Symposium Introduction

 

 

 

We are in the midst of harsh and brutal times. In such times theology can appear most distant, most irrelevant, most tone-deaf to the kinds of material challenges that human persons face in the struggle for their voices to be heard, for their bodies to be recognized, and for their deaths to be properly grieved. In the coming week, Syndicate Theology will feature five significant essays by leading and emergent ethicists and theologians, exploring what it might mean for Christian theology—and the Christian church—to respond justly to the death of Michael Brown and the on-going protest and resistance efforts in Ferguson, Missouri. Diverse perspectives and experiences are voiced here, and there are indeed important differences that will surface between our panelists. What does unite these voices is the plea for a radical, interventionary theopolitics: the initiation of a political project, aimed at dismantling a white supremacist world order by, as Slavoj Zizek suggests, “intervening from the standpoint of its repressed truth,” in such a way that changes the coordinates of possibility.

Brian Bantum

Response

Doing Theology As Though Our Bodies Mattered

 

“for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26)

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? The theological practice of vision—of rightly seeing and describing—is a crucial aspect of thinking about how we, as Christians, are both formed by these realities even as we are made into new creatures whose bodies and lives are intended to witness to a deeper truth about our lives and aims.

This is important because in rightly seeing the de-formation, we can also see the lines of re-formation. We can see the textures of humanity and its possibilities in Christ’s person and work. If we don’t think of something as a problem, how can we realize how Jesus is touching that aspect of our lives or society? We pass over details of situations believing our position to be secure, or our description of humanity’s sinfulness sufficient. But what if there are sinful aspects of our human condition that we have yet to name faithfully?

To do theology faithfully, confessionally, we must see how Christianity participates in the social realities of a broken world. We must acknowledge and confess the ways we fail to see ourselves, the world, and Christ faithfully. But we must also confess that in our blindness the eternal Word has come nonetheless. We must confess that we are like the blind who have been made to see, even if in our sight we do not yet understand the images that are before us. In this disorientation of a world that seems more familiar when we close our eyes and return to our broken state of blindness, hoping to regain a familiarity of a world filled only with touch and sound, we must have the courage to keep our eyes open. We must learn to hear anew in the encounter with faces and bodies. In a way, we must be born anew again and again.

What does it mean to do theology as if bodies mattered? I would suggest three starting points:

Our bodies matter. Our lives are enmeshed in complicated and interconnected patterns. They are at once interpreted and interpreting. Discipleship is intrinsically bound to these patterns. There is no such thing as a distinction between us and the world. We are made from the dust of the ground . . . the particles of culture permeate our every aspect. As such our bodies are the location from which we speak about who God is, from where we experience what hope, joy, pain, and violence look like. Our bodies matter for theological speech because we cannot escape the reality of our bodied life and in many ways our bodies always precede our words. But as well, if we are honest, our bodies remain a mystery to us, we do not know why we react the way we do in certain moments, or find pleasure in seemingly insignificant things. We learn, we grow, and are again confronted with a moment of unknowing as we look back on our lives. To do theology as if our bodies mattered is to recognize the limitation and the mystery of the space from which we speak, and to recognize the possibility of truthful words that encounter us in the bodies and lives of those who are around us.

Jesus’ body matters. The eternal Word enters into these patterns, becomes subject to them and enacts the redemption of humanity by re-presenting humanity to God and to humanity itself. In Christ we see ourselves anew—Christ is a presentation of what we are and what we will be—but rather than a representation that crushes through the expression of its own perfection over against the imperfection of others, built upon the distorted essentialism constructed upon particular bodies—Christ is a representation that opens up possibilities—that displays the fact of our identity being bound to God and God’s identity, far from articulating its own difference, seeks to make us who we are by becoming like us, by coming near to us.

The Church is a Body of Christ that matters. Within the church, the mystical body of Christ, the particularities of our bodies are not erased, but they are no longer immovable or perpetually contained. We become like burning bushes that declare God’s presence through our embrace of those whose identities and lives are seemingly contrary to our own. In our solidarity with them, in our listening, our bending into their lives and struggles and pain, we become a new thing, a new body, a new people. The church is a body that cannot determine itself, but must be ever mindful of its birth within another’s body. Its very existence is a surprise and a scandal. Our confession is always enfolded in wonder and mystery about what could be.

