Barriers to Justice
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
5 February 2023
“Something is deeply amiss in the community of faith,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on this passage in Isaiah. He continues, “The covenant agreement between [God] and the community is not working.” Injustice abounds, and is getting worse.
Did you notice the image of the adder’s eggs? It’s rather vivid. Brueggemann points out that the eggs represent “the birth of more poison in the community.” These are “killer eggs.” They release into the community “fresh dimensions of deathly distortion.”
What’s to be done?
According to Isaiah, God had assumed someone would step forward and do something about it. But it seems that no one has. And, so, the covenant is breaking down. Which means that God must tear down the barriers to justice. Brueggemann writes, “This is no benign God but a forceful agent who will powerfully defeat all those organized and mobilized against a right ordering of the world.”
This week I read the book American Prophets by religious journalist Jack Jenkins. In the book he outlines the growth of progressive religious activism in the 21st century, drawing together the religious connections that the media often has overlooked in moments like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and more. One of the chapters, for instance, focuses on the work of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who leads Local Church and Justice Ministries for our denomination, the United Church of Christ.
Near the end of the book, Jenkins relates a conversation he had at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina with Melvin Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd, had been murdered by Dylan Roof during a Bible study at the church in 2015. Graham said,
We don’t want ‘thoughts and prayers’ anymore—we want action. God is good. God is great. God can do all things. But God gave you the power to do some things on your own. Use that power [God’s] given you. Use that authority [God’s] given you to make things better. Don’t hold it back for yourself. Take those talent’s [God’s] given you—don’t bury them in the sand. Use them for good, for justice. Power is yours not to hold on to exclusively. Power is there for you to help people, to uplift people.
Earlier in the book, Jenkins relates a sermon preached by the Los Angeles based rabbi Sharon Brous in which she proclaimed:
Faith is a rebellion against [the] world. The goal is not to be quieted, to feel good, to get comfortable and settled while the palace burns. It is to be awake and to fight—with love—for the courage we need, for the family we yearn for, for the beloved community we’re called to be, for the world we want our children to inherit.
These are contemporary voices, echoing the call of the prophet Isaiah for us people of faith to confess our sins, speak the truth in the public square, run to good, and walk in the way of peace.
My first full-time pastoral call was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I served as the Associate Pastor for Rolling Hills Baptist Church, which was a part of a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Whenever people look at me confused as to what type of Baptist that might be, I respond, “We were Jimmy Carter Baptists.” And then people get it.
I was primarily responsible for the youth and college ministries of the church, and so it fell to me to organize the mission trip—a daunting task the first time you have to be in charge of such a thing. Of course, the first decision to make is where to go and what to do, as there are an indefinite number of options for good service work.
At the time the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship had just launched a project called the “Rural Poverty Initiative.” They were going to focus domestic mission dollars and energy on the twenty poorest counties in the United States. And those counties generally are grouped—in Appalachia, the Native American Reservations of the Great Plains, along the border with Mexico, and in the Cotton Belt of the South. Which meant that Arkansas had one of those counties.
So, I decided we’d work with this initiative. Soon we were partnered with a local organization in Helena, Arkansas run by two women who were focused on addressing poverty and systemic racism, and cultivating deliberative democracy.
I’ve told you bits of this story various times over the years, but I return to it because it was one of the key turning points in my life, when my eyes were opened, and I had the epiphany that changed the shape of my ministry and my life.
One morning months ahead of our mission trip, I drove into Helena for a scouting and organizing meeting. I drove through cotton fields listening to Mary J. Blige on my cd player, not aware of what I was going to encounter.
Helena had once been a thriving town of around 40,000 people, but was now only about 8,000. The massive decline in population was the result of decades of agricultural depression, but also white flight after integration, when thousands of white families moved to the suburbs of Little Rock, Memphis, and Jackson. There had also been an African-American brain drain, as one of the unintended consequences of integration was the collapse of the Black business class. All of this was information I learned and saw that day.
Helena had vast blocks abandoned and blighted. I saw people’s homes that were so derelict I wouldn’t have kept livestock in them. I was shown one neighborhood, in town, that had no indoor plumbing, in the year 2002. Folks, black folks, who lived in that neighborhood, were still carrying buckets to a central tap to get their water.
Before that day I had intellectual knowledge of America’s racist history. But that day I really saw it firsthand in a way I had never seen—or maybe just never taken the time to notice—before. And I’ve never been the same since.
From that moment, my ministry, and thus my life, took on a deeper commitment to justice work. In my next call, in Dallas, Texas, I was part of the Texas Faith Network. A statewide organization of clergy who responded to unjust political activities in the state government. We were particularly concerned with how the Religious Right was gaining power over the Texas State School Board and changing education standards and text books to reflect their worldview. And so other religious voices were critical in presenting alternative perspectives on the relationship between faith and science or health standards. My testimony before the State Board of Education about sex ed curriculum even appeared in a documentary about the topic.
All of that was just training for the role I played in my next call, in Oklahoma City, as the Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope. I was now an out gay man, leading a predominately LGBTQ+ congregation. As part of the interview process for that call, I was explicitly asked and warned about what that would mean. I would become a leading public figure in the gay community, a spokesperson and activist. And, thus, a target.
In my first week as pastor of that church, I appeared at a meeting of the library board where some local religious leaders were trying to ban gay-themed books from the public library. And that day was my first television interview that appeared on the nightly news.
Those five years were filled with activism work, and not just on LGBT issues. I appeared at the Reform Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to express solidarity with them when they were targeted with anti-Semitic violence during the High Holy Days. I organized a vigil when a many was murdered by the Aryan Nation. I trained social workers and educators on diversity. I worked with the local Muslim community on hate crimes legislation. I often appeared at the State Capitol as the official UCC representative for all sorts of issues from anti-war protests to health care advocacy to supporting reproductive justice.
And I was a target. I received death threats. Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest me. The Oklahoma State Republican Party’s platform condemned my wedding—not just gay marriage—my wedding.
Here, in Omaha, I helped lead the effort to pass this city’s employment non-discrimination ordinance—the thing in my life I’m second most proud of, after being a father. And I’ve been involved in a wide range of issues from defending immigrants and refugees, speaking out on the true nature of religious liberty, challenging measures that set up barriers to voting, testifying against the Keystone XL pipeline, helping to organize our state conference’s response to climate change, and getting shot and pepper sprayed during the 2020 summer of racial uprising.
This week I spent nine hours at the State Capitol in defense of reproductive justice, wearing a stole that once belonged to our late member, the Rev. Dorothy Murdoch Hill, honoring her decades of work on that issue. And this coming week I’ll be back fighting against the effort to ban gender-affirming care for children and adolescents.
That day in Helena, Arkansas opened my eyes to injustice and how my call as a disciple and minister of the Good News of Jesus Christ included speaking truth in the public square and working, wherever my voice and power were going to be effective, in scaling and breaking down the barriers to justice.
Isaiah challenges people of faith to confess our sins, to run to the good, and to walk in the way of peace.
What are the ways we have participated, intentionally and unintentionally, is systems of injustice? What barriers to justice have we helped to erect? What biases and prejudices might be holding us back from experiencing the wild, inclusive love of God? How often is it simply that we fail to speak or act or respond, and that alone is the barrier?
Isaiah implores us to be better, to do better. To be God’s agents in breaking down the barriers to justice. This is what it means to be a child of the God of Israel. This work is part of the call of discipleship for those who take the name of Jesus at our baptism. And we are reminded that we don’t do the work alone--the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers the church with courage in the struggle for justice and peace.
Let us be God’s faithful servants, in the service of others, proclaiming Good News to all the world, resisting the powers of evil.