"Political Power: From Protest 2 Politics" Sermon from Sunday, August 9
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Political Power: From Protest 2 Politics"
Movement for Black Lives Series
Scripture: Genesis 37
Today is a day of two important remembrances. One I named in the opening words of today’s service, the commemoration of the bombing of Nagasaki, which happened 75 years ago today. The other is the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri six years ago on August 9, 2014. Michael Brown, as you’ll recall, was an unarmed African-American young man, weeks away from starting community college. He was 18 years old. He was shot by a police officer and though his death was close to instantaneous, he lay in the street and was not taken by ambulance for over four hours while the people of his community surrounded him in mourning and outrage.
Michael Brown’s death sparked an uprising against the racism throughout the system of policing in St. Louis county and the inhumanity that would allow a young man to lie bleeding in the street for hours. The response was both a protest and a declaration that not just reform but a whole new reality was necessary. From the night Brown was murdered on August 9, night after night, the Ferguson Front Line, as the activists who led the protests were called, took to the streets making clear that the crisis wasn’t over and their demands must be met. These activists made national news and their courage and insistence on a transformed world fueled the Movement for Black Lives that spread across the nation.
One of the activists on the Ferguson Front Line night after night was Cori Bush, African American pastor, nurse, single mom and activist. In last week’s sermon I talked about the worship service I preached in as part of the inaugural conference of the Truth Telling Project in St. Louis, set up to take testimony by persons of color who had been harmed by state sanctioned and police violence. Cori also preached that day but I learned after the service, had not expected much from me, a white clergywoman.
In my remarks that day, I shared about an experience on the streets in which the Black woman beside me and I were in an exchange with a white male police officer. The situation escalated, and the officer moved to touch my companion’s shoulder. The scene quickly became much more dangerous and loaded for her than for me. In my sermon, I addressed the centuries of traumatic history of white men and Black women’s bodies.
Afterwards, Pastor Cori said, “You surprised me. I can’t believe you went there. You don’t know how much this means, for a white woman to say that, and for white clergy…it means a lot.” I don’t share this experience to lift up how great or woke I am, but just to say it was a moment of grace and connection, and Cori and I began to text every now and then, words of support, reminders of that moment of grace.
The next year, Cori decided to run for the US Senate. Her candidacy stunned many since she did not have any experience in politics. But she felt called. She ran her first campaign and was defeated, but learned a lot. Her grassroots support continued to grow. Two years later in 2018, she ran for Congress against the nine term congressman in her district. and was defeated again. Her hashtag became #fromprotest2politics.
Today we continue our series on the platform of the movement for Black Lives with a focus on the platform piece of Political Power which states,
“We demand independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society. We envision a remaking of the current U.S. political system in order to create a real democracy where Black people and all marginalized people can effectively exercise full political power.”
Independent political power and self-determination has always been the goal of a free people and the desire of God who created us in freedom. Our scripture today from Genesis tells an early piece of the story of Joseph. Joseph of course was the son of Jacob and the great grandson of Abraham. Abraham was an immigrant to the land of Canaan, having travelled there on instruction by God. He was considered a resident alien and even as his family began to grow, their status in this land was tenuous.
Joseph was one of many brothers, you will recall. When he was 17, he was sold into slavery by his brothers. Scripture tells us there were many reasons his brothers didn’t like him—he was reportedly their father’s favorite, he had this flashy coat given to just him by their father, and God had gifted him with the ability to interpret dreams. At one point, Joseph told his family of several dreams he had wherein it seemed like fields of wheat and the sun and the moon were bowing down to him. His brothers feared that he would subjugate them and rule over them. And so when given the opportunity, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. The traders who bought Joseph sold him to Potiphar, an Egyptian captain of the royal guard.
Through a series of events while enslaved in Egypt that included being falsely accused of assault and imprisoned, Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams came to the attention of the Pharaoh. Pharaoh could see how useful this ability was to ruling and elevated Joseph to be the second in command of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Second in command may seem like political power. Joseph had the ear of Pharaoh. He lived in the palace grounds. He spent time with others in the royal court. But was this really political power?