“Confessional” theology often alludes to a theological method that holds to central tenants of Christian doctrine as described in the creeds of the church (Nicene, Chalcedon, for example). But is it possible that a confessional theology is first a theology that speaks with a perpetual recognition that its words are not sufficient, that if we take our bodies seriously we can never see our own face? We need others to help us to see ourselves. Theology as if our bodies matter, confessional theology, is a theology that is confronted by the impossible and asks, “How can this be?” even as it welcomes a seemingly inconceivable body into its womb.

In Ferguson the church has been encountered by voices from within its body and from without. It has been confronted by power and deep animus of America’s racial reality. What will the theologian confess in this moment? Will we speak as if these bodies matter?

Leonard McKinnis

Response

Michael Brown, the Incarnation, and the Problem of the Normative Gaze

The body was covered for a while, and so it wasnt uncoveredit was uncovered for a while, and there was a lot of picture of that [sic]. But as soon as they got an ambulance there, they did cover it for a while. And then they put up the screens.

—Mayor James Knowles, Ferguson, MO

The above quote, taken from a recent CNN interview, captures the essence of righteous discontent from Black persons not simply in Ferguson, but across the United States of America, in response to the murder of Michael Brown, the 18 year old teenager who was killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The radical objectification of Michael Brown’s body, a body that is problematic precisely because it does not “fit” within normative and prevailing understanding of embodied “goodness,” sustains a long legacy of the refusal of the dominant culture to identify the humanity—or the Image of God—in Black persons, either in life or in death. To be sure, Brown fell victim, as have a countless number of Black people in America, to the eye of an imperialistic culture rooted in a posture of privilege that views the non-dominant culture through a lens that pre-determines, a priori, the value assigned to Black persons. This normative gaze, to borrow a phrase from Cornel West, not only distributes a certain level of intelligence, as in mental capacity, but necessitates aesthetic and bodily distinctions that render those outside the prevailing mainstream culture as objects or tools lacking personhood and agency. Accordingly, the identification of Michael Brown’s body as an “it,”robs Brown of the recognition as “person”or “thou”—a subject with real and meaningful experiences and a valued life—and stands in contradistinction to the imago dei as revealed in the Incarnation of the Word.

I am a Christian Black Theologian. My theological investigation intentionally brings together two realities: the objective revelation of God as divine logos in the Person of Jesus, otherwise known as the Incarnation of the Word, and the subjective experience of my reality as “being-in-the-world.” Undeniably, it is the subjective experience that informs the way in which I read and interpret and understand the objective revelation of God in Christ, and what this reality bodes for communities whose experiences as subjective actors in the world are similar to my own. More directly, the theological task is a local one: that is, done from within particular experiences of groups who seek to understand the meaning of the objective reality vis-a-vis their subjective, grounded reality. And so, the commodification of Michael Brown’s body begs the question: How does one make sense of the greatest mystery of Christian Faith, the objective revelation as consummated in the Incarnation, in relation to Black bodies, in a world whose normative gaze upon Black existence is one that engenders dehumanization and isolation from the broader aspect of the human experience? To be certain, this is a question of theological anthropology.

The original sin in America may in fact be that of racism; however, at the core of this sin lay the inability of the dominant Christian culture to transition its theological imagination, and the praxis which follows, from a priestly to a prophetic reading of the Incarnation of the Word. Such failure lends itself toward a normative gaze that renders the non-dominant culture, people like Michael Brown and communities like Ferguson, as creatures who lack the imprint of the Image of God on and in their person and are therefore understood as beings who exist in perpetual lack. Yet, this condition of lack is sinful, and certainly violent, insofar as it is imposed and surfaces out of power, domination, and an oppressive reading of Scripture that seeks to imprison the effects of the Incarnation to the dominant group while excluding the underdogs from participation in the experience of “Word made flesh.”

In his De Incarnatione Verbi, the fourth century Christian thinker Athanasius provides a theological treatise that explores the reason of the assumption of flesh by the divine logos. Athanasius appeals to a universalist interpretation of human history, one that takes seriously and advocates the interconnectedness of human nature, and applies the same to the cause and effect of the Incarnation. This reading of the Incarnation permits Athanasius to construct a Christian salvation narrative grounded in the Incarnation resultant from the very contact of the divine logos with human flesh. Yet, the crux of Athanasius’ construction lay in his universal reading of “flesh.” To be sure, Athanasius, does not understand the divine logos to simply assume a “particular” flesh. Quite the contrary, for Athansisus, human nature itself has been impacted by the Incarnation; that is, all persons and creations of the divine Word of God. Yet, when the universal and social-liberative reading of the Incarnation of the Word is denied (or worse ignored) theological anthropological tragedies, like the killing of Michael Brown, manifest as a violation of the Image of God in all persons or, more specifically, the denial of the Image of God in Brown.

