This past week and weekend, Joshua delivered the annual William Belden Noble Lecture at Harvard University and was interviewed by Professor David Gergen on a range of topics at the intersection of faith and politics.
The full text of the lecture — “Approaching the Ledge: Why America Needs a Crisis of Faith, and Why, In Order to Save Religion, We Must Be Willing to Let it Die” — is below.
Approaching the Ledge
Remarks by Joshua DuBois
William Belden Noble Memorial Lecture
April 7th, 2014
Friends, it is truly an honor to deliver the William Belden Noble lecture this evening. I want to thank the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister here in the Memorial Church, Rev. Dr. Jonathan Walton, for this extraordinary invitation.
I can think of no higher calling than the words of the bequest that accompanied the gift of this lecture from Nannie Lulee Noble: “The object of the Founder of the Lectures is to continue the mission of her husband, whose supreme desire was to extend the influence of Jesus as ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life,’ and to illustrate and enforce the words of Jesus — ‘I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’”
Leaders from Theodore Roosevelt to Senator McCarthy have responded to that charged and delivered this lecture; that’s Eugene McCarthy, not Joe — although the latter probably would have made for an interesting talk.
I’d like to begin with a brief passage of scripture, from the book of 1st Kings, Chapter 18, as we reflect on the subject, ‘Approaching the Ledge.’ The scripture reads as follows:
“Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood, but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood, but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Does anyone out there have the type of mother who knew how to make something out of nothing? The type of mom who, no matter the circumstance, never let you feel like you were anything less than worthy, or cared for, or truly blessed?
My mom, Kristy Sinkfield, was like that. Before she married my father, Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, she was a single parent, and had very little money. She came here to Cambridge from Nashville, Tennessee with my biological father, but had to flee that relationship after severe physical and mental abuse.
And so she was stuck here, in the middle of a part-time graduate program at Cambridge College, no family here to support her, a three-year-old son to take care of, scraping together whatever meager income and public assistance and social service support she could, to get by.
But I never knew we were anything less than “rich,” in every sense of that word. We had an ancient, orange Volkswagen Beetle, the older model of course, not these new Beetles you see today. And it had a hole in the floor in the passenger’s side, which we couldn’t afford to fix. But my mom told me that that hole was a ‘reverse sun roof,’ and she would encourage me to marvel at the road as it went by underneath. So I would go to pre-school and brag to my classmates about my ‘reverse sun roof’ in our car thinking, “I bet these other kids wish they had one as well!”
There was no money for extravagant birthday parties – Chuck-E-Cheese, Six Flags, the waterpark – so instead, my mom took me to the only attraction she could afford. On my birthday we went to a self-service car wash, you know, the ones where you spray your car yourself. And my mother took whatever money she had left at the end of that week and changed her dollars into quarters, inserted them into the machine, held the nozzle at the car wash and proceeded to spray me! Flabbergasted, I picked up my own nozzle and sprayed her back — and that turned into the most amazing water fight on my birthday. And I remember thinking, “I bet other kids wish their mom was this cool.”
But little did I know, as my mother was improvising a beautiful life for me out of thin air, she was also carrying a burden that nearly crushed her. The pain of the abuse and then divorce, the weight of caring for a child by herself, the sting of poverty and dodging bill collectors and praying that the lights and water would remain on and that the landlord would continue to be generous after months of unpaid rent…all of this almost sent her into a mental abyss. She knew that she had chosen a courageous path: away from the abuse, towards an education and career that would afford her a life of dignity. But in that particular time in her life, it just felt like too much.
One night at her small apartment in Jamaica Plain, with me sleeping in a bed next to her because that was all the space we had, my mother told me years later that she seriously considered ending her own life. But during that night she said that she gave God one last chance. She said, “Lord I know I’m on a righteous path, but I also know that I’m at the end of my rope. If you’re here, I need to feel you, right now. I need some touch, I need some word, I need some evidence that you’re real, and that you have a plan for me.”
She walked right up to the ledge, and demanded that the power of God fall on her, that very moment. She stretched her wounded faith as far as it would go, and gave God the opportunity to show God’s self strong.
In that moment, my mother, I believe, was a little like two prophets, one old and one new. The first was the prophet Elijah, from our text.
Elijah was a hunted man, but he was certainly no coward. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel were terrorizing the people of Israel and the prophets of God. Jezebel sought to kill every single prophet of Jehovah in Israel, and replace them with her own prophets, 450 of Baal and 400 of Ashtoreth. Jezebel murdered countless prophets of the Lord, and almost succeeded in wiping them out, with the exception of a small remnant. 100 prophets of the Lord hid in a cave, helped by a godly man named Obadiah. And then there was Elijah, who was not inclined to hide.
