Are We Missing the Prophetic Connection? | Sojourners

Are We Missing the Prophetic Connection?

Ferguson solidarity vigil. Image courtesy Nisarg Lakhmani/
Ferguson solidarity vigil. Image courtesy Nisarg Lakhmani/


Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the American Baptist Seminary of the West.

My heart hurts and my body aches right now as I try to stem the rage I personally have felt for many months — one that crescendos with news of each new killing of an unarmed black man, woman, and even child, such as 16-year-old Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, by the so-called instruments of law and order. In this new paradigm of “enforcement” what does law and order really mean? Shoot first, then ask later? Presume armed and/or dangerous, then discover otherwise — after the target is dead? Beat and chokehold first, ignoring Eric Garner’s 12+ pleas to breathe, then leave unaided for hours without medical care? Shoot Michael Brown in the back, then multiple times, and call it self-defense?

My rage and ethical angst shudders at the obvious militarization of police forces around the country that, more than coincidentally, are accompanied by a strategic language developed to categorize their motives and justify their actions of assault on the humanity and personhood of blacks — regardless of education, appearance, and class — yet assuredly guarantees that any men or women who resemble a typology of so-called high-risk, urban street-wise underclass will be the first targeted and will be the first at highest risk of becoming the next statistic.

As a black woman, mother of a son who by, virtue of his color and gender, automatically falls into the targeted category, I am attuned to and have internalized the rage and anger of black youth and young adults that flooded the streets of Ferguson — and now pour out into New York and Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco streets in multiple colors and hues of solidarity and hope for something bigger than the cowardly oppression of injustice. On one hand, history bears out that radical social change resulted from movements mostly sparked by the synergy of youth and young adults who radically protested, challenged, and put their lives on the line against injustice — all after they profoundly discovered that social constructs and societal mores they were taught by adults to believe in were and are in fact myths!

One such myth now shattered is the misguided, but oft-touted notion by political pundits and the media that would have us to believe that we now live in a so-called “postracial” society. The young people have discovered these lies and myths are just the tip of the iceberg. The young people have discovered that even the technological witness of multiple cell phone videos and publically mounted cameras have no bearing on judicial outcomes or consequence for an in-broad-daylight Los Angeles freeway beating of Marlene Pinnock to unconsciousness at the hand of a CHP officer who is allowed to choose to resign rather than face criminal charges. Or the wrongful deaths of Rumain Brisbon in Arizona, John Crawford in Ohio, or Dante Parke in California. Our young people have discovered to their disillusionment what many like me who grew up in pre-civil rights segregation of urbanized ghettos already knew — the truth is, in the present system we are targeted and expendable. And truth is — the backlash against blacks and people of color escalated since the election of a black president precisely so we don’t get it twisted to think that entitlement and equality finally were forthcoming with the unprecedented change in the Oval Office.

How do I stem the rage I feel and channel it into collegial dialogue, polite listening, and respectful debate? In what concrete ways can I do more than write a blog, sign petitions, and even join a march? What role and what difference can I make as an elder, sister, mother, professor, and womanist clergy? Meanwhile, my black woman sensibilities seethe in my ethical response to shallow media portrayals of the national protest by focusing on a few who break windows, steal electronics, lash out directly toward police lines — rather than focusing national attention on the complicit grand jury blindness that would unmask a judicial system that’s been broken for thousands of black men and women, as well as our Latino brothers and sisters — for whom deportation is the "bullet" of sociopolitical choice, for now.

And so here I am in the midst of Advent — as police and media helicopters hover overhead for the sixth night in a row, and as courageous students and communities march together here from Berkeley to Oakland. In the midst of Advent, I try to capture my rage through the spiritual lens of my ministry calling as a prophetic womanist, for whom anger at unjust systems and structures must find voice to name racist perpetrators, speak truth to power, and act with perseverance in a concerted move toward the hopeful and possible, rather than languish in hopelessness. To the latter, my womanist lens by intentional choice strives to understand hopelessness, name its structural root causes, but refuse to claim it as the only nihilistic reality. Thus, I ponder the meaning of Advent for its spiritual connection to the prophetic protest underway globally — over the unjust killing of unarmed, accepted-to-college, 18-year-old Michael Brown who store cameras caught paying for his items, not stealing them. Could it be that out of the evils of racism, classism, and marginalism, there is an Advent connection to another born into poor, marginalized, underclass beginnings? Who self-declared his presence and mission through a prophetic Messianic lens of the Isaiah scripture to rock and challenge the status quo?

Could it be that the crescendo of dissention is divinely synched to yet again heighten disruptive unease among the status quo? Could it be that the promise of Emmanuel — "God is with us" — as proclaimed by the heavenly host, but feared by powerful elite, is unavoidably linked through the eternal truth — such that even the Church universal cannot celebrate one and avoid the other? Could it be that through Advent, we are called to acknowledge the humanity and parity of personhood, rather than rest in the laurels of privilege? The anger of youthful Ferguson protests was marginalized and dubbed as riots, but could it be that this Advent response manifested in expanded multiethnic solidarity is of divine intent to raise challenge to elitism and to demand respect for people of color as equals rather than as patronized subordinates? Could it be that whether or not the media chooses to ignore the connection, the Advent message for those with ears to hear is that perpetrators of brutality, the comfortable protectors of privilege, and the self-serving pundits of power that tried to nullify the everlasting promise were unsuccessful then and now? Could it be by divine design that unknown names, stolen lives, are now divinely lifted to eternal and global recognition as sacrificial symbols so that truth could come to light?

I pray and I trust that the Creator of all in the human family holds the spirits of those unjustly killed close to the bosom, and empowers the grief and mourning of families, friends, and strangers left behind into positive action. I pray and trust that the promise of Advent is what will stir us to action, so our rage can be put to use for positive social change. I pray to the Eternal Seer to help us to see that profiling is wrong from either side — that not all whites are bad, just as blacks can’t be typecast. The solidarity of our young people has something to teach us this Advent by intently joining together across class and ethnic identities. As a result, media and systemic power structures now must grapple for new soundbites and must struggle to minimize the protests as simply unruly behavior of black unrest. Let us construct demands and identify avenues to move public policy against police profiling and brutality. Let us move to tighten the unequal treatment of the criminal justice lack of response where crimes perpetrated by white males in law enforcement are labeled as self-defense or as mistaken choice of weapon. Where individuals whose murderous actions of mass killings are labeled as mental illness, or political anarchy while they live, are brought to trial, and sometimes are pardoned. Let us move to stand with and mentor our young people in solidarity and not from afar.

May we use this Advent connection to move an ancient biblical promise and focus its message to expose and challenge, and — in the words of one of my mentors, Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr. — to bring divine light to the nasty here and now. Then the still-hovering helicopters of the media will have to capture a new story, affirming that black lives matter as much as any others.

Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble is Assistant Professor of Ministerial Leadership and Functional Theology at American Baptist Seminary of The West. A womanist theologian, she is also a consulting leader in the PICO National Prophetic Clergy-Women Network.