Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Power is in the Pews—A Student Remembers Rev. Shirley Prince

By Alice Faye Duncan
Special to R3

I am a Memphian who grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. My childhood pastor was Rev. Henry Logan Starks. He was tall and towering like a tree. His smile was bright and golden like the sun. Rev. Starks was a seminarian whose scholarly preaching and homiletic artistry moved and inspired my teenage peers and me. Under his tutelage was a tiny spitfire minister named, Shirley Owens Prince. When she preached in Stark’s place, Minister Prince spoke in direct terms that my peers and I could quote and discuss.

Children at church loved Rev. Starks. Each Sunday he shook our hands and looked into our eyes to announce, “YOU ARE SOMEBODY.” Parents told us stories about the Civil Rights Movement when Rev. Starks marched with Dr. King to help the Memphis Sanitation Workers earn higher wages. We respected Rev. Starks with the greatest reverence. But when it came to preaching, it was Minister Prince with the gift to make us care about runaway prodigals, precocious Peter, the power of giving and the wages to be paid for our unruly behavior.

Rev. Starks died in the summer of 1985. Minister Prince left the A.M.E. Church. My peers and I went to college. Then in 1998, Pastor Prince started a nondenominational church that she named the Philippians V Multi-Ministry. Devoted Methodists, who had been teenagers in years past, joined Philippians V with their children and spouses. Pastor Prince used imagery and metaphor that a baby could understand. The sermons were accessible. For many of us, joining her church was not a difficult decision.

As a pastor, Shirley Prince preached radical ideas that are seldom promoted in church. She understood that each believer must surrender to the call of God. The call is not to do something wonderful and grand. The call is to be something lowly and used like a servant. In acknowledgement of servant leadership, each member in her church was called a “minister.”

As did the Apostle Paul, Shirley Prince preached that each of us was endowed with gifts that were for the edification and maturation of the Body of Christ which is the church. She didn’t promote the elevation of the pastor as some kind of celebrated soul-saving “Lone Ranger.” If the local church is to survive, thrive and bless the community, she said it would do so, only when members are developed to activate their gifts and lead from the pews. Her constant mantra was, “Power is in the pews!” During church, workshops and Bible studies, she frequently declared, “Nobody needs a sage on stage. The power is in you!”

Pastor Prince had a third radical opinion. She encouraged believers to be the primary caretakers of their own spiritual growth and development. She viewed the office of pastor as a leader and guide. But when members depend completely on pastors as a spiritual “brain trust,” she expressed that the church won’t prevail as a life changing and conquering force.

To enlighten believers and position them to conquer with the Word, Shirley Prince encouraged her students and church members to study the Bible for their own understanding. To gain an appreciation for philosophy and classical literature, she encouraged us to read the timeless tales by Maupassant, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Then in small study groups, we studied spiritual writings by Howard Thurman, C.S. Lewis and Watchman Nee. Within her church, it was not mandatory for unlettered adults to gain diplomas and degrees. However, she stressed that it was most important for every church member to participate in lifelong learning.

Pastor Shirley Prince passed away on September 16, 2006. Some members continue to worship with the Philippians V Multi-Ministry, while others have taken the lessons learned in her care and moved on to worship in other places.

During this eighth anniversary of her death, let it be said that Shirley Prince was a shining scholar and preacher who learned from the venerable, Rev. Henry Logan Starks. As he mentored her to be a radical and thoughtful leader, she nurtured and mentored others. Pastor Prince gave me roots to grow. She gave me wings to fly. And by her instruction, no preacher or pastor can hold me hostage. Spiritual understanding begins when I seek God for myself.

Alice Faye Duncan is the author of HELLO, SUNSHINE—5 Habits to UNCLOUD Your Day
This New Kindle E-book for Adults Will be Available October 1, 2014
Email: HelloAliceFaye@aol.com Blog: www.helloalicefaye.wordpress.com
Follow Alice Faye on Twitter: @HelloAliceFaye
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Monday, September 1, 2014

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the Politics of Reconstruction-Part 5

by Andre E. Johnson
R3 Editor


*Read part 1 here. Read Part 2 here. Read Part 3 here. Read Part 4 here

Get your copy of the Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition American Prophetic Tradition in paperback.


