Before Sunday night, you might have recognized actor and social activist Jesse Williams, 34, for his role on ABC’S “Grey’s Anatomy,” or perhaps you’ve come across news coverage on his active participation in recent protests that began shortly after the death of Michael Brown. However, it was the speech Williams gave while accepting the Humanitarian Award during Sunday’s BET Awards that catapulted him to a new level and shed light on his genuine passion as a social activist.
The brilliance of Williams’ speech is that it simultaneously inspired, convicted, encouraged, and indicted his mostly black audience. His overall demeanor and diction created a didactic environment that impacted all who were listening, including some of the biggest entertainers in the world, the media, and the thousands of viewers who tuned in Sunday night. No matter who you were, on Sunday night we received a treat when Williams took the stage to deliver such a powerful message.
Although Williams took the time to address a number of things that were long overdue, it was the below points that created opportunity for some serious reflection on how faith has been misused in the black community and how we can use that same faith to actively gain the freedom we were given by God and promised by the American enterprise.
Many of us have been praying for the wrong things.
All of us in here getting money—that alone isn’t going to stop this… Now, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back. [We] put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies. —Jesse Williams
This point was directed particularly towards the celebrities in the room, but it applies to everyone in our culture that makes the concept of “celebrity” something to strive for, the measure of success. In just three sentences, Williams highlights the complex relationship between black people’s enduring faith in the midst of slavery and the travesty of so many of our people twisting the American dream today. They have taken advantage of the freedom that the slaves prayed for in exchange for socioeconomic slavery. This new-age slavery comes in the form of corporate branding and the dollars that are attached as a measure of success.
How many people do you know that are praying from an impoverished, prosperity theology? Perhaps you also know a few people who measure their success and “favor” by material wealth, selling themselves for money, attention from “the right people,” and likes on social media.
Williams’ statement reminds us that the success we should be praying for and working toward is measured by the freedom of self-determination and liberty for our communities, not dollars in our bank accounts and designers on our bodies.
We can’t just wait to die and go to Heaven to be free.
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter but, you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.—Jesse Williams
Jesus prayed for the Kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9-10). Then, Jesus took action everywhere; He went to correct the earthly things that were at odds with Heaven, from sickness to disease, to demonic attacks. He addressed everything from the exploitation of the poor to self-righteousness, to pride, and all of the impacts of sin that separates us from the power of God’s presence in our lives.
Jesus did not die only for us to focus on the afterlife. Instead, He promised the disciples that those who follow Him would receive back what they have left to follow him (family and land) in both this life and the life to come (Mark 10:29-31). Indeed, whom the Son has set free is free indeed!
Williams’ speech reminds us that we must have an active faith in order to see God’s work through us in our communities. Praying for individual success without praying for collective liberation is not a true reflection of God’s kingdom as followers of Christ.
Waiting for freedom to just be given to us by those who oppress us is not the answer and neither is putting it off until the afterlife. Jesus taught us to believe in the ultimate justice of God and pray for God’s will to be done on the earth. Then, we are to ask God to use us as his vessels to show love and justice as Christians here on Earth. Jesse Williams reminds us that faith without works is dead, so let’s heed the call and get to work in our faith for freedom.
Check out Jesse Williams’ entire speech below:
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