The Rev. Vernon Johns might not be as instilled in the American consciousness as other names in the civil rights movement. But before the Rev. Martin Luther King led the boycotts and before Rosa Parks took that famous bus ride, Johns was paving the way with prophetic words and courageous acts. He did so from the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Johns did not shy away from provocative themes with sermon titles like “Segregation after Death,” or “Constructive or Creative Homicide.” However, none were as controversial as “It is Safe to Murder Negroes.” This sermon was in response to a series of local murders. One story was of a white man who saw a black man running down the street. The man went into the house and returned with a double-barreled shotgun. After fatally shooting the black man, the white man claimed, “If he was a running, he must have done something.”
Vernon Johns preached this sermon while grand jury for this case was in session. A grand jury which later decided “no-bill.”
Johns’ words come to mind in the wake of both the recent non-indictments of white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men. There have been many deaths of black boys and men at the hands of law enforcement across the country. These issues are further complicated by historical, systematic and cultural practices that perpetuate violence and devalue human life. I concur with Johns’ pressing imperative, “[We] recognize that we live in the midst of people who are determined to fix upon us a contemptuous and contemptible estimate of ourselves. In other words, it is up to us to save us!”
At a time when the sensibilities and humanity of African Americans were under attack, Johns sought prophetically to challenge the fears and consciousness of black folk while championing the collective spirit of protest. “No man is fit to be alive until he has something for which he would die,” he would say. “We Negroes need to resolve that we will not be forever hired out and forever sold out and forever bought out.”
When Israel was in Egypt’s land
The Hebrew midwives narrative in Exodus 1:15-21 highlights an indecent human proposition.
Shiphrah and Puah, under government sanctions, are enlisted to participate in extermination of Hebrew boys. This systematic exercise was in keeping with the historical precedent of disfranchising and dehumanizing the Israelites. When legalized segregation, slavery, economic suppression and cultural assimilation all failed, the government — by executive order — sanctioned strong enforcement through excessive militarized and deadly force to police the Hebrew community. Justifiable homicide was made politically expeditious and socially acceptable in response to the presupposed threat Hebrews boys posed.
Hence, Shiphrah and Puah are left to wrestle and reconcile the ethical question of their day. Do they remain accountable to values and practices of their faith? Or do they ensure their personal livelihoods, maintain political affiliation and advance the sovereignty of the state? These women had relationships that spanned cultural and geographical lines. Yet, they had to decide whether their family and community prosperity was greater consequence than another. Shiphrah and Puah had to decide whether to pray or protest.
Truth told, as Christians we are confounded in similar ways every day. Situations like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, kidnapping of Nigerian girls, immigration reform, the comprehensive global response to Ebola and so on create ethical challenges. Important to understand is our day-to-day living remains answerable to our faith.
Our faith should both reflect on and respond to realities of our history, systems and cultural experiences. An exercise that questions how we actually “are” in the world and the daily decisions we make is formally defined by the academy as Christian ethics. Shiphrah and Puah, according to Scripture, called it “living in fear of God.”
They used a politically incorrect word to do it. Hence, the midwives response, “…Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Puzzled? Contrary to contemporary application, the term Hebrew has historically a wider and deeper meaning. Hebrew across the years and First Testament narrative was an outsider’s identification of the Israelites. And Israelites use the term when speaking about themselves to outsiders! Bernhard Anderson suggests, “Unlike ‘Israel,’ however, ‘Hebrew’ does not imply a sense of communal solidarity. There were Hebrews who were not members of the Israelite community. Simply put, Hebrew here is a reference to displaced and disinherited persons rather than to a specific ethnic group.
The example of Shiphrah and Puah is interesting. Scholarship is not definitive about whether either woman was Egyptian or Hebrew. Their names were Semitic, meaning they were in relationship with those who could speak their language, understand their expressions, and empathize with their experience. Scripture purports that women feared God. Possibly, the midwives responded in the manner in which they did because, like Howard Thurman, they recognized “hatred does not empower, it decays. Only through self-love and love for one another can God’s justice prevail.”
Lessons from defying pharoah
Obviously, Shiphrah and Puah sought vigilance over violence. They exercised discipline over destruction. They realized there is credence for the practice of prayer as protest and protest as prayer. The midwives epitomize how God-fearers should respond faced with longstanding, systemic and culturally oppressive realities. When faced with having to do the right or righteous thing, they elected righteousness — being in right-alignment with God’s will and way. The women were divinely defiant, diplomatic and destined in their redress.
Divine defiance is agitating or acting against legacies, systems and the practices that challenge our faith life. Defiance is a spiritual call to being antithetical to the world’s kings. Theirs was diplomacy that created a unique relational exchange. The midwives, as should we, sought ways to be righteously defiant while engaging in tough conversations. Also, each was fearfully faithful in confronting and speaking truth to power. Shiphrah and Puah expressed to Pharaoh what was true about the women; while calling out his privilege and prejudice. Yes, the Hebrews were vigorous and strong. Often what makes disinherited or oppressed people strong has them despised by their oppressors.
Lastly, the midwives were divinely destined. They had clear understanding that state-sanctioned killing of Hebrew babies could result in probable demise of others. When pharaoh was done killing Hebrew boys, were girls next or Semitic people? The women recognized their destiny was interconnected with what happened to others babies.
Without their civil resistance and resoluteness for the sake of the Hebrew boys, there would be no Moses for any of us. These outsiders’ acts of simple heroism echo in the prayer/protest, “Black lives matter.”
The midwives’ narrative should be enough to enlist all Christians, Americans, and humanity to a place of knowing. Acknowledge that wherever, whenever, however, whosoever is forced to live through or die from unjust and inhumane treatment, it is spiritual damning because ALL LIVES MATTER!
Johnson is pastor of Wellspring Church, a United Methodist congregation in Ferguson, Missouri. He has a doctorate in ministry.
News media contact: Heather Hahn at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]