When not focusing on politics—in the public and in church, Turner was busy preaching and conducting revivals across the state. In one letter to the editor Turner wrote, “This has been a year of revivals.” When Turner called for a day of prayer, revival broke out. 
We made Tuesday a day of special prayer and God, at my request, suggesting me a text: the words of it were, “Lord, Help Me.” We tugged at it an hour and a quarter. The text seemed freighted with such convincing arguments of man’s incapacity to help himself, that I could see that numbers had resolved to rely upon God. Finally, an invitation was given to all seekers for salvation, to approach and bow around the altar. In an instant scores came forward, gladly seeking for this opportunity of repentance. Every place around the altar being taken, we requested the remainder to kneel at their seats, and two-thirds of that vast audience kneeled down, uttering the most solemn prayers I ever heard (23).
In another one, Turner wrote:
Persons who were thought to be immovable, have been brought into the church and powerfully converted, not under me, but under God. In Columbus, GA, a few nights ago, at love feast, I saw over 500 persons praising God at once, I never expected to see such a night this side of heaven, nor do I believe such a scene was ever witnessed before in America (24-25).
Turner was both practitioner and student of preaching. Several of his letters offered advice and counsel for would be preachers. In one, he applauded members of his own conference for not depending upon “cant phrases, sing-song hobbies, useless jargons, or foolishly assumed gesticulations, to always generate a shout….when they arouse the passions of the ignorants.” For Turner, people should hold preaching in high esteem and the preacher should do all she or he can do to become better at proclaiming the gospel. Turner explained his position this way: 
A man has a right to think himself as great as he chooses, and then work to have his acts or words correspond with those thoughts. No man is justified in writing himself down as an ass, and then remain an ass, because he said he was one. Such a man is a fool. A great man first concludes he is great, then he reaches after great things, tries to do like great men, and measure his greatness by the standard of the great, and not by catering to the ignorant masses, or to the whimsical plaudits of is inferiors.
Further he wrote: 
What would you think of a lion, taking roaring lessons from a grunting hog? Or a steam engine pacing behind an ox cart, to learn the velocity of locomotion? There would be about as much consistency in either, as there is in a preacher, with all the deep truths of a Holy Writ before him, with all the examples of the Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, and primitive fathers, not to mention those world renowned theologians and reformers, religious and scientific, who stand as beacon lights along the receding ages of the grand by-gone; and not withstanding all this, he screams, bellows, whines, grins, gesticulates, bends, genuflects, brays, and raises, or saturates the house with his mellifluous odor, merely to extort applause, under the misnomer of a shout. And then sits down with the satisfaction of having performed a marvelous feat, when really not a solitary moral sentiment has been touched. This mania I am happy to say, has not and I hope never will become an epidemic among our Georgia preachers. And more, if they continue to improve as they have the last seven years, seven more years will present our church with some of the finest pulpit orators in the country (66).
Whether on the platform, the press, or in the pulpit, Henry McNeal Turner made his views and opinions known. In 1880, he became the 12th bishop of the AME church. 

Follow Andre on Twitter @aejohnsonphd

Work Cited

Johnson, Andre E.(ed) and Henry McNeal TurnerAn African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War. The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner, Vol  3. Edwin Mellen Press, 2013 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Mike Brown’s Blood

When Rev. Traci Blackmon picked me up from St. Louis International Airport last week, she was in a state of exhaustion that allowed her to be little more than present. A hospitable local clergywoman, she had been working on the front lines of the Ferguson demonstrations, organizing several of the local rallies demanding justice. I could see why she was one of the most respected pastors in the area. She told me how she had been establishing safe havens and healing circles in churches for those too traumatized to march among the armored vehicles that lined the streets. Much of her work was behind the scenes, coordinating efforts between property owners, politicians, and police officers for long-term solutions to the war zone that Ferguson had become.

She had also been challenging newcomers.

“The question I’ve been asking people is ‘Why are you here?’” she told me, clearly extending the question to me as well.

My answer was simple. I was in Ferguson because I felt an irresistible call from the Spirit to go; I could not not be there; I was there because Mike Brown felt like my distant relative and a kind of gatekeeper of my children’s fate if nothing changes. But my answer to her second question was much harder to find.
“What’s the difference between Mike Brown’s murder,” she asked, “and any of the other murders of unarmed black people at the hands of police? Why is his murder causing this kind of response?”

“What’s the difference between Mike Brown’s murder,” she asked, “and any of the other murders of unarmed black people at the hands of police? Why is his murder causing this kind of response?” I was a bit stumped. I wondered if it had to do with the unique makeup of the Black community in St. Louis. Maybe this time the police had done wrong to people who had simply had enough. Perhaps their fiery courage was enough to kindle the world’s courage.

“I think it’s the blood,” she answered for me. “They left him lying on that street for four hours. Everyone was forced to absorb it.”

Read the rest here

We Forget Dr. King Had a Political Ministry

Ancestors, smancestors. Obviously, it doesn’t matter to some that previous generations faced death for the rights we enjoy, namely voting. Did your Pastor advocate staying home next Tuesday? Sadly, this has been the tune sung in some churches this year. Some Black Christian Dems have even been chided as “fools” for “voting against God” and focusing too much on race. Thankfully, it’s not everyone. Okay, so the current President isn’t interested in overturning Roe v. Wade and he’s ok with Gay Marriage. IDK. What bothers me is the current state of the Black church in the political game. We’ve fallen off. From my seat in the sanctuary, it seems we’ve gone from the fiery activism of the Civil Rights movement to yapping. How did weget here?

Listen, this ain’t no GOTV piece. This is a getyolife message. I’m asking you to hear my humble cry: Quit ignoring history. And while you’re at it, stop with this “Jesus is my candidate” rhetoric. It’s almost like we’re closing our eyes to the real meat of the social issues of our day in favor of an overly religious approach.

Stay wit’ it for a moment.

