The Declaration: Speaking the Truth, With Love, Without Apology
By Lisa Sharon Harper
It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.
Rev. Trey Lyon, watched FacebookLive feed from friends present at the Charlottesville Mass Prayer Service on the night before the planned counter march to the White Nationalists rally in Emancipation Park. He watched as white supremacists, white nationalists, and Nazis carrying torches surrounded the church where his friends and leaders he respected sang and prepared their hearts to face down fear and hate the next morning.
That night Lyon couldn’t sleep as the question haunted him throughout the night: Is this a Barmen moment. The next day he watched the Clergy action and the subsequent mayhem and murder unfold as evil was unleashed on the quaint streets of Charlottesville. He called together his church staff and they agreed. This is a Barmen moment.
I’ve been a part of many sign-on letter and statement campaigns. Usually the drafting goal is to keep it as short as possible to get as many people to sign on as possible.
So, when I received the note from John Heinz (Adjunct Professor at Asbury Seminary, UMC minister, and collaborator on the Declaration) inviting me to log into a Google doc to offer input on a Declaration inspired by the Charlottesville action that I had participated in days earlier, I was intrigued. Patterned after the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which was drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen and declared Christians could not support rising Nazi power and anti-Semitism.
But unlike the Barmen process, whose drafters met in a single room in Barmen, Germany during the rise of Hitler, this document’s drafting room was a Google doc.
Anyone with the link could log in and edit at will or place comments and questions in the margins. When I logged on about ten anonymous people were editing the document. To this day, I have no idea who they were. They clicked in and out. Some left comments. Others added or deleted text. I jumped in.
Over the second week the core editing group was narrowed to 10 with representation from Black, White, Chicanx and Latinx, Native American, and Asian-American theologians, ethicists, and activists. We asked several denominational, ecumenical church, Muslim and Jewish leaders, as well as an elder of the Civil Rights movement to review the document and offer feedback.
Finally, we sent it out to each of our various networks to collect principal signatories to the letter. Within 5 days 192 Christian leaders and influencers had signed their name to the Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy.
We watched #theDeclaration gain steam on social media as signers tweeted and retweeted each other’s tweets, posted Facebook Live posts, liked each other’s posts and shared them!
Over the course of one week Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian-American, White, Arab/Persian leaders located in politically conservative, progressive, and liberal communities; based in red states and blue states; from Historic Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, Historic Black Church, Orthodox backgrounds; movement leaders, theologians, seminary presidents, denominational leaders, authors, activists, academics, practitioners, and everyday Jesus followers signed The Declaration. In the signing they locked arms to walk forward together in the struggle against the spirit of colonization and domination that establishes hierarchies of human value and belonging in our nation.
I recently hung out with a couple of millennials. One is a transgender queer man. The other is a queer woman. They asked me a question:
“Could you get us a Bible?”
My jaw dropped.
“We’ve tried to read this Bible,” they explained, “but we don’t know where to start. How do we read it to get anything out of it?”
Both disowned by family members on religious grounds, they want and seek God.
They shared a radical idea they had recently:
“We’ve been thinking. A lot of our friends are searching just like us,” they said. “We need direction. We need wisdom. I’m thinking of bringing my friends together to sit down each week and read a book of the Bible together and talk about it? What do you think?”
I laughed out loud, “That sounds like a Bible study to me!”
I offered to call in and join the discussion. We all got excited.
Later that night, at a restaurant, they shared with me their favorite songs: What about us? released by Pink last month and 1-800-273-8255 released by hip hop artist, Logic, in late April 2017. Logic’s song lifts up the problem of suicide in his generation. The song title, itself, is a suicide hotline number.
I watched What about us? and wept aloud, right there in the restaurant. I saw it. This is the anthem of the Millennial generation.
What about us?
What about all the times you said you had the answers?
We are problems that want to be solved
We are children that need to be loved
We were willin’, we came when you called
But man, you fooled us, enough is enough, oh
The Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy should not have worked. It’s too long. It had too many drafters. It came from the dinky church most people have never heard of. It was the original idea of a white, cis, male, southern pastor of a Baptist church who, in his own words, “doesn’t know anybody.”
But it did work and it is working. Why? I believe it’s because the message is the anthem of our era, in the same way that the Barmen Declaration was the anthem of its era. Also, the process embodied the message. The decolonizing process created a multiethnic, ecumenical, theological flat circle of equals where the words and perspectives of those on the margins were brought to the center.
The Declaration is a theological cry from the margins of the church to the center. It speaks truth. It speaks it with love. It speaks it without apology.
It cries to the white church: What about all the times you said you had the answers?
It answers: Enough is enough.
And so far, nearly 1500 Christian leaders and influencers have joined their voices to declare: “No more. Not on our watch.” Together we commit to Listen, Lament, Repent and Re-imagine a world free of hierarchies of human value and belonging. A world where the image of God is free to flourish in all.
I can’t wait to join my friends’ Bible Study. I can’t wait to see how God’s sacred text speaks to them.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the author of The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right and the founder and principal of FreedomRoad.us (launching online Fall 2017).