A theology of resistance: PICO National Network conference explores the ethics of justice

November 2, 2017 | Indianapolis Recorder | Link to Article


Left to right: Rev. Michael McBride, pastor at The Way Church in Oakland, California, involved in gun violence and mass incarceration programs; Linda Sarsour, Muslim-American activist; Rosa Clemente, Afro-Puerto Rican activist, community organizer and independent journalist; Bree Newsome, activist, American filmmaker and musician who removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds; Rev. Jin S. Kim, pastor at Church of All Nations in Minnesota and founder of the Underground Seminary; and Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, noted activist, theologian, author, musician and documentary filmmaker from St. Louis, Missouri, form a panel to discuss Reorganizing Faith Movement Landscapes during the Prophetic Resistance Summit held at the downtown Indianapolis JW Marriott hotel. (Photo/Jerome Brewster)

When nine Black churchgoers were murdered by a white supremacist inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Brittany “Bree” Newsome made national headlines after climbing a 30-foot flagpole to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol. Newsome, the daughter of a Baptist minister, says it was her faith that drove her to action. She is a dedicated Christian who recommitted herself to the faith in 2012. 

“I was at a point where I was like ‘God, You know everything that I want for my life, but I want You to show me what You want for my life.’ I made a decision to devote more of myself to things outside of myself,” explained Newsome. 

Two years later, Newsome watched in horror as news of the massacre at the historic church unfolded. Her ancestors founded a church shortly before the Civil War began. Coming from a long line of parishioners, the news hit close to home.

“The pastor, a Black state legislator, murdered by a white supremacist, as his casket is being paraded through the streets the American flag is at half staff, the state flag is at half staff, and the Confederate flag is at full mass,” explained Newsome. “If you know what it is to live by the Spirit, you know what it is to be moved to do something. There are some things that have a clear right and wrong. What happened at Emanuel was a spiritual evil, and the focus on a flag and (a law that required the flag be raised) as opposed to the lives that were lost, opposed to the things in our society that contributed to that loss was also an evil, I would argue, an idolatry.” 

Last week, Newsome visited Indianapolis to share her story at the Prophetic Resistance Summit, an initiative of PICO National Network that allowed faith leaders from across the country to come together in a multi-faith discourse to look at what it means to oppose “spiritual evil” in 2017. Hundreds of individuals took part in the three-day conference to find new ways to put their faith into action.

Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, director of clergy organizing with PICO, says the conference was “the culmination of a conversation” that many faith leaders have been having within the network.

“Since Trayvon Martin, since Ferguson, there have been lots of conversations about the theological and ethical imperatives of our work. A theology of resistance is about exploring the ways our spiritual traditions inform our decision to resist dominant narratives about people of color and poor people, and being clear about the ways in which we are countering those narratives while building faith communities.”

The PICO Network is a nonpartisan and multicultural faith-based movement for justice, and members of more than 40 faith traditions are part of the organization. IndyCAN, Indianapolis’ chapter of PICO, communicates with more than 20 congregations across central Indiana. Mathews says having a diversity of perspectives and voices at the table is key to creating lasting change.  

“It’s not about putting our differences aside. If we just chose to put differences aside, we would lose the power of what these diverse spiritual traditions bring to the conversation. We choose to lean into the power of our diversity, we figure out how to respect the differences,” said Mathews. 

During the conference, the group organized a meeting with IMPD Police Chief Bryan Roach to discuss mass incarceration, mental health, substance abuse and police training. 

Juard Barnes, the Live Free director with IndyCAN, says the topics he shared with IMPD were personal to him.

“Having been incarcerated, having been in seminary one day and a felon the next, I realized there are people who have issues in their lives that don’t merit them sitting in jail,” said Barnes. “I was put in handcuffs, and it was a rough situation, and I was in there feeling helpless and hopeless. There has to be someone to go upstream and catch the people throwing babies in the water.”

Mathews feels working to improve the lives of those who need it the most should be high on every person of faith’s agenda. 

“I follow the teachings of a man who spent his life outside, in the community, with those close to the pain and was calling for a change,” said Mathews.

When it comes to practical application, Barnes says individuals can support policies that uplift the community and to speak up in defense of people who are being targeted. 

“I would like to see people voting. Last year, we did phone banks for 12 weeks to move families to the polls in support of mass transportation. I would also like to see people talking to one another and changing the narrative from ‘lock them up, put them away, these people are lazy’ to a narrative that says ‘people have value, redemption can happen.’”