“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” — Martin Luther King
My Dear Fellow Clergy:
It been brought to my attention that some of you are questioning the intentions of the protest movement in Ferguson, Missouri, and of the clergy supporting it. While having one’s intentions questioned is not new, it appears necessary to address these concerns while so much is at stake during these dark days of American democracy.
I am a preacher of the gospel of Jesus — a poor dispossessed peasant whose life was cut short by state violence. For over a century, men and women in my family have preached that a hunted and hated people must always respond with dignity and deep abiding love.
The gospel is not neutral. It is a calling to become the living flesh of justice in a death-dealing society. Born in the heat of slavery and refined in the struggle for justice, this is my ideology. Some have noted I have been seen consorting with anarchists and communists. While I disagree with the ideological proclivities of many people, they are, nonetheless, children of God. And is not the gospel for the anarchist, the faithful and the communist alike? There is room for all at the table of justice.
In August, when militarized police occupied Ferguson, Phil Agnew, co-founder of the Dream Defenders, presented me with a challenge: “Ferguson will determine whether or not the church is still relevant.” Our teargas summer has become a bitter winter of waiting, and the clergy seem to be running that risk of irrelevancy. Some have expressed dismay at the angry youth who responded to both the unconscionable killing of Mike Brown and the unconstitutional repression of protest. It has been noted that the rage-filled protesters make many clergy and their congregants uncomfortable, and that acts of civil disobedience have caused our movement to lose ground in the white community.
White anxiety cannot become the measure of this movement or of the nation. Our movement must not be guided by the need to assuage white discomfort in the face of righteous black rage. Too often, there has been minimal or fleeting efforts by many in the liberal white community to address police brutality and the bone-crushing poverty exacted upon black bodies across this nation. If we rush to accommodate and appease those white liberals whose presence on the streets of Ferguson has been negligible, we betray the blood of the innumerable Mike Browns of America.
Peacekeepers or protesters?
There are those who assert clergy have a specific role to play in Ferguson. That role is perceived to be unlike that of the protesters. For many the clergy role of “peacekeeper” is more of an acceptable station than that of “protester.” Some claim that our rightful place is to be above and beyond the protesters, distancing ourselves while serving as mediators between the police who teargas protesters and those protesters themselves.
Opening our doors to a besieged and denigrated community is the least we can do. The question before religious leaders is whether our houses of worships will leave doors open for the forces of the powerful or act as sanctuaries for the broader community. The church of the street and the communion of protest have drawn clear lines between the just and unjust. These urban protestants will not be seduced by slanted news stories, a corrupt judicial system or clergy who seek peace without justice. The gospel of magnanimity can be merely a rhetorical cover for cowardice. There can be no progress without protest. To call for reconciliation without justice is to desire the resurrection without the crucifixion.
Moreover, the tired line that outside agitators are the reason for social unrest must be consistently challenged. Police, government officials, segregationists and liberals alike have leveed this charge time and time again throughout history. Some have also said that those who do not live in the region do not have an understanding of the local ramifications of our actions. On the contrary, those who say this don’t understand the global ramifications of what happened; Ferguson is America and beyond. The nature of our struggle in Ferguson and greater Saint Louis has touched a deep and depressingly familiar nerve nationally and internationally. Many have returned to the region to deploy the skills we’ve acquired in past social movements. Like generations before, we have returned home in search of the promise of American democracy. It has been the shameful images of teargas and tanks on American soil that prompted the nation to pay attention to these young people—most of whom are not in our pews.
Calls for moderation are the hallmark of leadership too closely tied to the powers that be.
Mike Brown’s death is an American story. Every other day — somewhere in America — grieving parents and an enraged community set up makeshift memorials for their fallen — candles are lit and teddy bears lain upon the altars of black and brown suffering. And the justice system gives us little to no recourse.
