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A Call to Action: Black History Month at Seminary of the SouthwestBy Scott Bader-Saye
Last week the African American Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States posted “An Open Letter to Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States” in the Huffington Post. In it they wrote,
We invite our colleagues—presidents, deans and leaders of all divinity and theological schools—to arise from the embers of silence and speak up and speak out as the prophet of old, ‘let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’ (Amos 5:24). We encourage you to endorse this statement by responding in your own particular context to our theological call to action with curricular programs, public forums, teach-ins, calls to your congressional leaders, writing op-ed pieces, and more.
In the well-known biblical passage quoted above, Amos reminded the people of Israel, and reminds us, that there is no status that places one above the demands of justice. Amos challenged Israel’s belief that divine election allowed them an assurance of divine favor over against their sinful, pagan neighbors who were going to feel God’s wrath on the “day of the Lord.”
Instead, Amos turned the “day of the Lord” from a day of settled vindication to a day of ambiguity and threat—“Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18). Israel, who had counted on their prayers and sacrifices to cover their injustice, was in for a rude awakening. And so are we Christians today when our beautiful liturgies and passionate prayers fail to yield justice.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and multiple other victims of police violence, Amos’ words pronounce a stark warning. Neither divine election nor the police officer’s badge ensures that one is always in the right. Neither divine election nor the police officer’s badge allows one free reign to abuse others without accountability. Yet both divine election and the police officer’s badge can tempt an individual or a community to what Augustine identifies as the root of all sin, libido dominandi, the “lust for domination.”
We are experiencing a cultural moment in which white America is having to face what has long been obvious to African-Americans: that “driving while black” or “walking down the stairs while black” or “running in fear while black” or “being a large man while black” or “playing with a toy while black,” or “reaching for your wallet while black” can get you killed.
In response to the Open Letter, I am hopeful that our Seminary of the Southwest Black History Month events will help our students, our staff, and the Austin community to engage the deep racial injustices that remain after Jim Crow.
Specifically, I invite everyone to join us for the following events on campus:
- Monday, Feb 2, 6:00 PM: Asante Todd, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, will give a lecture entitled “The Cruel Hand, the Birdcage, and the Fire this Time: A Theological Reflection on The New Jim Crow,” followed by a book discussion of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
- Monday, Feb 16, 4:00 PM: Ms. Margie Bedford will discuss her experience as the first black woman to integrate the Austin school system.
- Thursday, February 26, at 5:30 PM: Southwest will host a worship service featuring the Huston-Tillotson Gospel Choir and preaching by our own alumna, the Rev. Kim Baker, MDiv ’02, followed by a reception.
If justice is to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” it is a task for all of us. Racism is a rhizomatic scourge, springing up from multiple sources, finding expression in multiple locations. When we point the finger and call for justice—as we rightly do in cases of unjust and unwarranted police actions—we must, as Amos reminds us, point the finger back at ourselves and our communities and ask, what are we doing to make this vision of justice true for all of God’s people?
Portions of this post were drawn from a sermon preached by Dr. Bader-Saye in Christ Chapel on December 9, 2014. Read the entire sermon here.
Scott Bader-Saye (@ScottBaderSaye) serves as academic dean and holds the Helen and Everett H. Jones Chair in Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest. He joined the faculty in 2009 after teaching for twelve years at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit university in Scranton, PA. His academic interests include political theology, sexual ethics, ecology/economy, and Jewish/Christian/Muslim dialogue.
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