Rise up, O God, judge the earth
by Isaac S. Villegas
July 14, 2013
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” That’s what God says to us in Psalm 82. That’s what God says to the world, to our so-called justice systems. At the end of the Psalm, we are led into a response to God’s question, which is a prayer, a cry: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth.”
This morning I heard the news that George Zimmerman was found innocent of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The argument of Zimmerman’s attorney won the jury: that Martin had done something to cause his own death, that Martin was armed and dangerous because he had weaponized the sidewalk — that’s what Zimmerman’s attorney said: that Martin turned the concrete under his feet into a weapon to beat up Zimmerman, a deadly weapon, and Zimmerman had no choice but to defend himself by shooting Martin.
If you’re black, this is scary news, like living in a nightmare, especially if you happen to be black in Florida. Because if you decide to talk a walk in a neighborhood where you’re not wanted, and you happen to give a guy who’s following you a bad look, or if you yell at the guy to mind his own business and leave you alone, and if the guy doesn’t leave you alone and you get scared because he’s stalking you, so scared that you threaten him, even though you don’t have a weapon, a gun or a knife, but you just try to frighten him away with your words, you may end up getting shot and killed, because you were walking on concrete, which means you were armed and dangerous, because sidewalks are weapons, lethal weapons, according to the attorney, and, I guess, according to the jury.
There’s so much to say, so much that needs to be said, about how guns make people do terrible things, about the injustice of the justice system, about the lingering effects of America’s original sin, racism.
I don’t know how to say it all, so I spent some time this morning reading Langston Hughes, that great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, and I listened to recordings of Malcolm X, some of his talks and interviews, to listen to what they say, to listen for what they say it means to be black here, in this country, to get a sense for the spirit of this place, of this land.
A line from Malcolm stuck with me. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope-filled March on Washington in 1963, Malcolm had this to say: “While Dr. King was having his dream, the rest of us are having a nightmare.” No one could name the nightmare like Malcolm, the nightmare he saw all around him, the nightmare of America that ended up killing him, the nightmare from which Trayvon Martin didn’t wake up.
Like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes also played with the language Martin King was using in his speeches, the language of a dream, of the American dream, full of hope and promise for a future without racism. Here’s Hughes’ poem, called “A Dream Deferred.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The Psalmist makes a similar point, but talks about an earthquake, not an explosion in the end. “All the foundations of the earth are shaken,” it says. For the Psalmist, there is no justice to be found on the earth — there is no foundation of justice, no bedrock for a fair and just and peaceful society. The earth shakes and sways, shot through with tremors, teetering at the edge of collapse under the weight of all the injustice — the same injustice that makes Langston Hughes wonder if the dream of America will explode, or has already exploded and we’re living in the aftermath.
“How long will you judge unjustly?” God asks the judges how long — how long will they, how long will we, let injustice reign on the earth? When I hear God ask “How long?” to us, I want to turn the question back to God. How long will you, O God, stand by and let injustice have its way? That’s what we hear in some of the other Psalms, “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face,” we read in Psalm 13. “How long will your enemies be exalted?” Or, as it says in Psalm 83, “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still.”
Psalm 82, the one assigned for today, ends with a prayer, a cry: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth.”
“Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” Because the justice we have here is not justice.
“Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” Because this country can’t seem to shake the legacy of slavery, of racism.
“Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” Because we confess that violence hides inside of us; I confess that I want George Zimmerman to suffer the violence of a prison, as payment for what he did.
“Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” Because we don’t know how.