Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
Lent can be a time for reflection on both God’s tremendous love as well as the ways we have fallen short individually and collectively. Considering we are commemorating 50 years of mass incarceration, Lent is the most appropriate time for us to reflect the explosion of the prison population in the last fifty years, which was driven by racist, exploitative laws and supposedly “tough-on-crime” policies that have wrought utter devastation on individuals, families, and entire communities – most particularly individuals, families, and communities of color. The most bitter part of all of this is how this has been done falsely in the name of public safety. When it comes to the last fifty years of mass incarceration, it has been fifty years of failure.
As Scripture reminds us, even in the midst of the most somber of reflection times, there are still moments God calls us to the mountaintop as we see in the Matthew passage regarding the Transfiguration.
Mountain-top, epiphanal experiences are prominent throughout Scripture: Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah on Mount Horeb, Micah and Isaiah foretelling of all the world’s nations going to the mountain of God to have their disputes settled, and, of course, Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus gives his first major teaching on a mountain and now, in this passage, he goes back to the mountain bringing with him Peter, James and John where he is visited by Elijah and Moses!
We know the disciples recognize how pivotal a moment this is because Peter offers to build a monument to memorialize this powerful experience. Instead, a heavenly voice dramatically breaks in demanding that they listen to Jesus. Jesus is better understood by who he stands with.
In reflecting on this passage and in remembering that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus announces his public ministry by, in part, proclaiming he is anointed to proclaim release to the captives, I cannot help but wonder if, in the midst of fifty years of the failure of mass incarceration, who might we see visiting with Jesus on the mountain. As we follow Jesus up to the mountain, he is suddenly surrounded by two historical figures that help explain both who Jesus is and then, in turn, what we are called to do upon returning to the valley.
On one side of Jesus I can see the amazing Harriet Tubman, “the Moses of her people,” a former slave who, in 1849, escaped slavery and fled to Philadelphia where she quickly joined an ever-growing abolitionist movement. It was during the height of the national slavery debate in the 1850s when Tubman made 19 dangerous trips to the South to guide over 300 slaves to freedom, including her family, while never losing one person in the process.
The danger of Tubman’s trips cannot be overstated for the 1850s was the decade leading up to the Civil War and so the national tension over slavery was at its zenith. It was in 1850 – a year after she escaped – that the Fugitive Slave Law was passed which forced Northern states to aid and abet Southern slaveholders in retrieving escaped slaves. As is always the case whenever draconian laws are passed, the law actually spurred many in the majority White culture to finally join the Underground Railroad and other abolitionist efforts.
Oppressive, racist laws did nothing to stop Tubman. Neither did the subtle racism found among many abolitionist allies who often failed to acknowledge the agency of Blacks in addressing the political, social, economic, and cultural frameworks of their own oppression. Tubman rightly reminds all of us of her commitment to fight for liberation for her people and to tear down harsh laws rooted in racism and hate. Seeing Jesus and Harriet Tubman visiting with one another in this mountain top scene, we are inspired to work for the liberation of people who daily are being crushed by a system of injustice that targets them, including mass incarceration.
One the other side of Jesus is anti-lynching crusader and suffragist, Ida B. Wells. Wells’ campaign against the lynching of her people began in 1892 when she read of a lynching in her home town of Memphis and it lasted until her death in 1931. The almost 40 years of her tireless campaign teaches us of the importance of fearless persistence. The prophetic Wells repeatedly confronted city officials where lynchings had occurred, many of whom often participated in these extrajudicial killings themselves. Wells’ righteous crusade shone light both on state-sponsored violence done to Black people and the blatant hypocrisy found within white power structures that often shielded Whites from their own culpability. Many times those being lynched were actually innocent of what they were changed with, especially when that crime was rape.
The fight to preserve a mythological white, feminine purity was buttressed by entrenched, white patriarchal power that willingly sacrificed Black lives. Wells bravely questioned these frameworks, pointing out the hypocrisy of white men who refused to allow women of any color the right to vote while, at the same time, claiming to be defending white women. Wells called on the United States to live up to what it claimed to be when it promised equal justice before the law. Wells believed in and worked to ensure that Black Lives Matter generations before that became a movement, which was started, not surprisingly, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, in a lynching in 2012.
Wells’ prophetic campaign to stop violence against Black people laid the groundwork for the NAACP, which she helped found, and her passion has resonated across the many generations when Black people have been victims of state-sponsored violence:
- from Scottsboro trials in 1931 (the same year she died when a group of Black young men were falsely accused of rape and saved from lynching though they were imprisoned for years),
- to the lynching of Emmit Till in 1955, which some say began the modern day Civil Rights movement,
- to the rash of lynchings that continue today at the hands of police.
We should never forget the names that started Ida B. Wells’ campaign against lynching: Calvin McDowell, Henry Stewart, and Thomas Moss. They were three Black men who owned grocery stores that ate into the profits of white-owned stores and because they dared to be successful they were lynched by a white mob in Wells’ home city of Memphis this week in 1892.
Have now become:
My God, there are so many.
Jesus, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells. Like Peter, we are tempted to build an altar, to name a building, or build a monument. But a heavenly voice breaks through and stops us in our tracks.
And as we slowly make our way down the mountain we pledge to follow them.
May the same Spirit that infused Jesus, Tubman, and Wells to struggle to set the captives free fill us with the same vision and call, the same fearless persistence, until mass incarceration is no more.