Traci Blackmon: ‘The Church must not be silent while injustice speaks aloud’

Traci Blackmon: ‘The Church must not be silent while injustice speaks aloud’

This is the text of Rev. Traci Blackmon’s address on September 19 before the World Conference on Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration. The Executive Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries represented the UCC at the three-day encounter of global religious leaders in Rome, which was jointly organized by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican’s Office for Integral Human Development, in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

My name is Rev. Traci Blackmon and I serve as Executive Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ. I also bring you greetings from our General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries, Rev. Jim Moos, our national offices, and 5,000+ member churches.

It is indeed my honor and privilege to speak before you today and I thank you for this opportunity. The presentations and discussions have been rich so far and I am grateful to be in this sacred space.

Yesterday, His Eminence Cardinal Turkson quoted Pope Benedict’s observance of the impact of globalization on the world with these words: “Globalization has brought us together—has shortened distances—but it has not quite caused us to become brothers and sisters.” I agree with this assessment, and I would like to make note of at least two other consequence of globalization.

Globalization has revealed the idolatrous effects of white supremacy throughout the world, and exposed the global impact of anti-Black and Brown racism and the marginalization of the poor globally.

Globalization also provides, for those of us who fight against such evils, reminders that we are not alone; and a caution that neither are the forces we fight against.

After the killing of an unarmed 18 year old black man, named Michael Brown, Jr., by a local law enforcement officer in Ferguson, Mo., it was young Palestinian protestors, living under occupation in the Middle East and watching live streams of the military occupation of Ferguson, who tweeted Ferguson youth to let them know what tactics they could expect from the military and law enforcement that were now in our streets with tanks and high assault weapons.

The shrinking of the world through globalization made this possible.

Globalization did not make us brothers and sisters, but it has provided better opportunity for the collaboration of allies, the re-righting of history, and the collective prophetic proclamation toward a Just World by our communities of faith, globally.

And where is the church in such work?

Beyond the necessary charitable programs and efforts to sustain those who are most vulnerable among us.

Beyond the necessary feeding ministries and clothing ministries, and evangelistic efforts, where is the church in the work of dismantling the systems that perpetuate injustice?

Where are we in our challenge against the Empire, wherever and however Empire shows up?

There are those who will say that is too political and the church should not be political. Indeed, we have heard such phrases even as we gather here to talk about justice.

But I disagree. The very birth of the Christ child was both a holy and political act.

The Jesus story, in its historical context, reveals both human terror and divine grace, both human suffering and supernatural deliverance.

It is a story that claims God enfleshed as one who was vulnerable, poor, displaced and subjected to tyrannical power.

The Jesus described in the Bible had more in common with the children of refugees born today than we might be comfortable imagining.

Jesus was an Afro-Semitic Palestinian whose family was displaced due to terror and political turmoil.

The church of Jesus the Christ cannot be apolitical. There is no middle of the road on matters of injustice.

The church is political.
But we need not be partisan.

We must speak out against harmful policies, and yet leave room for personal and communal redemption.

We must dare to speak against current horrors and yet never abandon our present hope.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his paper ‘A Knock at Midnight,’ said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

In the U.S., one of our current leadership’s first acts of 2017 was to freeze refugee admissions, citing security concerns.

The U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees in 2016, a total that declined to 53,716 in 2017 – and for fiscal 2018, refugee admissions have been capped at 45,000, the lowest since Congress created the modern refugee program in 1980 for those fleeing persecution in their home countries.

And to be clear, these changes to immigration policy in the United States are not designed to impact all border crossings, but it disproportionately targets the southern borders where those crossing are most likely to have non-white skin.

In matters of immigration in the United States, the color of one’s skin matters. And not only in the United States, but globally as well. We all have our legalistic ways of identifying the haves and the have nots.

Therefore, any global crisis involving migrants and refugees must include Palestinian refugees, refugees oppressed in their own land, Syrian refugees, African refugees, Afrophobia (fear and hatred of people of the continent of Africa) is as present as Islamaphobia, Central American refugees, Haitian refugees, Mexican refugees, LGBTQ refugees, and any other alienated group we see in our global midst.

Any discussion about the current state of refugee and immigrant policies in the US must be inclusive of historical narratives of racism, poverty, the pilfering of resources on foreign land, human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and children both in the world and in the church.

We must not promote ourselves as caring deeply about the migrant women and children, and remain silently complicit in the devastating sexual exploitation of women and children in our midst

I am reminded of the warning of the prophet Isaiah who declares in the 1st Testament:
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10)

The prophet Isaiah does not offer this warning to the professed enemies of God, but rather to those who profess to be God’s friends.

Any discussion about the current state of global crisis involving migrants and refugees in the U.S. must also include oppressive policies that criminalize the quest of others for a better life and separates children from their parents at the border.

Currently, in the U.S., we have over 500 children taken from their parents at the border who have yet to be reunited.

In many of these cases, the parents have already been deported. The church must not be silent while injustice speaks aloud.

What we are witnessing at our US borders with black and brown families today is not who America has become.

This is who America has always been.

And the church must be bold enough in our prophetic witness to separate ourselves from theological interpretations and Christian expressions that do not articulate a God who is concerned about the entire world.

In America, the church has been complicit in the promulgation of religious rhetoric that favors some of God’s creation over others of God’s creation. As a result much of the language of populist nationalism is cloaked in feigned righteousness.

This has always been my nation’s response whenever its false god of white supremacy is threatened.

