February in the United States is a time for dialogue; a month is set aside to discuss the history of chattel slavery and the lived oppression of Black folk. This discussion often takes place in the context of the Christian religion and established practices of charity and reconciliation.
But the very necessity of a month dedicated to mere remembrance ought to be offensive to a forward-thinking Christian – we must always be actively involved in the struggle against injustice. And this struggle must move beyond conversation and memory.
As followers of Jesus as the Christ, it is our call to interrogate and stand against the continuing legacy of slavery embodied in segregation, mass incarceration, and racialized poverty. We embody the belief that all are created equal, and this belief means that our dialogues always lead to right action and lived equality.
When I was in seminary, we often spoke of the homeless that slept in our doorways or on the heating grates of Riverside Church next door as part of our community. But how was community being defined, being lived, in our faiths? The voices of those on the street outside of our dorms were not included in the conversation, and the inescapable burden of institutional privilege persisted despite our good intentions.
Paul was wrong when he sent the slave Onesimus back to his oppressor. In the Letter of Paul to Philemon, Paul expressly relies on Philemon’s status as a follower of Jesus to open his heart to releasing his slave Onesimus – or at least Paul hopes that Philemon will avoid punishing Onesimus for stealing himself to freedom and service with Paul (Phm 8-9). Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother rather than a slave (Phm 16).
This is not the way of Jesus as the Christ. The Christian God is not for everyone – the acceptance of exploitation and dehumanization is opposed to the ethical burden of our religious practice.
It is important that we are not surface Christians like Philemon – people who profess the Gospel message while still relying on privilege and inequality to make our lives easy. But it is also important that we reject the stance of Paul in this letter – we demand equality and we live it out in our daily lives.
Shared humanity is not a request.
And we refuse to rely on empathy mitigated through simple charity to restore the balance in society.
In the salutation to the letter to Philemon, Paul refers to himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus (Phm 1).” What does it mean to be bound by our beliefs? What does it mean to move beyond dialogue to accountability – even amongst those we consider our brothers and sisters in the faith?
Jesus on the cross was a living indictment of a system of mass exploitation. We may never know the full mystery of God, but we do know that the world can be ordered towards God’s will through our teaching and our enacted faith.
So this February, let us remember and lift up Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and all the others who refused to limit their solidarity to conversation. They lived their commitment to the message and promise of equality.
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.