By Tommy Airey
I brought you my son because there is a spirit trying to kill him and whenever it seizes him…whenever it grasps him, whenever it grabs him, whenever it accosts him, whenever it subjects him to force without his consent. Let me try it this way: whenever it arrests him! We’re dealing with folks who know what it means to deal with search and seizure. We are people who have been subject to seizure: seized from Africa, seized and thrown into the belly of slave ships. We’ve had our bodies seized, our language seized, our culture seized, our history seized, our resources seized, our economy seized, our possibilities seized, our hope seized, our dreams seized.
Dr. Michael Brandon McCormack (photo above), on Mark 9:14-29 (the episode of the young man seized by a demon)
Measured by its very spirit and structure, the every-four-year American political party national convention is nothing but an intoxicating religious revival meeting, a well-choreographed (mega)church service. Last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland highlighted the privilege-blind, fear-based, power-hungry religion of (mostly) white American elites and their Southern and suburban foot soldiers. Imperial chants of “Blue Lives Matter,” “Make America Safe/Great Again,” “Build The Wall” and “Lock Her Up” liturgically scripted delegates into worship.
Meanwhile, I found myself 500 miles south, in Clinton, Tennessee, at the Children Defense Fund’s 22nd Annual Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute: “Praying with Our Feet: Pursuing Justice for Children from the Sanctuary to the Street,” a beautifully coincidental scheduling accomplishment that saved 300 of us from the propaganda coming from up north. Proctor is the brainchild of Marian Wright Edelman, the 77-year old Civil Rights veteran, the first African American admitted to the bar in Mississippi, who founded CDF in 1973 to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected.
Situated on the 157-acre Alex Haley farm, Proctor prides itself on being a hospitable, inclusive space for people of every race, ethnicity, age, gender and sexual orientation. Edelman, Janet Wolf, Shannon Daley-Harris, Eric Brown, Damien Durr and the rest of the staff greet every participant on the first day with “Welcome back home.” The Monday through Friday conference is a creative laboratory in the prophetic black Christian tradition (attendance was probably 75% African-American), what Dr. Cornel West calls “the leaven in the loaf, a tilt toward the weak in a chronic and consistent way, being with whoever is catching hell.” Centered on strategic workshops, freedom songs and fierce preaching, the thoroughly intergenerational Proctor gathering functioned compellingly as a subversive, alternative revival meeting to both the RNC last week and the DNC this week in Philly.
Keynote preacher Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas referred to her own call back to this tradition, what she detailed as “a narrative of resistance to those who have told black people that they were nothing other than slaves” worshipping “a God who knew them before their enslavers stole Christianity.” One voice after another infused a deep theology into the Black Lives Matter movement, offering a counter-script advocating for the sacred humanity of those hated, scapegoated and demonized in the context of American empire.
The event opened on Monday night with a word from Courtney Clayton Jenkins, Senior Pastor and Teacher of South Euclid United Church of Christ in Cleveland, on the parable of the prodigal son entitled “When Sons Face a Broken America.” Jenkins riffed off the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Langston’s Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” on the 80th anniversary of its publication in Esquire, a timely counter-script to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign theme:
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
Jenkins kicked-off biblical themes consistently articulated throughout the week: the precious imago dei of black bodies in the context of American commodity capitalism and military-industrial build-up, the prophetic call to justice and nonviolent witness, the condemnation of exclusion based on gender and sexuality, and a galvanized hope sustained in creative communal expressions.
On Tuesday morning, Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago dropped a theological bomb in a sermon entitled “Sisters in the Wilderness,” his staccato espresso jam session on the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7 (an uppity woman of color!) who checked Jesus’ own patriarchy and ethnocentrism: even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Unfortunately, the long trajectory of institutional Christianity has missed the message and, as Moss proclaimed, “The greatest prayer warriors have historically become prey in the church.” Muted leaders like Dorothy Height, called to preach and teach, have been “victims of drive-by theology.” But it takes women like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Diane Nash to turn the moment into a movement.
On Tuesday night in Clinton, at the same time Melania Trump was plagiarizing Michelle Obama in Cleveland, Dr. Michael Brandon McCormack, the associate professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, glided up to the pulpit and narrated the deaf and mute son, possessed by a demon, lying in the street (Mark 9:26: and the boy was like a corpse), as a young, unarmed Michael Brown shot a dozen times in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, lying in his own blood in the middle of the street for four hours. McCormack’s writhing lamentation magnified the real nature of the demonic in our current context, an epidemic of black men seized and shot by imperial forces, fresh from the recent terror in Minneapolis (Philando Castille) and Baton Rouge (Alton Sterling):
I brought you my son because he is possessed by a spirit determined to kill him!
In the Gospel story, the disciples of Jesus queried him after the healing:
“Why could we not cast it out?” to which Jesus responded: “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
McCormack convulsed, knees bent, face cringing, back dipping with the cadence of his groans:
You’re gonna need some prayers,
some “Not my will” prayers,
some Garden of Gethsemane prayers,
some tears of sweat drops that look like blood prayers.
You’re gonna need some prayers that give you
the power and the courage to look death in the face and not flinch.
You’re gonna need some prayers to give you the power
to say “No one takes my life, I lay it down to set
other folks free and if I lay it down, I can pick it up again.”
You’re gonna need some real prayer,
some old folks prayer,
some ancestor prayer,
some “before I be a slave, I’ll go to my grave” prayer.
You’re gonna need
some “I’m going to be free with my Lord” kind of prayer.
You’re gonna need
some “MLK at midnight in the kitchen
when he’s dealing with death threats” kind of prayer.
Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, professor of religion at Goucher College reminded delegates at this convention that the heightened violence on young black bodies ought not surprise us in this Trump moment. After all, every time black Americans have enjoyed baby steps of liberation (emancipation from slavery, Civil Rights Movement gains, the first black President) there’s been white backlash (reconstruction, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, “stand your ground” laws, police brutalities and fatalities). Douglas’ recent scholarship has focused on the historic Anglo-Saxon identity of the United States—that the social contract is, in fact, a racial contract ensuring that black bodies have never been (and will never be) allowed to be in free spaces.
Douglas unleashed a deep social and psychological analysis of American society, peppered with well-documented statistics that detail the white supremacy lodged in our policies, our processes and our consciousness—that police in the U.S. are more likely to mistake a black person for having a gun than to notice a white person who actually has a gun and that 75% of white Americans have nobody who is non-white in their social group.
In every age of empire, faith is politics. Last week, I heard (three or four times) the name “Howard Thurman” on the lips of preachers and workshop presenters at Proctor—a reminder of one of the key mentors of the Civil Rights Movement who wrote the classic text seventy years ago about what Jesus might be saying to those “with their backs against the wall.” Twenty-five years later, in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, theologian James Cone proclaimed that “theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed.” Proctor was a timely reminder that, if we’re going to find God, we gotta follow the groaning.
One hundred years ago, W.E.B. Dubois famously wrote, “A nation’s religion is its life and as such, white Christianity is a miserable failure.” This was on full display at the RNC: imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—mostly in the name of Jesus. For the 22nd summer in a row, the Proctor Institute served as a compelling contrast, a black-led space highlighting some of the most dynamic-and-overlooked brands of radical discipleship in the imperial context. The much needed good news: there is (and always has been) another Way.