You need to take civic action as well as have faith

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 3, 2012

These are days for bloody remembrance: of Passover slaughter and salvation; of crucifixion and Easter resurrection. In our time, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, calls for reflection on the high price paid for what progress has been made.

Spiritual leaders the world over will again tell us that through suffering and sacrifice we may find salvation, and through forgiveness we are freed from soul sickening resentment. By grace, we are redeemed.

But where is the “good news” to be found in this modern-day plague of violence being visited upon so many young black men? What will be the moral of the story of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black youth who was recently shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., by a neighborhood watch volunteer?

If recounted as a Bible story, the relentless killings would surely be cast as a threat to the future of a people, if not a nation. And yet, our most desperate pleas for justice seem to go unanswered.

“What I want and what I pray for,” wrote Charles Howard, chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Huffington Post, “is a changing of the culture around the millions of African American Trayvons . . . that allows for them to be thought of as ‘other,’ as criminals, as people up to no good.”

Back in 2008, a Pew poll on religion revealed a portrait of African Americans as extraordinarily devout people. Members of historically black churches were more likely than any other group of churchgoers to believe that the “Word of God is literally true, word for word.” And no other group was more convinced than African Americans that God would answer their prayers “at least once a week.”

Has God forsaken thee?

“I have never felt as sad and angry as I have been over these last few days,” the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of the 19th Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, told The Washington Post. “This is an assault on one of our most precious jewels and I said during the service that in America no one should be able to indict, prosecute and execute someone for the crime of being a young black man.”

At the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, T.D. Jakes, senior pastor at the Potter’s House in Dallas, told the congregation: “This is bigger than an African American issue. All Americans should be outraged that our children cannot walk the streets safely, and if they are compromised then we do not have a judicial system that swiftly brings in the same accountability as they do when they arrest us.”

What to do about it? Apparently, God only knows.

Having grown up in a Baptist church, where belief in miracles was said to be the key to Heaven’s gate, I came to realize long ago that a lot of what we hear from the pulpit is a sedating myth. Marches, candlelight vigils, laying teddy bears and flowers at the scene of a shooting have become sorrowful habits that only address symptoms of the problem.

“What I’m telling people is that you’ve got to be in the fight,” said Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, founding rabbi of the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda. I’d sought him out just to hear the struggle for justice framed in a different way. “Change does not happen miraculously. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and really get involved.”

Attacking institutional racism, making systemic change toward a more just and equitable society, requires leadership, a plan of action and sustained grass-roots participation. Tweets might come in handy; but there is no substitute for intense civic participation— voting being just the most basic. (Even though it is still a mere 44 years after King’s assassination, voting is the one right we are most likely to take for granted.)

A few Sundays ago, preachers took to their pulpits in hoodies and prayed for justice in Jesus’ name. But maybe God had already answered: Faith without works is dead.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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