Elijah – against his friend Obadiah’s better judgment – sought out King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He challenged them to settle once and for all who the true God was. Elijah said to Ahab and Jezebel, bring all of your prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth together. And let’s sacrifice two bulls, one for you, and one for me. And let all 850 of your prophets cry out to your god, and my singular, lonely voice will cry out to mine. And the God who sends fire down to consume the sacrifice – that is the true God.
In their hubris, Ahab and Jezebel accepted Elijah’s challenge. Their prophets cried out. Elijah mocked them as these prophets slashed and mutilated themselves, anything to wake their sleeping gods, their blood running red on the altar. But nothing – nothing – happened.
And then Elijah stepped up. He ordered buckets of water poured on the dead bull and the surrounding wood, drenching it so that there could be no claim that any errant spark lit that sacrifice, so that there could be no mistake. And Elijah cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God…”
Like my mother, Elijah walked up to the ledge of the biggest problem he could face. He leapt off that ledge, and demanded that God show God’s self strong.
The second prophet is a man familiar to all of us, a man who preached in this very church, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We often assume, because of the impact he had on the world, that King was unwaveringly strong. But he neared his breaking points as well.
One of the darkest hours was in 1957, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although King was initially reluctant to serve as the leader and face of the movement in Montgomery, he later embraced the role. But to his surprise, the boycott, which everyone thought was going to end after a few weeks, dragged on for months. There was in-fighting in the movement, and questions of financial impropriety. King went to jail for the first time in this period, a very unpleasant experience in a North Montgomery cell. He embraced the cause, but the consequences of the cause were beginning to overwhelm. And one particular night, January 27th, 1957, it all almost came crashing down.
Someone had already thrown a Molotov Cocktail into the King home, then inhabited by King, and his wife Coretta, their daughter Yolanda, and their unborn child in Coretta’s pregnant stomach. No one was hurt during the first incident, but on January 27th King received an anonymous phone call that threatened escalation. As his pregnant wife and daughter slept upstairs, the nameless, faceless caller said to King, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess. And if you aren’t out of here in 3 days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house with your family in it.”
Those words sent King crashing down. As David Garrow shares in his brilliant book, Bearing the Cross, King said at that moment, “I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.” He cried out to God saying “Lord I know I’ve chosen the right battle, but I don’t know that I have the weapons to fight.” He said, “God if you’re here, and if you want me here, I need you to give me a sign.”
It was a night of encompassing darkness. The giants that King had decided to face were towering over him, and appeared on the edge of victory over him, and King was on the verge of defeat.
In that moment, facing that great challenge, he said “God, you are the only thing I have left. Be real now, or don’t be real at all.” King was confronting the most existential problem in the country, the problem of Jim Crow. He walked right up to the ledge of that problem – and leapt. Giving God the opportunity to show God’s self strong.
So my mother, Kristy, approached the ledge, and sought God’s intervention to heal her life and that of her family. Elijah approached the ledge and leapt out there, seeking God’s intervention to rain down fire and destroy the idols of the land. King approached the ledge and jumped, saying, “God, I believe you can save me, and not just me; but also my people from the ravages of subjugation and discrimination.”
But today, our courageous, moral leaders seek God’s intervention for…
And contraceptive pills. And whether the movie Noah is an accurate depiction of the story of the Ark.
You may think I’m being too glib. But let me explain.
I have spent much of my career at the intersection of religion and politics, examining how and why and when God’s name, and God’s power are invoked in the public square. From the United States Senate to a presidential campaign to the White House, and now as an activist and chronicler of these very subjects.
And if there is one gnawing sadness that I have about the contemporary state of religion in America, it is that instead of seeking God for the big things, the nearly impossible things, the things that would require a stretching of faith nearly to the breaking point, require a strong God – far too many religious people have instead made God so infinitesimally small.
For example, my conservative friends have become known in the world for seeking God’s intervention on behalf of their own parochial causes. Whether executives at the sandwich chain, Chic-Fil-A, should be able to oppose same-sex marriage. What types of contraceptive pills should be provided by religious employers. Whether Christian bakers should have to bake cakes for gay weddings.
While so many evangelical and Catholic churches are doing tremendous work — healing the sick, feeding the hungry, sharing the Gospel – these narrow issues are the ones that they rally around in the public square. That they mobilize around. That define the Church in the public square. These are the altars they’ve chosen, where they’ve asked for God to rain down.
And it’s not that these issues are not important – certainly there should be debates over religious liberty and the like – but they are not of eternal importance. They don’t cause more souls to be saved or wounds to be healed; in the words of Isaiah 42:6, they don’t “lead the blind by ways they have not known” or “turn the darkness into light” or “make the rough places smooth.”
