Sermon by Professor Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, Director, William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, Harvard Kennedy School; Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership, Harvard Divinity School; 18th President and CEO NAACP, November 8, 2020, Commemoration of Benefactors and The War Dead. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
I greet you on this Sabbath in a spirit of gratitude for the opportunity and the occasion to simply be with you. I also express and extend my gratitude to our pastor, the Rev. Stephanie Paulsell, and of course, to the leadership, the faculty, staff, and the extended family of this Harvard Memorial Church. Last and most particularly, certainly on this occasion, we extend our gratitude as a congregation for the service and the sacrifice of those who literally laid down their lives for the freedom of others. We ask that God bless their memory and remind us of all that they sacrificed for as we pursue the ideals and the values of this country in this moment.
On this Sabbath, we are reminded that we as a republic and as citizens of a global village stand astride fissures of class, fault lines of race, as we cast at least 158 million ballots with approximately 100 million votes cast early, amidst the highest turnout of voters since 1900, the better part of 20 years before the last great pandemic. Amidst well over nine million coronavirus cases in America, long lines of Americans stood before polls and ballot boxes and drop-off boxes to exercise the franchise. And in the midst of this demonstration and exercise of democracy, there were rising tensions, expanding anxieties.
And so, we find ourselves today in a season of uncertainty, and in an age of anxiety, with so many Americans and those beyond these shores who are asking the question in the wake of Election 2020, "What next?" When we see Americans divided by party, divided by political philosophy, divided by differences perceived, real and imagined, we have so many who are yet posing the question one to another, and certainly to themselves, in the wake of Election 2020, "What next?"
As is our spiritual practice and moral custom at this Harvard Memorial Church, we turn to sacred texts, we turn to scripture for the answers to life's most vexing questions. And so, today, we turn to this beautiful pericope in the book of Luke, the 18th chapter, the first through the eighth verse. And there, we find these words: "And Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, 'In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, "Give me justice against my adversary.' For a while the judge refused, but afterwards he said to himself, "Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming."' And the Lord said, 'Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.'" May the Lord add a blessing to the reading and hearing of the Lord's most holy Word.
The lessons of this text might be characterized simply and thusly: protests, prayer and parables of persistence. That is, protest, or seek justice; secondly, pray with persistence; and lastly, thirdly, tell ourselves, tell parables of persistence. In this provocative parable, we encounter a wonderful woman who was also a widow. Luke, the author of this Gospel, briefly described this woman as a widow without a name, but with a character we can scarcely forget. In this text, this widow has a legal dispute, a legal conflict with a neighbor, and as a consequence, she seeks justice from a judge. The language of the Bible suggests that this widow was inclined to create a scene, to cause a disturbance, to bring about a disruption before the judge.
Now, we understand that not all disruption is unconstructive. In fact, we're reminded of one of God's great saints, the late John Lewis, who admonished us to engage in good trouble, good disturbances, good disruption. This widow embodied the dictum that well-behaved women seldom make history. This widow not only made history, she made it into the Bible. And yet, I want to suggest to you this morning that this widow had the spirit of a protester, the spirit of a demonstrator, the spirit of an activist. We understand all too well that this widow's spirit is manifested and reflected in the times in which we find ourselves. In the wake of George Floyd's death, there were as many as 26 million Americans protesting across 550 jurisdictions across the length and breadth of this democracy. Over and over, in towns and villages, cities and suburbs, Americans, like the widow, sought justice. They seek justice.
In this moment, we seek justice amidst a coronavirus plague afflicting millions globally, but our seniors, our immigrants, our people of color, our Indigenous, our migrant communities disparately. It's not enough for us to secure a vaccine against COVID-19; we need a vaccine against the most malignant comorbidities of the coronavirus: xenophobia, racism, seniorism and classism. The vaccine for the former may be paid for in currency, but the vaccine for the latter will cost us a measure of character. We have to seek justice in this moment with specificity, with particularity, with the clarity that the widow demonstrated, you see, because she understood the justice that she was seeking, she understood where to seek it, she understood from whom she should seek it. So, the widow sought justice with particularity, with specificity, with moral clarity; so should we. We understand that in this moment, it's not enough for us to complain about injustice; we must seek justice with particularity, with specificity, with moral clarity.
This widow was a woman who was undoubtedly circumstantially educated about her plight. She, as a woman in a patriarchal society, well understood the role assigned to women in a so-called man's world. She understood the feminization of poverty; she understood Kimberlé Crenshaw's intersectionality of gender, race and class. You see, this woman, this widow, because she was a widow, occupied, existed at the basement, the bottom rung of society. This widow possessed an epistemological advantage in understanding the poverty of women.
