The Battleground of a Holy Crusade

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
January 29, 2023

Scripture: 1 Samuel 7:7–12

When a nation has lost its soul, when it has turned away from its call and purpose, when it has failed to keep faith with the needs and concerns of all of its people, then it must be called back to itself, to a collective act of confession and repentance. In the last eight days, we have witnessed several mass shootings, and we closed out the week with the release of a video showing five police officers in Memphis, TN, acting under the color of law, lynching an unarmed Black man. Something is amiss in the nation that requires a coming to terms with what we have wrought that these atrocities are visited upon us. Something has been lost, and we need faithful people to call us back. Presidents, scholars, and thinkers talk about the United States as having a soul; they speak about the “soul of the nation.” I don’t know precisely what they mean when they talk about the “soul of the nation,” but if we deign to use words like “soul,” then we must acknowledge that we need faithful people to call us back to our call and purpose. We need to find a way to save our nation’s soul.

Both of these atrocities we experienced—mass shootings and police killings of unarmed citizens—have become a regular feature of life in this nation. Something has been lost when all we need to do is wait a few days or weeks before we see another mass shooting or police kill another person. The vicious beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police and his mangled body struggling to live indicts this nation. A nation that refuses to reckon with its history of racial terrorism, that cannot stop its citizens from accessing weapons of war to kill as many people as possible, and that will not prevent its police from summarily executing unarmed citizens without trial has lost its soul. If this nation cannot secure the blessings of life, liberty, and well-being for all that served as the foundation of its being and purpose, then it has lost its soul. We must acknowledge that we need help. To whom will we cry?

This is the dilemma that Israel faced. She has lost her soul. Israel has lost sight of her call and purpose, and the prophet Samuel stepped up to call her back to herself. Samuel served as a judge for God’s people, exhorting them to return to God with all their hearts and calling them to be faithful to God’s will, vision, and intention for the world. Israel knew something was fundamentally wrong about the nation, and something had been lost. They asked Samuel to pray for them that God would deliver them from the violence and destruction at the hands of violent, well-armed people. Samuel called Israel to gather for a service of confession and repentance at Mizpah, a battleground where the Philistines fought Israel years before and killed thousands of them.

And when all of Israel gathered at Mizpah with their hearts turned and returned toward God, the Philistines threatened to destroy them as they had done before. Again, the people asked Samuel to pray that God would protect them from the Philistines. And Samuel cried out to God. There was no doubt about the kind of violence and punishment the Philistines could inflict, but Israel gathered anyway. And the Philistines still threatened them. God intervened, thundered mightily, and threw the Philistines into confusion. I don’t know what happened, but this time, with God’s help, Israel overcame. Samuel marked the spot with a stone. He named it Ebenezer, “stone of help,” because he said, “thus far, the Holy One has helped us.” There is nothing to suggest that victory was assured, and there were many casualties in that spot. Because of Israel’s faith and God’s faithfulness, they experienced God as full of “surprises of new historical possibility” (Brueggemann).

A couple of weeks ago, I joined my Minneapolis Downtown Interfaith Clergy colleagues on a tour of sacred civil rights sites, museums, and memorials in George and Alabama. We did so as an act of racial solidarity to combat the impact and persistence of white supremacy and to resist the current attempts to deny, ignore, and distort America’s history of racial injustice and violence. We wanted to be learners and witnesses, gathered and inspired as a beloved interfaith community, to return to the Twin Cities to bring to bear the enduring wisdom of the Black freedom struggle to our current challenges of racial injustice and disparities, public and community safety, and poverty and economic exploitation.

Our first stop in Atlanta was at Ebenezer Baptist Church—where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as co-pastor—for the MLK Day commemorative service. I didn’t know, and I don’t think my colleagues knew, that our stop at Ebenezer would be the first of many Ebenezers we would visit throughout our journey. It would be a reminder that the Black freedom struggle, especially in those places with familiar names in the story and history of the Civil Rights Movement—Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham—was a story about faith, the faithfulness of God, and God’s intentions as the substance of what we may call “the right side of history.”

