One of the key figures behind Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man by the name of Bayard Rustin. Rustin not only served as one of King’s several ghost-writers, but his influence upon King and other key figures of the civil rights movement was significant.
Rustin was a strategist.
According to David Chapell’s absolutely fascinating and moving work A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (UNC Press), “Rustin saw the importance of southern black religious culture” for the civil rights movement, even though he himself was not religious.
Being from the North and non-religious (though he had been a Quaker for a time), Rustin, writes Chapell, was “able to discover what King [had] learned about the generally latent but potent power of southern black religion.”
For Rustin, what was that “latent but potent power”?
Chapell writes, “A gifted musician who had toured with [blues musicians] Leadbelly and Josh White, Rustin was particularly drawn to what he called the ‘tragic’ voice of black spirituals.”
The Bible has a name for what Rustin (and Chapell) call “the ‘tragic’ voice of black spirituals”: lament. And, for Rustin, it endowed blacks with an incredible strength. How so? Rustin recognized that in these black spirituals,
“The Negro had developed many resources for and qualities that gave him strength and a willingness to acknowledge [to use Rustin’s words] ‘his own share of guilt.’ These resources and qualities…would help ward off self-destructive bitterness.”
What did this key civil rights leader find attractive and empowering in the black church? Its ability to weep. Its tragic voice. And its willingness to own its “share of the guilt.”
On the Sunday following the tragic Charleston shootings in our own church we had a time of corporate lament, which I had the privilege of leading. In a solemn but matter of fact way I simply recounted the horrific events of that Wednesday evening at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. With tears I then listed the names of those who had been murdered, sharing a bit about each person. We all then sat in silence for 3-4 minutes; only those in tears could be heard. I then prayed, lifting up the victims’ families, as well as their church and community, the murderer, and lamented and confessed the dark and deeply-rooted wickedness of racism found in America.
Unbeknownst to me among the attenders that day was a young man from out of town who had been invited to the service. Growing up in a Christian home, he had departed from the faith in grad school. Around that same time his life started to come unraveled through deep relational struggles, vocational challenges, and an addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Profoundly moved by the way our (very white) congregation had grieved the shooting and overcome by the hardships of his own life, later that week he approached those who had invited him to the service and said, “Do you think there is any way I could talk to the man who led the service Sunday? If he cared so deeply about the tragedy suffered by people he’s never met in Charleston, maybe he would care about my problems, too.”
I had the privilege of meeting with this young man. He opened up, sharing with me the fine china of his life. I listened. We wept together. I told him about Jesus, the friend of sinners, the One who is peace, life, hope, wisdom and freedom.
While these two stories are different in a number of important ways, they have in common a single theme:
A weeping church is a witnessing church.
Indeed, these stories invite us to ask an even more fundamental question: can the church be a witnessing church if it is not a weeping church?
Revelation, the last (and perhaps most enigmatic) book of the bible, would answer that question with an emphatic “No.”
In Revelation 11 (a very difficult chapter to interpret, John provides us with (what I understand to be) two images of the church.
First, the church is portrayed as a temple, which John is told to measure. In doing so, John joins the rest of the New Testament in portraying the church as a temple by virtue of the presence of the Spirit of Christ, who himself claimed to be God’s temple.
But second, and more relevant to the question at hand, John portrays the church as two witnesses–that is to say, as a sufficient witness (see Matthew 18.16, where Jesus quotes from the Old Testament about how a judicial matter must be established on the basis of at least 2 or 3 witnesses; e.g., see Deut. 17.6; 19.15).
Together these two images portray (what is called) the church militant–i.e., the church in conflict with a dark world. In the first image she defends herself through worship (more on that another time perhaps). In the second image she defends herself through witness.
This second image, which is the bulk of chapter 11, functions not unlike one of Jesus’ parables. After drawing attention to the sufficiency of this witness, the voice speaking (probably Jesus’ own) highlights the clothing they are wearing:
“And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
Sackcloth is the attire for mourning, for grieving and lament. The patriarch Jacob, upon learning of his beloved son Joseph’s (supposed) death, “put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days.”
But sackcloth is the garb for not only mourning in the face of tragedy; it is for mourning in the face of transgression. To the prophet Jonah’s great disappointment, the wicked Ninevites actually listened to his preaching, such that “a fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” When various cities of Judea had responded with unbelief to Jesus’ miracles and message, he declared that, if the ancient (gentile) cities of Tyre and Sidon had seen such wonders, they would have “repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
So sackcloth is a sign of mourning in the face of both tragedy and transgression. What is the connection between these two? Simply this:
All transgression is tragic.
A proper response to sin is certainly indignation, because it is evil-doing. Another proper response is understanding, because we ourselves are evil-doers. But, as I’ve written about elsewhere, the church’s first response to sin within her and around her is grief. Why?
Because sin dominates us; we become its slaves, dragged away by our desires. Sin defiles us; we become dirty, tainted, adulterated. Sin derails us; we become lost, storm-tossed, aimless. Sin debilitates us; we become chronically sick, crippled, even paralyzed. Sin destroys us.
And who is the “us” that sin dominates, defiles, derails, and debilitates? Those who are fearfully and wonderfully made, created in God’s image, unique in temperament, gifts, and perspective. Sin is tragic.
Therefore, Jesus has appointed his witnesses to be dressed in sackcloth. Yes, they are to be a prophetic witness. But the prophetic–i.e., authoritative declarative and confrontational–character of that witness begins, and continues, with both repenting and lamenting.
If we are to be a witnessing church, we must be, first and foremost, a weeping church.
And what would lead the people of God to weep, as Jesus has appointed them to do?
The same thing that led Jesus to weep for the people of God: love.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who will the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks, and you were not willing.”