Helping Evil Die on the Seashore

July 27th, 2012
This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider
Image © VU Connected | Flickr | Creative Commons

 In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon entitled “Death of Evil upon a Seashore,” in which he compares the plight of Israel with the historical plight of African Americans in the United States. He states in this sermon:

In our own struggle for freedom and justice in this country, we have gradually seen the death of evil. Many years ago the Negro was thrown into the Egypt of segregation, and his great struggle has been to free himself from the crippling restrictions and paralyzing effects of this vicious system. For years it looked like he would never get out of this Egypt. The closed Red Sea always stood before him with discouraging dimensions. There were always those Pharaohs with hardened hearts, who, despite the cries of many a Moses, refused to let these people go. But one day, through a world shaking decree by the nine justices of the Supreme Court of America and an awakened moral conscience of many White persons of good will, backed up by the Providence of God, the Red Sea was opened, and the forces of justice marched through to the other side. As we look back we see segregation caught in the rushing waters of historical necessity. Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation cannot survive. There is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.

Looking to the words of King, we are still in the struggle, fighting socioeconomic and cultural forces of evil, and the church still has a major role to play, as it did in Dr. King’s era.

Class inequality, gender inequity, and racial disparities persist. The latest census data shows that a record number of Americans—one in two—have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income. In other words, the gap of inequality is widening. We see the feminization of poverty in which women constitute over half of the nation’s poor. We are also witnessing movements that are challenging the prison industrial complex and combating how mass incarceration is decimating communities of color, particularly poor black men.

The restlessness and social frustration that many people are experiencing as they grapple with cultural and economic “productions of evil” can be strongly felt. But some are “hoping against all hope” in this uncertain climate. We are witnessing the Occupy Wall Street movement and the To Be Free at Last movement, which are protesting the ways in which economic and racial inequality is created and maintained. We are witnessing movements of hope that beckon us to not be on the sidelines but active participants in the struggle for freedom, justice, and healing.

We must ask ourselves what kind of communities we want, not just today but fifty years from now. How will we create more just and compassionate communities, which are broken due to the disparities that are present between the rich and poor, between whites and people of color, between Christians and non-Christians? While lip service and rhetoric is often paid to racial justice within church spaces, churches often do not cultivate practices and ways of being that sponsor racial justice on a range of issues such as education and mass incarceration. We must intentionally acknowledge that institutional racism is alive and well, and be willing to speak “truth to power” regarding the racial problems that persist in America today.

Bringing Justice to the Prison System

One specific area in which Christian leaders must continue the struggle for freedom so that “evil can die on the unjust seashores of life” is challenging the profound racial disparities associated with mass incarceration and working to end this exploitative system. The incarcerated are often seen as criminals for life, a stain on the fabric of American respectability. However, we are becoming more astute about problems of mass incarceration as an institutional ploy that specifically targets young black men.

Going back to the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan administration, poor black men within urban areas were deliberately targeted as those who the government needed to “get tough on” for drug and crime offenses. Poor young black men in inner cities were given extremely harsh prison sentences for peddling crack cocaine although many of these teenage men were first-time, non-violent offenders. Moreover, sociological scholars have documented that white middle-class men used powder cocaine at equal or greater rates than black men used crack cocaine but did not receive prison sentences that were commensurate with what poor black men faced. This disparity between black and white men persists today in the criminal justice system, and because these black men are primarily young, poor, and first-time offenders, they often do not have the type of legal counsel to protect them from certain plea bargains that end up labeling them felons for life.

Consequently, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas, like Chicago and New York, have been labeled felons for life. These men are part of a growing caste (not underclass), which is a group of people who are permanently relegated, by law, to an inferior second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits – much as their grandparents and great-grandparents once were during the Jim Crow era. Hence, racial injustice through the prison system is being legitimated and codified by our laws. We are told of America's triumph over its ugly history of discrimination, exclusion, and racial caste. However, this is far from the truth. There is a New Jim Crow in town.

We need Christian leaders who are willing to participate in projects of racial justice in relation to this social evil. Participation in this project of racial justice calls upon leaders to acknowledge that we are not a post-racial society. Racism is alive and has mutated into new forms that are claiming the lives of men of color (and now even women of color). And the Church has a role to play in being an agent and context of racial justice and freedom.

Being a prophetic leader and fighting the “Goliath” of mass incarceration (the prison industrial complex) is not easy but is necessary if we are to take seriously our Christian call to defend the vulnerable and “least of these.” While many who are incarcerated have made mistakes, no society should make nonviolent offenders live out sentences for the rest of their lives. And we must not allow America to hypocritically proclaim itself as a colorblind society when institutional racism in the form of mass incarceration continues to be supported by private corporations and government entities.

Taking Action as a Church

What can pastors and Christian leaders do in response to such pressing social problems? It begins by working together.

Pastors can partner with the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, an organization taking concrete steps to employ faith in dismantling the system of mass incarceration. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) works to nurture, sustain and mobilize the African American faith community in collaboration with civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders to address issues of social justice. The Proctor Conference has made a commitment to identifying strategies to reclaim faithful and sustainable communities, and to end the conspiracy of shame and silence undergirding mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States. For instance, this conference is calling on denominations (and independent churches) associated with companies who invest in cheap labor within prisons to divest from those exploitative companies.

Second, pastors have a wonderful opportunity to challenge their parishioners each week as they speak from their pulpits. The sermonic moment provides a space wherein people can be invited to reflect on what their faith requires. Pastors can invite their congregants into critical theological reflection, asking themselves what it means to be a Christian disciple and how a compassionate, just response to racial disparity is central to our Christian commitment to defend and advocate for the “least of these” within our society.

Most important, we must be reminded that God is with us in this struggle for racial justice and freedom. At the end of King’s sermon, “Death of Evil upon a Seashore,” he proclaims God’s ongoing liberative work within history:

Above all, we must be reminded anew that God is at work in God’s universe. . . . As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us. Evil dies on the seashore, not merely because of human’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it.

Evil does die on the unjust seashores of life because God is acting to liberate the oppressed and downtrodden. Yet, we must do our part. We must cultivate ourselves as agents of racial justice if the Church is to be the incarnational presence of Christ on earth. God is ever present and continues to work in history for justice and healing. We are called to join with God in this struggle for justice.

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