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Saturday, 20 June 2015

Dylann Roof and a napping God?


(21st June) 2015


1 Sam 17:a, 4-11, 32-49
Psalm 9:9-20
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

There are a handful of bible stories I remember from my childhood – and it’s worth remembering that most children today won’t even know that many – then it is the story of David and Goliath. The glorious Veggie Tale rendition of this story from recent years is Dave and the Giant Pickle, well worth a squiz if you have a few spare moments of YouTube. The gist is of course the same: vulnerable person chosen by God fronts up to powerful figure chosen according to traditional human standards, and big fella loses the battle.

Whatever the origins of the story were deep in the bowels of the whakapapa of the Hebrew people, somehow the Hebrews came to define a victory scored against all odds against the powerful Philistines. The biblical story was for millennia a narrative that championed the origins of the Hebrews royal line, championed the triumph of the little fella over the powerful bully, and for the pious above all a narrative that champions the victory of God’s choices over human machinations.

But within the terms of reference of the story this is the pitting of the choices of God against somewhat blinkered human standards. We can see the narrative point: the will of God will overcome obstacles. Does that however resonate with our experience? Does that resonate with the story of the Charleston massacre in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church these last few days? Where is God’s victory over Goliath when a prayer meeting is gunned down by a man who had been invited to be a part of the prayers, who had for over an hour received the love and hospitality of the African Americans he hated so much that he would eventually kill them mercilessly? Where is God when people are gunned down primarily for the colour of their skin? If the psalmist tells us “The Lord is a stronghold in times of trouble” where was he as alleged gunman Dylann Roof donned his apartheid-era flags-adorned jacket and carried out his dream of a race-based multiple murder? Was God napping?

Or for that matter, if we take as a metaphor the story of Jesus in the boat, calming the storm, where was this nature-transcending Christ when the gun was raised in Mother Emmanuel church, or when a myriad other killings which will not have made the news were carried out around the world in any given week?

God was not, as some right-wing US politicians are actually and inevitably proclaiming, mourning the fact that Pastor Clementa Pinckney and his co-prayers were not better armed. Had they been armed (and the likelihood of an amateur shooter hitting a target who has a head start and evil intent is minimal) had they been armed the return of fire would have done no more than escalate hatred and killing still further across the streets and lanes of Charleston and South Carolina and the USA.

God is not an escalator of cycles of hatred and revenge. Nor is God, whose prophet Isaiah longed for that day when swords would become ploughshares, applauding the mindset of a nation that believes peace comes from a weapon, that makes weapons available to all and sundry, and continues to permit narratives of race-based hatred to dominate much print media and airwaves and pixels. The fact that police-sourced killing of blacks in the USA outstrips killing of whites by a factor of three,[1] the fact that this includes a hidden statistic of economic as well as racial injustice, though the two are intertwined of course, is not a source of joy to the God of the plough-share and the cross. The fact that race or gender or religion or sexuality-based hatred exists at all in any nation does not gladden the heart of God.

But while the psalmist cried out “Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail” the answer to the heart-felt cry is seemingly as far off now as it was three millennia ago, and the presence of injustice, ecological and economic, racial and gender-based, is as utterly universal now as in every time in human history. Where is God in this?

Still weeping, one suspects. But the writings of both Testaments do again and again provide at least two pronged answer. One prong is our human response as we practice the values of God. Allow a simple story. In 1996 a young black woman Keshia Thomas attended a clash of rallies in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  As the KKK and human rights and other protestors faced off against each other her actions almost certainly saved the life of her KKK opponent. As the tension mounted the counter protestors attacked a Klan sympathizer who had become isolated. He fled the blows, but fell, and was set upon by an angry crowd. Keshia Thomas threw herself over him to protect him, later saying simply that “someone had to break the cycle of mob mentality.[2]

In breaking cycles of hatred, motivated in part by her own faith beliefs and in part by her back-story of suffering, Keshia Thomas saved a life, and her actions transformed many lives in the crowd that witnessed them. That crowd – on both sides of the hate divide – had lost its coordinates of humanity, compassion, and no doubt for some, faith, just as those who gun down blacks and those who seek cycles of revenge have lost coordinates. God is present when figures like Keshia Thomas risk their own lives to save the life of an enemy.

There is a second prong to God’s presence. Actions like Thomas’s can be inspired by what I call a pre-memory of God transformation of swords to ploughshares. Actions like that of Keshia Thomas pre-enact the future coming of God for which the psalmist cries with heartfelt longing: “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.” Such actions will be enacted again if the death of nine prayer-partners in Charleston spark not cycles of revenge but words of forgiveness.

These words are already being spoken, as the daughter of victim Ethel Lance told Dylann Roof yesterday that she forgives him for the white terrorism action that killed of her mother. These are words of the in-breaking of God’s Reign; these are pre-memories of the eternity of justice that the resurrection foreshadows. These are pre-figurements of the eternally calmed storm of which the temporary storm-calming in Mark’s gospel story is pre-figurement. These are the hints of the coming Reign of God for which we pray each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and which hints not at the impossibility of a human reign of justice and peace but the in-breaking of the divine and eternal reign in which peace and justice are never again shattered and lost. These are even what we “pre-enact” as we share the peace together and then break bread together, no matter how scarred we or our neighbours might be. These are we pray for and hope in and pre-act upon, and where we do not we must fall again on God’s forgivenness: e te Karaiti, kia aroha mai.


[1] Source: Channel 4 FactCheck. See Retrieved 20 June 2015.
[2] “Alone in the Mob.” The Day. Jul 11, 1996. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
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