Sawubona – Jesus, The Gerasene, and The War on Drugs – Luke 8:26-35

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!!!!

Where Are Your Wounds?

The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference held their annual meeting in Dallas Texas this year where we were hosted by the Friendship West Baptist Church and Pastor Frederick Douglas Haynes. The Proctor Conference, as it has come to be known, is the brain child of Dr. Haynes and Dr. Jeremiah Wright who was a student of Dr. Proctor at Virginia Union Theological Seminary. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the conference which is spearheaded by the General Secretary, Dr. Iva Carruthers.

“The mission of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) is to nurture, sustain, and mobilize the African American faith community in collaboration with civic, corporate, and philanthropic leaders to address critical needs of human and social justice within local, national, and global communities. SDPC seeks to strengthen the individual and collective capacity of thought leaders and activists in the church, academy, and community through education, advocacy, and activism.”

This year’s theme was “Living Waters: Unearthing Global Power for Justice”. The session was kicked off on Monday evening with a challenging sermon from Rev. Dr. Alan Boesak entitled, “Where Are Your Wounds?” Dr. Boesak is a veteran of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and challenged conference attendees to understand that the life in Christ is a life characterized by struggle. In that struggle there will be wounds. In fact the absence of wounds suggests that one did not find anything worth fighting for. Where are your wounds?

The question is a twofold question, not only “Where are you wounds?” but if you have no wounds then, “Was there nothing to fight for?” Dr. Boesak said this was the question that God is asking the Black Church today. I would suggest that this is the question for the whole church. Not only the church collectively but for each of us who profess to be followers of the Christ by who’s wounds we are healed!! This is the challenge to every one of us. Are we content to sit in relative ease and comfort while millions of men and women struggle to find the means to “get by” even from day to day. Where are your wounds? Is it enough to hand out sandwiches and blankets and not challenge the systems that create poverty and homelessness? Is there nothing to fight for?

Yes it is easier to blame the “other”, the drug addicted, the old, the poor. It is the popular thing to demonize those who are the most vulnerable in our society today. The challenge of the question is having the courage to speak truth to power. To say that there is something inherently wrong with making a health problem, like drug addiction, into a legal problem. The challenge is fighting a system of mass incarceration that denies the “inalienable rights” of citizenship and creates a social caste of second class citizens in a new system of Jim Crow. Where are your wounds? The challenge is speaking truth to a system of poverty governance that simply makes poverty less harsh while funneling people into low wage, dead end jobs. Is there nothing to fight for? The challenge is defending senior citizens, who have worked all their lives, from a government that wants to privatize their retirement while spending billions of dollars on military aide to foreign countries. “Where are your wounds? Was there nothing to fight for?”

This is the challenge to the church today, and the challenge of theological education, training faith leaders to know the right people, to ask the right questions, and to have the courage to do so!

Where are your wounds? There is much to fight for!

Make A Difference . . . . . . . For Life!

Yes Mr. Cooper, “It is a moral imperative.”

Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper wrote an editorial in the Tennessean newspaper the other day explaining why he feels compelled to vote a “Reluctant No” to the healthcare reform bill, H.R. 3200. While the overwhelming response to the congressman’s editorial are opposed to his position, and I agree with most of them, I would like to use this space to talk a bit about the five words in the editorial that I most agree with. “It is a moral imperative”

How immoral is it to say to 46 million people without any healthcare coverage at all, and another 50 million who are under covered (which means they have some type of health insurance but cannot afford to actually need to use it) ” I know you need help . . . just wait”. How immoral is it that this government, is willing to go into debt and move immediately to provide assistance to failing financial institutions, and automotive manufacturers, yet when it comes to helping almost 100 million citizens it wants to say, “we cannot afford it.”

The founding document of this nation, The Declaration of Independence, states that this government is founded on the principle “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The document goes on to say that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men . . .” So there we have it! The very founding document of the United States says that the reason for the existence of the this government, the reason Jim Cooper’s job as U.S. Congressman was created is to secure men and women’s God given rights. The question then becomes, “is access to quality healthcare a right or not?” If it is not a right, then the ability to go to a doctor and receive the best available care when you are sick or injured is a privilege. If it is a privilege then it is reserved for the privileged. If it is reserved for the privileged then our current system of providing healthcare needs no reform. If, on the other hand, quality healthcare is a right then there is much to be done and government has a responsibility to do it.

I would argue that healthcare is a right. It is included in the Declaration when it talks about having a God given, unalienable right to life. Here is where I would expect to have the cooperation of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and even the newly formed, Faith and Freedom Network. If good health is a God given right then the purpose of government is not to debate its economic impact, but simply to “secure” it. When Thomas Jefferson wrote these words he intentionally used the word ‘secure’ and not ‘procure’. Jefferson was talking about God given rights; unalienable rights; rights that each person has at birth, by the very fact of their birth, rights that are unalienable; they cannot be denied or limited. In other words the right to life in its fullest is already given, each person already possess it. That right does not need to be procured. The responsibility of government is to “secure” it, to keep it safe.

Our current healthcare system is little more than Jim Crow. The difference is that people are denied services not based on color or race, but because of economic station and political privilege. Those who oppose healthcare reform now are not unlike those who opposed the dismantling of Jim Crow. The words are almost exactly the same. “We know the way it is isn’t right. We agree with you and really want change too. Just not right now.” To this we say like, Congressman John Lewis said over 40 years ago to those in Nashville who wanted to change Jim Crow “but just not now”. “If not now, when?” If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that,

“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God . . . it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor . . . until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The reality of course is that the difference between what can and cannot be done is most often a matter of will more than any other single factor. When Congress (including Congressman Cooper) has the will to act morally, change will come. History has taught us that this will not happen until we, the people of the United States of America, make it happen. History has further taught us that it is those of us who have been touched by the teachings of Jesus, rather than just the teachings ‘about’ Jesus, who must take the lead, consider it, confer, and speak up!

