Charlotte. Tulsa. New York. Ferguson. Cleveland. Baltimore. North Charleston.
What these cities mean to you depends on a lot of factors. What they all have in common is a similar headline: “[Insert Name] Killed By [Insert Name].” If you’re like me, you live a very safe distance away from all these places which have experienced turmoil in recent days. Midland County, Michigan, has been far removed from scenes of police shootings and race-related protests. So it’s easy for people like me to form our own opinions without having to engage with actual people, on all sides of these issues, who are suffering.
Last week, I had the opportunity to preach in the Anderson University seminary chapel service. In the sermon, we examined the story of Bathsheba from her own perspective, and our time concluded with a reading of Proverbs 31:1-9, a passage which seems to have been taught to King Lemuel (that is, King Solomon) by his mother, Bathsheba. The final two verses of that passage have remained in the center of my attention since then:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV)
Bathsheba learned a great deal of wisdom from her life experiences. She entered into the biblical narrative as one who could not speak for herself, as one who was destitute, as one who was poor and needy. She was an innocent bystander as the King of Israel took her, slept with her, and had her husband killed. By the end of her contribution to the scriptures, though, she found herself in another position: one in which she had influence over many people as the queen mother. From her own experiences as a voiceless, objectified outsider, Bathsheba grew to show compassion for those who have no voice.
That compassion was transferred into Solomon’s life, when he wisely discovered the identity of the true mother of an infant child (see 1 Kings 3:16-28). Though his techniques might be surprising to us, we can applaud Solomon’s wisdom in looking out for the best interest of the voiceless child.
Who are the voiceless in our society today? Who are the poor and needy whose rights need to be defended? On whose behalf would Bathsheba ask her son to stand up and speak up today?
One such category of people – among many categories, to be sure – is comprised of those who have been cut down by violence, especially those who have died despite being innocent of any major crime. Whether we remember a boy with a toy gun, a man outside a stalled vehicle, or a police officer going about his or her everyday business, many people in our country have died violent deaths for no good reason.
Whose side should we be on? Maybe you are loyal to minority groups, or perhaps you have (like I do) a family member who wears a police uniform every day. No matter which side you are on – why, by the way, do we have to choose sides? – I hope you can agree with me that we should all be on the side of life. No one needs to die a violent death. The stories of our lives are not made more meaningful when a neighbor dies at the wrong end of a gun, a knife, or a vehicle. Even our enemies should be people who receive our love and prayers, as Jesus instructed us (Matthew 5:44).
What if we pray for and act on behalf of those who are needy, those who are voiceless, those who have no power? Can we think carefully about our society and who fits those descriptions?
Bathsheba’s wisdom for Solomon and Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount have the same purpose: to open our eyes to the reality that we belong to each other. It is not that “my rights” are most important; it is that “our rights” have greatest worth. Like a chain which is only as strong as its weakest link, people in community are only as safe as the most needy in the group. Your suffering is my suffering; the violence experienced by the innocent affects me. That is why I must speak up for those who have no voice. That is why I must love my enemy instead of fighting back against him or her. It’s because I belong to something larger than myself, something which I did not create and have no ownership of: the gift of life, and the gift of life in community with other people, each of whom has been created in the image of God and each of whom is loved deeply by God.
But these are just words. And I don’t live in Charlotte or Tulsa or any of those other cities. No, I live in Midland County, a place with issues of its own but without national attention. The real test of these words comes in how I put them into practice in my own life, not in how many words I write or how many people read them. And if Midland County should ever become as (in)famous as Charlotte or Tulsa (kyrie eleison), then I will be able to speak with more understanding of what this all means.
In the meantime, I hope I can be as faithful as Bathsheba, who endured terrible suffering but kept her eyes on the voiceless and destitute. I hope I can be as faithful as Jesus, who died violently and unjustly, so that others – even the stranger, the powerless, the outsider – might live.