Christianity Is Co-opting The Justice Movement
Is Christianity’s activism, solidarity, and short-term memory perpetuating injustices?
Last November, I traveled to Standing Rock. Along with over 500 clergy across many denominations, we met at North Dakota to help fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was being constructed on tribal land. A “day of action” had been planned for clergy who were gathered in solidarity.
On that Thursday afternoon of November 3, 2016, I witnessed Christians and Catholics from all over the world come together, proclaiming that the construction of the DAPL in Standing Rock was wrong and needed to be stopped immediately.
On the night prior to the collective action, we prepared for what was to come the following afternoon. The leaders of this gathering made sure everyone knew their civil rights and what to do in case of an emergency. Spirits were high, and people were anxious to step up for our indigenous sisters and brothers. It seemed like everyone was on the same page — until the leader of the solidarity movement, a Father from an Episcopal church, reminded us of the specific call we answered by gathering together at the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
“We want to continue the call for non-violent protection action with law enforcement protecting the free speech rights of those who are standing With Standing Rock. We know that our freedoms have limitations that are imposed by law and some imposed by our faith. We intend to stay within the bounds of each. Civil disobedience has a well-respected history in this country. We are not coming to exercise civil disobedience this time.”
To be fair, I had no idea what to expect after arriving at the camp. I have never fought for water before. I have never battled for land that was stolen from my people. My family’s history consisted of immigration and slavery, both of which have disconnected me from the land. Although I’ve had the privilege and honor to learn about creator God from the Duwamish here in Seattle, I knew that I still had so much to understand. It was the Duwamish and their continual fight for federal recognition that taught me to check my posture before entering a battle for justice. They taught me to honor my elders and the ones who came before me. At the rare opportunity to gain wisdom from an elder, I felt compelled to learn at their feet. That was my mindset as a group of friends and I traveled to North Dakota all the way from Seattle. I had no idea what I was getting myself into as I headed to North Dakota, but I was confident that the elders of the Sioux, and indigenous people around this colonized country, certainly did.
Why were we designating yet another standard for how justice should be fought?
What I discovered is that we, as Christians, determined for ourselves what was correct in terms of showing solidarity with our native family.
How could we, who answered this “call,” deem ourselves a solidarity movement if we had come to a battle with our own agenda and with our own “non-negotiables”? Why were we designating yet another standard for how justice should be fought, despite knowing that we were guests on native land? What does this do for the real water-protectors who were risking their lives every day by engaging in radical civil disobedience?
The demonstration did not feel collaborative at all. Most of us had not spoken with any indigenous elders before the day of action, a glaring red flag. By joining with our own conception of solidarity, and with our own ethnocentric ideals and end goals, we were inevitably co-opting the whole movement.
I knew how this gathering would look: 500 clergy from all over the world gathered at Standing Rock to fight against systemic injustice; it would be deemed a historic event. The church was finally practicing what it preached from the pulpit every Sunday. The church would finally look like it was risking something for the people. The church would be applauded by denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery and distancing ourselves from our bloody past. The church would spend the afternoon with Standing Rock’s water protectors during photo-ops. The church would then pack up and head home. The church would look good. The church would “win” and benefit, even if the battle was not over.
The forms of success were divorced from the success of the natives, and therefore from the salvation of water. I cannot imagine a more disturbing truth: The “success” of the church was not based on the success of the resistance movement; it was only determined by the participation of church members, who capitalized on the event through photo-ops and other gestures. The bitter truth is that our “solidarity” did not require the justice the natives were fighting for.
As I stood with my fellow Christians on that November afternoon at Standing Rock, I felt alienated by their approach to the movement. I had sisters and brothers who had been arrested, beaten, and risked their lives to protect something that is so sacred to them. At this point, the struggle had been going on for weeks. The camp was filled with people who have chosen to stay until the struggle was over and the victory for the people was won.*
Our clergy group did not make that commitment as a whole, and that is understandable. Assuming positions of leadership within these movements, even if it is for our own group, is what did not sit right with me. To undermine the risk the water protectors were/are taking and forgetting about these heroes after leaving camp is what did not sit right with me. The absence of humility and submission is what did not sit right with me. This negligence manifested, as it often does, in “well intentioned” colonization, in a “well-intentioned” hijacking of others’ revolution. But our intentions can never justify the consequences of our domination.
