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May 11, 2017

by Dr. Lani Wilson

Good day. Know how you can tell you really need a break? When you really don’t want to take one and then when you return, you realize that you really did. Yup, that’s my story and I’m (embarrassingly) sticking to it. Gratefully, God gives us what we need, especially when you just know you don’t need it...or don’t deserve it...or don’t want it. Therefore, I remain convinced that I am still around in large part because I provide God with a lot of laughs. And I know that, personally, I make Jesus just howl.

The word that has been hanging around without the slightest change in significance is manumission. I know, I know. It’s been three plus weeks and that definitely is the word for our consideration. Origin: late Middle English: from Latin manumittere, literally ‘send forth
from the hand,’ from manus  ‘hand’ + mittere  ‘send.’
Apple Online Dictionary

But did you know that this noun is derived from the verb manumit that means to “set free” or an “historical release from slavery?” And of course, the word is not in English-speaking Bibles. However, the words “set free” are.

God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, "This is God’s year to act!"
Luke 4:18-19 (TMB)

They were indignant. "Our father is Abraham!" And yet here you are trying to kill me, a man who has spoken to you the truth he got straight from God! Abraham never did that sort of thing. You persist in repeating the works of your father." They said, "We’re not bastards. We have a legitimate father: the one and only God.” "If God was your father," said Jesus, "you would love me, for I came from God and arrived here. I didn’t come on my own. He sent me.
John 8:39-42 (TMB)

We often talk about Jesus and His choice to go to the cross; acknowledge His willingness to die for the God of the Jews. But in His own words in the above two passages, it doesn’t sound much like Jesus was free to choose. In the Lukan passage, Chapter 4, Jesus says that He has been “sent.” In fact, he claims that it is “God’s year to act!” In the Johannine passage, He states in The Message Bible translation that “I didn’t come on my own. He sent me.” Does this suggest that Jesus did NOT have a choice? Choices are funny things. We say that what we want is the opportunity, the access, the “green-light” as it were, to move on in life, regardless of what it is. But is that really all we want? Is it that we want to have what the privileged (i.e., “White”) in American society have? Is that what we want?

Interestingly, whenever I heard the rarely used word manumission, I thought it meant “enslaved” rather than “set free.” I remember it in reference to the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. The etiology of the word is from the Latin manumittere, “to send forth from the hand.” So if we are “set free,” where are we free to go? If what we want is equal access, the opportunity to try, will that be enough? If we review American racial progress by economic indicators, there is a pattern of improvement. However, what is also true is that African-Americans lag behind every other major ethnic group in every category, even though progress has been made. Almost twenty years ago, a Brookings article chronicled the improvements made since the 1940s.

Beginning in the 1940s, however, deep demographic and economic change, accompanied by a marked shift in white racial attitudes, started blacks down the road to much greater equality. New Deal legislation, which set minimum wages and hours and eliminated the incentive of southern employers to hire low-wage black workers, put a damper on further industrial development in the region. In addition, the trend toward mechanized agriculture and a diminished demand for American cotton in the face of international competition combined to displace blacks from the land. As a consequence, with the shortage of workers in northern manufacturing plants following the outbreak of World War II, southern blacks in search of jobs boarded trains and buses in a Great Migration that lasted through the mid-1960s. They found what they were looking for: wages so strikingly high that in 1953 the average income for a black family in the North was almost twice that of those who remained in the South. And through much of the 1950s wages rose steadily and unemployment was low. Thus by 1960 only one out of seven black men still labored on the land, and almost a quarter were in white-collar or skilled manual occupations. Another 24 percent had semiskilled factory jobs that meant membership in the stable working class, while the proportion of black women working as servants had been cut in half. Even those who did not move up into higher-ranking jobs were doing much better.
Black Progress: How far we’ve come, and how far we have to go, The Brookings Institution, Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom Sunday, March 1, 1998

This article cited these statistics as if there were no significant social-cultural factors such as White racism influencing the outcomes. It counted only those people free to work, those not imprisoned or drug-addicted or homeless. In other words, it did not count those who have fallen out of society. No doubt, things are not as they were 70 years ago. However, the persistence of lagging statistics for African-Americans in every category measurable is a tale outside of numbers, of measurements. How do you measure a broken spirit? How much does it weigh? How do you measure the energy it takes to drag that broken spirit forward when it gets dragged backward over and over and over again?

