Of Kings and Servants: A Political Meditation

Tuesday in Holy Week

The Rev. Neil Elliott

“Give the king your justice, O God.” That’s Psalm 72, one of the “royal Psalms,” about the king as the sole mediator of God’s grace to his people.

We Episcopalians tend to be pretty cozy with royalty: Our prayerbook was commissioned by divine decree. Anglicans were the last American colonists to join the revolution against King George III. Today, few things thrill us like seeing our Presiding Bishop preach at the royal wedding. And if we no longer pray, in the language of the Prayerbook, for the king or queen, we come darn close: we pray for the president “and all in authority, that there may be justice and peace on the earth.”

There’s that idea, harking back to Psalm 72 and the royal psalms, that those in positions of authority are the chief instruments of God’s purposes on earth.

That’s how many of our politicians want us to think. If you don’t believe that only the man in the White House can fix everything and Make America Great Again, then you have to wait a few years and vote for a replacement from the candidates lining up already. Otherwise, party politicians tell us, there’s not much any of us can do.

I don’t believe that. I’ve seen what people can do when they work together to bring about change. That’s the premise behind ISAIAH, the coalition of faith communities seeking justice in Minnesota through cooperative action. You’ve heard about them before.

But Jered has asked us to talk this week about discerning our vocation around justice, so I want to tell a more personal story.

I first read the name Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1989. He was an outspoken liberationist priest in Haiti, among the ti legliz—the “little church” of the poor. His fiery sermons were broadcast on national radio; and so, one  Sunday morning in 1988, uniformed police surrounded his church, then barged in with pistols and machetés and started killing people. Aristide survived because a policeman’s pistol jammed. After a few minutes the police left; they had killed thirteen people and wounded dozens more.

The next year, Aristide declared himself a candidate for the presidency, just weeks before the election. The U.S. government was furious; they’d spent $2 million on a favorite World Bank official who would have privatized what was left of the country’s resources.

Aristide won in a landslide; or as they say in Haiti, a flood. Repeatedly in his campaign he’d declared, “Alone we are just drops of water,” but Ensanm nou se lavalas, “Together we are a cleansing flood.” His campaign enrolled hundreds of thousands of poor people who had never dreamed of voting before and showed them the power of working together. His government dismantled the murderous Haitian Army and began prosecuting the worst crimes of the Duvalier years, including the massacre at St. Jean Bosco.

When, seven months after the election, the C.I.A. engineered a military coup that drove Aristide into exile, I joined some other people in forming the Haiti Justice Committee in the Twin Cities. For the next three years we were part of a loose national network of resistance to the coup régime; we organized press conferences and teach-ins at the U of M and the Central American Resource Center; we published articles in the Star Tribune; we brought in speakers like Dr. Paul Farmer and Noam Chomsky.

And when Bill Clinton reluctantly sent in the Marines to escort the  coup government into cozy retirement and install Aristide in a much more constricted version of his elected office, we threw a party in a friend’s living room in St. Paul. We knew the change was modest, and that we weren’t the epicenter of events, but we also knew we’d been part of a much larger movement that had pushed back against powerful anti-democratic forces. We were exhilarated; we felt what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich called “political ecstasy,” the deep thrill of working together and realizing we’d been part of change happening.

I traveled to Haiti twice in the coming years; as part of a small human-rights delegation, later as an officer for a Haiti-based nonprofit that organized peasant communities for economic self-sufficiency. In both positions I met astounding people—old women who’d been raped and brutalized by paramilitary terror squads and were ready to go public to accuse their attackers in court; the advocates and activists who organized them into a force for change; attorneys and journalists who had risked their lives to seek justice, community organizers forced to do their work underground under the coup régime, liberationist priests in it for the long haul. These were the bravest people I’ve ever met, not in some heroic, “I’ll save the day” way; none of them liked to talk about themselves. They wanted to talk about what needed to change in Haiti and what the people were doing, in collective action, to bring about that change.

Something of a side story: It was during my first trip that I first began to think about the priesthood. I realized that the people talking to us were priests, who knew the realities in the slums better than any government officials, and they seemed fearless in describing those realities. They just thought it was part of their job.

Justice, I realized, wasn’t a question of the prerogatives of this or that office or authorized responsibilities; it’s a question of following what we’re called to do, wherever we are, whatever form that responsibility takes.

“Give the king your justice,” says Psalm 72, but there’s another vision in this morning’s reading, from that part of the prophet’s scroll that scholars call the Second Isaiah, one of the most extraordinary voices in scripture. Repeatedly, Israel’s Lord praises the Servant of the Lord, sent to reverse the tragedy of exile—but as we hear today, to do so much more. The Servant has endured terrible suffering but has persevered, and without turning to violence or force.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; . . .
he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth  (42:3-4).

Unseen, overlooked until now, the servant is actually the instrument of God’s purpose in the world—not the king, the Servant; and he will enlighten nations, kings will gather before him and be amazed by what God has achieved through him (49:2-7).

The Servant’s only power is his endurance, and his confidence that God will vindicate him (50:4-9).

It is this figure, bruised, disfigured, but enduring, who will bring forth justice.

Christians have long taken these poems as prophecies about Jesus and his suffering. But of course, they were not written as predictions. They hold tip a vision for the people; and the Servant is clearly identified, again and again: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (49:3).

It is not the messiah, not the king acting by royal decree, but the people, in all their humility, who are the instrument of God’s justice, as they persist in their work.

It’s important to hear this prophetic voice this week. —Also to pay attention to the crowds who are such an important part of the Passion narrative as they hail Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, as they throng the city so that the authorities are in fear of their power (as we heard Sunday morning). The Gospels tell us that another crowd later calls for Jesus’ death; but we can wonder—historically, theologically—what happened to that first crowd and their power; did they become the first members of the movement after Easter?

And what is our power? What can we discover as we, like them, learn to come together, to work and act alongside others, to bring forth justice in the earth? Good questions for Holy Week.

In the name of God, who calls and sends and speaks through the prophets.

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