Solidarity as Christians is a concept I’ve wrestled with for a couple years now, especially as marches and protests are becoming increasingly normalized in our country. We as Christians have irresponsibly thrown around the term “justice” to describe various types of ministries that we’re involved with. For generations, churches have participated in soup kitchens and clothing drives. I don’t want to downplay the importance of churches getting involved with these types of ministries, but we must acknowledge that justice and charity aren’t interchangeable notions.
The confusion between these two words can be very dangerous for the people we believe we are called to serve. Mixing up charity and justice can also lead the church to believing they are doing both. It diminishes true works of justice while turning works of charity into the standard of how Christians (and all people) should tackle injustices. When we continue to look at oppression strictly from a surface level, we believe that our charitable ministries are enough to uplift people.
Justice and charity aren’t interchangeable notions.
Charity addresses vulnerable people’s immediate needs, many of which are created by the injustices of our world. Examples of this are organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and Operation Christmas Child. Charity work, however, is often private and individual, and though it requires conviction, it does not necessarily require an in-depth analysis of why the situation even exists. We as Christians need to do the work of learning how the system functions, how the system influences and oppresses the people, and how the system should be deconstructed and reconstructed.
This process of critical-consciousness is analysis. And I would argue that the average Christian does not even think about the system at all. Instead, charity work is strictly driven by the feeling of conviction, rather than a socio-systemic analysis. Because of this, charity work does not eliminate the sources of injustice, but merely mitigates its immediate effects while allowing the charitable participant to believe things are changing. This may soften injustice, but it also sustains it. A true effort for justice, however, seeks to solve the sources of injustice and therefore make charity obsolete.
A true effort for justice seeks to solve the sources of injustice and therefore make charity obsolete.
Example: During winter, you see someone without shoes on the street. You feel convicted to help by providing them a pair of shoes. You walk away knowing their feet are in better shape as a result of your charitable donation.
Community psychologists refer to this type of intervention as 1st order change. This type of intervention solely seeks to alleviate the immediate symptom or need at hand.
Justice, on the other hand, addresses the short and long-term effects caused by injustices. This can be done by looking at issues systemically and by figuring out why a problem is occurring on top of looking at what problem is occurring. Organizations like Stand with Standing Rock, El Centro de la Raza, and No New Youth Jail (anti youth incarceration movements) give people the opportunity to deconstruct/reconstruct the structures these injustices are built upon while working on solutions to help create a world where these issues are no longer a problem. Justice work is often collective and public. Unlike charity, justice work requires both conviction and analysis.
Unlike charity, justice work requires both conviction and analysis.
Example: During winter, you see a person without shoes on the street and you don’t want this reality to continue happening anymore. The initial conviction happens when you see the bare feet, but analysis follows by working on systemic change to find a long-term, sustainable solution.
This type of approach is what community psychologists refer to as 2nd order change. This type of intervention seeks to go beyond the immediate symptom, and requires one to enter into a process of critical inquiry in order to attain a more holistic understanding of the true issue at hand.
We have been taught that solidarity needs to take place in order for justice to happen. Generally, when groups of people believe in the same common good for all of God’s people, and then notice that common good absent from some segment of our society, solidarity follows (or at least should) in the effort to restore what is absent. This process has become increasingly prevalent as news becomes more accessible and immediate, and as injustices covered by mainstream media increases.
It should come as little surprise that the Womxn’s March held on January 21 was the largest one-day protest in U.S. history. Showing up matters, and the country showed up that day. As a man who daily benefits from misogyny and patriarchy, it was very important that I should show up. Also, as a Christian who belongs to the same church that preaches that God loves all — but which has suppressed non-dominant genders/sexualities for most of its history — I felt it was important that I should show up. It was amazing to march alongside thousands while knowing millions more were also marching in other cities around the world. Though the immediate impact was undoubtedly massive, my conscience confronted me with a question that I could not suppress: “is what I am doing enough?”
I then realized that, as important as solidarity is for justice, justice is equally important for solidarity. I was driven to this realization by the uncertainty I sensed regarding my own acts of solidarity, namely if they were composed of the justice that the people I was marching with were fighting for. I had to ask myself a difficult question: Was my solidarity based on a deep commitment to seeing out the fruition of justice, or was my solidarity and presence momentary and divorced from a long-term commitment?
As important as solidarity is for justice, justice is equally important for solidarity.
Congregations’ engagement with grassroots efforts — like BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ advocacy, and others that fight for equity for all — has drastically increased over the last decade. However, the more I examine the way we as Christians choose to exist and function within these justice-centered movements, the more I am convinced we are ultimately hurting the very movements we are fighting for.
Revolutionary educator Paulo Friere argued that it is the very people in need of liberation who need to be leading the effort for everyone’s liberation. The voices that belong to the most vulnerable are the ones that need to be centered and lifted up in order for liberation to happen. As a Christian activist, it also means acknowledging the pain Christian people have caused oppressed groups of people.
We must remember that we have stood as the oppressors.
We must remember that we have stood as agents of destruction.
We must remember that we have stood and remained silent in the face of our imperialism.
We must remember that we have justified genocide in the name of Christ.
We must remember that we have justified genocide in the name of Christ.
The unfortunate truth is that these reminders aren’t just reminders of the past, but reminders of the present of how we, Christians, continue to perpetuate the same injustices we have produced for generations. This does not exclude progressive Christians, for we are accountable for all members of our body. Progressive Christians are often some of the most unaware of how we reproduce the same forms of oppression that we are working against, but our “woke fragility’”— or the defensive insecurity toward one’s quality of social-consciousness — prevents us from recognizing or admitting that.
As Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people — they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”
When we as Christians look at oppression strictly from a surface level, we remain unaware of why these oppressions are happening. As such, we engage in justice work with a charitable mindset. Our solidarity has been marketed as collective and public, but, in actuality, it has been very siloed and individual. We enter a space and see a need. We then, as an individual person or an individual church, decide how to fix the problem as quickly as possible, on our own terms. We marginalize the very people our society is marginalizing, but we do it within our social justice movements. We enter these spaces of progress unthinking of our history of colonization, which then makes us negligent of accountability and humility. When this happens, how far we are on the Left does not exempt us from participating in a new form of colonization within our very own movements of resistance. We lose sight of our unconscious impulse to dominate, and so domination ensues, of course with our Christian smiles and sentimentality.
We lose sight of our unconscious impulse to dominate, and so domination ensues.
The church has felt the need to step up and teach people their own methods of how to lead resistance movements. Truthfully, the church should not at all be teaching such lessons. Teaching, in this form, recreates a power dynamic and designates power to the very church that is unequipped with the consciousness and methodology to achieve true justice. In many ways, the church’s ambition for power created many types of oppressions in the first place.
Instead, the church must become the student of the oppressed and submit themselves in humility by listening to those most impacted by racism, homophobia, ableism, Islamophobia, and other xenophobic injustices. Grassroots organizers and civil rights elders have been fighting this battle for a long time, even during times in which both the Left and the Right church rejected any forms of resistance.
The church must become the student of the oppressed.
When leaders of Christian solidarity movements set boundaries of how Christians should act at protests or when to show up to protests, they are balancing the equilibrium of how “commitment” is conceptualized, whether in the direction of self-protection or selflessness, but which has historically been set on the side of self-protection/personal gain. Anything beyond this set boundary is deemed “too radical” and described as uncivilized and barbaric. Ultimately, this smothers the degree of commitment that Christians, as a collective unit, will give to the movements of vulnerable people and often times leave them out to dry.
In order to prevent the consequences of this, rather than the church determining the definition of “commitment” and “civil disobedience,” they must engage in learning, listening, and dialoguing with the oppressed, so that the definitions and strategies are collaborative and equitable between the church and the oppressed.
When my sister is on the front lines at Standing Rock getting shot with rubber bullets because of her peaceful, yet powerful, protest, the government can now point at the clergy’s afternoon of solidarity and justify that she deviated too far beyond what was acceptable. We, as Christians, have recreated the blueprint for resistance, sterilized it of its righteous fierceness, sanitized it of its unhindered selflessness, and diminished the power of the people.
We have yet to transcend our history of taking away the voice from the voiceless.
So how can we as Christians best help the movement of liberating all of God’s people?
- By understanding that showing up to a movement means humble collaboration with the movement’s leadership. (But for the love of Christ, please show up.)
- By never forgetting the bloody history we as Christians should be held accountable for.
- By knowing that people on the front lines are risking the most. They are the ones we should be protecting, not ourselves. Especially now at Standing Rock.
- By understanding that if we ourselves can’t be on the front lines, then we must find other ways that we can be formatively helpful.
- By sharing the truth about resistance movements in order to counter the demonization of those society would call too radical, and to preach why they are absolutely necessary.
- By remembering that solidarity without commitment to the fruition of justice is not solidarity, but opportunism. And if the injustice does not impact us directly, we must not forget about it when our actions of solidarity are over, when we return to our safe havens of privilege in which we are exempt from the bullets, batons, pepper spray, and other lethal forces of the state and private security forces.
And if the injustice does not impact us directly, we must not forget.
People of the Church, please stay alert.