Bob Cooper served the Southern Methodist University family for years as one of the university chaplains. He also led students into deeper understandings of the place of ecumenism and the pursuit of peace and justice in any viable life of faith and authentic spirituality. I'm tempted to start telling stories here of some of our common experiences, but I will resist!
Bob Cooper has been a loyal advocate for truth, real community and fairness for his entire career. I was most honored to receive the fellowship and to present the lecture that follows here.
“You stand there. . .”
The Robert O. Cooper Peace & Justice Fellowship Lecture
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Southern Methodist University
I have regarded Bob Cooper as one of the most important leaders in our community for a very long time. His unflagging commitment to the work of establishing justice and realizing peace here and beyond have inspired us all across a generation.
So, I regard this award as an extremely high honor and I accept it with humility on behalf of all of our neighbors who still long for the realization of justice and the experience of peace in their own lives tonight.
It was suggested that I spend this time talking about my work at Central Dallas Ministries, and I expect I’ll do a bit of that before I’m done. But I want to broaden, focus and personalize our conversation this evening, if that is possible, to face some discomforting realities about our society, most of our faith communities and the manner in which we “do life” as a people today.
I’ve had the “advantage” of having spent most of my 60 years living in Dallas. This is a city and a state I believe that I know and know well.
I also know the faith community here in Dallas. I first met many of you while serving an embarrassingly short stint as Executive Director of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches back in 1998.
I grew up in Richardson where I attended a very conservative congregation that was part of a fundamentalist denomination, a denomination locked in deep denial about its actually being a denomination. But, that is a subject we need not unpack tonight.
It is worth noting tonight that I thought and experienced my way out of fundamentalism thanks largely to observations I made and experiences I had relative to issues of justice and peace inside the little church where I grew up. Mostly my current views on faith and society grew up as a reaction formation to the experience I had in that church. I grew up in the 1960s and came to realize that inside that little Sunday morning box no word was ever uttered about how our nation was on fire literally or how a senseless war of fire waged halfway around the world stood against our best values and traditions as a people, to say nothing of our faith. I came to realize that my church was strangely, hauntingly irrelevant and disengaged from the real world.
I know that many, if not most of you, had a much more expansive view of faith relative to those revolutionary years, I’m grateful for that for you.
Yet, forty years later we find ourselves in Dallas facing some of the very same issues, especially those issues related to peace and justice. If anything, in many ways, we’ve moved backward, especially in regard to economic justice in our society.
As I said, I grew up schooled in a rather repressive brand of fundamentalism which meant that I read the Bible again and again. Now, I soon noticed that the people who attended our little church on Abrams Road were reading the Bible also, but not all of it and not with equal regard for all that it contained. It seemed that our hermeneutic could best be characterized as a "pick and choose" process. Pick what we understood, or what we were comfortable with or what had always been our patterns and tradition. Choose those requirements that justified our actions, choices and lifestyles, and leave the rest aside.
For example, I remember particularly that we spent a great deal of time in the Epistle of James. Evidently written by the brother of Jesus, this short letter addressed Christians in Judea and Jerusalem in some of the earliest communities devoted to following the Messiah. We were correct in valuing this message, but actually we never really got it because of our methodology and our presuppositions.
To be sure, in one short section of the letter we found a stated emphasis on the place of “works” versus “faith.” We used this tension in our debates with our Baptist friends and neighbors, as well as any other group that emphasized grace and faith. Of course, with this interpretive frame we missed the sort of “works” that James actually had in mind:
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (James 2:14-17)
What I discovered about the epistle of James is the simple and rather obvious fact that it was an economic justice tract from start to finish. To set James over against Paul is to misunderstand both thinkers.
For James, suffering is seen as an opportunity to grow (1:2-4): how often have I heard this rationale among Dallas’ urban poor? His advice is set against a backdrop of harsh economic injustice that affects the lives of the vast majority of those who first read and/or heard the words of his letter. The economic system that the poor members of these early Christian communities faced were established, championed and maintained by the wealthy and the powerful. The result for the poor of the day, the people of the land, was suffering and grave difficulty.
For James, like Jesus (see Luke 1:53-55), the structural reality and power nexus at work within the reign of God is characterized by a grand reversal of fortune among poor and rich (1:9-12). The poor should take pride in the high position they occupy in God's scheme of things, while the rich should take pride in their lowly position. Quite a reversal indeed.
James singles out the affluent, the wealthy as oppressors who create economic systems that produce the suffering that is clearly in mind throughout the letter. Hear these strong words:
"Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you." (James 5:1-6)
In my view today, most of our faith communities have been co-opted by our culture of the "consumer, financial industrial complex."
[To be sure, the military industrial complex is still very much alive and well. Have you noticed? We never really review the Department of Defense budget, no matter how large the federal deficit grows; and we always seem to be able to find some enemy to engage in protracted battle that costs billions we could use at home and around the world, not to mention the catastrophic loss of life on both sides of the battle lines and among civilian populations.]
But, the poor seem to be doing worse and worse and their numbers continue to grow, as does the amazing gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of our economy. It is also interesting that this continuing, worsening trend occurs at a time when the nation’s churches are in decline, but the American Civil Religion seems to be on the ascendency.
