I was thinking about the reasons for my withdrawal from social media over the last couple of months when I came across a friend and colleague’s post (Thanks Tripp Hudgins.) I’ve mostly been thinking about one ethicist’s analysis of our predicament. In essence he argues that we have no shared basis for providing rational justifications for our assertions and therefore we are left with a clash of wills. (To my grad school friends – don’t worry I remain no fan of McIntyre) So we may spout off statistics and facts or pseudo-facts like we are in some rational debate but because we share no common premise of the good and the right all we are really doing in our discourse is trying to over power each other. And here of late all I see in my social media feed (Nextdoor, Twitter, Facebook, SeeClickFix) is a power struggle and it hurts. It hurts because I believe that at some fundamental level the point of communication is to work toward empathy and seeing the world from the perspective of the other. As a communal practice it should lead us toward the construction of the common good, in the parlance of the secular, or the Beloved Community in that of the sacred. Perhaps I am just too impatient as we struggle to come to grips with life’s complexities and tragedies and need to be reminded of the fuller nature of human struggle for “we struggle not against flesh and blood….”
In addition to being loved by Jesus, Leslie Bowling-Dyer is a mother, wife, daughter, neighbor, preacher, teacher, PhD student, bicycle commuter and wishes she was a good hip hop dancer. She is also an alumna of ABSW.
Whenever there is a major event happening in the world, in the United States, or locally, I get a text from my colleague and dear friend, Tripp Hudgins, at ABSW: “Blog?” he asks. Since he came aboard at ABSW almost two years ago, Tripp has been encouraging, nay, urging, nagging, and prodding the faculty and administration at the seminary to get our light out from under its bushel. He wants us to contribute our voices and our unique perspectives to the ongoing conversations that happen via social media, in the twitterverse, through blogs, on the interwebs everywhere and all the time—but especially when major things happen. Protests, mass shootings, bombings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, racist attacks, police brutality, and non-indictments: all of these generate massive dialogue on the internet.
Public theology means that our faith traditions can make meaningful, even radically transformative contributions to civic discourse and public policy at times of crisis as well as calm. The Jesus we seek to follow did not shy away from making his faith publicly significant. He weighed in on taxes, imprisonment, just pay, forgiveness of debt, ethnocentrism (which would be the equivalent of racism today), and the deep value of women and girls. Jesus allowed his life to be ended in a most public and political way when he was crucified by the Roman Empire. His earliest followers stayed true to this public living out of faith through their formation of radical communities with shared property, meals that crossed the boundaries of social status, and offerings distributed to the poor. Other early followers also gave their bodies over to be destroyed by the empire in order to point to a reality of Love and Resistance that will forever be greater than any empire—then and now.
Though there were plenty of times Jesus stepped away from the crowds so that he could rest and pray, once his faith became public at around age 30, it was definitely not in the form of quietism. Jesus was active, engaged, and not afraid of conflict with the politically and religiously powerful people of his time. Quietism, whether or not it ever actually existed as such, is a sort of deeply unflattering caricature of contemplatives who sought unity with God’s Sprit above all else, even to the eradication of their own in-tact selves for the sake of the world. Such self-annihilation is considered heretical inasmuch as it leads to, well, it leads to nothing. As the great Evelyn Underhill wrote: “The self must be surrendered: but it must not be annihilated, as some Quietists have supposed. It only dies that it may live again” (Underhill, Mysticism, 68).
So please don’t get me wrong when I say: It is at times like this that I long with all my heart for quiet. Even though the request comes in for me to say something in the form of a blog, and even though I believe that my Christian faith tradition has much to contribute at times like this—despite this, I know that the last thing I want to do right now is contribute to the cacophony of voices that are clamoring to be heard right now. Some of those voices are prophetic, some are strident; some are beautiful and grace-filled, some are challenging and hard-to-swallow; some are gospel-filled, some are hate-filled; some are war-mongering, some are peacemaking; some are creative, some are cliché; some we desperately need to hear, some not so much. But when I think about being one more voice (a voice perhaps more likely to be cliché or strident than prophetic or grace-filled), I honestly just want to be quiet instead.
How many hours, Lord? How many hours Will he lay out in the sun Under the gaze, Lord, Under the gaze Of Darren Wilson’s gun? Four hours… Four hours… Is four hours long enough For Michael Brown To lay out in the sun?
It has been a year.
A year since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
A year since Ferguson erupted.
And they aren’t done yet.
Students from the Pacific School of Religion and American Baptist Seminary of the West are there now with students from Eden Seminary studying with activists and theologians asking the same question that many in this country are asking, “Do black and brown lives matter as much as others?”
They are standing in the streets chanting with the crowds gathered there, “Tell me what a family looks like; this is what a family looks like.”
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Tell me what a family looks like.
This is what a family looks like.
From Baltimore to Berkeley, people are asking the question. Do black lives matter? It has been a year and we cannot seem to find an answer to the question. “Of course they do” some people state. “Then why is it so hard for so many to be black or brown in this country?” is the question that follows.
“Maybe if they just pulled their pants up and turned the music down,” is a common enough retort. Then, as I hope you can see, we’re back where we started.
A young man walks into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and nine lives come to a tragic end. The “politics of respectability” cannot save black and brown lives either. You can be a respected member of the state government, a pastor, a grandmother, and none of that will matter. You can be President of the United States of America and it won’t matter. Your race will be a strike against you.
You fail to signal when changing lanes.
You turn your music up too loudly.
You dress like a young punk because you are a young punk…
You talk back.
You exercise your right to speak your mind and…
…nowhere. It gets you nowhere. It gets you killed. And you despair.
How many years, Lord How many years Has the freedom song been sung Under the gaze, Lord Under the gaze, Of a white man with a gun? Four hundred years… Four hundred years… Four hundred years is long enough Under the gaze Under the gaze Of a white man with a gun.
But it doesn’t end there, either. No, the reach of this thing is larger. This violence, this greed, this fear knows no bounds of race, color, creed, gender…
Zachary Hammond, an unarmed white nineteen year old, was killed in a drug bust in a Hardee’s parking lot where his friend was found in possession of ten grams of marijuana. No one said a word except for the #BlackLivesMatter movement social media community. There was no outrage from the white community (whatever that is) about the death of one of our own. The #AllLivesMatter community said nothing. Nothing. Why is that?
The media, too, was silent. The only stories published in major news outlets were about how there were no stories published in major news outlets.
We do know what sells column inches and website clicks, don’t we?
What do we think is normal?
What have we become accustomed to?
What do we think is necessary to maintain an orderly society?
What do we think is just and fair?
What do we believe is Beautiful, Good, and True?
Does an orderly society necessitate the deaths of its young women and men?
This is our sad truth.
“O my daughter, O my son! Would that it were me…”
No, our voices are silent.
Or we’re fearfully sitting at home grateful that it is not us, it is not our son.
The power of empire is seductive. King David strove for it. His son, Absalom, longed for it. In a tale that rivals Game of Thrones in its chaotic violence, rape, incest, fratricide, and plain old murder, the kingdom is in an uproar. There is no one innocent and good in this tale. There is no helpless victim here.
Yet, Absalom hangs from a tree, executed by those whom King David charged with Absalom’s safety have taken it upon themselves to execute him. Guilty or not, insurrectionist or not, they took power into their own hands and executed Absalom. They lynched him.
After all the clamoring for power, lives are destroyed. Heartbroken, the king wails.
“O Absalom, my son, my son. Would I had died in stead of you!”
But he didn’t. And his rule continued.
I’ve been pondering the death of Absalom, David’s hubris, and the brokenness of systems this week. What if we looked to the death of each and every victim of violence as our son, our daughter, the person with whom we would readily change places if we could?
The body hanging lifeless from the tree is your child. Weep, for your soul has been crushed and your future is uncertain. You have broken covenant with God.
