Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety, adjunct senior fellow for African peace and security issues at CFR and vice chancellor and president at The University of the South, Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, PhD, senior minister for public theology and transformation at Middle Church, and Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, discuss religion and anti-racism.
This webinar is part of the Religion and Foreign Policy Program's Social Justice and Foreign Policy series, which explores the relationship between religion and social justice.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thank you for joining us.
Today’s webinar is the second in our Social Justice and Foreign Policy Series, which explores the relationship between religion and social justice. As a reminder, today’s webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be made available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
I’m really delighted to have with us today three amazing people: Ambassador Reuben Brigety, Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, and Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. I will go through their bios and then we’ll begin the conversation.
Ambassador Reuben Brigety is adjunct senior fellow for African peace and security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he was just named the vice chancellor and president of the University of the South, so congratulations. Ambassador Reuben Brigety was dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He also was the appointed representative of the United States to the African Union and permanent representative of the United States to the U.N. Economic Commission of Africa. Prior to these appointments, he served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs with responsibility for southern African and regional security affairs.
Reverend Jacqueline Lewis graduated with an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in psychology and religion from Drew University. She joined the staff of Middle Church in January 2004. And together with her husband, John Janka, Lewis holds annual conferences to train leaders on growing multiracial communities of faith that disrupt racism. She is a womanist whose preaching, teaching, speaking, and activism are aimed at racial equality, gun control, economic justice, and equal rights for all sexual orientations and genders. Reverend Lewis is the author of three books and currently working on a fourth, and she teaches classes on anti-racism.
And Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is an educator, writer, activist who works regularly on issues of inclusion and equity. He is currently based at Union Seminary, and he’s the first Sikh wire-service columnist in U.S. history. Dr. Singh is the author of Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Run a Marathon, which is the first-ever children’s book from a major publisher to center a Sikh story. He is also writing an adult nonfiction book on Sikh wisdom to help navigate today’s—(inaudible, technical difficulties). He is a columnist for Religion News Service and his Spirited podcast, as well as a new Web series called Becoming Less Racist. So tune into that.
So thank you all for being with us today. I thought we could begin with you, Ambassador Brigety, to talk about the anti-racism protests we’ve seen in the United States, this incredible moment, and how you see America’s being perceived by the rest of the world and how it affects our foreign policy.
BRIGETY: Sure. Well, thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here and part of this very important panel. And let me also commend the Council for convening it, for recognizing the importance of social justice not only for its own sake but also as a—as a core component of our—of our soft power in the world, and therefore as important to our foreign policy.
So we are living through an extraordinary moment in American history where, as we all know, the killing of George Floyd at the knee of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, coming during the middle of a pandemic and on the heels of two other African Americans— Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery —they were killed by agents of the state or self-appointed vigilantes of the state in close proximity—touched off a firestorm; not only a firestorm of protests across the United States, but around the world. There is a Black Lives Matter mural in Idlib, Syria, and the Syrians have other things going on right now. There’s a Black Lives Matter protest in Reykjavik. I was having this conversation with a colleague the other day. I literally cannot think of another example of human history where the entire world saw protests linked to a particular event and a particular set of circumstances at the same time.
And let me say this as well, because in conversations with a number of friends and colleagues in various circumstances over the years I have often been asked, so, why is it that Black people in America are only upset when they’re killed by White cops and you don’t see the same level of protests when Black people are killing each other in Chicago or New Orleans, anyplace else? And I think it’s actually very important in this forum to address that for two very important reasons.
First of all, as we know, most crime is intra-racial, meaning we know that most homicides of African Americans occur at the hands of other African Americans, of White people occur at White people, and every life is precious, and we respect all that.
The reason the issue of police brutality and consistent police brutality of people of African descent and also other brown people in America, has been such a flashpoint issue, particularly of late in the era of cellphone cameras and whatnot, so you actually cannot deny the facts of what are happening. It’s because this goes to the foundational question of the republic: What is the relationship between people of African descent and the government of the United States of America? And starting from the first full legal articulation of who we are as a country—you know, of course the famous three-fifths compromise, slavery is allowed in the Constitution, obviously the Civil War, one hundred years of state-sanctioned apartheid principally across the American South only reluctantly fully discharged with the modern civil rights movement—and still we see continued inequities, life and death inequities, of Black people at the hands of the agents of the state.
And not only is that, obviously, an existential issue for people of African descent; it is also an existential issue for all of America because it goes—it strikes at the core of who we think we are and who we say we are to the rest of the world. And addressing that and correcting it and being honest about it is not only important for our own—for the sake of those lives that would be saved, it’s important for our own national psyche and it is also important for our ability to claim any level of moral authority when we’re engaging on matters of human rights and other matters in the rest of the world.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
We’ll now go to Reverend Lewis. You’ve dedicated much of your career to building faith communities that are inclusive and anti-racist. Can you talk about what you’re doing to bring faith leaders and communities into the movement and what they and their communities can do about this?
LEWIS: Oh, I just was saying thank you. Thank you on mute. What a wonderful day it is to share this panel with Ambassador and with my friend Dr. Jeet Singh. I’m glad to be here. Thank you so much for asking me.
I think one of the things that I want to say as a starting comment is I’m a Christian pastor. I’ve been a Christian since I was in my mother’s womb. So I didn’t choose Christian; I inherited Christian. And I’m a weird universalist Christian that believes that there’s more than one path to God and that God speaks many languages. I want to say that to say that almost all the world’s major religions share this love-your-neighbor kind of speak. Rabbi Jesus said it because he was a Jew and was really pulling people back into Hebrew scriptures. The place where it is said, I don’t know, sixty-one times—I could have that number wrong—but in the Jewish text, you shall love the stranger because you were once strangers. And so all across the globe where people are doing faith, they are often doing faith in a context of what does it mean to love your neighbor, do unto others, love as a public ethic, a social ethic, an ethic that makes us humanity. The ancient Zulu customs would have said something like sawubonas nkona (ph). And I can’t click, but—(laughs)—but the words there are coming from this Ubuntu principle, which is so beautifully ancient and says: I am who I am because you are who you are. I am human and community. I am human and community. I become a person because I’m in a relationship.
