In the Context of Ferguson, a Theology of Deep Solidarity

A Blog article by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana

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Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou conducts a training in non-violent civil disobedience for Ferguson protesters

 

This January, I will teach a SCUPE course — Intercultural and Interreligious Relations Intensive – which is primarily about the theological understanding of the “other.” Students will explore culturally distinct neighborhoods of Chicago such as North Lawndale, Pilsen, Chinatown and Devon Avenue, and religiously different places of worship such as the Downtown Islamic Center, the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, Buddhist Meditation Center and a Sikh Gurudwara. In these places they will listen to the stories of struggle and pain, consider how they would cope if they were in the others’ shoes, analyze their questions from political and economic frameworks and develop a theology for our multi-cultural and multi-religious context.

In the context of Ferguson, the course will incorporate a new level of depth and urgency. While a solid Theology of the Other is necessary for understanding the significant multi-cultural and multi-religious contexts of the city, in the context of Ferguson, we will have to work our way to a Theology of Deep Solidarity. How terribly impoverished are we as a nation because Michael Brown did not live to fulfil his dreams, or Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy in Cleveland killed by police, or from my own church family, 15 year old Deon Gilbert who did not live to become an adult? How deep is our sin that we allow unjustified race-based fear to rule police conduct that ends up killing or brutalizing African American men? We will ask how we will build a theology in the context of structural racism for which Ferguson has become the epicenter. Indeed, the task for our class will be to build a credible theological framework for Deep Solidarity. The following are some preliminary thoughts that will inform the class:

 

Rev. Sekou and the Clergy of Ferguson

Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a friend of mine, and a friend of SCUPE. I still remember his sermon at the Congress on Urban Ministry in 2006, on the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Jesus went to places of grief, pain and death, he preached, and those are the place in our urban communities that we are called to be. Sekou is in the place of grief, anger and pain today. He is in the forefront of the protests in Ferguson where he has been for many days since August 9th, much of that time training young people in the discipline of non-violent civil disobedience.

Rev. Sekou is the Associate Pastor of Formation and Justice at the First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plains in Boston. While in Ferguson, in addition to the church, he also represents the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the nation’s oldest organizations committed to justice and reconciliation.

On Monday, November 17th, I travelled to St. Louis for the governing board meeting of the National Council of Churches. I first visited with Rev. Sekou to find out what is happening on a day that the grand jury decision was first expected. Young people are leading the charge, he said, the churches are being sidelined. So he wears a clerical collar as he walks the streets and works actively to bridge the gap between the young people and the church.

The National Council of Churches, USA, whose General Secretary and President is SCUPE board member Jim Winkler, held its governing board meeting in St. Louis, precisely because they perceived Ferguson as the epicenter of the present day struggle for racial justice. On Monday, the NCC featured a presentation by Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Ferguson, and a panel of leaders and clergy from Ferguson. I have a deep respect for the clergy and leaders of Ferguson who are working courageously in a very difficult situation.

The meeting underscored two overwhelming concerns: one, that we must urge people to be calm and peaceful, and two, that it was young people who were leading the protests in Ferguson and to our consternation, they didn’t want to have anything to do with the clergy or the church. It occurred to me that these two concerns are directly related. In fact, the more the church says to young people to hush, the more they will sideline the church.

The church calls for peace only when the oppressed march, I said in the course of the discussion. Where is the churches’ call for peace when the privileged class exploits and violates us? Earlier that day, Rev. Sekou and I had discussed this question. Some clergy speak as if their only task is to control the crowd, he said, when they do that they are siding with the oppressor! Of course, we don’t want people to be killed or property to be destroyed. But isn’t the role of the church to be where Jesus would be, to confront the forces that kill and are arrayed in battle gear against the protesters calling for justice?

Click here for the National Council of Churches’ statement on Ferguson.

Rev. Sekou’s letter to clergy entitled “The Clergy’s Place Is with the Protesters in Ferguson” published in Al Jazeera on Nov. 23, 2014 is worth reading.