Weep. Wail. It is your daughter dead in the jail cell. It is your son’s body lying in the street. “How many hours, Lord, how many hours…”
To live in the covenant is always a choice. It is a choice we frequently avoid.
Our national story is not a new one. Our predicament is not unusual nor are the choices we are making.
People of the Christian faith especially should recognize what is afoot in all of this. Those of us who gather week after week and hear the story of a man executed by the power of the status quo should find none of this surprising.
Jesus wanted us to see past the false promises of the power of empire in all its social forms: political or religious. Instead, he wanted us to broaden our vision. Empires demand the deaths of their young people to keep order.
“I am the bread of life,” is an invitation to see a larger world than what empire can promise us. It is a world where hunger is satisfied and thirst is quenched.
This is the covenant that Jesus envisions. This is the fruit of your baptism. To live into this covenant is a choice we all must make every moment of our lives. Will we live into this covenant or won’t we? Do we have the strength today?
There are people in the streets begging us to choose to live into the covenant.
They are begging us to live into the life Christ proclaimed.
They are begging us to live in love.
They are begging us to live in truth.
They are begging us to create a life where black lives matter as much as white lives and where empire is not the last word.
They are begging us to speak out.
They are begging us to rise.
Church, arise! Be resurrected!
Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.
Punks and prostitutes followed him, people who likely had ten grams of something in their pockets while their pants hung down too low, followed him. They played their music too loudly. They marched. They caused trouble. But so did he.
He was accused of false teaching.
He was accused of public disruption.
He was accused of insurrection.
They marched and sang.
He was executed.
His body hung from a tree.
And yet he rose.
The stone was rolled away,
and he rose.
Friends of God, take, eat.
Live in love.
This is the bread of life.
This is God’s insurrection.
My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.
Should Priest and Prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets; my young men and maidens have fallen by the sword. (Lamentations 2:20-21)
On Wednesday evening June 17, 2015 at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina a modern crucifixion took place. Taking the lives of:
Rev. Clementa Pickney (Pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church and a South Carolina State Senator) age 41 Cynthia Hurd, age 54 Tywanza Sanders, age 26 Myra Thompson, age 59 Ethel Lance, age 70 Susie Jackson, age 87 Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, age 49 Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45 Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., age 74
Because they were bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, and spirit of our spirit we too are a suffering people. We cry out with the Psalmist “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing”. (Psalm 22: 14-18)
Not only do we hurt with the Emanuel A.M.E. Church Family, but God also suffers with us because the name Emanuel means “God is with us”! Our God meets us in suffering and in death. The cross is the meeting place between God and us. The cross is the place where God experiences human suffering and the human family understands the pain of God. The wounded heart of God is revealed on the cross. Abraham Heschel has reminded us that in the prophets God experiences pain and sorrow with a feeling of intimate and loving concern because life is a partnership between God and humanity. The crucified heart of God in the New Testament is revealed through the death of Jesus Christ. This death on the cross is not only the expression of God’s love for us, but also the defiance of God against evil.
It is so easy for us as a suffering people to grow weary and inarticulate in endless despair and aborted hope that will satisfy the forces of evil; however, the Apostle Paul reminds us “to be in Christ means not only to know the fellowship of His suffering, but the power of His resurrection”; therefore, as a crucified and a resurrected people let us make a double commitment to preach a liberating gospel from the evils of racism, materialism and militarism. If we can make this commitment then we will respond to the Charleston massacre with living hope.
In 1850 Frederick Douglass, a member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston stood in Faneil Hall in Boston speaking as if waiting justice would never wipe sleep from his eyes. In response to his morbid message Sojourner Truth who knew the evils of slavery from personal experience, having been sold four times, and having risked her life many more times as a conductor of the underground railroad arose to her feet, and said with a commanding voice: Frederick is God dead? As true believers with Sojourner Truth let us act on the words of James Russell Lowell: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch [over] his own.”
