What was so remarkable about the worship service that was part of the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture events was the interweaving of theology from so many sources: 40s blues lyrics of Billie Holliday (”God Bless the Child”, in the sermon “You Can Help Yourself, but Don’t Take Too Much”), “church songs”, spirituals and gospels, Biblical Israel and 21st century North America. The service was musically and liturgically beautiful and rich, substantively theological and deeply emotional, a fusion of head and heart with an orientation toward subsequent action in the world. In other words, it was a model of what Good Worship is all about.
I’ve described it elsewhere as “luminous,” and this continues to be how it resides in my memory, taking shape as one of the all-time memorable worship services (and we all have those!) — full of light, and enlightenment.It might have been this for no other reason than Angela Smith-Peeples’ breathtaking rendition of “God Bless the Child,” completely her own, completely an offertory, and completely recontextualized as a proclamation of the word in the space of Caldwell Chapel and the service.
But then Rev. Dr. Teresa Snorton rose to speak, on Nehemiah 5:1-12, and Nehemiah’s response to the grievances announced by the people who had returned to Judea from exile. Her point by point explication of the text as a guide to the recognition of oppression by its signs is one I know I’ll refer to again and again. It strikes me as perhaps the clearest, cleanest description of oppression I’ve encountered. Her opening distinction between attitudes or individual behavior and oppression was particularly helpful: oppression is not a single act or a single activity, but what happens when institutions embrace those acts and activities of prejudice, discrimination, injustice. Oppression is when injustice becomes the norm, when “society begins to accept that this is the way it’s going to be.”
Maybe I’ve heard this before, but this time it struck me as particularly clear and useful. Especially combined with the indicators of oppression Snorton brought out from the text, as the indicators that enabled Nehemiah to “recognize oppression when he saw it”: affecting the necessities of life, entailing the mortgaging of the future, becoming multi-generational, with far-reaching impact. (So, in her summary, oppression is a multi-level process, multi-generational, with multi-level impact.) And the concomitant lack of compassion (”desensitization to the pain and the peril of others”) on the part of the society that tolerates, accommodates, and structures itself around it infects the entire community.
I have never seen quite so clearly how, as Dr. Snorton said, “internal oppressive forces ultimately undo the community” — since they involve every member of the community in day-to-day practices of injustice and disregard for the human needs of the neighbor. Maybe because she made it clear just how close ancient Israel, with its soaring interest rates, lost farmland and homes, sold-out children, comes to our place and time, with the subprime lending crisis in the headlines and tent cities of homeless tucked under highway overpasses. From now on when I think of preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, I will be picturing Rev. Dr. Teresa Snorton.
Her ultimate point was that we need, like Nehemiah, to be unafraid to speak up for those who need release from oppression. Not because we expect oppressors to respond to our demands right away. (The merchants in Nehemiah 5:8 were speechless before Nehemiah’s indictment.) But because opposition to oppression is inseparable from the process of recognizing it and keeping it from becoming normal, acceptable, invisible, and of no particular personal concern.