By Keri Day, Ph.D.,
People are already calling for rest in Ferguson. People are demanding calm and peace. Yet, there has been no justice. There has been no repentance for the crimes committed against young black men and women when they are murdered by police officers every 28 hours in this country.
Civil Rights leader Ella Baker prophetically asserted, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Baker unequivocally calls for this nation to work towards justice. I interpret her statement as an argument against “cheap peace.” When I speak of cheap peace, I refer to a temporary calm that comes from sweeping the hard truths of injustice underneath our societal rug so that such hard truths are out of sight and out of mind. It is a peace that is cheap because it costs us nothing. It bypasses the hard work that comes with truth telling and correcting deep systemic injustices. When there are calls for cheap peace, one must ask, “For whose benefit?” Does avoiding hard truths help to protect the marginalized and suffering or does it protect an abusive and oppressive system? Justice is the prerequisite upon which peace, reconciliation, and healing must be built. Without truth telling and justice, we seek a cheap peace, which is temporary and false. Faith communities must avoid seeking a cheap peace in Ferguson until we have challenged and eradicated the racist systems that cause violence and darkness in this country.
Martin Luther King reminds us of the danger of settling for cheap peace. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” can be interpreted as a theological manifesto attacking calls for cheap peace. In this letter, King responds to his critics, who called his leadership against segregation laws in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.” His critics denounced his leadership of the demonstrations he led in Birmingham, arguing that such activities promoted unrest and violence instead of peace and healing. King responds to his critics by expressing his regret that they did not “express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about demonstrations.” He further states that a social analysis that focuses on effects without grappling with underlying causes is a superficial analysis. For King, the underlying cause for protests against racial injustice in America is always and already tied to inequitable and uncaring systems that subjugate Blacks to second-class citizenship. A responsible theology involves critical social analysis of the dehumanizing root causes of perceived an/or real social effects (any anger or rage that manifests among oppressed groups) in order to inaugurate justice in response to degrading causes and conditions.
I infer from King’s conversation that cheap peace becomes more dangerous than the raw rage we may witness through protests because cheap peace refuses to admit the urgency in remedying social injustices that violate the God-given dignity and human worth of vulnerable and marginalized groups such as black communities. Cheap peace rejects the problem of structural violence that gives rise to social anger and resistance. Cheap peace refuses to hear the cries of the unheard. Most importantly, cheap peace is dishonest about power within social structures. Freedom is never given to the oppressed; the oppressed must demand their freedom. Consequently, cheap peace merely re-inscribes the status quo and reinforces the very injustices that bitterly divide our society, reproducing hate, anxiety, and angst among societal members. Cheap peace underwrites a theology of the oppressor in which ideas of healing and reconciliation are twisted and perverted in service to the end goals of hegemonic power. Cheap grace is indeed costly. It attempts to distort the imago dei of each human being. It misrepresents the call of the gospel to attend to the sufferings of our neighbor with care, compassion, empathy, and love. It tries to deny the oppressed the invitation to participate in the kin-dom of God where flourishing and wellbeing are possible for all.
As a clergywoman and religious scholar, I believe that Christian communities have a role to play in rejecting cheap peace by seeking justice for the Mike Browns of this world. Because Christian traditions (and other faith traditions as well) hold human life sacred, both individually and collectively, theological questions emerge in relation to Michael Brown’s death. Theologically speaking, isn’t God concerned with those who suffer under oppressive systems? Doesn’t Mike Brown’s murder compel Christians to contest systems of violence (such as police systems that repeatedly use excessive force)? Most importantly, doesn’t Christian theology sponsor compassion and care for those mourning within structures of oppression caused by systemic injustice such as racism? Michael Brown’s death represents human tragedy within cycles of violence. But for people of faith, human tragedies are also social and cosmic tragedies. We believe that human beings matter not only to each other but also to God. For Christians, God is invested in the health and rightness of human social relations. The killing of anyone is a human tragedy, and the killing of anyone because of racial, economic, political, or social injustice is a matter of urgent theological concern.
Today, the average American citizen claims King’s legacy. However, King’s legacy has been both sanitized and sentimentalized. The average American rarely interprets King for the radical theologian and activist he was. If we are really serious about claiming that legacy, it seems to me, we will not only pray for peace in Ferguson, but we will first pray for justice. As we go forward as a nation, religious leaders must state that, “Yes, we appeal for peace, we appeal for healing in Ferguson, but we first appeal for justice” — so that the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath will not be just forgotten in the next sweep of events. We are called to justice first.
The betrayal of justice is an affront to any vision of true healing and peace. We must categorically refuse cheap peace.
Keri Day is Assistant Professor of Theological and Social Ethics and Director of Black Church Studies Program at Brite Divinity School. She earned an MA in Religion and Ethics from Yale University and received her PhD in Religion from Vanderbilt University. She has written on a wide variety of issues in relation to black religious thought, politics, and economics. Her work has been published in a number of nationally regarded journals such as Princeton Theological Review Journal, The International Journal of Black Theology, and The Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics. In November 2012, her first book, Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America, was published by Orbis Books. Follow Dr. Keri Day on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Yalegirl