Michael Brown was gunned down. Shot, in fact, six times in the chest and head. His lifeless body lay in a pool of blood as a sideshow for spectators to sensationalize and, perhaps, wonder how a human person could die such a horrible death in a posture of surrender. The normative gaze that followed his death, not very different from that which preceded, categorized Michael as a thug who robbed a convenience store with marijuana in his system and, therefore, for those who fail to recognize or simply refuse to acknowledge the value of the Incarnation of the Word in Black persons, died a justifiable death. Yet this essay affirms, in the tradition of Athanasius, a universal reading of the interconnectedness of human nature and the presence of the divine logos within the same. Affirmatively, the bodies of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson, in contrast to a normative gaze pregnant with social constructions that are the antithesis to the social salvific work of the Incarnation, are bodies that represent the presence of God in humanity.

The people of Ferguson are the people of God. To the extent that their flesh, their being (ontos), and their being-in-the-world (Dasien), are part and parcel of the universal human nature assumed by the divine logos, their flesh and existence are holy, divinized, and possess the Image of God. They are therefore equipped to be free and responsible subjects with the ability to reason and be a means to their own end. However, the prevailing culture has emphatically denied this reality and refused to acknowledge the universality of the Image of God and the Incarnation. This denial has produced a social reality that triggers a normative gaze prefaced on the dehumanization of the “other.” In this light, the killing of Michael Brown was a resounding “no” to the Image of God in all creation and a denial of the efficaciousness made possible by the Incarnation of the divine logos.

Jeanine Viau

Response

Reparative Tendencies and “A Warm Heart for the Cold”

“. . . demonstrating that the greatest evil of human kind is lack of judgment”

—Sophocles’Antigone 1242—43 1

In listening closely to the outpouring of responses to Michael Brown’s murder, I am increasingly disturbed by the prevalence of impartiality among White Americans. Although racist White impartiality wears many masks—colorblindness, academic objectivity, etc.—here I address the popular “benefit of the doubt” variety I continue to encounter in conversations with friends and family. The analytic offering I put forth is a syntactical turn from within the corpus of queer theory, one that emerges from experiences of pathologization, hyper-regulation, and executions similar to the experiences of Black people in the U.S. and across global societies. I turn to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theorization of paranoiac and reparative reading practices as a model both for exposing White impartiality as a paranoiac imperative and for opening up possibilities for political and sacramental creativity.2 I hope the following reflections dissuade impartiality and draw others into #Ferguson’s deep-running grief, lamentation, and longing for justice that should warm our hearts, and not least of all, compel us towards more material offerings in the struggle to repair the great and enduring wreckage of racism past and present.

Sedgwick uses the psychoanalytic syntax of Melanie Klein to distinguish between paranoiac and reparative interpretive stances.3 Paranoiac reading is linked to the paranoid psychic position marked by fear of humiliation and surprises. This interpretive posture is characterized by vigilant anticipation, anxiety, and mimesis. White impartiality expressed as “the benefit of the doubt” adheres to these characteristics in multiple ways. This phrase is mimetic in that it is repeated again and again. It expresses the racist paranoid anxiety that the Black victim may have “provoked” the officer. This utterance also buttresses law enforcement’s vigilant anticipation of Black violence, which often results in excessive preemptive violence. White impartiality masquerades as objectivity but is really, I propose, a manifestation of what Sedgwick calls “the paranoiac imperative,” an impulse that obstructs appropriate and creative responses to what is going on.

In the American justice system, or at least the popular imagination of it, the paranoiac imperative is expressed by the ideal refrain, “innocent until proven guilty.” Inevitably, when Black men are gunned down by law enforcement or even by neighborhood watch (as was the case in the death of Trayvon Martin), my Facebook newsfeed and conversations with White friends and family members, male mostly, are dominated by the refrain, “we just don’t know what happened” or “I have zero evidence to make any kind of judgment.” And then there are the defenses of law enforcement who are “just regular guys with families.” However, as Michael Brown’s shooting lays bare, “innocent until proven guilty” is not true to the experience of African Americans. These are the facts: Michael Brown was unarmed. He was shot six times. He is not the first. Young black men are not given the benefit of the doubt. They are, in fact, being publicly executed without ever having their day in court. As long as deep psychic prejudices and biases hide under the mask of “just regular [White] guys with kids” and “we [White people] just don’t know,” [Black people’s] bodies will continue to fall in the street, and these murders will go unaccounted for as a result of “zero evidence.” Impartiality is the logic of privilege, the logic of those who are actually protected and served by the system and are so safe to give or withhold judgment freely.

