Embracing the Prophetic | Pause and Reflect
On Friday, a funeral was held for Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl who was shot down by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, moments before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, a death that sparked national sustained resistance and the call to defund police. Sadly, Ma’Khia’s name is now added to the seemingly endless list of Black people who have been murdered by police in this country.
Faith in Public Life’s Ohio Director, Rev. Dan Clark, along with a coalition of Columbus faith leaders, has been actively organizing for police accountability and justice for the past four years. I have walked alongside these leaders and witnessed firsthand the intransigence of Mayor Ginther (a Democrat) and other elected officials. The simple, common-sense change I thought possible has languished (although we have won a few small victories). This week, I was discouraged to hear that some faith leaders seem to be taking their cues from elected officials and lulling the community into complacency.
The Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah warns us of such a moderate approach. It makes me think about the times I have found myself tempted to ally with those in power. I wrestle with this constantly. When do I push harder? When is it time to be diplomatic?
One thing I do know is that the strategy for discernment found in scripture is that of prioritizing the perspective of those who are under the knee of the oppressor, unable to breathe. The prophets view the world through the eyes of those harmed by the powerful. They point the finger at those who build and perpetuate oppressive laws and empires. They speak truth to power and lead us back to God. Today’s prophets are those in the streets who are challenging a brutal policing system that refuses to change.
Consider the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Amos repeatedly calls out those who prey on and cheat the poor and reveals God’s heart for the people being oppressed. He reveals that we serve a God that rejects the worship of those who exploit others and instead demands justice (Amos 5:21-24). The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah highlight similar issues, echoing the demand for justice for the poor, while also offering a new vision for what a world without oppression would look like (Isa 29:20-21).
So, given the clarity of scripture, what is holding us back from stepping into the prophetic witness and vision happening today?
I have some ideas:
Many of us are groomed early in life to please those we view as authority figures. As a white Southern woman, I know this dynamic all too well. I am also reminded of an infamous study in the ‘60s by psychologist Stanley Milgram after he examined people’s justifications for World War II acts of genocide. He found that people were willing to harm others, even to the point of killing an innocent person, when instructed to do so by someone in power. He concluded that this was because deference to authority is so deeply ingrained in us from a young age. It’s no wonder people can be intimidated into silence in the face of injustices committed by police.
We don’t know our history. Soon after Reconstruction ended, the Daughters of the Confederacy launched an effort to whitewash the history of slavery. This account of history made it into the North and into textbooks, many of which are published in Texas. Similarly, Southern Baptists created a theology of the Lost Cause. We are not taught that our spiritual ancestors fought for justice against all odds and prevailed. We learn white-washed stories from the Bible and ignore its message of challenging rather than accommodating power.
Our privilege enables us to look away. Some of us, namely white people like me, are not targets of the state in the same way people of color are, and we don’t live with the same fear or the same loss. In fact, it can be hard to believe what we are hearing because we live in such a different reality. Those of us who become interested in making real change, like the abolitionist movement (those calling for us to envision and build a world without policing), are accustomed to hearing that these ideas are too radical, naive, and impossible. All of us are creatures that seek comfort and stability, which means we tend to avoid conflict and the work of deconstructing what we know in order to try to build something better.
My question for us today is how do we resist the temptation to give in to the cajoling of elected leaders, our fear, or simply inertia so that we can better heed the prophetic call of our time? How do we summon the courage to stand in the prophetic space grappling with the questions of our faith?
One practice I find helpful is a little self-interrogation. I had to do some personal work on myself in order to deconstruct the way I think about police and safety. Someone suggested to me that the question I should be asking is this: What makes a community safe? So I try to imagine what it might’ve looked like for Ma’Khia if the first responders were not so quick to shoot her down like an animal. Would they have done that to me under such circumstances? (I think not). What if they were trained to see a threatening situation in a way that was dignifying and humanizing to all involved at the scene? What if they didn’t have guns? Would they be pressed to lean on their training in de-escalation? And larger still, what if they did not live in a culture that demonized black people?
Another practice for resisting inertia can simply be a daily practice of carving out space to meditate on a new vision and see what surfaces. Lately, I find myself thinking about abolition and the call to defund the police. It takes little time in reading up on this to understand that this call is a prophetic vision of abundance and equity that God desires for each of us. But it will take deep work and endurance to actualize this vision, which is why I also think it’s important for us to plug into our communities, especially those in the struggle for justice, so that we can share stories, celebrate wins, be encouraged, and challenge ourselves to build a collective vision.
Today, I am relishing the victory FPL Ohio saw last week with a new federal injunction prohibiting police from using tear gas and wooden bullets on protestors. I am also excited about the George Floyd Act, which will limit police qualified immunity, and lower criminal intent standards to better convict police who murder and allow for the Department of Justice to investigate police for discriminatory practices.
Finally, sometimes the best practice is jumping into action!
Listen to the prophets of our time:
We are all on a learning journey. We need to take the time to listen to Black leaders and those who have been on the front lines, serving their communities. A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with Rev. Susan Smith from Crazy Faith Ministries in Ohio, who provides a prophetic witness on police brutality.
Support The Work:
The ACLU is working on a 21st Century Plan for Divestment from Policing. Essentially, the plan is to drain police budgets and take away their lethal tools while redirecting resources to other community safety programs, in order to reduce police interaction with Black and Brown communities. This approach can eventually blot out the need for police altogether.
Do more research:
If you’re like me, and you have questions about ‘who do we call when we need police’, give this resource from the Durham Black Youth Project 100 chapter a read. Even Rolling Stone and Women’s Health Magazine have articles about modern policing alternatives we can consider.
All loving, righteous, and powerful God.
You have the power to break down barriers.
We ask you to teach us, and
Create in us a new heart, daily,
So that we may see your wisdom
And your abundant vision for us.
Help us to be your hands and feet
Among the marginalized and oppressed.