So the principle of love your neighbor, the principle of Ubuntu, the shared global sense that we are inextricably connected is the way Dr. King would say it, compels us as people of faith to be political. And what happens in my faith is that there are a lot of Christians who say politics doesn’t belong in faith. And I’m saying, in fact, our mentor, Rabbi Jesus, Yeshua ben Joseph, Joseph’s kid, Mary’s boy, and African-Semitic, brown, poor, itinerant preacher killed by the state for his radical views of love and justice, inspires all of us—should inspire all of us to make anti-racism a part of our political life and a part of our faith life, full stop. That it doesn’t is what’s shocking. That White supremacy is inextricably tied into Christianity in America is shocking. It’s shocking that our framers left religious persecution, left persecution to get on boats, come across the pond, take land from Indigenous people—I will say, because when you look it up you’ll find it my friends, that I am a pastor in the Reformed Church in America and also the United Church of Christ, and I’m also a Presbyterian, so I’m blended—but the Reformed Church in America is the Dutch Reformed Church in America. Yes, those people that came on Dutch ships, and came across the pond, and landed on what was called Turtle Island, and took the land for $27 worth of wampum from the Lenape, and built their church on Manahata, “hilly land,” and built it on stolen land with stolen slave labor. This is the church. This is the church’s legacy, not just mine.
So I’m wanting to say this time in our history, as in other times in our history, we’re called to get radical, as in rooted, as in go back to the source. And the source of our faith, again, is an African-Semitic, poor, and once homeless refugee baby only alive because he was taken into Egypt and survived, killed by the state for his acts of sedition. And his acts of sedition were, could we please undo apartheid? Could we please undo state-sanctioned murder? Could we please undo poverty? Could we please undo empire?
So I’m in the breaking down empire business as a Christian pastor, and wanting to encourage all of my colleagues of every stripe of Christian—all faith, but let me be particularly Christian for a second—to think if this is the religion we are practicing, then we have to have a hermeneutical suspicion about the way the church is framed by the framers as something for rich White people who own land, as something delivered to enslaved Africans as a way to manage and control them, that the Exodus story is taken out of the slave Bible, and that White supremacy lives inside church even now—even now. When our POTUS pretends to be Christian, and holds up a Bible outside a church, and in the name of God—in the name of Jesus, if you will, in the name of my rabbi—speaks horrible untruth about the intention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech at Mount Rushmore, the way he kidnapped/hijacked words of King, hijacked words of Frederick Douglass to indicate that faith means being racist and faith means being anti-Semitic and faith means being anti-Islamic and faith means being anti-poor and that social justice is something that he criticizes and says that the, quote, “far left” has bastardized social justice in the name of something I can’t even quote, I’m here to say if we’re not being anti-racist and pro all the people as a part of our life as Christians we’re in the wrong religion. We’re doing something that is not just Christian lite, but something that’s an abomination. That’s an abomination. If we speak hate speech in the name of Jesus, if we speak against Black Lives Matter in the name of Jesus, if we believe that this nation belongs to the rich 1 percent as opposed to all of us, that’s anti-Jesus. If we believe that people who wear turbans and who wear kippahs and who are wearing—who are covered—are somehow not God’s folks like the rest of us, that’s anti-Jesus. That’s anti-Christ. And that’s an abomination. It has to cease.
I’m calling on all of my clergy colleagues who claim Christian as a religion to read deeply what our faith calls us to, to not be tricked and fooled by Americana masquerading as Christianity, to have a deep hermeneutic of suspicion and to resist every lie spoken in the name of Christian that smashes women’s rights, that smashes gay rights, that smashes the rights of so-called religious minorities, that cages children on the border, and that executes Black people with impunity—not acceptable.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much.
And now, Simran, let’s go to you to talk about your work against anti-racism and your thoughts on how we’re proceeding.
SINGH: Sure. Thank you. And thank you for having me. And thank you, everyone, for being here.
I’m going to start by sharing something I’ve been thinking about the past few days. And Jacqui just spoke to this for a moment. Over this past weekend, the Fourth of July weekend, President Trump stoked racial tensions yet again when he held an Independence Day rally in South Dakota. And native leaders called for Trump to cancel the rally. And more than a dozen indigenous activists and allies were arrested for blocking a highway to the event.
And yet Trump came, uninvited, to unceded Lakota territory. And he arrived at the Six Grandfathers, known also as the sacred Black Hills, where he paid homage to Mount Rushmore, a national monument that’s carved into the hills by a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
And among the detained activists was Nick Tilsen, president of the NDN Collective and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. And in explaining the religious significance of the site for native communities, Tilsen, in an interview on Democracy Now, stated that more than 50 different indigenous nations actually have origin stories or ties or spiritual connections to the Black Hills and that U.S. law has recognized the Lakota Nation as the rightful caretakers of that land.
And so this may seem like a strange perspective. And until this weekend, I, like many of you, perhaps, considered Mount Rushmore as nothing other than a symbol of American patriotism. But in the firestorm that followed Trump’s visit, many have commented on his exceptional insensitivity to indigenous peoples. But the more we see, the more we realize that we’re failing to see that this particular visit is—there’s nothing exceptional about it. There’s nothing exceptional about what he did. It fits right into the long history of racist abuse that arrived with European colonists.
And so I want to take us there for a moment as we think about what racism and faith look like when they come together. May 4, 1493, just a year after Columbus’s arrival, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera, which announced that any land not inhabited by Christians was open to be discovered by Christian rulers and that, quote, the Catholic faith and Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for, and that the barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to faith itself.