The Incomplete “Faith” Agenda

As a student, I once subscribed to the notion that one party represented righteousness and faith while the other was full of atheists who were sending us all to Hell. Closer examination of the Bible, sound bytes and facts revealed something. Righteousness is doing all of what God commands. And a quick newsflash for the Super Christians out there:

Neither side is doing exactly what Jesus would have done had he been running for office.

Biblical morality encompasses much more than we’re hearing about. If we look at the life of Jesus, He spent most of His time meeting peoples’ needs, showing us how He felt about the “Average Joes.” Anyone can zoom in on two areas they like, but that isn’t really devotion. A truly “Kingdom” agenda would cause leaders to also put themselves under the microscope in both their personal and public lives. Like, don’t “hype up” morality and faith and then get caught with an underage prostitute. Kay?

So, in response to the church folks tweets and FB posts on this topic:

Jesus cannot and will never be anyone’s candidate as long as we live in a democracy.

What we can do as believers, is a better job of shaping policy. Instead of allowing a party to force their moral agenda down our throats, we need to have the boldness to correct their misrepresentation of the faith. What better way to do that than by encouraging more people of faith to get involved in the political system? The Biblical stories of Deborah, Daniel, Esther and Joseph prove that it is possible to be both God-fearing and a servant of the people. Frances Perkins, the Architect of FDR’s New Deal programs is another great example of this. Perkins once said that she “came to Washington to work for God and for FDR.”


Read the rest here

Cheap Peace

People are already calling for rest in Ferguson. People are demanding calm and peace. Yet, there has been no justice. There has been no repentance for the crimes committed against young black men and women when they are murdered by police officers every 28 hours in this country.
Civil Rights leader Ella Baker prophetically asserted, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Baker unequivocally calls for this nation to work towards justice. I interpret her statement as an argument against “cheap peace.” When I speak of cheap peace, I refer to a temporary calm that comes from sweeping the hard truths of injustice underneath our societal rug so that such hard truths are out of sight and out of mind. It is a peace that is cheap because it costs us nothing. It bypasses the hard work that comes with truth telling and correcting deep systemic injustices. When there are calls for cheap peace, one must ask, “For whose benefit?” Does avoiding hard truths help to protect the marginalized and suffering or does it protect an abusive and oppressive system? Justice is the prerequisite upon which peace, reconciliation, and healing must be built. Without truth telling and justice, we seek a cheap peace, which is temporary and false. Faith communities must avoid seeking a cheap peace in Ferguson until we have challenged and eradicated the racist systems that cause violence and darkness in this country.
Martin Luther King reminds us of the danger of settling for cheap peace. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” can be interpreted as a theological manifesto attacking calls for cheap peace. In this letter, King responds to his critics, who called his leadership against segregation laws in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.” His critics denounced his leadership of the demonstrations he led in Birmingham, arguing that such activities promoted unrest and violence instead of peace and healing. King responds to his critics by expressing his regret that they did not “express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about demonstrations.” He further states that a social analysis that focuses on effects without grappling with underlying causes is a superficial analysis. For King, the underlying cause for protests against racial injustice in America is always and already tied to inequitable and uncaring systems that subjugate Blacks to second-class citizenship. A responsible theology involves critical social analysis of the dehumanizing root causes of perceived an/or real social effects (any anger or rage that manifests among oppressed groups) in order to inaugurate justice in response to degrading causes and conditions.
Read the rest here

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#RenishaMcBride: The #TheodoreWafer Trial: A Reader


On November 2, 2013, Theodore Wafer shot and killed Renisha McBride as she sought assistance after being in a car accident. The shooting of an unarmed black teenager has similarities to the Trayvon Martin murder by George Zimmerman. Here at R3, we collected some of the editorials and opinion pieces that examined the shooting of McBride. We now follow that up with pieces published during the Wafer trial that is set to start July 21, 2014. If you have a piece you would like for us to include, please send it to us at rhetoricracereligion@gmail.com.  

For other Readers, please click here

1. Trial Begins for Man Charged With Murdering 19-Year-Old Renisha McBride
2. What Murdered Black Boys Mean for the Renisha McBride Trial 
3. Blacks Continue to Fight for Justice a Year After Zimmerman Verdict 
4. What Trayvon Means For Renisha 
5. Renisha McBride's Death and Who Gets to Be a Perceived Threat 
6. Remember Renisha McBride and That Imperfect Black Women’s Lives Also Matter 
7. Black Men Do Owe More To Black Women’s Causes 
8. Renisha McBride vs. Trayvon Martin: Why these cases are NOT the same 
9. Why Renisha McBride's Case Makes Me Wanna Holla  
10. Renisha McBride Was Also an Unarmed Black Teenager 
11. SEEKING SANCTUARY 
12. A Poem for Renisha McBride 
13. Renisha McBride was Black, a Woman and a Human 
14. Theodore Wafer’s Defense – An Explanation of Michigan’s Castle Doctrine  
15. How White America’s Ignorance and Black America’s Complacency Caused Renisha McBride’s Death  
16. Renisha McBride: A Case of Gender, Race and Class 
17. Renisha McBride’s Murderer Wants the Humanity He Doesn’t Deserve 
18. Three Questions I have for Theodore Wafer 
19. An Open Letter to the Unjust – For Renisha  
20. Renisha McBride Matters: Burying the Pain of the Zimmerman Effect 
21. Twitter's Role In The Renisha McBride Verdict 
22. Justice for Renisha McBride 
23. The Road to Justice for Renisha McBride 
24. Renisha McBride Verdict: How Easy is Justice when Black Life is Valued 
25. Renisha McBride’s killer is convicted — and the AP blames the victim 
26. Justice Is Finally Served For Renisha McBride  
27. She Has A Name: Renisha McBride’s Humanity and the Associated Press 
28. ROLAND MARTIN: Dream Hampton Talks Justice For Renisha McBride, Theodore Wafer Conviction  
29. Renisha was on Trial All Along 
30. With Justice For Renisha McBride, White Men Showing Signs Of Struggle In Race War

