Anger, Awakening, Action – A Message from Dean Moore
Dear Beloved Community,
I cannot remember a time when I was angrier than I am today after the criminal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, combined with the overwhelming despair expressed in streets across the United States. My anger is deepened by the use of militarized tactics to “dominate” human beings who protest for justice, even the large majority, who protest peacefully. All of these appalling events heighten other deadly realities: inequities in health care access; devastations of COVID-19 and its disproportionate effects on people of color; and staggering job losses. People are hurting, and the United States systems and deeply engrained racism are multiplying that hurt.
Anger. What can we do with our anger? Consider the story in Matthew 21 when Jesus “drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (21:12, NRSV).[i] Jesus was angry, and not at people who offended him personally but at the very system that allowed money-changing and economic abuses of many people, even within the Temple. Quoting scripture, he argued: “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers” (13). The money changers contributed to injustices that were hurting human lives and violating the house of worship. Jesus directed his anger to a corrupt, destructive system, not to people against whom he held a personal or racial grudge. If you read one more verse in Matthew following up on this story, you see that Jesus then turned to healing: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them” (14). Jesus did not stop at being angry but went immediately into acts of healing, which sadly evoked the anger of others (a tale for another day).
Jesus’ response to the practice of money-changing in the Temple illumines the power of anger to address real and Holy concerns. Today is a good day to be angry about things that really matter, as Jesus did. It is a day to claim “the power of anger in the work of love,”[ii] as espoused by Beverly Harrison, Emilie Townes, and many other ethicists. Anger is Holy when it is addressed to wrongs against God and God’s people and creation. It is powerful when it is not a stopping place, but a starting place toward “never again” – toward healing broken lives and broken systems!
Awakening. If anger is to be powerful in the work of love, it needs to awaken people to the realities of abuse and suffering endured by persons of color. This is hard work, and even more so for people of white privilege (like me) and/or any kind of privilege. People distanced by privilege need to listen long and hard to recognize the brutal actions of many individual police officers and of militarized systems of policing wherever they exist. We need to listen to the hard realities of discrimination in health care and housing; abuses of immigrants; and racial slams in streets, stores, schools, and homes. Awakening requires hours and days and a lifetime of listening to the voices of people who are aching and terrified for their lives and those of their children. Awakening means that we come to know George Floyd and his family as people whose lives are more than symbols; they have meaning. Stories from Houston, TX, reveal Floyd as a peacemaker in the streets of the Third Ward, where he lived most of his life.[iii] We need to hear these stories to encounter the humanness of every victim – every person.
We have so much to learn! We need to awaken to countless incidents of protestors trying to protect their peaceful demonstrations from the aggressive acts of counter-protesters. We need to hear the despairing cries of those who engage in destructive actions, and to analyze the “domination rationale” of releasing gas and rubber bullets into a peaceful crowd. We need to awaken to the complexities, so we can respond with empathy, even toward the despairing, destructive actions that we seek to end. Without empathy, our responses to those actions will never lead to real change, and despair will continue.
Action. Anger and awakening are still not enough. The world in which we live is far more violent than we can grasp, and words, like these words in my letter, are empty if they are not connected to action. I hope that we in the Boston University School of Theology community (STH), near and far, can listen deeply and be challenged; engage in advocacy and service; and change actions of our daily lives to build just relationships with individuals and communities of all races, economic situations, abilities, sexual orientation, and gender identities. As some have said in these days, actions need to be specific to contribute to real change, and we need to change our actions as we listen ever-more deeply. Whether you are students, pastors, leaders in social service, public advocates, lawyers, police, medical professionals, teachers, neighbors, or family members, you can be agents of change. We really cannot let systemic racial violence continue to destroy our society and precious human beings loved by God. We need to undo the system of violence with justice and to de-escalate violence rather than meet violence with more violence. You will find suggestions for action on the STH website, and on others, such as this resource for white people. Please offer your own wisdom and proposals on STH social media and in your other circles. We need to hear the community’s concerns and wisdom!
I know my words are inadequate and unavoidably distorted by my whiteness. Small actions are also inadequate, but they can create movements for change, especially if we join with friends and strangers in our unique and shared work. Even as we recognize our limits, we can direct our anger to the work of love, to awakening, and to action. God does not ask us to save the world, but merely to give ourselves to the world-loving, world-saving work that is God’s. I pray that you can draw living water from your own deep wells of faith for the sake of revolutionary and lasting justice, powered by love.
Mary Elizabeth Moore
Dean and Professor of Theology and Education
Boston University School of Theology
[i] See also Luke 19:45-46.
[ii] Beverly W. Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. xxxvi (1981), 41-57.
[iii] One example of this kind of coverage can be found in Kate Shellnutt, “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston,” Christianity Today, May 28, 2020, available at https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html?fbclid=IwAR2Rq0o-QGZF1TxOo3C2EH5DBnsMUKHf12U7JHTxuAhjS22PeMMKR7_1rtE (accessed May 30, 2020).