God with Us and Them
written by Michelle Higgins
August 2019 will mark 400 years since the documented arrival of enslaved African peoples. “20 and odd Negroes” were sold into involuntary bondage in the colony of Virginia 1 . Today, slavery still exists in prisons and human trafficking. Underground commercial sex economies bring in millions of dollars, and the United State has the highest incarceration rates in the world. The future is foretold by the forgotten.
We often sing the Andrae Crouch tune “God is On Our Side” at my church 2 . Whenever I schedule the song for worship, I have to type those words to pull up the lyrics, chart, and slides for projection. On the weeks when we sing the song in worship, I am typing that line a good ten times in four days. One week our sermon text was Joshua 5. The newly appointed general of liberated people had a wartime encounter with the Commander of the Lord’s Army. Church folks might recall the text well. Joshua asks the man standing in front of him (who has his sword drawn) “are you for us or our adversaries?”, and the Angel of the Lord replies “neither”.
Some readers suggest that the Commander said “no”, as if to challenge Joshua’s perspective on God’s position. Once he recognized the divine presence, Joshua humbled himself and changed the question. Honor for the place that God called sacred was the only path to progress. During the Advent season we spoke a weekly refrain: “Come to us Emmanuel, Christ the Light”. This habit of articulating our longings serves as a reminder that God is near. It also highlights the tension between a tradition of “God is on our side,” and the response of, “no, neither”. When Jesus comes, do hearts prepare Him room on “our side” alone?
No. Jesus is the Light of the World. This means both warmth and revelation. The Light of World illuminates a path to freedom by the standards of divine liberation - beyond our nearsighted binary biases based on the adversaries in view.
Emmanuel is not contained by one-sidedness or a balancing act. Rahab’s story challenges and expands Joshua’s idea of “us”. One of the mothers of Emmanuel, she is proof that the person and meaning of “God with us” is inclusive of “them”.
Today around the world, many faith communities that read the New Testament will highlight “Three Kings Day”, the traditional 12th Night and end of the Christmas season. Yet even the story of the Magi is a remembrance that “God with us” means “them”. Philosophers and astronomers followed a great light to seek the great Light of the World. When they consulted a king - the king of the Jews, Herod, God was not with him.
God was in a village. God was with a woman gossiped over in her community. God was with a man who had a pregnant bride. Jesus lived in the legacy of his mothers. Emmanuel was not “God with Caiaphas, God with Annas”. Emmanuel came to a tax collector, a centurion, a woman who’d been bleeding for 12 years. God with the demon-possessed, the pork-eaters, the prostitutes and “sinners”. Jesus showed warmth to the cold and disenfranchised, and shined light on all the communities that both religion and empire ignored.
Today’s Epiphany experience is still the same, God’s eternal light shines first on the people nearest to the liberating force of the divine. The future belongs to firstborn of the forgotten. The most beautiful part of Epiphany is all that God’s light will do. “And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42.16)
God is on our side! The Lord graciously guides us through dissonance and painful events. God’s light shines on places we have longed to see uncovered. It also shines on the places we ignore. The Light of the world shows us the places where Emmanuel lives that we might fear to dwell. Emmanuel lives among the people our communities still boldly mark for invisibility. We need the Lord’s light, because we are the ones who so often do not see Him in all of His forms.
God with the martyrs
God with the gays
God with the incarcerated
God of the detained
God of orphans
God in the PICU
God with the poor
God of #MeToo
Do we believe in a God who sets prisoners free? We must partake in the legacy of abolition. Do we believe in the Celestial Craftsman who formed humanity with loving intention? We must support and empower those whose full dominion - the crown of image bearing - is most at risk. The Light of the World is tearing down walls we built to hide ourselves, or to hide from others. We are destined for an “us” relationship with everyone Emmanuel loves. There is no “them” in the household of faith. Evangelicalism was not designed by Emmanuel. The lighthouse on your missions month bulletin board is not the light of the world.
When people ask me “is there hope for Evangelicals?” I tell them “I hope so.” This is not a cheap answer. Hope is costly because injustice has become predictable.
Many Christians are so fearful of failure that we often commit the grave sin of refusing to repent. Oppressions deceive their so-called benefactors into believing the best of us can’t be free unless some of us are slaves. Plainly, supremacy begets fragility.
In the earliest accounts of African people being forced into bondage to build European wealth, baptism and the assigning of “Christian” names was common 3 . Along with 400 years of racial terror, the people of God must reckon with 400 years of Christian corruption. The Lord’s light is shining on the path to freedom, which is also the path to repentance. For too long churches tried to fabricate a light that is not from Emmanuel. The light of white Jesus is the light of Lucifer. It warms nothing. It makes worship cold and discipleship destructive.
The true Light of the World makes every crooked place plain. It shows us not only the ways where it will lead us, it leads us by ways we would not expect it to go.
Faith for Justice gathers each year to recommit to the continuing civil rights movement. This year our partners will speak about the bail system, immigration, Black political power, prison abolition, and empowerment for Queer and Trans communities of color.
I hope you will join us and learn the impact of active civic engagement. The Church has been living in a leaky old Babel built by feeble hands. We must no longer fear the places that our Creator, Redeemer, and Counselor God call home.
Prayer for Illumination
Son of Humankind, born to us in the “House of Bread”
We acknowledge this day that we do not live by bread alone.
We live by the bread of Your presence, we thrive in the warmth of Your Light.
Spirit of the Living God, show us where we are to dwell.
Make our home with Emmanuel, lead the blind in ways we do not know.
Light of the World - show us the way to seek Your will
Reveal Your truth in our hearts and testify through our actions.
Light of the World - bring justice for Jazmine.
Light of the World - set Cyntoia free.
Light of the World - avenge the 368. end violence against trans people.
Light of the World - Justice for Felipe Gomez Alonzo, Jakelin Caal, Claudia Patricia Gomez
Gonzales. Be refuge for all who seek it.
Light of the World - abolish prisons and bring wholeness to our communities.
Light of the World - fearless to the sickest saddest parts of the weary world.
End toxic masculinity, bigotry, all rape and abuse.
Light of the World - destroy white supremacy in all its forms
Accomplish liberation for the people you will never forsake.
Set the hands of your household to the tasks above, and teach us to practice your grace.
Correct the fragility of our often feeble-minded faith. Do not allow us to conceal ourselves.
Your brilliance betrays our arrogance.
Your light shines in the depths, and no gloom can overcome it.
Bless your Holy name!
Michelle Higgins is the Executive Director of Faith for Justice, and holds a Masters of Divinity from Covenant Seminary. She is an organizer for prison abolition and Black political power. Michelle speaks nationally, imploring communities of faith to pursue the biblical call to activism.