American Baptist Home Mission Societies held their 2022 Space for Grace conference in Kansas City last week. The theme of “Testify!” speaks to the need in these times for diverse voices sharing genuine, honest dialogue about issues of Christian leadership, discipleship and justice.
The theme was built upon 2 Corinthians 4:6-9, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not destroyed.”
Numerous speakers discussed a variety of topics, from living in a post-institutional world to the importance of self-care after the pandemic. Neichelle R. Guidry, dean of the chapel and director of the WISDOM Center at Spelman College, preached about Hagar, reminding the audience that there was “water in the wilderness” because God never forsakes divine promises.
Eddie Glaude Jr., James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, challenged listeners who are facing the moral dilemma of our time with the question, “What choice will you make?”
Glaude went further: “We suffer from national schizophrenia. We are not who we say we are. We know the folks who stormed the capitol on January 6, because we live beside them.”
“We cannot afford to remain silent any longer regarding these dangerous matters because our silence is complicity,” he concluded, ending with one of his father’s favorite sayings, “Son, these white folks have lost their damn minds.”
However, the most intriguing speaker of the week was Miguel De La Torre, professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at the Iliff School of Theology. De La Torre told participants, “I am told to speak truth to power, but it’s a waste of time. The powerful know what they should do but they continue to refuse to do it.”
He continued, “And when I speak truth to power, I am called an angry Latino anyway. So, I am here to speak to the powerless to free us from our colonized mind.”
Reflecting on De La Torre’s comments, I am reminded how Jesus balanced speaking truth to power with speaking and relating to the powerless.
Along with his “brood of vipers” condemnation of the religious leaders, he worked even harder at getting to know people and empowering them with his message.
In John 6:35, Jesus told listeners, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In addition, while the powerful conspired to execute Jesus, Jesus left his message and mission with his followers, empowering them with his spirit to enable transformative change. Therefore, De La Torre’s comments follow the example of Jesus.
While we continue speaking truth to power, we should have learned by now that we will never ultimately win the argument against powerful, global systems but only slightly bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
Thus, the best way to advocate for justice and enact real change is to speak truth to the powerless. De La Torre contends that the powerless have more desperation than hope, and desperation is the real catalyst for change.
Hope has been used by the powerful to falsely offer utopian rewards. For example, the mythology of the Protestant work ethic perpetuates the lie that if everyone works hard enough, then everyone will be healthy and prosperous. This has never been the case, and it never will be.
Desperation, on the other hand, is feared by powerful systems and people. Desperate people engage in desperate acts. Why else would a migrant father and mother take their children across lands filled with environmental and human dangers? They are desperate to flee life-threatening war, failing economies and dwindling resources.
De La Torre went even further, suggesting that there are times when desperate people must break unjust laws in order to advocate for justice and survival. Jesus even suggested it: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Similarly, the late civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis inspired emerging generations with the challenge, “There are times to get into good trouble.”
It’s time for a change! The winds of darkness swirl about the world these days, as Christian nationalism and authoritarian populism are taking root.
People of good faith must come together not only to denounce these movements, but also to break unjust systems that continue oppressing people around the world.
The world is desperate. From the catastrophe of climate change to raging wars and violence, the time is now to stand up, speak out and step forward. Desperate righteousness calls out unjust systems, confronts the powerful and mobilizes the powerless for real change.
While we may never win against the powerful systems of this world, we can raise a little hell – or in the case of Jesus, a little heaven – while we’re here. Are you with me?
CEO of Good Faith Media.