“This is What Theology Looks Like”: Disrupting a Crucifying System

Protesters have taken to the streets this season to disrupt a system which perpetually declares black and brown lives less than human—a system that thrives on Wall Street, in congress, in institutions of higher education, and even in churches.

Many pastors, congregants, seminarians, and faith leaders have taken to the streets in solidarity with protestors. Along with “Black lives matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” these faith leaders have also chanted a powerful phrase: “This is what theology looks like.”

From Ferguson to New York City this phrase has been invoked—and its declaration demands to be unpacked, for within its rhythmic syncopation enacted in a physical protest lies a prophetic challenge for faith communities in this country’s moment of racial/ethnic crisis.

In marching in solidarity with those communities directly affected by police brutality and systemic racism—including the very communities of many faith leaders marching—this chant draws attention to a physical disruption. Moving away from an academic or interpersonal discourse, these leaders declare that the theological enterprise—the study, understanding, and enactment of God—does not only happen while we sit in a classroom or in the pews of a congregation.

Understanding and invoking the divine occurs when our bodies are disrupting the status quo. When faith leaders declare “This is,” they refer to shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge, “dying in” at Penn Station, or disrupting “business as usual” during the system’s iconic celebrations: Black Friday or the Rockefeller Center’s tree lighting.

To do theology is to disrupt the system by organizing, tweeting, marching, and protesting.

For those of us from the Christian tradition this ought not be surprising. The zenith of the Christian narrative is the death of an innocent, unarmed black man who declared his inability to breathe as he asked God why God had forsaken him. Yet what forsook the Christ was a system that allowed the state to justify the death of an innocent man and crucify him at the hands of soldiers following orders. It was a system that understood his death as “business as usual.”

The physical resurrection of Jesus, then, was an embodied declaration that this black life mattered. This prophetic claim was not enacted in an academy or a temple, however; it was embodied in the streets as people witnessed a physical disruption—and those in power ran scared.

We march in solidarity, chanting “This is what theology looks like!” because every time we disrupt business as usual with our presence we are refusing to let the system forget the lives of those it has crucified.

For those of us who are Christian, the heart of our theology rests in physical disruption of the racist, white-supremacist system which sees the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Aiyana Jones, Tarika Wilson, Tamir Rice, Jesus Christ and of countless other black and brown lives as “business as usual.”

Theology happens when we offer our bodies in solidarity with the oppressed, disrupting the systems that perpetuate oppression: this is what theology looks like.

  • There is an interesting discussion on the LinkedIn group Interfaith Professionals about the question of politics and faith on discussion boards there. It was triggered by a discussion of the CIA torture reports which led to over 100 comments, and virulent comments on both sides of the debate. We see the mixing of politics and religion in this country all the time, and when something is criminally wrong, people, all people not just people of faith, must speak out and demand a stop to it. It is a moral and ethical imperative for us all to do so, regardless of color, religion, gender, or ethnic origins.

    This article seems to imply that it is a matter of putting our beliefs into practice, and in part that is correct. It is also about being decent citizens who must speak out when the system is wrong, regardless of faith. What I find so surprising about the protests about police brutality, is not that they happened, but that they have not happened before when Muslim Americans or people mistaken for them have been brutalized by police or gangs, when gays who have been attacked by both gangs and police, when police are killed by white supremacists, or when elections are stolen from the people so that tyranny gets a foothold in America which will threaten the religious beliefs of many because they are not Christians.

    We have lots of reasons for putting our theology to work to fight a variety of wrongs, and yet most of us sit silently by unless it affects us directly. Perhaps it is not just theology that needs to look like this, but citizenship at its very core. Our Revolutionary Founding Fathers and Mothers, the ones who actually fought the war, took to the battlefields to allow us the right to demand better of our government and its systems, not for religious reasons, but for political ones. We have abandoned those principles, and until we take up the banner of those principles, theology alone will never carry the day. The Religious Right understands this, why don’t the rest of Americans? Unless of course you want a Christian theocratic state. Otherwise, you had better be on those protest lines and be prepared to fight.

  • pennyjane

    “becoming a victim is as easy as falling off a log, most of us do it often. remaining a victim is a matter of choice.” let us choose to not remain victims of our broken society, be it in the name of faith, or politics or simple human dignity. let us not only be the change, let us proclaim the change for all.

  • kev hurls

    Hold-on, sister. “(R)emaining a victim is a matter of choice” sounds terribly right-winged to me. Very simple-minded. Very ignorant. Oh – forgive me – I just saw in Devon Noll’s commentary that she credits the religious right with understanding being a victim. I shake my head. I’ll not waste any time on you 2.

  • Jonathan Dogey

    If you’re going to be a thug, if you’re going to be a law breaker, and especially if you’re going to resist arrest, you should expect to encounter problems in your life. The narrative of these stories, whether it’s Trayvon, or brown or any other, they are people who presented a threat, were breaking the law, resisting arrest. This race hustling is the most despicable type of dishonesty and has led to chaos and violence. These cases aren’t about race at all. Anyone who has done any research on them would know this.

  • It has always interested me that the right read “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, Render unto God…” as an endorsement a.) of political authoritarianism and b.) of empty religiosity. The imperial police state surrounding the whited sepulchre, so to speak.

