One the most powerful speakers during the Democratic National Convention earlier this month was Representative John Lewis. The Georgia Congressman recalled being in North Carolina more than forty years ago on a Freedom Ride to challenge segregation in the South. He explained that as he and a fellow rider attempted to enter a white waiting room, an angry mob beat the men and left them lying in a pool of blood.
Many delegates cried when they heard Lewis explain how, following President Obama’s election, one of the men from that angry mob apologized; Lewis accepted his apology and forgave him. Addressing the delegates as “brothers and sisters,” Lewis talked about the sanctity of voting, and how that right is being threatened by suppression schemes.
Many people agree with Lewis that voting is a sacred act, and some are organizing their religious communities—their brothers and sisters—to defend what’s previous. One of them is Nelson Pierce Jr. A doctoral candidate in the Micah program at New York Theological Seminary, he’s also the pastor of Beloved Community Church Cincinnati, and the lead organizer with The AMOS Project. As Nelson explains, for him, voting rights are a matter of faith.
Voting Rights: A Matter of Faith
In 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the president of the United States. I was 6 at the time, but I remember my parents’ anguished conversation over the dinner table. Both of my parents had been involved at different levels of the civil rights struggle in the United States. My father was one of the first African-Americans to attend what was then Louisiana State University in New Orleans. My mother had been involved with the Black Panther Party in Detroit. By 1984, all of that was a lifetime ago to them. They had met and married in the late 1970s, both of them eager to build a life and raise a family; they had become deeply reconnected to their Christian faith, both of them taking on positions of leadership within the church. And, perhaps most surprisingly, they both had become Republicans.
At the time, my parents were part of the religious right that was growing all over the United States. They believed that the morals and tenets of the Christian faith were embodied by the Republican Party. They also were strong supporters of the work that Rev. Jackson had done, both in the civil rights movement, and with corporations. They felt that Rev. Jackson could best speak to the needs and hopes of people who had been marginalized, not just by racism but by sexism and classism as well. Should they vote for their faith or should they vote for their community?
I grew up believing in that same tension. At one point in my life, I rejected my community responsibility as an attempt to fully own my faith. During another point in my life, I put my faith on the back burner to fully present in my community’s struggles. At best, I thought that these were two trains that ran on separate tracks. It may have been convenient to do civic engagement with the community out of a church, but I did not see it as a part of the life of the church.
I was operating in this “separate track” mindset when I started seminary. On the first day of my Old Testament class, my professor began with the following text, and it was like I read the Bible for the first time when I came upon Exodus 3:7-8a: