The Indiana Pacers and An Uncomfortable Feeling

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

It is an uncomfortable feeling and I will tell you about it in a minute.  First, you need to know that I am a life-long Indiana Pacers fan.  For those who might not know, the Pacers are our local professional basketball team which plays in the NBA.  I was a fan, however, back when they were in the ABA before 1976.  The American Basketball Association (ABA) was the league in which the basketball was red, white and blue.  It was the league that started the 3 point shot and was the home to Dr. J. (Julius Erving) for his first five seasons.  The Pacers were three time ABA champions, more than any other team.  They have not had as much success in the NBA, but Reggie Miller will always be my favorite player. (I still tear up when I watch the videos from the 1990’s of him dropping points on the Knicks.)  But this year could be different.  Most of the season is gone and we presently have the best record in the league.  Here’s to hoping.  I recognize that is probably more than any of you want to know about the Pacers, though I could tell you a lot more.

 So what is the uncomfortable feeling?  It is this. Whenever we go to a game we walk by several homeless people and their signs – “Anything will help.” “Haven’t Eaten Today.” “Why lie. It’s for beer.” Last night was particularly uncomfortable for me.  As we were leaving the game an older gentleman was laying on his side, slightly propped up on his arm.  His brown coat was wrapped around him and his black hat was pulled low.  He had also been there earlier when we walked into the game.  As people walked back to their cars he was saying, “Sure hope you enjoyed that game.  You all be careful going home.”  I have not been able to get the image of that man nor his words out of my head.  I wondered where he was headed that night.  Does he have a home to go to or is his home the streets?

We live in a world of great inequality.  I had just gone to a basketball game where young men were being paid exorbitant amounts of money to entertain us.  I had forked over some of my own cash for that entertainment. Though they had to hone their basketball skills to get to the professional level, their height and athletic ability was a gift of their birth.  Just a few hundred yards from the basketball court was a man who had a small cardboard box set in front of him begging others for dollars so he might live.   Since a significant portion of the homeless suffer from mental illness, was that his case?  And if so, why was he one of the unlucky ones at birth? 

Walking by the homeless can be a very uncomfortable feeling.  I am always torn about how to respond and what to do.  At times, I have carried extra money to put into their cups.  At other times, I have decided that isn’t the best way to help, so I have given to the missions and charities that house and feed them.  I know this, I don’t ever want that feeling of uncomfortableness to leave me.  I want to be pushed to think about the inequalities in the world and what this means for the church and how we respond as a people who believe that everyone is created in the Sacred image. I don’t want the unfairness of life to be hidden from me or kept in a place where I don’t have to walk by it.  As uncomfortable, and sometimes as helpless as I feel in the face of it, I want to be reminded that there is a world that is much more important than my own pleasure or entertainment.

I know this, the life of that old, gray man who wished us safe journey home after the Pacers’ game, is worth every bit as much as my own life, the life of any of those basketball players, or any life at all.  I believe he is a beloved child of God and worthy of the dignity and respect such heritage brings.  As I mentioned, I don’t always know how to respond in the immediacy of such situations.  So I support local housing and food ministries and give to those organizations that work in a larger capacity in helping meet such needs.  And as a pastor of a congregation to which many people in need often turn for help, I am determined to treat each person with patience and compassion. Being conscious, the best that I can, not to treat them or their situation as a burden on my time or their need as something that doesn’t concern me.  Since I call myself a Christian, that means I follow Jesus, and what I read in the gospels is of a man who had compassion for others, especially those who were on the edges.

Well, the Pacers will be in the NBA playoffs.  That’s for certain.  They were the first team to secure their place.  And I will probably make it to a couple of those games.  I hope I come across that same man in the brown coat and the black hat.  I want him to know that I made it home safe.  That I appreciated his kind words and caring.   I want him to know I care too.   

Everything Can/Must/Will Change [NOW]

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"...And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change.  People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built—is with extreme methods.  And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

- Malcolm X, 12/3/1964 - Oxford University

Everything must change.

Since I was a kid, my dad and I have played chess.  Because he has never believed in letting someone win, he used to beat me a lot.  As I was learning the game, my dad would get me into check and then help me figure out how to get out of check.  He might say, "you have three possible moves" or "you have two moves available" or "you have one move left."  Invariably, I would hear, "checkmate."

This went on for almost 25 years.  That's how old I was when I beat him for the first time.

The key to developing a strategic mind, one that can navigate the game of chess, is to see all the available moves ahead of time.  It is an exhilarating feeling to watch a field of virtually limitless possibilities narrow into increasingly smaller paths.  They become threads that can lead into dead-ends or escapes.  Those threads can strangle you, or pull out creative options you didn't know you had.  Either way, you are able to see things on the board that are obscure to someone who doesn't know the game.  You can see when the game is over several moves before it happens.

"Three possible moves... two moves available... one move left.  Checkmate."