When we do this, we fulfill our responsibility not just to be unspotted by the world but to leave our mark on it and . . .

Make A Difference . . . For Life!!

Write your Congressman here

W.W.J.D.? Ask The Good Samaritan!

I took some time out of my day today to attend a rally for Healthcare Reform in Nashville at the offices of Tennessee’s two U.S. senators. Among the many posters and hand bills there was one that had the now familiar letters WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” Well for those of us who claim to carry the name of Christ that is a pertinent question. If we are to truly follow in the footsteps of the master, it behooves us to know, “What Would Jesus Do”. For the answer, we can look to Jesus’ own words in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

No doubt you know the story, but let me summarize. A man is on a trip and gets robbed and injured in the robbery. A preacher and a deacon each pass him by without offering to help at all. A third person, totally unrelated to the injured man, comes by and immediately offers assistance, takes the man to get medical attention, and assumes financial responsibility for his care. When it comes to the battle over healthcare reform Christians can draw much from this parable.

First, we cannot ignore the issue. We can not simply go on with our everyday lives, seeing what is going on and doing nothing. The two in this parable do just that. They walked past the injured man. Jesus challenges all of us who say that we belong to him, that we follow him, not to turn a blind eye. We can not just go on with our daily routines as if there are not issues that need our attention. Few of us today hear this story without shaking our heads at this preacher and asking, “How could he just walk right past the man and not do anything?” Yet how many of us are just too busy, have something else to do, or are just really not all that concerned about 46 million people who can’t go see a doctor for regular checkups, have no primary care physician, and are at the bottom of the healthcare service ladder. How easy is it for us to go to church on Sunday for a few hours and then spend the rest of our week focused solely on our own little world? Do we allow ourselves to get so caught up in praise, that we forget to serve?

Second, we cannot avoid the issue. If we shake our head at the preacher who walks by the man, we are down right indignant at the deacon who sees the man and crosses to the other side of the road, attempting to create some space between himself and the man’s need. Do we do that? Do we create space between ourselves and the needs of our fellow human beings by attempting to separate the spiritual and the secular? When we suggest that “as Christians” we should not be involved in “secular” matters we say to our fellow humans, “Our God cares about your soul, but your body belongs to the government, or your boss, or the insurance companies, or whoever.” We cannot separate ourselves from the great issues of justice, equality, and civility that face us as a nation during these historic times. We cannot cross to the other side of the road and create a divide between ourselves and the needs of society. If we are Christ’s then we are the conscience of our community, our city, our state, and our nation. There is simply no avoiding it! 50 million people in this country work and pay for healthcare and yet still cannot afford to get sick!

Finally, we must be proactive, the parable does not say that the Samaritan responded to a plea for help. Rather it says that he saw the man and went to him, he was proactive, he saw the need and was moved by the spirit of compassion within him to act. It is that same initiative, motivated by Christian compassion that should move us to reach to our fellows, put our shoulders to the yoke, and work together to the bringing down of strongholds.

As we follow to the example of the Good Samaritan when looking for the answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” we evangelize in ways words alone could not fully do. We demonstrate, in a tangible way, that we serve a God that is loving, caring, and actively involved in the affairs of humankind on the side of justice, equality, and peace.

That is how we Make A Difference . . . For Life!!!

The Silence Is Deafening

The silence is deafening. As the debate over healthcare reform in this country grows hotter, the silence from the organized church, those of us who say we follow the God of the Bible, is blowing me away! Why is it that we are leaving so much of the talking to the politicians, special interests, lobbyists, and the healthcare industry itself. What is really upsetting to me is that many of the voices that are being heard are those that pervert justice, morality, and ethics with their very words. When I hear people talking about being concerned about the “quality of care” or the “denial of services” as a reason for resistance to change I am reminded of the society Jesus found himself in when He walked this earth in the flesh. He described not the people, but the social, and religious system this way, ” Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ” ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Mark 7:6, NIV) Jesus points out here that there is a disconnect between words and action. If we understand the biblical “heart” to be the seat of motivation, then there is not only a disconnect between the words and the action, but there is a disconnect between the words and the very MOTIVES!!

My daughter told me the other day that it is not easy being a Christian as a young person, but it is worth it! I agree. It’s not easy to be a Christian young or old! Being Christian requires following in the footsteps of the Master. Speaking truth to the lies even of the powerful. It means challenging the powers and structures that be with the truth of the Gospel that speaks life for everyone to it’s fullest. Being Christian requires articulating the reality that millions of people in this country are already being “denied services” because their insurance has reached it’s limit, or the insurer has decided not to pay. Millions of people in this country receive poor “quality of service” because they have no insurance because they work at jobs that, for one reason or another, don’t offer health coverage or offer it but the premiums and co-payments are so high it is not realistically affordable. No being Christian is not easy because being Christian requires caring. It requires caring not only for me, mine, and those like me. being Christian requires caring for people who I don’t know, it requires caring for people who are considered less than or different.

I also agree that it is worth it. Because even though being Christian requires being willing to stand, speak, and act in opposition to the forces of evil, injustice, and oppression; when we do, we can:
Make A Difference . . . For Life!