Reclaiming Holy Week for Racial Justice

Tonight, like so many other folks, I’ll be going to religious services to mark the start of Holy Week. Good Friday, the day in the christian tradition that Jesus was crucified. And for me, this is a day about racial justice.

At my multi-racial, queer, urban church steeped in liberation theology, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are patron saints, and Good Friday is when we mark the stations of the cross by remembering those who have died as the result of hate crimes and police violence. This inevitably results in a Big Ugly Cry for me, and I will be bringing extra tissues.

It’s a risky thing for an academic to admit having a spiritual life or a religious affiliation, but I mention it here because I think it’s important for people to know that it’s possible to be an intellectual and have a spiritual practice. I also think that we – on the academic, lefty-liberal side of the political spectrum – have ceded conversations about faith to the far-right in the U.S., and that’s at least in part, driven the culture wars.

To be clear, I don’t believe in the made-up white supremacist Jesus that Britney Cooper recently took down so well. For me, Jesus was a marginal character who was outside the power structure in every way. He was down with call-out culture long before social media and called out the Pharisees about their hypocrisy, flipped some tables and staged some protests against the 1% of his day. Ultimately, he was killed for pointing out there was injustice and that some people were benefitting from it. For me, the only kind of prayer I believe in is praying with your feet in a protest march. My decidedly not-mainstream beliefs are rooted in liberation theology.

Radical liberation theology is a theology that proposes that knowledge of God based on revelation leads necessarily to a practice that opposes unjust social and political structures.  When you include this with a specific critique of racial injustice, then you come to what Professor James Cone has called black liberation theology. When Good Friday comes each year, I think of Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011) in which he focuses on “the Christianization of lynching” as a means of social and political control.

Cross and the Lynching Tree book cover

Not unlike the way Michael Brown’s murdered body was left on display for hours in the hot August sun, the public torture and execution of black bodies were carried out by ‘good Christian folk’ who created spectacles of these killings. It is no coincidence that most of the lynchings from the late 19th to mid-20th century occurred in the Bible Belt, as white supremacy and a particular kind of white Christian identity became linked.

Cone’s challenge to his readers is this:  How do we bear witness to the power of life in the midst of a world awash in violence, lethal inequity and the impoverishment of bodies and souls? How do we celebrate life without being oblivious to those suffering on the cross or a tree?

This year, there’s a national call to action that in many ways, is a response to Cone’s challenge. The call is to make this year a Holy Week of Resistance that will:

“contribute to the manifest liberation struggles of all Oppressed Persons, beginning with Black and Brown Peoples. The love and justice ethic of an unarmed Palestinian Jew named Jesus—who was wrongfully convicted and publicly executed by the empire—spurs us to resist state violence that targets Black and Brown lives today.”


The conversation about this call to action is happening, in large part, via a Twitter hashtag #ReclaimHolyWeek.There are several street actions, including two in New York City this afternoon – one at Union Square, the other at One Police Plaza.

An organizer of #ReclaimHolyWeek, Jorge Juan Rodriguez V, explains some of the rationale behind this effort:

Every 28 hours police murder a Black body without any consequence for the killer and yet we who celebrate Palm Sunday continue talking about palms instead of protest. Along the United States-Mexico border countless children are detained, women raped, and individuals killed by border patrol without any record of injustice and yet those of us who celebrate the Last Supper continue raising our forks instead of our fists. In the last four years our government has launched more drone strikes than ever in the history of this country, killing hundreds of innocents, and yet those of us who celebrate Good Friday continue singing hymns instead of halting traffic on the streets. Over the last two years progress achieved on voting rights has been almost completely repealed and yet those of us who celebrate Easter continue searching for eggs instead of equality. We of faith cannot continue to be distracted by the injustice that occurs around us and cater the message of Holy Week to serve of our comfortable living.

As Mavis Staples, sings “my god is a freedom god…”

May your holy week be filled with justice and peace.

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