In 2006 The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported variable progress in college graduation rates.

But a more important statistical measure of the performance of blacks in higher education is how many black students throughout the nation are completing school and earning a college degree. Department of Education data reveals that, as expected, black students who earn a four-year college degree have incomes that are substantially higher than blacks who have only some college experience but have not earned a degree. Most important, blacks who complete a four-year college education have a median income that is near parity with similarly educated whites. According to the most recent statistics, the nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at an appallingly low rate of 42 percent. This figure is 20 percentage points below the 62 percent rate for white students. Here, the only positive news we have to report is thatover the past two years the black student graduation rate has improved by three percentage points.
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show,” 2006.

Here is a similar update in the same journal in 2017.

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center examines the racial gap in degree attainments at U.S. colleges and universities. Nationwide, 62.4 percent of all students who entered a four-year college in the fall of 2010 had earned a bachelor’s degree by 2016. However, there were significant differences by race. More than two thirds of White students, 67.2 percent, earned their degree within six years. This was more than 21 percentage points higher than the degree completion rate for African Americans, which stood at 45.9 percent. For African American men, the rate was even lower at 40.0 percent.
New Report Confirms the Large Racial Gap in College Completion Rates, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Degree Attainments, Racial Gap, Research & Studies, May 1, 2017

So what can these statistics tell us that we don’t already know at street level? If a college education is the gateway to some kind of freedom, what does that gate look like now? Between 2006 and 2016 was the second greatest economic catastrophe to rock the world economy in 100 years. African-Americans were the hardest hit economically of any group in the country while experiencing the largest incarceration rate of any people on the planet. And what do we want? What are we free to want? And in the most profoundly open era of racial and oppressive bigotry since the mid-twentieth century crowned by the election of a confirmed racist, misogynist, amoral capitalist to the highest political office in the world, where are we free to go now?

Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. "If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you."
John 8:31-32 (TMB)

This interchange between Jesus and His own people, albeit the Jewish elite who were trying to kill him, is one of the classic moral arguments regarding the nature of freedom and who is or is not free.

Surprised, they said, "But we’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. How can you say, ’The truth will free you’?" Jesus said, "I tell you most solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can’t come and go at will. The Son, though, has an established position, the run of the house. So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through.
John 8:33-36 (TMB)

Jesus is taking the time to go back and forth, point to counterpoint, trying to reason with an unreasonable people, people with an agenda. It is a lovely thing to regale The Nazarene engaging enemies He knows He will allow to kill Him.

The Jews then said, "That clinches it. We were right all along when we called you a Samaritan and said you were crazy-demon-possessed!"
John 8:48 (TMB)

How often do we vilify those who try to point out the unpleasant realities in the lives of people with whom we no longer identify or never wanted to identify?

Jesus said, "I’m not crazy. I simply honor my Father, while you dishonor me. I am not trying to get anything for myself. God intends something gloriously grand here and is making the decisions that will bring it about. I say this with absolute confidence. If you practice what I’m telling you, you’ll never have to look death in the face."
John 8:49-51 (TMB)

Liz Theoharis reminds us of the secular status of The Nazarene.

Stephen Patterson has proposed that Jesus fits into the category of those most exploited and oppressed by the empire: “In the gospels, canonical and noncanonical, and in Paul—in the broad memory and praxis of the early church—Jesus is recalled as living outside the system of brokered power and economy of Rome’s Empire.” Patterson asserts that the company that Jesus kept was poor and expendable, and, by association, he may have fit into this category himself. “Jesus knew expendability, he knew expendables, and he invited those who had not fallen out of the Roman system of brokerage and patronage to step out voluntarily and to become part of a new thing, the Empire of God.” In Matthew 8:20, Jesus says that he has nowhere to lay his head. This most likely is a statement that Jesus himself is homeless. At his burial, Jesus is too poor to have his own tomb; instead, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich disciple of his, claims Jesus’ body for placement in his own tomb (Matt. 27:57–60).
Liz Theoharis, The poor we have with us. Christian Century, 134(9), 26, 2017, pg.27.

Is it possible for us to admit to our young people who have had the Golden Egg of Prosperity dangled in front of them in the past 40 years that we might have – accidentally and unwittingly, of course - lied to them? That we told them that an education and marching up the blighted ladder of American excellence and excess to position, procurements, pious church placement, and other Golden-California-Poppy dreams would make them happy – or at least happier than any generation before them?


