Holy mischief

September 4th, 2019

Angela Davis told a story from her childhood, about how she and her friends would dare each other to run across the street to homes on the segregated white side of Birmingham, ring doorbells, and run away. She knew it was illegal, she said, but “one thing I learned about growing up in Birmingham… resistance could be fun!” There is joy in ringing the doorbell and running away when racism forbids you to even be on that side of the street.

But to fully appreciate that story, you need to understand the background against which it was told. She was speaking to huge crowd in Birmingham earlier this year. She had been publicly snubbed several weeks before, when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute offered, then rescinded, the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. The reason given for rescinding the award was her support for the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement to support Palestine’s grievances against Israel. One letter written to the Board of Directors also said she should not receive the award because of her support for “socialism.” In response, a group of local black activists quickly formed a committee to honor her and brought her to the city anyway, where she was celebrated as a hometown hero.

The award has since been re-offered and accepted.

The event itself was an act of resistance—moving outside the official channels of power to proclaim a different message. It relativized the symbolic meaning of the award and demonstrated the same kind of grassroots prophetic leadership she has taught.

Her words, and the event itself, illustrated what it means to work for justice: you will be honored, and you will be vilified. Those who are firmly committed to the status quo will do what they can to discredit you, especially if they can divide oppressed communities against each other. But prophetic leadership arises from the grassroots, often outside the official channels of power.

And when it does, it’s incredibly fun.

There's a phrase that describes ringing the doorbell and running away: Holy Mischief. I believe Holy Mischief is part of the image of God. We are made like our Maker to enjoy breaking corrupt rules.

When authoritarian theology speaks of sin, the metaphor it uses most often is “rebellion against God." This is not by accident: Use the metaphor of rebellion often enough, and people will begin to think rebellion itself is sinful. It was the metaphor most enjoyed by slave-owning preachers. It was reflected in the shaming open letter that eight white clergymen wrote in Birmingham, prompting Dr. King to respond with his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. It is the same metaphor most used today by those who support mass incarceration and voter disenfranchisement, who tell Christians to keep away from justice-oriented matters and confine their faith to the spiritual realm. The Good News, they say, is about what happens after you die, not about conditions of life here on this earth.

But rebellion is not sin when the rulers are corrupt, when oppression is legitimized through law, and when policy is weaponized against those at the margins. Rebellion is exactly what Jesus means when he says, "Take up your cross and follow me" instead of "take up your sword.” It’s a call to do the kinds of things that will make rulers see you as a rebel, an enemy of the state. This is why so many white evangelical men these days are trying to tarnish the phrase "social justice" and double down on describing sin as "rebellion": because the gods of Empire are uncomfortable with rebellion. It's why they are afraid of Holy Mischief and why they denigrate protest. It's why those with no skin in the game chastise peace-makers and justice-seekers as being unloving toward oppressors and tyrants, why they whitewash the legacy and teaching of Jesus, as if he came to proclaim a day of niceness instead of justice.

In contrast, the followers of Jesus marched into the city on Palm Sunday, shouting and singing over the objections of the religious leaders. This is the joy of Holy Mischief. It's why even if you arrest the leaders, even if you silence the chanting and singing, the rocks themselves will shout. In the words of #blacklivesmatter organizers, "We are not leaderless, we're leader-full."

Often justice work takes on a grim fatalism and a cynical gallows humor — which can certainly be appropriate for carrying a cross. It can be wearying listening to the taunts of Goliath and pleading with God day after day, "Why do the wicked prosper?" I see so many passionate people turn bitter and burn out. It's a natural consequence of loving deeply and being disappointed often.

But there is also joy in loosing that rock from the sling, whether or not the giant falls the first time. There is glee in knocking over the altars of Baal and Molech where our politicians sacrifice children to the gods of weapon-makers and prison profiteers. There is laughter in mocking the wicked kings and queens who pretend to be gods. And there is family in being a community of prophetic witness that knows our lineage and ancestry, when we can "rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before."

And so, dear reader, you are not alone if you are a Holy Mischief-maker. There is a great cloud of witnesses in whose lineage you stand.

It's okay to be weary and feel overwhelmed, but feel affirmed if you find joy in Holy Mischief. Ain't no shame in praising God when God pulls the mighty down from their thrones, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. It has happened. It will happen.

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