The wicked surround the righteous—and many fear that the wicked are winning. The wicked are the ones who hold the power: they have the money; they have the bombs, the guns, the muscle; they have the ruthless ideologies, the single-minded tenacity, the murderous certainty. The wicked call the shots.
Habakkuk sees it and he cries out; he complains in bold language reminiscent of the psalms. He doesn’t just groan, he laments and insists, and with his questions he holds God responsible: How long shall I cry for help, and you, Lord, will not listen? How long shall I cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble, destruction and violence, strife and contention? Where is your justice when the wicked pervert justice? Where is your justice when the righteous are surrounded?
You listen to Habakkuk and you hear echoes from the psalms:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? How long, Lord, shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
Habakkuk doesn’t just groan under the weight of wrongdoing, trouble, violence, destruction, and perverted justice pressing down on God’s people—he names the wrongs, points them out, and he insists on a response from the Lord who is known as a lover of righteousness. Habakkuk gives voice to those among God’s people who see the wicked surrounding the righteous, twisting justice, and getting away with it – day after day, year after year, generation after generation. Habakkuk insists on a response on behalf of all who struggle to hold onto the belief that real justice is possible in this world.
On June 17 last year, 21-year-old Dylan Roof killed nine men and women at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. One of the victims was Ethel Lance; she was the sexton and she was 70 years old when she was murdered at the Wednesday Bible study. At a bond hearing in a Charleston courtroom later that summer, family members of the victims were invited to give statements. Ethel Lance’s daughter, Nadine Collier got up and made her way to the podium. What she said, looking at Dylan Roof on closed-circuit tv and choking back sobs, came out like this:
“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Her words took everybody in the courtroom by surprise. Her own family wasn’t prepared for them. “When she said that, I was just shocked,” says her sister, Sharon Risher. “I was like, Who in the hell is she talking for? Because she’s not talking for me.” Risher looks back a year later and says, “The flag went down, yes. This little boy is in jail, yes. But all of this has just caused too much.” It is too soon to talk about healing when the wounds are still being torn open every day. For Risher, the murder of her mother is not an isolated event. “Every night somebody else gets killed in this country, and I have to relive that pain,” she says, “because I know what these people are going through.”
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall I cry for help, and you, Lord, will not listen? How long?
What does real justice look like? Dylan Roof’s trial will begin in January; he’s facing federal hate crime charges in addition to having been indicted with nine counts of murder. He may get sentenced to death, and that may satisfy the state’s justice – but what about the festering wound of racism that will not heal? My friend Latisha has no words left for her pain and her anger after hundreds of years of violence against blacks and the relentless news over recent months and weeks of questionable police shootings of black men and boys. There’s no end to it. Latisha is tired of shouting, How long? She has no tears left. She has changed both her cover photo and her profile picture on Facebook to solid black rectangles that swallow up all light – it’s her speechless lament, a silent cry of mourning and rage.
On September 18, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a eulogy in Birmingham. It was the funeral for three of the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church three days earlier. He said, “These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. … They have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. … They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Dr. King reminds us that we must be concerned not merely about the perpetrators, but about the vision of life that produced and continues to produce them. And we must substitute courage for caution, because the vision of life that leaves no room for the other or insists on assigning the other his or her place in what we presume to be our world, that vision is much more common among us than we care to consider, let alone admit. It feels good when we can identify with the righteous whom the wicked surround, but it takes courage to face our own complicity in wicked systems that keep righteousness from flourishing among us.
“How long shall I cry for help, and you, Lord, will not listen?” said Habakkuk. “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what the Lord will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.”
The Lord answered the prophet and made a promise: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
There is still a vision of life where the end is not violent exclusion but courageous embrace. There is still a vision of life where all lives do indeed matter. There is still a vision of life where wickedness has been redeemed by love and righteousness is at home throughout the world. There is still a vision; it will surely come. We affirm that this vision is Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom. We affirm that the vision has become tangible in the life he lived and the just reign he inaugurated. We are still waiting, but what we await is not unknown; it is the fullness of the life we see when we look at Jesus. What we await is the consummation of creation in the loving communion of God and God’s creatures.
When we gather around the table of Christ, we do it in remembrance of him. And as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. It is as though we lean forward into the fulfillment, into the future that is already present when welcoming each other as forgiven sinners in Christ’s name and recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ we celebrate the feast of life.
I don’t know where the courage to look at ourselves with honesty would come from, if not from that vision. I don’t know where the courage to open up to one another across all that divides us would come from, if not from that vision. Habakkuk calls us in God’s name to trust that promise – to trust it more than our cynicism, more than our own complicity in wickedness, and more than our anger and our grief.
Habakkuk concludes his prophecy with beautiful words of tenacious faith, inviting us to trust and wait and work with him:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation.
 Psalms 13:1-2; 74:10; 94:3
 Habakkuk 3:17-18