And why wouldn’t it be alright for our children and their children to live better lives than we or our parents? Of course, it is natural that this should be, especially since the dominant majority have had it so for over 400 years. So what’s the problem?

After an unnamed prophetess anoints him to be ruler of God’s kingdom, Jesus responds by quoting to his disciples from Deuteronomy 15:11, which is embedded in one of the most radical Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions in the Bible. Deuteronomy 15 says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow the commandments of God: to forgive debts, release slaves, and lend money even when you know you won’t get paid back. But Deuteronomy 15 also says that because people will not follow those commandments, there will always be poor among you. When Jesus quotes this phrase, he isn’t condoning poverty. He is reminding us of Deuteronomy’s message: that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, by outlawing slavery, and by restructuring society around the needs of the poor. Therefore, Jesus’ words are a critique of empire, charity, and inequality. Rather than stating that poverty is unavoidable and predetermined by God, he says that poverty is created by human beings—by their disobedience to God and neglect of their neighbor. Matthew 26:11 does two things: it refers to people’s failure to follow God’s law and commandments, and it instructs us on how to establish a reign of prosperity and dignity for all. In God’s kingdom, there will be no poor because poverty (and perhaps wealth?) will not exist.
Ibid., 26.

Apparently, God as Mother has sent her Son to earth to remind human beings that there is suffering because of our own behavior; there is poverty because we allow it; there is poverty because we neglect it. Yes, He came to fulfill the Law and the Law of the Hebrew Bible says that we must not neglect those who are impoverished, imprisoned, and impaled on the crushing spear of economic exceptionalism.

At this point the Jews said, "Now we know you’re crazy. Abraham died. The prophets died. And you show up saying, ’If you practice what I’m telling you, you’ll never have to face death, not even a taste.’ Are you greater than Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you think you are!" Jesus said, "If I turned the spotlight on myself, it wouldn’t amount to anything. But my Father, the same One you say is your Father, put me here at this time and place of splendor. You haven’t recognized him in this. But I have. If I, in false modesty, said I didn’t know what was going on, I would be as much of a liar as you are. But I do know, and I am doing what he says. Abraham-your ’father’-with jubilant faith looked down the corridors of history and saw my day coming. He saw it and cheered." The Jews said, "You’re not even fifty years old-and Abraham saw you?" "Believe me," said Jesus, "I am who I am long before Abraham was anything." That did it - pushed them over the edge. They picked up rocks to throw at him. But Jesus slipped away, getting out of the Temple.
John 8:52-59 (TMB)

When you sit and think about what The Christ was really saying way back when, you might come to the conclusion that He is talking about today, this very country, this very society where we are becoming more like the society in which He grew up: Extremes in wealth and poverty. Growing numbers of us in the shrinking middle stand befuddled and afraid and not a little confused about what we should be doing while others are sure they know; sure enough to elect a man who has no moral bearing, no moral compass, save his own reflection in a warped, gilded mirror.

Matthew’s Gospel takes up the concept of Sabbath when it names Jesus as the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). The emphasis in this title on economic justice shines through when Sabbath is understood through the Deuteronomic Code. Roman lords were not interested in the well-being and prosperity of their subjects except to compel more work from them. This title for Jesus emphasizes that he is from the underside of the empire—Jesus is truly on the side of the poor; he is a leader who represents the popular struggles of the poor.
Ibid., 27.

Are we not surprised when many of our young gravitate to churches (yes, they may still believe!) that offer fewer if any trappings of formal hierarchy? That at least preach a pseudo-egalitarianism, if only for themselves and their community that sometimes numbers in the tens of thousands in one church alone? While in our own Black churches we are still promoting fashion shows and entertainment to entice those dollars to do good? Joining an African-American church is the closest thing we’ll find on this continent to joining a tribe, a people, a village like the ones we were ripped from 400 years ago. It becomes part of our identity. For us it was refuge, an incubator for soldiers to fight American racism in all its ugly forms, a source and safe spot where we could find ourselves after trudging through that other world of White America. Is it possible that we have been waiting for the wrong thing? Is it possible that the world of equality - or at least equal access – is not the freedom we thought we were fighting for? The freedom to buy anything we wanted or to travel around the world or to drive sparkling new cars or to live in shiny, Roomba-cleaned suburban homes? Is it possible that the freedom that God-in-the-Flesh was talking about was the freedom to include any and everyone who was not like us?