During the time that Joseph acted as second in command to Pharaoh, a famine came to pass, and through another series of events, Joseph was reunited with his brothers, his father and all of his family. Instead of losing their lives in the famine, Jacob’s extended family moved to Egypt under the protection of Joseph. This may seem like political power.
But as history showed, the kind of political power that Joseph held was untransferable and unsustainable. We know from scripture that though the Israelites initially prospered under Joseph’s patronage and immediate legacy, within several decades, they became the slaves of Pharaoh and Egypt. Joseph’s power wasn’t political power at all. It was favoritism and privilege in an autocratic system. If power doesn’t arise out of the will of the people, it isn’t power at all. Its despotism, or worse—coercion and oppression.
When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of fear of his dream that they would be subjugated to him, they seem only able to imagine a political system of dominance and control. This platform piece of the movement for Black Lives is calling all of us to imagine a radically different way of governing ourselves.
The kind of political power that is the goal of the movement for Black lives is political power that arises out of right, just and mutual relationship with all involved. Joseph’s story is the kind of rise to power that the United States, with its myths of rugged individualism, loves. Here is a man who against all odds rose to second in command of the Pharaoh! Joseph pulled himself up by his bootstraps!
What we need to see is that these narratives and tropes of individuals succeeding over racism, sexism, homophobia and other oppressions are bait to maintain systems of control. The kind of power Joseph had is the opposite of real political power. The kind of power that Joseph had, conferred by one undemocratic ruler, would never be able to transform something as systemically insidious as racism. If we accept the messages about power in this paradigm, individual Black persons would be somehow responsible for rescuing themselves from racism. But what we know is that unjust systems are collectively maintained, and so must be collectively dismantled.
After her 2018 defeat in the race for Congress, Cori Bush filed again to run in the 2020 election for US representative for Missouri’s first district. Over the four years she had been pushing from protest to politics, the power of the people with her had grown tremendously. It was no longer just those who knew her in St. Louis and activists who had been with her in the streets. She was featured in a Netflix documentary about a new kind of grassroots leadership our nation. In every speech and every appearance, Cori lifted up the stories and needs of those around her: her comrades on the Ferguson Frontline, persons who faced violence and bias from police officers, the struggles of single moms, the need for better education in Black neighborhoods and free access to preschool and higher education for all, the right to a livable wage. She accepted no corporate donations. In the course of the campaign, tens of thousands of individuals gave her an average donation of $20.50.
On Tuesday, Missouri voters went to the polls. In Missouri’s first district, the populace is so overwhelmingly Democrat, that the primary is the real race, the election in November will be the anti-climax. Pastor Cori faced the same 10 term incumbent to whom she lost by 20 percentage points in 2018. It was a tense day, and as I checked returns in early evening, Cori was trailing. My heart fell. Not more bad news, I thought.
But by the end of the night, with 100% of precincts reporting, by just 3400 votes out of almost 160,000, Cori had won! Tuesday night, Cori tweeted and posted just three simple words, “Not me, US!” In her victory speech she said, “We’ve been called radicals, terrorists. We’ve been dismissed as an impossible fringe movement. But now we are a multi-racial, multiethnic, multi-generational, multi-faith mass movement united in demanding change, in demanding accountability, in demanding that our police, our government, our country recognize that Black lives do indeed matter.”
What we know from Biblical history is that God is always pulling us toward real freedom, self determination, a politics of justice and ultimately peace. To be responsive to God’s call, we must insure that the demands of protest lead to the organizing of new and just political systems where harm is repaired, resources are shared, common good is championed and brokenness is reconciled.
The time of Joseph gave way to the time of Moses when the Israelites, through organizing, struggle and protest, moved out of oppression to political power and toward liberation. The God of Joseph, Moses, Cori Bush and us is always calling us toward a place of justice and freedom. What we know from the story of the Israelites journey toward a place of political power and self-determination is that it was a marathon. Their sojourn in the desert took a long time. We are in a bleak time right now, and many of us are looking for hope. May the victory of Cori Bush be for us like the manna given from God to the hungry Israelites in the desert, bread from heaven to sustain us on the way. May we amplify Black voices and Black experiences so they are heard and heeded at every level of our communities and societies. And may we ultimately achieve God’s vision of justice and peace, heaven on earth. Amen.