American policing does not date back to the founding of our republic or our Constitution, but to slaveholders in South Carolina responding to revolts on their plantations in the early 18th Century. They brought in private slave patrols to control the uprisings. Fast-forward, policing is doing today exactly what it was designed to do—confine, control and, if necessary, kill Black bodies. Now protesters are pouring into the streets, against police brutality, and calling for a new public safety system that works.
At this critical moment, a multi-faith group of leaders participated in a nationwide public town hall with faith-rooted vision for a new way to embody law enforcement. They share the dream that justice is for all:
Bishop Yvette Flunder, Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries started by calling out religion itself. Even religions hunger for supremacy (“mine is better than yours”) leading many religious people to remain obtuse to our common humanity. Which leads to law enforcement often being informed by race-based theological supremacy. Religion must stop using God to sanctify all the -isms. We’re seeing the price we pay for keeping these supremacy blinders on. We need holy risk-takers – and young people are showing up in that role and showing much-needed visual unity. Faith is not about getting to paradise but bringing paradise to earth.
Or as Rev. Aundreia Alexander of National Council of Churches says, we envision God on earth as in heaven…and negotiate from there! Slavery is still here, and still needs to be abolished, starting with the carceral system. We start by engaging our powers, and the first and foremost of those is the divine within us. We join hands, feel and voice the divine together. People have power when God is in our hearts. We need to think with those hearts.
Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber calls us to envision Exodus and the Hebrew midwives who led the first protest against Pharaoh. Founder of The Voices Project and a leader in the Methodist Church, he called out Romans 13. Its reference is often invoked as a call to submit to authority, a way of manipulating the scriptures to justify a political agenda, bad laws and bad policies. It has no place in the America born of radical resistance.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, Senior Rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles asked us to imagine a dramatic shift rooted in the idea that we are all created in the image of the Divine; and if we are created in the image of God, we are to be treated as an image of God. Helping listeners to grasp the weight of the idea that all humanity is made in the image of God, Rabbi Brous invoked ancient rabbinical commentary that teaches followers to look at each human being and imagine that before each person is a progression of 1000 angels declaring: “Make way for the image of the Holy One!” Brous says we must legislate as if 1000 angels were in front of every person.
Imagining those 1000 angels is an epiphany. Epiphanies change us. We need them, says Rev. Jim Wallis, President & Founder of Sojourners. Moses needed to leave the palace to see people for the first time in their lived lives; and that is what the protestors are doing now. Black parents saw their sons and daughters under that white knee. But what White young people saw was a white knee on a black neck for the first time. They are not going to accept this system now that they see it. Now tens of thousands of them are lining the streets having their own epiphanies about police reform as never before.
Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, called out that palace, too, and the need to acknowledge the role policing has in protecting those who live in the palace. The economic system is built around White supremacy, on the backs of slaves, then sharecroppers, then low-wage laborers. Even in Emancipation, plantation owners were paid for their loss of “property”, but freed slaves were not paid for their stolen labor. Economic domination and oppression have been in place since 1619. We have to invite everyone out of the palace, and live outside the palace, together.
Rev. Darren Ferguson, called out pervasive plantation theology, rooted in Euro-Christian thought, that still pervades the Black Church. The Black community remains mired in the ways of the oppressors. Change takes sacrifice and defiant Black worship can’t happen under the White supremacist theology of captors. The Black Church has to stop begging for tolerance and we can’t hashtag our way into change. We need to have an epiphany about ourselves.
As humans it takes practice to get better at something. Are we practicing what we want to become and who we want to be? That was the question posed by Stosh Cotler, CEO, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. Our traditions and practices, through our rites and rituals, provide the scaffolding that offers visions of a perfected world to come; of our intrinsic human connection; and our connection to divine. What is the practice and discipline that we can do day-after-day to uproot racism and center Black people? How can we White people trust the police, without asking how others experience policing?
Policing the police isn’t working, said Shane Claiborne, Co-Founder of Red Letter Christians. The public files official complaints and nothing comes of them. The public needs to control the police and not vice versa. We need to envision policing where kids don’t feel terrorized by cops. The truth sets us free and the truth is, we need to see the historic harm done. For both officers and police departments, we need a law enforcement Yelp — to see profiles, celebrate the good practices, and hold accountable the bad. We need a shift to relational law enforcement. We’ve seen it during these protests — shaking hands and taking a knee and marching alongside protesters makes news. It’s also time to stop asking police officers to do what they’re not trained to do. We need to imagine a new group of first responders, emergency social workers for example, not armed to escalate but un-armed to de-escalate.
Founder of the Revolutionary Love Project and author of the just-released book, See No Stranger, Valarie Kaur has found that working with the public, media and legislative advocacy (she’s also a lawyer) has led to real change. She says you’ve got to start with the community and ask them to re-imagine what public safety looks like. Then gather the needed allies with roles in alignment. She’s seen firsthand those community demands turned into long-term reality.
Comprehensive policy reform is achievable in the short term, too, by putting pressure on police chiefs and mayors in this moment, said Adam Taylor Sojourners Executive Director, who calls on the faith community to be the moral and powerful voice pushing to adopt necessary reforms. Reality has become so depraved and fraudulent that it is forcing a moment of awakening, a tipping point that can translate into power. But he warned: A “voteless people is a hopeless people.” Nothing changes if the president remains the emperor with no clothes. With COVID-19, all Americans must be able to vote safely through expanded early voting and absentee ballots if we are to see needed police reform. Transformation in policy comes through election transformation, engagement in advocacy, and organizing efforts.
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign agrees. Great transformation happens when those most impacted come together and organize. Institutions are failing people. We’ve militarized our police and our medical workers can’t get PPE during a pandemic. The key to winning rights for all, is our dream breaking down the old destructive, bigoted, impoverished ways to break through the new. For that we need a moral revolution. When backs are against the wall all you can do is push. That’s starting.
Today we face two pandemics: COVID-19 and COVID-1619, both rooted in predatory self- interest, says Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He sees the vaccine of new hope moving in the spirit of the people and the consistent resistance of a multiracial movement. They’re moving from resistance, to reimaging the world as it ought to be.
And I say this: Dreaming is holy ground. Every step we take, every risk, we are doing holy work. Even those who are not religious can dream. A more just world cannot happen if we can’t dream it. Dictators squash dreams. We need to take back the dream.
Find the full conversation on Facebook, convened by Freedom Road, LLC and the #HousePower Network.