Rev. Sekou Addresses Contextual Theology from Ferguson
“These young people…” Rev. Osagyefo Sekou exclaimed over and over again in his presentation on Wednesday night, January 14th, at Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church in Chicago.
“These young people, queer, black, women” – in other words, those that are most marginalized in our society – “are the very ones leading the movement toward justice,” he said. “I have to run to catch up with them, so I can try to keep them from doing something stupid!” Today, more than 5 months after Michael Brown was gunned down, young people are still on the street.
Rev Sekou continued, “Why is this?” When you dig a little deeper, you begin to understand that this movement of young people is not just about being angry or venting frustration. There is plenty of that. But in the end, it is about creating a new world, because they know better than anybody how utterly broken and unsustainable the world is today.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you, that this is about a few bad apples,” Rev. Sekou continued. “Don’t let anyone tell you that this is about white cops against black people. This is about a system that is deeply rotten.”
Rev. Sekou spent the morning speaking two SCUPE classes about Ferguson and its theological impact, and spent the afternoon training students in the disciplines of non-violent civil disobedience. Very much in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Sekou has spent the last five months in Ferguson training “these young people,” channeling their anger, repeating every few minutes that this is a “deep abiding love.” “How do you create a new world? Is there a recipe? Has someone done it before so we can follow?”
These questions make it a deeply theological movement.
Rev. Martina Severin-Kaiser from Hamburg, Germany was with us in our class on many days, and from time to time reminded us of the German perspectives on these questions. A terrible thing happened in Germany, not that long ago. It was the extermination of six and a half million Jews. Persecution of Jews in Europe had been going on for centuries, but this was the height of it. Martina reminded us that it was baptized Christians who were the perpetrators of this terrible crime. It was not about a few bad apples. It was about a system that was deeply rotten. But here’s the point. Christian theology has not been the same ever since. “We have struggled to find what led Christians to do such a terrible thing,” she said, “not only in spite of what in our scripture and theological tradition teaches, but because of what it teaches us.”
I am reminded of an interreligious conference I attended a few years ago. Convened by the late king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (who died last week), about 250 religious leaders gathered in Madrid. As religious leaders go, most were old men! Fewer than 10% of the participants were women or people under 30. In response to a strong objection raised from the floor, the organizers quickly found a female Muslim scholar from the University of Madrid, Dr. Mekia Nedjar. She was courageous! She recalled that Christian theology is not the same since the holocaust, and indeed Muslim theology is not the same since 9/11. “There have been theological movements in both religions to think about how and why these happened, and how we can think differently. These were both atrocities perpetrated by men. How can male dominated theology be the same?”
So, we come back to the question: Can Christian theology be the same after Ferguson?
Theological changes are difficult. It takes people of enormous courage to step out and make those changes happen. This is because we are captive to our received theologies. These are deeply meaningful images, stories, songs and prayers that were ingrained in us from our mother’s lap, and reinforced by our beloved Sunday School teachers and pastors. These get ingrained in our psyches and that it is hard to change them. But change, we must. So, let me come back to Ferguson.
What happened in Ferguson, and in many other places across the country in the matter of police brutality and violence, must startle all of us. Addressing this question, an open letter to seminary presidents and deans was posted on Huffington Post. It was primarily authored by Dr. Alton Pollard, Dean of Howard University School of Divinity, and signed by a many colleagues. The letter expresses our consternation about why we as a nation, as churches and seminaries are letting atrocities like what happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland happen, and calls the seminaries and churches to action.
I am grateful for that letter. But what it does not do is ask a more fundamental question. It does not challenge the deep places in our psyche where the images, stories, songs and prayers that our parents taught us, that give us meaning and purpose, are stored. Challenging the paradigms of our received theology requires unusual courage. If Christian theology changed after the Holocaust, if Islamic theology changed after 9/11, how is it possible that almost 50 years after the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, our US American theologies have barely changed? So, prompted by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Rev. Martina Severin-Kaiser and Dr. Mekia Nedjar I ask:
- Have we asked the necessary and fundamental questions of our received theologies, or have we preferred only to make slight changes in the edges?
- Could it be that we who pay careful attention to each other, do so only in the elitism of the theological academy, and do not pay careful attention to “These young people … these saggy-panted young men… and these young, queer, black women” of Ferguson?
- What will it take for the church to understand that this is how God speaks to us today?
Watch the entire recorded video of Rev. Sekou’s address: