Like most people the last 24 hours, no scratch that, the last week and a half has been an emotionally tumultuous one. I’ve been vocal on social media about my disdain for non-indictments in the cases of Michael Brown and now Eric Garner and I, like many, have been trying to figure out what to do. As a fairly recent theology school graduate I’ve also kept my eyes open to how theology works in these situations and how my colleagues, especially those who have churches, have employed it. Unfortunately I’ve seen a disparity in those MDiv holders who are over churches and their explicit concern for justice versus those without churches who have been vocal about injustice. But recently I was given a glimmer of hope for the work that theology can do in this chaotic world.
At 10:40 on Thursday morning students from the Candler School of Theology gathered in a central meeting place to discuss their plans to interrupt the Advent Magnificat chapel service. With most dressed in all black and some holding handmade signs, the group accepted instructions to read a “Litany for Those Who Aren’t Ready for Healing” by Dr. Yolanda Pierce followed by a reading of the names of all of those whose lives were taken by police violence and brutality. The energy was electric among the group which not only included black students but their white and other non-black allies. One of those allies included the Assistant Dean of Worship and Music at Cannon Chapel, Rev. Barbara Day Miller. Miller, who usually overseas the worship services, caught wind of the planned interruption and coordinated with the student organizers to ensure that their plan of protest would go off without a hitch. And so the students walked into the chapel space, dispersed to the four corners of the room, and awaited their time to interrupt business as usual.
30 minutes into service Cassandra Henderson, a third-year MDiv student and one of the lead organizers in the protest, approached the pulpit and began the litany. As the entire room rose to their feet, one by one the students with the litany text in their hands participated in the call & response and then in a unison reading of 38 names of men and women killed by police. The names of people such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Miriam Carey, Gabrielle Nevarez and others rang through the space and the Yoruba affirmation “Ase” enveloped the names and sent them up to God and the ancestors. In the midst of all of this, some in the chapel nodded, some had blank stares, and some even looked annoyed, but all had to listen. Once the litany was complete everyone took their seats and were told to resume their regularly scheduled program but the room had already shifted, it was clear we couldn’t go back to business as usual. Thus at 11:40 the students walked out of the service chanting “Black Lives Matter” and made their way to the site of the second action, a “die-in” to take place between the Candler School of Theology and Cannon Chapel.
As the chants of “Black Lives Matter” wafted up into the misty air students put down their backpacks and laid their bodies down on the damp ground. By the dozens a diverse student body settled their physical bodies into the hard earth and shouted, chanted, prayed, cried out to the God, called out their oppressors and bound themselves to each other in a supreme act of resistance. The words of activist Assata Shakur, were the first of many call and responses:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The prophet Isaiah, Micah, and Jesus were invoked as students cried out as voices in a new wilderness and recalled the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Signs were their blankets, their voices were their trumpets, and their tears watered the blood-soaked earth and communicated to God that God’s children were in the midst of humbling themselves so that they may hear from God. Faculty from Candler joined the students in just the way that some of them teach–not from below but from besides. Ethicists, biblical scholars, systematic theologians, pastoral care practitioners, youth educators and more “died” in solidarity. Administration, including Jan Love, dean of the Candler School of Theology, were also in the death count. “This is what grief looks like. This is what rage looks like. This is what determination looks like,” Love said to the crowd of “dead” students who stretched athwart from one end of a large walkway to another. “This is what theology looks like,” was a key refrain in that space between the school of theology and the chapel. I kept thinking about the implication of repeating and holding signs that read, “This is what theology looks like” while we all performed death. Once the dust settled a bit it occurred to me one way to look at it.
Jesus said to his followers, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And that is precisely the work of theology that took place at the Candler School of Theology and that needs to take place daily until justice is served, a communal dying and a dying to ourselves.
Around the country and the world many have staged “die-ins” as a symbolic show of solidarity with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the countless others whose lives were taken by the corrupt and unjust. They have literally laid down their bodies on street corners, sidewalks, shopping malls, schools, and anywhere where they can get in the way. This is the work of theology. To physically, mentally, and spiritually wrestle with those things which concern God is the work of theology that is being put before us in this moment and it is totally inconvenient and uncomfortable. Protest is inconvenient and uncomfortable. There was nothing comfortable about laying on a damp ground but while I have breath left in my lungs I will lay down many more times as long as injustice against anyone exists. This is what we are all called to do, to put ourselves in the way, sometimes even in harm’s way, for the sake of our brothers and sisters. While we yet still have the time to lay down our lives for our friends we must take it. And who is your friend? Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Kendrec McDade, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Timothy Stansbury, and the list goes on.
Rev. Bridgette Young Ross, dean of chapel and spiritual life at Emory, also gave us some insight into what theology looks like when she suggested that the gospel is really about transformation and holy disruption. Young Ross passionately proclaimed that if it wasn’t for the holy disruption years ago she wouldn’t be standing at Emory today or in her particular office at the institution–that is as a Black woman in an institution that didn’t always open its doors to black people. Holy disruption is required of us, to put aside business and even worship as usual to tend to the business of being active in the struggle toward justice. Young Ross also sent the reminder that the Jesus many of us follow was a “revolutionary, mystic rabbi” and that we are to be an incarnation of that Jesus. This is the obvious part of what theology looks at such a time as this that some seem to be missing.
Jesus was no silent partner when it came to calling out injustice. He spoke up, turned tables over, stood on the side of the oppressed, and then paid the ultimate price for it all in dying for the sins of all. His fight should now be our fight. He gave us an edict to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do this we must surrender our sometimes misguided agendas to will the good for the greater community. Therefore, while we yet still have the time to lay down our lives for our friends we must take it. Let us remember our friends:
Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Kendrec McDade, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Timothy Stansbury…