This edition of The Pastoral is Political is coming to you today because on Friday I was participating in the Vigil for Justice: People of Faith Lighting the Way here in Washington, DC. Imagine faith communities from numerous religions and traditions lining along 16th Street NW from the White House all the way to the Maryland border — a street that is itself dotted by houses of worship for nearly every religion thinkable. Yes, it was that impactful. We were there because the grand jury decisions in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner disturbed, saddened, and enraged us. I was there holding in my heart Rekia Boyd, Tarika Wilson, Tyisha Miller, and the women who have been killed by police without as much fanfare. I also carried with me those whose names I do not know and the cops out there who are trying to make a difference.
I was at the “cap end” of the vigil on the corner of 16th and H Streets across from Lafayette Square — right in view of the White House. Being on such a visible corner, I and my colleagues and new friends drew the attention of a few media outlets. One freelancer asked me and my friend, who is an associate pastor at a nearby church, why we were out there. Specifically, he wanted to know what the Church could do that government cannot in these cases. We gave him what I thought were decent answers. We told him the church can affirm the value God has placed with each and every one of us, and we can be the voices calling for justice when there is no justice. But I’ve had some time to chew on that question and I think a few days later I would answer it differently.
A certain text comes to mind right now:
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
— James 2:15-17
When I read this text, I often think about our responsibility to the poor. But in the case of injustice, the text is absolutely applicable. I as a minister cannot write or pass a law, but I can appeal to those who can. And if it is the law that is endangering the “bodily needs” of a brother or sister — i.e. their right to have a body at all — then my prayers and well-wishes are worthless if they do not move me to do everything within my power to change that which threatens them. That is why the church should care about what’s happening civilly. That is why the church must both share and voice concern when inequities in policing and governing occur. That is why the church must call our civil authorities to the carpet for their unexamined biases. That is why we must examine our own biases.
I do believe in separation of church and state. The state can’t compel anyone to have faith. The church can’t hold the state to any confessional standards or doctrinal adherences. But if the church perceives a problem that cannot be addressed without the involvement of government, then that is the time for prophetic action, not platitudinous praying.