The Common Good

Race Wars and Mustard Seeds

This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the issuing of Emancipation Proclamation and the battle of Gettysburg. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All three moments marked major turning points in the fundamental American struggle to actualize the divine dream of life, liberty, and equality for all. That dream has been especially powerful through the struggle for African-American freedom.

From a biblical perspective, American slavery and Jim Crow segregation not only subjugated the body. For about 300 years, from Virginia’s first race-based slave laws in the 1660s to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the legal binding of black hands, feet, and mouths also bound spirits and souls. Both slavery and Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of human beings made in the image of God and forbade them from obeying God’s command to exercise Genesis 1:28 “dominion” — in today’s terms, human agency.

So, the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were cause for jubilee worship in black churches and among other abolitionists. Likewise when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, churches across the nation erupted again in worshipful jubilee.

Now, nearly 50 years after the second American Jubilee, African Americans are being stripped of dignity and constitutionally protected freedoms like we have not seen since Jim Crow.

On June 25 the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of its most effective power to protect minorities’ right to vote when it declared Section 4 of the Act unconstitutional. Section 4 lists the states that must obtain federal approval before changing their voting laws. Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority opinion:

“Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

TexasNorth Carolina, and several other states that had been covered under Section 4 quickly moved forward with state-based voter suppression campaigns. North Carolina’s, for just one example, seems designed to especially target minorities, with troubling echoes of the Jim Crow era.

Then on July 11 the House GOP pushed through a Farm Bill that split SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps) from the bill. If enacted into law, this would be the first time since 1973 that food stamp legislation will not be connected to America’s food bill. The GOP foreshadowed its intentions for the SNAP program in its 2012 Farm Bill proposal. That proposal’s drastic cuts, if enacted, would throw about 3 million people out of the program. African Americans and other people of color are at risk. The rates of unemployment and poverty are higher among African Americans and other people of color, so these communities have higher rates of SNAP collection.

Two days after the House’s SNAP decision, a jury of five white women and one Latina found George Zimmerman “not guilty” of second degree murder or manslaughter. There had been no dispute over whether Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the heart and killed him. There was no dispute over the fact that Martin was unarmed. There was no dispute over the fact that Martin had the right to be in the neighborhood. And Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, even implied that his client racially profiled Trayvon Martin. The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center recently released a study that examined racial disparity in the application of Stand Your Ground laws. They found that juries were more likely to find the killings of black people by whites “justified” than the killings of white people by blacks.

Some form of stand your ground law is now in operation in more than 30 states.

Finally, add to this onslaught the silent war on African-American communities analyzed in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, about the devastating impact of racial disparities in drug sentencing on incarceration rates in black communities. Alexander reveals one statistic that stops the heart: There are more African-American men in prison or jail and on probation or parole today than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War. This is largely due to racially disparate drug sentencing laws.

African-American freedom is under attack again. These are not days for jubilee praise. These are days of lament. These are days to search the soul to see if we have the stuff it will take to defeat this new legislative race war.

Our antebellum ancestors organized underground railroads. Our Jim Crow era forebears sang freedom songs as they filled city jails. Do we have what it takes?

Some might say we need mountains of faith to match the faith of our forebears, but Jesus said: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20, NRSV).

Many today are already placing their mustard seeds on the altar as they confront the current race war in pursuit of God’s dream. Consider Trayvon Martin’s parents, the Dream Defenders, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, and Sen. John McCain. Each has taken a public stand against Stand Your Ground. And consider Attorney General Eric Holder’s use of Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act to halt Texas’ voter suppression laws and his recent move to cut mandatory drug sentencing for low-level offenders in a new battle to ameliorate mass incarceration. And consider the 10,000 current-day saints that brought their mustard seeds to Moral Monday in Ashville, N.C., earlier this month!

All it takes is a mustard seed.

This week lay your seed on the altar and see what God does with it.

One great opportunity to move forward with a single mustard seed of faith begins this week as we launch a week-long celebration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It’s an opportunity to remember the challenges of the past and the faith of our forebears and to witness the movement of God right now. Sojourners is a proud co-host of the worship service that will kick off the week of events. If you are in the area, please join us on Wednesday evening, August 21, or make the trek to the National Mall to commemorate the 1963 March on Saturday morning, August 24.

If you’re not quite ready to march, but want to learn more, check out the new film The Butler, which premiered last weekend. The Butler was inspired by the true story of one African-American butler who served in the White House through eight presidential administrations, from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The coming days are serious. There is much at stake. Sojourners is committed to addressing these issues. Let us begin by cultivating our faith. We only need faith the size of a mustard seed and mountains will move.

This post was featured in Sojourner’s monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.

Image: Hand holdng a mustard seed, ptnphoto / Shutterstock.com

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