This document, which would come to be known as the doctrine of discovery, was foundational to the European colonization of the Americas and their presumptive claims of Western expansion, which we have come to term as manifest destiny.
So my point is, while some ask what religion might have to do with American racism, attending to its conquest and colonization seriously compels us to ask a different question, and that is, is it even possible to decouple religion from American racism? And for the purposes of this conversation, let’s understand racism through the lens of Ibram Kendi, a leading scholar of race and anti-racism, who describes racism as a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.
I bring up the doctrine of discovery because I think it offers a helpful example of how racist ideas of supremacy over indigenous peoples included our religious authorities, whose own biases were not used just to justify but also to sanctify the seizure of occupied lands, to physically remove communities to undesirable reservations, and to engage in systematic violence of genocidal proportions.
And in case you’re tempted to think of such racist policies and racist ideas as quaint misconceptions of a distant past, let me be the first to tell you that they remain alive and well today. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of discovery in Johnson versus McIntosh in 1823, which stands as the basis of international law to this day and of United States Indian law as well.
Just fifteen years ago, 2005, it was cited in the case of City of Sherrill versus Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which concerned Oneida’s ability to reacquire reservation land that had been sold in the early nineteenth century.
So until very recently, we Americans seemed to think similarly about all our racist structures, as part of a past that no longer pertained. We had ended slavery. We had ended Jim Crow. We had no further need for the Voting Rights Act. And yet there’s nothing past about American racism. This is our present. And it will be our future unless we take radical action to break the cycle of exploitation and violence and lies.
We can’t speak of America’s past or its present without attending to our sustained and targeted suppression and oppression of Black people. And here too religion has been a driving force in shaping the two complementary ideas of Whiteness and anti-Blackness. Settler colonialists honed the idea of race on this continent to justify the enslavement and eradication of non-White Christians. This is the underpinning of American racism. And Christianity is at the center of it.
Early Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify the enslavement of darker-skinned people. Vigilante groups terrorized Black Americans as they rode around in white hoods with a Bible in hand. Prominent Evangelical pastors spewed racist hate against America’s first Black president.
And so the question is what do we do once we’re armed with the knowledge that religious actors have been complicit in forming and upholding American racism? What might we do to correct for racism?
The answer isn’t as intuitive as it might seem because most of us have presumed the solution to be non-racism. By not actively being racist, we figured that we were erasing racism. But what we know now collectively is that when we sit by silently and allow racist ideas and policies to function, we’re complicit in racism. Neutrality is neither the opposite of racism nor its solution. And as Angela Davis told us several years ago, and we’ve heard it repeatedly as of late, in a racist society it’s not enough to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist.
To be anti-racist is to proactively fight against racism in all its pernicious forms, from the individual level to the systemic. Religious actors are equipped to engage anti-racism because it calls on us to examine ourselves while also engaging with our own communities. And this is what we’ve seen in some of the greatest anti-racist leaders of the present and the recent past—Assata Shakur, Dr. Martin Luther King, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Nelson Mandela, Rabbi Heschel, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander.
The question we must ask ourselves is what would it look like to take on the mantle of anti-racism in today’s age. And we can go through a whole list of that, and I’m happy to, but I think once we understand what racist ideas and racist policies look like, an anti-racist, for example, would be moved to action upon learning of Christianity’s central role in birthing American racism, in seizing sacred sites and land from indigenous communities and purposefully breaking a treaty that honored those lands and imposing White Christian nationalism on the American people.
For me, sincerely engaging in anti-racism would be a seismic shift from anything that we’ve ever seen in American history, because up until now we’ve been so subsumed by racism and non-racism that we’re only now beginning to broach the topic of anti-racism. And I think this gives us heart, because this is a path towards a better, more humane, and more sustainable way forward.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much.
And now let’s go to all of you for your questions and comments. If you click on the participants icon and raise your hand, I’ll recognize you. And please say who you are to give our distinguished panel a context for what organization you’re with.
So we’ll go first to Annie Tinsley.
TINSLEY: Hi. I’m Dr. Annie Tinsley, Shaw University Divinity School.
I really appreciate the conversation so far.
Anyway, I really appreciate what you guys have been saying. I have been very interested in religious freedom for a while. And this era that we’re going through now has really been important to us, because we have been lulled to sleep in a lot of ways. And I just wanted to ask a question. Anyone can answer this.
So as we know that Christianity is complicit in way back, religion complicit in the oppression of people way back, but as Black Americans who have adopted Christianity, what do you think we could do or what should we do to help to redirect this conversation so that we’re now—as they say, we’re woke now. What would you suggest would be the best course of action?
FASKIANOS: Who wants to take that? Jacqui?
Annie, thank you for that question. Thank you for that. We did hear you.
I think African-American Christians especially have a really powerful opportunity to use something that’s deeply a part of our culture, which is story. We are proud bearers of narrative as a way that we teach and train our children. We have honored the griots in our past and in our present. And so I think we have to really believe, Annie, that we can change the story.
Look, I don’t exactly know why we who were not Christian, who were, you know, captured and brought to this nation in the middle passage and then became Christian, became Christian. Peter Parrish wrote a really great book called African Spirituality many years ago, a couple of decades ago, that sort of tries to explain how Christian cosmology may be mapped onto some of what was already indigenously African. It was a great book to read.
But here’s what we are, that is the religion of Jesus, I think, not the religion of Christian. But we are people who center children. We are people who know how to make the margins in the middle. We are people who know how to love our neighbor. We are people who know how to share the goods that we have.
There was something in the religion of the African Semitic one that makes sense to us. And I think if we can excavate the stories of how our ancestors made use of this religion, believed in this religion, and teach that to our children, I think we can disrupt this other Christian that is really the religion of empire.