Ferguson is just one link in an entire chain of global phenomena. From Palestine to Paris, oppressed people around the world sent solidarity messages and joined in protest, making links to their specific struggles. In concert with the Arab Spring, the 2011 London uprising and the Occupy Movement, Ferguson must be properly situated as part of a worldwide movement of historically oppressed people throwing off the shackles of tyranny, which is all too often buttressed by respectable religious leadership.
The tone and tenor of these protests are loud, raucous and at times profane, but nonetheless beautiful and righteous. One of the main methods of protest has been taking to the streets and reclaiming public space. Ferguson is the latest iteration of youthful holy impatience. The universal sign for surrender — hands up — has been transformed into an international gesture of those yearning to breathe free. Around the world the disinherited and disenfranchised have been met with riotous police, teargas, tanks, rubber bullets and media assassinations.
For over 100 days, Ferguson protesters have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. There has been some property destruction. I witnessed first hand plastic water bottles thrown at baton wielding, assault weapon-pointing riot police flanked by armored vehicles. I repudiate and foreswear violence, but must be equally concerned about the conditions that produce civilian unrest.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the nation’s most venerable apostle of nonviolence, once observed, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” To be haunted, hunted and hated is nothing less than maddening. The untold level of police harassment experienced by most young black folks creates a daily existential crisis. Heavily policed and deprived of decent wages and a proper education, some young people expressed discontent via property destruction and looting. In many instances, community members prevented destructive behavior by blocking the entrances to stores, urging their compatriots to stop. This was not reported in the mainstream media but many of us who were in the streets witnessed it with our own eyes.
Local, state, and federal agencies and elected representatives have made it clear that black lives do not matter. In anticipation of what we believe will be a miscarriage of justice, police agencies have stockpiled enough weapons to wage war on a small country. Young people have been backed into a corner, with many leaders and clergy calling on them to calm down. They have been betrayed by every level of government, tragically by many of the very same churches and traditional civil rights groups that broke the back of American apartheid. Young folks have made a way out of no way. They are the generation we have been waiting for.
Called to protest
There is a certain irony in clergy calling upon youth to calm down to allow the system a chance to run its course. These calls for moderation are the hallmark of leadership too closely tied to the powers that be. It is grounded in a fundamental belief that the system is largely good, perhaps flawed, and with a few bad apples. On the contrary, our struggle is not against a few bad apples, but against a rotten system. As the young activists have chanted: “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
These words, chanted with the voraciousness of an injured, traumatized, but deeply resilient community must be affirmed. And we must also take a step further. We, too, should be angry; we, too, should be mad as hell. Our blood should boil at that fact that black blood is spilled with impunity in the United States. If we are not mad as hell, is it because we have forgotten that Mike Brown lay on the street for more than four hours? Or that police dogs and back-up officers were called to the scene before emergency services? Have we chosen to repress the litany of names from Emmett Till to Jordan Davis to Renisha McBride to Amadou Diallo to Andy Lopez to Trayvon Martin to John Crawford and on and on and on? Are we not paying attention to this critical moment in the struggle against oppression? To be sure we must be angry, but our anger cannot have the last word.
Nonviolent civil disobedience presents us with the container to channel our anger into a powerful force for justice. The spirit that guides nonviolent civil disobedience is a deep abiding love, which only comes with deep preparation. “Acceptable” protest only tampers the fire and quiets the possibility of deep abiding love to run its course.
Hence we are called to choose sides. Clergy must not only “support” protesters. We are called to be protesters — at once outraged and disciplined. By placing our bodies on the cross of a militarized police, deep infrastructural racial bias and a system that profits from human misery, a new way of being and seeing America and all its promise is being born.
A willingness to be bruised, broken or detained for the sake of the gospel is our only option. Once we make this choice then and only then will our presence be warranted and blessed by the youth who quite reasonably distrust us. The side of love requires that we are uncomfortable. Deep abiding love challenges pastor, protester and police officer alike. The road from accommodation to acting in nonviolent civil disobedience is long and muddy. But we will get there.
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou