Andre Henry on When Christians Won’t Acknowledge Racism, Protest Becomes Church

Demonstrators sit and listen to speakers at the intersection of Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California, Thursday, June 4, 2020. Photo by April Lindh

Andre Henry is program manager for the Racial Justice Institute at Evangelicals for Social Action. He writes a weekly email and hosts a podcast called “Hope & Hard Pills,” sharing insight on anti-racism and social change.

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — No cars can get through the traffic light at Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue in old Pasadena this afternoon because a handful of black Americans, led by a preteen named Sebastian, are dancing to “Wobble” in the middle of the intersection. They’re surrounded by hundreds of non-black protesters, holding signs that say things like “Get your knee off my neck,” “Breonna Taylor” and “Black Lives Matter.”

I’m in the center of this dance circle, beside a leader of Black Lives Matter Pasadena, trying to keep up with the line dance: I know all the steps, but I’m not in my 20s anymore; it’s hot, and I’m winded from the march we took from City Hall to get here. As I pause to catch my breath, it occurs to me that the formation blocking the intersection may represent the solution for racial violence so many around the world are seeking right now.

White people and people of color stand on the perimeter, disrupting the flow of business-as-usual and acting as a barrier to police violence so that the black people in the center can experience, even briefly, joy.

No white people were asking us for anti-racist learning resources or trying to absolve themselves of white guilt by apologizing to us on behalf of all white people, giving us advice on what strategies for protest would most appeal to their racist family members. A former mentor of mine, a professor of black studies, once told me that what is required for black liberation is for non-black people to “get out of the way” of our joy and — I’ve added — in the way of anti-black violence.

This model somewhat resembles Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. “My hour has not yet come,” Jesus tells his mother when she reports that the wine, a symbol (and source) of joy, has run out at the reception they are attending. In shifting the conversation from the shortage of booze to timing, Jesus invoked the predictions of the Hebrew prophets who preceded him about some joyous future time when God would make right all that is wrong in the world. His predecessors believed that in that future time, in the words of the 8th century B.C. prophet Amos, “the mountains shall drip wine and all the hills shall flow with it.”

In other words, in that day when God ends all the “isms” and phobias that organize human civilization, the wine will never run out. Jesus was telling Mary that the time for endless wine hadn’t come, but then he provides bottomless wine for the party anyway, turning almost 1,000 gallons of water to alcohol. In doing so, he gives the party attendants a taste of the future time in the present.

In theological language, we’d describe what Jesus performed at that wedding as a prolepsis: He invited them to partake of the world to come in the world that is. In social movement language, we call this “prefigurative” action, where people seek to create a tiny microcosm of the world that ought to be in the middle of the world as we know it: like the protest camps from the Occupy movement, with their communal libraries, non-hierarchical leadership and cooperative economics. Like the endless wine of some future time, our joy filled the streets of Pasadena that day.

When I called myself an evangelical Christian, I believed that the church was supposed to be like the space held by Black Lives Matter on Colorado Boulevard. But my loved ones in that tradition would prove to me that they had no interest in being a prolepsis of that future age when we’ll find anti-blackness only in museums.

Raised in a southern Assemblies of God church, trained for the pastorate at an Assemblies of God university and serving as a teaching pastor and song leader in a historic Assemblies of God church in New York City, I was beloved in the multiethnic evangelical spaces I worked — until the 2016 murder of Philando Castile by a Minneapolis police officer provoked me to speak up about racism on a regular basis.

I was told by former classmates, mentors and friends in the evangelical world — most of them white — that my advocacy for black lives was hateful, heretical and a distraction for Christians. One former classmate, now a senior pastor, looked me in the face and told me, straight up, “racism is not a priority to God.” He was one of many telling me that God would not come to the aid of black people in our fight against racism.

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Source: Religion News Service