So, indulge me one more text from James, but allow me to broaden its application to the nation and our national response to the poor beyond the comfortable confines of the church.
"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, 'Have a seat here, please,' while to the one who is poor you say, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?" (James 2:1-7)
And, it is true, isn't it?
As a nation and as citizens, over and over again, we say to our neighbors who find themselves trapped in poverty, “You stand there. . .” While at the same time we honor the rich, the successful from among whom we can identify the very ones responsible for creating and maintaining the systemic injustices that consign the poor and their children to lives of limitation, misery and despair for generations.
"You, stand there!" while your babies cry with hunger.
"You, stand there!" while your schools remain substandard and unlike anything we would allow to continue.
"You, stand there!" while your housing forms a slum due to absentee owners who get rich from your misery.
"You, stand there!" while we trim the housing, health and human services and education budgets annually.
"You, stand there!" in the Emergency Room waiting for hours to see a doctor because you have no health coverage and not access to public benefits.
"You, stand there!" to collect your pay check that reflects a pay scale far below living wage and is attached with no benefits.
"You, stand there!" in the pay day loan line with no banking services you can access, forcing you to pay outrageous interest rates.
"You, stand there!" in the line to get into the night shelter or stranded outside in the cold, propped up against a back alley wall or curled up in your broke down, old car.
"You, stand there!" in the soup line or at the food pantry front door because there are not options for you that the community can provide.
"You, stand there!" No greeting for a life crafted in God's image, but the only directive you've come to expect from your fellows who control the current rules of the game of life.
"You, stand there!" nameless and problematic. Like Lazarus, invisible to the rest of us, the ultimate insult.
If you doubt my assessment, consider the findings of a study conducted by that liberal local rag, The Dallas Morning News in an editorial report on life in Texas for the poor and marginalized:
- Every 7 minutes a child is born in poverty.
- 25% of Texas children are born in poverty.
- 49th in the number of working poor (that is, Texas is second in the number of people who work and remain poor).
- $14,700--the average annual income of the poorest 20% of Texas families.
- $203,200--average annual income of the richest 5% of Texas families (13.8 times as high as the poorest 20%).
- 16% of Texans live with hunger or in fear of starvation, just ahead of New Mexico and Mississippi.
- 48th in the nation in state and local government expenditures for public welfare--$808 per capita.
- Second highest Gross Domestic Product in the U. S.
- Number 1 in cancerous emissions into the air and toxic chemicals into the water.
- Ranks 50th in the number of insured people in the nation--5.5 million Texans are not covered by health insurance or 24% of the population (compared to 15.7% for the U. S.).
- 1st in the U. S. in executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
- 2nd highest incarceration rate.
- 34% of Texas high school students drop out--8th highest in the U. S.
- 49th in verbal SAT scores and 46th in math.
- Texas ranks 41st in per capita spending on students in public schools, compared to 25th in 1999.
- 8th largest GDP in the world--$1.1 trillion in 2006.
- 1st in number of shopping malls in the nation.
- 12th in church or synagogue attendance in the U. S
"Hidden among Texas' great abundance--the booming businesses and mega-malls--are statistics that all of us would just as soon ignore. But the state can't afford to forget the faces behind those numbers. . . . No liberal blog or legislator is spinning these numbers. In fact, they aren't even new. They are simply compiled from statistics published by sources including the Texas state comptroller's office, the U. S. Census Bureau and other government agencies. . . . Looking at the statistics, it's almost impossible to comprehend how a state with such a healthy bottom line has crashed to the bottom in so many social areas. How many lives must be ruined before we get the picture?"
So, what do we do?
I'll offer a few suggestions for your consideration.
First, we must learn to partner with the poor as we seek change. The days of neo-colonial, one down, charitable approaches are long gone. We must move from charity to partnerships with poor folks taking positions as leaders and experts. We believe that people closest to the problems know and understand most about those problems. We believe that people can solve their own problems if given the opportunity and resources.
I've learned a long time ago that people don't need me. They need equity, justice, equal access and opportunity.
Second, we must speak the truth we know from our experiences in the community against forces that would blunt our message. Remember: the revolution will not be funded, nor will it be popular among the powerful. The arrival of new decision makers and influencers will create tension, a healthy tension that is long overdue.
Third, we must find partners in our sector and in the communities of distress who “aren’t playin’” and we must determine to work with and support them.
Fourth, we must recognize that we are in this together and, therefore, we must learn to work across the lines and categories that have been cleverly deployed and used to divide us in the past by those who wield unreasonable power and influence over public and private systems and resources. .
Fifth, we must energize, organize, mobilize and criticize to achieve the change we know will save us all.
Finally, we must commit to hold one another, our community and every public and private institution accountable for performance on these matters of life and decline.
Saying to a poor neighbor, “You, stand there!” is not an option for people seeking justice and peace.
Rather, the time has come for us to say to one another, “Let’s stand together for a just and peaceful society. Let’s sit down together at the table of fellowship and strategy to celebrate our progress and plan our next steps together.”