The Wilderness Can Heal Both Oppressed and Oppressor

Lectionary Reflections for the Second Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings for Advent 2, Year C, Dec. 7, 2003

  • Baruch 5:1-9
  • Psalm 126
  • Philippians 1:1-11
  • Luke 3:1-6

During the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960′s, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” was the clarion call for justice. The voice that was heard articulated the trials and tribulations of black suffering under an unyielding reign of white supremacy in the United States. One voice in the movement was occasionally heard more loudly than others: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who represented African Americans’ collective voices crying out in the wilderness of America’s racism.

In the inimitable rhetorical style of the African-American jeremiad tradition, King’s voice crying out in the wilderness of American racism is most remembered from his “I Have a Dream” speech. Like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus’ public ministry in this gospel, the force and the momentum of the Civil Rights movement prepared the way for King’s ministry. And like the way that John the Baptist’s public preaching is most remembered and revered in this gospel where he quotes the prophet Isaiah, King, too, quoted the same words of the prophet Isaiah. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, speaking to a crowd of over 200,000, he said, “I have a dream that one day . . . ‘every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’”

Like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus’ public ministry in this gospel, the force and the momentum of the Civil Rights movement prepared the way for Martin Luther King’s ministry.

King saw America “in the wilderness” in that time when life was divided along a color line in distinctly black-and-white terms. And the wilderness experience of the 1960′s for us Americans was due to racism.

As a geophysical reality, the wilderness was the U.S. South. And the South represented a place unsuited for human habitation. It was a place of danger, inhospitality, marauding Ku Klux Klanmen, and ongoing chaos.

During the time of King’s address, the Southern states had long systematized a peculiar brand of justice with its “separate but equal” laws that allowed for separate drinking fountains, restrooms, restaurants, hotels, etc. The South was a place where the entire country could watch African Americans being subdued by blazing water hoses or being charged by aggressive German shepherds on national television. But at night, when no one was watching, the Ku Klux Klan rode through black neighborhoods to burn their property and/or them, brandishing fire and terror as symbols of white supremacy.

However, racism did not just situate itself unabashedly in the South, it also colored life in the North, albeit differently and less visibly. And although segregationist practices directly violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government exerted little to no effort to enforce these amendments — in either North or South.

The wilderness should be used as an interpretative lens to look at reality from an involved, committed stance in light of a faith that does justice. The wilderness is where you see the face of the damned, the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the disrespected, and know that is your starting place.

The wilderness, therefore, functions as multiple sites, and it can heal us as a people — both the oppressed and the oppressor.

The wilderness should not be seen as a permanent place in which one resides or into which one falls and gets stuck, but rather as a place of transition and growth, where radical transformation can take place. It should be used as an interpretative lens to look at reality from an involved, committed stance in light of a faith that does justice. The wilderness is where you see the face of the damned, the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the disrespected, and know that is your starting place.

And for those in the wilderness, it is a space where liberation begins. The wilderness gives you the agency to effect change on your own behalf. It offers an oppositional gaze from which you can honestly critique the oppressive structures in society that keep us separated from who and what we are as the body of Christ.

Advent invites us to journey into the wilderness. It does not invite us into the wilderness to put us on a road without signposts or a road map; instead, Advent invites us to journey into the wilderness as a shared experience of struggle, discovery, enlightenment, community and liberation. It is only in a shared wilderness experience that the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” becomes many and is heard.

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