Last weekend, this Cathedral honored the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by hosting a conference on youth violence. One hundred forty-five people participated over two days; about half were teenagers and half were adults.
The first evening we separated the youth and the adults to begin understanding the problem. The young people discussed a series of questions such as how do you define violence? When do you feel unsafe? And when would you use violence?
When they arrived at the question, “What would you like adults to do about youth violence?” the immediate response was, “What does it matter? They’re not going to do anything anyway.”
Where is the Christian prophetic voice on this and so many other critical issues in our society? Before we can answer we must know what we mean by prophetic voice.
The well-known author Walter Brueggemann suggests that our primary understandings of prophecy come out of the covenantal tradition of Moses. In this morning’s first lesson we heard Moses announce, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people” (Deuter. 18:15).
Brueggemann, in his magnificent book, Prophetic Imagination, says, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (p. 13).
The prophet doesn’t challenge the status quo simply because it is the status quo but, rather, because dominant cultures, from biblical times until today, have been domination cultures: someone maintains control at the expense of someone else. Those in power need reminding that they are not God.
Prophets speak for God; while they criticize the current system, they lift up an alternative vision that affirms the freedom of God. As Moses challenged Pharaoh’s oppressive system of slave labor, he told the Israelites about God’s promised land.
Later, the prophet Isaiah offered God’s promise of a time in which “the wolf shall live with the lamb…for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord”(Isa. 11: 6, 9). And in our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while challenging the system of racial segregation, shared a powerful dream.
Prophets stand in the midst of our desire to be God. So we should not be surprised that the Gospel according to Mark reports that Jesus, in his first act after calling his disciples, challenged the status quo. As we heard in the Gospel, Jesus walked into sacred space (the synagogue) at a sacred time (the Sabbath) and taught, not based upon his accreditation as a scribe, but based upon his authority as the Son of God.
Two thousand years later, but representing the status quo, we come together in this sacred space on this sacred day…to worship.
But Jesus said “follow”…”follow me.”
Can prophetic imagination emerge from a status quo church? Perhaps. But along the way we must get more honest about our own participation in domination systems.
To return to the example of youth violence, we must be willing to criticize someone other than gun manufacturers, gang leaders, and disturbed school children. Youth violence is only a symptom. We must be willing to face the dis-integrated way that our society tolerates violence in adventure movies and foreign policy and abusive humor and ignoring unsafe streets in other people’s neighborhoods.
We want to pretend that we can do whatever we want to do, watch whatever we want to watch and ignore whatever we want to ignore without experiencing the consequences. We want to maintain the status quo, but have things get better.
Maybe if we pray about it then Jesus will exorcise the demon of youth violence. But the demon to be feared is our willingness to do nothing.
For we know about God’s preference for the oppressed. And we know prophets encourage people to claim their power as children of God. And we know that prophets speak with authority from God, and not from the status quo. And so each time we know God’s justice, but behave like victims, or wait for the status quo to give us power to speak up against domination, we fail to exercise our claim to the prophetic tradition.
Last weekend, in response to the question, “What would you like adults to do about youth violence?” the young people finally made some powerful requests of us. Requests such as:
Stop stereotyping people because of neighborhoods.
Stop blaming the boys for everything that happens in boy/girl relationships.
Talk with kids, not at them.
Stop taking every chance to point the finger.
Stop turning their backs on the problem.
It seems to me that the teenagers’ wish list has less to do with solving a youth violence problem than it does with living more faithfully.
Turning our backs on the problem maintains the status quo. Meanwhile, stereotyping, blaming, talking at and pointing the finger reveal a desire to be in control or to put someone else down. These behaviors fester at the heart of much more than our youth violence challenges.
The prophetic possibility in each one of us knows the promises of our tradition and the alternative way in which Jesus lived. But like the Israelites, we need reminding.
Often as they wandered for forty years through the wilderness, the Israelites complained that being back in the oppressive status quo of Egypt would have been better than trusting God to lead them to some “promised” land.
In a few moments we will remind ourselves of the story of our salvation and feast at God’s banquet table. We will recall God’s covenant with us…and how Jesus took seriously each leper, tax collector, Samaritan and rich or poor man, woman and child that he encountered.
Perhaps in that remembering we will find the courage to trust God and to take a stand against any form of domination in our lives.