For many of us, we don't have a firsthand experience of racism, we don't have a circumstantial education when it comes to xenophobia, antisemitism, racism, poverty. And so, as such, we have to educate ourselves. We have to learn, we have to study, we have to listen, we have to engage, we have to draw close to one another as allies, yes, but far more so as children of God, we must learn. When it comes to social justice, it's not enough to have sincerity of complaint; we must have a substantive knowledge of that which we seek and the means by which we seek it. We must have specificity, particularity and moral clarity in terms of our lens. So we have to seek justice, like this widow, with persistence, with diligence, with an unrelenting spirit.
The second lesson of this text is that we must be persistent in prayer. Luke describes the judge as a corrupt official who feared neither God nor man. You recall the judges during those times were charged with the responsibility to render justice, with a special sensitivity to orphans and widows, who occupied the lowest rung of that society. The text suggests that this judge, however, was more concerned about peace of mind than peace and justice, more concerned about his personal comfort zone than the discomfort of those under the boot and experiencing the brunt of oppression. This scriptures suggest to us that the widow's persistence is that which was dispositive in her case. In other words, her persistence, her perseverance, is that which persuaded the judge to grant her justice, not her case itself.
And so, the question for us today is, how can we compare, how does the apostle Luke compare pressing the case of justice before a corrupt judge to prayer before an incorruptible God? How can we compare seeking justice from a corrupt official, a corrupt elected official, a corrupt judge, to praying before a compassionate God? How can this be?
In this text, the widow goes before the judge, and the text suggests that he grants her justice because she is wearing him out. The text suggests that she pursues her case with a certain ferocity of spirit, a certain violence of spirit, a certain perseverance that was disruptive and anxiety-producing. The judge grants her justice slowly, reluctantly, begrudgingly, only as a consequence of the widow's persistence.
But God does not call on us to demonstrate this belligerent persistence, this disruptive persistence. God calls on us to persevere in our prayers until his kingdom comes. We are to persist in prayer predicated on hope that is grounded in the compassionate character of God. We do not stand before God as a petitioner before a corrupt official. In the face of voter suppression, elected officials literally purging votes, violating court orders, erecting barriers between Americans and the ballot box, we nevertheless persist. We engage in disruption, we engage in protest, we engage in good trouble. But before God, who cares for us, who loves us, who has elected us before, during and after an election, he chooses us, he calls us his own and cares for us deeply.
And so, we cannot, we must not, we should not treat God as an elected official. We can trust, we can believe, we can love, we can lean on, we can embrace, we can turn to, we can seek God in every situation, in every circumstance, in every season, and in every age before, during and after an election. We go before God because he loves us. We are his elect. We have been chosen.
The third lesson of this text is that we can tell ourselves parables of persistence. Luke wrote this Gospel and the related book of Acts in a period of uncertainty, amidst a season of anxiety. And during this time, God's elect experienced persecution. It may well be that in this moment, many of us feel what it's like to be an elect, a member of God's elect in the first century. Those of Asian ancestry who are subject to vile insults and ugly discrimination as a consequence of their racial identity and ethnicity may feel persecuted, and it may well be that they understand what it is to be in a season of uncertainty and an age of anxiety. It may well be, if you are a Jew or Muslim, if you are a Jew experiencing antisemitism or a Muslim in the throes of Islamophobia, you understand what it means to exist in a season of uncertainty and an age of anxiety. It may well be, if you are of African ancestry, in the midst of rising hate crime and deepening racial tensions, you understand what it means to live in an age of anxiety and a season of uncertainty.
And yet, I want to suggest to you, in this very moment, that this is precisely the time, precisely the moment, precisely the age, precisely the season to persist in prayer, to demonstrate that spiritual practice of drawing close to God. This is that time in which we draw close to God. There are those who are asking the question today, how can we persist in prayer? How can we persevere in prayer? Where do we find the intestinal fortitude? Where do we find the spirit? How do we continually and consistently go before God? How can we demonstrate the widow's perseverance in the face of a loving, caring, compassionate God, in the midst of a season of uncertainty and an age of anxiety? Some of us are still asking, what next? Where do we find the strength?
This is a moment in which some of us recall in early October, that there were men who were charged with a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, because they thought that they could precipitate a second civil war. This is not altogether peculiar or unduly strange as a moral and political possibility. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said that the situation in this country reminded him of a fratricidal time in Lebanon, in the mid-70s, where there were clashes between sectarian militias in the streets. This is a moment in American history when the Australian scholar David Kilcullen noted that America seemed at the point of an incipient insurgency.
