As the month of October is coming to a close, we at NonProphet Status want to turn attention back to the FergusonOctober movement. Although the media has long since moved on, the systemic discrimination that sparked those protests, as well as the local activism, persists. Let’s not lose sight of that.
On Sunday October 12, thousands joined together at St. Louis University for an interfaith service and call-to-action called the Mass Meeting. The event was part of FergusonOctober—a series of peaceful protests in the St. Louis area against the police brutality and systemic racism that led to the fatal shootings of Mike Brown and Vonderrit Myers.
As NPS Contributor Sarah Jones has noted, atheist and humanist leaders have been largely absent from the protests following these fatal shootings when compared to their religious peers. However, the organizers of the FergusonOctober interfaith event reached out to the Ethical Society of St. Louis to invite a representative to speak during the service. That representative ended up being our fellow Patheos blogger James Croft.
We spoke with him about his role, his observations, and his thoughts on being a white man addressing a predominantly black community as they respond to injustices he’s never personally experienced.
“The Meeting was planned as a fairly standard interfaith service,” said Croft. “It had music, prayer, readings, and speeches from various religious traditions, and remarks from some famous luminaries like Dr. Cornel West and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.”
He was asked to give a Humanist reading, and chose a poem by Algernon Black—a former leader of the Ethical Society of New York.
About two-thirds of the way into the program, Croft says, “young people from the audience—who have been on the front lines of the struggle in Ferguson for weeks—stormed the stage and demanded the right to speak.”
The host turned the stage over to them and the rest of the service was led by the youth activists, ending with a speech by Dr. Cornel West.
NonProphet Status: Coming to the service as something of an outsider, what was your sense of the mood there?
James Croft: As a white, economically privileged man living in a safe and wealthy part of St. Louis, my life experience is hugely different to the experiences of those who have been most impacted by the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath. I am shielded from the negative effects of systemic racism and injustice and privileged in countless ways. So I was very aware of my position as an outsider.
When the young people stormed the stage and started speaking about what they had seen on the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis, I couldn’t help but feel totally in awe. These are young people who experience a set of daily oppressions I find difficult to imagine. I felt it was right that they were the ones speaking, and it made me question my own role in that event.
I was also struck by the mood of righteous anger. There was anger, certainly. A lot of anger. But it did not feel to me like a destructive rage. It was more like an anger that inspires people to fight for their own dignity and that of others.
I saw a cry of frustration in the young people’s words but it was not at all hopeless. It was filled with hope.
NPS: Do you feel that the event provided an important service for the Ferguson community?
JC: Absolutely. It was not a memorial but a moment of re-energization and a spur to further action. Without the intervention of the young activists it would not have been so powerful.
Symbolic gatherings such as these can have a powerful effect on how people understand their place within a social moment. Increasingly I understand that activism is “soul work”—work on the emotions and the feeling to give people the emotional resources they need to continue the struggle. This event did that, but in a way unanticipated by the organizers.
The young activists from Ferguson wrested the torch from the establishments and spoke for themselves. That moment was empowering for them—you could see it.
NPS: Many of the speakers were representatives of religious communities. Do you feel that religious communities are equipped to deal with such trauma in ways that nonreligious movements are not?
JC: Your question is a very difficult one. The answer is “yes and no.” Religious traditions have a huge wealth of cultural resources to draw upon at times of crisis, some of which can be potent. In the Mass Meeting preachers called upon the story of Jericho, the words of the Prophet Muhammad, and on the image of Jesus. Some of these images clearly resonated with the crowd in a way purely secular narratives might have struggled to.
But there is always a disconnect, in my view, when cultural resources so far removed from our present time are drawn on again and again in response to crises of the present. The scriptures were written for different people in a different time. They might have something to tell us, or they might not. In giving them special priority, clergy often miss resources created in situations much more appropriate to the time.
In the protests in Ferguson, the younger activists have frequently been seen to question the role of traditional religions in the social justice work. They have interrupted prayer circles and told the clergy to get out of the pulpits and into the streets. They want to see action and results and commitment—and I don’t think they care if that comes from a religious perspective or not.
The speakers who were the most powerful were secular voices: the young people from the front lines. They didn’t refer to any religious tradition—they just told the story of what they had seen, what they felt, and what they know needs to be done.
NPS: Some atheists would say that by participating in interfaith events, you risk inadvertently appearing to condone harmful views. Do you think this is a real risk? And if so, can that risk be mitigated?
JC: When I began attending interfaith events and discussions, I shared many of the concerns articulated by those who oppose it. However, the more I participate in such events the more I feel that objections to atheist and Humanist participation in interfaith spaces are driven by irrational fears rather than considered arguments.
If you are a thoughtful, reflective, smart participant, you can avoid those dangers. Many people—including a number of religious people and clergy—have reached out to me after this event to say that it meant a lot to hear an atheist perspective.
I see this interfaith event as part of a whole series of actions, none of which are sufficient in themselves but which together help create a movement. Activism is about more than strategy—fundamentally it is about motivation, moving people to act. The Mass Meeting was an opportunity to craft a narrative which would move people to act and restore their courage and commitment. I think it did that.
If we do it right, atheist participation in interfaith events is one of the most powerful things we can do to promote Humanist values.
NPS: As a white leader partaking in an event so centered around racial injustice, did you ask for or receive any sort of guidance as to what your role there should be?
JC: I felt, after very many hours of planning and discussions, that we had come to a good consensus on what the nature of the event would be and how different individuals would play a role in it. So I felt I had good guidance on this front.
That said, I think the question of how best to be an ally is a difficult one which we have to ask ourselves all the time. Ultimately, an activist has to make a decision as to which platforms to pursue, which to accept when offered, and which to turn down. I knew in this case that my participation was not pushing anyone else off the program; I knew the Ethical Society had a perspective to share that is unique and would go unspoken if we refused the invitation; we were invited—we didn’t muscle our way in.
The voices of allies can be powerful and must be present when appropriate. I am conscious that in my experience as a gay man, I find not too many ally voices speaking up but often too few. The analogy isn’t perfect, but we use the empathetic resources we each have to make judgments like this. I think in this case it was the right call.
There are things which allies can say which oppressed people cannot say in the same way. This sounds like a strange, perhaps objectionable thing to suggest, but I think it genuinely true. A queer person can point out cisgender or straight privilege, but they cannot own it—they can’t say “I have it and I recognize I have it and I get that it is a problem and I stand with you.”
I think that is an extraordinarily important message to voice.
One thing I regret is not making explicit my racial privilege from the platform. If I had taken the opportunity to think more carefully about what I wanted to present, I think I would have spoken explicitly about white privilege, because I feel like no one did, and that would have been a useful contribution.
NPS: Can you tell us about the reading you shared at the Mass Meeting?
JC: I read “Call to the Living” by Algernon Black—a former leader of the Ethical Society of New York:
This is a call to the living,
To those who refuse to make peace with evil,
With the suffering and the waste of the world.
This is a call to the human,
Not the perfect,
To those who know their own prejudices,
Who have no intention
Of becoming prisoners of their own limitations.
This is a call to those who remember the dreams of their youth,
Who know what it means to share food and shelter,
The care of children and those who are troubled,
To reach beyond barriers of the past
Bringing people to communion.
This is a call
To the never ending spirit
Of the common person,
Our essential decency
Our integrity beyond all education and wealth,
Our unending capacity to suffer and endure,
To face death and destruction
And to rise again
And build from the ruins of life.
This is the greatest call of all
The call to a faith in people.
This post is co-authored by Dean Roth and Andreas Rekdal.