Immigration policy in the U.S. is not as much about safety as it is about separatist ideology.

And people of faith must not be silent in the face of a god we do not serve

This too is our story.

America snatched Indigenous children from their families. We took their children and their land. 
In the name of God.

America snatched enslaved children from their families for subjugation and control. In the name of God.

America snatched Japanese American children from their families fueled by fabricated fear. In the name of God.

America snatches a quarter of a million predominantly black and brown children annually from parents who are caged in a prison industrial complex that is contains the poor and exonerates the wealthy.

In the name of GOD.

America cages over 30,000 children in juvenile detention centers where we would rather incarcerate them than educate them. In the name of GOD.

And let us not forget America, too, sent back fleeing Jewish refugees – ignoring the eminent threat of death.

We must not forget from whence we have come. We must ALWAYS remember.

What are your stories, in your countries, that must be remembered? 

As I read the signs of the times we face, I sense the Spirit leading us to hear the words of Deuteronomy 26, beginning with the fifth verse:

Then, standing there in front of the place of worship, you must pray:
My ancestor was a wandering Aramean who went to live in Egypt.
There were only a few in his family then, but they became great
and powerful, a nation of many people.

Of all the descriptors God could have chosen, why did God choose this one?

Why was it important for the Israelites to remember that their story began with immigration?

Throughout the history of this nation, millions of people have left their homelands and come to America.

Over the past 400 years, people have come for many reasons. Some came because of inhumane economic forces. The evil reality of slavery reminds us that not all came voluntarily. Many African people were brutally transported here against their will for the exploitation of their labor without pay.

Others came to escape the ravages of war in their native lands.

Still others have come in search of freedom from religious, ethnic, gender, and sexual persecution.

And some came seeking opportunities to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves and their families.

Yet no matter why or how we came to America, any greatness realized within our borders is because we are all here.

The words of President Barack Obama ring resoundingly in my heart today, “We were strangers once, too,” he said. “And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship.”

Hebrew scripture reminds us that the Egyptians grew in their disdain for the refugees in their midst.  

They treated them poorly and subjected them to unfair labor laws.

The Egyptian Empire unfairly targeted the refugees with propaganda campaigns designed to turn the Egyptian people against them by portraying the Hebrews as evil and a threat.

Such narratives are always necessary to move the masses to act inhumanely. It is difficult to consciously oppress people we do not first detest.

So God cautioned those preparing to come and offer the first fruits of their bounty to God in worship to always remember: though they became a powerful nation, their ancestor was a homeless Aramean who sought refuge in a foreign land.

Because we refuse to remember the truth of our past, we repeat its evil and act appalled.

America must remember the words inscribed on her Statue of Liberty at a time when our dependence on the help and hospitality of other nations was much more palpable:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

God is calling us to remember where we’ve come from in order become what we’ve not yet been: a world committed in principle, in proclamation, and in policy to liberty and justice for all.

And shall we, the Church, say of such things?

The Church must tell the truth.

We must engage in the deconstruction of the theology of choseness that would suggest God is a God of favoritism as opposed to a God of favor.

We must help people understand the sacred text – not as God’s book about a holy people, but rather a people’s book about a holy God. It is only in the truth that room is made for everyone.

An analysis of our current xenophobic and racist tendencies must be framed within the historical context that make them possible. And we must acknowledge the economic drivers that are at play with the commodification of human flesh and the pilfering of natural resources on land stewarded and occupied by “the other.”

We must replace tolerance with truth.

We must replace temperance with truth. Yes, truth may be painful but lies are deadly.

White Supremacy must be clearly named.

Our conversations must shift from equality to equity.

Repentance is not enough. Repair is necessary.

The Church must be political, for the sake of our communal soul.

And we must affirm that God, and not the Empire, has the last word in human history.

There is a higher judge than the Supreme Court. A higher law not made by man.

A moral law by which all people of faith must live.

And that law is LOVE!

We are people of Faith.

People of faith must lead with LOVE.
People of faith must legislate with LOVE.
People of faith must be governed by LOVE.
People of faith must fight. Always. For LOVE.

If it is not LOVE – It is not GOD.

Finally. I will close with the words of the poem, Home, written by Somali born poet Warsan Shire:

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well. 

Your neighbors running faster than you, the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind 
the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body.  

You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.

No one would leave home unless home chased you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly.
It’s not something you ever thought about doing, and so when you did—you carried the anthem under your breath, waiting until the airport toilet to tear up the passport and swallow, each mouthful of paper making it clear that you would not be going back.

You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.
Who would choose to spend days and nights in the stomach of a truck unless the miles travelled meant something more than journey. 

No one would choose to crawl under fences, be beaten until your shadow leaves you, raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of the boat because you are darker, be sold, starved, shot at the border like a sick animal, be pitied, lose your name, lose your family, make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten, stripped and searched, find prison everywhere and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side with go home blacks, refugees dirty immigrants, asylum seekers sucking our country dry of milk, dark, with their hands out smell strange, savage – look what they’ve done to their own countries, what will they do to ours?

The dirty looks in the street softer than a limb torn off, the indignity of everyday life more tender than fourteen men who look like your father, between your legs, insults easier to swallow than rubble, than your child’s body in pieces – for now, forget about pride your survival is more important.

I want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark.
Home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home, unless home chased you to the shore,
unless home tells you to leave what you could not behind, even if it was human. 

No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now, I don’t know what I’ve become.

May God have mercy upon us until this work is done. Thank you.