Religious leaders are being tested in St. Louis.
Once again, after an agonizing period of waiting, the streets are filled with the voices of those declaring that black lives matter. It is the outcry against a system that allows police officers to act as judge, jury, and executioner in the disproportionate extrajudicial homicide of people of color. In 2014, the region was rocked by the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson. This September, after six years of waiting for justice, those unhealed wounds were reopened by a verdict of not guilty — Judge Timothy Wilson's decision in the bench trial of former St. Louis City police officer Jason Stockley who killed Anthony Lamar Smith after a car chase in 2011. In both cases, the courts failed to affirm the value of black lives by refusing to hold police accountable for their actions. And the people are again chanting: “The Whole Damn System Is Guilty As Hell.”
The test for religious leaders in this context has been nothing short of a demand for a prophetic voice which sees, names, and challenges the reality of a system that destroys the lives of some, while parading as “law and order” for others. Faith leaders are finding themselves tangled in a quagmire of competing rhetoric about what makes for peace, walking the line of proclaiming prophetic vision amid a culture, a church, and a people tightly wrapped in the clutches of white supremacy.
In St. Louis, the wages of white supremacy as a system of structural violence are, for those with eyes to see, more than clear. The region is divided by class and race, which degrades disproportionately the lives of black people in equal access to education, employment, housing, health care, and yes, public safety. It has always been thus, and was deliberately built this way. Yet overall the church in St. Louis (both white and black) has not been an agent of transformation. Rather it has replicated societal patterns of class and racial divisions, and perpetuated the denial of their deadly impact in black and brown communities within pieties of personal responsibility, personal acts of charity, and the promise of personal salvation.
Today feels reminiscent of the period in which the prophet Jeremiah parodied religious leaders as those who proclaimed “'peace, peace' when there is no peace.” Through his insight, we are taught that peace for God’s creation is not about the absence of conflict, but rather the presence of justice. And yet, the pastoral theological truth is that the coming of justice when you are bound up in a system of injustice can feel a lot like violence. This is our test. As members walk out on our sermons, and board members complain we are condoning violence, can we resist the urge to assuage the discomfort of the coming of justice, and heed our calling as theologians to see and name how God is in this?
This week, Karen, at an interfaith prayer service in response to the Stockley verdict, summoned religious leaders to see and hear the cries for justice from the streets of our region as testimony to God’s “disruptive grace.” God’s revelation of the absence of justice disrupts the status quo and creates a disruptive dissonance in us — inclusive of fear, anger, disorientation, and worry — which are all part of God’s gracious work to “wake us up.”
Religious leaders in St. Louis are under a test. Can we ally with those crying out for justice? Can we lead our people to understand the disruption we feel is God’s work of waking us up, to engage us in building a beloved community — where we no longer have to declare black lives matter because they will? Can we place our trust in God, who in God’s sovereign redemptive purpose is offering us this disruptive grace as a way out of the bondage of white supremacy, and toward God’s shalom — communal wholeness, peace, and justice? We pray that it can be so — before the next dreadful and seemingly inevitable crisis in this city to demand an accounting for black lives.