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James Cone, The Persistent Widow, and Theological Responses to Riots

By August 20, 2014 2 Comments
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Jes Kast-Keat is currently on holiday and has invited Daniel José Camacho to write today. Daniel is currently a Masters of Divinity student at Duke University Divinity School. He graduated from Calvin College in 2013 with a major in philosophy and minor in congregational & ministry Studies.

I was profoundly disturbed when I saw the chilling images initially coming out of Ferguson, Missouri last week. Mike Brown, another unarmed black teenager, laid dead in the streets. His mother: crying, pleading. Brown’s father: holding up a sign reading “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!”. Then came the images of Ferguson police’s militarization and brutality in response to protests and unrest. What pained me, in the midst of this, was knowing the inevitability of many—but certainly not all—Christians failing to understand the gravity and lopsidedness of this situation. Yes, the robbing and destruction of stuff is bad but that is not the same as the occupation and destruction of people. I stopped and prayed: “Dear Jesus, please help the church avoid abstract talks of reconciliation & peace that avoid addressing police brutality/militarization.”

The situation in Ferguson made me recall something that James Cone had written in 1975. In the book “God of the Oppressed,” Cone recounts his disappointment with Christian responses to the Detroit riot during the summer of 1967, responses which simply deplored “unrest” and failed to see the fundamental issues at stake. He writes:

I knew that that response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy. The education of white theologians did not prepare them to deal with Watts, Detroit, and Newark.

I wonder how much has changed. What in our theological formation has prepared us for Ferguson?

 

This summer, I’ve been working at a summer school program hosted at a church. As the seminarian on staff, I’ve spent a good amount of time preparing children’s sermons from the Gospels. One thing that struck me was my own unfamiliarity with a particular parable about a persistent widow. As a church kid, born and raised, I thought I had deep if not faint memories of almost every single parable. But then I came across this passage from Luke 18:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I wondered why I had never really heard about this “bothersome” widow; she had never been held up to me as someone to emulate. Perhaps this omission is connected to the widow’s pursuit for justice and our own discomfort with people who demand justice, who insist on it unrelentingly.

The remarkable thing about this parable is that it’s supposed to be about praying and not losing heart. And the example we get is the “in your face” widow who wants justice against her opponent. Maybe this is a good example of Ora et Labora. We pray, yes, but we also work. We do. We dismantle. We work to change the conditions of this world.

How should we respond to Ferguson and to the many places in our country and world that resemble it? We pray. But we also have a lot of work to do.

Jes Kast

The Reverend Jes Kast is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves West End Collegiate Church as their Associate Pastor.

2 Comments

  • Jessi says:

    I preached this week on James 1. "Be doers of the Word, not hearers only." Justice has always required persistent "doing." Love this piece. Beautifully done, Daniel.

  • Maudelin says:

    Your piece gets to the heart of the matter and connects to a reflection written by Dr. Greg Mast (NBTS) which I shared earlier with other Christian friends posing these questions: 1). How can the church continue to be silent on the issue of justice and 2) what is my public theology to be in light of Micah 6:8? God is calling us out, I believe to advocate, address and act as SALT and LIGHT in these situations.

    Thank you Daniel, for speaking God's truth!

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