Sedgwick responds to the fatality and fatigue brought on by the paranoiac imperative through a turn to reparative practices. In psychoanalytic terms, these practices are connected to the quieter, depressive state where one begins to self-reflect, reassemble, and so offer creative accounts of one’s undoing. Sedgwick writes, “to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new;to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise.”4 This explanation points to the reprieve in letting go of defensiveness and anxiety. Embedded here too is hope, what Sedgwick suggests may be a fracturing and traumatic development, but one that opens up “profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”5

Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of law enforcement is situated within in a long lineage of executions in the U.S., but also resonates across human historical political complexes, including imperial Rome where Jesus of Nazareth, member and agitator of an occupied people, was crucified alongside many others deemed criminals and disposables by the occupying people. Jesus’death is spectacularly remembered and reparatively read as redemptive. And yet, so many of those who lift up the Cross and feast on the Flesh and proclaim, “Christ is risen, Christ will come again” refuse to move beyond racist paranoia to respond reparatively to present eruptions. M. Shawn Copeland invokes William Cavanaugh’s radical Eucharistic politics to flesh out an authentic and sacramentally grounded understanding of solidarity. According to Copeland, “Eucharistic solidarity contests any performance of community as ‘an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious individuals’or as self-righteously self-sustaining or as historically innocent or as morally superior or as monopoly on truth.”6 There are many White American Christians who are happy to show up and collect their morsels of grace on Sundays, but who do not consider the fact that their savior is and was a crucified slave. In these cases, sacraments become a feast for crows as the litany of persecution, prosecutions, and death persists, rather than the epiphanic movements of reflexivity, recognition, and resurrective mobilization.

I am not speaking of reconciliation here. As Jennifer Harvey and others have pointed out, calls for reconciliation are insulting, inappropriate, and vis-à-vis Sedgwick, in-affective.7 Resurrective mobilization means moving beyond being affected or not (being affected) to taking some kind of affective action. Not just any kind of action that affects will do. What is required, rather, is action constituted by reparative intentions and outcomes. Reparative sacramental practices are not impartial. Rather, these practices enflesh hope born out of transhistorical and transgenerational repentance, political sensitivity, and authentic solidarity. One way to begin, and it is only a beginning, is to heed #Ferguson’s call to grieve the many who are dead before jumping to impartiality. It is time to let our hearts be warmed by the cold.


  1. In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, Ismene accuses her sister Antigone of having “a warm heart for the cold”(88). This translation is adopted from Martha Nussbaum’s study in the third chapter of The Fragility of Goodness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64. After reviewing the Greek, I found Nussbaum’s translation to be the most simplistic and poetic rendering.

  2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading And Reparative Reading, Or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay Is About You,”Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–51.

  3. Ibid.,128.

  4. Ibid., 146.

  5. Ibid.

  6. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 127; William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 12.

  7. Jennifer Harvey, “No More ‘Reconciliation’Talk,”formations. // living at the intersections of self, social, spirit. August 21, 2014.

Nyle Fort

Response

Strange Fruit, Revolutionary Violence, and a Love on Fire

 

A tree is known by its fruit.1 The seeds of American history reap a peculiar harvest. Its roots bathe in the sweat of stolen flesh. From its leaves drip the blood of 400 years of black death. Herein grows an unusual crop—a strange fruit indeed. Its thorny composition pricks at the paralyzing politics of post-racial discourse. Its bitter taste unleashes American constipation with the concept of colorblindness, instigating the bowels of black rage. Some say it’s a thing of the past. That strange fruit withered under the Sun of a racially utopian horizon. Not so. If Ferguson has taught us anything, it is that the strange fruit Billie Holiday first sang of in 1939 still grows among us today.

