By Dr. Terrance Dean | 9-24-2020

Editor’s note: The blog series “5 Questions” is a Westar Think Tank initiative designed to provide a window into current religious issues from diverse perspectives. The blogs are not intended to represent Westar scholarship.

In this segment of “Five Questions with a Scholar,” Westar Think Tank Fellow Terrance Dean, PhD, sat down with Dr. Christophe Ringer, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics & Society, Chicago Theological Seminary.  He addresses the "apocalyptic moment" of COVID-19 in Chicago, the importance of local community social justice organizations, shares a list of empowering resources  and names the three people he'd most like to discuss racial, social and political injustices with. 

You live in Chicago, which at one point was one of the largest cities impacted by COVID-19, especially for people of color. As a theologian, preacher, and ethics scholar, what messages did you hear or notice being preached on Sundays in the pulpit regarding health disparities and this pandemic?

As the pandemic unfolded here in Chicago, I heard a number of sermons that focused on the idea that the corona virus is not a punishment from God. In addition, there were a number of congregations that were legitimately struggling with whether or not to hold church services. So, there were sermons regarding the significance of gathering or not gathering. Eventually, as the virus continued to take its toll and the racial disparities were undeniable, messages began to shift. In a recent podcast, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ began to articulate a brilliant framing of the issue of Covid-19 and Covid-1619. With explicit reference to the New York Times 1619 Project, this interpretation gives voice to the sin of systemic racism that occasions racial disparities in health. Moreover, it connected the protests that emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the unapologetic racism and authoritarianism from this current regime.

For a number of years, Chicago has been plagued by gun and gang violence, and this year there has been an increase in murders amongst young people of color. You do a lot of activism work in the city around racial disparities, mass incarceration, and biased injustices in the legal system. Share with us the work you do, and how does your work make use of theology and/or liberation theology in addressing these issues?

The issue of violence in Chicago is complex. There are longstanding socio-economic and historical reasons for its persistence. With mass incarceration, police violence, and the pandemic, these issues have only intensified. My activism primarily occurs through my involvement with three organizations A Just Harvest, Community Renewal Society, and Workers Center for Racial Justice. I’ll just take one as an example. When I first arrived back in Chicago, I was interested in working on issues related to “money-bond” or pre-trial incarceration. This is one of the main drivers of mass incarceration. As a nation we have nearly a half-million people who are sitting in jail for no other reason than they cannot afford bail. In 2017 the median income among that population was $15,109.  We are criminalizing poverty with devastating consequences for people such as loss of income, custody of children, and the destabilizing of neighborhoods.

I eventually began working with an A Just Harvest led by a community-oriented and gifted minister, Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagan-Banks. It’s an organization that feeds the hungry day in and day out 365 days a year even in the midst of the pandemic. The organization also engages in community organizing addressing root causes of food insecurity.

It was from their community engagement and asking why people were hungry that they joined Coalition to End Money Bond in Chicago. The organization represents one of the key insights of liberation theology—not to stop at charitable work, but to ask the hard, systemic questions. You will often hear folks at A Just Harvest talk about putting themselves out of business. That’s a self-check to remind ourselves of the long-term vison of creating a just society.

In which ways do you feel that the work of scholars who are about social, racial, and liberation justice can help to address or make sense of the violence amongst young people in Chicago and what critical texts do you think can be useful to aid this work?

The issue of violence among young people is complex. It’s important to point out that violence among young people has been an ongoing concern for decades. There’s quite a bit of evidence that many young people eventually mature out their involvement in violence. However, when we stigmatize young people as “predators” we foreclose on their future possibilities and respond only with increasingly punitive measures that exacerbate the problem.

However, there are some important resources to help us think about this. David Wilson’s Inventing Black-on-Black Violence is a critical text, especially for those who grew up hearing this language in the early ’80s. There are libraries full of research on the conditions that occasion violence. That part is not a mystery.

However, when we assume the violence in our communities is about “Blackness” and not violence, as a society we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility. The text demonstrates just how important that disavowal of responsibility has been in sustaining forms of inequality that tear at our social fabric.

It’s also good that we are having more conversations about trauma as well. Three important books in this regard are John A. Rich’s Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men; and, Beth Richie’s Compelled to Crime: the Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women; and, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison System.

These texts do an important job of moving beyond sensational headlines and feature the actual voices of persons caught in multiple webs of violence that have particular effects based upon gender. Memoirs such as Stanley “Tookie” Williams Blue Rage, Black Redemption are also helpful.

I think it is important to engage books that speak to youth violence as it relates to different social institutions such as public schools. The story of KC Wilbourn on the podcast “The Trouble With Shannon Cason,” and, Monique Morris’ Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, and Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side provide important insights for understanding how young people navigate violence in their lives. More importantly, they also delve into the political choices that sustain heartbreaking educational disparities.

In this tense political and racial climate in which Black persons are protesting in the streets fighting for the end of police brutality, and demanding states defund the police, as a theologian what can you share with readers about how we can address systemic and racial structures that have impacted people of color, particularly as we prepare for the upcoming election. Also, what scripture or biblical text do you feel is relevant for this highly political moment?

The work of public theology moves in a number of directions. The first is that it mines relevant resources of our religious traditions to critique the injustices within our culture and provide a corrective vision. Second, it also articulates the sacred aspects of public life that are necessary for people to live lives that are fulfilling and meaningful. An important aspect of public theology is the insight that much of our religious language is rooted in human experience long before it becomes a doctrine. As such, religious traditions can provide insights into our shared experience of the world without requiring others to become adherents.

