkuk. God says write down on tablets what you know to be true about me. Write down on tablets what a just society ought to look like. And write down a vision of a world where peace, justice, and equality are more important than law, order, and power. Law, order, and power may be the way of empire. But peace, justice, and equality is the way of God’s kingdom. So write the vision. Make it plain. 

I hear God telling Habakkuk to not allow his eyes to become dimmed by disillusion and despair. Do not allow your clear vision of justice to become an overwhelmed stare of frustration and fatigue. You must keep writing the vision. You must keep making it plain.

Maybe this is why whether it was the imprisoned Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci; whether the young, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, or whether feminist, queer activists of color like Lorraine Hansberry and Pauli Murray at the height of segregation, those who wrote down a vision of hope in the midst of despair were those who helped move our world just a little bit further. And their written words continue to provide subsequent generations the adrenaline of hope and inspiration.

This is the message that I have come by here this morning to share. This is the message that I pray will encourage you and encourage me. We have the truth of the gospel. Not a glazed over gospel that conceals the pain of a hurting humanity.

Let the people know that though things may get worse before they get better, in the end my word will not prove false. Blessed are those who maintain justice, and honored are those who constantly do right. For though the wicked are puffed up, the wine of the world will betray them.  Their arrogance will only torment and their greed covers over them like a grave. But the righteous shall live by their faith.

This is good news for you and me today. God knows we can and will get frustrated, tempted by despair. This is why whenever we cry out in frustration, “How long?” we can answer in faith, “Not long.” 

Frustration wants us to focus on how dark our circumstances may be. But faith tells us that it is always darkest just before the dawn of a new day. 

How long, God?  Not long. Because vision and imagination are the wings that will lift us high above the doldrums of despair and defeat.

How long? Not long. Because God’s love is the cure for listlessness, and hope’s sunlight melts away the storm clouds of life’s stagnation.

How long? Not long. Because no matter how long the crucifixion on Friday, we know that Resurrection Sunday is just around the corner.

How long? Not long!