by Jen Owens
“God was the first to cry for your son.” These words were put in the mouth of Dr. King as he attempted to comfort an aging protestor who had lost his son at the hands of a state trooper in the film Selma, and this theme appears in liberation theologies. In watching Selma this afternoon, I was struck by the many parallels between the work of which Dr. King was such a leader and the work that remains to be done today. Whether it was the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair in 1963 or the torching of the church where Michael Brown, Sr. was baptized in Ferguson, MO, last fall; whether it was the murder depicted in the restaurant scene of the film or the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other people of color; racism is an ever-present part of our communal reality—in the form of overt violence and its less obvious but no less insidious counterparts. While such a statement may sound like a platitude to some, it is important to name the reality in which we live, especially in light of the pollyannaish assertions that US Americans live in a post-racial society.
In sitting with my experience of the film and my experience of this recently uncovered speech Dr. King gave a few days before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, I am reminded that, as a biracial woman with White skin privilege, I need to take on a posture of listening in conversations about racism directed at our Black American brothers and sisters. My intention in writing this blog post is hardly to offer new insight on a Christian response to racism against Black Americans, but rather, to share the spiritual practices that have been sustaining for me as I listen.
- Lament, personal and communal. The Old Testament has a rich tradition of lamentation, this crying out to God in protest against the injustices inflicted upon humanity. A prime example of this is in the beginning of the psalm that Jesus prays on the cross in the Gospel of Matthew, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As the psalmists teach us through their example, personal and communal lament are vital parts of our spiritual wellbeing. We need to be able to bring the pain and the suffering that racism inflicts on our communities to God, to let God weep with us.
- Education. Foundational texts in my own theological education on these matters include James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores Williams, Sexuality and the Black Church by Kelly Brown Douglas, and Diana Hayes’ Madeleva Lecture on Hagar’s Daughters. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but I share these titles because they have been key parts of my theological introductions to these realities. Shorter and more accessible but no less formative pieces include Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.”
- Action. We all have a role to play in dismantling racism and White privilege, and each of us needs to discern what that will be, both individually and in conversation with members of our community. Some are called to nonviolent direct action, while others are called to be educators. Some are community workers; others are catechists. Still others sing spirituals like this one. It takes all kinds.
At the end of this holy day, I am reminded of Dr. King’s words in “Walk for Freedom.” They read, “Love must be at the forefront of our movement if it is to be a successful movement. And when we speak of love, we speak of understanding, good will toward all men. We speak of a creative, a redemptive sort of love so that as we look at the problem, we see that the real tension is not between the Negro citizens and the white citizens of Montgomery, but it is a conflict between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and if there is a victory—and there will be a victory—the victory will not be merely for the Negro citizens and a defeat for the white citizens, but it will be a victory for justice and a defeat of injustice. It will be a victory for goodness in its long struggle with the forces of evil.” Lord, hear our prayer.