So I’m really talking about putting alongside our Bible really strong, great exegetical work that is done by Black leaders like Katie Cannon, like James Cone, just to name two, so to read the Bible along with great exegetes who break down the text and make sure that we strip it of empire; and then, secondly, for us to use other texts alongside the Bible to help us remember what Black folk religion is; so, like, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have words for us that remind us of what’s good about Christian that we can keep, and we’ve got to be fearless about stripping out what’s broken and let it go.
Some of our old Black people will critique us for stripping down the Bible. But I don’t think we can do this work, Annie, if we don’t do it otherwise. That made you smile, right? Ambassador, you know I’m right. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: Thank you. (Laughs.)
Reuben, do you want to add anything, or—(laughs)—
BRIGETY: No, I was just thinking about the deacons in my Baptist church growing up.
LEWIS: With their white gloves on saying don’t take the Bible.
FASKIANOS: All right, let’s go to Dr. Traci Blackmon next.
BLACKMON: Thank you. I am really enjoying this conversation.
And I have a question. I agree with everything I’ve heard, except I want to talk a little bit about Christianity outside of a White colonized context and acknowledge that Christianity existed before that, right. So there were Ethiopian Christians. There were—my question is about how do we deconstruct or decolonize our Christianity, versus saying that Christianity itself is racist? And maybe that’s too fine of a line to tread, but I’m interested in that.
One of the ways that I get at this for myself is to remind myself that the Bible, in its construct, is really a people’s book about their experiences with God versus God’s book about God’s experience with all people, right. And saying that with my congregation allows some space for other stories to also be sacred.
So I’m wondering about that in conversation with the doctrine of discovery, which indeed is a papal document with religious roots that continue to poison our soil. Is there anything you can say about that for me?
BRIGETY: Sure, if I may take a stab at that. First of all, Dr. Blackmon, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for your question. My wife is Ethiopian, as it happens, and was raised and baptized in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. And you can see I wear a Lion of Judah ring as part of my respect for that side of both my wife and my children’s heritage.
You know, I think the direct answer to your question, one of the most important things is for people of faith and for Christians of different traditions to be proactively in dialogue with each other, because once the facts of our history are clear, a reasonable person can then be led to a different set of understandings about their faith and their relationships.
But I’ll give you a very basic example, since you raised Ethiopia. So Ethiopia Abyssinia is mentioned something like sixty-one times in the Old Testament, right. One of the first non-Jews—in fact, the first non-Jew—to be converted was an Ethiopian eunuch in the court of Queen Candace.
BRIGETY: And if you were to go to the north of Ethiopia today, the historical north, and visit the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the eighth wonder of the world, which is referred to as the African Jerusalem, it helps—it does two things. First of all, it, for those that are raised and steeped in a Western and American approach to Christianity, helps them to understand that these faith traditions of engagement with our savior long predate organization of Western churches.
And if you start with that assumption, then that frankly goes back to the fundamental question of respect for our common humanity, not that Christianity was something that was given to us as a people of African descent. In fact, many of us—many of our brothers and sisters, our ancestors, were there from the beginning,
Which leads to—if I can use it to take a moment just to kind of a broader point. I have similarly been moved by what Dr. Lewis and Dr. Singh have been saying, and it leads to a challenging set of questions of where do we go from here because if you start to pull the thread on the nature of the historical record that is at the basis for not only the White supremacy in the United States but also the role of religion in advancing that, it then makes you ask, OK, so what does one do if you take all those things back to their logical conclusion. There is a school of thought that essentially—and certainly with regard to the genocide of native peoples here in North America—if you’re not native or descendant, we all ought to pack up, and go, and just return everything. And from there to something not that, we have to figure out, as a practical matter, how do we live together going forward into the rest of the twenty-first century.
I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know it has to start with being fully honest about our shared history and then figuring out ways in which we can do two things simultaneously: one, make redress where possible; certainly show mutual respect in every case; and then, third, create space for all of us, native peoples, people of non-European descent, people of European descent who are being awoken to this nature of this history arguably for the first time, who see themselves as decent people, who see themselves as people of faith, but who also have feelings of filial loyalty to their own ancestors. And how do we figure out a way together through this? Because if we can’t make space for all those things simultaneously, then we condemn ourselves to a future of just more and more recrimination. But we also can’t ignore those questions either—truly not at this historical moment.
LEWIS: I can appreciate that question, and I really—
FASKIANOS: Go ahead, Jackie.
LEWIS: Yeah, just to really quickly say that I just—I don’t think it’s too fine a point, Traci, and the way you are raising that question is really important. I appreciate the ambassador’s response to what you are saying, and I think I would—I just would join in the sense of, again, really taking a compassionate, spiritual, intellectual rigor through the texts, and to look at what is Christian about Christian. What is Christian about Christian? And to help our people feel—I love the way you say it, Traci—this is, you know, our book about God—to help our people to feel like they are theologians and residents in their own lives—and by our people I mean all the people—so that we can look at the texts that point to what Jesus’ ministry was about, that points to what God is calling us to, but also to be able to say, alongside that are these other texts that have been concretized around the scripture that make it a bludgeon to our spirits as opposed to an invitation to walk in a holy way together. I just think that’s ongoing really important work that we need to do in community.
SINGH: Right, and if I may jump in—this is simmering here—I think for me this is where the framework of thinking about racism—especially in a foreign policy context—as a marriage of racist ideas and policies. It becomes really helpful because if we accept the premise—and I do—that racist ideas are so deeply entrenched in our society that they are living and breathing within each and every one of us, it becomes a lot easier for us all to accept our complicity in it and to step out, right, rather than pointing the finger at one another and saying, oh, it’s your fault, right. It’s Christianity’s fault—like, I don’t think it’s that. But I think what it allows us to do is to trace back historically where this comes from as a part of the decolonization process, right?
