With the recent passing of Maya Angelou, we were left remembering the impact of her life. Poet. Essayist. Activist. She was entirely warm and genuine, and will remain, of course, endlessly quotable… I really respected her. And, while she sometimes spent a moment in the spotlight or was given a platform, I think her wisdom was often overlooked as well, perhaps in part because race and gender still play a major role in how many people perceive someone else's message as being "for them" or not.
Maya was a real voice in the wilderness. A champion for social justice. And she had a real prophetic spirit - she would have been good friends with ancient guys like Isaiah or Jeremiah... Jeremiah could have used a friend.
But it all reminds me of how, growing up as an Evangelical, the dominant attitude I witnessed toward issues of justice was one of apathy, or even downright mockery. Many issues - whether environmental, civic, economic - were minimized or dismissed entirely. The given reason tended to be that "we" were more interested in "heaven" and/or "eternity".
…Well isn't that convenient.
I now see this as one of the greatest flaws in the fundamentalist, Evangelical culture I grew up around. The simple reason being that Jesus does not paint the Kingdom in that way at all, nor does he keep it separate from the here and now. He is always calling us to see it, engage it, in this very moment - this very time and place. He doesn't place heaven in a box and tuck it away on a shelf somewhere.
For Jesus, it's all connected.
For Jesus, it's not like what many of us were taught by Christianity - a religion which bears his "name" always and his likeness... well... not quite as always.
I have found that when you downplay the cause of justice (and make light of those who carry it), you reveal that you are either ignorant or ruthless… or potentially both.
You are not diminishing the cause of justice; you are only diminishing yourself.
And you are not making God or salvation bigger or greater by dismissing the call of justice; you are, in fact, reducing God and salvation to the realm of the intangible and irrelevant. Your God is not like Jesus, because Jesus was very much concerned with practical needs all around him.
Maybe if you grew up in the context I did, you’ve heard someone say something along the lines of, "She's helping with a charity, but they don't share the gospel, so what's the point?" This sort of statement is generally accompanied by a sweeping judgment of the people receiving the charity, implying they're damned and on the way to hell, and no amount of food or clothing can change that... I’ve heard some pretty harsh people lay it out that way, and seen hundreds and thousands nod along in agreement to this sort of talk: “What good is clean water and food security if the person is still going to be separated from God for eternity?” And if Christians didn't go to such great lengths to cover up this stuff with sincere lament, sorrow and concern over what they’re saying, they might get called out for being mean more often. But - in addition to being mean - it's assuming and judgmental. It's bad theology. It divides "us" from "them" rather than embracing our common "we-ness".
(Hmm. “We-ness” might be an awkward term. I doubt it will catch on. It’s not to be confused with the elbow thingy.)
Again, this is not how Jesus lived or spoke. And Jesus would have never seen these separations and divisions where we do. This mindset that WE have greater matters and bigger issues to attend to? It's entirely out of sync with the narrative of scripture - a narrative which begins, by the way, with a family that became an enslaved people, and which was led out of bondage and into a new promise... Justice is the lens through which the Old Testament even takes shape. It's the call of the prophets. And it's the first thing out of Jesus' mouth when he proclaims his own mission in fulfillment of all that came before him.
This justice thing and this heaven thing? It's all connected. They don't need to be prioritized. They flow from the same connection to the same source: Love.
Maya once said, “Love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it empowers us to develop courage; to trust that courage and build bridges with it; to trust those bridges and cross over them so we can attempt to reach each other.”
She was absolutely right. But we are harder to reach when we are deliberately building up walls and drawing dividing lines and making compartments. We become a people who live in boxes. Jesus didn't model that for us. We found our way to these old, worn-out structures and definitions on our own. We were free, but freedom felt dangerous, and fear drove us to re-cage ourselves… Now what would Maya Angelou have to say about that?
That self-imposed bondage? It’s why, sometimes, when a prophetic voice comes along and says, "No, that's not what God is like; that's not what it means to know God or live in reflection of Jesus," some of us try to silence that voice. Or at least drown it out with the noise of our own propaganda... create enough static to cancel the frequencies.
I think that's why I've seen Maya called a lot of names over the years. Names meant to neatly label her, distance her, and dismiss her Voice. Attempts to make her irrelevant. Suspicions toward her character. Doubts cast toward the integrity of her faith and her salvation itself... But from the same crowd, I've seen no actual, substantive disagreements with the content of her message.
And that message isn't going anywhere.
It will live on, and grow, and yield fruit - part of the ongoing testimony of truth throughout all of human history: the song being sung throughout the cosmos; the poetry being echoed by an entire universe.
Because, like Maya said, "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them."
And she definitely lived that one out with courage.
For those of us who sway to the same rhythms Maya did, I'd say to keep that same courage with you in remembering her.
Keep singing, caged birds.
Keep singing, uncaged birds.
Just keep singing.