Armored intervention

Anne Moody died on February 5 at her home in Gloster, Mississippi. She was 74. A daughter of sharecroppers, Essie Mae Moody was born on September 15, 1940, in Centreville, Mississippi; she began calling herself Anne in her teens. After attending Natchez Junior College on a basketball scholarship, the young Ms. Moody enrolled in Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in 1964.

I didn’t know Anne and I doubt any of you did. But you may have seen her picture in the paper or in a history text book. As a young woman, Ms. Moody was active in civil rights efforts in Mississippi, and in May 1963 she and another activist, Joan Trumpauer, were part of a racially mixed group in a sit-in at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Jackson.

Anne Moody in 1963 being harassed alongside John Salter and Joan Trumpauer at a Woolworth’s. Credit Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News, via Associated Press

I only know of Ms. Moody, Joan Trumpauer, and John Salter because I saw a photograph of them sitting at the counter, surrounded by a mob of mostly young white men who, with smiles on their faces, had been pouring condiments on the three. “I was snatched from my stool by two high school students,” Anne Moody recounted in her 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. “I was dragged about 30 feet toward the door by my hair when someone made them turn me loose.” She continued: “The mob started smearing us with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies and everything on the counter. Soon Joan and I were joined by John Salter, but the moment he sat down he was hit on the jaw with what appeared to be brass knuckles. Blood gushed from his face and someone threw salt into the open wound.” [1]

No one intervened. The ones who didn’t participate directly in the abuse, stood by and looked on. I looked at the picture and wondered: Had I been there, could I have trusted myself to not just watch or walk away but speak up or perhaps sit next to the three on one of the vacant bar stools?

They looked so calm, the three; so determined and focused on what they were there to do. They weren’t fighting the jeering young white men, they were fighting a monster. They were fighting an evil that had become institutionalized in politics, education, and commerce, in every aspect of U.S. society, beginning with slavery and still holding us in its grip to this day. They were fighting racism—without a sword, a helmet, or a shield. Some of the men and women who participated in the sit-ins in Greensboro, Nashville, Jackson and elsewhere were people of prayer. They entered the struggle armed with their passion for justice and their prayers, and they were able to stand firm against the spitting, the taunting, the pushing, beating and hair-pulling.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle uses the image of body armor. It was something the letter’s first audiences likely saw daily, not in their closets, but on the Roman soldiers who with force maintained Rome’s peace in the cities and provinces around the Mediterranean. Followers of Jesus will find it most difficult to imagine their Lord in full-body armor; ourselves perhaps, yes, we can see ourselves carrying and wearing a little extra protection. We know the desire, when someone strikes us on our right cheek, pours ketchup on our hair or squirts mustard in our face, we know the burning desire to scream insults at them or strike back with the fist or a coffee mug. But the apostle isn’t just referring to the daily presence of Roman soldiers as an illustration or an example as though the authority they enforced with violence had anything to do with the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. The apostle has listened to Isaiah:

The Lord looked, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle (Is 59:15-17).

In Isaiah, the language indicates that there was no one to intervene, and so God fights for justice alone. In Ephesians, the community of the faithful takes up God’s armor and enters the struggle against spiritual forces larger than flesh and blood. “Put on the whole armor of God,” wrote the apostle, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:11-12). Christ is already seated far above those powers and forces, meaning his dominion of vulnerable love and reconciling forgiveness has overcome their capacity to corrupt and destroy; they have already lost, no matter how violently they resist the unity of all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

In South Africa, back in the 80’s, when the government canceled a political rally against apartheid, Desmond Tutu led a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. The walls of the church were lined with soldiers and riot police in full body armor, carrying guns and bayonets, ready to close the assembly down as soon as the order came in. Bishop Tutu began to speak of the evils of the apartheid system—how the rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. He pointed a finger at the police who were there to record his words: “You may be powerful—very powerful—but you are not God. God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.” Then, flashing the radiant Tutu smile, the bishop came out from behind the pulpit and began bouncing up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.” The crowd roared and began to dance.[2]

The winning side is not either us or them; the winning side is the new humanity whose peace is Christ. The winning side are all of us whom Christ has reconciled to God in one body through the cross.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

I have no trouble getting excited about the triumph of Christ over powers and principalities, over any systems, structures or institutions that claim quasi-divine status and obedience. But I am wary of talk of spiritual warfare. There simply are too many examples where the rhetoric of spiritual warfare against the dark forces of evil turned into violence against individuals and groups of people like Jews, heretics, or witches who had been identified as agents of the devil. We are not to arm ourselves for attack or oppression or to establish a theocracy. We cannot proclaim the gospel of peace with the sword. We are to fasten the belt of truth around our waist, and the truth is that in Christ we are rooted and grounded in love. We are to put on the breastplate of righteousness, and righteousness is God’s not ours, so we must depend completely on God. We are to take the shield of faith, not some bigger, stronger bow that would allow us to shoot flaming arrows farther and more accurately than the evil one. We are to take the helmet of salvation, and salvation is God’s work, not ours. Every piece of armor we are urged to carry is designed to help us stand up and stand firm and stand together and withstand—not to overpower, never to overpower, but to subvert the powers and principalities that still demand our allegiance and obedience, to subvert and topple them with the vulnerable love of Christ.

When Anne Moody’s autobiography was published in 1968, Senator Edward M. Kennedy wrote in a review that it “brings to life the sights and smells and suffering of rural poverty in a way seldom available to those who live far away.” And he added: “Anne Moody’s powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril.”

That was in 1968, almost fifty years ago, and the struggle for sound justice in America isn’t over, not in our schools, nor in our streets, our court houses, or our neighborhoods. The wounds of slavery will not heal until we begin to take off the many layers of armor we have put on to protect ourselves from being honest with ourselves and with each other. We need to take off the helmet of “slavery was long ago, it’s time to move on now” and the breastplate of “that’s their problem not mine” and the shield of “it’s really bad down in Mississippi, not here, not where I live.”

The armor the apostle urges us to put on instead doesn’t protect us from each other, but allows us to be truthful in love. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” This proclamation doesn’t mean trying our hardest to make others more like ourselves, but to let Christ make us all new and whole.

Years after she had published her autobiography, Anne Moody was asked why she hadn’t written more books. “In the beginning I never really saw myself as a writer,” she said. “I was first and foremost an activist in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.” But then she added, “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. (…) We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”[3]

The struggle for sound justice in America isn’t over, not in our schools, nor in our streets, our court houses, or our neighborhoods. None of us are who we really are in Christ, as long as there is among us even one woman, man, or child who sense that their lives don’t matter  and who experience their struggle for justice and wholeness as a dog’s fruitless pull against the master’s leash.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”



[2] Jim Wallis, quoted in John Ortberg, “Roll call.” The Christian Century 120, no. 16 (August 9, 2003): 17.

[3] See note 1.