It is a New Year and for many of us 2016 was somewhat of an unpleasant year. Instead of seeing a decrease in police violence against communities of color we have seen a continuation. We have lived through a rancorous political process that not only took an emotional strain on us but netted us a president who political pundits fear has placed our nation in peril. Furthermore, our political process doubled down on patriarchy and affirmed society’s view that if you are a woman you should not be in charge. We’ve seen anti-Native American and anti-environmental aggressions with the continued pursuit of the North Dakota Access Pipeline. A pipeline initially intended to carry millions of barrels of crude oil near Bismarck, North Dakota – a predominately white city – but was then re-routed to sacred Native lands.
We are preparing to see the end of an historic era when a nation that was founded on slavery ever so slightly yielded to the demands of justice and elected its first African American president. He was far from perfect and had many policies that actually did more harm to oppressed people than other presidents before him – yet the symbolism of his Black body in the White House meant so much to so many. His gracious, intelligent and dignified wife and his bright and lively children graced and occupied that historic space in a way that will forever change the narrative about what is possible for this country, but also for Black people in this country.
Although there were many difficulties we faced I’m sure the year wasn’t entirely bad for everyone. On a personal note I had the honor and privilege of meeting the iconic civil rights attorney, author and humanitarian Bryan Stevenson. He heads up the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to the representing individuals who the government has condemned to death. In addition to zealously advocating for men, women, children and the mentally ill who have been sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole, he has become one of the leading advocates for racial reconciliation through the creation of a museum and national lynching memorial. This memorial will serve as a reminder that society’s unchecked need for vengeance wreaks generational havoc, which disproportionately falls on the shoulders of communities of color, the poor and dispossessed.
In his New York Times bestselling book Just Mercy Stevenson describes his experience defending those condemned to death and the racialized injustice of the American criminal justice system. One of the things Stevenson says in his book and the many lectures and speeches he gives is that we must get proximate to the problems we care about. In order to fully appreciate the suffering someone is experiencing we must not only have sympathy for them, we must get close to them. Because when we are close to the brokenness and suffering in others, we not only see the brokenness in ourselves but we are compelled to do something about it.
As we move into this New Year I’d like us to consider being in proximity with the five Ps: poor people, prisoners, protestors, prostitutes and people who are oppressed. Year after year we make New Year’s resolutions that are self-centered. “Here are all the things I’m going to do to be a better person.” We create lists of things that we will do to improve our condition, our health, our finances, our relationships and our perspective. But rarely do we resolve to be of greater service to others and to the extent we do, it’s not from the position Stevenson describes above.
Those of us who subscribe to religious traditions sometimes fail to realize that our belief systems call on us to serve. Many of the sacred texts lift up the concept that we are called into the faith to serve one another. For Christians there is Jesus’s admonition to his disciples that “the greatest among you will be your servant.” But we must also be mindful of who we are called to serve.
In my own faith tradition I’m reminded of a passage of scripture from the book of Matthew. In the 25th chapter of Matthew we find Jesus speaking to his disciples providing guidance and instruction to them through parables. He tells them about the coming judgment against nations. This is a judgment that is specifically rooted in the nations’ failure to take care of their most vulnerable citizens. Jesus tells them that when he returns he will judge the righteous and unrighteous alike. Those who fed him when hungry, gave him something to drink when thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when naked, cared for him when sick and visited him while imprisoned will inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them.
When the righteous inquired about when they ever did these things Jesus told them that whenever they did these things to the least of humanity, they did them to him. Likewise, he told the opposite to the unrighteous because they failed to feed, clothe, welcome, care for or visit the least of humanity – and as such they would be sent into eternal punishment. So to my earlier point, we must be mindful that we are called to serve – the least of these. The poor, the dispossessed and the oppressed – those who society has said “you are not of value and not worthy.” – are the very ones we need to be serving.
But in order to serve them properly we cannot just wish them well and offer prayers for them – we must be proximate to them and we must be in solidarity with them. Getting proximate means checking our privilege at the door and spending time with; going to the places with; showing up with; sending money to and listening to the people who are considered to be “the least of these.” I do not suggest this as an attack or a criticism of the efforts many are already involved in. I offer this to encourage us to resolve to be in proximity with “the least of these.”
I’d also like to push us to consider a further step. Embodied solidarity. Being proximate to the point of discomfort because we are putting ourselves in the position of those we are called to serve. In December 2015 Wheaton College professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins made a bold statement by dawning a hijab and posting on Facebook that she intended to stand with her Muslim sisters by wearing a hijab because “… they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.” She further stated, “and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” As a result of the controversy Dr. Hawkins and Wheaton College came to an agreement regarding her resignation.
There has been much written about Dr. Hawkins and the notion of embodied solidarity. Some even criticized her act as an “empathy experiment” that can be seen as a temporary inconvenience at best and a silencing of voices of those who are truly suffering at worst. Whether you see her actions as misguided, misappropriation or a meaningful sacrifice, she provoked a conversation about what it means to stand in solidarity with others. I think her actions should provoke us to be willing to put our privileges and comforts at risk for the least of humanity. And in order to do that we must be proximate to them.
The Five Ps
As an ordained reverend I frequently view my professional work through the lens of a progressive Christian ethos. I’d like to use that ethos to suggest that we identify ways to embody solidarity with the “least of these” through our proximity to them.
