I greet you this afternoon with the traditional Zulu greeting Sawubona. Sawubona means more than just “hello” it means “I see you”. Sawubona “I see you”. Sawubona, “I see you.” Sawubona, “I see you.” I appreciate the richness of the word and the greeting. It is more than just a passing word between two people who are totally unconnected. Sawubona, “I see you” it is taking the time to acknowledge the presence and existence of another human being. It acknowledges the connectedness of our common humanity. Sawubona, I see you. It says that I recognize you as a fellow traveler along life’s way.
In our story today, from the gospel of Luke, Jesus exemplifies this greeting in his interaction with the man who comes to him from out of the tombs. Sawubona, I see you. Jesus’ response to the man is one of compassion that asks the question what has happened to you. This is what Jesus deals with in the story. While the authorities in the city where only concerned with what was wrong with him, Jesus took the time to heal what had happened to him. What had happened to him was that in his case demons had possessed him. Jesus deals with what happened to him. The authorities, only saw what was wrong with him. They saw that he did not succumb to their efforts to subdue and control him. They saw that he did not fear to challenge their attempts at control. Have you ever stopped to notice that there is no mention of any actual offense that this man committed? No reason, by our standards, that he should be shackled, and chained. Look at the text, nowhere does it say that this man harmed anyone except himself. Yet the synoptic gospels all agree that this man was regularly put in chains, and shackled. I imagine that they reacted out of fear. The text does paint a somewhat fearsome picture of the man it does not anywhere state that anyone, other than himself, was actually harmed by him.
This brings to my mind our current attitude and policy toward those in our midst who are struggling with the disease of addiction to drugs. Drug addiction is a disease. It is a medically documented mental illness. Even many addicts like myself who are in recovery will tell you that. Our current drug policy, however, doesn’t treat drugs like a disease. We treat it as a crime. Our current national and local policy works on the model of “what is wrong with you” not “what has happened to you.” This was the challenge given to us last week as group of religious leaders from around the country gathered to consider a more just and compassionate drug policy. Dr. Amos Brown, pastor of 3rd Baptist Church in San Francisco challenged us by saying that we have to attend both the prophetic and the priestly role in our congregations and in society, and in our priestly role we must ask not “what is wrong with you” but “what has happened to you.” Jesus said it this way, “Treat others the way you want them to treat you. This is what the law and the prophets are all about.” Understand that when Jesus referred to the law and the prophets that was his way of saying that’s what the Bible is all about. Treat others the same way you want to be treated. Sawubona, “I see you.”
Rather than treat people suffering from the disease of addiction the way anyone suffering with any disease would want to be treated; with care, concern and compassion, our drug policies treat sick people like criminals. Michelle Alexander, in a speech at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in 2012 said, “The core challenge to ending mass incarceration is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion.” “Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000” and “by the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans – or 1 in every 31 adults – were behind bars, on probation, or parole”. The overwhelming majority of these are for non-violent drug offenses. Again the words of Jesus, “I was sick and you comforted me” not I was sick and you put me in prison. We are challenged to make the church the space were that care, and compassion can begin. Dr. Yvonne Delk, poured out her heart with us to say that the church should be the place where this care and compassion begin. We must make space for everyone to be able to be completely themselves. Our churches should be welcoming places where people are affirmed and loved, and nurtured. Unfortunately, speaking at American Baptist College in Nashville Tennessee back in 2012, Michelle Alexander again points out. “I find that often people will tell me, who have been released from prison, the church is the last place they’d go. They say ‘I don’t feel welcome there. I don’t feel welcome.’ Many people released from prison say that’s the place where they feel most ashamed, most stigmatized.”
I remember being in a meeting of the ministerial fellowship of the town in which I pastored for some time down in Florida. I brought up the need to be intentional about reaching out to the drug users and even the drug dealers who, even in a relatively small town, nevertheless had a very clear, obvious presence. The response I received from one of the other pastors was, “You can’t just bring those people into the church. They’ve got to be kept separate until they are ready to come into the church.” Sawubona, “I see you.” Can you see him? The Gerasene man, tormented by his demons relegated to the tombs, isolated, marginalized, and stigmatized?
This is not an easy thing to stand in this place and suggest that there might be a better way of dealing with the problem of drug use in this country. No doubt some think this “social gospel” has no real place in the church. But I realize that we are all theologians and as theologians we can think theologically on the issues at hand. As I spent days, and nights in prayer, and reflection I struggled with what to say. I will confess that this stayed with me so much that I had a dream. Unfortunately it was not a dream, like Dr. King’s dream fifty years ago “deeply rooted in the American Dream.” No my dream was a dream deeply rooted in the nightmare that is the daily reality of communities of color right here in DC, and in cities across this nation. The reality of midnight and early morning raids; routine traffic stops; and stop and frisk policies all targeted at communities of color on a daily basis.
In my dream the police came into the church during service and everyone stood. The police began shackling and handcuffing people in the church and leading them out. And the church stood silent. And the church stood silent. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail that “We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” I am reminded of the closing words of Judges chapter 19, referring to the injustice that was taking place in the nation of Israel, “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.” (Judges 19:30)
I am grateful today for Jesus sawubona attitude. Because of Jesus’ “Sawubona” greeting we give the Zulu reply which is “Sikona“, which means “then I am here”. Because you see me then I am here. You acknowledge my presence, my worth, my value, and I am here. I am here to affirm you, I am here to help you I am here. I cannot exist without you. I need you and you need me. Luke paints this picture for us. Can’t you see the man once Jesus has dealt with what has happened to him, there he is sitting at the feet of Jesus saying, Sikona, “I am here.” I am here fully present complete and in my right mind. Sikona I am here. I alive, I am free, I am connected to you, and you are connected to me. Sawubona, I see you. Sikona then I am here.
It is in this space of seeing and being seen, this space of affirmation and encouragement, in this space genuine care, concern, and compassion that people of faith and goodwill operate. It is in this space and in this spirit that we offer alternatives to our current drug policy. We offer ourselves and our churches, our physical spaces as places of welcome and healing. Sawubona, I see you. Sikona, then I am here.
Now is the time for people of faith and goodwill to take heed, to consider it, take counsel, and speak out. Now is the time for a “sawubona” attitude in this city, and in this nation. Now is the time for people of faith and goodwill to say “We see you.” We’re not going to treat you like a criminal because we see you.
Sawubona we see you in your humanity, your pain, confusion, and suffering. We are going to respond to what happened to you. Not what is wrong with you. Sawubona we see you. We are all created by the same God who said it is good. Sawubona I see you, fearfully and wonderfully made just like us. Struggling yes, confused probably, but never the less I see you!
Now is the time for us to take counsel, consider it, and speak out against a Drug War that is a war on people. Now is the time for people of faith to call on our local elected officials to implement and practice policies that emphasize genuine care, concern, and compassion; that emphasize treatment over punishment; and people over profits.
Now is the time for our faith communities to be places of safety, and nurture where our greeting and our attitude is “sawubona” we see you. Because these are our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They are members of our communities. We want to see them, and we want them to say “sikona” then I am here. I am fully present, complete and in my right mind. I am fully participating in the life of my family and my community. I am here. Because you see me, then I am here.
Sawubona, – I see you. Sikona, Then I am here.
Amen and Ashe
Make A Difference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . For Life!!!!