Did you follow the news this week about the demonstrations in Jena, Louisiana? Here’s the story, briefly. There’s an oak tree at a high school in Jena which is the traditional hangout for the white students there. A black student asked the principal if black students were allowed to sit under the so-called White Tree, and of course, the answer was yes. That night nooses were hung in the tree by a group of white students and violence broke out pretty much immediately. There were several clashes between white and black students, culminating in the arrest of six black students for the beating of one white student. One of those students was convicted by an all white jury, but the conviction was overturned by a higher court which ruled he should have been charged as a juvenile, not as an adult.
The problem – no one was arrested for hanging the nooses in the tree, no white students were charged for their parts in other violent clashes, but six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder after what was essentially a schoolyard fight resulting in relatively minor injuries. The problem is it appears that in La Salle Parish there is one kind of justice for whites and one kind of justice for blacks. Personally, I’m finding it hard to believe that the district attorney in Louisiana couldn’t find anything to charge against the boys who hung the nooses, although that’s what he said when he insisted this case wasn’t about race. Anyplace else that action would have been considered a hate crime, just like painting swastikas on a synagogue. It’s impossible that anyone could have missed the significance of nooses under the circumstances. Instead of those boys being punished, the 100-year-old oak tree was cut down. I guess the school board decided “no tree, no problem”?
The news reports say this was the largest civil rights demonstration in decades. Busses full of college students traveled from all over, like they did during the civil rights marches at Selma, Montgomery and Little Rock. Tina Chatham of Georgia Southern University spoke for many of the students when she said: "It was a good chance to be part of something historic since I wasn't around for the civil rights movement. This is kind of the 21st century version of it,"
Wasn’t around for the Civil Rights Movement? Are not Civil Rights an ongoing struggle, a serious concern for anyone who seeks a world ruled by justice and compassion? Did she think it ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act? Just because some laws were changed, that didn’t mean racism ended or that the struggle toward reconciliation ended. It just means racism became a tad bit less obvious. Long time activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and pretty much anybody who pays attention, know that things are only marginally better today than they were 40 years ago. Those leaders and all who care about justice still cry out to God, as the prophet Jeremiah cried out for the deliverance of the exiles in Babylon.
21For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
The Bible tells us that the people of Israel lost everything – their temple, their lands, their freedom – because the leaders did not, would not, care for those who needed their care – the widows, orphans, and aliens – the folks who had no power at all and no money and no one to stand up for them in times of trial. Instead of taking care of their people as the book of the Law directed them to, they focused on increasing their own power and wealth and status. This isn’t new – it’s been reality since the earliest days of humanity – the powerful always find ways to become more powerful, usually by using and abusing those who are less powerful. How do we change that? How do we move our leaders to seek justice with mercy?
Paul tells us, First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,
First of all, pray. Prayer is a powerful tool. In meetings of Regional and General Church Boards and committees there are frequent breaks for prayer, usually at times in the meeting where conflict or high feelings are most likely. Prayer can bring us together in times of conflict – at worst it gives us a moment to breathe, at best it helps us refocus and reminds us of our purpose in getting together. The best example of that I ever saw was at our General Assembly this past July when our moderator became our pastor at difficult times in the proceedings and took time from the agenda to lead us in prayer. It was the first Assembly I ever attended in which the halls after each session were peaceable – no one I heard was carrying on in anger because their position didn’t carry the day. Disappointment sometimes, but not anger. It was beautiful – and it was that way because of prayer.
Paul tells us for whom to pray – for everyone, for kings and for all who are in high positions. And he tells us how to pray for those people - in supplication, intercession and thanksgiving. So we pray not “God, punish those folks who don’t agree with me, who aren’t following your direction the way I think they should.” But “God, thank you for our leaders. Thank you for the work they do, and for their willingness to serve. I ask that you open their heats so they may at least hear other possibilities than the course they have set upon. And open mine as well, that I might come to understand their position.” And then, go forward and seek justice. Sit down with those you disagree with in peace and dignity, discussing the differences you have and coming to a place of agreement. Write letters, sign petitions, join demonstrations, speak your heart’s passion, donate money to the cause – do whatever it is you are able to do, whatever you are drawn to do for justice. But first, always, pray.
Prayer does bring change. Prayer first of all changes the one who prays. I’ve told you, I think, that I pray a gratitude list every day. And I give thanks not just for the things I like in my life, but also the things I don’t like. For the people I’m angry with, or who just will not agree with me on things I consider important, because they make me consider how to present my position in a way they will understand. For the cold I caught, because it makes me slow down. And when I pray this way, I find that I become more willing to see another’s position. When I pray this way, I become more willing to speak and act in love. And as I become more willing to listen, to understand, to come to agreement – I understand again just how powerful prayer can be. I understand just how much God loves us, to give us a tool that changes hearts and minds with so little effort.
When I first read this passage I thought of the sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
She wrote this love poem to her husband. But I suddenly heard it as a prayer – as words spoken to God. And as I read the words that way, I realized that when I speak of my love for God, I can more easily hear God’s response. And I heard the response in these words
How do I Love Thee? My child, let me count the ways.
I love you In all the ways I hear your prayer, and in all the ways I respond.
In all the ways I move you to hear and respond to the cries of those around you,
In the words of life taught by my Son,
In the gifts of healing found in those words.
For the words of love and forgiveness found there have always been the balm that heals all wounds.
When I pray for the power to love, the pain in my heart begins to heal, my anger begins to cool. When we cry out in pain, in anger, in frustration, “Is there no physician here? Is there no one to heal the wounded? God responds in love and compassion. God pours out love upon us, encourages us through the words of the Gospels to share that love throughout the world. And as the love spreads, like a healing salve on a wound, anger and hatred are healed.
My brothers and sisters, there is a physician for all the world’s ills, the Christ who was sent by God to teach us love. And in that healing power of love, There IS a balm in Gilead.
Hymn There is a Balm in Gilead