Taking a Knee, Then and Now – Prof. Reggie Williams

ThomasLindaOver the weekend, President Donald J. Trump tweeted a criticism of kneeling, protesting NFL stars – trying to conflate athletes protesting violence against black people with disrespect for the country and our military. In response, members of roughly two dozen NFL teams either knelt, locked arms, showing solidarity not only with the suffering of black people of the United States, but Colin Kaepernick – the originator of the protests. Blog contributor Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams weighs in on the conversation. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last sermon, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to help promote the cause of black sanitation workers who were on strike in resistance to the brutal injustices they were subjected to at work. At stake was an understanding of the very notion of human being that would include black people. The striking sanitation workers were seen carrying signs that read “I Am A Man,” in opposition to the practice of reducing the black sanitation workers to treatment reserved for animals.  

If we are human beings, than black people should be seen as welcomed to the Civil Rights that correspond with the condition of all human beings within the democratic republic of the United States. One of the common methods of protest during the Civil Rights Movement available to the sanitation workers was marching. But city officials in Memphis were opposed to their marching, as were the people of Montgomery Alabama, thirteen years earlier, and all other towns and cities where the Movement sought to arouse the conscience of the nation during it’s thirteen years of life.

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Memphis sanitation workers protesting in 1968.

The sanitation worker’s protest was illegal. It was in violation of a court ordered injunction put in place at the request of the city officials two years prior, forbidding municipal employees from just such protests. During his sermon, King appealed to democratic ideals that are understood to be core the nation when he said, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” Thirteen years earlier during the Montgomery bus boycott, peaceful protesters were also denounced as disturbers of the peace, and immoral. In Albany, Birmingham, Selma, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, protesters were described as lawbreakers, malcontents, anarchists, and un-American.

Opposition to Civil Rights protests was buttressed by lofty ideals like patriotism, law and order, and Christian piety. What’s not so clear is the way that those very ideals served to sharpen the blades of dehumanization and oppression.  In his book An American Dilemma, published in 1944, the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal examined the paradox of a slave-owning nation that espoused lofty ideals like liberty and justice for all. What he found was that the lofty ideals were part of the problem. In order to hold on to slavery and their lofty ideals, Myrdal claims that racism became the mechanism that held it all together.

Racism was the creation of a sub-human category, a hierarchy of being with white at the top, and black as the anchor. The category of the human did not apply to black people.  We were partially human, which is to say, sub-human. That logic helped maintain the integrity of the lofty ideals in the practice of slavery, as “liberty and justice for all humans.” The place of the subhuman within a civilized democratic republic is one of subjugation to the civilized human—to whites—not co-participation in the democratic republic, or co-humanity. The greatness of this country was indeed in the practice of its democratic ideals, but they were sutured to a hegemonic notion of universal humanity. They were for whites only. Any protest from the racialized subject, from black people, is anarchy, or lawlessness and demands for equality are profane. And in a civilized Christian nation, such things are unheard of.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the movement for Black Lives that is demanding that police be held accountable for murdering unarmed black people.

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When Colin Kaepernick knelt on one knee during the national anthem at the beginning of football games, he was continuing the unfortunate, but still necessary historical protest for Civil Rights. His protest was peaceful, but that didn’t matter. It was on behalf of black life, rendered something other than human life. The protest was meant to draw attention to the concrete reality of brutal loss of life, and the injustice that allowed it all to happen without accountability from the nation’s justice system. His gesture of solidarity has cost him his job, and continues to be a source of disgust and vitriol.

 

Although the protest was to give attention to brutal injustice, opposition to Kaepernick is focused on concepts like disrespect for the national flag, and anti-America. Yet, like King, Kaepernick and other protesters recognize protest, as within the moral boundaries of the character of the U.S. that would distinguish this country from dictatorships and oppressive regimes, “The greatness of America is the right to protest for right!” With Kaepernick, and now many other professional athletes, showing solidarity with black people who are demanding co-humanity and police accountability has run headlong into the honor of the nation and its flag.

There’s something ironic and historical about that. Is it possible for black people to be perceived as co-human in this country? What does the nation stand for, with its lofty ideals?

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., kneeling in prayer before a protest.

Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the nations lofty ideals as the spokesperson for the civil rights movement. By doing so, he placed black people on moral ground not intended for us by the founding fathers who so shrewdly crafted that moral ground on the backs of enslaved black people. The fashioning of that ideological structure of white supremacy and black inhumanity, what I’m calling the national moral ground, is an historic act of violence, which makes sense of black suffering in the context of a nation whose laws and justice are for whites only.

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Jacksonville Jaguars kneeling at their game in London, England – one of many to do so in response to Twitter criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump.

