As I sit to write my personal reflections post-Juneteenth in Tulsa against the backdrop of the President Donald Trump rally, COVID-19 and civil unrest prompted by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and so many others, I find myself wrestling with a faith response.
My faith is equally challenged to respond proactively to a Fourth of July weekend of extremely high gun violence in my own communities around the nation.
Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Washington, D.C., and Hoover, Alabama, were the sites where children ranging from 8 to 13 years old were gunned down by senseless shootings.
What was feared to be a perfect storm for uncontrolled confrontation in our nation has instead become a moral awakening centered on racial injustice, public health and crime within my own communities.
This moral awakening comes with the challenge to think and communicate apolitically. By this, I mean not viewing all these challenges as being mutually exclusive.
Addressing our societal ills requires a multi-pronged approach. We cannot afford to take them one at a time.
There is an ongoing struggle for freedom, justice and peace in our communities. So as a man of faith, I am asking myself how must I live my faith when injustice brings tragedy to my community? How do I weave together a spiritual, political and social approach to societal transformation?
The goal being to channel constructive outrage into productive social transformation and give evidence to God’s tenets of love, justice, faithfulness and hope.
In an op-ed recently posted in Baptist News, writer Bill Leonard builds upon this statement made years ago by quintessential dissenter Roger Williams about the Black church being “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” Leonard says, “perhaps no other church coalition in America has personified Roger Williams’ insight into shelter and conscience as profoundly as the Black church.”
Black churches are the historical enclaves of safety and spirituality for African American people and seedbeds of prophetic witness for gospel justice in both the church and the public square.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of both meeting and hearing Miroslav Volf at a Hillcrest Medical Center lecture series. Volf is a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
In two of his books, “Public Faith” and “Public Faith in Action,” he asserts that people with faith convictions are unwilling to keep their convictions and practices limited to the sphere of family or faith communities and instead want these convictions and practices to shape public life.
Our internal constitutions should inform and shape our external relations.
Faith should be active in all realms of life and offer its viewpoint on how to fix and mend societal malfunctions so we all can flourish as God’s creatures.
Christian citizens have a responsibility to make political and ethical decisions considering their faith and to participate in the public lives of their communities. Faith has an inalienable public dimension.
Regarding policy and policing, Volf says, “Policing is indispensable to protect citizens from harm and create conditions for the flourishing of all. Policemen and policewomen are not warriors fighting an enemy but guardians protecting communities with which they should identify.”
We should task the police he says, with “acting above all as protectors of the poor and underprivileged.”
His five imperatives for the faith community’s engagement with police issues are:
First, we should seek peace by advocating for policing that seeks shalom. Second is a defense of the poor by advocating for policing and practices that do not favor the well-off and powerful.
Third, do not act out of fear and resist fear-based arguments and policies that exaggerate threats, turn a blind eye to injustice and undermine peace.
Fourth, seek the truth and tell the truth. We can’t pretend there’s not a tendency to see Black boys as older than they are and as more responsible for their actions than their non-Black peers. This leads to harsher treatment of Black boys at the hands of police and the legal system.
Finally, the universal admonition to love our neighbors. Those who make decisions about policing must love all their neighbors, regardless of race, class or culture and recognize they are worthy of protection and care. Their lives and well-being are to be valued.
We as a race must likewise value our own lives. As noted earlier, the homicides we commit among ourselves demand equal outrage and unrest.
In his 1879 essay, “The Conservation of the Race,” W.E.B. Dubois stressed the potential of Black people of the present and future to do better. His prescription was that Black people need to fix themselves.
This same challenge is posited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his book “Stony the Road.” He states that we as a people must demonstrate what we are not, demonstrate counter images and, thereby, prove that racist stereotypes are not true.
Growing up, my parents told me that if I ever got into trouble at school or in the community that I felt was unjustified to merely tell them, and they would go and fight for me.
However, their defense of me was always prefaced with this: Make sure you have done everything right and what you were supposed to do. They were saying not to give those who have wronged you an escape for their behavior.
As I conclude, I pose these alternatives.
Are we in the early stages of awakened sensitivity and a new commitment to long delayed police reform? Are we poised for a new Harlem Renaissance within the African American community? Or are we seeking another quick fix without continuing substance?
Time will tell!
The Rev. Anthony Scott has been pastor at First Baptist Church North Tulsa since 2008.