At the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem, the American Gold and Bronze Medal winners in the 200 meter event, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a “human rights salute”. Many were outraged by the gesture, declaring it had no place in an event emblematic of athletic achievements and excellence. Others celebrated the gesture as a bold act against the abuse of human and civil rights. It was political and it was defiant. Whether the clenched fist was appropriate at the award ceremony will forever be debated.
The clenched fist is an age-old gesture symbolizing solidarity, defiance, anger, victory and authority. The clenched fist has been raised by politicians at rallies and conventions, by athletes after scores and political prisoners when released from custody. Angry protesters have confronted political authorities and military units used the fist as symbols of their might and courage. The clenched fist is raised in fury, jubilation or silent dignity; it is an act of human anger, power, defiance and triumph.
Forty-nine years after the Olympic Games and the clenched fists of two American athletes, fists are once again being raised in Mexico City. They are not political gestures or expressions against human injustice and certainly not the triumphant motion of a politician or the celebration of athletic achievement. Today good men and women are standing amongst the rubble of a city devastated by earthquakes, searching for the survivors who may still be alive beneath the collapsed structures of schools, factories, businesses and apartments. Every few minutes workers in yellow vests and hard helmets raise a clenched fist to signal for silence. And as the fists are held high by the hundreds who are gathered, their own voices fall silent so that the voices of those trapped in the rubble of a broken city can be heard.
Each day there are fewer fists raised to call for silence because each day there are fewer people who have survived the destruction. Yet silence is still called for in the hope that someone may yet be alive and the workers may save another life from the hand of death. The clenched fist has become a sign of hope; a brief expectation that another life can be saved. When they are raised, the people in yellow vests and hard helmets renew their work because they hear the voices of those who are trapped.
Two thousand years ago the Roman Empire sought to demonstrate its absolute power by inflicting the most painful death on those who violated Roman laws. The crucifix was used relentlessly, instilling fear and hatred among the conquered people which Rome dominated. It became an icon of power, authority and fear. How then did such a hated symbol become the emblem for hope, salvation and love?
It happened because one man allowed himself to be nailed to its beams and then promised another man, a thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” We do not look to the cross as the people of Judea once did, with hatred and fear. It has become a symbol that God has heard our voices and listened to the cries of His children. Through Jesus, the God of the Universe has lifted the burden of death and begun to clear the rubble of human suffering so we may all live.
How can we, the people of God’s church, lift the rubble of human injustice, poverty, political inequality and institutional dysfunction which have buried God’s children throughout the world? Perhaps it is time for the church and its people to be silent, to quiet the noise of our own troubles that drown out the cries of those who are truly in need. Perhaps we should raise our fists and call for silence so we can hear the voices of the afflicted, the poor, the persecuted and the weak.
We need to hear those voices, the ones suffering from addiction or the countless numbers who are slaves to sex trafficking and sweat shops. The voices of children and women who are abused need to be heard from the depths of their prisons. We must quiet our own voices to heed the pleas of the refugees trapped in a foreign land, of the mothers and fathers who cry out so their children may have a home. No longer should we worry about the finance of our churches and turn our ears and hearts and purses to those who struggle to find jobs or are buried beneath debt that will pass on to another generation.
The church Jesus called us to build must listen to the voices of those who are lost and without faith or hope. We need to push aside the rubble under which they are buried so they may see the light of day and breathe the renewing air of God’s love. As the cross was forever changed from a symbol of evil to an emblem of God’s unbreakable covenant, then perhaps the clenched fist of anger, of defiance, of protest and of power might become a call to be silent and listen to the voices of the innocent.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40)
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