What It Takes to Heal Nations

San Diego Solidarity Brigade & OLBSD Projections for Racial Justice - Dismantle White SupremacySIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5
John 14:23-29

Prayer of the Day: Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.” Psalm 67:4.

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:2.

The relationship between Gods people and the “nations” is-well, a little bit complicated. In the Hebrew Scriptures the nations are often seen as enemies of Israel. “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’” Psalm 2:1-2. These verses reflect the geopolitical reality of 9th and 8th Century Palestine where relatively small kingdoms like Israel and Judah led a precarious existence among other petty kingdoms vying for control of the fertile crescent in the shadow of the great Hittite, Babylonian, Egyptian and Assyrian empires. The nations and their ambitions posed an ever-present existential threat to Israel.

Particularly insightful is Psalm 82 in which “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Psalm 82:1. The “gods” referenced here are the gods of the various nations. See Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 164. The religion built around these gods functioned as a divine justification for the hierarchical regime that stratified human society from the king down to the slave. In contrast to these gods who “judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked” (Psalm 82:2), the God of Israel gives “justice to the weak and the fatherless” and maintains “the right of the afflicted and destitute.” Israel’s God “rescue[s] the weak and the needy; deliver[ing] them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4. Indeed, this unique God to a band of escaped slaves turns the hierarchical regime of these other so-called “gods” on its head. So, too, in the New Testament the “nations” personified by Herod and Pontius Pilate were instrumental in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. Acts 4:27-28. In the end, the nations will be judged for their neglect and abuse of the poor, the hungry, the naked and oppressed. See Matthew 25:31-46.

This is not the entire story, however. Abram was called and blessed in order to “be a blessing” and so that by his and Sarai’s descendants “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” Genesis 12:1-3. Psalm 87 speaks of Zion as the mother of peoples from many nations, some of which were mortal enemies of Israel. The Lord declares to the prophet Isaiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. John of Patmos visualizes the people of God’s new creation as coming from “all tribes and peoples and tongues.” Revelation 7:9. “The glory and honor of the nations” are to be incorporated into the new Jerusalem and by that holy city’s light the “nations shall walk.” Revelation 21:22-27. The nations as nations are objects of God’s redemptive goal for all creation. Like individual persons, they stand in need of God’s healing touch.

There is plenty of healing that needs to be done if the nations are to dwell together justly and peacefully in God’s new creation. I can’t think of any nation, past or present, that does not have injustice, violence and blood in its history. Every nation, including my own, has a tendency to demand loyalty that belongs to God alone, impose its own nationalistic agenda on the rest of the world and neglect the most vulnerable people under its jurisdiction. The indictment made against the Near Eastern deities in Psalm 87 could as well be made against the nations of the modern world. So, how does God go about “healing” the nations?

A nation is healed the same way individual persons are healed: through repentance and forgiveness. The delightful Book of the Prophet Jonah suggests that such a thing is indeed possible for the most wayward of nations. But it is hardly realistic to expect it occur with the speed and thoroughness that repentance overtook the empire of Assyria in response to the prophet’s message. There are some suggestive events in our own time that I believe give us clues about what national repentance might look like. One example is The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. The TRC was a court-like body before which witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences. Some of these witnesses were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence under the former regime could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. A register of reconciliation was also established so that ordinary South Africans who wished to express regret for past failures could also express their remorse. The TRC hearings were crucial to South Africa’s transition to full and free democracy.

So how might repentance and healing take shape in our own nation? Clearly, there is much for which we need to repent. But if there is one defining sin of the United States it is the pervasive and systemic racism built into our nation’s founding document and the social and and economic arrangements under which was built an empire on the lands of dispossessed peoples and on the backs of enslaved Africans. If there is one sin that continues to breed violence, poverty and injustice it is the ideology of white supremacy that manifests itself not only in the overt activities of the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads and white nationalist organizations, but in the more subtle and therefore more lethal practices of discrimination in government, education and the workplace.

Proposals have been made for reparations in some form to descendants of slaves, most notably, Representative John James Conyers, Jr.s “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act” (H.R. 40). This legislation would “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.” Few political leaders have been willing to promote even the notion of such action.[1] It should be pointed out, however, that restitution to persons wronged by the American government under color of law is not a new idea. At the end of the Civil War, General William Sherman issued a series of orders granting each freed slave family forty acres of tillable land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina. This land was to be for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres in Georgia and South Carolina.  (However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after President Lincoln was assassinated, and the land was returned to its previous owners.) Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 the U.S. government apologized to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II and provided reparations of $20,000 to each survivor in compensation for loss of property and liberty during that period. Additionally, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act transferred land, federal money, and a portion of oil revenues to native Alaskans. The moral imperative is clear. The legal precedent is there. What we lack is the will.

Admittedly, reparations to African Americans in the United States posses many difficult and perplexing issues: What form should reparations take? Cash payments made through restitution courts? A vigorous affirmative action initiative? Programs aimed at developing predominantly black communities and schools? Who administers the process of reparations? How will reparations in any form help to dismantle the hateful ideology of white supremacy and its ongoing contribution to discriminatory conduct? Should there be a “truth commission” component of reparations? Such perplexities, though daunting, should not deter us. Imperfect and flawed justice is still better than allowing injustice to continue. Nothing worth doing is easy and we have to start somewhere. Representative Conyer’s bill seems as good a place as any.

This is hardly a “hot” partisan political issue. Neither of the two major parties has shown any strong desire to make racial justice a centerpiece of its platform. But for disciples of Jesus, reconciliation isn’t a peripheral issue and it cannot be set aside in the interest of an election. Because “healing of the nations” is the end game for God’s new creation, followers of Jesus cannot be neutral when it comes to addressing this chief sin afflicting the nation in which we reside. The only way is forward and into the light.

Here is a poem by Elizabeth Alexander urging us to march forward into the light.

Praise Song for the Day

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

Source: Praise Song for the Day, (c. 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander, pub. by Graywolf Press). Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She grew up on Washington, D.C., however, where her father, Clifford Alexander, served as United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. Alexander is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of poetry at Yale University. She composed and read the above at President Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can find out more about Elizabeth Alexander and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

 

 

 

[1] In a paper opposing reparations by the U.S. government, the National Legal and Policy Center cites a Harper’s Magazine estimation of total of reparations due as of 1993 at approximately “$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, compounded at 6% interest through 1993”.This figure does not take into account the corrosive effects on black families and their opportunities resulting from years of overt segregation or the continuing effects of ongoing systemic discrimination.

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