My Talk at Greenbelt
The following is an adapted version of the talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival at Boughton House, Kettering, England on August 26, 2018. Originally entitled, "What the Movement for Black Lives Can Teach Us About Jesus", the title has since changed to "Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like: Radical Pneumatologies of Black Resistance", which better represents how this work is inspired by conversations with and lectures by the Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman, Ph.D. and the Rev. Andre Johnson, Ph.D.
On August 23, 2014, I arrived in Ferguson, Missouri with a bus full of activists from Washington, D.C. Two weeks prior, white law enforcement officer Darren Wilson had killed Michael Brown, a black teenager, in broad daylight. For four hours, Michael’s body lay in the middle of an otherwise ordinary street, subject to Missouri’s scorching summer temperatures. For four hours, black neighbors, friends, and relatives poured onto the sidewalks of that street, bearing witness to a scene all-too-familiar to black people throughout the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, enslavement in the US, the Jim and Jane Crow era, and current day de jour white supremacist social and political structures: The black person’s dead body being made an example of what happens when you step out of line.
In the week after Brown’s death, I tweeted that I wanted to visit Ferguson, to which a Twitter follower responded, “Well there’s a bus leaving in a few days.” It was an opportunity I could not pass up: The prospect of being in the middle of the buzz of the black middle and working class St. Louis suburb. On the bus ride to Ferguson, I carried theologian James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree not for any particular reason other than it seemed most relevant for what I was preparing to see and what led us, collectively, to that horrific and cataclysmic moment in US American history. In the book, Dr. Cone discusses the almost endless theological, political, and social between lynching and crucifixion.
For Cone and other black Christians before and since him, Jesus is understood as a black person executed executed by the state for his state-invented criminal status. Crucifixion was the normal means of death for insurrectionists of Jesus’ day, a political statement that when you cross the empire’s line, your death will become an example of the fate awaiting those who fall outside the line of desirability, respectability, and imperial hegemony. Delores Williams, a contemporary of Cone’s critiqued Cone’s connection between the cross and the lynching tree, arguing - rightfully so - that lynching was a decidedly gendered form of state-sanctioned violence against black cisgender men in particular.
Throughout her work, Dr. Williams makes the case in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today that surrogacy, not lynching, was the state’s chief means of subjugating black women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the coercive culture of being “domestics” for white families, the disproportionate relegation to underpaid manual labor jobs where they could be routinely subjected to physical and emotional abuse, and - as depicted in the Mudbound - the constant threat of spending more time managing white households than their own. For Cone and Williams, lynching and surrogacy are tangible entry points for black people to experience what it must have been like to be born a Palestinian Jew in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire: The subjection to the whims of Roman soldiers, wealthy landowners, and other subsets of the Roman citizenry who benefited directly from the displacement and occupation of vulnerable regions and ethnic groups.
Just after arriving in Ferguson, my group landed at a local black Baptist church where I met a person I’ll never forget. In our short conversation, I was able to ask her where she lived and how long she’d been on the streets of her town protesting: “I live here,” she told me. “And I’ll stay out on these streets as long as I have to until justice is done.” I sensed that that woman’s statement was in fact a distilled theological treatise on the impulse behind the long tradition of black activism in the United States and elsewhere: That the Spirit at work inside of her was determined to see the situation through until justice was finally done, the way Jacob wrestled with the god on the banks of a river in the middle of night, saying, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” Or the way the Syrophenecian mother didn’t take Jesus’ stinging dismissal of her daughter’s ailment as the final word. “Sir,” I can hear her say, “Even dogs deserve the crumbs from the table. Sir, I will plead my case before you until healing comes my daughter’s way.” Or the way the single mother in one of Jesus’ parables tears up her whole house to find her one coin. That persistence and thirst for life are both signs that one is alive, kicking, and taking names.
With this in mind, I can’t help but think of Mary, Mother of God, and the resemblance in materiality and constitution she probably shares with the woman I met that day in Ferguson. How many times did the Blessed Virgin Mary attended a protest of law enforcement and centurion brutality on the dusty streets of first century Nazareth? How many times did she - as a girl, young woman, and adult woman - face the humiliation of being catcalled by the very men colonizing her ancestors’ land? Her rebel anthem in Luke is the inner political, social, and religious manifesto of a woman fed up with being at the tail end of history, politics, economics, and the social ladder. “If made into a modern day political party’s election year platform, it would be easily classified as monarcho-socialist: A vision of the world made just under the generous reign of the God of Mary’s ancestors who delivered them from Egyptian enslavement and two iterations of dislocation from the land of their ancestors.