Ebenezer, the stone of help, is a place of defeat and victory, a site of struggle and costly sacrifice, a battleground of a holy crusade, not a military expedition, but a justice enterprise to remedy all the wrong that has been done. The Ebenezers we visited in Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, the Ebenezers all over the world, where God thundered for the salvation and liberation of oppressed, dominated, and exploited people, are battlegrounds hallowed by the blood of martyrs. In our pilgrimage, we visited the sites where the chain of hate was met with love, with faith, and with determination to see justice done. Black protestors and their white allies did not pick up arms to secure civil rights. Instead, they responded with a “prophecy of body and action,” presenting their bodies as sacrifices to end the pain and suffering. They went to the battlefield and experienced Ebenezer.

When we looked up, we found ourselves surrounded by stones of help from the Black freedom struggle. Monuments to the dogs and water hoses, memorials to the foot soldiers of the movement, walking paths tracing the steps to inevitable violent police retaliation for daring to demand dignity and citizenship, and museums filled with artifacts, photographs, and interactive experiences are all presented in hopes that we won’t ever forget so it won’t ever happen again.

In Birmingham, when we crossed the street to arrive at the grounds of Kelly Ingram Park, infamous for the deployment of vicious dogs and water cannons on children and youth, from a distance, we may have looked to an observer like a hoard of zombies in some dystopian film lumbering mindlessly on the grounds. But if they took a closer look, they would have seen people arrested by the realization that we were on hallowed ground, a site of costly struggle for humanity, dignity, and liberation. Ours was not the gait of a disconnected, lobotomized group but of those who wondered if we were worthy enough to stand on that ground. At this site of mangled bodies and spilled blood offered for the liberation of God’s beloved, we beheld stones of help erected to remind us that with God, we know what the right side of history looks like. It looks like overcoming.

But I hope we don’t romanticize what happened at these sites of struggle. I hope we don’t minimize how costly the sacrifice is to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Yes, we can debate whether a “right side of history” can be known when life is happening, and history is unfolding as we experience it. Still, we dishonor truth, God, and our posterity by ignoring history. So, my colleagues and I descended into the sites, remains, monuments, and memorials that forced us to confront the past. To go back to the flashpoints and reckonings with America’s resilient and resistant racial project. To be truthful about the past so we may muster the courage to confront our silences and complicity in erecting and perpetuating systems of oppression, domination, and exploitation that Black people fought so hard to dismantle. To know that in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and all of the world, there are ongoing holy crusades, enterprises of justice, seeking to bring good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, letting the oppressed go free, and announcing God’s favor on all.

More battlegrounds call for direct action because the dehumanization of segregation and racial violence that civil rights foot soldiers fought to overcome have evolved rather than disappeared. We encountered guardians of these Ebenezers who reminded us over and over again that the work continues: the young woman at the bookstore at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute who wanted to know if and how we were making things right in Minneapolis, so there would be no more George Floyds and Daunte Wrights; the tour guides at 16th Street Baptist Church who still carry memories of bombings of their churches and the neighbors’ homes with full knowledge that the police were complicit in the atrocities; the young man and woman at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, guides who patiently answered questions but who also told us how to identify lynchings in our own time and who worried about the religious people who deny their silence and complicity with racism and white supremacy because they are good people. They wanted to know what about our faith makes us different.

Does our faith make a difference in how we show up in our present sites of struggle? The answer to that question is found in why Samuel would call Israel to gather at Mizpah even though they could be attacked or why Martin Luther King and the people of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham would agitate for freedom in the public square under the watchful eye of violent racists: faith and the faithfulness of God. The people protesting, marching, and rallying for freedom and equality in Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham knew they needed something bigger than themselves to confront racism, segregation, and disfranchisement. Some criticized Martin Luther King for being reckless and careless in mobilizing people to civil disobedience. But as Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock so aptly maintained, “faith was the foundation upon which he did everything he did. You don’t face down dogs and water hoses because you read Nietzsche or Niebuhr.” The foot soldiers of the movement had faith in a God who sees human misery, hears the cries for help of the oppressed, and knows the suffering. Yes, the danger was real. White resistance was backed by police power and overwhelming force, quickly mobilized, and mercilessly deployed against the protestors.

It reminds us that there are some battlegrounds in our lifetimes, holy crusades for justice, dignity, and humanity for all God’s children. In Memphis, Monterey Park, in the schools in Florida, in Washington, DC, and yes, here in Minnesota at George Floyd Square, in Rondo, in the State Capitol, in North Minneapolis, across the street. And they need foot soldiers, those who will be faithful to God’s will, vision, and intention for the world, to gather at Mizpah and let a faithful God surprise history with a new possibility.

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