If there was ever a fear that the church is splintered, apathetic or dull, the passion and unity on display at the “Why We Can’t Wait” May Revival on Pentecost Sunday earlier this month proved a direct contradiction to that assertion.
The second of five events of Washington DC’s Church-Wide Response to the New Jim Crow brought a diverse group of 50 faithful people to Capitol Hill’s Lutheran Church of the Reformation for an afternoon of song, prayer, worship, education on nonviolence and mass incarceration, and call-to-action to work and pray for a better church and a better world.
The first revival in April introduced the topic of mass incarceration, and highlighted the fact that the language of racism and oppression has changed. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, points out, we talk of the “War on Drugs” when in fact race and oppression are written right through the statistics of this so-called “war.” The drug use rate among blacks and whites is the same, for example, but 70 percent of drug offenders in jail are black.
If that’s not still racism and systematized oppression, I don’t know what is.
Rev. Kelly Wilkins from Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ gave a passionate sermon that called us to use the book of Nehemiah and the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. as inspiration to believe that we will overcome oppression. She challenged us to embrace the liberation of our imagination — through acting on our dreams, we are liberated from injustice while building the beloved community.
Rev. Wilkins broke it down to three points:
First, the church can cast visions of possibilities for a better community. Just as Dr. King built a dream, we too as the church can help build the kingdom. But there is more to just dreaming — we need to challenge what’s stopping the dream, too. As Rev. Wilkins explained, “King didn’t just have a dream — he confronted the nightmare.”
Second, we should recognize God amongst our work of ministry in our community. With God’s help behind us, we can gather the strength, hope and perseverance to confront the nightmare and be in this work for the long haul.
Third, there are enemies in this fight, and if we focus our energy on that negativity, we won’t get anywhere. Instead, we are to embrace our responsibility as building this kingdom and doing God’s will, and become free of the preoccupation of what others may think.
Still, with this prophetic message of Rev. Wilkins, how can we overcome the oppression that is all around us?
Well, this revival addressed that, too. Based on the work of nonviolent liberation academic Gene Sharp, Rev. Rebecca Stele of Becoming Church, Inc led a quick tutorial on how to break down any oppressive system. The basic premise is that all dictatorships or oppressive systems have several “pillars of support.” When these pillars are identified and then weakened and toppled, the whole system will fall. This is one approach to “confronting the nightmare”, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did. But we also need to dream and build that new beloved community.
As we take down those oppressive pillars of racism, the war on drugs, the prison industrial complex, and others, new pillars based on justice, equality, respect, and compassion need to be built in order to fully end the mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow reality we live in.
As we continue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights events of 1963 and Dr. King’s landmarkLetter from Birmingham Jail, we remember his challenge for us to be “extremists” for love and justice:
“Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
May we continue to be faithful to this call — those of us gathered on Pentecost in Washington, D.C., along with all those working for justice and building the beloved community — to be extremists for love.
Join the Why We Can’t Wait movement and DC’s Church-Wide Response to the New Jim Crow at the next revival on Sunday, June 23 at 3pm at Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southeast DC.
Martín Witchger is Mobilizing Assistant for Sojourners.