A guest blog by Rev. Lusa Nsenga Ngoy – 25 May 2021
Think back for a moment to the days when death squads operated in countries like Argentina or El Salvador: Christians there developed a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope and their resistance. At the liturgy, someone would call out the names of those killed or ‘disappeared’, and for each name someone would cry out from the congregation, Presente, ‘Here’.
Presente was an echo to Latin American Christians’ conviction that oppression would never have the final word on life. Presente resonated with the stubborn commitment to denounce broken systems that dehumanise, objectify and commodify human lives. Presente stood as a reaffirming of the kind of society Christians would live and often die for.
Presente calls the world to attention, to a state of constant alertness, of perpetual openness to God’s dramatic action in history. It is not merely an exploration or a critique of the past. It is a call to engage in a tussle with the present, like Jacob with the angel, not letting go until blessing is released (Genesis 32:22-31). It is prophetic affirmation of faith in the sense that it is resolutely turned toward God’s future; presente heralds that vision of a broken world reconciled with itself, but above all, a broken world reconciled with God, a world pregnant with the possibility of life abundant.
It is both protest and promise. Protest against the abuse of power that desecrates God’s image in the marginalised and minoritized. It is the promise that God’s justice has not been stayed, and the oppressors will get their comeuppance.
Finally, presente is lament. Lament is not cynical agnosticism, but a persistent cry for salvation to the God who promises to save, in a situation of suffering or sin, in the confident hope that this God hears and responds to cries, and acts now and in the future to make all things whole again. Lament calls upon God to be true to God’s own character and to keep God’s own promises, with respect to humanity and the whole of creation.
Lament is both a protest against the pain of the present time, and also an enduring expression of the weeping voice of God, in whose image and likeness we are made. It helps us voicing the shadows in life, so that God’s marvellous light might illumine and heal our fractured lives.
The sound of Lament is the Primordial cry of humanity. It is heard throughout human history and it echoes throughout scripture. It already began before the ages with the blood of Abel calling out for justice beyond the grave. The sound of lament is heard in the despair of Hagar the enslaved African woman lost in the wilderness, begging for the life of her son Ishmael. It is heard in the protest of the enslaved people of Israel calling out for freedom. It is heard in uncomforted Rachel lamenting her dead children; It is the voice of Mary on the evening of Good Friday as she contemplates the tortured body of her son hanging on that cross. And it is heard in the pleading cries of Brother George Floyd as life ebbs away from his body.
Each of them is named. Each remembered despite all attempts of a world that is committed to erase them into the oblivion of history.
We are invited to discover ourselves not overlooked, but noticed; noticed to the core of our being and drawn from a dreadful company of anonymous lives, into the blessed fellowship of the beloved. We are called from anonymity to friendship; from margin to the heart of God. We are noticed, chosen, trusted, and intrusted with the simple, yet incredibly powerful task of loving the world into wholeness.
Names are important in the bible, so much that there’s a whole book whose title in Hebrew is called: The names, shemot. Shemot opens with a list of the names of the Children of Israel as they came down to Egypt, counting each individual within those families.
Shortly afterwards, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This Pharaoh, unaware of the name of the most famous Israelite –in fact, one of the most famous man in all of Egypt– will dedicate his life to eradicate all that the first few verses of Shemot had established, and sanctify a process of dehumanizing -essentially un-naming the Children of Israel.
So today we say his Name: George Floyd. Not his alone, but the dreadful litany of black and brown lives violated, disfigured in their humanity, vilified, sacrificed at the high altar of white supremacy that is inducted in a liturgy of scarcity and committed to colonise and subjugate, that only knows one mood, the one that objectifies and commodifies the bearers of God’s image.
Today, we need to hear anew for ourselves the words of Isaiah the prophet: “Fear not. I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called you by name you are mine.”
So, like Latin American Christians, we commit to gather before God in lament, in protest, and in hope. We tune our inner ears to the voices of the prophets and heralds whose call enact God’s future in our midst. We gather, and in our living, in our worship, in our service to the world, in our lament as in our protest, we proclaim with a determination that George Floyd, and indeed ourselves are Presente.
And with Christ our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, by whose death our sinful forgetfulness and lukewarm love can be forgiven and kindled to life, who leaves no human soul in anonymity and oblivion, but gives to all the dignity of a name and a presence, we say presente.