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing: Prophetic Practices over Pious Polity

by Earle Fisher
R3 Contributor


I’ve spent the last several months trying to drive home to point of importance with our congregation that the embodiment of God in Jesus of Nazareth matters... especially to people of color. Therefore, when we see Jesus’ actions in its historical context it disrupts the ways in which we have interpreted the activities and attitudes of people of color (who are also people of faith, irrespective of how unconventional) and causes us to take a deeper look in the mirror to find the glimpses of God that we can see in our own eyes, minds and bodies. 

Part of the importance of wrestling and grappling with Jesus’ actions and the affirmations of his titles, (re)placing Jesus in his historical context and hue of black embodiment, is that it causes us as minorities to re-value our own humanity. This is a matter of life-and-death in the current racialized climate that attempts to criminalize black bodies while blaming victims for their own oppression. In other words, it brings us back to our relationship with God in spite of the negativity that has been heaped upon our psyche. Dr. Brian Bantum, in an article entitled, “Doing Theology As Though Our Bodies Mattered” says, “If theology does anything should it not at least speak to the realities that mark our lives together as human beings? And if this is the case, how can theology that confesses who God is, not also acknowledge the bodies that confess?”

It matters to black folks in America (and anyone concerned about racial equality, honesty and “justice for all”) that Jesus was black. If Jesus can wrestle in the garden, weep in times of sorrow, protest in righteous indignation (holy anger) and figure his faith out along the way, then we can too can embrace our human frailty and still engage our relationship with God in a way that becomes more redemptive. Salvation, then, is not merely the access to a heavenly afterlife (or an inspirational insurance policy), but also, the working out of our current lot of life, the struggling for justice, fighting for peace and seeking God’s will for the world while we are still in it, as long as we’re still in it!

Therefore, our faith is not just about polity and piety, but also about politics and policies that impact the way we live. And when the politics and policies are enacted and affected by issues of race, class, gender and other social affiliations, then we must do theology, not just learn theology or talk theology. We must resolve ourselves to worship and work, pray and participate in ways the redeem those of us who find ourselves outcaste by the social system that has so much collective human power.

When we have to look at Jesus through the lens of his blackness (his human-be-ing) then we
can reconstitute our focus on socio-political-religious issues that really matter, what Jesus calls, “the more weightier matters of the law.” The exigency (urgency) of social issues ought to guide the way we search for God’s presence and respond in light of God’s power.

Jesus was a prophetic political leader. Jesus ushered in a ministerial movement by concentrating on the various moments that mattered, not so much for his own social status but, for those with pressing spiritual and social needs. Jesus participated in the political system of his day, as somewhat of a conscientious objector (one who refuses to participate in the violent advancement of an imperial power) while being guided, primarily, by his religious convictions/tradition that was interpreted through the lens of his experience. Jesus experiences the world as a working-class-poor-urban-male (read: black man) that lives in a country controlled by rich, white people who cares more about property than people; more about corporations than children and more about money than ministry.

So to live faith effectively in the 21st century it is necessary that we consider what Dr. Obery Hendricks calls, “The Politics of Jesus” and seek to publish a similar theology through our present day actions, because while we are concerned with miniscule matters of religious tradition, people are hurting and need help and healing. For Jesus, ministry was more about healing the wounded and brokenhearted than the place and space of worship service (John 4). His focus is on community uplift more so than consecration and sanctification as we have come to understand it (Matthew 15) because the pivot point of ministry is transformative theology and not traditional technicalities. For Jesus the focus is for the oppressed to be liberated through a transformative encounter with God, “by any means necessary.” This is the type of faith and ministerial representation that ought to be promoted and published in these perilous times.

Follow Earle on Twitter @pastor_earle
 

Doing Theology As Though Our Bodies Mattered

The shooting of Michael Brown, the subsequent protests, and the police response in Ferguson, Missouri has made public once again the festering disease that is race in America. The profiling of African American men and women, police brutality and proportion of African Americans killed by police has persisted in the United States. In many ways, the events that led to the protests in Ferguson were nothing new. But perhaps what was new was not the anger of the African American community, but the visibility of racialized animus in the Ferguson Police Department’s response. The militarized deployment of police soldiers and the subsequent deployment of the Missouri National Guard to protect the police in contrast to the brazen protest of Cliven Bundy highlights the persistence of our racial divide, but even more just how emboldened some have become to defy, suppress, and criminalize black bodies.
In the face of such a vehement and violent police response we also see how interpretations of these events fall along racialized lines with the Pew Research Center reporting that 80 percent of African Americans polled believe race is a prominent factor in Michael Brown’s shooting death as opposed to only 37 percent of white Americans. But even more, the event has highlighted the still-deep racial divisions of the American church as so many Christians and pulpits remained silent as events unfolded.
But in what ways are these events theological? What does it mean to study God and God’s world with Ferguson in view? Given the church’s relative silence, but perhaps even its contribution to this silence, we must begin to ask what is not at stake for Christians in this moment? What questions are being asked and what questions remain unnoticed and inconsequential? If theology does anything should it not at least speak to the realities that mark our lives together as human beings? And if this is the case, how can theology that confesses who God is, not also acknowledge the bodies that confess? In this way theology has failed to glean one of Augustine’s most fundamental insights, that Christian theology is always a dual confession. We confess who God is, but always bound to those words are confessions of who we are (and who we are not). What are the realities that shape what we believe we should confess and what is “natural” for us? How does theology speak to the bodily realities of my day-to-day life and to the lives of those whose bodies and lives are so violently marginalized by society?
Can we do theology faithfully without attending to the shape of our formation, understanding the structure of the problem as theological problems? 
Read the rest here

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Al Sharpton Does Not Have My Ear: Why We Need New Black Leadership Now

Racial politics in the U.S. is beholden to the space of black death. On Monday, Michael Brown’s family, friends and loved ones gathered to lay his body to rest, even though his unjust and untimely death leaves his community of Ferguson, Missouri, in a state of unrest.
Michael’s funeral, held in a local black Baptist Church, was reminiscent of so many familiar rituals of black cultural home-goings: raucous preaching, the call and response of the audience emboldening those in the pulpit to “make it plain,” and “tell it all,” while the truths being affirmed received “hearty amens.”
Black churches are a central part of the 20th century story of American racial politics. Dr. King was the consummate preacher, flanked by peers like Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Joseph Lowery, and protégés like Rev. Jesse Jackson. Last century, black churches were the locus of a kind of narrative authority in black communities – the way black preachers, mostly male, told our story to us in light of the story of Jesus Christ gave us hope, inspired change and helped us to make sense of black suffering, to believe that God had a grander purpose in the sure and steady sacrifice of black bodies, namely the fashioning of a better, more just America.
It is within that context, that of the black church and its relationship to black politics, that we have come over the last three decades to know the person of Rev. Al Sharpton.
In his sermonic remarks at Michael’s funeral yesterday, Sharpton tried to assume the mantle of black America’s spiritual leader, the one with the moral and rhetorical force to move us toward thinking of Mike’s death as the beginning of a movement, rather than merely a moment.
Al Sharpton, however, does not have the ear of this generation, and it is not his leadership that any of us who will live on the planet for the next half-century or so really needs. To be clear, I do not believe in the slaying of elders. Black cultural traditions hold within them a serious reverence for the authority and wisdom of elder people.
This is not about Sharpton’s age, but rather about how he has positioned himself in relationship to black politics. My issue with him resides squarely within the limitations of his moral and political vision for who and how black people get to be within the American body politic.
Read the rest here

Liberal Clergy Want to Challenge the Religious Right's Power in Politics

It was too much to resist: the media lure of prominent clergy members like the Revs Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson visiting Ferguson, Missouri,a moment about to become a movement. But real change to the conditions they went there to highlight and decry – real movement – can only come from local organizers, like the St Louis Clergy Coalition. That coalition has been instrumental, though less talked about on the news, by walking the streets of Ferguson two weeks of protests, by organizing prayer services for its people.
And, like their parishioners, some have even been shot at and teargassed by the police for the peaceful expression of their civil rights. This is a religious organizing moment reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. This is a representative moment of the religious left reminiscent of little we have ever seen before.
The St Louis Clergy Coalition have collaborated with an outside clergy organization, Pico, the nationwide network of faith-based community organizations. Pico itself rallied around Ferguson and its residents to provide services in the wake of the extensive police crackdown, to tend a grieving community after the killing of Michael Brown and to provide support overworked pastors trying to help their parishioners process the intense police presence – and their anger.
Read the rest here

A Call for More than Judicial Remedies

By the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
Director, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness is the voice of Presbyterian public policy and advocates for the social justice policies approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


“In each time and place, there are particular problems and crisis through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations…”
-- The Confession of 1967, 9.43


Let me begin by expressing my deep sympathies to the families and all persons adversely affected by the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the many others whose lives have been unjustly and too early taken by the scourge of gun violence. To the families who suffer needlessly from the loss of loved ones due to murder and gun violence in the United States, I can only convey the Spirit of our faith in the words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)


THE KILLING OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN AND BOYS

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man was seen on a cell phone video being choked to death, ostensibly for selling single cigarettes, by New York City police with what appeared to be excessive force.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, a 17-year-old African American boy in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot while holding his hands in the air indicating that he was unarmed. Both killings were perpetrated by White police officers. The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, has been inundated with requests to sign and release statements regarding the shooting of Michael Brown. After taking some time to pause and reflect, I am releasing this statement.