 

Structural Racism

The announcement of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown came exactly one week after I visited St. Louis. The spate of recent incidents of police brutality and shootings of innocent civilians, including a 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland last week, and numerous police shootings of unarmed black men point to a deep fissure in the social fabric in the United States. Ferguson is the epicenter of today’s protests, but the question is far deeper and more serious than one tragic shooting; it is wide-spread and systemic.

Following hard fought struggles a generation ago, civil rights became law in the United States, but in spite of that, racism thrives. How is this possible?

Racism has multiple and complex roots, of which, economics is one and, I suggest, that any serious attempt to dismantle racism must begin with economics. The civil rights struggle addressed the political aspects of racism but did not adequately address the economic side of that equation. What do we do with fact that still large numbers of African Americans are poor, and live in our city neighborhoods that are areas of concentrated poverty? And what do we do with the fact that police, who often work on behalf of the privileged class, patrol these neighborhoods and harass, brutalize and murder the people with impunity?

Some black leaders recognizing the critical role of economics encourage African American young people to become financially savvy entrepreneurs. This is good, since while we live within the system, we need to participate in it. But that is not an adequate solution. Structural racism is deeply embedded in the capitalistic economic system and until we address that head-on, I am afraid, the resolution to structural racism will continue to evade us.

The church was so powerfully involved in the civil rights movement of a generation ago which addressed racism as a political question. Since then, it has learned to value diversity and tries to be hospitable, but does not have the theological capacity to move any further. Why? I think, because it has not addressed the prior question that creates structural racism, the capitalistic economy, in which it participates and from which it benefits. Therefore when church leaders gather in the context of Ferguson, their primary response is to calm the protesters, which in turn results in their losing credibility with the young people protesting on the street.

Let me pose the question this way: As a nation we are moving rapidly towards a system of unfettered capitalism, where the idea of the Commonwealth (or wealth held in common) is becoming anathema to economists, politicians as well as church leaders. Will the churches address its idolatry of capitalism, where today, the glorification of individual wealth trumps the commonwealth, and accumulation trumps distribution, the economic value demonstrated throughout the Bible? If indeed structural racism is an outgrowth of the economic structures that result from unfettered capitalism, then until we address that question with all our theological muscle, our inaction will continue to fuel more Fergusons.

 

A Theology of Deep Solidarity

Dr. Joerg Rieger, professor of theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University,  one of the first authors of the Manifesto for People of Faith, issued by the 2014 Congress on Urban Ministry developed the idea of “Deep Solidarity” in his book Religion, Theology and Class: Fresh Engagement after a Long Silence (Palgrave: 2013). I sat down to lunch with him at the American Academy of Religion Meeting in San Diego last weekend.

Deep Solidarity requires a new sensibility, a new conversion, he said. In fact, Rev. Sekou in his video (see below) talks about Rev. Renita Lampkin who was injured by a rubber bullet shot by the Ferguson police. Rev. Sekou says when black people said thank you to her because she, a white person was engaging in the black people’s struggle, she replied, no.  It is her struggle as well, she said. She recognized that her own salvation as a white person is caught up in the salvation of African American persons, including that of Michael Brown.

Deep Solidarity requires the middle class persons to understand that their salvation is linked to those who are homeless than to those who are in the 1% whom they may seek to emulate. Deep solidarity requires those of us who live in this great nation to realize that our salvation is linked with those who are here without documents, that they are indeed fellow travelers to be welcomed with hospitality and honor rather than be reviled and deported. Deep solidarity brings us to the understanding that those who are protesting, those who are struggling without jobs, without food and shelter and caught up in the prison industrial complex are our sisters and brothers, that our salvation is linked with their’s. Deep solidarity is the Theology of the Other on steroids. We need nothing less today.

Below is a YouTube video of Rev. Sekou speaking on the role of Black and White Clergy in the context of contested texts. He is talking here with Jamie Wooten of KineticsLive.com.