And that may be one of the reasons that clergy are held in lower regard today than at any point in recent history. Last year, for the first time since the Gallup Poll started asking the question, fewer than half of Americans – only 47% — believe that clergy hold high moral and ethical standards, and our citizens, especially young people, are leaving the church in droves.
And that is the great tragedy. No souls are being saved through these political battles; if anything, people are being driven away. Even if conservatives win the wars that they are fighting, there will be no great rejoicing among the heavenly host, the type of rejoicing that occurs, according to the Gospel of Luke, when even one sinner comes to repentance. There will be no angelic applause in heaven at the conclusion of these political wars. We’d be lucky to hear a polite golf clap!
But it’s not just conservatives who are avoiding the big leaps off the big ledges into the arms of a Big God. Too many of my progressive religious friends have played it safe as well, making their God equally small.
I have attended countless liberal congregations where the Bible has been replaced with a Chomsky Reader, and the blood of Christ with the fruit punch of politics. Churches that have lost their first love, lost the capacity to introduce a hurting, broken world to the healing grace of God. Churches that no longer remind us of our sin nature, and the power of Christ to conquer sin.
And this would be more forgivable if at least we got the social justice end of things right. But unfortunately the left is full of prophetic voices, with pathetic follow-through.
Martin Luther King approached the problem of Jim Crow and the throne of God with a plan, a team, and capacity to bring about change. Before Elijah cried out to God he had thought this thing through; he had arranged all of the details, the bull, the altar, the wood, the water…all he needed was for God to send that fire.
But among so many of our prophetic voices today, we don’t think beyond a single tweet, a sermon, a rally, or a meeting. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have lived and died, and, for example, the Black church still has no coordinated national response to Stand Your Ground.
We have stayed in places that are comfortable for us – allowing our rhetoric to resound and circulate within the stained glass confines of our churches. But no walls have crumbled because of our shouts. 1 Corinthians tells us that the “weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but they are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” But the progressive church has not deployed these mighty spiritual and organizational weapons, aimed at the most oppressive strongholds of our time.
And it’s not just our religious leaders on the right and left who have avoided the big ledges, making the big requests of a big God. The same can be said of us, as individuals, as well.
We have made God small. We have cried out to God largely for our personal comforts and our pleasures and the security we desire God to bring into our life. In fact, the great majority of our contemporary religious discourse is built around these pedestrian requests.
‘Oh God, reveal my personal purpose, by which I mean my next job.’ ‘Oh Lord, give me a promotion, and multiply my bank account, and make sure my aching knee is quickly healed.’
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these requests. We all make them. But they are objectively self-centered; they are petitions that have God operating at the lowest level of God’s ability and license.
And I believe that perhaps the reason that our discourses with God are so individualistic, so safe, is that we are afraid of what would happen if we put ourselves, and put God, in situations that would require much more of God.
What if we asked God to speak into seemingly insurmountable problems, in our own lives, and the lives of this nation and this world? Challenges that are beyond our ability to discern the solution, problems that require us to put our good name, our future, even our faith on the line?
We’re afraid that we could not handle the sound of God’s silence. That if the answer does not come, and we are not saved, and the fire does not rain down, then our good names, our futures, even our belief in God might shatter.
But what if this was not the case? What if we were not gripped by this fear? What if we made a habit of walking up the ledge, putting our faith on the line and demanding that God shows up?
What if we walked up to the ledge of the debate over sexual ethics – not issues like Chic-Fil-A but the real divide that we know exists in America – and demand that God show God’s self strong? The two sides are clear. On the one hand, we have the LGBT community and their countless supporters and allies, who know deep within that gays and lesbians are of equal value and worth and dignity as anyone else, that their relationships are rooted in love and meaning, and that God loves them for who they are. On the other hand, we have sincere, Bible-believing Christians who point to the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and Romans and say that because of these words they cannot allow themselves to sanction gay relationships.
We know these two sides exist. We know the gap between them seems immeasurably wide. But who among us will be bold enough to walk up to this ledge and jump off? Saying God I know that you can resolve this, and I am committing myself to a sustained effort to close this gap, but I need you to show up, God, and show yourself strong?
What if we walked right up to the ledge of race in our country? Race, which still sends young men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and countless others to their deaths? Race, which still has pervasive and nefarious effects on the type of education our young people receive, the makeup of our labor markets, the composition of our neighborhoods? Race, which drives radically different perceptions of everyone from our President to the young men and women on our street corners?
What if we committed ourselves to a serious, careful project of bridging these divides, knowing that our own commitment would not be enough but that God would have to come into this broken history and poisonous present and show God’s self strong? What if we walked up to that high ledge, and jumped?
What if we walked up to the ledge of the growing numbers of our people who are alienated from the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The 32% – fully one-third – of young adults under 30 who have no religious affiliation at all now, because they feel that religion is no longer relevant to their lives? What if those of us who know the power and value of a relationship with the eternal God, and the cleansing effect of our sins being nailed to the cross, committed ourselves to these people? Knowing that our own commitment would not be enough, but still approaching that ledge and leaping anyway, saying God, show yourself strong!
Or maybe it’s not one of those three things – sexuality or race or the Gospel – but it’s that other, gnawing purpose that you have in the pit of your stomach? The thing that seems too big, too bold, requiring too much of a shift, too much of an intervention from God? The bold statement, the new vocation, the relationship that you know you need to mend – your great ledge?
What if we trusted God enough to take that leap into the uncertain darkness?
Now, you may say: I don’t have one of those things right now. I don’t have a God-sized problem that needs a major intervention, a ledge to approach.
Well, my answer is: come alongside, and support someone who does. Support the heroes and moral giants who are taking these leaps every day. Join the Dream Defenders in Florida, the radical, category-defining young people who are challenging ‘Stand Your Ground.” Pitch in for the Nuns on the Bus, traversing the country seeking justice for our nations’ immigrants. Journey with the International Justice Mission, the evangelical organization freeing modern slaves from the grasp of traffickers, or with Pastor Joel Hunter on his global trips to free Christians locked in prisons around the world. Or go right up the road to Lynn, Massachusetts, and hang out with the old radical street preacher, Pastor Claire from Straight Ahead Ministries, who’s helping young men and women get out of gangs and into a better life.
This may not be a season where it’s time for you to face your own ledge, your own moral problem that requires a God-sized solution. But it certainly is that season for someone else, and your support can help them soar.
And they will often soar. Just as our prophets did. Elijah trusted God, and leapt, and God sent that fire. Scripture tells us that, “a pillar of fire rained down from heaven, and burned the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and licked up every bit of water in the trench.” And the idols and the false prophets were vanquished. And the people knew that God was God.
And Martin Luther King leapt as well. He jumped right into the thick of the Jim Crow south, experiencing that dark night on January 27th, and God showed up. King said that evening that he felt the direct touch of God. He said, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the earth.” And at that, King concluded, “My fears began to go and my uncertainty disappeared.”
And my dear mother leapt as well, into the arms of a waiting God. At the end of her rope that terrible night in Jamaica Plain, she trusted that God would be there. And in an experience that she never felt before and hasn’t felt since, my mother, who is not prone to exaggeration, said that she felt the physical presence of a hand on her shoulder, so firm that it startled her, and so clear that she wondered if someone had come into the apartment. And at that moment a wave of peace rushed over her body, and she knew that she, and we, would be OK. So instead of ending her life, that night, her life began. She gave me a kiss goodnight as I slept, and she determined to fight on.
But, you might ask, what happens when God does not show up? What happens if God does not immediately intervene? What if you walk up to the biggest problems, the biggest ledge, and jump, and it appears that no one is there to catch you? And your good name, your reputation, your future, even your life hangs in the balance?
And that, my friends, is when we look to Jesus. And we realize that sometimes, we may even have to die for a while, if only for God’s glory to be revealed in our resurrection.
On his path to Calvary — Jesus’ great leap into the abyss for the forgiveness of our sins — Jesus did ask God to save him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to God, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” And even on the cross itself, as blood flooded his lungs, Jesus still cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But God did not come then. And thank God he did not. Because without that death, that temporary fall, there would be no resurrection, no eternal ascension.
So even if we fall for a little while, after a great and righteous leap, we will surely soar into the eternal. Even if you walk up to the ledge of a great problem and jump and hit the ground, the very imprint from your impact in the dust will be a breathtaking masterpiece that might inspires millions.
And you will be resurrected. And restored. Like Christ.
It should not be lost on us that this evening we find ourselves situated between two momentous dates. April 4th, the day that King died, and Easter, the day that Jesus lived again.
Two moral giants who were never afraid to leap, and let the heavens unfurl and open.
They took no safe paths. They refused to let themselves be defined by small things. And through their leaping, yea even their deaths, many have been temporally restored, and in the case of Christ, eternally resurrected.
In closing, there’s a poem that I included in my book of devotionals for the President, by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. I included it to remind President Obama to keep leaping into the arms of a faithful God. I’d like to read it to you; perhaps it will bless you as well.
“And something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way, deciphering that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance,
pure wisdom of someone who knows nothing,
and I suddenly saw
the heavens unfastened and open.”
Dear God, let us write the first line. Make the first move. Speak the first word. Take the firs step. Love newly, radically. Let us leap, and let the heavens unfasten, and open. Amen.