“What are we supposed to do with all this?”
That’s the question Karl Vick asks in this weeks’ TIME magazine. If we read the paper or keep an eye on current events or even our friends’ feeds on Facebook or Twitter, we can’t help but hear of another fresh outrage, another story of violence and loss and heartbreak, another event that undercuts our sense of well-being and security. Vick compares our experience to Lucille Ball at that assembly line that keeps picking up speed. But no one is laughing. Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, Nice, Turkey, Baton Rouge again, Munich. That’s just in the past two weeks...
Yet it is also true that this isn’t true. The world is not getting worse, at least not by the objective measures of those things that have so captured our attentions. Vick gives us the quick rundown of what’s happening around us in the United States: Violent crime today is half what it was in the 1990s. And in U.S. cities the murder rate is a third what it was then.
In recent weeks our Commander in Chief has found time in his busy schedule to add Fact-Checker in Chief to his résumé, echoing TIME Magazine’s statistics with perhaps a tinge of partisan name-dropping. Friday, at a joint press conference with the president of Mexico, Obama said, “When it comes to crime, the violent crime rate in America has been lower during my presidency than any time in the last three, four decades. And although it is true that we’ve seen an uptick in murders and violent crime in some cities this year, the fact of the matter is, is that the murder rate today… is far lower than it was when Ronald Reagan was president — and lower than when I took office.”
And he’s right.
And yet, something is tipping. The candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders, the dis-ease in Europe, the rise of instability in the Middle East, the massive pressure of refugee migration, these all suggest that something is shifting—and it is setting off a host of responses.
Vick looks to Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist and neurologist who wrote what has to be one of my all-time favorite titles: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Sapolsky reminds us that reality is far more complex than the most recent statistic. We know this, of course. We see that we are in an in-between time. Science and technology, political and social realities, religious understandings: they are all in flux. Take technology: “We live more of our lives online,” Vick reminds us, “where rants go unchecked partly because what passes for ‘social’ interaction is, in fact, something less.”
In times of great change, it takes time to catch up, and it follows these times will be unsettled—filled both with moments of great stress and great possibility. Long ago the Chinese took the characters for “danger” and “opportunity” and combined them to make the character “crisis.” They understood! And, of course, we see that too, don’t we? We see in this current crisis opportunity for social change, for new life, for full life for all. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be open to you.
The fact that we are talking about racism and systemic violence toward African Americans is a sign of progress. The thing is, it’s been happening all along. Parents of black kids have been having “the talk” for years now. It’s just that we who have not had to deal with systems that treat some different from others because we have been the beneficiaries are finally becoming aware of it. Sometimes we need something to wake us up. Sometimes it takes a Hosea and his impolite political speech to open our eyes. “What is happening is an abomination. What do I have to do to make you see it?” Perhaps he’s not that different from Black Lives Matters. Sometimes you have to make some noise for things to change.
Sometimes you have to cause a ruckus, wake up the neighbors, throw around a few inconvenient truths to get something to happen. That’s prayer, as Jesus teaches it to his disciples. “8I tell you,” Jesus tells them, “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” And this persistence is not polite insistence—a gentle nudge, a kindly-worded email. This is the kind of stuff that gets the dogs barking, and the lights on at 3am, and the neighbors peeking out the door in their bathrobes. That’s the image Jesus gives his disciples when they ask him how to pray.
Did you see Ron Sims in the news these past few weeks? He was King County Executive for 13 years and then Deputy Director of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. He is one of the most accomplished and well-known African American men in Seattle. And he’s been stopped eight times by police over the years, the eighth time he had a headlight out—well, just the high beam. The other seven there was no reason at all for his stop. He was never ticketed. He was never told that he was doing anything wrong. But he was always asked “Do you live in this neighborhood” or “Where are you going?” He was stopped, in other words, because he was black.
Sims’ security team had the talk with him: When he is stopped, they advised him to proceed with tremendous caution: “get the automobile registration out of the glove compartment and put it on the dashboard; take my driver's license and insurance card out of my wallet and put it on top of the dashboard; roll down the window and keep both of my hands on the steering wheel. If you're stopped at night, do all of this after you've turned on the dome light.”
That’s what he did the eighth time he was stopped. I, on the other hand, have never had to be that disciplined and I suspect I never will. But this should matter to me—this unequal treatment that has a far-reaching impact, that is connected to every other thing we see going on in our world. This should be the kind of thing that I pray for even if it gets the dogs barking: your kingdom come, your will be done.
Threats real and perceived are a part of life. They are always with us and always with others. In this sense, our time is no different than any other. We are especially prone to them when we feel we have no recourse, when we think that we are nothing but victims. This is perhaps the most devastating lie.
Jesus imagines something different when he thinks of prayer. It has something to do with yielding to a greater power, to a greater truth. “Pray, and let God worry,” Martin Luther said in another time of anxiety. It has to do with recognizing the Spirit of Life that we understand to be the God revealed again and again in our story and our history.
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays,” said the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. And I suspect this is one of the greatest and most hopeful and most complex truths that we should hold onto with persistence. When we pray we are changed. Our eyes are opened. We begin to notice what we did not before. Empathy grows in us. Our behavior changes. And the world turns. “10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
The prayer of thanks we will pray at the table today is based on the Belhar confession, our newest, adopted at our Presbyterian General Assembly just a few weeks ago. It is our first confession from the southern hemisphere and it grows out of a long story of apartheid—systemic injustice based on skin color that persisted for years in South Africa—and finally tipped as the eyes of privileged whites were opened by the resilient and sometimes in-your-face resistance of those who had eyes to see who God was and is and always will be.
You see, even though these passages in Hosea and Luke feel very different, they imagine a God who is the same, a God who cannot resist pouring out compassion upon creation, problematic, corrupt, and resistant as it may happen to be.
Here is the last hopeful verse in Hosea:
Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God."
"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
This is the God to whom we pray. May our whole life, and our life together be a prayer that is worthy of this hope.