The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, the Dean of Duke University Chapel reflects on the finding of a noose hanging from a tree on Duke University's campus.
Spring is a time we associate with planting seeds, new life, and growth, but spring brought painful memories of genocide born out of racist hatred to the campus of Duke University in North Carolina. On April 1st, just days before Christians all over the world remember Jesus nailed and dying on his own hanging tree, a noose was found hanging from a tree in a popular student commons area at Duke University.
For a moment time stopped on that southern college campus and past images of public lynching, the sounds of attack dogs and water hoses and the humiliating insults of white gangs at lunch counter sit ins replaced the signs of spring. The story of the Duke Noose broke in the midst of too many headlines announcing another mistreatment, another shooting, another injustice toward black and brown people in our country. In this era of the school to prison pipeline it seems that we have not come so far in the struggle for civil rights for all Americans.
How does a social movement begin? How does frustration meet courage and conviction to bring a people together to engage in transformative work? What seeds do we plant to change a nation?
Social movements do not form out of thin air. They arise out of people's suffering. Social movements are rooted in moments when people decide to change the conversation. The growing momentum around this new conversation creates a movement - a swell of influence in society that has the potential to change minds and transform society.
After George Zimmerman was found not guilty in 2013 for what many believed was the murder of Trayvon Martin, three black feminist activists, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, decided it was time to change the conversation. They felt it was time for people to raise their voices, to question reality that black people are killed by white people in the name of self-defense or of law and order without impunity. The crime of looking suspicious or seeming threatening was enough of a crime to attack, in whatever way, a person of color.
Hearing the suffering cries of black families who faced yet another tragic killing of innocent of loved one, Garza, Cullors, and Tometi changed the social discourse that black lives do not matter to create #BlackLivesMatter. Beginning with conversations on social media, the three women reignited discussions about the proliferation of anti-black racism that allowed people to end black lives simply because they perceived black people as menacing.
In Mark, we encounter Jesus during a time when the lives of first century Jews didn't matter. The Roman imperial rule dictated the lives of everyday people. Terrorized into submission and subordination, many Galileans and Judeans looked to divine intervention for their suffering. They looked for a messiah, an anointed one. They looked for a king or a military leader who would defeat their Roman colonizers. When Jesus arrived on the scene, he was no military leader. Instead, he was one who heard their suffering and began to change the conversation by planting seeds of the good news: the Kingdom of God has come near.
There are two stories in Mark 4:26-34 that Jesus used to illustrate this Kingdom of God. In the first story, Jesus described the Kingdom as a process of sowing seed and harvesting grain. A person scatters seed onto the ground. After many days the seed sprout and produce grain, yet the person who sowed the seed doesn't understand how this happens. Jesus said that the seed grows because of God's work in the world to provide the sustenance and abundance of life. The Kingdom requires work--the work of individuals and the work of God.
In the second story, Jesus suggested that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. As one of the smallest seeds sown into the ground, the mustard seed grows into the greatest of all shrubs with branches large enough for birds to live in its shade.
In these two stories Jesus described the kingdom of God as process and event. In the story of the sower and the seed, the process started with a small seed--inconspicuous and unnoticed. Over time, God works to nurture, cultivate, and grow the seed. We, as people may not understand how God works, but we know that God is working. God produces the sprouts that grow into a substantial life giving, life nurturing, and life sustaining harvest. The process and the event, the harvest and the tree, give abundantly to those in need, suffering from hunger or lack of shelter.
Mustard plants start from the tiniest seeds and become enormous with a tendency to take over orderly, well-cultivated fields. Mustard plants become home to birds and other of God's creatures but they are often pain in the neck for farmers. So it was for the good news proclaimed by Jesus regarding the Kingdom of God. It was life giving for those with ears to hear, yet this good news was hated by those in power who had no desire for disruption or change. The Kingdom of God binds evil, liberates the oppressed, provides healing, and transforms society and human interaction. It's the good news that quiets storms, casts legion into the sea, raises the dead, and restores communities. It questions powers that be, and it reminds us that those who society perceives as least do matter.
As Mark describes the life giving work planted by the hands of Jesus, the gospel also illustrates the commissioning the disciples by Jesus with his charge to sow seeds of Kingdom building not with the power of money but with the powerful message of change: the good news. We are called to change our conversations, to change our perceptions, to change attitudes, and to change our actions, so that we partner with God in life-giving, life-saving moments. Kingdom work is God's response to the suffering and cries of social, political, and economic injustice and it is our calling and our blessing to be a part of this work.
#BlackLivesMatter Movement began as a seed of conversation that arose from the cries of black people who were suffering at the hand of racist perceptions, thoughts, and policies that lead to death dealing. It started with a small conversation among three socially engaged and incredibly intelligent women using #BlackLivesMatter in their little spot in social media. Others overheard the conversation and engaged with them and with a wider community. Before long, #BlackLivesMatter became ubiquitous in social media.
The protests evoked by the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, MO, turned this seed of conversation into what we now call the BlackLivesMatter movement. The protests, and the police response, gave voice and visage to the anti-black policies, perceptions, and policing that legitimatized the killing of black people physically, socially, and politically. Like images of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama almost 50 years before, the #BlackLivesMatter movement shines a light on the unacceptable reality that the perceived threat posed by unarmed black men and women justifies their mistreatment and killing.
#BlackLivesMatter and movements like them create a space for conversation about the current norms and perceptions accepted by our society. Unchecked negative narratives about black people and racist ideals in this country allow a young white man to hang a noose on a tree in middle of Duke's University's campus; allow singing a racist fraternity chant as form of group bonding; allow a white cop to shoot a black man while running away and try to cover it up; allow police custody to be deadly for a young black woman in Cleveland and a young black man in Baltimore. Because of #BlackLivesMatter, everyday people, policy makers, and politicians around the country are working to reform policing, investigate city policies, rewrite laws, and rethink justice in space of public accountability.
Social movements start because God hears our suffering amplifies it so those with ears to hear take action. God gives each of us seed to sow, a role in this transformational Kingdom building. Although we do know how, God does the work to nurture the seed through its process in order to create an event that changes the conversation, relieves suffering, and gives life. In the US, God did it through movements of the Abolitionists, Women Suffragists, Voting Rights Advocates, Civil Rights Activists, the United Farms Workers, Women's Rights Activists, Gay Rights Activists, and many more.
The Kingdom of God is social movement. It started as a small seed and continues to grow as pesky plant that starts conversations, disrupts narratives, defies our perceptions, inspires protests, and builds movements to relieve suffering, to create change, and to give life. Because to God, it matters!
Bible Study Questions:
1) How have you seen God's kingdom at work in society through cultural movements?
2) What sufferings or issues you have witnessed that needs different conversation for transformation to take place?
3) How can your faith be active in transforming your community?
For Further Reading
Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles
"A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement" by Alicia Garza. The Feminist Wire
Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice for God by Kelly Brown Douglas
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