“All we want to do is be free,”2 J. Cole raps on his recent track released in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s execution. Here Cole echoes the voices found in old Negro Spirituals, jazz, and the blues. He responds to the “burnin’flesh”and “blood on the leaves”Billie Holiday soulfully decries in her haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit.”3 In the same breath, Cole articulates the voice of a hip-hop generation confused by the contradictions of what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls “colorblind racism.”4 The hope of a black presidency did not diminish the horror of black life in America. We have a black man in the White House, but a million more in the jailhouse.5 The illusion of racial progress is crumbling under the concrete conditions of mass incarceration, rampant unemployment, educational inequality, and political repression. Black folk are waking up. The sleepwalking induced by President Obama’s election is coming to an end. Racial tension is high. National faith is waning. If black people are ever to be free in this country, America must undergo a revolution of values. The question is: will that require a revolution of violence?

In this essay, I explore the relationship between Christian love and revolutionary violence in the context of racialized terror and a liberating God. I ground my theopolitics amid Michael Brown’s execution, the militarization of police, the relative silence of the Church, and the righteous anger of Black America. I turn to James Cone’s seminal work Black Theology and Black Power as a theo-political tool useful in our struggle to cast out the demon of white racial supremacy. Here Cone helps us think about not only the relationship between love and violence but also the connections between race/ism, Christian religion, and revolutionary struggle. Ultimately I argue that under conditions of white supremacist terror, revolutionary violence can be an expression of Christian love.

To say Christian love can embody revolutionary violence is controversial. But so is saying God is “One in three persons”! Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously or even embrace it. The idea of the Trinity is controversial to many as is revolutionary violence. Interestingly, however, most Christians are silent about State violence on black bodies, and yet condemn the very idea of those same bodies engaging in counter, revolutionary violence. All the while, they ebulliently declare the trinity of God while decrying the idea that liberative theology might require revolutionary acts of violent resistance. As Cone points out:

It is interesting that so many who advocate for nonviolence as the only possible Christian response of black people to white domination are also the most ardent defenders of the right of the police to put down black rebellion through violence.6

Embracing the institutionalized violence of the State while denouncing the revolutionary violence of those whom the State represses is morally hypocritical. Yet it makes perfect sense within the logic of white supremacist Christianity that deifies white domination while demonizing black resistance to it. White supremacy wages war on us and then tries to set the parameters for our own struggle. What could be more hegemonic? As long as racist logic determines what (and who) is (or is not) Christian, it will also define the limits and possibilities of Christian praxis. In this frame, the question of revolutionary violence under conditions of racialized terror hinges on the doorway of white supremacy rather than the demand for Freedom Now! For this reason, black theology neither begins with the Western distinction of right and wrong nor the white definition of Christian and unchristian. “It begins,”as Cone explains, “by looking at the face of black America in the light of Jesus Christ.”7

It begins with Michael Brown’s bloody black body.

But should we not begin with the face of Jesus? Yes, we should. But first we must begin by recognizing that the face of Jesus Christ is the body of Michael Brown. Because Jesus shows up in the suffering of black bodies and all the world’s crucified peoples. His incarnation transcends the cross of Calvary. The life-giving power of Christ is enfleshed in the everyday struggle of black people trying to live with dignity and decency amid a system that refuses to even recognize our humanity.

Violence has never been a “question”for black people living in America. It is a constant reality. Black theology does not ask whether violence is right or wrong, good or evil, Christian or unchristian. It asks how are blacks to respond to the institutionalized violence already at work in our lives. Presenting nonviolence as the only possible Christian response to racial terror is not only unreasonable, but unrighteous. It denies black humanity. It asks blacks to be superhuman while treating us as subhuman. It wants us to love white people while telling us to hate ourselves. How can one love someone that treats them like a thing? How are we to love our white neighbor whose existence is paid at the expense of our suffering? According to Cone: “If the riots are the black man’s [sic] courage to say Yes to himself, then violence may be . . . the only expression of Christian love to the white oppressor.”8

What about reconciliation? Since black theology is a biblical theology grounded in the good news of liberation, it takes seriously the promise of reconciliation. But first it must ask: on whose terms are we reconciled? “Reconciliation on white racist terms is impossible,” Cone writes, “since it would crush the dignity of black people.”9Insofar as reconciliation is a theology of colorblindness—forcing blacks to deny our beauty and embrace “the white thing”10—black theology must reject it. As Cone insists: “Black people can only speak of reconciliation when the black community is permitted to do its thing.”11 If the sole purpose of black theology “is to apply the freeing power of the gospel to black people under white oppression,”12 then the “thing” for black people in America is revolution!

