Why We Can't Wait!

Prof. Jonathan L. Walton
Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Dec. 07, 2014. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



Why we can't wait. Why we can't wait. On December 17th, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents from inside of a jail cell. The 37 year old Lutheran pastor and theologian had been arrested the preceding April as a result of his vehement protests against Germany's Nazi regime. Yet during that season of advent, the period where Christians anticipate the coming of the Christ child Bonhoeffer's letter reveals a liberated conscious that stood in stark contrast to his physical bondage. "From the Christian point of view," it reads, "there's no special problem about spending Christmas in a jail cell. The misery suffering poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt associated with prison means something quite different in the eyes of God than it does in the judgment of men. God will approach us where men turn away Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. These are the things," Bonhoeffer concludes, "that a prisoner can understand better than other people."

From inside his prison sale Bonhoeffer came to appreciate the season of advent. From inside his prison cell Bonhoeffer came to interpret Christ coming with greater spiritual meaning. And from behind those in prison walls, Bonhoeffer came to anticipate and receive Christ's love with fuller comprehension. Because from April, 1943, to his execution at the hands of the government in 1945, Bonhoeffer's life became a literal waiting game. He was waiting for his freedom, waiting for the war to end, waiting to hear positive reports from his fiancée and parents amidst government attacks on their character and on their lives yet, despite Bonhoeffer's physical condition, despite his imprisonment and despite his faith, in the words of Isaiah, they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. Bonhoeffer would not allow his waiting to be a passive endeavor. The victimized, he refused to concede to injustice and become a victim, but rather he would use the power of his pen to offer theological reflections regarding the moral responsibility of Christians to stand up against injustice.

"We are here to hold fast to the coming of Christ," he writes, "by preparing the way for Christ." My friends in disregard Dietrich Bonhoeffer's advent reflections are consistent with the demands of today's scripture protagonist. And this morning's text, in this morning's gospel text, we witnessed a community preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. Mark's gospel begins by citing the prophecy of Isaiah. God will send a messenger to prepare the way. God will raise up a voice, crying out in the wilderness to announce the coming of the one who will bring the good news and set the captives free. And God will send a prophet who will prepare the people for Emmanuel.

This messenger, this voice, this prophet is none other than John the Baptist. John the Baptist has one sermon. One sermon that he preaches constantly and consistently. Repent. Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand get yourselves in order because there is one who is coming, the Prince of Peace who will come and typify what God's kingdom looks like. There's one who's coming. He will be born among the lowly in order to bring good news to the poor. He's coming. He will be falsely accused and executed so that all will know when, who are imprisoned will know that he can set the captives free. There's one who's coming. And he will commune with those who have been left out and left behind so that the oppressed will understand that they have favor with the Lord. There's one who's coming. We should call him Emmanuel because he will indeed be God dwelling with us and among us. And if you are excited about his coming, if you want to be baptized by the one whose sandals, I'm not worthy of bending down and untying, I declare to you on this day, repent.

John the Baptist. John the Baptist is not talking solely about simple personal purification ritual of baptism. As we witnessed this morning, though, that is part of the chart. John is also referring to national repentance. For both for the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century, BC and John in the first century, CE national repentance was regarded as the prelude for the day of the Lord. The day that will God judge the nations for its sins. This is why Herod Antipas the Roman ruler of Galilee sentenced John the Baptist to death. For a calling for national repentance and calling for social reform, and a calling for the liberation of Galilee, this client state of the Roman empire, John the Baptist posed a serious threat to the establishment of Pax Romana. Roman peace. In calling for the empire to repent, john was declaring that peace predicated upon tyranny and maintained by terror is not peace it's sin.

Therefore, we can't just sit back and wait on the Prince of Peace. We can't just passively comport ourselves to the logic of a sin sick society. We cannot declare that we are preparing the way for the Lord while accepting the mistreatment of the most vulnerable for whom God cares about most. We cannot wait until Jesus comes. We need to get busy now. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight paths for him. My brothers and sisters, as we make our way through this advent season, I believe we can find here a fitting message for our nation on this morning, a nation that is seemingly unraveling at the thinly stitched seams of law and justice. Let's not put our heads in the sand.

