The Poor Will Be With You Always

The Poor Will Be With You Always – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 4
July 8, 2020 – David R. Weiss

NOTE: In this series of posts (see here and here and here*) I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.
* “Come This Wilderness,” June 8; “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff,” June 30; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” July 4


They are among the most careless words Jesus utters: “The poor will be with you always.” Careless, because the poor have paid so dearly for them over the years.

The scene takes place in a house not far from Jerusalem and not long before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It’s one of only a handful of incidents recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:3-9 || Matthew 26:6-13; with a variation in Luke 7:36-50) and also in the John’s Gospel (John 12:1-8). The details shift a bit from one telling to the next, but in each case a woman anoints Jesus (either his head or his feet) with nard, a very costly ointment. And it doesn’t sit well. Some of those present (Matthew specifies Jesus’ disciples; John singles out Judas) complain that that this jar of ointment—worth as much as $20,000![1]—could’ve been sold and the money used to aid the poor.

Seemingly unaware that his mic is live, