The prophet’s voice is buried beneath the narrative of history. The prophet’s voice is muted in this moment when we desperately need the courage of their vision, content of their message, and convictions of their hearts.
This era needs the courage of William Lloyd Garrison who spoke against white supremacy even though angry mobs beat him and dragged him through the streets . Wendell Phillips witnessed one of these attacks and was compelled to become a witness for the same message. Boldly speaking out against white supremacy cost Phillips to lose many of his clients at his law practice but didn’t keep him from printing “Peace if possible. Justice at any rate” on his business cards as he committed to his new vocation. Today we could use people with the conviction of Representative Thaddeus Stevens who condemned the Andrew Johnson’s statement that America was a “white man’s Government” with the response that, “equal rights to all immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of their tabernacle which it inhabits.” His peer in the Senate, Charles Sumner, was steadfast in his criticism of slavery and it resulted in a violent attack in the Senate chambers.
There is a dominant narrative of faith and patriotism in our country that excludes the presence and contributions of people of color. It also excludes the prophetic voices of white leaders, compelled by faith, who plead for justice and equality for all people. This absence is our loss and we grapple to find a way forward without a stronger prophetic voice in our era.
The voice of the prophet has always endured resistance. The same resistance, denial, and abandonment will be experienced by the prophets of today. As long as your voices are silent, we cannot speak together. As long as your message is whispered rather than proclaimed, justice, equality, righteousness, and hope will remain beyond our reach. Unbury the testimony of previous prophets from the narrative of our shared history so that you can garner strength. Today, we look for prophets whose bold proclamations pierce through despair.
How much change can an ice pick impose on a glacier? That’s how it feels most days for people working for justice. The problems feel massive and the tools insufficient. The work is daunting and the progress is slow.
But the seemingly insufficent tools can be used to make slow yet significant progress. People in previous generations used similar tools in their tireless work to chip away at pervasive discrimination and injustice. There were rigid policies that defined second class citizens and determined where they could eat, live, work, play, and worship. It all felt inevitable and they still marched, lobbied, organized, prayed published, and litigated. It was because of the tireless work in each generation that the glacier of injustice isn’t as large today.
Before their work, change seemed impossible. Over time the obstacles gave way to their patience and determination. The glacier still remains with its usual rigid, daunting and cold resistance. Its imperceptible pace persuades the workers of justice that progress is impossible. Yet this generation must continue the work of bending the arc toward justice.
Sharron Frontiero’s experienced the slow bend of justice as a woman who received less compensation than her male counterparts in the military. Her demand to receive equal treatment and equal pay was denied. Many people, including a lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fought alongside Frontiero and finally convinced the Supreme Court to implement justice. This is one example of many long fought battles for justice. Frontiero responded, “we could have tried to change public opinion, but the law came in and changed reality”.
Reality has changed because of the courageous people committed to the long path toward justice. These are people with well used tools at their disposal and enlarged hearts filled with determination, faith, patience and hope. The tools often feel insufficient because the change is incremental. Remember that in time the ice pick shapes the glacier because of the burning heart that refuses to give up.
I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” -Luke 18:8
A caution to change is frequently the warning of a slippery slope. The idea—or fear—is that a little change will morph into dangerous change. Therefore it’s better to remain in what’s familiar because though it has its problems it is better than the outcome of change. This idea—or fear—has not been the experience in America’s history of addressing race. Race in America has been more like a rubber band than a slippery slope.
Progress toward racial justice stretches the possibilities of freedom and suddenly contracts to it’s previous shape. A few observations of our history reveal the tendency to contract and resist change. The fight to vote during the Civil Rights movement is an example of how we shrink back from change. That fight was necessary because of the contraction that occurred in the 1880’s when Black men exercised their right to vote after the Civil War. The result of their voting appointed many Black men to political office, including Congress. Many people saw this as a dangerous change that would morph into something more intolerable. So violence, oppression, and strategy were used to diminish any progress toward full rights for the Black community. The fear that paralyzed the White community was aggressively used to stymy the Black community. Black people were not forced back to slavery but systems like sharecropping and injustices such as vagrancy laws, established a new form of bondage. The rubber band had snapped back.
History will likely reveal that the pinnacle of progress of racial justice in our time was the brutal murder of George Floyd. It was a moment where the brutality of racial injustice was visible for everyone to see. People who were previously hardened toward issues of race were willing to engage conversations, read books, watch documentaries, march on city streets, and listen to voices of the Black community. True to our history, it was only a matter of weeks before the fear of the slippery slope began to soften the conviction to press toward a more just world. What would we become if we gave too much focus on race? George Floyd shouldn’t have been killed but was he an innocent man? Sure there are some racist people but not systemic racism. If we say Black Lives Matter we are giving too much power to BLM and we will eventually become a communist country.
The slippery slope sounds rational until you’re one of the people at the bottom of the slope. When you’re there you realize what comes down isn’t change but crap. I try to imagine what Black people who were enslaved felt when change was replaced with anger. How did Frederick Douglass bear the disappointment of Jim Crow laws being implemented at the end of his life after tasting the refreshing nectar of change in 1865? How did Ella Baker and James Baldwin hold onto a sense of purpose in the 1970’s after prominent leaders were killed and national strategies were put in place to shrink the progress of the 1960’s?
I wonder if the ride on the slippery slope is as painful as the backlash of the rubber band? I know that the rubber band’s snap is swift and vicious. I feel it now as it leaves a sting on my soul and bitterness on my tongue. It’s a bitterness that refrains the lips from opening with words of hope and ridicules the heart for ever believing change was possible.
If the slippery slope actually exists in this country I sure would like to try it for once. It can’t be as painful as the rubber band.