The first P is for poor people. We’ve got to disabuse ourselves of the notion that poor people are poor because they’re lazy or because they just don’t want to work. Some of the hardest working people are poor people. Many legal service attorneys and anti-poverty advocates know the structural barriers that keep people locked into cycles of poverty. We are also aware of the tenuous position poor people hold in society and how minor inconveniences (license suspension, suspended child, rent increase) can turn into major life changing circumstances.
We must ensure that our advocacy takes into account their lived experience. Have we ever shopped where they have no choice but to shop; regularly stood in the public benefits lines they’re required to stand in; endured substandard housing conditions as an alternative to homelessness? When we have done these things we will better see that some of the solutions we propose and the arguments we make may be shortsighted, despite our good intentions.
I’m reminded of the Bible story of the rich ruler man who wanted to get into heaven. When Jesus told him “give all of your belongings to the poor and follow me,” he was unwilling. The tension this passage draws out is that despite all of the man’s charity he was unwilling to be in solidarity with the poor by becoming poor himself. Sometimes our best intentions fall short because we are unwilling to make significant sacrifices to take on the experience of those we advocate on behalf of.
The next P is for prisoners. When Jesus began his ministry he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” As a nation that many inaccurately proclaim to be a “Christian” nation we have fallen short of this theological affinity towards liberty. With only five percent of the world’s population but twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population – there is no other nation with a higher incarceration rate. These incarceration rates are exacerbated by the racial disparities. Despite only making up approximately one quarter of the U.S. population Blacks and Latinos make up roughly 58% of the U.S prison population.
Criminal defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates have spent tireless hours fighting against the prison industrial complex. But how much time have we spent visiting with the condemned and the incarcerated; have we written or responded to their letters; put money on their books? How have we sacrificed ourselves, beyond mere inconvenience, to elevate the concerns about their conditions and the injustices they face?
The next P is for protesters. I am particularly troubled by Christians who recoil at the notion of someone speaking up against an injustice, when our professed Lord and savior is the very one who went into the places of high power and disrupted existing financial power structure. Jesus himself was a protester! In addition to Christian’s views of his messianic purpose, he was also received as part of a protest movement to end Roman oppression of Jewish citizens. We’ve got to be down with Black Lives Matter! We’ve got to be in solidarity with our Native brothers and sisters at Standing Rock, we can no longer sit idly by in the face of oppression and think that someone else will have the answer.
Moreover, we can no longer say “I agree with what they stand for but I just don’t like their methods.” I’m sorry, but when was the last time you saw an oppressor yield to the oppressed? I’m sure those segregated lunch counters in the south just unsegregated all by themselves, right? I’m sure Black folks in the south got the right to vote because of the benevolence of white folks. Nah! It was because of sit-ins and marches and protests and resistance that things began to change. We can better appreciate that if we spend time with folks involved in the movement for change, listen to their concerns and be supportive.
The next P is for prostitutes. I use this word for purposes of alliteration and symbolism. I propose looking at this group of the “least of these” in two ways. First, we must recognize the ways in which there are double standards against women. Second, we need to acknowledge the resistance society has toward women who exercise their own agency. Christian biblical history includes Jesus in the lineage of Rahab, a woman who exercised her own agency in one of the world’s oldest professions. Now I won’t go as far as saying Jesus was a feminist, but just like he drew near to the woman caught in adultery and pointed out the sins of the men who would stone her, men should stand in solidarity with women who are oppressed and recognize the double standard that exists against them and support them, fund the organizations that lift them up and demand equality.
Finally, the last P is for people. All people, but especially oppressed people. Christians believe that the very Christ whose birth we just celebrated, ultimately laid down his life for us. Therefore, we must ask ourselves why we can’t do that for others. At the very least we must endeavor to be proximate to them and stand in solidarity with them. Where we can hear their struggles and learn of their experiences.
As a nation we are on the verge of very scary times, when millions of undocumented immigrants face deportations that will disrupt families and interrupt lives. We are living in times when there are conversations and proposals for registering Muslims – reminiscent of Nazi era Germany where Jews were rounded up, or our very own history here in America where we rounded up Japanese citizens in internment camps. We must ask ourselves, what we are willing to sacrifice to be in solidarity with the ones society has said are not valuable.
One of the things I found most persuasive about Bryan Stevenson was that during one of his speeches he identified himself as a Christian and stated something to the effect that the minute this country begins to register and/or round up Muslims he would convert to Islam. I am in no position to second guess his commitment to embodied solidarity or examine the basis for such a bold statement. However, I believe his ability to say something so profound grows out of a place of having been proximate to those who are being or have been oppressed.
So as we gaze into the uncertainty of tomorrow and a new administration I encourage us all to reach into our respective faith traditions and/or sources of moral direction and inspiration to find the examples of sacrifice. Let us resolve to live our lives in proximity to those we are called to serve. Through our proximity we will likely become uncomfortable with their oppression and be compelled to sacrifice our privileges, our comfort and our well intentioned efforts at advocacy. It is at that point that we begin to embody solidarity in a way that gives life to our advocacy.
Rahsaan Hall is the Director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. He is an ordained reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For a fuller biography, read here.