Reclining over this meal with his disciples, Jesus shares an open commensality: he socializes and eats with all kinds of people, including lepers and women with unknown backgrounds. Jesus stands for a kingdom/empire/realm of God that challenges the very foundations of the Roman Empire. He practices a “radical egalitarianism” that includes people of all classes, statuses, and abilities. He asserts that God’s kingdom is made up of those who are considered expendable or excluded from society. For this, Jesus is called “a glutton and a drunkard” by his contemporaries.
Ibid., 28.

Somehow, we have turned Jesus’ statement that “the poor will always be with you” into a mission to never be that poor - again or ever - and to put as much financial and geographical distance between us and the poor as we possibly can. Theoharis and other moral and spiritual leaders are telling us that it isn’t about us being individually saved that is the centerpiece of our lives as White Evangelicals have purported but about us helping others that makes us free. It is not about recruitment into membership in our churches that saves people. It is about running to help those who are helpless that sparks the engine of salvation: We are merely the cogs in the wheel that roll on out there. In the passage from John 8, Jesus tells us that by “living out” what He tells us is what will make us His. And then we will know the truth and the truth will “make us free.” Living it out will lead us to the truth. We will be handed our freedom in Him; we will be manumitted to Him, handed over to the Truth.

But the fact that it is a poor person who makes the statement that “the poor you will always have with you” is significant. Rather than a person of wealth condemning those he has impoverished to everlasting poverty, Jesus is a poor person talking about the reality and brutality of being poor and marginalized. He is not romanticizing poverty; only those who are not poor can do that. He is not pitting himself against the poor, because that distinction cannot be made in his case: Jesus also is poor. Given an understanding of the economic context of the Jesus movement, we realize it is inconceivable that Jesus would spiritualize the poverty and problems that people were facing around him. Given a longer biblical-theological arc of justice and the earthly poverty of Jesus, we see clearly his stance on the issues of his day: poverty is an abomination to God. He is a poor person who challenges the status quo and promotes justice and peace for all.
Ibid., 28-29.

There is a terrifying and painful truth arising: We may be on the brink of witnessing immense poverty and suffering greater than we’ve ever experienced since the 19th century, if we allow it. If the brand “Christian” ever stood for anything, it is going to have to truly stand for everything now. Who better to stand up than people who believe that God came to earth as an impoverished, lower class, working, Brown man Who reached in and plucked people’s souls out of their suffering to bring them to Himself? Who better to stand up and “fight that good fight” and call evil “evil” to its ungodly face? Who better to reach into the hovels and mattress-messes of homeless encampments to people who have lost their sense of respectable selves and pray to The Nazarene to come get them? Are there any other people who has a God like this and isn’t S/He the Supreme God, the Ultimate Good for all?

At the same time, he is reminding the disciples that the poor are a stand-in for him (as he established in Matthew 25:31–46, the Last Judgment). God’s children are not the rich, not the usual philanthropists or change-makers, but the poor. They are the foundation of a movement to materialize God’s reign on earth, corresponding to the new logic of God’s kingdom in their community practices. God is not only aligned with the poor but is, in fact, present in—and is of—the poor (see Ps. 14). The disciples must understand this role of the poor and of themselves as the poor. They must accept both Jesus’ untimely death and the fact that Jesus’ memory and legacy will carry on as they are sent out to build this movement and recruit for this kingdom of God.
Ibid., 29.

I don’t know if I agree with the author that His death was “untimely” or that it is His “memory and legacy” that will humble the kingdoms on earth as He did 2000 years ago. I believe that it is The Christ Himself, God-in-the-Flesh, alive and pulsing in the very moment Who will empower us to stand and withstand and stand in front of those who cannot stand. I believe it is the Living God Himself Who fights the battle. It is the manumission in Christ Jesus that fuels us. We are the people of hope who will lift the tide because we are lifted up because He already won the ultimate battle.

We praise You for your glory. We praise You for Your victory. We praise You for Your freedom. We praise You for your power. We praise You for the planet. We praise You for our souls, lost and now found. We praise You for Your Son. We weep at His feet for Your grace. We beg You for courage and discernment and favor in battle.

There is none like You.

Manumitted to Christ, I go.
Manumitted to Christ.