1At the beginning of God’s creating of the skies and the earth, 2the world was a wild chaos, darkness over the face of Abyss, breath of God moving gently over the face of the waters. 3God said “Light!” and there was light. 4God saw the light. Ki Tov! Oh, how good! God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called to the light: “Day!” and to the darkness called: “Night!” Sunset, dawning, one day. 6God said: “A dome, amidst the waters!” and “Separate waters from waters!” 7God made the dome and separated the waters that were below the dome from the waters that were above the dome. It was so. 8God called to the dome: “Skies!” Sunset, dawning, second day. 9God said: “Waters under the skies, gather!” and “Dry land, appear!” It was so. 10God called to the dry land: “Earth!” And to the gathering of the waters called: “Seas!” God saw. Ki Tov! Oh, how good! 11God said: “Earth, grow grass! Grow plants that bear seeds! Grow trees that bear fruit upon the earth!” It was so. 12The earth brought forth grass, plants that bear seeds, after their kind, trees that bear fruit, in which is their seed, after their kind. God saw. Ki Tov! Oh, how good! 13Sunset, dawning, third day. 14God said: “Lights in the dome of the skies, separate the day from the night! Stand for signs, for seasons, for days and years!” and “Lights in the dome of the skies, 15provide light upon the earth!” It was so. 16God made the two great lights, the greater light for ruling the day and the smaller light for ruling the night, and the stars. 17God gave them to the dome of the skies to provide light upon the earth, 18to rule the day and the night, to separate the light from the darkness. God saw. Ki Tov! Oh, how good! 19Sunset, dawning, fourth day. 20God said: “Waters, swarm with living beings!” and “Birds, fly across the earth, across the dome of the skies!” 21God created the great sea-serpents and all living beings that creep, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind and all winged fowl after their kind. God saw. Ki Tov! Oh, how good! 22God blessed them, saying: “Bear fruit, be many, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds be many on earth!” 23Sunset, dawning, fifth day. 24God said: “Earth, bring forth living beings, herd animals, creeping things, wildlife of the earth!” It was so. 25God made the wildlife of the earth after their kind, and the herd-animals after their kind, and all creeping things of the ground after their kind. God saw. Ki Tov! Oh, how good! 26God said: “Let us make a groundling, in our image, according to our likeness! Let them be responsible for the fish of the sea, the birds of the skies, animals, all the earth, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth!” 27So God created a groundling, created it in the image of God, male and female God created them. 28God blessed them. God said to them: “Bear fruit!” “Be many!” “Fill the earth!” “Control it! Be responsible for the fish of the sea, the birds of the skies, and all living things that crawl upon the earth!” 29God said: Here, I give to you all plants that bear seeds that are upon the face of all the earth, and all trees in which there is tree fruit that bears seeds, for you shall they be for eating; 30and also for all the living things of the earth, for all the fowl of the skies, for all that crawls about upon the earth in which there is living being— all green plants for eating. It was so. 31Now God saw all, everything made. Look! Ki Tov! Oh, how good! Oh, exceedingly good! Sunset, dawning, sixth day. 2:1They were completed, the skies and the earth, with all of their host. God completed on the seventh day all the work, all that was made, 2and then God ceased on the seventh day, ceased from all work, ceased from all making. 3God blessed the seventh day. God made it holy, for on it God ceased from all work that by creating God had made. 4These are the birthings of the skies and the earth. THIS is how they were created.
It matters to say his name. It matters to say all of the names. All of the names of all of the black and brown people who have been killed in police custody.
The problem is that there are too many. Far too many.
“At the beginning of God’s creating of the skies and the earth, the world was a wild chaos….”
That is maybe as far as any of us needs to go this week. “The world was a wild chaos….”
Last evening we sat on our front porch, eating dinner and watching cars drive by. Our street is fairly busy on most days. It was much busier last evening. A few blocks from our house there was a protest gathering, organized by people we know, and respect. I could not attend: my lung condition has me staying home from everything, even things that are crucially important. So we sat on our porch, eating and watching cars.
As the march started thinning out, people who were leaving the mass gathering (someone estimated there were 3800 people there) started drifting past our house. We sat on our porch and waved. They waved back. We knew some of those who drifted past our house. We thanked them for attending the gathering. They thanked us for caring. And we ate and watched cars.
It was odd. We noticed that something like 1 in every 6 cars had no license plates. We eat on the porch a lot. We had never noticed anything like this before. It was odd.
Of course we had read trustworthy reports out of Minneapolis about groups who were going from city to city, instigating and accelerating the violence that sometimes leapt out of the angry gatherings protesting the murder of George Floyd. We had read that such groups sometimes removed the license plates from their cars. We noticed that as the evening went on there the ratio become something like 1 in 3 cars had no plates.