There's a cruel blood ritual taking place in our country in the name of public safety. There appears to be a high tolerance for the killing of unarmed black males in our nation in the name of fighting crime. And it appears that for many in this country, giving police officers the right to shoot first and find justification later is what it means for them to protect and serve. At least when it comes to communities of color. This is why hundreds of thousands of people across the religious, across racial, across generational lines have taken to the streets and fury and frustration. People are furious. People are furious that a child like Trayvon Martin can be pursued for walking in his father's neighborhood and be shot in cold blood because of zealous neighborhood watchman says he felt threatened. And according to the law, that's the only defense that you need.

People are frustrated that grand juries are still willing to give police officers sole testimony, the benefit of the doubt when it countless other cases, offices using deadly force, ah, we seen that subsequent video evidence has contradicted official police reports, time in and time over. Let's consider three cases in the past six months alone. Officers in St. Louis said that Gene Powell was lunging at them with a knife when they emptied bullets into him. Yet later, the video shows that the mentally ill man was wandering aimlessly in circles, yelling, "Shoot me" over a dozen yards away from officers. Officers in Staten Island said that Eric Gardner died of cardiac arrest when he was being subdued until a video revealed an illegal choke hold and a coroner's report ruled that Gardner's death was homicide by asphyxiation. And officers in Cleveland said that they yelled out to 12 year old Tamir Rice, three times to put down the gun while he was pointing at them until the video revealed that the car sped up on the scene. And an officer began shooting immediately upon opening his door. An officer that a suburban Ohio department had ruled unfit for duty due to his lack of attention for gun safety. Yet he was seemingly fit for Cleveland's impoverished Westside community.

So, this my friends is why some people in this nation have trouble giving police officers who use deadly force the benefit of the doubt, particular people who live under draconian policy, such as stop and frisk and broken window policing. Of course, of course, everybody knows that there's wonderful police officers out there who put their lives on the line to protect and serve. And I would think that they would raise their voice loudest against the system. But of those, I would think that this is overblown until one feels the dehumanizing below of being on the wrong or being of the wrong race in the wrong space, and thus always and already guilty upon arrival, one should refrain from all the sanctimonious bromides about guilt, innocence, or simply following the law.

Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, a groomsman in a wedding, several alums of Morehouse College, brother Mark, we were there and we flew from all across the country to share in this special occasion, there were about 10 or 12 of us. And we were gathered in the host hotel parking lot to caravan over to the rehearsal dinner on a Friday evening. Two of our cars collided in a mild fender bender as we hurriedly backed out of our parking spaces at the same time. We got out of the SUVs and called the police to get a police report for the insurance companies. 10 minutes later, three police cars pulled up. They jumped out of their cars with their guns, drawn, demanding that we put our hands up and on the roof of the car. These are officers were not responding to our 911 call, but rather they were responding to the 911 call of a hotel guest who reported a gang fight in the hotel parking lot.

There were several physicians in the group. A few of us had, or were working toward our PhDs at the time. And there were one or two Wall Street executives. We all modeled what some would refer to as black respectability politics. Nobody in the group had their pants sagging. Nobody was playing loud music. Nobody was talking loud or disrespectful, though I'm not quite sure everybody in the group probably could've passed the marijuana test. Not that I think all of you in here today could either, but you see it was not a matter of guilt or innocence. It was not a matter of whether we knew how to act or not. But rather as a crowd of African American men, our bodies were occupying the space that in the eyes of some, they should not have. Thus to the minds of the person who made that call and to the police officers who showed up on the scene, who looked at what should have been a weird looking group of "gang bangers," we were already criminals, mere thugs who could have lost our lives with one wrong move.