And so, many of us, though we may not worry about an imminent second civil war, we're worried about the state of our nation, and we ask ourselves, what next? How can we pray consistently, continually, with perseverance and persistence? Where do we find the soul sustenance for this moment? I'm reminded that we can turn to the parables of Jesus. We understand that parables are comparable to a range of ancient and modern short narratives, including Aesop's Fables, historical anecdotes about the deeds of famous people, humorous stories. These stories are often marked by hyperbole and humor. They may be described as realistic fictions.
And so, if you're asking, how might we find a persevering spirit, a persistent spirit? I want to suggest to you that we read this parable of this persistent widow, but not only that, we use the parable of the persistent widow to literally provide a lens to read and to hear the stories of our own persistence, stories of persistence in our family histories, in our history, in our collective memory as a people, and that we tell these parables of persistence to ourselves to encourage ourselves, to inspire ourselves, to go before God in persistent, persevering prayer.
Tell parables of our own persistence. Tell parables of our own persistence, because we're reminded that Frederick Douglass, that famous former slave, who never forgot the night he gave an unduly pessimistic speech in Boston's Faneuil Hall, and amidst a packed house, he described the evils of slavery, and he concluded with dire pessimism that white people in America would never put an end to the Negro's bondage. And his only conclusion was that only armed revolt by the slaves would free the slaves, and that this would result in slaughter. In the midst of his dire description of the circumstances, in the rear of that room, in the back of this expanse of audience, a tall, humbly dressed Black woman rose to her feet. Sojourner Truth lifted up her deep contralto voice, a voice that may have been heard as basso profundo because of its moral poignancy and prophetic power. Listening to Frederick Douglass's pessimism, in that voice, Sojourner Truth declared, "Frederick, is God dead?"
Is God dead? The parables of our persistence remind us that God is not dead. We can tell parables of our own persistence and be reminded that Sojourner Truth preached and prayed for freedom year in and year out, so much so that the president, Abraham Lincoln, drafted what might be considered a preamble to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, that is, the Emancipation Proclamation. We're reminded that the prayers, the persistent prayers of Sojourner Truth were such that the Emancipation Proclamation was not a matter of Lincoln's pragmatism and eloquence, but rather her persistence and perseverance. We can tell ourselves this parable of persistence and be reminded of the power of persevering prayer.
Tell ourselves parables of persistence, such that we recall a devoutly religious widow who was born a slave, escaped to freedom. This widow, this abolitionist, Harriet Tubman Davis, served the Union Army as a scout, as a nurse, as a cook and a spy. And later on, after the war, after the Civil War, she received a pension as a widow of a Union veteran by the name of Nelson Davis. We're reminded of her perseverance, and we're reminded that Harriet Tubman freed slave after slave, and yet we understand that, had Harriet Tubman compared the 70 slaves she freed to the four million enslaved in the 1860s, she might have given up. Her hope and leadership was not based on the dire math of reality, but on a calculation of faith. Hope is not empirically demonstrated, it is morally chosen. And our hope is only realized through persistence, through perseverance in the face of injustice.
Tell ourselves this parable of perseverance and persistence. The tweets, posts, newspaper accounts and historical accounting of injustice can cause many of us to despair. But I want to suggest to you that the stories of widows, women, prophets, preachers, scholars and students can give us the emotional wherewithal, the spiritual wherewithal, the moral wherewithal to persist, to persevere, to press on, to press forward, to never, ever, ever give up.
I'll close by simply noting, modestly and autobiographically, I know of a widow by the name of Mrs. Jamee Prioleau, whose father, back in the 1940s, ran for Congress in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Mrs. Prioleau, now 80 years of age, recalls her father telling her as a little girl that he ran for Congress when African Americans were denied the right to vote, when elections represented occasions for the Klan to terrorize Black people. Mrs. Prioleau recalls that her father ran for Congress in 1946, garnering only 2% of the vote. She doesn't recall only his failure; she also recalls that her high school classmate, James Clyburn, ran for the same congressional seat a half a century later, and he won that seat.
This widow, my mother, reminds me and yet reminds me that persisting prayer, persevering prayer, prayer that sticks to and stands out, is the kind of prayer that transforms the world, the kind of prayer that transforms democracy, the kind of prayer that transforms people, the kind of prayer that makes this world what God would have it to be. We can tell ourselves parables of persistence and perseverance. These stories, these parables are found in the Bible and found in our lives, found in our history, found in our collective memory. It is with these prayers that we go before corrupt officials, sometimes corrupt judges. It is with these parables that we persist before God and man. Amen.