On June 23, 2014, 79-year-old retired United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Charles Moore, set himself on fire in a shopping mall parking lot. Distraught and dispirited by the persistent and intractable nature of the racism, poverty and homophobia he had been battling against his whole life, Rev. Moore decided to offer his body in protest and sacrifice. His hope, as he stated in the bits of correspondence written in the days and weeks prior, was that his decision would have a greater impact on the struggle for transformative love and justice in the world than he believed his decades of activism had achieved. While he was certain some people would write him off as a lone crazy person who had “gone too far,” he gambled that many more would be galvanized by his death to pursue justice with a greater sense of urgency and passion.
Since I never met Rev. Moore, I can only imagine what he believed a more urgent and impassioned movement for social justice might look like. But as a way to honor the memory and sacrifice of a man I most certainly do not consider a lone crazy person, I want to suggest that those of us committed to building powerful and strong faith-rooted movements for social justice in the 21st century must find ways to address the individual and collective trauma that goes along with this work. If we want to stay creatively and passionately engaged in the work of healing and repairing the world over the long haul, we cannot afford to ignore the trauma all of us will invariable experience in and from it.
Indeed, to assign Rev. Moore, or any one of us who dares to feel the ache of injustice so sharply that it obliterates our joy, to “the crazy” category would be one way of doing just that. For let us be clear: RACISM, HOMOPHOBIA, POVERTY, MISOGYNY, all of it, is some evil, crazy-making mess! It is soul, body and spirit crushing, and the fact that it has not driven more of us into the fire is the real question — although honestly, many more of us than we care to admit actually do burn up and away every day. We are just doing so more slowly and completely out of sight.
So then, what must we do? How must we respond to the toxic and traumatizing effect staring injustice down day in and day out has on us and the vulnerable folks we work with and for? Two important and interconnected responses come to mind. First, I believe we must challenge the various religious and cultural narratives that glorify the mortification and sacrifice of our flesh as an expression of ultimate devotion or as a means to galvanize others. God is not glorified, and the cause of social justice is not advanced on the backs or over the dead bodies of any woman or girl, any man or boy created in the image or likeness of God. Of course the struggle against social injustice will always involve risks that can put our bodies, minds and spirits in harms way. But the fact remains that our principal call is to bear witness to the tenderness of God’s love for us, and for all that God has made. This means that we must struggle continuously to cherish our lives, and embrace the act of doing so as a critical part of our resistance to the principalities and powers that would seek to destroy us.
Which leads me to the second and more positive response. I believe we must embrace self and community care as a mandate for prophetic leadership. By this I mean we must create intentional spaces and experiences throughout our faith-rooted movements that can hold us when the battle is hard and renew us when the horror of confronting injustice would take us out. For overwhelmed and confronted we will be. But the burden of social injustice is all of ours to bear, and the real sin is when we allow any one person (or persons) in our communities to assume or feel like they are called to assume the burden on their own. Rather, our call is TO BE THE BELOVED PEOPLE OF GOD TOGETHER — holding each other when we are weak, and creating opportunities for us to feel the warmth and restoring power of God.
Lisa Anderson is the Senior Director of Intersectional Engagement & Strategic Convening at Auburn Theological Seminary.