In a DVD series called “DreamThinkBeDo,” which offers an introduction to progressive Christianity, the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks about the suffering of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and how their cries reached the ears of Yahweh. When Yahweh heard their cries, he took action to deliver them from their bondage. From this incident Brueggemann draws the principle that “voiced pain becomes a public fact that requires the rearrangement of social power.”
Think about that for a moment. Voiced pain becomes a public fact that requires the rearrangement of social power. We are hearing a lot of voiced pain in our country and around the world these days. We hear about the pain of law-abiding citizens who fear for their lives in every encounter with law enforcement (and with good reason, as multiple cell-phone videos continue to demonstrate) simply because of the color of their skin. We hear about the pain of responsible police officers who feel unfairly demonized and targeted because of the decisions of juries or the actions of an irresponsible few of their number. We hear about the pain of women who face the danger of sexual assault without the assurance that they will be believed when they tell their stories, or that those convicted will receive punishments commensurate with their crimes. We hear about the pain of the people of Paris, Nice, Baghdad, Istanbul, Medina, and Orlando, as they deal with the after-effects of terrorist attacks in their cities. We hear about the pain of refugees from Syria, economic migrants from the developing world, and those living in fear for their lives on a daily basis in Rio de Janeiro, Guatemala City, Chicago, and even Columbus. We hear about the pain of working class people in the US who are dealing with a transformed economy and social landscape where they feel they have lost their bearings and their place.
With all these voices making their pain audible to the world, surely we will begin to see a rearrangement of social power. That’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is looking for. That’s what the people who flocked to Bernie Sanders’s campaign events this spring were looking for. That’s even what Donald Trump’s backers are looking for, with their plea to “make America great again.”
So where is this rearrangement happening? Where do we see social power changing hands? Where do we see liberation taking place? More to the point, where do we see the church becoming involved in these matters and seeking answers to these questions?
Well, in some cases we see the church, or at least some who claim to speak for the church, on the wrong side. We see them siding with Pharaoh instead of the Hebrew slaves. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the writer quoted a prominent evangelical leader who explained his support of Donald Trump by saying that, when considering perceived threats against evangelical Christians, “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role [the presidency], and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.” Trump panders to this persecution complex and the sense of resentment many Christians feel at their loss of influence in the culture. In a January speech at a Christian college in Iowa, he said, “I’ll tell you one thing: [if] I get elected president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” He promised beleaguered evangelicals, “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power—you don’t need anybody else.”
Leaving aside the breathtaking claim that Christians “don’t need anybody else” besides Donald Trump, what these quotes demonstrate is an utter reversal of Jesus’s attitude toward power. Like Yahweh as depicted in the Exodus story, Jesus came alongside the powerless and strengthened them in their struggle for liberation. Unlike Yahweh, he effected that liberation through nonviolent means. Instead of striking down the firstborn of the Egyptians and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the sea, Jesus gave up his own life in order to free his people from their bondage. His power, as Paul would later declare, was made perfect in weakness. Christians who are looking for the meanest, toughest son-of-a-you-know-what have abandoned the way of Jesus.
But that’s not the whole story. Many Christians seek to remain faithful to Jesus’s vision of the nonviolent reign of God, and through their efforts we see a rearrangement of social power. Maybe not on a large, dramatic scale, but in small ways all over the world. Over the years, citizens of goodwill, including many Christians, have banded together to secure LGBTQ rights, ban landmines, increase federal funding for poverty-focused development assistance and domestic child nutrition programs, topple Communist regimes throughout eastern Europe, prevent genocidal bloodletting in South Africa, and win important civil rights protections for African Americans. Today, the struggle continues in different areas, such as ending human trafficking, abolishing nuclear weapons, reforming the criminal justice system in the US, and more.
The hoped-for rearrangement of social power comes when we join together to raise our voices and take concrete actions to bring liberation to the Hebrew slaves of our time. Guided by the Holy Spirit and fortified by prayer, our voices not only declare the pain but also proclaim the truth that God is unequivocally on the side of justice. One day these same voices will rise to celebrate the establishment of the reign of God in its fullness.
As we go forward, let us look for ways to add our voices to this chorus of freedom.