The killing of African American males by Whites, and others, seems to be trapped in legal standards that justify such violence by giving persons the right to defend themselves with excessive force, even when it seems unwarranted. On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury exonerated George Zimmerman, a mixed-race man, of all charges related to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The George Zimmerman trial and verdict brought to the forefront the “Stand Your Ground” law which, in principle, gives a person the right to use deadly force in self-defense if he or she feels that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.[1] 

In November 2012, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African American and resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was killed by Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old White man, for playing his music too loudly while sitting in a car. Dunn was convicted of attempted murder. He was not convicted of murder due to a hung jury. The “Stand Your Ground” defense was used in the Dunn case.

In July 2012, Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old African American who was handcuffed in the back of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is alleged to have shot himself in the head with a concealed weapon while handcuffed. Questions remain as to the validity of police reports in Carter’s alleged suicide.

Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old African American man on a subway platform in Oakland, California. He was apprehended by police and shot dead while in custody on January 1, 2009. The White police officer was exonerated after saying he thought he had pulled his Taser.

The litany goes on and on. These high profile cases leave very little confidence in a rule of law or its capacity to examine the facts fairly and prosecute White police officers for murder. Therefore, residents of Ferguson, Missouri, engage in a peaceful resistance movement to demonstrate their deep anger, fear, and frustration over the police-killing of a 17-year-old African American boy.


OUR CALLING TO ADDRESS RACISM

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is called through our confessional documents to be the Church of every age. “God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which he has called his church are the heart of the gospel in any age. Our generation stands in peculiar need of reconciliation in Christ.”  (The Confession of 1967, 9.06) It is not enough for us as Christians to be appalled or sad while viewing Ferguson, Missouri, as a place beyond our own reality. We must be clear that the issues of this shooting are deeper than anything one trial can resolve. Yes, it is about the shattered hopes of a family that has lost a loved one, a loss which will reverberate for generations. But it is also deeply and truly about the social sin of prejudice, bigotry, and institutionalized racism, which is imbedded in our social structures, our justice system, and the laws by which we claim to offer freedom to each other.

As Presbyterians, we must stop giving lip service to a new Church while failing to confront the vestiges of racism in our Church and Society. Our work on racism in the United States is historic in some instances, but insignificant at many recent junctures in our social history. Most often our preference has been to wait for General Assembly statements or involvement from other entities of the denomination to provide litanies, prayers, and words of confession or healing. However, it is imperative that local congregations not remain silent and idle amid community strife. Nor can we be out of touch with the realities of racism, which still exist in the United States.[2] The 211th General Assembly (1999) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a policy document Facing Racism: A Vision of the Beloved Community. In it, the collected discernment of the Spirit offered this wisdom:

The PC(USA), and indeed the Christian community, must recommit to the struggle for racial justice. Churches must provide a moral compass for the nation by getting involved in shaping public policies that will move our nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation. As we stand on the verge of a new century, racism remains resilient and resurgent. While the social policies and pronouncements of denominations continue to emphasize inclusiveness and justice, these do not translate in the hearts and minds of Christians who participate in the electoral and political process. Christians are passive in the face of attacks on affirmative action and the adoption of regressive social policies at the local, state, and national levels. There is a growing awareness that a new understanding of racism is needed that takes into consideration the centrality of power in the institutionalization and perpetuation of racism. There is also an awareness that the methodologies that brought us to where we are will not take us where we need to go in the next century. If we are to build on past accomplishments, we must do a new analysis of racism within the current context of the nation. This will inform the direction we must take in the next century and provide guidance as to how we might get there.[3]

It is imperative that we go deeper than pulpit exchanges once each year to satisfy the call of celebrating Racial Justice Sunday.A once-a-year celebration of justice and advocacy work is no more theologically correct than a belief that Christmas or Easter is celebrated only once a year. For people who really read the scriptures and know Jesus’ call to justice work, we know that it is a lifetime commitment to righting the ills of our society and world. The PC(USA), and indeed the Christian community, must recommit to the pursuit of and struggle for racial justice. Churches must provide a moral compass for the nation by getting outside their buildings, engaging in their communities, and shaping public policies that will move our whole nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation for all people.


