Faith in the Midst of Trump’s Presidency (Part 2)
By Rev. William C. Miller, 7th District
The very words of Septima P. Clark, who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” have never been more triggering to me than in the past few weeks. Clark once said, “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth! We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than affirm.” We watched a soap opera-esque election cycle feature a number of actors who at times have maintained very casual relationships with the truth. We must be diligent in holding those in power accountable for the promises they make and do not keep.
As a child who saw the remnants of Reconstruction Era politics, in Septima Clark’s world there was no such thing as veiled discrimination. It was on parade and in the open. For many during that time, truth was ordered around a belief that inequality was God-ordained and that whatever social condition people experienced was the result of personal or ancestral transgressions. For people like Mrs. Clark, Dr. King, and others, the resistant politics of Jesus of Nazareth was fully birthed out of his social reality of extreme systemic inequality.
As we search for lessons from previous chapters in the fight for civil rights, we should borrow the West African principle of “sankofa,” which suggests that there are times when one must look back to grab something that may be necessary to move forward. While we should never reach back for old habits of negative self-perception that some may have held during Jim Crow segregation, it is imperative to look back and realize the power of our faith community to respond to political, social, and religious adversities.
In truth, if one of us is sick from a systemic condition then all of us are sick. Like the air that we breathe, truth and social protest remain essential to our survival. Truth must always be in conversation with power. It is the only way authentic change can take place. There is a popular phrase which states that one must “speak truth to power” in an effort to keep social and ethical responsibilities before those who occupy the seats of power. The key to survival was understanding that people needed to not only be nourished in worship on Sunday morning but prepared through Monday night meetings at the same church to protest injustice beyond those walls. That preparation was undergirded by the very words of the prophets from the Sunday morning text. These meetings were successful because of partnerships with the Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), notwithstanding their own set of hiccups and disagreements.
If one was to close his or her eyes, in many ways they may not be able to distinguish whether they were in 1957 or 2017. When young black men still risk the chance of not returning home at night and black girls face the threat of rape culture with no judicial recourse, something is wrong. While we no longer have to contend with hangings as public spectacles and lawns lit by burning crosses, we must face the reality that social lynching is happening in the form of an overpopulated prison system and broken down schools. When fair housing and livable wages have to be fought over while overlooking disparities in the criminal justice system, it appears that some things have not changed. Therefore, while wading into uncertain waters, we must identify symbols of hope to maintain us while on our journey.
We have historically drawn strength from our ability to turn symbols of intimidation into symbols of triumph. The cross in ancient times, particularly Rome, was meant to intimidate anyone who would dare speak out against the empire. Jesus Christ of Nazareth, an itinerant preacher, was a recipient of such a death sentence. In his life beyond the cross, we discover a death from systemic oppression while seeing his very life declare that his heavenly Father would have the last word. As some would seek to use the same Christ to validate exclusionary political ideals used in deciding who receives help, our understanding of Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus states his mission on Earth suggest otherwise. This same Christ, while keeping us energized, will not let us forget the mountains we have already overcome as we look to the rivers we have yet to cross.
The Rev. William C. Miller is the pastor of Bethel AME Church (Conway, SC). He is a native of Charleston, South Carolina. He was graduated from Winston-Salem State University (B.S.) and Drew University (M.Div). Currently, he serves as an at-large member of the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches.