We asked people on the street if they think our institutions are failing us.
On December 8, an Orlando-area police officer shot Cedric Bartee, an African-American man, while he was unarmed and allegedly standing with his hands in the air. The sheriff asked the public to trust that the justice system will discover the "truth." In the wake of grand juries refusing to indict the police officers responsible for killing Eric Garner and Michael Brown, however, it seems inevitable to many that the shooting of Cedric Bartee will not be prosecuted. In the words of Jelani Cobb, African-Americans face both the "dangers of crime and the perils of those whom other communities can trust to protect them from it."
It is clear that the law enforcement system is often dangerous to unarmed African-Americans. The judicial system tasked with overseeing the law enforcement system is not holding law enforcement accountable for unjust actions. Meanwhile, local, state and national governments reinforce the socio-economic racial hierarchy of the United States as well as the judicial-law enforcement system that helps retain this hierarchy. Militaristic resistance to public demonstrations keeps this brutal system in place. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level." Most compelling is this: The only person to be indicted in any of these cases is Ramsey Orta, the one who filmed the killing of Eric Garner. In the end, the law enforcement and judicial system seeks self-preservation, not accountability.
One sees a similar dynamic in the recent shocking revelations about the extent and brutality of the international torture system operated by the CIA. These documents describe in detail the horrific psychological, physical and sexual abuse of those who ended up in CIA hands, including some who were victims of mistaken identity. The practices described violate any possible standard of humane treatment -- including the CIA's own policies -- yet those who violated them were "rarely held accountable." So far, the only person involved in the CIA's global torture scheme to go to prison is the whistleblower, former CIA officer John Kiriakou.
This pattern also recurs in the financial system. In the wake of the global financial collapse of 2008, which continues to affect the poor but not the wealthy, only one financial executive was put in jail: Kareem Serageldin, an Egyptian-born banker who played an insignificant role in the financial catastrophe. Yet again, a problematic system inflicted trauma and will remain unchanged.
In all these instances, we see a system interested in self-preservation. This is not unusual, of course. But what remains surprising, however, is how far these systems go to preserve themselves from any accountability, oversight, admission of guilt or gesture of recompense. As Adam Kotsko points out, "I've read that an excellent way to control protests is to concede to the protestors' totally justified and obvious demands." And yet these systems cannot allow even a false, shallow display of self-criticism.
Why? Perhaps because these systems believe in themselves too much. They believe in themselves too much. They have an oversized sense of messianic mission that forms their very identity: they are chosen, the order of the world depends on them, and this story keeps them from actually taking responsibility their actions.
2 Samuel 7 describes the covenant that God made with King David, in which God promised to be eternally loyal to David's lineage (7:16) and to the city of Jerusalem (7:10), establishing and protecting them for all time. In the context of the Christian lectionary, this promise is connected Luke 1:26-38, which interprets it as a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah.
Yet in light of the events outlined above, 2 Samuel 7 takes an ominous tone. In this text, God promises the king -- that is, the political system -- eternal stability without severe consequences for immoral behavior. The possibility of slight reprimand is mentioned in the text, but it stresses that the system will not collapse (7:14-15). Even so, this part of the text has been excised by the lectionary. The Church can simply ignore the possibility that the chosen political system may require accountability.
In many ways, the monarchies in Israel and Judah did behave poorly, perhaps because they were so sure of their divine right to rule. We see this when David uses his power to rape Bathsheba and then murder Uriah the Hittite to avoid accountability (2 Samuel 11). We see this also in the economic situation described by the prophet Amos: the aristocrats sit on luxurious couches eating lavish meals and singing trite pop songs "like David" while the poor suffer outside (Amos 6:1-7). We see this when the prophet Micah condemned the rulers of Judah for their belief that God would never let harm come to them, and who perverted justice as a result (Micah 3:9-12). Centuries later, Jeremiah criticized the elite for trusting that God would never abandon Jerusalem or the Davidic monarchy, and using that trust as an excuse for doing whatever immoral things they wanted to the people (Jeremiah 7:1-16).
The Davidic covenant, and its royal theology that issues from it, has both a good side and a bad side. It offers hope to the people in times of need, as it does to the Judahite King in Isaiah 7 and in a democratized sense to all the exiled Judahites in Isaiah 55:3-5. But it also tends to instill overconfidence in the leaders, who then become obsessed with keeping the system the way it is. Then, as now, it is the prophets -- like Nathan, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Ramsey Orta , John Kiriakou -- who stand up and speak the truth when the rulers lose their moral bearings. Those called by God must reveal injustices perpetrated in the name of ensuring stability and prosperity. Ultimately, the biblical text proclaims that God will not forever tolerate unjust systems. If they persist long enough, they will be plowed up like a field.
In recent weeks, many voices on social media have drawn attention to the work of anti-lynching activist and author Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Dr. Crystal Fleming (@alwaystheself) pointed to the conclusion of Wells-Barnett's 1895 pamphlet "The Red Record," in which Wells-Barnett asked: "What can you do, reader, to prevent lynching, to thwart anarchy and promote law and order throughout our land?" Wells-Barnett suggested several courses of action, including the dissemination of facts about lynching "to the end that public sentiment may be revolutionized," that "all Christian and moral forces" must "pass resolutions of condemnation and protest every time a lynching takes place," the boycotting and refusal of "capital to invest where lawlessness and mob violence hold sway," the rejection of white supremacy, and advocacy of legislation that would help keep law enforcement accountable.
Raising awareness, organizing protest and economic pressure, ideological critique, and lobbying for legislation: these echo the prophetic options available to the biblical prophets, and they remain the options that seem to hold the possibility for positive change. What if these do not bring about change? Ultimately, God has a back-up plan.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What are some examples of systemic abuses of power in today's world?
2. What role do you see "trust" playing in these systemic abuses?
3. What concrete actions do you think might lead to changes in the system as a whole?
For Further Reading:
1. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, "The Red Record: Tabulates Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the Unites States," 1895. Accessible here:
2. Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid." The Atlantic, 11/26/2014.
3. Walter Brueggemann, "Trajectories in Old Testament Literature and the Sociology of Ancient Israel," Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979): 161-85.
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