OUR CALLING TO ERADICATE GUN VIOLENCE

The African American community is the hardest hit by gun violence, as I have suggested earlier. The deterioration of social trust and the consolidation of poverty in inner-city neighborhoods has spawned a culture of violence in which guns have become the “symbols and tools,” not so much of freedom as of survival. The result -- the firearm death rate for African Americans is twice what it is for White Americans. Although African American males only make up six percent of the population, they account for 47 percent of gun homicides. Young African American men (aged 15–34) are more likely to die by a bullet than by disease, accident, or suicide. This is not true for any other demographic.[4] 

Gun violence permeates every aspect of our society. Thirty-thousand people are killed in the United States each year by guns. It is difficult for some of us to view police officers as perpetrators of gun violence. Many of our historic views of police are shaped by “Officer Friendly”[5] and/or the sacrificial efforts of first-responders during the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, let us not forget that police are human beings who face all of the fears, uncertainties, struggles, pains, prejudices, and frailties as every other human being. Their jobs are demanding and accompanying pressures from home or other parts of their lives are not always compartmentalized. Each time an officer fires a gun a potential act of gun violence is occurring. During the writing of this statement, press reports indicate that Michael Brown was unarmed and walking away from the officer with his hands raised in the air when he was killed. If these news reports are correct the police officer murdered a 17-year-old boy.

The 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved Gun Violence, Gospel Values, which begins with a call for the use non-lethal weapons by police.[6] Earlier this week the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness joined partners in the faith community by signing a faith letter developed by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). The letter calls for police in Ferguson, Missouri --

“[to] stop treating the people that they are supposed to serve and protect as the enemy. Armed with weapons and riot gear, the police officers look like they're coming from a war zone. Their equipment did. The Ferguson Police Department received military-grade equipment -- free of charge -- from the Pentagon as part of the 1033 program. And they've been using the weapons and gear against protesters following the police shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed 17-year-old.”

Community cannot be built with the threats of extreme force and military-grade weapons. Community is established through respectful dialogue, intentional relationship building, and interpersonal engagement. We must demilitarize our local police forces.

Churches are communities. Churches are also in communities. We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must become proactive in calling people together to address the violence that is evidenced in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and each time a person is killed in our local communities. The epidemic of deaths due to gun violence in our country – 30,000 per year – is representative of a war zone every day.

Congregations that seriously desire to curb gun violence must be willing to advocate for Common Sense Gun Laws at the state, local, and national levels. We have and must continue to call for –

  1. A ban on all assault weapons. These are weapons of war and there is no reason for common citizens (including local police) to purchase or possess them. We do not use AK-47’s to hunt deer or to keep the peace! Therefore, we must advocate for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, which lapsed in 2004.
  2. We are calling for universal background checks. Presently, there is no federal requirement of a background check for the purchase of a firearm and some states do not require them at all. Therefore, persons that are struggling with mental illness, or do not know how to handle a gun safely, or possess criminal records can make gun purchases.
  3. Gun trafficking should be made a federal crime. Currently, prosecutions only occur under a law that prohibits the sale of guns without a federal license, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock. We must empower law enforcement to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and their entire criminal networks.
  4. We must advocate for an end to straw purchases of guns. No one should be allowed to purchase a gun for someone who legally cannot purchase one for him/herself.[7]
  5. We must call on the Pentagon to end the 1033 program, which arms local police forces with the weapons of war. Surplus weapons of war have no place in our local communities or in the hands of law enforcement. They are not soldiers.


CALL TO ACTION

So, the response must be multi-faceted. It isn’t enough to feel outrage, but do nothing. Or to feel fear, but do nothing. Or to feel utter, bone-crushing grief, but do nothing. We must institute policies that limit access to guns. Weapons of war have no place in our homes, communities, or law enforcement. But more than that, we as Church must confront the social sin of racism head-on. We must get outside our church buildings, beyond our comfort zones, and say loud and clear, “this is my brother and I will not accept that his life is less valuable than mine. The violence has to stop.” We must be willing to challenge the culture that tells African American boys that their lives are worth less than the lives of White boys. We live in a culture that attempts to justify itself by claiming “self-defense” when we really mean fear and bigotry, or pride, or individualism.But all of this is sin. Our faith reminds us that God is all sovereign and that “God calls us to love our neighbors, not protect ourselves against our neighbors.”[8]


PRAYERS FOR THE DAYS AHEAD

Let us pray

that Jesus’ love will comfort those in Ferguson, Missouri, who feel anger and sorrow.

that healing comes to all persons mourning the loss of someone who tragically died by gun violence.

that God will assist the legal system to hear the truth in all cases involving injustice, without biased ears and predetermined agendas based on bigotry and racial domination.

that we in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be sensitized to the daily violence that permeates our society and do something about it in our efforts to build community across the lines that divide us.

that we will be the instruments that end bigotry and hatred, challenging the false construction of race in our nation and world, so that we can see one another with hearts of love and not simply skin color.

that the Church will lead us with courage into a new day with the guidance of the Holy Spirit

that we will come to understand that love wins and God is in charge of this world - not us.

Amen

Monday, August 25, 2014

Rev. Al Sharpton Delivers Michael Brown Eulogy

Jesus in Strange Places: ‘Black Jesus’ & Understanding Religion & Race on the Margins

Every once and a while Jesus shows up in strange places.

The first time I saw Jesus appear in a peculiar place was as an adolescent at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) thanks to my friend Birghapati, a Hare Krishna. Upon discovering I was a Christian, Birghapati opened up the book The Hidden Glory of India to share with me how Jesus, after surviving his crucifixion, traveled to India, learned under a guru, and taught there for several years. The section on “the lost years of Jesus in India” was only two pages, but in that short chapter was an entire universe of problems, possibilities, and peculiarities for me to fathom.