That is the problem we face, today. Any protest, any perceived effort to move in a direction other than subjection to white supremacy, will be met with vitriol until the greatness of America is no longer tethered to white supremacy.


reggiewilliams-cropThe Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams before becoming Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in 2012, he received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller in 2006 and a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Westmont College in 1995. Dr. Williams’ research interests are primarily focused on Christological hermeneutics, and Christian morality. He has a particular interest in how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus. Dr. William’s book Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014) was selected as a Choice Outstanding Title in 2015, in the field of religion. The book is an analysis of the influence of exposure to Harlem Renaissance thought and worship at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist on the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during his year of post-doctoral study at Union Seminary in New York, 1930-31. Dr. Williams’ research interests include theological anthropology, Christian ethics derived from interpretations of Jesus, race, politics and black church life. His current book project includes a religious critique of whiteness in the Harlem Renaissance.

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Leaving Them in Their Tombs – Rev. Nate Sutton; Peace Lutheran Church, Puyallup, WA

Linda Thomas at CTS event

If you are a white person in this country with any amount of savvy about race and power, you understand that taking part in any and all efforts to advocate for people of color, with people of color, can be fraught. Rev. Nate Sutton speaks to something of that in this week’s blog post, not only as a pastor in a denomination that is 96% white, but also as some one who is seeing the racial violence continue apace – and who has moved his frustrations and anger into a call to action. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”  – Matthew 27:57-60

“Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!” – Malcolm X


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I’m tired of hashtags.

#TrayvonMartin

#TamirRice

#MichaelBrown

#EricGarner

#SandraBland

#FreddieGray

#AltonSterling

#LaQuanMcDonald

#PhilandoCastile

#CharleenaLyles

I can’t even remember the right order.

And, I’m excluding countless names that should be on the list. Why? Because I haven’t heard them. Apparently, the vast majority of people of color killed by law enforcement do not warrant the dignity of our awareness.

As I reeled from the most recent news of an acquittal in a case involving state violence, all I could bring myself to do was publish a simple affirmation on Facebook and Twitter: “Philando Castile’s life mattered.” But as true as it is, the statement left me with a nagging question: Is this really the extent of my power?

Each time I type the name of another lost parent/child/sibling/friend/neighbor/citizen, I feel like a latter-day Joseph of Arimathea, nowhere to be seen prior to the crucifixion, but showing up just in time to tend to the body. Handling Jesus with care, Joseph ultimately seals him in his tomb and leaves him behind.

But I’m tired of hashtags. I don’t want to bury more crucified people with nothing more to remember them than a digital whisper of their names.

And, I suspect I’m not the only one who is dissatisfied with reactive outrage and grief. If discipleship means taking up a cross of my own in Jesus’ name, then I’m called to be right beside him at Golgotha. If Jesus is to be found in the pain of oppressed people, then that is where I should go to find him. The charge is clear: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

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Exodus – Marc Chagall

Faithfulness to a crucified Lord means proactive solidarity with those who are crucified. But for all my eagerness to stop leaving people in their tombs – to do something worthwhile to prevent crucifixion in the first place – as a white person I also acknowledge a number of potential pitfalls.

The first temptation is to opt out from time to time. White privilege affords me the freedom to periodically suspend my involvement in the movement for racial justice. News of yet another trauma is upsetting, so I close my browser and busy myself elsewhere. Since people of color do not have the choice to take a break from race, however, solidarity demands a reliable commitment on my part. So I am compelled to answer the question: How prepared am I to truly share the burdens of those whose lives are threatened in my community, in my nation, on account of the color of their skin? I’m willing to repeat a hashtag, sure, but what other commitments am I ready to make?

And just as importantly, what is the most respectful and effective means of my involvement?

One of the more insidious functions of racial privilege is the insistence that white allies be free to participate in the movement for racial justice on our terms. As soon as we become convicted of the need for change, we’re apt to dive in. We take charge because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. But when white people enter black-centered spaces uninvited, for instance, or impose preformed ideas about how the movement ought to proceed, or center our own feelings about the ways we are included or not, we exploit the very power we presume to dismantle.

We also risk becoming preoccupied with our own acceptance. We want to be perceived by people of color as allies. We want to prove that we’re woke. So, we attend closely to the voices of people of color and affirm them. Whereas such support is warranted, problems arise when we identify our participation exclusively with the efforts of people of color.

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First, we may become convinced that we have earned the right to our place at their side. If I like all your posts, then I am free to associate myself with you at any time. For a variety of reasons, however, some spaces are reserved for those who are directly affected by injustice. White people (or men, or cisgender or heterosexual folks) may simply not be invited into these spaces. And when we are invited, we are expected to enter with care, as guests.

Second, we may neglect our own responsibility to the movement, a responsibility that is independent from the work of people of color. Our black friends are not available to address racism in our families. Our teachers of color are not available to practice anti-racism with our colleagues and in our communities. In the all-white spaces in which I so often find myself, my voice may be the only one to ask hard questions and insist upon change.

With all this in mind, how should I be about the work?

“Get in where you fit in.”

This wisdom from a leader in the movement for black lives continues to frame my own commitment.

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Get in where you fit in, that is, make an effort to understand the way your identity positions you uniquely in the movement for justice. Recognize where and when your role is to listen. Own the power your identity affords you, and leverage it for the sake of a more equitable distribution of power.

I’m tired of hashtags.

