If One Of Us Are Chained, None Of Us Are Free
Several things weigh on my heart this week. On Thursday, March 30, Amy Bleuel,age 31 died.
Amy began a worldwide movement to empower people with mental illness, addictions and suicidal thoughts. It is called Project Semicolon. Said Amy, “In literature, an author uses a semicolon to not end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going.” People drew or had a semicolon tattooed on their wrist or arm as a reminder to keep going. Amy succumbed to the darkness and died of suicide Thursday. Yet, she improved the lives of many throughout the world.
Earlier in the week veteran White House reporter April Ryan asked the Press Secretary a reasonable and important question. Instead of answering the Press Secretary lit into her, demeaned her, told her to “stop shaking your head,” leaving most in the press room shaken and bewildered. April is a woman and she is African-American. On another channel, a morning show anchor asked to comment on a floor speech by U.S. Representative Maxine Waters responded, “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.” Ms. Waters is a woman and African-American. Even after a tepid apology later in the day the same anchor made even more disparaging and demeaning comments about her.
I often try hard to stay away from this kind of thing, but as with the prophet Jeremiah there is sometimes “a fire in my bones” that must come out. As we have spent five weeks of Lent exploring what it means to be “the light of the world” in a world of darkness, when the darkness continues to assert itself, especially against women, I find myself recalling a song I first heard in 2002 on the Grammy winning Don’t Give Up On Me album by Solomon Burke: “None of us are free/None of us are free/None of us are free/If one of us are chained/None of us are free.”
Some of the lyric goes on, “And there are people still in darkness/And they just can't see the light/If you don't say it's wrong then that says it right/We got try to feel for each other, let our sister’s know that we care/Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.” These assaults on women are wrong. And Solomon Burke, and Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell who wrote the song are right: if I don’t say it’s wrong “that says its right.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness (John 3). The Samaritan Woman at the Well lives in the darkness of her broken life (John 4). The Man Born Blind lives in darkness (John 9). And now in chapter 11, Lazarus lies dead, wrapped in cloths, in a tomb – the ultimate darkness. His sisters Martha and Mary call for their friend Jesus, the light of the world, while Lazarus was still sick. Jesus intentionally delays going so that the “glory of God” can be revealed. So that the long held promise of resurrection to new and eternal life with God is not a promise far off but instead for those who walk in the way of Jesus resurrection is a very present reality here and now.
When Jesus finally decides to go the disciples attempt to restrain him. There are people in Judea, officials both religious and civil, who wish to kill him. In fact, immediately after Lazarus comes out of the tomb and Jesus declares, ‘Unbind him, and set him free,’ the forces gather outside and decide that it is ‘better that one man die than that Rome come to destroy us and all of Jerusalem with us.’ In fact, by the time John’s gospel was completed this had come to pass. The darkness is great. Over a million of Jesus’ fellow Jews were killed and Jerusalem and its Temple burned to the ground in that first Holocaust.
So-called Doubting Thomas rises to the occasion to say, “Let us go with him that we may die with him.” Those of us who know the rest of the story know that in fact the disciples scatter and hide at the sight of their Lord on the Roman Cross. Yet, in John’s gospel Jesus’ last act on the cross is to “hand over his spirit,” the spirit that is the Light of the World.
Lazarus’ story may be even more powerful as a metaphor – a metaphor for whatever darkness grips our souls and grips our land. Whether it is mental illness, or demeaning women and people of color; whether it is facing cancer or the loss of a loved one as Martha and Mary experience in this story, there is darkness of all kinds. We are all Lazarus. And the devil, Satan, who began our season of Lent with temptations, is still hard at work. To deny this is to be asleep – itself a metaphor for death, be that spiritual death or literal death. It all has to do with allowing the darkness to have its way with us. Or, not.
We make three renunciations in our Baptism: We renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God; We renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; We renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.
But do we? Do we renounce these signs of ever present darkness? Do we choose to repent, to turn about, and become the Light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness and which, according to John’s gospel, the darkness did not overcome?
We might think this stuff is primitive, talking about Satan and personifying evil, but then look at the Veterans we send to war who cannot get seen at the VA, or get a job, or shake the mental torment of PTSD. Look at the women and girls sold into sex-trafficking, or bullied in school or online, or disrespected on national television. Look at the growing numbers of our fellow citizens in all walks of life addicted to opioids, in part as a result of pharmaceutical marketing schemes that minimized their dangers. When does a people declare that it is time to become light and renounce the darkness we see all around?
One last note. The text says “and Jesus was greatly disturbed” as he approaches the tomb. Twice. The translators spare us from what the text really says. The word means agitation, indignation, even anger. It even can mean he snorts in anger. Jesus snorts! He is agitated and indignant and angry with the darkness that Lazarus’ death represents. That the people around him are willing to allow darkness to continue. He is snorting mad he is so “disturbed.”
“Unbind him, and set him free.” “None of us are free, if one of us are chained, none of us are free.” To walk in the Light of Christ, to become a “child of the light,” means to allow ourselves to become snorting mad with the indignities and difficulties and sadnesses we witness all around us. As that contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, put it so well: If we are for ourselves alone, then who are we? And, if not now, when?
Amy Bleuel, April Ryan, Representative Maxine Waters. Unbind them, and set them free. None of us are free, if one of us are chained, none of us are free. While Satan is still at work there is much for us to do as Children of the Light.