Michael Brown is no anomaly. Every 28 hours in America a black body is crucified at the hands of State executioners or some vigilante.13 Cone was right: racism is America’s original sin. It is the sin that so easily besets democratic possibility, the work for justice, and the dream of a more beloved community. It is sin because it separates those whom God created to live together in peace, freedom, and justice. Love is the force that destroys the distance that institutionalized violence creates between us. It tears down the walls of white supremacy. It forces white people to recognize black humanity. It enables black people to see our beauty and salvage our dignity. Love is power. Christian love is the blackpower to say No! to white supremacist terror, even if saying No to racial terror means saying Yes to revolutionary violence.

Jesus told his disciples: every tree that does not bear good fruit should be thrown into the fire.14 Strange fruit keeps on growing in the harvest of American life. That fruit is watered by the blood of Michael Brown, Emmet Till, Tarika Wilson, and countless other black bodies sacrificed on the altar of white racial supremacy. But what if we took Jesus seriously. As the old Negro Spiritual proclaims: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time!”


  1. Luke 6:44.

  2. J. Cole, “Be Free” (Dreamville Records, 2014).

  3. Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (Commodore Records, 1939).

  4. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).

  5. “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet” (NAACP, 2014). Available at: http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

  6. James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008) 138–89.

  7. Ibid., 141.

  8. Ibid., 55.

  9. Ibid., 144.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid., 31.

  13. Tongo Eisen-Martin, editor, “A Curriculum for Operation Ghetto Storm: Report on the 2012 Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards and Vigilantes” (Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 2013). Available at:http://mxgm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/we-charge-genocide-FINAL.pdf

  14. Matthew 7:19.f

Keri Day

Response

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.

I infer from King’s conversation that cheap peace becomes more dangerous than the raw rage we may witness through protests because cheap peace refuses to admit the urgency in remedying social injustices that violate the God-given dignity and human worth of vulnerable and marginalized groups such as black communities. Cheap peace rejects the problem of structural violence that gives rise to social anger and resistance. Cheap peace refuses to hear the cries of the unheard. Most importantly, cheap peace is dishonest about power within social structures. Freedom is never given to the oppressed; the oppressed must demand their freedom. Consequently, cheap peace merely re-inscribes the status quo and reinforces the very injustices that bitterly divide our society, reproducing hate, anxiety, and angst among societal members. Cheap peace underwrites a theology of the oppressor in which ideas of healing and reconciliation are twisted and perverted in service to the end goals of hegemonic power. Cheap grace is indeed costly. It attempts to distort the imago dei of each human being. It misrepresents the call of the gospel to attend to the sufferings of our neighbor with care, compassion, empathy, and love. It tries to deny the oppressed the invitation to participate in the kin-dom of God where flourishing and wellbeing are possible for all.

As a clergywoman and religious scholar, I believe that Christian communities have a role to play in rejecting cheap peace by seeking justice for the Mike Browns of this world. Because Christian traditions (and other faith traditions as well) hold human life sacred, both individually and collectively, theological questions emerge in relation to Michael Brown’s death. Theologically speaking, isn’t God concerned with those who suffer under oppressive systems? Doesn’t Mike Brown’s murder compel Christians to contest systems of violence (such as police systems that repeatedly use excessive force)? Most importantly, doesn’t Christian theology sponsor compassion and care for those mourning within structures of oppression caused by systemic injustice such as racism? Michael Brown’s death represents human tragedy within cycles of violence. But for people of faith, human tragedies are also social and cosmic tragedies. We believe that human beings matter not only to each other but also to God. For Christians, God is invested in the health and rightness of human social relations. The killing of anyone is a human tragedy, and the killing of anyone because of racial, economic, political, or social injustice is a matter of urgent theological concern.

Today, the average American citizen claims King’s legacy. However, King’s legacy has been both sanitized and sentimentalized. The average American rarely interprets King for the radical theologian and activist he was. If we are really serious about claiming that legacy, it seems to me, we will not only pray for peace in Ferguson, but we will first pray for justice. As we go forward as a nation, religious leaders must state that, “Yes, we appeal for peace, we appeal for healing in Ferguson, but we first appeal for justice” — so that the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath will not be just forgotten in the next sweep of events. We are called to justice first.

The betrayal of justice is an affront to any vision of true healing and peace. We must categorically refuse cheap peace.

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