Chenda Innis Lee: Liberty and Justice for All

Like most families with children, at the onset of the pandemic last year my husband and I were plunged into pandemic schooling our daughters. Over the summer, confident pandemic schooling was behind us; we had family T-shirts made to commemorate our experience. Our girls' shirts read, "We survived pandemic teachers 2020," and our shirts read, "We survived pandemic schooling 2020." Little did we know our pandemic teacher credentials would be renewed for the 2020-21 academic year.

Determined to be better teachers, we transformed our basement into a classroom space for our three school-aged daughters. During the first few days of the new academic year, I would come downstairs every morning to make sure they were settled. One morning as I came down to check on them, I heard them reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which I later discovered was part of their virtual class morning routine.

Until the pandemic, I have not given recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance much thought because it was out of sight, out of mind. It was something done at school - you know, that place our children used to go for seven hours out of the day and we could actually be productive and maybe even do non-children-related activities - school. But now school was in our home, and hearing the Pledge of Allegiance uttered in our home - a place of safety, security, and refuge in a country where "liberty and justice for all" does not ring true for melanated bodies like ours - was disorienting, and a violation of our sacred space. Thoughts of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Elijah McClain - every black or brown person prior to them, every black and brown person whose stories do not make national news, and the stories of my enslaved ancestors who fought for their human dignity - floated through my head as I heard the words "liberty and justice for all" being uttered from the lips of our daughters. And I had to "Make. It. Stop." I could no longer allow our daughters to recite words, at least not in our home, that are antithetical to the liberty and justice God desires for all.

In today's gospel lection, Jesus encounters a man who needs Jesus to “Make. It. Stop” because his body, his sacred space, has been violated by an unclean spirit. Jesus, Mark tells us, is in Capernaum with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, who he drafted in the preceding verses to join him on an adventure of "fishing for people." On the Sabbath they go to the synagogue for worship and Jesus astounds the people with his teaching. Whatever he said, perhaps it was that Isaiah passage we hear him reading in Luke's gospel:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because She has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

These words - Spirit of the Lord, anoints me, brings good news to poor, releases captives, recovers sight, sets oppressed free - these words I imagine cause a disturbance in the soul of the man, forcing him to cry out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Hearing the man's plea for help, Jesus rebukes, silences, and orders the unclean spirit to come out of the man. After convulsing the man's body, the spirit comes out, and the people are astonished by Jesus' action and his teaching. The scene in the synagogue ends immediately, in true Markan fashion, but its impact is felt throughout the Galilean region, Mark attests.

Our 21st century ears are uncomfortable hearing these stories because exorcisms are reserved for our cinematic entertainment, not our theological praxis. We know what to make of Jesus the teacher, the healer, the shepherd, the justice warrior, the friend of sinners. But Jesus the exorcist? He spews of evangelical conservatism so we try to avoid him as much as possible. Yet, there is no avoiding him because this description of Jesus, given to us by Mark and by extension the other gospel writers, shows us the breadth and depth of God's love for us and the boundaries God is willing to break, God has broken, to deliver us from the forces of evil who hold us in captivity.

The drama that unfolds in this exorcist narrative reveals that when the Son of woman was born into this human sphere, he did not arrive unchallenged. The territory was already occupied by opposing supremacies, known by many names - the Devil, Principalities, Ruler of Darkness, Unclean Spirit, Demon, Satan - that have ensnarled, entangled, and violated the sacred spaces of God's good creation. The Apostle Paul, in his writing, personifies them as Sin and Death, enemies of God who have gained dominion everywhere, in every human heart, robbing people of the joy and community and purpose for which they were created, which is to live fully in the abundance of God's unmerited grace. So, what does God do? God condescends to us, in the person of Jesus Christ, to Make. It. Stop. Mark's exorcism narrative signals that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all of us.

Besides being a story that points to the liberating work of God, this story highlights the fundamental witness and confession of the early church - the lordship of Jesus Christ. In telling this story and others like it found throughout the gospels, Jesus' disciples were making the subversive proclamation that their allegiance was to One whose authority and power exceeded that of the highest Roman authority, Caesar. By placing this exorcism story at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, Mark makes the creedal confession that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

Jesus is Lord is the witness of the church, and perhaps why Mark posits this story in the context of a worship experience, reminding not only his first century readers but also his 21st century readers - that's you and I - of our primary mission as the body of Christ in the world: to make visible the power of the gospel by living faithfully under the lordship of Jesus.

So, what does this faithful living look like for us? Well, it is the same as it was for our faith ancestors with contextual differences. What this faithful living looks like is engaging with the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden. What this faithful living looks like is resisting injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. What it looks like is publicly speaking against systems that keep some people poor and other people rich. What it looks like is using our privilege to eliminate racist and discriminatory laws that target marginalized communities in all facets of our society - healthcare, education, policing, economics, housing, and employment. What it looks like is accepting our neighbors as God's beloved regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. What it looks like is loving our neighbors with compassion, empathy, and grace.

As my favorite Hebrew Bible theologian, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney says, "We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without following him into the broken places of the world. We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without paying an exorbitant price at some point. We can no longer claim we follow Christ if we never leave our places of safety and never raise the ire of those who construct and benefit from the systems that impoverish and imprison."

By now, I know you're wondering how I handled the situation with my daughters. Well, after school that day, I sat with them and shared how hearing them recite the Pledge of Allegiance was disorienting for me. I gave them a history lesson in why the Pledge of Allegiance was created and how its words are discriminatory against people of color and immigrants. Then I told them another story: the story of our Christian identity in Christ and how our allegiance is to him. I told them about their baptism and how, no matter what they do or don't do, nothing can separate them from God's love that is in Christ Jesus. When they were done bombarding me with questions, we brainstormed together ways they could still show respect for their country and refrain from participating in reciting the pledge of allegiance.

Jesus is Lord is our witness as disciples of Jesus Christ. Mark's story of confrontation and liberation comes to us because it's at the heart of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - the Gospel story we are invited to live into and live through.

Jesus is Lord, and in his life, death, and resurrection, God sets us free from the grips of Sin and Death, plunges us in the waters of baptism, raising us up to new life, and invites us to feast at God's table where the gifts of bread and wine are made available to all and for all. Freely. At no cost to any of us - liberty and justice for all, and all means ALL!

Offered to you in the name of God who is majesty, mystery, and mercy. Amen.

Please pray with me.

God of loving kindness and tender mercies, I thank you for the gift of your Word that has been proclaimed. May those who hear it commit to leading a life of blessing so that their witness will bear fruits of justice and mercy for their neighbor. Amen.