‘Loud, disruptive, transformative’: Chavis, Pearson discuss present-day prophetic witness in Giving Tuesday special
The river of justice flows from one generation to the next.
This was a central message during the spirited conversation of the “You Can’t Stop Justice” Creation Justice webinar that took place Nov. 28. It featured the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., UCC minister and prominent figure in founding the environmental justice movement, and Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson. The webinar was part of the United Church of Christ’s Giving Tuesday appeal to support the next generation of environmental justice leaders.
A metaphor using the “flowing river of justice” to describe the Christian prophetic tradition formed the conversation’s theme.
Persisting and disrupting
Pearson, who has roots as a Memphis community organizer for environmental justice and has become known for disrupting the status quo as a state representative, described the power of water in both the Christian and environmental justice traditions. He addressed how everyone deserves clean water and how, in baptism, water is a cleansing force.
“When we think about the metaphorical use of water and the river of justice that’s flowing and building, it is also realizing just how powerful it is to have people who are willing to be persistent,” Pearson said. “Indeed, it is said that a drop of water consistently hitting a rock over time will shatter the rock. We have to be people who are persistent.”
This persistence, Pearson said, is crucial for prophetic witness.
“No matter how many corporations are trying to destroy our communities, the people with prophetic witness hold on to a vision of a world that is not yet, but that is possible. And that’s our opportunity. That is our work. That is our challenge,” he said. “… If we hold our prophetic vision and turn it into a reality that we are living and that we are experiencing, we change the conditions of the world in which we inhabit and that our descendants will inhabit.”
Chavis added that a prophetic witness requires discerning God’s message and disrupting the status quo in the present.
“A prophetic voice is loud, disturbing, disrupting. A prophetic voice is transformational,” he said. “And I want to say within the context of the Christian faith community, I do think that we are a little too silent. We react to injustice, which we should, but we should be in a preventative ministry.”
The two featured speakers discussed ways that the broader church has become co-opted by white supremacy and often conceals, rather than follows, the Jesus of the Gospels.
“Jesus has already given us the blueprint. He said, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you gave me health care,’” Pearson said. “We’ve got the blueprint, but the society and the pressures and the idolatry of the billionaires … they have taken what we should be pursuing and have turned it into a practice of ‘How do we become better, richer capitalists?’ and not how do we become more conscious and conscientious caretakers of each other and our planet.”
Chavis cited the urgent need to rescue Jesus from the far-right wing and rescue the Bible from misinterpretation. He cited the theologian James Cone that “the God of the oppressed is the God of Jesus.”
Pearson commented on “the amount of energy and effort it has taken for evangelical white supremacist Christians to take Christ and to reduce Christ down to a white supremacist Republican American,” which he said has happened through decades of structured work.
“It is going to require another type of energy — a cosmic Creator’s type of energy — for us to take Christ back, but with a level of intention and integrity, and a level of structure in our churches, in our institutions, that reclaim what we know and who we know for Christ to be for everybody,” he said.
Faith to endure
Following extended discussion about the character of Jesus and the prophetic work of justice at hand, Chavis closed with a word of encouragement.
“I know that there are difficult times, but the truth of the matter is we’ve had difficult times before, and it’s been our faith that has helped us to endure — not to accept, but to endure as we change. Not to endure to let the status quo collapse us — no. We endure to fight,” he said.
A time of “passing the plate,” as Pearson described it, came with an invitation to support the UCC’s work for building the next generation of environmental justice leaders.
The Rev. Elena Larssen, UCC generosity officer, shared that Giving Tuesday donations will support youth and young adult summer fellowships, the second annual Earth Day Summit in 2024 and a lead organizer for the Climate Hope campaign. Giving Tuesday gifts totaled $60,000, but the opportunity to give is still available here.
The full webinar recording is available here.
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