The last few years have been particularly transformative for me both spiritually and socially as I’ve become more engaged in local anti-oppression movements. My understanding of Jesus and the power of the gospel has also strengthened and evolved. I’ve come to understand Christ as the ultimate embodiment of holy disruption and it I believe it behooves Christians and the church to follow His example of disrupting the status quo on the behalf of the oppressed and marginalized.
I’ve been particularly moved to seek justice for as long as I can remember. Ever since my faith became personal to me rather than just something handed down to me by my parents, I have been convinced that God wants us to live free of oppression and for Christ followers to seek justice and mercy for all people. However, I did not begin to really act on this notion, outside of my day job in the nonprofit world, until about five years ago. Around 2012, I became a member of Shalom House, my church’s community of proactive peace makers. There I got to focus more on what it meant to be a Christian who acts towards the establishment of shalom–peace with the presence of justice. While there, I read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and along with my housemates, began to engage people at my church, Circle of Hope, on the subject of mass incarceration as a violent, racist system that destroys the lives of our family members and neighbors. I was really convicted that I had to DO something, anything, and not just read and talk about it. Since then I’ve dedicated much of my life to working for justice, working with the Black Lives Matter movement in Philadelphia, organizing to combat mass incarceration with Decarcerate PA, providing know-your-rights training and support to activists with Up Against the Law Legal Collective, doing anti-racism work in my church with Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter, and acting as executive director of Roots of Justice, a non-profit dedicated to anti-oppression training.
I have found Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to be an incredibly meaningful spiritual work during this journey. King’s letter has encouraged and inspired me deeply. I find myself returning to this letter almost as if King had written that letter for this day and age, but that is the way of all good prophecy. Here is one passage that has been particularly poignant to me as of late:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ …Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” …
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
…If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
The church today is in danger of being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the [21st] century” when we remain silent and inactive in the face of the gross injustice that is oppressing people all over this nation and this world. In the local BLM movement, I have organized with a lot of Christians, some fresh out of seminary, others active ministers, and still others with a deep held personal faith.
In July I traveled to Cleveland for the Movement for Black Lives Convening to build with over 1500 black activists from all over the world. I met many Christians there. I stood on a corner one afternoon talking with Mertilla Jones, the grandmother of seven year old Aiyanna Stanley Jones who was shot in the head while she slept on her grandmother’s couch by Officer Joseph Weekly. Ms. Jones told us about her granddaughter’s vibrant spirit, the night she was callously murdered before her eyes, and about confronting her granddaughter’s unrepentant killer in court. We laughed together over Aiyanna’s love of Justin Bieber. We cried with Ms Jones over her killing. And then we gathered round Mertilla Jones, laid hands on her and prayed with and for her.
So, I am often shocked when Christians outside of the movement or who are skeptical or antagonistic of the movement ask me if there are any believers in these circles. I am also concerned when other Christians talk about the movement as a potential missionary ground, like they have to introduce Jesus into a space where He is already present or if church, as they practice it, has anything of substance to offer non-Christians engaged in the work of Black liberation. When your version of the gospel is devoid of all mentions of justice and liberation, when you take Paul’s line that “in Christ there is no male or female, no jew or greek” to mean that we should be color blind and that my racial identity is unimportant or an impediment to community, what can you really offer me?
Like King, I have also met many young (and old) people in the movement whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. At times, I admit, I too have been disgusted. When asked why they engage in protest and organizing work, a reply I often hear from people in the movement is “I’m trying to get free.” If the church’s brand of freedom is solely a spiritual freedom concerned more with life after death with no real concern for the very real and tangible oppressions we face now on earth, what does it have to offer the person who is trying to get free? Such a church would seem to worship a strangely callous and disinterested god, if He is indifferent to my oppression yet cares if I curse and rail at my oppressors.
I think King was urging the weak spined naysaying church leaders of his day to embrace the identity of the holy disruptor like that of the early church, whose influence was not just about the hereafter but the here and now. His words condemn the church for its indifference and collusion with the oppressor, but they also offer hope and a challenge. The church must recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church. It must become a holy disruption.
Candace McKinley has been active in social justice movements for several years. She is a former member of Shalom House, a Christian intentional community dedicated to peacemaking. She is an active member of Decarcerate PA, an organization dedicated to fighting mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. She is also a member of Up Against the Law Legal Collective, a collective that provides Know Your Rights Trainings, training for activists ahead of actions, and legal observing and support during and after protests. Candace served on the Steering Committee of the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic, and Legal Justice, a coalition formed in late 2014 to organize against police brutality and for economic, racial and legal justice. Candace currently works with the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter and leads the Circle of Hope church team, Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter. Candace is also the Executive Director of Roots of Justice, a non-profit dedicated to anti-oppression training.