Highlights from Dr. Keri Day's 2020 interview with Miroslav Volf on racial inequity, systemic transformation, and Christian community.
In June of 2020, Americans were asked to take an honest look in the mirror. Prompted by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, what stared back was a rather unsavory reflection: a raw account of the country’s racial injustice, along history of racism and violence. It was a fraught and sobering period for many. For Christians, it raised an essential existential question.
What is the Christian responsibility in systemic transformation?
And in response, in June of 2020, Keri Day, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, joined Miroslav Volf for a conversation on the For the Life of the World Podcast. In many ways, Keri’s message is a timeless call for Christian advocacy and accountability, and is still relevant to the state of racial justice in our country today. Keri offers a reflection on the Christian responsibility to transformation, and what it might look like to redeem dangerous memories. She starts by looking to the life of Jesus.
“The death and the resurrection of Christ are really important, but what does it mean to equally give consideration to the scope of Jesus's life and whatJesus's life meant?” Keri asks. What one finds in the life of Christ, she shares, is Jesus confronting powers, both political and religious, and connecting that to today’s world is crucial to Christian work. Keri shares in example: “If we're talking about Jesus as a part of the Jewish community that was underneath Roman imperial oppression, we might ask: what are the ways in which African-Americans are underneath white American oppression today?
And you can see that I keep invoking scripture: there is something about the scriptural text that is meant for our freedom and liberation. It frees us towards a life that is lived with and for others, but it means making these connections.”
The second motivation Christians should have towards structural transformation, Keri says, is “to be the hands and feet of Christ on the earth. We are called to serve, which means that it is not simply about asking whether issues that arise are serving our interests or our present views. And in today’s case, for white communities, this is a very important point: it’s asking ‘what are the ways in which I can come into contact and engage African American folks, in ways that allow me to be shocked and surprised by their stories?’ in order to realize the inadequacies of my own thoughts about the world, and in this case about America, in relationship to their stories and experiences. And we see that surprise going on in the gospels constantly. We are shocked and surprised by what Jesus has to say about those that are seen as marginalized and oppressed and ostracized and even criminal.”
Keri’s own research and writing places emphasis on how the remaking of oneself as an individual is critical to realizing how one should participate in structural justice movements. “After we have achieved liberation or some measure of approximate liberation,” she shares, “the question becomes not just what we will do, but who we will be.”
In looking to Howard Thurman’s idea of remaking oneself, articulated in Jesus and the Disinherited, Keri warns that there is danger in the Christian remaking oneself in reflection of an oppressive image.“Thurman wanted to be clear that in the process of attempting to achieve structural justice, and in this case racial justice, that African-AmericanChristians would be equally aware that they are not remaking themselves in the image of their oppressors, that they not acquiesce to the hatred and the bitterness and the fear that really deeply affects the human personality.”
The pursuit of internal transformation is, nonetheless, essential to a Christian vision of structural change.
“I think the power of the Christian community is not only to speak but to live into this newness of life. We will really have to redeem the dangerous memories of the gospel. And when I say the gospels, I don't just mean the canonical biblical texts, but also the gospel as it has continued to be written through the early freedom struggle, during slavery and post-emancipation, and to Jim Crow. The stories not only of African Americans but of other racial minorities in this country. That's what I mean by the good news: the ways in which these communities came to understand God in their midst, that God was still a God of freedom and liberation, despite them being locked in the vicissitudes and the throes of racial class and gender oppression.”
Keri explains how memories, like the Tulsa Riot of 1921, are dangerous because they “say that there's a need for America to repent and make reparations, restore justice to what has transpired over a long history.”
“In Scriptures, God is constantly calling the children of Israel to remember. Christian communities can play a role [in structural change] because this sits right within our texts … And we can think about redeeming dangerous memories in ways that can actually contribute to conversations of freedom and liberation, and also in this moment, for example, to help white communities to see the depth of systemic racism that has been present in this nation.
It should move them to think differently, to confront their fears, to be uncomfortable and to participate in the work of racial justice. But I want to say that this is central to who we are as Christians because we are precisely aligning ourselves with the gospel mandate."
While the responsibility and opportunity to redeem dangerous memories, memories that are difficult to swallow, may prove initially upsetting to revive, Keri explains how, ultimately, this work is Christ’s work. “What we have seen in the ministry and in the life and the message of Jesus is to do justice and to articulate this newness of life that I was just talking about, which includes right relations, just relations, and caring and compassionate and inclusive relations.”
To hear more of Dr. Keri Day’s conversation with Miroslav Volf, listen to Episode 14 of For the Life of the World.