Faith In Real Life Blog: Do Justice: “Speak Out…, or Not”
Faith In Real Life Blog
Do Justice: “Speak Up…, Or Not”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 25, 23
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’
John places this story early in Jesus’ ministry as opposed to the other gospels which place it during Holy Week. In both cases, this is a pre-planned theatrical protest which declared Jesus’ conflict with the prevailing religious authority. In John, Jesus is dramatically announcing his authority., In the other Gospels, the same story is used as a culmination of his claim to authority. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus spoke up in word and deed. When Jesus is quoted as saying: “You have heard it said but I say unto to you….” Jesus claimed the authority to correct traditional interpretations of scripture. His claims were considered blasphemous and his behavior unlawful. Jesus angered many powerful people and his confrontation in the temple was certainly consistent with his revolutionary message. This act, whether early or late in his ministry, heightened his visibility and almost certainly helped lead to his death.
Jesus’ protest was pre planned—it took time to make a whip of cords. By creating chaos in the temple and demanding the temple be used for God, Jesus set an example that has recurred through history—Gandhi’s salt march, Women’s suffrage, MLK’s march on Washington, the lone protester standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and the monks in Vietnam who set themselves on fire to protest the war. In each case men and women stood up and spoke out. Such acts have changed history. The passage begs for conversations about protests and civil disobedience. But, of course, there are many other arenas in which we must decide to speak out.
The scripture passage gives us a dramatic example of disobedience, but it does not offer much help as to how and when we should do so. There are, however, some things we can learn about the way Jesus spoke up. We know Jesus was intentional . We know he was acting out his calling in a prophetic way. And though the passage is often used to speak about Jesus and anger, it is not certain at all that Jesus was angry in the conventional way we use the word. He used a whip; he drove animals and people out of the Temple, and he spoke forcefully: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!”. But all of these things could just as easily be part of a well-acted play of Jesus’ creation in order to speak out. Many a prophet used similar tactics. The very next verse reads: “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ —a reference to Psalm 69:9.
The dilemma for us all is: “When and how do we speak up? When and how do we declare our values? Once again, in real life, we must prayerfully question ourselves. Who are we serving when we speak up? What does it mean to ‘speak the truth in love’?’
It seems to me that many acts of protest lose their focus. As often as not they are expressions of anger and self-righteousness. Most of us tend to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to speaking out. I do not believe that was the case with Jesus. He relied upon the strong foundation of scripture and chose a way to make that Scripture come alive. In real life, it is difficult to continue to stand for something. It is easier to stand against.
If you are going to stand for something, you need a good foundation. Jesus used Scripture. Martin Luther King used a ‘rule of life’ to help keep himself focused and to serve as a tool to train others. It is a valuable spiritual tool to emulate. It helps give us a base that creates guardrails for us to stay within. MLK wrote:
1.Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. Speaking out in any forum needs to be rooted in our core values. That requires learning and thinking about them. As Christians, that means studying and emulating the way Jesus loves.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory. This is huge. It is rare that speaking up seeks reconciliation. Speaking out now is more likely to be an angry vent not a willingness to seek dialogue. Our goal is connection not division. As absurd as it sounds, that means respecting others—even those who would enslave.
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love. This sounds so simple but it requires intentionality, focus and practice. It will include many failures.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free. We cannot live our ideals without daily support and sustenance[MD3] .
5. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. Start with the basics. Be civil.
6. Seek to perform regular service for others and the world. Serving others is what we are about. Walk the Walk.
7. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart. This is a tough one but we believe it is NOT ok to use violence even in the name of right. Violence can come from a blow, from our words and from our attitudes. We must monitor all three.
8. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health. Self-care, in body and spirit, must be maintained. This is an easy one to forget when we are overextend. Heroic service is not sustainable.
If you follow these guidelines (or any that you might write) you will require yourself to be clear about your own values. You will have a foundation from which to speak and act. You will be a whole lot less likely to go off halfcocked.
Civil disobedience is modeled in the Bible ; but so is silence, quiet teaching and living examples. Each of us must decide when to inject our opinion and values. Speaking up in real life comes down to claiming what we believe. It occurs in both simple and complex times. I remember when we began the exchange following the intergenerational moment. The children would raucously yell: “And God be with you here.” Carolyn Brooks gently reminded them to use their inside voices. She spoke with kindness and out of a clear foundation. She did not scold. She reminded (or taught them) that this was a prayer not a cheer. Her gentle voice carried great authority. In my own life, When I discovered a level of anger and irritation toward my grandson that I did not know I possessed, I made three rules: 1) I will not yell. 2) I will not say “Or Else…” and 3) I will try to teach him what we stand for rather than reactively scold him. This is easier said than done but it has helped my parenting. I now realize, I wrote a very short ‘rule of life’ that helps me deal with life.
Ideally speaking up should be proactive rather than reactive. Otherwise, our speaking up is more likely to be about us rather than an advocacy for justice. Another impossible but helpful guideline is we probably should remain silent until we can argue the opposing point of view. This requires enormous self-discipline, but it leads to respect even as we disagree. It creates possibilities for connection when before there was only polarization. I love MLK’s statement that our goal should be reconciliation, not victory.
Speaking up is risky. There is always the possibility that someone will speak up against us. There is always the possibility that we will evoke anger, if not violence. (That was certainly the case for Jesus.) We may be ostracized and rejected. We may be ignored. And worse, there is always the possibility that our passion is misdirected, ineffective and just plain wrong. Just because we are convicted and passionate does not mean the light of history will see us that way. Our lives are too short to know. That means even the strongest ‘speaking up’ should be done with humility.
What do you do when a mother or father loses it on a small child in the grocery store. What do you do when you see your grown child struggling with a difficult divorce? What do you do when you see the signs of addiction? How do you speak up? Most of the people in FIRL said they didn’t. Out of some combination of fear, insecurity, or uncertainty about what to say, they remained quiet. And who is to say that is not the best way. A closed mouth gathers no feet. Many, many times there is more to the story than what we see in the moment. Speaking our requires close self examination and discernment.
If you are going to speak out, identify your core beliefs, be able to say them aloud. Create your own rule for life—or emulate MLK. The process of becoming a Christian never ends. Try to be proactive. Avoid being defensive. Whenever possible do not confront when you are angry. If what you need to say will sting, make sure you care for that person before you speak. These rules are hard to follow but they are the signposts that lead to connection and reconciliation—in our families, with our friends and ultimately between nations. That is God’s justice and that is God’s desire for us.
Let it be so.