So as a historian, I see the function of history or the value of history in this process as essential. We need to understand where these ideas come from so we can work them out. And as a person of faith, the excavation process of going within ourselves and slowly peeling back these layers, it’s incredibly challenging. And I think that’s why we’re so resistant to doing it. But that has to be part of the process before we can even begin addressing what the policies are all around us, right, and then—and then we can start reimagining what this ought to look like. And this is, I think, what Reuben was talking about in terms of what the future might look like, an anti-racist future.
I think this is where Jackie’s ideas of bringing in story telling really comes in powerfully; that to tell the same story without that excavation process will only lead us to the same place, and so I think what you are talking about, Jackie, is reimagining what a decolonized, anti-racist future for us looks like, and I think that’s what a lot of us are looking for in this country right now.
LEWIS: Amen to that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Thomas Uthup next.
UTHUP: All right. My question is for Ambassador Brigety.
In your international experience, has the United States, as an idea—example, the Constitution—been far more inspiring than the practice of the United States? And secondly, can you comment on the long history of the struggle for independence and the civil rights struggle being inspired by each other—sometimes by religion?
BRIGETY: Sure. It’s a complicated question—the first one is anyway. And I’ll answer it essentially from both sides as I understand it.
So first of all, the idea of America is profoundly powerful. It’s powerful to our allies, it’s powerful to our aspirants, and it’s powerful to our enemies. Yet the notion that there is a country where, regardless of your ethnicity, you can be treated equally under the law as a matter of equal dignity and respect based on universal human rights in an environment that also allows you individual freedom to seek your own destiny—is something that is the reason why immigrants have flocked to America for generations.
And it is also—when we fail to live up to those ideas—why they are so powerfully damaging to our ability to advocate for ideas or positions that we believe are in our interests or our values abroad.
Literally, just in the last month, you have seen the government of China essentially using the Black Lives Matter protests, and the continued issues of police brutality and inequality amongst African Americans, Black Americans in the judicial system, as a means of pushing back even tentative approaches by our government to condemn what is happening in Hong Kong—as an example, right?
And during the Cold War, the Soviets were master propagandists in calling attention to the hypocrisy of America in condoning and perpetuating Jim Crowe in the American South even as they tried to, you know—we tried to do battle with them in Africa and other parts of the developing world, which is why it is so important for us to treat these matters of institutional equity as the national security matters of which they are.
When I was an ambassador, I would often get asked this question: I mean, how can the United States stand for this, that, and the other thing abroad when they are doing all these sorts of things at home. And what I would often say is that at least we actually have values that are the lodestar against which we measure our own progress.
That is not true in a number of other countries in the world; certainly not true among some of our other peer competitors. But that argument only lasts so long as we actually are trying to get there.
I wrote an article in Time magazine a couple of weeks ago—it was published on Juneteenth—in which I basically said that this generation into the marching in the streets right now in America is done with progress; they want change because they don’t have a lived framework for understanding any more why there should be continued inequities based on race in America, particularly as it relates to treatment by agents of the state as matters of law.
And so we have to fix this, and we have to—it will be hard, and we’ll be imperfect. We actually have to take it on with the clear eye and with the urgency that it deserves.
Now secondarily, with regard to—as I understand your second question—the relationship between the civil rights and faith movements, you know, one of things—so here I am sitting as the first African American vice chancellor of the University of the South, a university founded over 160 years ago by Episcopalians who would shortly thereafter become Confederates to withdraw from the Union for the purpose of perpetuating slavery in the states who were doing it.
And one of the things that I have been consistently struck by as an amateur student of the modern civil rights movement is how patient Black clergy were in trying to have a conversation with their Christian brothers and sisters who were White in the South, and how resistant so many of them were to seeing the shared humanity of their common brothers and sisters that is articulated in the same book, same Bible that they’re all reading. And what worries me most about that is that I don’t believe that we have left that historical relic behind. I worry that, while the hopefulness of this latest protest movement is that it is truly multicultural and multigenerational, that there are still many who are Christians, who profess the same faith that I profess, who nevertheless they literally psychologically cannot embrace the full shared humanity of their fellow citizens who are also Christians, who nevertheless are being treated so fundamentally differently, consistently over time.
And I don’t know how to bridge that gap 160 years after the start of the Civil War, two generations after Brown v. Board of Education. I literally do not know what more has to be done in order to bridge that gap, other than—you know, like the Moses generation that was forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they finally reached their promised land, if we simply just have to have a generational change.
But here, I’ll say this—last point I’ll say—here’s the one caution about simply leaving progress to a future generation. If you don’t get the narrative right, you will get the same problems or worse in the future. Dinosaurs don’t die out; you just get young dinosaurs. And that’s why this moment of discussion and reflection is so important for our near-term future.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I stopped my video because I’m freezing, so I’m still here.
Let’s go next to Dr. Helen Boursier.
BOURSIER: Hello, thank you very much. Thank you all for being here. I am Reverend Dr. Helen Boursier. I do research and writing on immigration and gender studies, and I have been working on a book project right now on overcoming the limitations of religious love for refugee families seeking asylum. And I’ve done a ton of interviews direct on the ground with clergy in greater San Antonio which is on the front line for immigration.
And I was just reviewing the feedback over this past weekend, and the consistent themes that come are fear of being fired: I need this job, if I bring this up; apathy: it’s really not my problem; self-absorbed: I’m too busy doing regular church stuff, and I’m busy with my spouse and three children; another seminarian who says that she’s told in seminary to walk the middle road.
So how do you, on a very practical basis engage clergy people to lead their people—people of faith—and I will say interreligious on this—so that they are on the ground and they are moving their congregations to action?
Thank you. (Pause.)
LEWIS: Helen, that’s a great question. It’s good to hear your voice here. Hi.