Rev.Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., Chair
Sankofa Institute for African American
Oblate School of Theology
285 Oblate Drive
San Antonio, TX 78216
SANKOFA INSTITUTE FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN PASTORAL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL OF ELDERS
Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Chair
Dr. Diana Hayes, STD
Rev. Dr. Dwight Hopkins, PhD
Rev. Joni Russ
Rev. Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, PhD
Rev. James Noel, PhD
S. Addie L. Walker, SSND, PhD, Director
Dr. Scott Woodward, Academic Dean, OST
Dr. Rose Marden, Associate Dean Continuing Education, OST
In celebration of U.S. Women’s History Month 2015, the ABSW community is invited to remember and to honor the African American Christian Women presented here. Collectively, their lives establish a historical trajectory stretching from 1783 to 1964, but until fairly recently these and countless other African American women have not received the recognition they deserve for their extraordinary contributions in charting the course of U.S. history.
Jarena Lee. 1783 – 1849
Jarena Lee was the first woman known to petition the African Methodist Episcopal Church “to be permitted the liberty of holding prayer meetings in my own hired house, and of exhorting as I found liberty,” a request granted in 1819 by Bishop Richard Allen.
Sojourner Truth. 1797 – 1883
Before the Civil War, Sojourner Truth was a feminist abolitionist and afterwards a tireless worker in providing relief and job placement to freed people.
Maria W. Stewart. 1803 – 1879
Maria Stewart, a woman of profound religious faith, a pioneer black abolitionist, and a defiant champion of women’s rights, was the first American woman to lecture in public on political themes and leave extant copies of her texts.
Harriet Jacobs. 1813 – 1897
Harriet Jacobs authored the most important slave narrative by an African American woman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself (published in 1861).
Harriet Tubman. 1820 – 1913
Rooted in and guided by her deep spiritual faith, Harriet Tubman escaped her slave owner in 1849 and by 1854 had become an indispensable figure in the abolitionist and Underground Railroad networks of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. 1825 – 1911
An extraordinarily gifted, prolific American literary figure, Harper was also a compelling abolitionist lecturer, staunch supporter of the Underground Railroad, and a founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association (1866) and of the National Association of Colored Women (1898). She was on the national board of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), published extensively in the Christian Recorder and appears in Bishop Daniel Payne’s 1891 History of the AME Church.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett. 1862 – 1931
Utilizing her journalistic pen and a tireless activism, Wells-Barnett fearlessly devoted her life to the cause of justice for African Americans. Born into slavery in Mississippi, in 1879 she moved to Memphis where she taught school and edited the newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight. Her sustained campaign against lynching led to her 1892 investigative report, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” and to both national and international speaking tours.
Anna Julia Cooper. 1858 – 1964
A scholar, public school teacher, social activist and author, Cooper is best known for her book A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892). In 1914, she studied at Columbia University (New York), and in 1925 earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne (Paris). In 1930 she became president of the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Employed Colored Persons (Washington, DC). During her long lifetime Cooper continuously articulated and refined her analysis of two insights: that oppressive social power is a global structure and that those most severely affected are the world’s women of color.
Dr. Margaret McManus
Associate Professor of History and Theology
The grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the last few months have fueled growing alarm over inequities in our legal system and the ways in which racial bias affects law enforcement. These decisions have brought into relief the profound and deep-seated racism that affects the daily lives and deaths of people of color, especially African-American men, and have galvanized a movement that at its heart simply claims: #blacklivesmatter. They have also sparked many different actions of protest and dissent across the United States and around the world. Last Monday night, several students, staff and faculty from across the schools of the Graduate Theological Union, including the American Baptist Seminary of the West, Pacific School of Religion, and Starr King School for the Ministry, took part in one of those actions and 16 of us were arrested for participating in a peaceful protest.
While some have criticized the form that this protest took as both dangerous and ineffectual, we have come to understand it as part of the disruptive work that we are called to as spiritually rooted, theologically grounded faith leaders working for social change. When systems of oppression seem intractable, disruptive action becomes an important first step in transforming them. We must stop the flow of business-as-usual in order to imagine a new world breaking in. While occupying a freeway may not create racial justice, it points toward the disruptive action that will be needed to dismantle the systems of racial injustice that create the world in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others are killed with impunity. For Christians, this kind of disruption is part of God’s in-breaking into the world, the incarnation of Love-made-flesh. The table-turning Jesus disrupted the flow of history by enfleshing God’s love in our midst; so, too, are we called to disruptive action that embodies and animates God’s justice and compassion in the world.
