Welcome to the Church of the Maladjusted
Reverend Geoff Browning
15 July 2018
Last month I attended our General Assembly in St. Louis. The very first event I went to there was a service of celebration for those who had just been released from jail in Washington, DC for civil disobedience on the steps of the Supreme Court. Those on the dais included the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, Rev. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edminston, Co-Moderators of the PCUSA, Rev. Jimmy Hawkins, Director of the Office for Public Witness in DC and Rev. Liz Theoharis, Co- Moderator of the Poor People’s Campaign. If you know anything about the PCUSA, you know that we are not known for being very racially diverse, we are lily white and suddenly 3 of the 5 people on the dais are African Americans and it is clear that something different is going on here. Jimmy Hawkins and Liz Theoharis had just gotten out of jail. J. Herbert introduced the group saying that these people have been in jail because they are doing God’s work, Christ’s work. And Liz, a Presbyterian minister, gave a moving message about the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. And then she said something that became a repeated mantra throughout the week of the assembly; she said “I have never been more proud to be a Presbyterian.” I heard that over and over again throughout the week.
The passage from the prophet Amos is one that we are probably all familiar with. It is the one that Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed so loudly and often that Dr. King is often cited as the author rather than the prophet Amos. But the context for this passage is just as important for us today as it was for Dr. King in his day and Amos in the 8th century b.c.e. Amos was complaining about the growing inequality that allowed the wealthy to trample the poor under foot, deprive them of food and yet build for themselves homes built out of stone. So Amos declares on God's behalf that he despises their religious festivals, burnt offerings, offerings of grain and even their beautiful music. Amos is reminding us that religious practices separated from justice and righteousness, is just empty religiosity. But let justice roll down, not like the drip, drip, drip of trickle down economics, but like a flood that overwhelms and sweeps away injustice and inequality.
Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. William Barber are co-moderators of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. The PPC is a campaign that Dr. King had planned before he was assassinated because he knew that in spite of the successes of the civil rights movement, in order to make real and lasting change, they needed to meet the needs not just of the poor blacks in the country, but all the people who are suffering under the weight of economic oppression. So Revs Barber and Theoharis believe that the time is right, and not only right, but urgent that we challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.
We know that in the world’s richest country, the richest country in the history of the world, there is no excuse why children should be hungry, people to lack health insurance, be burdened with student debt or have to choose between paying for food or paying their rent. And yet we know that there are 140 million Americans who are poor or low income which includes more than 50% of all children. 32 million people still lack proper health insurance, 40% of Americans have taken on debt because of medical issues and it is the number one cause of bankruptcy. We know that 44 million people are carrying student debt of $1.34 trillion.
Last month a study done in all 50 states concluded that a full-time minimum wage worker could not afford a 2-bedroom apartment anyplace in our country. All of the major low wage corporations are fleecing tax payers billions of dollars by under-paying their employees and expecting the workers to make up the difference with public assistance. One study concluded that Walmart pays its employees so little that they qualify for up to $6.2 billion in public assistance. A Walmart worker getting paid $10/hr at full-time with two or more members of his/her household would qualify for 8 different public assistance programs. That is your tax money that is used to subsidize higher profits for Walmart and all the other low-wage employers.
And yet our political leaders tell us that there is room in the budget to give the largest tax cut in history to the top 1% but not enough to make sure that every person in our country is properly clothed and fed and housed. And now the president wants to make a 30% cut in food stamps for the poor.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and we have celebrated the life and ministry of Dr. King. One of his most powerful publications is the “Letter from A Birmingham Jail.” He wrote this letter while he was in jail in response to a letter he received from several white Christian ministers and a Jewish rabbi criticizing him and the others for their nonviolent demonstrations against segregation. The religious leaders claimed that such demonstrations were "unwise and untimely." This letter is filled with some of the most memorable phrases of Dr. King, phrases like "justice too long delayed is justice denied," "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and many more. But the most important point of this letter is his claim that he has come to the "regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice....” He continues, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." And one of the actions of the assembly last month was to begin the process for including this beautiful and prophetic letter in our own Book of Confessions.
The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures were not mainstream ordinary people. They were quirky and quixotic with a passion for God and justice that often got them into trouble. In psychological terms, we would call them maladjusted because they refused to go along to get along. Amos is afflicted with this maladjustment to injustice to the extent that he declares that God doesn't care one bit for their religious festivals or offerings or their beautiful singing if they are not protecting the widows and orphans and the children being ripped from the arms of their mothers and fathers.
I don’t know what school of social etiquette Amos went to, but you just don’t say these things in polite company. But Amos wasn't the only one, was he? John the Baptist and Jesus, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Archbishop Romero were similarly maladjusted because they refused to be silent to the perversion of justice and the disenfranchisement of the poor and landless. Jesus was maladjusted because he chose love and compassion over injustice and cruelty. And this made him a threat to the powers that be.
As you know I was a campus minister at Stanford for 10 years. I believe that one of the reasons young people are moving away from the church today is because the church has not been standing up and speaking out on behalf of those who are in need. Part of my work was to show students a church that refuses to adjust to injustice, that refuses to turn our backs on those who are in need. Perhaps we should rename our faith community the Church of the Maladjusted. How ‘bout that for a marketing and evangelism campaign?
I'm sure I don't have to tell you how much is now at risk for our communities, our nation and even the world. At this time in our nation and in our communities, we will be presented with a choice. Will we go along to get along, or are we willing to allow ourselves to be maladjusted, maladjusted to hateful and denigrating speech of women, immigrants, other religions, those who identify as LGBTQ, and those who are undocumented? We must never allow such indignities and injustices to become normalized. We must be vigilant against policies that separate immigrant families and drive more people into poverty and increase inequality. We must be ever vigilant when they attempt to take healthcare or food aid away from millions while the lawmakers themselves continue to be covered by the most generous benefits money can buy.
But all of this requires that we become a maladjusted people, maladjusted to injustice, maladjusted to misogyny, racism and xenophobia, maladjusted to a political status quo that seeks to maximize profits over people and the environment. Dr. King famously declared that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But I would remind you, my friends that it doesn’t bend by itself like a rainbow coming to earth. No, it bends only if we grab hold of that arc together and exert the full measure of our spiritual power and practical influence. This is not a time of fear, but a time of opportunity. The scripture reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear. So may our love be perfected in the days ahead and may God help us to become the Church of the Maladjusted.