I was listening to the radio a few weeks ago when NPR was playing a compilation of speeches and sermons. The speakers described a new sense of hope, a turning of the corner after days of anguish and despair.
They described a nation that would soon emerge from a deadly pandemic and divisive violence. Their words were recorded nearly one hundred years ago, and yet landed for me that day with the sharpness of history doubling back upon itself. They were recordings collected from the first year after the US emerged from devastation of the Spanish Flu and World War One, between 1919 and 1920.
Of the speeches played on the radio that day, one in particular has stuck with me. It was a campaign speech given by Warren G. Harding before being elected as President. He called for a return to normalcy, a return to the calm and pleasant way of life that many Americans had enjoyed before the war and the pandemic. He spoke of a bucolic nation, where the predominating experience was one of peace and prosperity, of Sunday picnics and of self made men. A return to normalcy.
One hundred years later, we hear similar phrases whispered in the winds, sometimes made more concrete in the words of our new president, and often in the sentiments and wishes of so many for whom the pandemic and the previous presidential administration have been twin nightmares.
To be sure, there is an unmistakable appeal to the idea of life returning to normal. There is something comforting, something alluring, about turning away from chaotic upheaval into the arms of the familiar, returning to the way things were.
There is, perhaps, something in our nature that nostalgically hails the way things were as a sacred cow, never to be sacrificed.
One of my close friends works as an organizational consultant for large government agencies and non-profits, helping them to make changes that create greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. He tells me that biggest impediment, the most prominent barrier to change is often the fear that people have of leaving behind what has been in favor of something new, something that is uncertain, and unfamiliar.
We as a society tend to resist change, to resist disruptions in our life, to resist that which might cause us discomfort and uncertainty.
This is all the more so true among white America. We who cling in ways both spoken and unspoken , in manner both conscious and unconscious, in matters of policy and matters of the purse. It is a unique feature of American whiteness that we cling with particular temerity to the normalcy of an America built on the unjust premise of white supremacy. That we make of this normalcy a false idol.
There is no greater illustration of this tendency than the acts that occurred earlier this month in the nation’s capitol. Acts that symbolize a desperate effort to preserve the past, to return to an earlier norm of American life. The storming of the capitol was little more than the worship of a false idol manifested in collective and violent action.
In the books of the Hebrew Bible, false idols and prophetic witness are frequently viewed in contrast to one another. The prophet names the falseness of the idol, makes stark the degree to which it is a deviation from the will of God.
In the words of this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, the divine word is on the lips of the prophet, while those who speak falsely or worship a false truth are subject to condemnation.
Indeed one of the core roles of the Hebrew prophet is to shine a light on the false idols that have permeated Israelite society. With biting words, they lay siege to the idolatry of man. Amos preached that “the people have been “led astray by these false visions” of what is holy and in the words of Hosea, they “have used their Gold and Silver to make idols of themselves,” statues and altars for the worship of iniquity.”
The prophet Isaiah asks, “Who would fashion a shrine or cast an image that can do no good?”
Or asked another way, “who stands to benefit from the worship of an image whose very premise is forged in inequity?”
Who stands to benefit from the image of an American Normalcy. An image that was forged in the fires of slavery and genocide and then refined through generations of forced migration, segregation, exclusion and incarceration, eventually reaching a modern pinnacle with the greatest chasm of income inequality seen in centuries.
I must remind myself that this is the normal life, the so called peace and prosperity, that me and many of those who live like me and look like me hope to return to.
As the Hebrew Bible would tell it, a hallmark of humanity’s relationship with the divine is that for every moment in which our momentum moves towards the reification of inequity as a false Idol, there are voices emboldened by God to disturb the status quo. Voices reminding us that where there is no justice, there can be no peace. Disturbers of the peace.
How we engage with these disturbers of the peace says a lot about our society and where we are headed.
It was one such Disturber of the Peace, perceived in his time to be so dangerous that he warranted an FBI file 17,000 pages long, who wrote that “the great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom is the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Dr. King wrote these words while sitting in the city jail in Birmingham. His letter was in direct response to eight white clergymen, self-identified liberals, who had published an open letter, calling on Dr. King to end his campaign of civil disobedience in the name of law and order. They claimed that King’s demands were too bold, that he moved too fast, that the gears of change must move slowly and carefully, and that we must be patient so as not to disrupt the social order.
Five years later, King was dead, violently assassinated by a radicalized actor desperately clinging to the America’s segregated past.
That tradition of prophetic critique, as we know, has been given new life in the last few years in the movement for Black Lives. When speaking of the genesis of the movement, two of the women often credited with its founding, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, use language that echoes the narratives of the Hebrew prophets.
“We gave tongue to something that we knew was happening, we were courageous enough to call it what it was – and to transform Democracy we need the best and brightest disruptors to use all the tools available to us to build the world that we want to see.”
Their call disturbs any nostalgic yearning for the world as it has been, and instead speaks into being the world as it could be.
But as with Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, there are many who criticize the movement for black lives as being too bold, seeking too much too fast, and being too disruptive of the social order. That was made clear this past summer, when calls to defund the police were met with wave of cautionary responses about moving too quickly and demanding too much. Claims that such a change would mean removing an institution that preserves and protects our way of life, there by disturbing the privileged peace that we enjoy.
The path of a prophet is one of scorn and reproach. Jewish rabbi and theologian Abraham Heschel, who was himself a close friend and colleague of Dr. King’s, wrote of the Hebrew prophets that “the mission they performed was repugnant to others – they were stigmatized as madmen by their contemporaries. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious, to the pious multitude, they were blasphemous, to the men in authority, they were seditious.”
The fate that lies in wait for prophetic witness is indeed most dramatically canonized in our judeao-Christian tradition through the life and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus was nothing if not a disturber of the peace. He consistently spoke truth to power, questioned the powers that be, questioned the social and religious order of the day, calling out as he did their hypocrisy and their deviation from the central message of God‘s love and yearning for justice.
Even this simple story from the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus expels an unclean spirit, can be read in the prophetic tradition. Jesus teaches a gathering in the synagogue, but in manner and content that is far different from, likely even critical of the religious order. In response to his teaching, Jesus is confronted by this unclean spirit. The spirit cries out with a reactionary anxiousness that these radical and revolutionary teachings “will destroy us.”
Jesus’ act to expel this spirit can be read as a prophetic exorcism of the false idol of the status quo, another bold rejection of the predominant social order.
Over the course of his life and ministry, Jesus was no stranger to being told that he was moving too fast or that he was asking for too much too quickly. We can imagine the conversations shared among the Herodians and the Pharisees, conversations about how he was moving too fast, preaching a message that was too disruptive.
It was in fact this response, shared among the powers and principalities of his day, that ultimately led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.
I find it to be a stirring thought that then, in the crucifixion of Jesus, and now, when the social order is critiqued by modern prophetic witness, we are judged by the eternal divine, judged by God, based on how we respond to the call of the prophets.
The enduring question then, the question that we must always ask ourselves, is where do we stand relative to the call for change.
Does our fear if the unfamiliar and our nostalgic yearning for the comfort of the past keep our eyes affixed to the false idol of normalcy, the world as it has been?
Or do we stride boldly, divinely blessed by the roadmap of a peace disturbed, towards the world as it could be?
The question is as relevant now, at this moment in history, as it has ever been. Where we go us up to us.
I offer to you as benediction, the words of this Franciscan blessing:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers and the comfort of the past, so that you might question false idols of social order.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them And to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness To believe that you can make a difference in the world, So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.