I want to start with what you said about the person learning in seminary to walk the middle ground. I was struck that Reuben started his comments about the kind of global uprising of multiracial, international, we-can’t-live-this-wayness. But the church is an institution that likes to be a church, and so global uprising for an anti-racist world is not going to be the church’s business if the church thinks that the institution will die with the uprising.
What I think needs to happen is a theological education needs to shift radically from institution maintenance to prophetic resistance. My friend Michael-Ray Matthews would say, are we priests of the empire or are we prophets of the resistance?
Christians Catholic, Christians Ethiopian, Orthodox Christians all over the globe pray this radical prayer that, again, if we look at the texts—and I’m a text girl—what Jesus is saying in the Lord’s prayer is just radical. You know, give me enough bread for today; don’t make me a hoarder—thinking about the manna from heaven story—but especially, your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. I’m like, what do we think we’re saying there? It’s a crazy prayer to say make Earth like we think the reign of God is going to be, and make it that way now. Well, that requires a different understanding of what it means to be a clergy, Helen. Are we supposed to pacify people, make them feel good about the little bit they’re doing, be in the middle—which is to say, don’t cause them to break ranks with us or stop paying us, or stop, you know, funding the building, and all that kind of stuff.
But if we end up making theological education a project of raising a love army—to quote my friend Valerie Core—a love revolution where we actually are linking arms across institutions with people of other faiths, and people of no faith-humanists, atheists who believe we can save the world—if we stop thinking that our job as clergy is to make sure our church stays alive, but instead, our job as clergy is to save lives and to make life beautiful, thriving, resilience, resplendent, joyful for all of humanity, that is a different job description. That needs a different kind of educational space.
SINGH: I’ll offer a remark. As a native San Antonian, I feel moved to respond here.
So I think part of what’s happening, and part of what I would recommend to folks just based on observations of what I’m seeing as a professor, is our future is following the young people. Those are the folks who are out on the streets all over the world right now, and those are the folks who are leading us into the conversation around anti-racism. And so the idea here, I think, is we have been so focused on a narrative around neutrality versus racism that we’ve kind of just gotten stuck, right? Our idea of finding a middle path has really been like, OK, let’s not trouble the waters; let’s do nothing.
And I think what we’re seeing from young people in the conversation on anti-racism is there is no middle path when it comes to racism versus anti-racism, right? Again, neutrality is complicity. To be silent is to be complicit. And so when you think you are engaging in a middle road, what you are really doing is falling into subservience of the current power dynamics.
And so to me, what we really need is to help folks revision this conversation, reframe how we think about oppression in this country. And I think the real opportunity here that’s coming with this pandemic is that we’ve never seen before people feel so viscerally connected to one another in a way that they realize deeply that all of our well-beings are connected to one another’s.
And so when we’re seeing that sort of connectivity among folks—this understanding that we all are better when we’re together, and we’re healthy, and we’re safe—I think that’s the kind of intersectional approach that we’re seeing around justice. And so this opportunity to reframe, while people are feeling this emotionally, and deeply, and personally, and spiritually, I think that’s a direction for us to go in this moment.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Reverend Dr. Joan Brown Campbell. (Pause.)
PENNYBACKER: Yes, I’m Reverend Dr. Albert Pennybacker. Joan Brown Campbell is my wife. And we’ve been appreciating this together.
One of the things I want to say is that it seems to me the religious heritage has the capacity to talk about racism as sin, not as sociological phenomena that’s got to be dealt with. Not only that, but it is truly sinful, as several of you—and I think that I’ll just say a word in favor of the capacity to provide the preaching availability at a pulpit of a preacher who, in the seminary, has been trained to speak to the issue with prophetic clarity. That is an important role; that the gathered congregations across the country have the opportunity to claim.
How do you measure that in terms of preparing students for that job?
FASKIANOS: Who wants to take that?
BRIGETY: You’ve stumped us. (Laughter.)
You know—so let me be a bit controversial, what the hell. (Laughter.)
SINGH: Go to it.
BRIGETY: Yeah. I think you are right—I know you are right about the ability to speak to racism as a matter of sin. I don’t think it matters for those people of faith who still refuse to address it because there are many sins with which we constantly battle—jealousy, sin, avarice, whatever, right? And yet I dare say that there are many who would rather be preached to in the pulpit about the sin of their—pick a thing, right—watching online porn or being too rich—than to talk about their racism because they—I don’t know why. I have my theories. I mean, part because, you know, as Dr. Singh mentioned, it has been so fundamentally ingrained in the structures of American society; in part because it’s not simply about addressing men, but also, in many respect, like generations of lineage, and how do you make sense of that; in part because it can be so painful, so painful to recognize the hurt that one has caused by virtue of holding on to those beliefs and acting on them that it’s psychologically easier to double down or find some other—or assign something else rather than to confront the reality of that.
And so while I don’t disagree with you, I do wonder if, psychologically and politically, there are—quite frankly are not other strategies that need to be addressed as a means of—and that’s sort of like what I was trying to talk about before, is that even as we have to be brutally honest about the history of our country as it relates to many aspects of our racism and continued manifestations of that today.
The diplomat in me says, you have to give people a way to still have face as you create space for them in the broader beloved community. And so that is the orientation that I tend to take in engaging with students, interlocutors, and others. And yes, it’s a delicate balance, and yeah, but that’s how I think about it.
SINGH: I would agree with that, and one thing that I would add that I’ve found particularly helpful in opening up conversations like the ones—in opening up space for conversations like the ambassador has referred to has been the practice of modeling. And I think for those on the call, that’s an opportunity we all have. What would it look like for you to speak before your congregations, or your communities, or your students, in a way that’s a bit more vulnerable than we typically do, and to talk about our own process of digging out the racist ideas within us, right?
Again, if we accept this premise, that the White supremacist ideas have become a part of our own beings, then there is nothing to be ashamed about, right? These are things we’ve been taught, things we’ve learned over time. But it’s deeply shameful in the way we have set it up in our society where the most offensive thing anyone can ever be called is a racist.
