We—a multi-racial, multi-ethnic gathering of scholars and activists, teachers and students, lay and clergy—gathered in Ferguson, MO to remember and bear witness that unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Jr. was unjustly killed by former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. We gathered at what has become spoken of as ground zero of the Black Lives Matter Movement, outraged by the ways that structures of state-sanctioned racialized violence built on the devaluation of Black life had risen again and, as always, with tragic and evil consequence. We came remembering not only Michael Brown, but also the many who, since that tragic day in August 2014 have died, unarmed, at the hands of those charged to protect and serve.
We came to affirm our commitment to types of scholarship and activism that prizes justice and works for transformation. We came prepared to lend our hands, heads, and hearts to catalyze a movement—to do the work of transforming the death of Michael Brown, Jr. and so many others into new life. We knew that it had been done before. History taught us that our struggle for freedom came to its pinnacle in the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. We came prepared to bring those movements to bear again and were met with life burgeoning and even blooming in organized resistance that was already battle-tested, mature, and effective.
At the center of this new insurgency was not the iconic warrior who was Black and male, most often clergy and heterosexual. In fact, we understood the constant query where are the leaders? to be a yearning for such a figure. In Ferguson, however, God’s freedom work came in the voice of Black women, trans* persons, gay brothers, lesbian sisters and so called “thugs” who embodied the truth that all Black Lives Matter, not only the respectable one. Their subjectivities signified a broader vision of Black life, a truer Imago Dei. In their work, they proclaimed that Black life mattered in all of its particularities. In their being and in their sacrifice, on behalf of us all, we found the presence and power of God.
Our Holy Encounter led us to this call for repentance through action:
We call upon those scholars and activists, many in our own number, who have arrived late, if yet, to take up the vital question of how we make this movement of God a centerpiece of our scholarship, pedagogy, and activism. We further invite sincere repentance for the ways that scholarship, teaching, and knowledge construction in our spaces of academic, ecclesial, and communal engagement have been complicit with structures of domination. We especially note the ways that our own writing, our teaching, our very being has allowed institutions to imbibe the cheap grace, which is the politics of respectability; a politics which prima facie denies the full humanity to too many Black people. We call ourselves and other people of goodwill to confess that we have been seduced by the false security of the politics of respectability, frequently leaving an entire generation of Black people to fend for themselves.
Our Holy Encounter led us also to form a new commitment:
We commit ourselves, as scholars and activists, clergy and lay, religious and not, to embrace the fullness of Black Life and to recognize that all Black life is at risk. We particularly celebrate the voices that started the movement and those who continue the resistance. We are grateful for the resilience and trailblazing work of those who have been silenced before – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer. Personhood, then, is theologically connected to constitution. All Black life is, as a gift of its creation, made in the image of God. In lifting up Black Life, we will lift up all others who are left out and behind. Such a vision, grounded theologically, and lived out through Universal Declaration of Human Rights places our struggle alongside others around the world who work for freedom.
We commit ourselves to unmasking the demonic forms of religion in our nation that dehumanize Black life, and cheapens the lives of so many others by preaching a “gospel” that calls all to leave behind their particularities and to be converted toward its singular ideal of whiteness. We commit ourselves and our work to dismantle the whiteness that is predicated upon rendering people as “other.”
We call upon the institutional Church, particularly the Black church, to claim a new prophetic witness in the present rather than reviving a witness of “old wineskins.” We will cease glorifying the Civil Rights Movement in order to minimize The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). In Ferguson, the Black church moved beyond its brick and mortar edifices, and even beyond its traditional structures of ecclesial order. We found the church in the streets among people whom many of us did not recognize and the voice of God called us to join it.
We commit ourselves to following the example of those on the frontline whose valiant resistance makes apodictic clear that #BlackLivesMatter. We join them by practicing “leader-full” resistance. We acknowledge our deep need for the gifts and abilities that God has placed in the streets, in prisons, in churches, in the academy, in places yet unrevealed, and in places that we in our privilege have ignored. We acknowledge and appreciate the broadness of this work. It is an intergenerational movement with people from diverse contexts “doing the work.”
So, we go forward renewed in our commitment by the arc of the Universe that bends now and always towards God’s justice. As the Sankofa flies, we will tell the story that remembers our history but looks forward to joining God in writing our future. It will be a story of rigorous and radical knowledge production, faithful testifying, deep lament, and deep joy. In that story, we will tell the truth about our past so that we may write new truth for our future, and in that truth no one will be left out.
Candice Benbow – Princeton Theological Seminary (Doctoral Student)
Rev. Traci Blackmon – Pastor, Christ the King UCC, Florissant, MO
Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman – Methodist Theological School in Ohio
Dr. Leah Gunning Francis – Eden Theological Seminary
Rev. Dr. F Willis Johnson – Pastor, Wellspring Church, Ferguson, MO
Rev. Dr. Pamela R. Lightsey – Boston University School of Theology
Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman – Duke University Divinity School
Rev. Dr. Herbert R. Marbury – Vanderbilt University Divinity School
Dr. Stephen Ray – Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Rev. Aundreia Alexander – Associate General Secretary National Council of Churches
Rev. Dr. Randall C. Bailey – The Interdenominational Theological Center (retired)
Josiah R. Daniels – Northern Theological Seminary (MDiv Student), Chicago, IL
Nathaniel Grimes – Northern Seminary (Masters Student)
Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt – President, Chicago Theological Seminary
Melanie C. Jones – Chicago Theological Seminary (Doctoral Student)
Ana Kelsey-Powell – Student, St. Ambrose University
Connor Kenaston – Global Mission Fellow, US-2
Rev. Dr. AnneMarie Mingo – Penn State University
Kenneth J. Pruitt – Student, Eden Theological Seminary
Rev. Ellen Rasmussen – Board of Church & Society, Wisconsin Annual Conference, UMC
Rev. Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell – Chicago Theological Seminary
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Deontez Wimbley – Boston University School of Theology (MDiv Student)