Before joining our comrades in the streets of Berkeley, 35 or more seminary students, staff and faculty, clergy members and chaplains gathered in Pacific School of Religion’s chapel to remember and take on the responsibility to which God calls us. We prepared ourselves with basic first-aid kits, food, and water knowing that where there is hunger, we are called to give nourishment. That night we sought to be visible signs of solidarity, peace and hope. Some wore vestments and collars, others carried signs that said “Chaplain,” hoping to remind the police that these are peaceful protests, and to remind anyone who is fighting for their lives that they are not alone. Our marching took us from the UC Berkeley’s campus throughout the streets of Berkeley, all the while seeking to maintain the peaceful character of what came to be a crowd of thousands. In the spirit of this ministry of accompaniment, we went where the people were.
That journey culminated in a parking lot behind a shopping mall, where we and 200+ other protesters were trapped and held by police in riot gear. As anxieties, anger at the situation, and a sense of powerlessness to affect the outcome grew, it became clear that things could easily escalate. One fellow protestor asked us if we would start singing, as we had at other tense times that evening, and we did. In that moment we connected to a call that resonates in every religious tradition. We found ourselves in the position to help people remain in the spirit of the primary motivations behind their presence in these protests all along. With each song, we, protestors and police alike, became a little bit more human, a little bit more connected, a little bit more grounded in the justice we sought and the peace we protected. Even though our night would end in handcuffs, without justice or peace, for those moments we were rooted in the deepest yearnings of our hearts.
We were not there to be arrested, but the path of solidarity we chose came to that. As a group of mostly, but not all, white people, we recognize that this act of solidarity comes from a place of privilege. The reality is that we, unlike Eric Garner, can breathe, and we benefit from the same system that wrung the life out of him. But our arrests, especially for those of us who are white, implicate us in a commitment not simply to affirm that #blacklivesmatter at a theoretical level, but also to engage in concrete action that foregrounds black voices and supports the struggle against the horrific effects of white supremacy. So the question for all of us becomes how will we advance this movement? To which communities and voices are we going to hold ourselves accountable as we move forward? How are we going to put down the figurative bullhorn and be allies as people of color lead the way toward change?
It is easy to feel powerless when confronted by systems of injustice that seem intractable. It is tempting to rely on others to bring about the change we know the world needs. We end up questioning the tactics, arguing about strategies, and throwing our hands up in despair. But Michael Brown’s death calls us to put our hands up in solidarity and cry out “don’t shoot” to a system that devalues black lives. And if we are white people, justice demands that we take part in dismantling the system of racial bias that ensures our privilege. Embodying both righteous anger and transforming love is complicated. It is always an imperfect and ever-unfolding process. Yet, we, as religious leaders and people of faith have a responsibility to take action, to embody God’s disruptive love in the world. We have the opportunity to reconnect people to the primary motivations behind their anger, their demand for justice, and their hope for a better world. We invite you to see our witness as an invitation to a broader conversation, a bigger dialogue about racial injustice in the United States that must begin with communities of color. And we implore you to find your own ways of disrupting corrupt systems that perpetuate racism, of amplifying the voices of those who cry in the wilderness for justice, and of holding us all accountable to our deepest values and purpose. How will you let your light shine in such a time as this?
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. For Michael Brown, I’m gonna let it shine. For Eric Garner, I’m gonna let it shine. With the police, I’m gonna let it shine. Until freedom rings, I’m gonna let it shine.
Jennifer Davidson, Associate Professor of Worship and Theology, American Baptist Seminary of the West
Sharon Fennema, Assistant Professor of Christian Worship and Director of Worship Life, Pacific School of Religion