    It seems to me more sensible to assume that “Render unto Caesar…” means pay close attention to the things of this world, e.g. use the best science you can get to figure out what’s going on. Then, too, maybe it’s better to help Caesar pay the bills, lest he do it out of Marius’s silver supply and whatever he’s stolen elsewhere lately.
    “Render unto God that which is God’s” is a little more difficult, but if one assumed that everything were God’s, then one would perhaps have some responsibility to look after it.

    -dlj.

  • Rick Wagner

    To in anyway equate someone involved in resisting arrest or being questioned by police with the arrest of Jesus is poor exegesis.It is an illustration of not acknowledging that Jesus never resisted arrest, the authority of the “police” nor did he try to use any physical force or action which would cause the “policeman” who were there to arrest him to be concerned for their safety. Remember, it was Jesus who stopped the violent reaction by his own followers.
    Incarnational theology is the only theology that demonstrates a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the world. I have no problem with that belief.
    I do have a problem with the false exegetical interpretation of the author’s understanding of what occrred in the arrest of Jesus.

  • Rmj

    I would challenge your exegesis.

    Jesus “resisted” the power of Rome, which is why he was crucified. Pilate didn’t give a wet snap what the Jewish authorities wanted, and they wouldn’t have gone to Rome to punish a heretic (or whatever crime Jesus supposedly committed against the ruling Jewish powers). Pilate acted to enforce the Pax Romana. The arrest of Jesus was a display of overwhelming force. Yes, Jesus stopped the violent reaction of one of his followers, according to one of four accounts.

    That doesn’t lead to the conclusion what Jesus was cool with crucifixion, or the death penalty, or the authority of the state, especially a “pagan” state like the Roman Empire.

  • Rmj

    Any one who has done any research on this would know you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Jim Reed

    Or that is what Humanism looks like. Theology is a little more complicated.

  • Jim Reed

    I think the Monte Python movie was a better portrayal of the events of that time. The Jesus part was just the story added by Christians a few generations later.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    It seems that the author does not know the meaning of the word ‘theology’. Theology is the systematic, philosophical exploration of the concept of God, his attributes, and religious principles amenable to rational analysis. What the author describes is social activism, which is hardly the same thing, although it may *follow* from a particular theological stance or stances.

  • Jonathan,

    I won’t insult you by calling those mistakes: I don’t think you’re really too stupid to know that you’re lying.

    -dlj.

  • Crusader63

    What saddens me is that the focus of those engaged in the public discussion are more focused on winning the argument than on solving the problem. Invariably, these situations involve fallible humans deeply engaged in emotional and terrifying situations behaving in a way that humans behave in such situations. Whether the human is named Trayvon being followed by a guy named George, or a guy named Michael being stopped by a guy named Darren, or a guy named George who believes a guy named Trayvon seems suspicious, or a guy named Darren who is fighting for control of a gun with that guy named Michael…it remains that each of these tragedies transpired in the midst of an episode that need not have occurred if either of the parties involved had taken a different course of action at some point earlier in the episode. George, why are you out following someone around your neighborhood? Trayvon, why are you mounting and punching some guy for following you? Darren, why don’t you carry a non-lethal alternative on your hip? Michael, why would you try to grab a police officer’s gun? Testosterone is a powerful force; but rage is rarely a good companion. We train our adolescents how to read, write, add, and subtract. We teach them to kick, punch, throw, and tackle. But we don’t teach how to avoid, deescalate, negotiate, and resolve conflicts. Those subjects should be taught as rigorously as any other in schools.

  • Rob Kline

    If theology is the study of the divine, then wouldn’t a theologian want to be where they see the divine present and working? Would you blame a volcanologist for showing up at an active volcano or blame the volcanologist for declaring, “this is what volcanology looks like”?

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    We don’t get to reinvent the meanings of words. Words have their meaning by way of customary use. And the word theology, means what I said. Thus, “doing theology” is engaging in the study of theology. It is not engaging in social activism.

    I never said that pastors shouldn’t engage in social activism. I said that doing so does not constitute “theology.” I *do* find it somewhat disturbing that a pastor doesn’t know the meaning of the word — I would probably seek out a smarter pastor, myself, if I was a Christian — but that is neither here nor there.

    Let’s just put it this way. My Rabbi engages in plenty of social activism. But if you asked her, “Is handing out meals to old people “doing theology”?” she’s say “No.”

  • Rob Kline

    We do get to reinvent the meanings of words. We do it all the time. Further, as a post post-modernist I frequently look at words and their past, present, and future possibilities of meaning and use. So, I stand by my post and suggest you liberalize your notions of language.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Certainly the meanings of words change over time. But, as per Wittgenstein, this is a matter of public changes in rules, not private, individual fiat, which is what I was speaking to.

  • Rob Kline

    Nor was I speaking of personal fiat. Although I have no problems with those either, at times. The idea of theology being more than the traditional “study” of theosophy and doctrine has been around for years. I learned about a living/doing theology way back in seminary in the late 90’s. So the idea and a re-defining of the word is hardly novel or personal.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I was not aware that this had become a common way of speaking in seminary circles. I appreciate your educating me.

  • Rob Kline

    It came from all the Gen X’ers hitting religious and seminary programs. LOL

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I’m embarrassed for my generation. Seems to me that this makes a mess of language.

  • Collin237

    It’s not about exegesis; it’s about existentialism. There is no historical evidence that Jesus existed, but his story is just as sacred nonetheless. The original hashtag of this protest was #BlackLivesMatter. Since it doesn’t matter whether there was a real Jesus, it’s a direct attack against the hashtag — and thus against the protest itself — to include Jesus among the list of real Black people.