The Black Panthers and the Gospel of Mark

The Black Panthers and the Gospel of Mark February 27, 2021
I just finished watching Judas and the Black Messiah yesterday, and I’m also reading the new, and incredibly moving The Black Panthers: A Graphic Novel History, so of course I’m thinking of the life of Fred Hampton in light of the gospel for this Sunday.
At one point, in a conversation with the mother of his as yet unborn child Deborah Johnson, and fresh out of prison, he says to her,
“When I dedicated my life to the people, I dedicated my life…you dig?”
At another point in the film, he says to a group of Black Panthers at an action, “I’m ready to die for the people, what about you?”
As we know, Fred Hampton did indeed die for the people. Even more tragically, and not unlike Jesus himself, Hampton died wrongly at the hands of the state, assassinated by the FBI and the Chicago Police. They shot him three times in the head while he lay wounded and asleep in his bed next to Deborah Johnson, 9-months pregnant with their child.
Compare this to the gospel lesson for Sunday.
Mark 8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
At the very least you can see how short of a leap it is from the story of Jesus to the title of the Fred Hampton film. Almost all of Hampton’s comrades, and even the mother of his child had to wrestle, as Peter did, with Hampton’s ready commitment to die for the cause.
There remains to this day much discussion on the appropriateness of non-violence vs. revolution in the pursuit of social change. In this sense, the way the Black Panthers have been received in our history is so very different from the reception of MLK Jr. They took up arms. Christians doubt this is what Jesus would do.
There remains a lot of biblical scholarship examining how the disciples and Jesus thought about revolutionary activity. For one article that will make basically any reader ponder, read Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed and Not Dangerous by Dale B. Martin. Martin assumes Jesus and his disciples were armed when they went to Jerusalem, and offers evidence to back his argument.
I do not plan to resolve all the tensions and juxtapositions I’m raising here, and I’m enough of a biblical scholar to simply say you shouldn’t dismiss Martin’s arguments out-of-hand. They present a challenge.
Like many of us, my views on contemporary life have been complicated as I learn the extent to which our perceptions of the Black Panthers were manipulated by the COINTELPRO of the FBI. I was raised in systems of white supremacy. How I approach learning about the Black Panthers is influenced by the propaganda in which I swam as a child.
In mid-life, and post George Floyd, I have a more complex sense of the relationship between nonviolence, Jesus, revolution, and the state than ever before.
And Movements for Black Lives and our commitment to anti-racism and the study of black history in America constantly deepens my sense that the theology of my own tradition is inextricably tied up in systems of white supremacy.
I would be remiss not to consider this whenever preaching a sermon on the cross of the not white Palestinian Jesus.
I hope at the very least naming some of these things in preparation for Sunday will be of spiritual benefit.
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