Not soon after Mary’s Magnificat single drops at the beginning of Luke’s gospel account, Jesus offers his inaugural sermon in a village synagogue, claiming that the words from Isaiah’s scroll about the liberation of the incarcerated, the forgiveness of debts, and the era of God’s freedom-inducing era were coming to bear in his person; that he was the chief agent of a new social and political order of dignity and wholeness, of shalom. When one sits at the left of Jesus, one is left to wonder from whom he learned this narrative of liberation. One need only look as far as his mother’s lap. Mary’s song of revolution moonlighted as Jesus’ lullaby. Mary made sure that her eldest child carried on her tradition of casting prophetic visions of a world turned right side up from the disorientation of imperial brutality. For Mary and Jesus, this vision of liberation was not some pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-in-the-sweet-by-and-by caricature, but a robust expectation that God would act in and through history to deliver God’s people from the grip of tyrants, charlatans, and orange-tinted autocrats. And yet the key in which they sang this song was indiscernible to their oppressors in much the same way the Negro spirituals my ancestors sang were indiscernible to theirs.
Just a few years ago, a popular US reality television star claimed that the enslavement of Africans and the era following in North America wasn’t all that bad, since black people often sang and made other joyful noises in the fields of the antebellum South. What that person doesn’t understand is that the songs weren’t the tunes of happy people, but of a soulful people formed in the crucible of enslavement, second-class citizenship, and the other material realities of life under white Christian heteropatriarchal capitalism.
If anything, the Negro spiritual and its offspring are genres of resistance composed in the belly of an world empire of unprecedented human and environmental plunder. I grew up on Negro spirituals and only began to understand them as resistance music when reading Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Strange Glory in which there is a story of Bonhoeffer living for a year in Black Harlem in the early 30s while studying at Union Theological Seminary and worshiping at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church where he came in contact with the Negro Spirituals in a way he’d never experienced them before. So taken with that homegrown genre and their ethos of resistance, Bonhoeffer took Negro spirituals back to Germany to teach his underground seminarians what it meant to faithfully confess the crucified and risen Christ in the midst of white supremacist fascism. Resistance begets resistance. But back to the Movement for Black Lives.
It is difficult to mark the genesis of the movement. Some place it with the murderous neglect of the US government in the years leading up to and the days following Hurricane Katrina, others place it with the mistreatment of the Jena Six, others place it with the state-sanctioned murder of Oscar Grant, others place it at the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s extrajudicial killer, and yet others place it at Michael Brown’s murder and his corpse’s subsequent four hour exposure to the natural elements. And yet others say that the movement for black lives has been enacted at critical points in US history when black people flood out of their homes and neighborhoods and labor camps and publicly indict white power structures for their social and political malpractice. I am inclined to say yes to each of those hypotheses. I am also inclined to say that these protests were and are the work of the Holy Spirit.
There are three biblical narratives that serve as helpful conversation partners to this question of countercultural pneumatological phenomena: One of the two creation narratives, the Babel narrative, and the Pentecost narrative. In the creation narrative in question, the “Spirit of God brooded or hovered or fluttered over the face of the deep or the waters”. For the Genesis narrators, God was and is proximate to what might be perceived as brewing chaos. Yes, that means God is near to that three year old who is getting worked up over you telling them it is time to put down the toys and get ready for bed and to the driver screaming at you as you cut them off in traffic. The waters, the deep of protests and demonstrations are echos of the Bible’s first stories: That as something good and beautiful brewed, God was nearby, bearing witness to its germination.
Later in Genesis, God is the originator of chaos in the form of the diversification of language at Babel. God goes down and confuses the hegemonic forces behind a monolingual people. Their hyper confidence was a threat to God who seems to be a bit insecure in this story. And in the Acts of the Apostles, the chaos of Babel appears to be either reversed or honed or redirected. The narrator seems to be saying ,”In the midst of great chaos, of great confusion, of a regathered diaspora initiated by imperial violence and dislocation, the win of God is at work opening up fresh ways of hearing and speaking and proclaiming across difference.
White American Christians were at the forefront of litigating the appropriateness of black protests in 2014 and 2015 in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. “Couldn’t you find some other form of protest that doesn’t involve mass demonstrations that doesn’t shutdown highways commerce? Can’t you find a more polite way to protest law enforcement-initiated killings of black people?” Those curious and misleading questions leads one to think that it might be best to stage massive high teas or large-scale naps. I don’t know exactly how these folks think protests are supposed to look. They must forget that these are protests, not coffee hour after church. These Christians also might be suffering from an underdeveloped pneumatology or theology of the Holy Spirit. For Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, the work of the Holy Spirit is “inseparable from embodied practice”, which places protestors, disruptors, and demonstrators squarely within the realm of the Holy Spirit’s staging ground for liberation. The very bodies criminalized, contested, and seized by the state become - in those moments of demonstration - actors in the drama of a God consumed with the liberation of an occupied, oppressed, and marginalized people.
Practitioners of nonviolent resistance are astute in their critique of those who disparage their tactics: The protests and demonstrations provoke violence or chaos not so much as they demonstrate the injustice and white supremacy and sexism and other forms of dehumanization already at work in their lives. An American Episcopal bishop has said that the sacraments make real, not true and the same can be said of the protests in the movement for black lives: That they make real, demonstrate, bring alive, and unveil what is already there.
