Bible Explorations — Holy Troublemakers:
Reflections on Isaiah 9:1–4 for Criminal Justice Sunday
by Charles Hardwick | Presbyterians Today
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. — Isaiah 9:4
Dr. Anthea Butler was stopped for driving while black in her late-model luxury car. As a flashlight shone on her boyfriend’s pale face, the police officer asked, “Did you pick her up somewhere?”
The officer assumed that the car could not have been hers, and that her presence next to a white male implied sex trafficking. He overlooked the Ivy League professor of color in the driver’s seat to speak to her passenger.
Speaking at the DisGrace Conference at Montreat, Butler recounted this story as an example of the indignities that often come when people of color encounter the criminal justice system. She pointedly confronted her white listeners about the need to work for racial justice, and many attendees found hope in her profound honesty. The gathering, her presentation and the words of Isaiah all move from lament to hope, with an interlude of challenge along the way.
Holy troublemakers, like ancient prophets and modern Christian social justice advocates, often follow this pattern. They grieve over the state of the world, they challenge their listeners to take action, and they point to the hope we have that God will ultimately make things on earth look more like they do in heaven. During 2017 this column will focus on different facets of holy troublemaking that reflect an upcoming Sunday’s lectionary passage.
Isaiah begins his troublemaking by pointing out the anguish his readers know all too well. The passage moves rapidly into hope, however, as he describes how these same people will once again rejoice, as when the harvest has come. The prophet makes it clear that God is the one who moves humanity from lament to hope. God brings about glory where there was once disrepute; God breaks the rod of the oppressor; God expands the nation’s joy; God brings about surprising deliverance.
But when human conditions are lamentable, God chooses us troublemakers to bring about hope. Without holy troublemakers, all too often anguish wins out and any confidence is unfounded.
On Criminal Justice Sunday, it is helpful to consider who now is overwhelmed by distress because of what appears to be a hopeless system. Incidents like what happened to Dr. Butler happen all too frequently.
The lamentable state of our justice system is more pervasive than simply scattered stories, however. If current trends continue, the NAACP estimates that one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. According to ProPublica, black teens aged 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white males of the same age. The statistics go on and on. People who walk in despair long to experience the hope promised in Isaiah 9:1–4.
In the middle of this anguish, God challenges us to be holy troublemakers who tear down the abuse of oppressors. It is harder to do so when we are uninformed or unaccompanied. Could you read a book like The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me or Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race? Could you form a small group of like-minded Jesus followers to strategize next steps together? Could you articulate to your circle, your choir or your neighborhood faithful reasons why Christians who are not directly impacted need to care about these issues?
How will you respond to God’s challenge to move the world from lament into hope?
The Rev. Dr. Charles “Chip” Hardwick is director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism for the PC(USA).
Questions for reflection or discussion
1. What do Butler’s story and statistics about criminal justice tell you about our society?
2. Why does God care about the criminal justice system in America? With Isaiah 9:1–4 as a guide, what is God doing or promising to do in this sector?
3. How can God use you or your church to move those in the criminal justice system from lament to hope?
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