Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 4: 15-30) transports me first to the Paint Creek Mine War of 1912, in Kanawah County, West Virginia, where a 12 year old girl starts penning a poem while her father is out on strike. She sets it to the tune of an old hymn, Lay the Lily Low, or maybe it’s an old folk ballad, Jack-a-Roe. Nineteen years later, that same poet, now a miner’s wife, scribbles on a calendar taken from the wall of her cabin in Harlan County, KY; she is adding new verses to her childhood poem while her husband is out on strike with 18,000 others. It was this conflict between miners and the coal company, backed by Sherriff J.H. Blair and Pinkerton agents (thugs), that caused the county to be known as Bloody Harlan. I learned Florence Reese’s song from Si Kahn when he came to Louisville in 1988 to help organize against the coal company practice of broad form deed mining, allowing the companies to take people’s homes in order to gain access to veins of coal underneath. Kim and I would later play the song and sing it along with striking miners in the coalfields during the Pittston strike of 1989. The minor-key melody is haunting and the lyrics are direct: They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there, you’re either for the union or you thug for J.H. Blair. Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Oh workers can you stand it, oh tell me how you can? Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man? Which side are you on? . . . My daddy was a miner, he’s in the air and sun. He’ll be with all you workers until the battle’s won. Which side are you on? . . .
When Jesus entered the synagogue to preach his inaugural sermon, he reached back for a poem penned by a protester from an earlier era, the prophet Isaiah. The lyrics were direct, and I imagine if it was sung it might have been in a haunting minor key: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord. He rolled up the scroll, sat down in their midst, and added a new lyric to the poem: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your midst. In an environment where corporate religion was complicit in impoverishing people, imprisoning people, and oppressing people, delaying all hopes for a better life, Jesus’ sermon was an in your face affront to the religious authorities – the J.H. Blairs and Pinkerton thugs of his day – and those who followed them. The community was deeply divided between privilege and poverty, between the free and the captive, between the powerful and the oppressed. And Jesus was staking his claim; he was announcing that he was taking sides, that the Spirit of God had always been taking sides, working on behalf of the poor. If that wasn’t enough, Jesus added more verses to his protest song, acknowledging the inability of the corporate religion to hear the truth of its own homegrown prophets. In a time of intense pressure for patriotism and national identity, Jesus drew lines in the sand that did not have anything to do with national borders. He referenced times in the history of the parochial faith community when God had gone outside the parish to get things done – working through a widow from the hated territory of Sidon and healing a leper from enemy Syria. The conflict between oppressor and oppressed crossed state lines. Jesus could have easily inserted a chorus in between the lines of his inaugural sermon: The Spirit sends me to free the prisoners; which side are you on? . . . The Spirit sends me to bring good news to the poor; which side are you on? . . . The Spirit sends me to give sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed; which side are you on? . . . The Spirit has sent me to work with people outside the boundaries that have been so carefully drawn; which side are you on? The congregation got his point, and they answered the question without him having to articulate it. They took him to the edge of town and tried to throw him off the cliff, but like a good organizer, Jesus was crafty; he had an escape route planned out and vanished before the thugs could accomplish their task.
When Kim and I were in the Pittson coal fields during that strike, we talked to picketing miners who were employing jackrocks to keep scab trucks from crossing the line. Jackrocks were bent nails welded together, scattered on the road to flatten tires in the enemy trucks, often causing them to crash. One of the miners, learning that we were co-pastors of a church, said to us, we’ll handle the jackrocks, you handle the prayers. It was his way of telling us to stay back, to stay out of harm’s way. We talked about it and came to understand that from our reading of Jesus, the call of Jesus’ followers is to walk somewhere between jackrocks and prayers, between violence and veneration. Being on the side of the poor, on the side of the prisoner, on the side of the oppressed, can be a risky business in some sectors of our culture. We are not called to simply pray and keep our distance from those risks. We are called to choose sides, to live and act on behalf of the poor and imprisoned and oppressed. Be careful and be crafty, though. Choosing the “wrong side” might get you manhandled to the edge of town where some thugs will want to throw you off a cliff. Have your escape routes planned out, like a good organizer, and keep on moving. Maybe you’ll have some new verses to add to the song.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.