You know what’s weird about John the Baptist? It’s not that he ate honey and locusts or that he wore camel hair and a leather belt — honey is delicious and leather belts are classic (as long as they match his Birkenstocks).
No, what makes John unusual is that when he preaches a message of repentance, people actually travel into the wilderness to hear him and listen to him. When they arrive, they confess their sins and John baptizes them.
Have you ever been to a church where the preacher screamed about your need to repent? Have you ever seen the man on the sidewalk screaming something similar? Have you ever gone back to listen again? Probably not. Repentance is not a popular topic — it won’t make you friends — and if you preach it to the wrong people, you might end up with your head on a platter . . . a la Jean Baptiste.
While there were many in John’s time, and following his execution, who believed he was the messiah, John only claimed to be a messenger preparing the way for the one who would baptize not only with water, but also with God’s Holy Spirit.
And the idea of preparing a way through the wilderness for God, as precedes John’s introduction, was not new. It harkens back to Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah consoled the people of Israel, affirming that their oppression was over and that they would soon return to Jerusalem.
Circumstances have changed, but God still calls on all of us to help prepare the way of the Lord.
The people of Israel are invited to “prepare the way of the Lord,” referring to the path through which God would come to the people, and the path that they would take to enter the city of God together, as a community. In preparing this pathway, every mountain shall be leveled and every valley filled in so that God’s glory can be revealed to all the people — everyone shall dwell in God’s glory together.
Circumstances have changed, but God still calls on all of us to help prepare the way of the Lord. God still calls us through the prophets — ancient and modern — to repent of our individual and societal sins, and in so doing demands that we not only recognize those sins, but actively turn around from them — the definition of repent — and move into a new way of living: the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
Our country in particular is at a crossroads in this moment. Voices are crying out; they feel unheard, undervalued, and under-represented. An epidemic of extrajudicial killing has bubbled to the surface of our national psyche and conversation. Some say that one assumes some risk when committing a crime, making the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and others justified. Others claim that selling cigarettes illegally, stealing cigarillos, or playing with a toy gun do not warrant the kinds of policing that killed these people — resisting arrest or not.
While not all agree on where the scales of justice settle in these situations, we at least can assume that those who are oppressed are the experts of their own oppression. Oppression is one issue in which a bird’s eye view does not help. From the mountaintop, most of the people in the valley look like ants, and too often that is exactly how they are treated.
Those abiding on the mountain often don’t know how they got there; they don’t know who was left behind of climbed over in order to reach such a comfortable altitude. Knowing where we’ve been and how we got to be there is important if we are to discern what to do next — how are we to prepare the way of the Lord?
Speaking for myself, I attended Washington State University, Washington’s only land-grant university, which means that federal money and land were set aside to teach settlers of European descent how to farm the land effectively. Such a privilege was not afforded to African Americans; concession prizes decades to a century later do not count.
I also attended Virginia Theological Seminary, a seminary that directly benefitted from slavery in the 1800s and whose connected bishops advocated mere gradualism during the Civil Rights Movement of half a century ago — gradualism being a controlled pace of racial desegregation designed to make sure that white people were kept comfortable as justice was rolled out every so slowly.
Often repentance is about the sins of our collective past and the things we have left undone in the present.
And we live in West Hartford, Connecticut. We, too, share a legacy of slavery that helped build New England’s economy. Bristow Middle School is named after one slave who was able to purchase his freedom from the Hooker family — a rare occurrence of the time. Though again, a middle school’s name is a concession prize that hardly makes up for the injustice — the sin of human enslavement.
We have reason to repent. Not because we own slaves (we don’t — I don’t think), and not because we use racial slurs (we don’t — I hope), but because most of us are firmly located somewhere on a mountain that rises above those who have been abandoned in the valley. We exist at the expense of some and the benefit of others.
Sometimes repentance involves confessing a personal sin, but often repentance is about the sins of our collective past and the things we have left undone in the present.
Sometimes repentance is about turning from our internal monologue in order that we might listen to the voices of those who experience the world from a vastly different perspective.
Voices like those who are pulled over in their cars by cops presumably for driving while black.
Voices like those who feel followed by department store employees and security officers, presumably for shopping while black.
Voices of banal sorts of oppression like these, as well as voices of the sorts of oppression that lead to disproportionate poverty, incarceration, and death.
We who do not experience such oppression directly can ignore these voices. We can exchange the #blacklivesmatter mantra with an #alllivesmatter generality, but in so doing we whitewash the nature of our country’s problems. We can point to the great challenges law enforcement officers face, but when we claim that our judicial system is a higher power than our capacity for human compassion, we take the side of the oppressor. And when we decide to turn off our minds and stick to what we know — what we feel certain of — we effectively tell those who are oppressed that they do not matter. In all of these things, we commit idolatry.
God offers us a way, and it begins with repentance. It begins with an honest look inward and continues only if we choose to hear the voices crying in the wilderness. God offers us a way that Jesus often spoke of as God’s kingdom — an allegiance to God alone and a mindset that works to make this playing field more level. Isaiah called on the people to prepare the way of the Lord — not to build ladders of morality for us to learn to climb, but to live out before the world a new possibility for human life that would elevate the whole world and everyone in it to God’s dream of reconciliation.
Christ offers us a way. When we level the mountains and fill in the valleys, we prepare the way for God to guide us out of our captivity to racism and all other works of death, and we prepare the way for our own resurrection. We can do these things together — we must do these things together. There are ways we can begin such leveling today.
Do something — because one person’s quiet support is no different from someone else’s quiet indifference.
We can stay informed. Follow the news, and visit a variety of news sources that offer different perspectives . . . news sources that do not spend inordinate amounts of time covering the Kardashians. We can sign petitions. We can write to representatives, attend events, protests, etc., and resist the urge to use those events only as publicity stunts for our Facebook personas. We can examine our privilege and take note of all of those past and present who have helped us arrive where we are. Pray. Do something — because one person’s “quiet support is no different from someone else’s quiet indifference, and nearly identical to another’s quiet racism.” As Howard Zinn said, “you cannot be neutral on a moving train.”
And most of all, we can listen.
Listen to the voices of the unheard, or if you are unheard, speak. Ask questions that explore the complexities of every situation; hold back judgment. Listen to the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
God is leading us there. Jesus shows us the way.
This is a promise of God. God will see that these things come to be, and God does not need the church to make them happen. But I hope that we the church will be a part of this future that God envisions for the world — a vision of peace and justice. I hope that the church will step up and lift up the voices of the unheard. Only “then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, all people shall see it together,” and righteousness will be at home.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.