Becoming the Common: Why I Got Arrested in North Carolina

I was arrested this week. This was the first time in my life that I found myself on the wrong side of the law—and it was necessary.

In North Carolina right now the Republican-controlled legislature has unleashed the most comprehensive set of right-wing draconian bills and laws that anyone in this state has ever seen. Most longtime North Carolinians will tell you that these particular politicians (including Governor McCrory) look nothing like the sensible Republicans of the past that had kept North Carolina from being fully captured in the Old South (or the old South Africa for that matter). They will tell you that these politicians are not Republicans but reactionaries who fear a multicultural progressive future for North Carolina. Whether in fact the emerging diversity of the state’s population will create a more robust democracy is an open question, but the current legislature does not seem willing to take that chance—their ideology drives them and it has driven many of us to act in unprecedented ways.

Many people have protested against the right-wing actions of our state government. I have joined those protests as well as a new organization emerging in our state, Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina (SPNC). But this week something happened to me. It was a moment of clarification. I have been writing a commentary on the Book of Acts (for the Belief series under the leadership of Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw). I was considering the words that I had written regarding Acts 4—which is the famous story of Peter and John getting arrested and thrown into jail for speaking out about the new order established by the resurrected Jesus—and an inescapable fact hit me: I must get arrested.

Reflecting on Acts 4: 1-13, I wrote in part:

Speaking holy words has serious consequences. These are not words that simply speak of God. There is nothing inherently serious or holy in God talk. The holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people. Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power.

Jesus not only spoke such words but he was such a word. He was predestined to challenge those in power and confront the powers, spiritual and human. This moment was inevitable. The disciples knew this confrontation was coming. The struggle against those in power that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well. The great illusion of followers of Jesus—especially those who imagine themselves leaders—is that they can live a path different from Jesus and his first disciples. They believe somehow that they can be loved, or at least liked, or at least tolerated—or even ignored—by those with real power in this world.

This illusion is born of the forgetfulness of location. The disciples are among common people proclaiming liberation and that violence and death are no longer the ultimate power. Jesus is risen! There from that site, holy words touch two intersecting nerves, the religious and the political. For some in power, these disciples speak heresy (Jesus is the power of God) and for others in power, these disciples speak sedition (Jesus is the power). Only criminals touch nerves at this level and receive the consequences—“So they arrested them and put them in custody… (4:3)”

Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality. Christians of the modern West have never really grasped our deep connection to the criminal mind, our mind. We should always understand ourselves as what Edward Said called “secular critics,” who unrelentingly call into question the gods of this age, that is, the prevailing social, cultural, political, economic and academic logics that support or are at ease with the status quo of grotesquely differentiated wealth and poverty, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of sublimely stubborn oppression masked inside social conventions.

Yet status quos are embodied in people with real power, the power to imprison and torture us.

Even though I felt I had no choice, getting arrested was a very big deal for me. The great prayer of my mother and father (especially my father) was twofold. First, that I would be a Christian, and second, that as a black man I would never see the inside of a jail or prison cell. They knew that such places were built really only for me. Only people like me walked the smooth path already angled toward incarcerated spaces. Like children stepping to the top of a long slide baked on a hot day, as young brothers we knew the way down. It was painful and easy.

I told my wife and my daughters that I had to get arrested in an act of civil disobedience, and I felt their anxiety and sadness. They each said they understood, but their eyes said, “Please don’t.”

I had planned to engage in this form of nonviolent civil disobedience at least two weeks before this moment but this was a more appropriate time because the clergy of our state were leading the protest, and I am one of them. After being prepared by legal volunteers and guided by the marvelous leadership of the state NAACP, and after a public rally, we who would be arrested lined up two by two and walked slowly into the legislative building. Once in the building we formed a half circle of protesters with one assignment: Sing, testify, proclaim, and demand justice for the poor and vulnerable in our state.

My esteemed colleague at Duke University Divinity School, the Rev. Dr. William C. Turner led us into the building. Dr. Turner is a man of great nobility who has been a leader of the clergy in our state as well as a leader of the faculty at Duke University. He is also a man of tremendous courage. I was surrounded by clergy and many others of great courage—but it became clear to me that acting on courage was really the wrong way of seeing what we were doing that day in the legislative building.

I thought of Acts 4: 13-32—where Peter shows boldness in the face of opposition and threats. Here again, from what I’d written:

Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation. Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale. Indeed there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus. Of course each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy.

The modern lie of individualism is most powerful when we imagine that boldness comes from within. It does not. It comes from without, from the Spirit of God. The disciples gathered together to ask for what comes from without, “Now Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness. […]” They see the threat, they pray, and they ask for boldness. This moment sets the template for the movement, for any movement that is of Jesus.

We saw it in the civil rights movement. We see it in movements today. There will always be threats because they are the central currency of this world. Threats reflect the anxieties of the powers and principalities. We should never marvel at threats. We should marvel here at the action of God witnessed in this template setting moment.

They prayed and God shook the place. Again the Holy Spirit comes and fills the disciples and they speak, but this speaking is already a joined speaking, a chorus of faith. They speak the word of God with boldness. This shaking of the Spirit is not simply a sign of power, but of pleasure. God’s excitement is evident here. Here and now God’s people are one—calling on the faith and boldness of Jesus to do the divine will. Here and now the new order confronts the old order and God sees the unfolding of divine desire in and among God’s creatures. This is the Spirit’s quivering joy exposed in the impartation of holy power.

Yet what comes to the disciples now is not simply boldness. In fact boldness is not the ultimate gift but the intensification of the common. The common is the gift realized in the Spirit.

We stood there carrying out our assignment. Then the man in charge of security stepped forward and through a bullhorn told us we were in violation of the law and if we did not disperse in five minutes we would be arrested. We tightened our ranks. Some held arms and hands. We sang. We testified. A large crowd watched and listened from the legislative balcony. The man with the bullhorn returned. “Two minutes,” he said. We prayed more. Sang more.

Then the police moved in, slowly. We could see the reluctance on their faces. They did not want to arrest a bunch of clergy and others, many of whom were clearly elderly. But the arrests began. One by one they handcuffed us with those plastic handcuffs and led us away. We never stopped speaking and even as they separated us one by one it was too late. We knew the truth—we were the common.

The rest of the evening into the early morning we were together being processed and then released until our court dates. Not everyone arrested was a clergy member, or a Christian. There were people of other faith traditions, and of no faith tradition. This was not a Christian moment, but surely a holy moment.

It was also a moment of reckoning for me. As a theologian—or as I like to say, a Christian intellectual—there comes a point when the words you write crowd into the life you live and demand that you reorganize your space or you will live in a mess. My sense is that many of us are experiencing a similar overcrowding. A world controlled by banking interests, multinational corporations, and a very powerful extremely wealthy few is an intolerable situation, and governments that love them and protect them more than the people will have to be reminded that some of us will make demands in the name of our God.

Some of us who are now heavy laden with our words—that the poor, weak, and the vulnerable must be honored and cared for—are ready to get arrested. Some of us are ready to become the common.