Because of the recent opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I have been contemplating the terror of lynching in our history. The Montgomery site is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with police violence.
“Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.” (eji.org)
But racial injustice is not merely art used to contextualize racism and violence. We also have the cold, hard facts. For instance, The Tuskegee Institute reports that 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites, mostly white individuals who tried to help their African American neighbors.
Who were the prophets among us who proclaimed in those days a Christian Gospel of justice?
The NAACP reports that today African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.
Who are the prophets among us in these days? Who is calling for justice, for liberation and freedom for those who are oppressed?
Across a range of human rights issues in 2017, the United States moved backward on human rights issues. The current U.S. president has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. He has emboldened racism by promoting white nationalism. He consistently champions anti-Muslim ideas. His administration has embraced policies that will roll back access to reproductive health care for women and has created health insurance changes that would leave many Americans without access to affordable health care. He has undermined police accountability for abuse. He has expressed disdain for independent media and for federal courts that have blocked some of his actions.
The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in our nation include members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, prisoners and other vulnerable groups, who endure renewed attacks on their rights. Issues of injustice include gender equity, poverty, the right to health care, immigration and the rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, criminal and juvenile justice, harsh criminal sentencing and mass incarceration,.
Where is justice today? Who will call each injustice by name? Where is the prophetic voice among us that will proclaim liberation?
While in seminary, I immersed myself in the study of liberation theologies. Not surprisingly, my research led me to the writings of black liberation theologian, The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone. I became what some might call a follower of Dr. Cone. I saw him as a Christ-like superhero. Much of my research and writing in those days delved into the history of liberation theology, so Dr. Cone’s books covered my desk for months.
On Saturday, I learned of his death and experienced both sadness and gladness. Glad, because of his enormous contribution to Christian theology’s imperative response to injustice. And sad, because his voice of justice is now silent. By his death, we lost a prophet, a persevering voice that championed racial justice. We lost a voice that gave the world an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that paid attention to the voices of the oppressed.
YES! “A prophet was among us.”
These words from Judge Wendell Griffen honored the prophet, Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, and named him as the central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s. The prophet and scholar was raised in a small Arkansas town, giving him a clear view of the harsh reality of racial injustice. Dr. Cone rose up from his simple roots to become the foremost voice of his day on black liberation theology.
“Black liberation theology”
The first image you will see is that of James H. Cone. And then you will see image after image of him as well as a list of the plethora of books he has written and a list of the places around the world where he taught and preached.
What is my point?
First of all, I want to add my voice to those who are honoring this prophet of justice. But more importantly, I want to own and name the present reality: that there has never been a time in history that needs the message of liberation more than this day. To be sure, the horrific lynchings of African Americans in this country took place many years ago, between 1882 and 1968.
And this is a new day, is it not?
It is a new day, a new day that has moved our society to the national shame of mass incarceration of African Americans. Consider this research:
- By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.
- On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.
- The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.
(Valerie Strauss, March 15, 2017; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss/?utm_term=.8d67a553a8db)
- In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
- The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
- Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.
TMI . . . Too much information, right? Perhaps it is too much information, but the amount of information here barely scratches the surface of the many ways injustice has gripped our nation in these days. We can turn our backs, stop up our ears, and blind our eyes to it, but that will not change the fact that people are being oppressed, injustice is doing its horrific work, and liberation seems a distant, unreachable dream.
The people of God must be the people of God and accept the mantle placed by God on our shoulders — being a prophetic voice in a land where injustice has its way.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. (Isaiah 61:1-3 NRSV)
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 6:24 NRSV)
We are the prophets among us. Let’s act like it!