I think it’s important to name that in a society structured by anti-Black racism, we are all “born in sin and shaped in iniquity.” That’s not a metaphor or an analogy. It’s an accurate description of our situation. Likewise, it’s important to acknowledge the idolatry of racial capitalism steeped in patriarchy. I use the term idolatry not as a matter of imposing religious language on our cultural conversation. Rather, it captures something that terms such as “white privilege” and “white supremacy” do not.

For example, we often hear the Republican party described as a “death cult.” I don’t think that’s quite right. What we are seeing are the dynamics of American culture that historically have attempted to maintain white lives and freedoms through the subjugation and often death of non-white populations. However, the pandemic represents an apocalyptic moment in the religious sense of an “unveiling” or “disclosure”—or dare I say unmasking. It is unmasking that this faith in whiteness is idolatrous because in making race ultimate, it ends up killing white people as well.

This is the tragic cost of idolatry. Idolatry distorts our understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world in which we live. Idols promise that you can preserve your life through a politics of death without being affected. During so called ‘normal’ times this politics of death is concealed and justified through various political and religious ideologies. The pandemic, however, has pierced this veil and laid these dynamics bare for us to see.

The movement to defund the police is a product of a profound faith. For years, ideas that were once thought of as unrealistic or pie in the sky are now getting a hearing. This is because for decades abolitionists have exemplified a tenacious faith that engaged in political education, organizing local campaigns to close prisons, working to decriminalize specific offenses and resisted our reliance on punishment to address social problems.

They have been pursuing what is often called “non-reformist reforms.” It’s a clunky and awkward term. However, it keeps a long-term vision in view while recognizing the need for concrete action now.

Specifically, it draws a distinction between reforms that expand the reach and size of the criminal justice system, and those that reduce it. The fruit of this labor is that the proposal put forth in “#8cantwait” was immediately challenged by “#8toAboliton.”

This was a critical moment as the social energies from these uprisings could have been derailed by reforms that actually already exist and have proven ineffective. I am struck by two things abolitionist Mariame Kaba has stated so well. She reminds us that “hope is a discipline” and that transforming our society away from mass incarnation will require the “urgency of the moment and the patience of a thousand years.” For me that is a profound faith.

A scripture that has been with me for some years now is Luke 23:28–31. Here Jesus says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.  For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’  Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (NRSV)

It’s such a profound moment where Jesus in the midst of his suffering redirects their attention from the immediacy of the moment toward the powers that have brought such a moment into existence. It is important to take seriously the depth and absolute brazenness of power that oppresses without a hint of pretense or remorse.

This is the kind of moment we are living through. We need to be very clear that there is no bottom to what Donald Trump will do to retain power and continue dismantling the possibility of working towards a functioning democracy. To be clear, I am not trying to engage in fear mongering. Rather, we need to unflinchingly recognize that the upcoming election is not just another election. Whatever social justice issues we are fighting for now will be immeasurably harder with another four years with Trump.

If you could be in a room with three philosophical or theological thinkers, living or dead, discussing racial, social, and political injustices, including the teachings of Jesus, which three would be your conversation partners? Why? And what message would you think they would have for us on how to engage and deal with this crisis using theology, Christianity, and faith? 

I would love have dinner with Howard Thurman, Lewis Gordon and Angela Davis. All of them have really profound insights into what we now call “subjectivity”—the complex ways in which our inner lives are shaped by the forces that make up our culture. Moreover, they all have trenchant critiques of social injustice, are tireless seekers of a more just world and have important things to say about religion. All have attempted in their own way to discern the roots of visible and persistent forms of injustice.

Thurman’s Luminous Darkness is so prescient for this moment. In reflecting on the long struggle to end Jim Crow he warned that without fundamental changes in the patterns of our social life, we might tear down some walls, but eventually those walls will return. And I would love to hear Angela Davis reflect upon the teachings of Jesus based upon her “Lectures on Liberation” and the lives of Black women gospel artists based upon Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.  She has a keen sense of the possibilities of religion for personal transformation and the pursuit of freedom. And Lewis Gordons’s philosophy of existence is deeply attuned to and critical of religious and theological currents. His work has a wonderful way of generating new insights from familiar figures. To have them together and to be in their presence would be amazing.

I think they all would admonish us to engage our faith in discerning the demonic perils and divine possibilities in this moment. And I think they might encourage us not to be afraid of the promise of a new vison for our world—even if we do not receive that promise in our lifetime. To even see them and greet them from a distance changes and deepens our faith.

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Professor Christophe Ringer’s research interests include theological and social ethics, African American religion, public theology, religion and social sciences, religion and politics, critical theory and African American religion, and cultural studies. He is particularly interested in African American religion as a site for understanding the relationship of self, society and the sacred as it concerns human flourishing. Ringer’s research currently focuses on the religious and cultural meanings that sustain and rationalize mass incarceration and other forms of social death in American public life.

Dr. Terrance Dean received his Ph.D. in Religion and African American Diaspora Studies from Vanderbilt University in June 2019. His research interests include gender, sex, sexuality, Black religion and Homiletics, rhetoric and communication, African Diaspora, Black Cultural Studies, James Baldwin, and Afrofuturism. In 2005, Dean was a John Seigenthaler Journalism Fellow from Vanderbilt University, and in 2014 he earned his Master’s in Theology from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dean is a professor in Black Studies at Denison University.

He is also the author of the Essence Magazine best-seller Hiding In Hip Hop - On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry from Music to Hollywood (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books - May 2008), including, Reclaim Your Power! A 30-Day Guide to Hope, Healing and Inspiration for Men of Color (Random House/Villard - May 2003); Straight From Your Gay Best Friend – The Straight Up Truth About Relationships, Love, and Having A Fabulous Life (Agate – October 2010); Visible Lives: Three Stories in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris, (Kensington – May 2010). In 2011, Dean made his fiction debut with his novel, MOGUL (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books – June 2011).

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