Tamir Rice and the Anguish of Our National Sin (Nehemiah 8:1-10)
By Robert Williamson
On December 28, just before New Year's Day, a Cleveland grand jury declined to indict the officers who killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who had been playing with a toy gun in a park near his home. For many, the news resounded as yet one more tragic refrain in the long litany of our nation's utter disregard for Black lives. Extinguished in the innocence of childhood, without even a second thought.
America's history of white supremacy stretches back to the very founding of the nation, from the "discovery" of North America by European explorers, to the transatlantic slave trade, to the lynchings of the Jim Crow era and the modern prison-industrial complex. It is, as Jim Wallis reminds us, "America's Original Sin." Yet the events of recent months, and particularly the courageous rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, have amplified for us the urgency of recognizing and repenting of the total depravity that is white supremacy.
A New Year and a National Confession
It was another New Year's Day, this one in in about 444 BCE, when the people of Israel turned to the Torah to reexamine their national conscience (see Lev 23:24-25). Like us, they were at a crossroads in their national history, having returned from exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and to reestablish their national identity.
Notably, it was the people-not the clergy-who understood the importance of Torah in rebuilding community. It was the people who gathered before the gate and who instructed Ezra to read the Torah (v.1). It was the people who built him a platform (v.4), and the people who stood beside him as he read (v.4). All the people were there, both men and women, down to small children just at the age of comprehension (v.2). It was a popular uprising of sorts. They knew that a new year demanded that they should examine their national conscience in light of God's holy word.
So Ezra read to them from the Torah for the entire morning, while the Levites moved among the people, helping them understand its meaning. As the people stood in the morning sun, welcoming the dawning of a new year, as they heard the word of God read and interpreted, they began to weep.
While we are not told the reason for their weeping in the lectionary passage itself, it becomes clear in Nehemiah 9 that the tears reflect the people's sudden awareness of how starkly their own nation had strayed from the just and merciful designs of their God. In that chapter, after recalling their entire history, from the covenant with Abraham to the present moment, they confess: "Our ancestors have not kept your law or heeded the commandments and the warnings that you gave them. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways" (9:34b-35). The tears they shed were not tears of gratitude or tears of joy, but tears of anguish, born of their own nation's original sin.
Tears of Anguish for a Nation Gone Astray
So, too, this text calls upon us to examine our own history and to recognize the sinfulness of our own national past. In this contextual moment, in particular, it calls on us to recognize the pervasiveness in our society of racism and white supremacy, which persist until this very moment, as the murder of Tamir Rice clearly attests. As our own near year dawns, it is time for us to acknowledge our own history, to experience the anguish of what we have done and who have we have been.
As church folks, it is tempting to imagine that we have always been on the right side of history. That our national sin is not our own sin, but someone else's. But lest we exonerate ourselves too quickly, we remember the words of Frederick Douglass who remarked that "[T]he church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters."
Or perhaps closer to home for those of us who fancy ourselves high-minded "moderate" or "progressive" Christians, the words of MLK, who wrote from a Birmingham jail: "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
The history of racism is our history. The history of white supremacy is our history. We must confess it and confront it, anguish and all, before yet more names are added to the refrain.
"The Joy of the LORD is Your Strength"
Yet, before we become too enthralled with our own guilt, we should notice that Nehemiah wisely stopped the people's tears almost as soon as they had begun. "Do not mourn or weep," he said (8:9), sending them away to celebrate the new year festival and reminding them that "the joy of the LORD is your strength" (8:10).
We should not read this as trite absolution or cheap grace. Rather, Nehemiah seems to have recognized that guilty weeping is only so useful. That what is needed is commitment, followed by action. So he sent the people away to seek the God's favor, knowing that only in "the joy of the LORD" would the people find the strength to make reparation for their wrongs. For in the following two chapters (Neh 9-10) we find the people doing exactly the hard work of confession and recommitment, changing their ways so that they might live into the possibility of God's just and righteous future.
And so it is with us. Searching our past and our present, we must acknowledge and confess our original sin, the white supremacy that has pervaded our national soul up until now. And facing the anguish that must surely arise, we must not tarry in our guilt too long, but take action to right the wrongs we have done. To make reparations to those we have oppressed. For it is in this just peace that the Lord takes joy. And the joy of the Lord will be our strength.
Robert Williamson Jr. is the Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he also serves as the founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a ministry of hospitality welcoming those who live on the streets. His most recent book is Ideology, Imagination, and Inspiration: Echoes of Brueggemann in a New Generation (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015). You can find him on Twitter as @rwilliamsonjr.
Bible Study Questions
1. In this text, it is the people who demand that the Bible be read and interpreted for them in light of issues facing the community. What is the role of the people in biblical interpretation in your context?
2. What do you think of the claim that racism is the "original sin" of the United States? What do you think is the role of acknowledgment and confession in healing our national wounds?
3. The phrase translated by the NRSV as "the joy of the Lord is your strength" (v.10) may also be translated "joy in the Lord is our strength." Which of these translations makes more sense to you? What do you think is the role of joy in addressing and confessing racism?
For Further Reading
1. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).
2. Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline (eds.), Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need to Do (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2004).
3. Julian Long, "#BlackCloudsForMyWhiteFriends" (2016).
4. Mark A. Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah (IBC; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1992).
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