I’m tired of leaving crucified people in their tombs.

So I’m vowing to take new steps in faith and love, and I’m ready to take direction.

Will you come with me?


Vestments 3.2017.jpgNate Sutton is an LSTC alumnus, graduating in 2013. He serves as pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in downtown Puyallup, Washington. A Pacific Northwesterner by upbringing and choice, he and his spouse, Bethany, call Chicago “their city,” the place where many of their fiercest friendships developed and their dearest memories reside. Their child, Alexandra, will be three years old at the end of August.

Dear Church: You Would Rather Hang Me from a Tree. A Reflection on the Execution of #PhilandoCastile – Vicar Lenny Duncan, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Conshohoken, PA

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St. Anthony, Minnesota Police Officer Geronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Philado Castile last week. And since everything from the shooting to the trial took place in Ramsey County, Minnesota – in the heart of US Lutheranism – “We Talk. We Listen.” knew we had to get the conversation going, and powerfully. Vicar Lenny Duncan, currently entering his second year of internship at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshohoken, PA, gets us started. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

 


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Freeze.

Don’t move.

Let me see your ID.

Don’t move.

Freeze.

What are you doing around here?

Anything in the car I should know about?

Freeze.

Don’t move.

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This is how death is pronounced over hundreds of black bodies every day. This may or may not result in death. This interaction I’m describing to you is haunting when heard by black bodies. This may very well cost a black person their life. These may be the last words I ever hear. I was asked to write this piece about #PhilandoCastile on Saturday night, before I preached yesterday. I agreed. I always agree, because what am I to do? How else am I supposed to relate to my church at times like this?

I’m tired y’all.

I’m tired of pleading with you for my life, ELCA.

There I said it.

If you valued my life even a little bit this would stop. Philando was executed in the Land of the Lutheran. The Twin Cities. One of the most segregated areas of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

But I understand. It’s not you.

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The Charleston 9, top/bottom, left-to-right: Susie Jackson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Doctor, Ethel Lance; Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pickney, Daniel Simmons Sr. Their killer, Dylann Roof, was baptized and confirmed in the ELCA and the senior pastoral staff of Mother Emanuel had studied at the ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.

This acquittal happened the same week that we remember the second anniversary of Charleston and the first anniversary of Pulse. I hear the same words that are like a clarion call to all of Black America. It is the sound of the seal being broken.

The final trumpet blows.

It is like ashes on my tongue.

Not. Guilty.

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Link to this summer’s tributes to the #Pulse victims.

How hard was it for you to feign surprise and shock? That you thought things would be different this time? What evidence did you have that it would be?

I knew from the first day of the trial the officer would be acquitted.  I knew from the day I saw the Facebook live video. I watched within the first hour it was posted. I knew as I watched the life drain from Philando’s eyes, as I heard the cry of his child, as I watched the anger of his girlfriend rise, this officer wouldn’t see any consequences.

If you are honest with yourself, you knew too.

We watched the lynching of a black man by law enforcement in almost real time.

It changed nothing.

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If you are Lutheran and reading this, or have read me before, you are probably waiting for me to dig deep and find the grace. To offer the hope and resurrection.  If you are ordained clergy you might even feel justified to tell me it’s my duty as an emerging leader in this church.

I offer you none.

The law in this country offers me death. Why should the law be any different for you?

I am obligated by God to tell you the truth.

The truth is there is no grace in this anymore.

We are watching as the moral fiber of this country is being shredded. We are casting our souls into the pit. We have made a conscious decision to walk with the enemy of all life. In the name of law and order, safety and prosperity we have become everything we tell the rest of the world we are not.

The truth that is self-evident is that Black bodies will continue to be the sacrifice on the altar of America.

Since my ancestors were thrown into a hold of a ship.

Since our leaders were murdered one by one a generation ago.

We are to be the lamb you sacrifice, for your original sin.

How can I sing a song in a strange land? 

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Church we are doubly as guilty. We are supposed to be better. We have in turn become white washed tombs.

The silence is deafening. Your inaction telling.

My heart is bled dry, perhaps yours is too.

Perhaps the grace is the fact that Black people still love this church. That people like me are willing to throw themselves into the breach. That I will not leave until I die. That I will stay in the church I love until the very end.

But you won’t experience me as grace. You will experience me as the thing that makes you uncomfortable.

Many of you would rather see me hung from a tree, with my side pierced.

You did it to Philando.

Well in this country, you just might get your wish.


16195868_10206838983808083_6435496150445692170_nLenny Duncan is the vicar at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshoshoken, PA and Candidate for Ordination to the office of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. He is also the Evangelist for the #decolonizelutheranism movement, as well as a frequent voice on the intersection of the Church and the cries of the oppressed. He pays special attention to the #blacklivesmovement in his work, but lifts up the frequent intersection with other marginalized peoples.  He believes that the reason the ELCA has remained so white, is a theological problem, not sociological one. He is currently an M.Div Coop student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and holds a Bachelors of Biblical Studies from Lancaster Bible College, with an emphasis in New Testament Theology and Ministry.