I Believe In A God Who Desires Radical Justice
My first day of college, my Latin America history professor made us clear out the desks as he marked a line through the middle of class with blue painter’s tape. One by one he read aloud controversial statements and had students who agreed and disagreed pick a side. We then had to walk up to the line, pair up, and explain our view to someone who disagreed with us.
One of the statements presented was: “Women can and should serve in all areas of ministry in the church, including the role of senior pastor.”
I’m sure I had quite some “deplorable” beliefs back then, but my response to this still stands out to me today. I can remember the look of shock on the white man’s face standing across from me as I explained to him how men were the head of the house and the head of church and how women “just weren’t made to be pastors.” In the same breath I told him about my plans to become a powerful businesswoman.
The irony was not lost on me even in that moment.
But what I remember the most was defending a view I had never really thought about. As I gave him boiler-plate responses to the archaic things I believed, I realized how little I actually believed them. But the religious indoctrination I had received, and my deeply held belief that there was some certainty to how the world was ordered, spoke before my logic had the opportunity to. And like many people — and many Christians — I was defending a hill I not only did not want to die on, but also one I had not wittingly climbed.
The years since that moment have seen great changes in terms of my social views and in my social circles. My feminist (or rather womanist) ethics come out in every facet of my work. I openly talk about my push for the full abolition of prisons and police. There are mainstream publications that quote me as saying “Fuck the white gaze.” Sex positivity is an important part of my life. And for the past two years I have done work in one of the queerest Black liberation movements in recent time.
But in that time, I’ve also missed less than a handful of Sundays at church in any given year. I even went to church the morning after shutting down a presidential candidate, and I still go to bible studies and serve on the musical worship band at my church. Far from losing my faith, as I thought I would as I became a part of more leftist circles, my Christianity sits squarely in the middle of my controversial and often category-breaking work.
It’s a feat that seems impossible in our world of xenophobic and polarizing evangelical Christianity, and in a time where people are opting out of organized religion altogether in droves, with more than one third of millennials claiming no religion at all. But nonetheless, instead of having to defend my faith against my exposure to and adoption of more progressive ideals, my Christianity has been my motivation to do and be better.
There have been traditions of orthodox, radical, biblical Christianity, and then there is mainstream pop Christianity, which is white, male, and plants churches with the theological depth of a room full of tech bros. These prevalent models of American Christianity have less to do with religious tenets and more to do with money, fame, and power. But underneath the cliches and modern purity culture that seem to shape mainstream Christianity are other people just like me; those for whom radical politics and Christianity aren’t two warring entities, but necessities in making sense of a world that is calling us into darkness.
I don’t change my views easily. I like being right and I hate being wrong. And yet my views on nearly every single social issue have changed since that first day in a college classroom. And it hasn’t been because I am conforming, or weak-willed. Instead it is because the God who delivered the slaves out of Egypt, the Christ who died an enemy of the state, and the Holy Spirit who broke political prisoners out of jail has called me to think more deeply about what it means to walk a path that leads to holiness. In large part, the shift in my beliefs came out of my deep Christian conviction to repent and turn from sin, including the large and systemic sin we participate in and benefit from every day. Changing my views and behavior around my queer kinfolk or how we treat the poor or how I view the U.S. military is less about a compromise between the world and Christianity, and more about my belief in a God who desires radical justice and who will judge harshly the oppressors and slave drivers of this world.
This is not to say that Christians on the whole are doing this work of seriously interrogating our social beliefs and owning up to the ways that the church has created social beliefs as a means of control and oppression. Many Christians live extremely siloed lives and simply will never be motivated to leave the confines of a dogmatism that feels like safety in our ever-changing world. And evangelical Christians, being highly privileged in American society, have a lot to lose in acknowledging their oppressiveness and relinquishing their power. For as long as America has existed, Christianity, rather than being the grounding moral compass for the powerful, has been the tool by which extensive atrocities have been committed. Christianity, like all organized religions, can be a key tool in the exploitation of marginalized people. There are many who seek to continue that tradition.
However, radical Christians, most often POC Christians, are constantly erased from the prevalent narratives both past and present. Only recently is Nat Turner’s legacy as a pastor who led a violent slave revolt being recognized. For years I was part of a church that frequently referenced Dietrich Bonehoffer, a Christian pastor who helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler, but removed me from my role as part of the usual Sunday worship service when there was national controversy around my work. People like Bree Newsome, Tia Oso, and myself are all Christian women who have been highly visible in Black Lives Matter, yet Kim Davis got to become the national symbol for modern Christianity.
To be honest, I can’t tell you how often I wish I could lose my faith or leave the church. My life would be a lot simpler and a lot less painful if I could. My changing views and unorthodox public work have come at a great cost. In the last two years I lost my church, I lost several friends, and my work has put extreme strain on my family. I’ve struggled with depression for the first time in my life and my personal life has been picked apart, all while I get death threats pretty regularly. Looking back, if I knew how much I would go through doing Black liberation work, I can’t say that I would have started doing it at all. The cost is far too high and I am not so brave.
But I am here. I am doing this work. And by my account, I do it through and because of my faith — not in spite of it. Like many of my ancestors before me, my faith in God allows me to survive the tremendous abuses laid upon me, and my faith in God compels me to play my role in the fight for the liberation of all that God made and called “good.”
For many who grew up around religion, there is no saving it; coming to terms with the both the evil and diversity of belief in this world means leaving religion altogether. Some would say that it is impossible for a religious person to truly believe in and advocate for truly radical political change. When I was first confronted with ideas beyond the conservatism I was raised in, my faith built on dogma was shaken. But when I stood up on a stage with a powerful white man for the world to see, it was my faith that grounded me and gave me strength to withstand the screams and trash being hurled at me.
Changing my views didn’t threaten to ruin my religion, but instead saved my faith. For many like me, religion and personal conviction seem like two divergent paths, neither one feeling disposable. But a new generation, albeit fringe and young, of religious political revolutionaries are making their mark in the world. We are a people who re-imagine faith as something that can bring down oppressive rulers and feed all the poor. We get buck and clapback because we believe in a God who has come to make all things new. We are willing to literally lose our lives in the fight for liberation because we believe it is part of the kingdom of God. We are a small and often erased group, but we are loud and charging forward with abandon.
To usher in the revolution we so desperately need doesn’t require a denunciation of religion or a safeguarding of one’s dogmatic beliefs. Instead it requires two things much more rare: bravery for a battle that requires much sacrifice, and humility to change your mind and repent when God reveals your part in the evil of this world.
Fortunately for me, I have found a model for this in the one they call Christ — the poor, Middle Eastern revolutionary modern Christianity seems so desperate to forget.