How Justice Became Central to My Christian Identity

The fight for justice in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old teenager killed in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson, has continued for over 140 days and into the new year. Many have already deemed 2015 as the "Year of Resistance." Since August 9th, other police involved killings from around the country and decisions to not indict the officers involved have fanned the flames of protest culminating in mass demonstrations in 37 states. It has become very evident that this is a movement and not a moment which consequently has led to people of all creeds, across the nation, scrambling to develop an analysis of and a response to racial profiling and police brutality.

For the Church, in particular the Black Church, many questions have arose. What is the role of clergy in this troubled time? Should clergy be priestly or prophetic or both? Historically, the Black Church has been at the forefront of the fight for justice. Does a place of leadership still exist for the Church in this movement or should the Church play a more supportive role? As a Christian what is my role in this? Should I be active in protest or should I stand idly by while people risk their lives in the pursuit of justice?

I have my opinions about the role of clergy and the Church, but I'm not going to use this space to discuss those. For now, I would like to address why justice-making is central to the Christian identity.

God, the Bible, and the Church are the foundation of my activism. Jesus was the first revolutionary I learned about; a first century Palestinian Jew who "courageously exposed the greed for money, power and adulation of the political elite." His movement existed under a police state in the midst of religious and political turmoil. He was arrested unjustly, brutalized and tortured by Roman guards, and executed in a manner "reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition." On the other hand, as James Cone writes, "He is also the divine One who transcends the limitations of history by making himself present in our contemporary existence. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God affirmed that Jesus' historical identity with the freedom of the poor was in fact divinity taking on humanity for the purpose of liberating human beings from sin and death. It is within this context that the resurrection is a political event."

Not only do I want to imitate Jesus' revolutionary lifestyle, but also the revolutionary love He exhibited. I experience God as the fountainhead of love. The love that flows to me from God is not meant to stop with me, rather it is meant to flow through me. Huey Newton was absolutely correct when he said, "...what motivates people is not great hate, but great love for other people." It is the revolutionary, boundless, and immense love that I have for people that impels me to seek justice. As Dr. Cornel West says, "Justice is what love looks like in public."

Scripture informs me further of just how central justice-making is to my Christian identity. To know God is to do justice (Jeremiah 22:15-16). It is not enough that we live righteously. We are required to do justice (Micah 6:8). Throughout the Bible we are given very clear reminders of God's love for justice and reminders that it is our duty to fight for those who have been crushed, degraded, humiliated, exploited, impoverished, defrauded, deceived and enslaved (Isaiah 1:17; Matthew 25:40-45; Luke 4:18; Mark 12:30-31).

My upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) helped me to see what it would look like for the Body of Christ to put those verses into action. I grew up with the understanding that the Church had a responsibility to save souls and to save bodies. In fact, the AME Church was the first major religious denomination in the western world to develop because of sociological differences rather than theological ones. It was literally born out of the fight for freedom and in protest to racial discrimination and slavery. My church involved itself in charity work that served the needs of the less fortunate. But I also saw my church advocate for fair and just public policies and push to change the social structures that lead to people becoming less fortunate.

In the world of faith, the term "social justice" gets caught in the middle of the perpetual tug-of-war between fundamentalism and liberalism. I don't align myself with either side. I am a Black man in America which means I neither have the time nor the privilege to get caught up in theological and ideological bickering. The effects of racism are not theoretical, therefore our response must not only be in theory but in practice. As long as we live in a world controlled by social institutions we should be fighting to ensure those institutions better serve the common good. One of those institutions being the church. In 2014, I witnessed Christians defend torture and label police officers as "agents of God." Certainly many churches and Christians perpetuate harmful dominant narratives and serve to uphold the status quo of a racist and violent social, economic, and political system. This must change.

There have been Christians protesting alongside of me that did not have a similar justice-minded upbringing. What we do share is a belief that we are not only supposed to have a faith that benefits ourselves, but a faith that benefits others, makes the world a better place, and prepares it for the coming of Christ. We have been transformed in a way that empowers us and requires us to transform the world. Faith, Bible, and Church come together to serve the world.

There is a role for everyone in the struggle for justice. If 2015 is to truly be the "Year of Resistance" we must individually and collectively reclaim the Christ of Resistance. Justice must be at the heart of our discipleship. 
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