After the sun set, and after the crowd had diminished considerably, (at least according to one person I know who was there) cars drove up and belched out young white men who started throwing rocks at the police. People who were there mentioned that police officers had, on several occasions, joined the protesters when they stopped to take a knee in intersections. People who were there joined arms and stood between the police and the people who were throwing rocks at them.
We watched all this on television. The violence became more pronounced. We went to bed around midnight, just in time to hear what probably was fireworks being shot off in our neighborhood. It could also have been small arms fire. I know that people who are experienced with firearms say they can tell the difference between the two sounds. I cannot. So we called the police, and then laid awake awhile, wondering. It was probably fireworks. Someone wanted to scare people in the neighborhood, I suppose.
Over the past while, ever since George Floyd was murdered, but (in fact) for as long as I can remember, back to when I first heard of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., people have been telling us all to be patient. Read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” again.
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963
Over the past while, people have also been telling us to be patient with looting and arson and violence. Sometimes these people have found a different quotation from Dr. King: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Some of the people who have mentioned this quotation live in towns where no one has thrown a rock except to skip it on the surface of a very Mayberry-like lake. It is easy to urge patience when you don’t have to count cars without license plates, or wonder what the difference in sound would be between firecrackers and firearms.
Other times I have been reminded of the quotation by people who are living in the Longfellow neighborhood in Minneapolis. These people say it after coming home from a day of clearing rubble left from the riots. They say it as they prepare for a night of trying to protect neighborhood shops from attack, and they say it with the smell of smoke and teargas still hanging in the air. The quotation sounds less superficial when these people say it. You can hear the grief and deep weariness in their voices.
This morning I heard the mayor of St. Paul, MN, say “We are asking for peace, but not for patience.” I heard the same grief, weariness, and anger in his voice that I have heard in the voices of people in the affected neighborhoods, and in the voices of Malcolm and Martin.
“The world was a wild chaos….”
The storyteller recognizes a world very like ours. The world is painted as a chaos that could kill you. The storyteller uses the wild ocean as the image for dangerous chaos. As a Great Lakes boat captain once told me, “You have to remember: the lake does not care whether you live or die. The lake doesn’t care.” The world was a wild chaos.
But then the storyteller does something subtle. The storyteller blows a breath from God (in Hebrew: ruach, in Greek: pneuma, in English: breath, wind, spirit, Spirit) across the surface of the raging water. Wave crashes into wave, currents collide. And breath from God moves gently across the face of the water. To say that it moves “gently” does not imply that it moves weakly. To say that it is a breath from God establishes that it moves steadily and stubbornly, roughing up the face of the water.
The steady stubbornness matters, as does the fact that the image is of a breath, a wind. The wind can only blow in one direction at a time. And if the image gives God a mouth to blow out of, God can only blow straight ahead. Steadily and stubbornly.
That means that, for all the chaos, there is a direction to God’s blowing, a push with one aim. And I listen again to Dr. King for a sense of what that direction has to be:
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
Four days after Dr. King said these words, he was assassinated. The world has always been a wild chaos. It still is.
But the breath of God blows in the direction of justice, and justice is the only solution to the chaos of this moment. There will always be bad cops. There will always be inequalities in neighborhoods and in schools. There will always be people driving around in cars with no license plates, hoping to start a race war. The world is a wild chaos. But the steady stubbornness of the breath of God is the model for how we have to live in the middle of chaos. Protesters have turned provocateurs over to the police. Teachers continue to push back against racist assumptions; teachers continue to put books in the hands of children, books written by authors with black and brown skin, books that honor the world children actually live in.
And today on television I saw two officers restraining a protester on the ground. One of the officers had his knee square on the man’s neck. The picture echoed the murder of George Floyd. And then the other officer grabbed the knee, yanked it off the man’s neck, and forced his partner to act differently. He did not do it gently. There was no doubt as to his intention. His strength left a mark, I expect. And maybe he changed the way his partner will do his job.
The breath of God is blowing across chaos in the direction of justice. I hear it in the voices of people who live in the Longfellow neighborhood. I hear it in my students from all over the political spectrum. I hear it in these words from an honorable man who lives in Minneapolis.
Anger and anxiety can be motivators for action if we direct them effectively and the change we need to make is going to take action from significantly more white folks than have been previously engaged. AND those of us who already have been engaged need to do more. Every single goddamned day until we win. (And winning doesn’t come with justice for George Floyd. That’s one step along the path to winning, NOT the entire destination.)
The breath of God is blowing in the direction of justice. And since the breath in us is the breath of God (at least according to the rabbis and the Apostle Paul), we have to add our breath, our voices, and our steady stubborn work to make the change that needs to be made.