And so what would it look like, right? What would it look like to go before people and open up this conversation as these are the struggles that I’ve had; this is how I’m grappling with racism myself personally, and then creating space for other people to do the same and accept these ideas within themselves. I found that incredibly helpful for people and for myself, and I would encourage you all to try it in moments when you can.
LEWIS: I really appreciate what Reuben and Simran have said, and I want to add to it this kind of idea of being multi-vocal; like to have a strategy in ourselves, those of us who are doing the work of modeling, of teaching, of training. Like for some people you need to have a language of sin because it will touch their heart in a way that’s different. Jim Wallis did that with White Evangelicals (to target his book ?), you know, America’s Original Sin, right? That’s the audience for whom he wrote that book; to take Evangelicals and say, this is a sinful thing to do. Let’s repent of it. That was a language for that group of people. Awesome.
I think some of us are going to have to use psych language. I do a lot of work around racial identity development, and in some ways, we’re therapists, and teachers, and you know, certain groups of people—oh, we have developed, right, a Black identity, or White identity, or Latinx identity in a context where all of race is a social construct. Can we change that identity? Can we develop an anti-racist identity? So that’s a good vocabulary.
I think sociology is a good vocabulary, although my mother, Ruby, says to me all the time, don’t forget you’re a theologian, not a sociologist. I think we have to have different languages to use for different people to do anti-racist work by any means necessary.
I saw some stuff the other day where some Black scholars were critiquing Ibram Kendi. I’m like, I love that; you know, let’s do that. But his framing is working for a lot of people.
Austin Channing Brown’s book, I’m Still Here—it’s kind of light, but it’s working for lots of people. Robin DiAngelo’s book about White fragility—holy cow! That will slap you around a little bit—(laughs)—you know, but it’s working for lots of people.
I think we need to have lots of different ways to get at this most horrific—most horrific, foundational wound to the national psyche. It is the problem, the twenty-first century problem for my mind through which all other things go—anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic sentiment, you know, Black trans people getting killed. This is it. This is the thing, people, until whatever it is that gets us up in the morning to say, today I’m going to model, teach, train, exigy (ph), break down, you know, protest. This is it.
We cannot survive on the globe without fixing this, and certainly not in this terrified and terrible nation built on this fault line called race. That is a construct for me, but nonetheless kills as racism.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Razi Hashmi.
HASHMI: Hi. This is Razi Hashmi. I’m a term member and I work at the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
Ambassador Brigety, Simran, Dr. Lewis, thank you so much again for this conversation.
So a lot of what you’ve been talking about is modeling institutions, or at least Simran had mentioned this earlier. If tomorrow, Ambassador Brigety, you were secretary of state, how would a reformed diplomacy, a reformed State Department, look like?
Simran, what would a reformed educational institution look like? And then also, Reverend Lewis, what would the faith community really have to change in terms of modeling what’s inherent in every faith tradition, whether it be Dharmic or Abrahamic?
BRIGETY: Sure. Razi, good to hear you, brother. Hope you are well.
From a diplomatic perspective as it relates to the—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—that are—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—us abroad, I mean, look, I could talk all day about this, right. But, I think issue number one—the two big ones—the two really big ones are we have to recruit and retain a diplomatic service that looks like America, right.
I mean, we simply have to do dramatically better than we have been doing and the reason is that when you have a diplomatic service that simply that just kind of looks like America but that actually is full of people that hail from a variety of different upbringings and faith traditions and ethnic backgrounds, two things happen.
One, you’re actually able to have a more nuanced take on America when you’re trying to explain it to the rest of the world, and the second thing that happens is that you get different approaches to policy development because you’re having different lenses on a particular problem set.
So that’s the first one. And then the second thing is we have to have, not so much in the institution of the department but you have to have a set, a policy orientation, that is geared towards closing the gap between America’s interests and its values, particularly as it relates to these questions of persistent structural inequalities.
The reason you have to be able to do that is because unless we have a closer approximation of our values and our interests, then America is simply just another power that for today happens to be richer and have a bigger military than others. That is not, ultimately, in my estimation, what gets the rest of the world on our side on things that matter to us.
It is the attractiveness of the overall American model. And what the rest of the world is telling us right now is that we have to move beyond these sort of Western poles that around which the foreign policy and international relations had revolved for much of the understanding of the discipline; and we have to be able to figure out how we create not only in our own society but create international structures that are more inviting rather than exclusionary; and that both of those things but especially the latter are a result of politics, meaning that unless you create an overall national political consensus that this is worth doing—so it doesn’t matter which party is in power, more or less, or you say, fine, one party is going to be for this, another party is, at a minimum, not going to care about it, and, therefore, we have electoral results that come out of that.
I would argue that that’s what the latest difference between the administration of President Obama and President Trump represents, and I would argue that is not working for us. What we need is a broad bipartisan consensus that we have to close this gap on equality of treatment, of opportunity, in this country, and regardless of who is in power, overall, our country will be better for it if we do.
FASKIANOS: Simran, do you want to go next?
SINGH: Sure. Thank you, and thanks for the question, Razi.
I think what I would want to say is what it would really take to revision what our institutions look like, educational or otherwise, would be to first understand—and in a critical way, not in a superficial way—but in a deep way to understand the ways in which racist ideas have come to form these institutions in ways that continue to produce inequities.
And so the two quick examples from education that come to my mind, standardized testing, right, the SATs, relying—its historical roots are based in racist ideas of biology and the ways in which it measures intelligence across the board, we have debunked these ideas. They no longer apply. We don’t believe that this is the way that we measure true intelligence, right.
For example, the SATs. The SATs—when I took them, I didn’t have any training. I didn’t know how to take the test. I didn’t do that well. Did it really measure my intelligence? No, because what happened after that is I went to a Princeton review class, learned how to take the test.
It’s not that I was any smarter. I just learned how to take the test, right. And so this very simple example of how standardized testing disproportionately excludes or marginalizes people of color, it speaks to the ways in which these structures have continued to perpetuate inequity.
Another very clear example that we have good numbers on as well is the ways in which having police officers in schools accelerate the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly and disproportionally affecting Black students. So, like, what would a reformed education system look like? I mean, I think we have to go back and understand all the ways in which our ideas, our racist ideas, have come to be part of our policies and our systems, and then pushed into our realities.
And so let me just say one more thing—and I’m a term member at CFR as well—and then I want to speak briefly about this very strange thing that I noticed recently. If you go to Google and you type in foreign policy and racism or international relations and racism, you will be shocked, or at least I was, at how little comes up.
And this is true for many of our institutions. I think we are really starting to grapple with the ways in which racism is systemic. This is a conversation that we haven’t really had, collectively, in previous decades. But if you do that search and the first few hits on foreign affairs will be, like, when did racism become solely a domestic issue. Why is mainstream international relations blind to race. Those are two of the headlines that popped up when I was looking.
And I think what we are missing here in this conversation in terms of foreign policy is, again, if racist ideas are entrenched within all of our systems in American history and in the American present, then they are also just as present in the way that we deal with the global community.
And so the question we have to ask ourselves is, just as we’re asking everything else, is American foreign policy racist, and it can be so tempting to dismiss this question as rhetorical. In our current moment we could say, you know, President Trump’s explicit comments on shithole countries and trace how his xenophobic view is tied to his racist foreign policy, his anti-Muslim animus, and the resulting travel ban, or his anti-Latinx comments and the expansion of inhumane immigration policies. And there are many of these examples.
But I think to stop there is to miss the point because the real question underneath this all is in what ways these racist ideas inform our nation’s approach to international relations, right.
And so what does it mean when we have a travel ban, for example, that targets people from seven different countries, and if we go back and look at the data we haven’t had any instances of terroristic violence from people of those countries—immigrants from those countries—in about twenty years. Like, the policies are coming out of racist ideas, not out of actual data. It is not making us any safer.
And so the process, and many of you here on this call would already be aware of the issues I’m talking about, but I think what I really want to say to you all is the reframing has to get at how these ideas that are racist in their nature because they are coming from—they have racist histories and they have racist effects and they are moved into racist policies, how they continue to perpetuate inequities in which we are engaged in endless wars against people from Middle Eastern countries or Central Asian countries constantly.
And so that’s the kind of thing that I think would also have to be examined as we are examining everything else in this country.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
And, Jacqui, you get the last word.
LEWIS: Well, yeah. Thank you so much, everyone. I know that we’re out of time.
What I would say if we’re going to reform religion, and I want to be particular to say, again, that I am a Christian, a Universalist Christian, but that is more my area of expertise. But when I think about psychology of religion, which is something I study a lot, I want to just say something controversial. I’ll follow Reuben into controversy.
You know, I believe there is a God but also this ministry that we would call the Holy Other, or God, or love, or whatever we’d call it, we don’t know, and the space where we don’t know we make things up. We do. We make them up. We’ve been making them up as soon as we crawled out of the water and as soon as we crawled out of the cave and we looked over there and saw the fire and went, oh my God, how did that happen? Thank you. When the crops didn’t grow, we theologized about our lives, and we theologize about our lives at least to a Bible or at least to a Quran or at least to a Bhagavad Gita, the holy books that are our attempt to understand the mystery.
And, therefore, even our holiest of holy books can have our own biases in them. Our own biases are in them. The human being biases are in them. Y’all, don’t fire me now. That’s why you have a community. You have a community that reads the texts to say, well, no. Well, have you thought about.
That’s why you do it in community so you’re not by yourself up on a mountain someplace having a really racist experience of God and thinking that’s the right one. So even—so if we’re going to reform religion, we have to decenter our preciousness. You know, like, I’ve got it all together and I know all the things, and, therefore, I can’t critique my own stuff.
We have to be in a community where we can say to ourselves that we are all trying to understand God, now we see in a mirror dimly and then we’ll see face to face. Can we, therefore, as religious leaders, as people of spirit, engage our religion with hope that it’s got something great for us but also with the suspicion that we’ve inherited something that wasn’t for everyone, and if we want to make it for everyone we have to be comfortable critiquing it and pushing it around.
So I want to just encourage people to get a new set of books. If you’ve only read Calvin, get some Tracey West, you know. If you’ve only read White theologians, read some Muhadista (ph) stuff. Like, just think about our faith not as something that is concrete and static and can’t grow, but what might it be for us to have a grownup faith and a grownup God.
Because we let God out of the box and maybe we’ll find out that she speaks Sikh and Christian fluently, speaks Islam and Buddhism fluently, and she loves all the people for sure because she made them all in their image. We just have to get God out of the box so we can let religion work for building humanity, not concretizing our racism and our biases, which is what it too often does.
Was that controversial good, Reuben? (Laughter.)
FASKIANOS: It was great and it was a wonderful way to end this conversation. And I apologize to all that we went over. I broke Council rules. We try to end on time. But I couldn’t stop this conversation, and I’m sorry to all of you that we could not—there were so many raised hands. I apologize that we could not get to your questions.
But thank you to Ambassador Reuben Brigety, Reverend Jacqui Lewis, and Dr. Simran Jeet Singh for this wonderful conversation. I encourage you to follow them all on Twitter—at @ReubenBrigety, at @RevJacquiLewis, and at @SikhProf. So those are their Twitter handles. You can also follow us on CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program at CFR_Religion for information and announcements.
And thank you all. We will be continuing this series. Stay well, stay safe, and thank you all.
LEWIS: Thank you.