A light to the prisons

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Here’s the podcast.

Text: Isaiah 42:1-9

In our country, we have mastered the art of the spotlight. We’re keenly aware of exactly where the eyes of the public focus. With twenty-four hour news cycles, we immediately know what grasps the attention and the imagination of the American people. We know who’s buying what.

In this information age, it’s like we can track every click of the mouse. I mean, since so much is computerized, we have entered into a fascinating era where we’re able to tell exactly who is looking at what. I am always interested it. Everyday I check the “most viewed articles” for the Washington Post and the “most emailed articles” on the New York Times website.

For those of you who don’t keep us with these matters, the article that has been dominating the Post for the last month has been “Pentagon says 200,000 workers could receive pink slips for Christmas.” I can see why that’s a well-read piece.

Advertising dollars are tied to numbers in the audience, so it’s often important for companies to know who’s watching and who’s not. On every front, we’ve broken down the demographics. We can dissect who that consumer is: their age, gender, and ethnicity. We know what will appeal to the African-American male in his twenties as well as the white female in her sixties.

We know that the spotlight can shine on the strangest things. We have heard so much about odd celebrities, like Paris and Brittney, their shopping, driving, rehabs, and haircuts. No piece of information about these women is too small for us to consume.

Of course, we’ve seen the excitement around the political campaigns. We can see how the spotlight of inevitable winner moves from Hillary Clinton, to Barack Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to…. And with break-neck speed, we watch as the media juggles the polls and people’s opinions, and viewership.

And yet, there are times when we miss the mark on what people’s expectations are. In Iowa, after the caucus was over, I heard newscasters who seemed shocked to find out that people still care about the war in Iraq. The reporters said that nationally, the war had dropped off the radar screen. They were surprised to find out that people were still concerned.

It seemed strange to me that they were relying on polling data for this. Even when we haven’t heard much about it recently, even when our media’s short attention span isn’t focusing on it, it is not as if people could forget their husbands, wives, sons and daughters whose lives are in danger. People have not forgotten about the little girl who misses her daddy, and the boy who’s growing too fast, without any hugs from his mom. People are dealing every day with the post-traumatic stress of combat. They still care.

It was interesting just how the reporter said it. It was as if our deepest convictions could just be quickly and noiselessly switched like the channels of a television screen. Since their spotlight’s not glaring on the Middle East at the moment, they just assumed country’s attention had suddenly wandered from Iraq. They figured it was Christmas, we all had sugarplums dancing in our heads, so nobody wanted to hear news from the desert.

They got it wrong. Our attention didn’t wander, even if the spotlight had.

That’s what makes standing here unique. Because we don’t have to take opinion polls, and we can move the spotlight onto different things. And the Scriptures, they illuminate as well, showing us our paths, our calls in new directions.

The passage that Julie read is called servant song. It’s a turning point in the book of Isaiah, because the people of Israel are coming out of exile. At this point, the people need a broader vision of what God was doing, and above all, they needed some hope. The Scripture passage, in Isaiah says–

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Isaiah is speaking of a new day, and those words echo to us. They are words from a God who calls us and forms us. They tell us who we ought to be. And on this morning of new things, new membership, and new leadership, we are reminded of God’s great call and vision. We are to be people who glow, who open blind eyes, and illuminate the prisons.

Christians in every country and every nation have been called upon to be a spotlight, of sorts. It happened in the struggle for Civil Rights. I recently took a class with Paul Raushenbush, who told us a story. We know the words and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. His Birthday’s this week, on the 15th. His speeches and sermons, they stick with us, don’t they? I was born in the seventies, after he had been shot, but I can hear his resonate voice in my mind.

When we recall this time, we don’t always remember all of the other preachers who stood up in the pulpits with the same message of equality and hope. African-American ministers anchored the leadership of the movement, and there were pastors at every level of the organization. They were bravely speaking in their pulpits. And when the civil rights legislation passed, a white congressman from the South stood up and said, “It was the preachers who did us in.”

It was in the stew of the church that blind eyes were slowly and carefully opened. It was through the power of those African-American voices that the spotlight was spilled on what our country was doing. Even when it was painful and brutal and we didn’t want to see it, they knew that we had to look, or else we would have no justice. We would have no healing, as a nation. It was through our calls to hope and righteousness that our social order was overturned. “The preachers did us in.”

It makes me proud to be a preacher. To be in the church. We have been that source of illumination, in so many times. There is a sense in our communities and in our world, that we are to be concerned with the powerful, and the rich, and the beautiful. And yet, here, in this place, we turn the spotlight onto something else. We turn the spotlight onto those things that we would love to keep in the deep dark recesses of our minds. And today, we turn the spotlights on the prisoners.

We remembered another Birthday this week. One that I’m not so proud of. This is the sixth year that Guantanamo Bay military prison and detention camp has been open. When the war on terror began, we were told that this was a new kind of war. With this new enemy, the old rules no longer apply. And in the last six years, we’ve seen how painfully true those words are. We’ve seen horrific evidence of torture and abuse.

The detainees were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, because they were not considered to be prisoners of war, but enemy combatants. And the Writ of Habeas Corpus, was suspended, as about 600 people were gathered and held in Guantanamo. According to the New York Times, about 5 percent of the detainees were brought in from the battlefield. Eight percent of the detainees are classifies as Al Qaeda fighters. And 86 percent of the detainees were handed over to us, because we were offering bounties of $5,000 or $10,000. As a result, it was only a small handful who could give us useful information.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus, that’s a very basic right in our country. It’s actually a lot older than our country. It means that the executive (the king or the president) has to explain why a person has been jailed. This very basic right that protects us was suspended.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the detainees could have access to the courts, we put together a Combatant Status Review Tribunal. But new rules applied again. In this review all of the evidence against the detainee is considered to be correct, and the detainee is not allowed to see the evidence. So, the detainee cannot refute the evidence.

Of course, when these very basic rights are violated, this has damaging circumstances for all of us. I’ve spoken to military chaplains who are activists on this front because they can easily see just how this sort of thinking erodes and spreads. If the rules do not apply for our prisoners, then they will not apply for our soldiers when they are imprisoned.

But it is not only for ourselves that we as Christians take a serious look at these matters. It is for the detainees as well. It is because all the way back in the time of Isaiah, we have been called to look into those shadowy corners, the ones that our popular spotlights have neglected. And so, we, as people of God, must turn the light on the prisons. We cannot forget those who have been incarcerated without fair trial. We cannot forget those who have been abused and tortured.

For the ancient words of Isaiah, they mean different things in different contexts. They mean different things to different faith communities, but at this moment, they mean that we cannot forget those who have been detained. We cannot grow deaf to their cries and their call. For we, have been called to be a source of illumination. We have been called to move that spotlight over, in order that we might have justice, that we might have hope, and that we might have healing.

To the gory of God, our Creator,
God, our Liberator,
And God, our Sustainer. Amen.

the graffiti’s by Banksy

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