"A Paradoxical Feast Day:" Kelly Brown Douglas is Absalom Jones Speaker

January 20, 2016

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is coming to Chicago to help the diocese celebrate what she calls “a paradoxical feast day.”

In Absalom Jones, she says, the Episcopal Church is commemorating not only its first African American priest, but also a man who faced discrimination throughout his life and ministry. “We can’t celebrate like we are celebrating the advent of racial justice,” says Douglas, Susan D. Morgan Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore.

“In many ways he contains the paradox of our history. We are celebrating him as the first black Episcopal priest while, recognizing that this church has not lived fully into what it means to be called to a place of racial justice, and has not always lead the way in that regard.”

Douglas, whose most recent book is “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” will speak at the diocese’s Absalom Jones celebration at St. Thomas, Chicago at 3 p. m. on February 7. The event is sponsored by the local chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians.

“I know it’s overused but I believe it to be the case that theologically we are in a kairos time,” she says. “Kairos is this sort of time that can be chaotic, a time of crisis, a time of disruption. I think it is Paul Tillich who says it is a time pregnant with divine possibility. It’s a time when God acts and disrupts and calls us to a better place.”

Douglas, who is canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral, is also among the speakers at the 2016 Trinity Institute called Listen for a Change: Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice. The event, to be held from January 21-23, includes speakers Nicholas Kristof, Anna Deavere Smith, Michele Norris, an opening Eucharist with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as preacher, and opportunities for theological reflection.  It will be broadcast in the diocese at St. Thomas Chicago, St. Luke's Evanston, and St. Mark's Glen Ellyn

In “Stand Your Ground,” Douglas traces the intellectual history of white supremacy from the writings of Tacitus, the first century Roman historian who wrote about the superiority of Anglo-Saxons in his book “Germania,” to the moment in February 2012, when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, was accosted on a central Florida street by a man who shot and killed him but faced no legal consequences.

Douglas examines the ways in which white thinkers constructed racial identities that portrayed white, northern Europeans as uniquely able to practice the restraint and good judgment required to enjoy the fruits of liberty, while depicting blacks as hyper-violent, hypersexual, and simultaneously dangerous and fit primarily for divinely ordained servitude.

The book poses the same question that President Obama raised in a news conference after Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in July 2013:  “If Trayvon was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”

As Douglas notes, “For black people it was a rhetorical question.”

When Douglas was working on the book, her editor wondered if she would be able to complete it while the killing of a young unarmed black man by an assailant who paid no penalty for his death was still on people’s minds. But unarmed black men kept being killed: Michael Brown (whose death Douglas discusses in an epilog), Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald, who was shot by a police officer on the south side of Chicago in the fall of 2014.

“It is as if I was reading the book,” Douglas says. “I was seeing the book played out.”

The notion that black bodies are inherently dangerous to whites was most evident in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Douglas says. Rice had been playing intermittently with a pellet gun in a public park when a police car pulled up and one of the officers inside shot him within two seconds.

Timothy J. McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, argued that Rice was reaching for the gun in his waist band and that officers had no way of knowing it was a pellet gun. A grand jury did not indict Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Rice.

Douglas was struck particularly by authorities’ emphasis on Rice’s size. Though he was not yet in his teens, police said they believed he was in his 20s, citing the 36-inch waist of his pants to support their perception. “This tells you the way they see black males and that they always see them as this kind of threat,” Douglas says. “They don’t see black males as children, as innocent human beings.”

The church is frequently criticized when it speaks on matters of race and politics, Douglas says, but she believes its critics misunderstand the meaning of the crucifixion. “If we are going to say God entered history then we have to take seriously the context in which Jesus lived and what got him to the cross,” she says. “Jesus wasn’t born to die. He didn’t say, ‘I am going to jump up on that cross to atone for human sin.’ Human sin put him on the cross.

“So we have to ask ourselves, ‘Where is Jesus today? We don’t see him floating above human history. He was in history and engaged in it and he was engaged in it in a way that wasn’t neutral, shall we say.”

The role of the church, she says, is to join in the work Jesus undertook in his lifetime.

“Every human being wants dignity and wants to be treated with dignity and we are forcing people to grow up and live in spaces that deny them that,” Douglas says. “We have to provide the networks of support that help people to affirm who they are as sacred human beings.”