Impetus

It’s 4:30PM and the flow of traffic is slow. Dim hues of blue and purple paint the sky as a school empties its parking lot of buses to take children home. Directly across from the school stands a row of houses whose chipped paint and bent shutters reveal battle scars from the relentless blizzards and heavy rains of New Haven, Connecticut. All appears to be a calm when suddenly, 6 police officers surround one of the houses. Their backs are plastered with S.W.A.T in big white block letters and their hands carry guns that seem more fit for the battlefields of Iraq than here. Without warning, they kick open the door and quickly infiltrate the house.

This scene is not from an action movie. It is not from one of those law enforcement or crime television shows. The incident described above is something I witnessed this past January while I was driving on a street located a mere ten minutes away from Yale’s J. Crew and Urban Outfitter-lined streets.

It’s been months since that evening, and I still can’t shake what happened from my mind. I realize I have no way of knowing the details of the situation I witnessed in New Haven, but I couldn’t help but think the military-style weapons the police carried and karate-style door-kick seemed excessive. At the time, I was reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and it was all too easy to relate that scene to the many very true and very real stories recounted by Alexander, such as the story of Alberta Spruill, a fifty-seven year-old woman from Harlem who died of cardiac arrest after police deployed a flash-bang grenade during a mistaken raid.[1]

Thinking back to that night in January, what I remember most was the overwhelming feeling of helplessness I experienced. I felt ashamed and guilty as I drove by, watching vacant lots and broken store windows abruptly transform into Starbucks Coffee and G-Heav storefronts on the safe and familiar streets of High and Elm. I was especially frustrated with my lack of response because I felt as a Christian, I needed to do something. With everything that has happened on Yale’s campus last semester with regards to race and now, having this experience, I’ve been asking myself more and more, what role does my faith play in seeking justice? How am I to just sit silent, or literally just drive by when I see so much injustice in the world around me?

If you, like me, find yourself questioning the compatibility of the Christian faith and justice, I encourage you to read Isaiah Chapter 58. The chapter begins with the prophet Isaiah calling out the Israelites for living hypocritical lives. On the outside, the Israelites looked like good and respectable church-folk, consistently fasting and praying to God. Yet, verses 3 through 4 reveal the deplorable hypocrisy of the church in their actions: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.” In the midst of the Israelites’ religious actions of fasting and praying, they were perpetuating the very injustice God hates.

I see striking similarities between the Israelites and the Church of today. I see a nation inundated with injustice, yet a Church that is silent. I see a people who go to church on Sundays, worshipping and glorifying God, but then I see Ferguson happen, and the Church is silent. I see the dehumanization of incarcerated individuals happen, and the Church is silent. I see the exploitation of immigrant workers, and the Church is silent. However, despite the frustration and anger I sometimes experience when thinking about these issues, I am filled with an incredible sense of hope when I read the latter portion of Isaiah 58:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

These verses not only encourage those of us who consider ourselves followers of Christ to take
action, it requires us to take action. I will not lie and say these actions will be easy. In fact, I guarantee quite the opposite, as much of the work surrounding justice will require us to interact with and love individuals our society deems as less than, unsafe, and criminal. It will require us to enter into places and spaces that might make us uncomfortable, but following Jesus has never been a path marked by comfort.

An impetus is a force that causes an object to begin moving or to continue to move, and my hope is that this article gets you to start moving, or if you have already been moving, may you continue to do so, seeking justice and fighting injustice everywhere you go. At Yale, I believe this looks like getting involved in organizations like the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) where we can work to break the yokes of injustice and oppression we see so prevalent within our nation’s prison system. It looks like volunteering at a soup kitchen with Yale Hunger Heroes, as we share our food with the hungry. My prayer is that Christians at Yale and beyond are not known for silence towards injustice, but for a love of others that is so loud and so bold, the chains of injustice have no other option but to loosen.

1 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, 75-76

Nia Campinha-Bacote is a Ministry Fellow with the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship.

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