I believe that we are living in a time when people are coming to see that so long as the unfolding of civilization is locked to the grid of such a chessboard, our possibilities of escape are rapidly diminishing.

If the unfolding of the narrative of civilization can be compared to a chess game, then I assure you we as a people have lost the game.  The shadowed forces of greed, the dehumanizing empires of insatiable thirst for power, the corporate bodies we have manufactured in the attempt to make a name for ourselves (Gen 11:4) have cornered us.  Us, the very good creation of the living God, embossed with her divine image.  We have wagered something that was never ours to give away, our precious humanity, in order to give consent to a soulless idol that cannot provide the justice, mercy, love, hope and dignity that our humanity requires.

Sure, there may be a few moves left on the board.  An empty piece of legislation or two, an infusion of cash here or there.  But I assure you the game is over.  We are about to be crushed by the heavy machinery of the juggernaut we have created.  This is not the worst thing that could happen; there are billions of people who have been crushed for centuries.  For millenia.  At least those of us who have been pulling the levers in the machine will finally be able to identify with the poor and marginalized we claimed to be helping by our rabid consumerism.  When the empire has exhausted the rest of us, at least we will know what it's like to be dependent upon the pity and charity of guilt offerings.  At least we will know a pain worse than hunger: the dehumanizing shame that rots within those we bar from a seat at the table of dignity and human community.  We too will finally know what it's like to be invisible.

We don't need to find solutions that work within the racist, sexist, classist, unjust social structures we have built around ourselves.  We need to overthrow unjust social structures.  The problem is not a lack of charity, but a lack of justice (Isa 58:6-12).  The problem is not that we are losing the game, but that we have mistaken God's immeasurably good creation for a game, and a game that's rigged against us at that.

Everything must change.

Whether or not you like or accept this imperative is beside the point.  The game is over and we lost.  There's only one way this will play out and it's with the rest of us rotting in material and spiritual poverty.

But there is good news.

The living God has heard the cry of the poor.  And the living God is bringing the Kingdom in our midst.  What God has to say, God says specifically to the poor (Isa 61:1-3, Luke 4:16-21).  When we are finally crushed too, then we will hear, maybe for the first time, what God has to say.

Of course, we don't have to wait until then.  We could choose to hear it now:  Everything has to change.

The Kingdom of God is the point.  The Kingdom of God is God's answer to injustice, to suffering, to the cries of her people.  When Jesus of Nazareth preached on this earth, he announced that the Kingdom was in our midst.  He healed the broken and sick.  And the ethics of the Kingdom he described were foreign and backwards to anything we can imagine.  A worker who labors for one hour is paid the same as one who works for eight (Matt 20:1-16)?  The last shall be first and the first shall be last?  Are you kidding me?  The prostitutes and tax-collectors, the drug-dealers and predators are getting into heaven before the religious people?  Before the philanthropists?  When the empire finally nailed this peasant to a cross, God revealed that her love will resurrect even that which the empire lawfully executes.

We literally cannot imagine what the Kingdom looks like, and we literally cannot bring it.  The Kingdom is not the fruit of pious, conservative Bible thumpers, or of compassionate, white liberals.  The Kingdom comes from God and it belongs to the poor, the silenced, the powerless, the abused, the shit-on, the screw-ups, those for whom the privileged, conservative, liberal, whatever, claim to know what's best.

Our job is not to bring the Kingdom.  Our job is to believe that the Kingdom is both here, and still arriving.  Our job is to repent (Mark 1:15).  Our job is to tear down the empire -the anti-kingdom- which is occupying the space God created.  Our job is to plant nonviolent dynamite in every gear of the machine.  Our job is to bite the hand that feeds us.  Our job is to use the black glass, metal and plastic devices that we're been duped into buying in order to SPEAK, to SHOUT, to CRY OUT as loud as we can on behalf of the children who have literally paid the incalculable price for them with their lives, so that we can have them for $299.  It is to resist and subvert and destroy the empire that we have legitimized with our consent in order to incarcerate 1 in 9 young black men in the US, in order to bomb the limbs and skin off of innocent brown children in the mountains in Afghanistan with unmanned drones.  It is to expose the systemic injustice of a world that has relegated 51% of its population -women- to minority status.

We can sift through the media noise to discover the lost voices of our artists who can show us the way out of this cultural wilderness.  We can resolve not to patronize the poor, but listen to them.  We can refuse the empire impulse to assume we know what's best for those we oppress.  But we'd better get ready to hear things that we don't want to hear.

We cannot resist the forces that compel us to buy and sin, but we can acknowledge that we are not free.  It is in this admission of powerlessness that we paradoxically find the key to freedom, to find the one move we have left before checkmate: to say NO to the empire that profits from the theft of human dignity, and say YES to the God that will liberate the captives.

(Originally posted Isa 61 on 2/15/12)