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Rhythms for Resistance ~ Nii Addo Abrahams

Recently, a video appeared online of a UW-Madison student making some racist remarks. In the wake of the video’s release, students on campus launched a number of responses: protests, demands of the administration, a petition calling for the student’s expulsion, and more. This incident has also re-energized the ongoing conversation about what universities should and must do when students engage in harmful and discriminatory behavior.

I have my own opinions about how the university can and should respond, particularly in light of the robust list of demands produced by the Black Power Coalition. Those opinions are not the purpose of this letter; neither are the specifics of the video. Rather, I am writing because I think there is an opportunity in this moment for us to consider together how we can establish faithful and sustainable rhythms for resistance – the kind that can serve us beyond the present moment.

Let me first be abundantly clear. Racism and white supremacy – in all their insidious forms – are deplorable. I remain committed to speaking out against these systems of oppression and resisting them in a holistic and embodied way. I am also grateful that I serve in a context where these commitments are shared by my colleagues and many of the students who are part of our community. You can see some of the ways we engage these commitments on our Justice page. I emphasize some because this page is only a snapshot; if you are a part of this community, you know there are countless conversations and shared experiences not represented there.

I hold these commitments not merely because I am a black person whose life is made precarious by the realities of systemic oppression. I also hold them because I am a Christian. I believe claiming and being claimed by this name – “Christian” – means I am called to resist the powers in this world that prevent us from experiencing “abundant life” (John 10:10). Racism and white supremacy are undoubtedly two of these powers, and because I personally believe they are some of the most insidious of the lot, I spend a lot of my time considering what it means to effectively resist them. And because I am a Christian, I turn to my tradition’s stories to help me.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked the crowds, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:3, 5). The difference in size between a speck and a log is not important (that is, the point of this saying is not to suggest that whatever is inside of us is worse than what is inside of someone else). What matters is that a person with a log in their eye probably cannot see well enough to be very helpful to someone else. And in a world where racism and white supremacy are at work, all of us have a log in our eye. These powers have affected all of us, even as far down as how we imagine justice and accountability. White supremacy, for example, teaches all of us that shame and scapegoating are effective tools for dealing with folks who cause harm to others. Racism teaches us that the decisions people make are inextricably linked with their bodies, such that even our mistakes are statements about who we are in the core of our being. We may not find ourselves uttering racial slurs on camera, but each of us must reckon with the ways that even our instincts about justice and accountability are shaped by the systems we want to dismantle.

The black feminist poet Audre Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Christians who are serious about resisting racism and white supremacy need to think critically about the tools we use in our resistance. Shame, scapegoating, and punishment are remarkably effective tools, but they are the master’s tools. They are not actually capable of building the future we want for ourselves and for those who will come after us. Lorde would say that “they may temporarily allow us to beat [the master] at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change.” Ultimately, they will reproduce the systems we want to dismantle.

Instead, our response in moments of mass mobilization must be rooted in the principles of the future we want to build. For me, those principles emerge from my faith tradition. They are principles – or, to carry on Lorde’s metaphor, tools – like grace, mutuality, vulnerability, and prophetic witness. These are definitely not the master’s tools! They are powerful – perhaps even more than the master’s – but they are also unwieldy and slow. It takes a lot of practice before we can use them quickly and effectively.

This means that the work of resisting racism and white supremacy starts long before the moment of mobilization. We need to remove the logs from our eyes, but we also need to get clear about the values and principles that ground our being. We need to dream collectively about the kind of world we desire and get familiar with the tools within our tradition that can build it. These rhythms of intentional self-reflection, discernment, and imagination are critical to sustained, holistic, and embodied resistance – and they take time. Don’t let the speed of the news cycle fool you. This is literally the work of a lifetime.

And when the moment of mobilization finally comes, we do not abandon these rhythms for the sake of speed; instead, we fall even deeper into them. Let’s get practical and specific for a moment. For me, when it seems like it’s time to mobilize around a particular incident or issue, falling deeper into these rhythms means I need to do something to regulate my body – a bike ride, deep breaths, a long walk, etc. – so that I can think clearly. I then need to ask myself some serious questions about myself and my motivations. Why do I feel compelled toward this particular action? What will I be producing or reproducing by participating? How is this an extension of my faith? Only after I have answered these questions honestly am I ready to act.

These rhythms will become more natural the more we practice them. Our bodies have good memories, and they learn what faithful answers to these kinds of questions feel like. But there will never be a time when the moment is so urgent that we would be better off abandoning our rhythms. Jesus modeled this for us when, on the night of his betrayal, he went off to pray “as was his custom” (Luke 22:39) despite knowing he was about to enter into the worst hours of his life (Luke 22:14-23). We remain true to our rhythms so that we are always picking up the right set of tools.

Unfortunately, this moment will not be the last time we need to think together about how we respond to injustice with integrity and faithfulness. So know that we are here for you on this journey. At Pres House, we have resources to help you practice these rhythms. You can explore our Justice resources or reach out to us with questions about how to start or pivot to something new. And as we walk together, I pray that your life and faith will be sustained by rhythms that lead to faithful resistance.

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