On Monday evening I watched as protesters marched around downtown Naperville. There had been peaceful protests earlier in the day, and this one started off peaceful enough. I watched as a few organizers gave instructions and asked the crowd to hold each other accountable—to look out for each other and not break windows, destroy property, or agitate the police. Then they began to move. Starting at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Washington Street, they headed up Washington, across Jefferson, down Main, and back across Chicago. The whole way, I held my breath and hoped things would remain peaceful. As the marchers continued to follow this same path around and around, I was reminded of another group of people that marched around a city. It’s an interesting story that got even more interesting and resonant with our current situation the more I read about it.
After escaping from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites made their way to the Promise Land—a trip that didn’t take that long. When they got there, Moses set twelve spies to survey the land. They brought back reports of fertile land and fortified cities. Apparently fear of those cities and the people inside them eclipsed the memory of how God had delivered them from the strongholds of Egypt because ten of the twelve spies balked. Not only did they refuse to move forward, but “out of fear, they spread false reports about the land they had explored” (Num. 13:31). With these lies, the ten spies turned the people against the idea of entering the Promise Land. So instead of enjoying a land of milk and honey, they wander in the wilderness for 40 years until that whole doubtful, hesitant, and fearful generation is gone. An ancient warning and reminder about the dangers of spreading falsehoods and giving into fear, but I digress.
Forty years later, the Israelites return. A new generation is on the verge of entering the Promise Land when they reencounter one of the fortified cities I imagine had scared off their ancestors. The city was Jericho. Do you see where this is going?
Now under the leadership of Joshua, one of the two spies that had been in favor of entering the Promise Land the first time, the Israelites may still be afraid, but they don’t let their fear keep from doing what seems impossible. At Joshua’s command, they march around the city for seven days! In the fullness of time, they marched around walls that seemed impenetrable. Day after day they marched coming ever closer to a future they had only dreamed of. Until finally, on the last round, they shouted. The priests blew their trumpets and the walls came tumbling down.
Beloved of God, we keep coming close to the Promise Land. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously glimpsed it before he was murdered for daring to lead us there. But we keep balking. The walls of systemic racism seem too big to bring down. We listen to falsehoods and choose fear over fortitude. Instead of doing the work that would let all God’s people enjoy the fullness of life promised in the Promise Land, we wander in the land of excuses shame to the detriment of all.
For generations, our black brothers and sisters have marched for change while the majority of white America has hunkered down behind its walls. We’ve claimed ignorance of the walls or abdicated responsibility saying how we weren’t the ones who built them. Beloved of God, it’s past time for those walls to come tumbling down. So let us keep marching and shouting and reading and repenting until they do. Let us keep marching and shouting and reading and repenting until all God’s children are welcome and dwell together in the Promise Land.