Encountering Jesus in a strange place thrust me into a world of healthy, albeit challenging, questions, which in turn spurred my personal spiritual progress and taught me much about religion at the margins. Your own experience of Jesus in a strange place could prompt your own discovery or, if contemplated in a community, a group’s grasping of the nature, and reality, of Jesus — even as he appears in strange places.

With the proliferation of new media sources (television shows, podcasts, webpages, social media sites), Jesus pops up everywhere and millions of people see him, or hear about him, in a relatively short period of time. He appears on hospital windows, spaghetti dinners, in Middle Eastern dreams, and in newly syndicated TV shows like “Black Jesus” — a scripted comedy on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” from “The Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder.

Each time Jesus materializes there is undoubtedly controversy concerning orthodoxy and who has the authority to adjudicate Jesus’ authentic appearances and presence. But, what if instead of immediately denouncing these outlier apparitions of Jesus, we all took the opportunity to ask a few relevant questions?

Read the rest here

Religion and Truth

The best way into our subject is through a look at ancient mythology. Consider, for example, the familiar story of Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to move a rock to the top of a hill, whereupon it would roll back down, this appalling sequence to be repeated over and over through eternity.

Thinkers for generations have sensed in this myth a meaning, possibly a profound truth only dimly seen. Perhaps it is the image of an indominatable will. Or of the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of endless failure. Or it could be an image of justice. It has also been thought to symbolize the meaninglessness of human existence. In any case, what gives the story depth and importance is that it is thought to contain a truth behind the banality of the imagery.

Now suppose a professor of classics were to insist that this story has to be historically correct. He maintains that this myth, like so many others contained in ancient texts, must be considered true as it stands and not properly subject to interpretation or any search for hidden meanings. He thinks that he must take this position in order to uphold the worth and dignity of the classics and their venerable authors. Otherwise, he thinks, people will want to dismiss mythology as a mere collection of fairy tales, unworthy of serious consideration.

Concerning such a misguided classicist we could say, first, that he has completely missed the point; second, that far from upholding the worth and dignity of the classics, he has trivialized them; and third, that he has made a fool of himself.

And this brings us to the nature of myths generally and how the understanding of them has changed over time. The change represents a great loss. It is as if a curtain of darkness has fallen over a vast treasure of truth, and all because of an unnecessarily narrow conception of truth.

Read the rest here

Sunday, August 24, 2014

White Christians: It's Time to Stand in Solidarity With Your Black Brothers and Sisters

In 1894, black racial justice activist Ida B. Wells sounded the alarm on racial injustice, imploring white Christians to put a stop to the lynching of black people. She spoke out saying, “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”[i] Alas, white Christians continued their preoccupation with fire-and-brimstone sermons and their disregard for black lives. Their “whites only” version of the gospel compelled them to ignore the perspectives of black people, refuse to address lynching, and deny the value of black lives.
The lynching of black people continued for 60 more years.
In 1963, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also sounded the alarm, calling upon white Christians to stop criticizing the black civil rights movement and instead begin investigating the racist conditions that produced it. He wrote, “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”[ii] By and large, white Christians ignored his plea. Their “whites only” version of the gospel didn’t require them listen to the perspectives of black people or defend the lives and dignity of their black brothers and sisters.
Five months later, white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham – and 4 little black girls were killed.
Just last summer, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin, many black Christian leaders did triple-duty. In addition to leading activism efforts in our local communities and providing pastoral care to those devastated by the verdict, we also took to Twitter, blogs, pulpits and conference podiums to call upon white Christians to wake up to the reality of racism in America. I wrote a widely-read piece for Christianity Today, asking white Christians to examine their privilege, recognize that racism persists, humbly listen to black perspectives on race, and follow Jesus’ footsteps by standing in cross-cultural solidarity with black people. A number of white Christians responded to the alarm, but prominent Christian justice leaders of diverse cultures and denominations perceived a general lack of engagement from white Christians.[iii]
Read the rest here

No More Reconciliation Talk

This post is mostly for other white Christians.
It’s not about what we should all be doing today in response to what’s happening in #ferguson and dozens of other cities today. Nearly two weeks into this spreading eruption there’s so much powerful and precise writing out there now on that, that not a one among us can possibly say again, “I’m so upset and outraged, but I just don’t know what a white person’s to do.”
Find something. Do it. Right now.
But this post is about the longer haul when the tear gas canisters are finally empty. It’s for those of us who love to talk about “racial reconciliation.” About “welcome” and “inclusion.”
I’d bet a lot of money that if you’re a liberal white Christian you recognize these concepts very well.
Racial reconciliation.
It’s the official way we justice-loving, liberal (white) Protestants have talked about how we should respond to racism since the civil rights era came to a close. It’s the most persistent path we’ve chosen in our pursuit of the interracial healing and togetherness we seem to know (or think) we need.
And that’s what this long haul post is about.
Read the rest here