Nevertheless, nevertheless, my friends, I still believe that all of these issues, all of these debates about the use of deadly force stop and frisk, grand jury indictments or non-indictment, I really sincerely believe that they are symptoms of a much deeper problem in our society. These are all symptoms of a criminal justice system run amuck. And the United States of America's apparent obsession with using prisons as a means of social control.

What we have witnessed in this nation since around 1970 is the development of a network of laws, policy, social customs, and financial interests that have all converged to fuel a criminal industrial complex that disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color, yet in prisons, all of us. If you've not done so, I encourage you to read either Christian Parenti's book Locked Down America or Michelle Alexander's the New Jim Crow.

For what does it mean? What does it mean that in the final three decades of the 20th century, the prison population in America grew from 300,000 to over two million. What does it mean? What does it mean that the United States now has an incarceration rate that is anywhere from six to 10 times greater than any other industrialized nation, our nation imprisons a half a million more people than China, though they have a population five times greater than the United States. What does it mean? That's the official crime rate in the United States has remained virtually identical with Finland and Germany since 1960. But the incarceration rate in those nations has either decreased or remained static. It means my friends that the so-called war on drugs and criminalization of poverty in this country has reached its boiling point. No longer can we allow American democracy to be hijacked by those with political and financial interests in criminalizing a critical mass of our society. For instance the two largest privately managed yet publicly held private detention industries, the corrections corporation of America and the geo group recorded total revenues of 1.7 billion and 1.6 billion respectively last year.

Goes without saying that this sort of flow of revenue has an inordinate influence on federal and state governments, incentivizing policies that will ensure that private prison facilities and beds will remain occupied. If we build them, we'll make sure that we have the prisoners. Then we wonder why that the vast majority of those trapped in the US criminal justice system are guilty of low level, low threat offenses, such as drug possession, public ordered offenses, and even nonpayment of associated court fees. We have started new debt prisons in American society, even though it's supposedly federally illegal. It's time my friends for this nation to repent this profit driven criminal justice industry is unsustainable, untenable, and most of all, it's unfit for so-called healthy democracy.

If we believe that we need more prisons to keep us safe, then I hate to say it, but as a nation, we're already locked up. One has to wonder if our emotional investments in prisons may say something about our abiding me to have a population above us, as long as we're able to look at them over against ourselves. As long as there is a criminalized population contained out of our sight, we know that they are in no way implicated in our lives. As long as we can contain those who have been deemed and dehumanized into social junk, we can live within the myth that there is always a direct correlation between a person's social class and their personal character. And here we find peace, a peace predicated upon tyranny and terrorizing the most vulnerable.

Yet, I think. And I'm just crazy enough to believe that as Christians, that we have a moral responsibility to this nation, we ought to heed the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist this morning, we must awaken from our false sense of comfort and prepare the way for the one who seeks to deliver and set free. To repent it's to acknowledge that something has gone awry, and we have a responsibility as Christians to confront it. It's easy to judge others. It's easy to assign guilt or innocence to someone else somewhere else. But when we view others through the lenses of judgment, we blind ourselves to our own sins and complicity with evil. Judgment creates an interpretive chasm. Judgment creates an empathy gap and empathy gulf that dehumanizes the object and diminishes the soul of us, the viewer. But on the other hand, what we learned from John the Baptist is what does it mean for us to view others the way that God views us? Not through the lenses of judgment, but through the lenses of love and love and grace.

If you've received, God's love. If you've felt the presence of God's grace in your life, then you already know why you can't wait for Jesus to come and set the captives free. You already know that God's love and God's grace even given unto one is sufficient for us all. This is why in our waiting on the Lord. In this season of advent, we should not wait to love. We should not wait to extend God's grace. We can not wait to do justice to love mercy, to walk humbly before our God, we cannot wait to repent and prepare the way for the one who has and will give us perfect peace. In the words of the great hymn, why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading? Pleading for you and for me, why should we linger? And he knocked his mercies? Mercies for you and for me. Come home, come home. Ye who are weary, come home. Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling to a sinner, come home.