When American congressman John Lewis died last summer, he was honoured by leaders across the political spectrum and around the world. In various tributes that poured in for the civil rights icon and champion of racial justice, many recalled Lewis’ famous quote, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
In the face of systemic racism and unjust structures, thank God for those who get into good and necessary “trouble”. Some of us in the diocese recently attended the annual White Privilege Conference and heard stories of good troublemakers. One was a young Black woman named Bree Newsome. On June 27, 2015, 10 days after a White supremacist shot and killed nine Black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome climbed a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of the South Carolina Capitol to remove a Confederate flag. As she made her way back down with the flag clenched in her hand, she recited the words of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”, and “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Bree Newsome was arrested when she got to the bottom of that flagpole, but within two weeks of her “troublemaking”, the Confederate flag was removed for good from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.
As disciples of Jesus, how do we stir up “good trouble” as we strive for justice and peace among all people and seek to respect the dignity of every human being? Certainly there are those like Bree Newsome who acted with courage and conviction, even breaking the law and facing the consequences. Others are allies and advocates, standing alongside those in the struggle.
At the White Privilege Conference, we explored another way of stirring up good trouble: being co-conspirators. To be a co-conspirator means more than allyship or advocacy. A co-conspirator is someone who is right there in the thick of it with those who are conspiring. In the case of Bree Newsome, a co-conspirator was a young White man named James Tyson. As Newsome climbed the flagpole in her helmet and climbing gear, police officers approached and considered their options. According to reports, Tyson heard them talking about using a Taser on the flagpole, which would send an electric current up the metal pole and send Bree Newsome crashing down to the ground. So, Tyson reached out and grabbed hold of the pole with his hand, believing that the police would not use their Tasers with a White man holding onto it. When Newsome got to the bottom, Tyson was arrested alongside her. He didn’t just stand at a distance and keep a supportive watch as an ally or advocate might. He put himself on the line. For those who seek to dismantle racism and other forms of bias, it’s not good enough to just stand at a distance and agree. We must take risks, get involved, and become co-conspirators.
The word “conspiracy” comes from the Latin words “con” and “spire” – “breathe together”. We have just celebrated the Day of Pentecost, when the risen Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples (John 20:22). According to the Book of Acts, early followers of Jesus from various places and in different languages came together in one great chaotic, Spirit-fueled conspiracy, so that the saving work of God in Christ might be known, lived and shared. (Acts 2)
Is it not time for a new conspiracy? Does our Church and world not cry out to conspire for justice for those who are marginalized, disregarded, treated with contempt and violence? Can we breathe together so that there will not be another Black man crying out, as George Floyd did a year ago, “I can’t breathe”?
History shows that this work will not be accomplished easily. Racism and bias are woven deeply into the fabric. That’s why we need good troublemakers and co-conspirators, who will not rest until God’s justice rolls down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)
This spring, we have begun to roll out the Foundations of Anti-Bias and Anti-Racism workshops within the diocese. The College of Bishops, Chancellors and Dean attended these two-day training sessions in May, the Synod Office staff will do so in June, and then members of Diocesan Council in September. Later this year, the training will come to all clergy and parishes across the diocese. As the Diocesan Diversity Officer, I ask you to please make this training a priority when it becomes available to you. It’s a step along the way, but an important one as we take up the work of troublemakers and co-conspirators in the transformation of our Church and world.