Theologically, “unveiling” has long been referred to as “apocalypse” or as a biblical literary genre referred to as “literature of the oppressed”. There is - coded within these various texts - references to future cosmological events that are actually stinging commentaries on the present social and political order. For instance, in the Revelation to St. John, multi-headed beasts, whores of Babylon, and transportable cities communicate something just beneath the plain meaning of rich symbols. In apocalyptic literature, the writers and poets are usually making a case the end of the world as it’s been known; the beginning of new eras or ways of relating defined by mutuality, love, and mercy; not domination and violence. Apocalyptic literature falls into what Christians theologians call “eschatology”: Theologies of last things.
Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman has articulated womanist eschatologies as claims about heaven that are not “otherworldly”. “When Marian Anderson, the great black contralto, for example reminds us in her rendition of Heav’n Heav’n that: ‘I got shoes; you got shoes’ all God’s chil’ren got travelin shoes,’ the correlation of ‘heav’n’ with ‘shoes’ indicates...an eschatological claim about heaven that is not otherworldly. In other words, ‘heaven’ is not removed from the reality of the material deprivation of black life in history; rather, heaven, God’s future which is always approximating, is also inedibly related to what is, as in concrete black impoverishment in past and the present.”
One of the great challenges of white articulations of Christianity is the emphasis on the otherworldliness of God, salvation, and the “afterlife” that suspend white Christians and others from actively seeking the abolition of present material realities. For people benefiting from oppressive social structures, there can be a lack of interest in seeing material redistribution in the present age, but this does not keep the impulse behind many of the Negro spirituals from being there. The Negro spirituals, blues, and jazz resist white supremacy as each genre crafts a new imaginarium - as my friend Ross Meikle refers to it - in the midst of present social and political and theological nightmares. It takes great courage to create these vast reservoirs in which to swim, play, and sail when enslavement, segregation, and other systemic disadvantages are draining the well dry, but as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, “The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”
Eschatological and apocalyptic streams run through protests in the movement for black lives. Dramatized in chant, march, and confrontation with law enforcement, contemporary “artisans of justice” bring to bear the defiance of their ancestors with urgency and eloquence. When activists are saying, “Whose streets? Our streets.” and “Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.”, they are making eschatological statements. They are saying, “I see the world as it is before my eyes and as it is in God’s future and I will do everything in my power to birth it in the present.” This is exactly what my ancestors did in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom fifty-five years years ago this week.
They took to the center of political and legislative power to dramatize a three hundred forty-four year long plight. This is what my ancestors did in the 1964 Freedom Summer when they held voter registration drives for black people across the South, even though black people were largely disenfranchised until 1965. In a word, they were prophetic: They saw the white supremacist United States for what it was and said, “We deserve better.” They pulled back the veil and showed the world that the emperor had no clothes.
As I alluded to earlier, there are people who preferred then and now for protestors to do their work of protest quietly to out of the public eye, effectively saying they’d rather people not protest at all. These opponents of black self-determination and assertion might unknowingly be like the onlookers on the Day of Pentecost, mistaking a movement of the Spirit for something nefarious, like irresponsible day-drinking. That way of dismissing the justice efforts of others is a sign of a deeper, often-invisible form of suppression that seeks to diminish a people’s desire to see their material realities transformed into something generative and sustainable.
This is demonstrated in the way law enforcement officers often interface with protestors on the streets of U.S. cities. If the Spirit brooding over chaos is a sign of creation-to-come, law enforcement officers are usually a sign of the effort to control or regulate or arrest the Spirit’s dynamic work in our midst. Often, law enforcement in the United States have gotten away with the murder of black Americans, acquitted by grand juries due to a “lack of evidence” or because the act of state-sanctioned murder was justified. This tradition of suppressing and destroying black life makes black people - in the white American public imagination - out to be the inverse of a sacrament, anti-sacraments, if you will.
In the Episcopal Church, sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” In the white supremacist imagination, black people are outward and visible signs of systemic, material dehumanization, given by birth into white supremacist structures as sure and certain means of confirming white superiority and power. If the Body of Christ one receives in the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of God’s grace, then the Christ embodied in the lives and experiences of black people is to be venerated just as well. But there black people are, roaming anti-sacraments of a white supremacist power structure, physical reminders of a nation preoccupied with our destruction and exploitation.
We, like Jesus’ own people in first century Palestine, remind the empire that Caesar does not have the last word; God does. We, like Jesus’ own people in first century Palestine, often take to our streets to assert that we have had enough of Rome’s violent overreach and cruel lack of resources. We, like Jesus’ own people in first century Palestine, remind our Rome that if you want to destroy us, you must destroy us all; that our survival means your survival; that our flourishing means your flourishing; that our marginalization means your marginalization. We do theology and protest and disrupt from this place, from these bodies, from these particular experiences as a form of survival, arising from a social location in which our very existence problematizes the notion that there is indeed “freedom and justice for all”. And it is in this chaos, over the deep that we encounter the brooding Spirit, quietly telling us to keep the trouble up.
Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like: Radical Pneumatologies of Black Resistance
© 2018 Broderick Greer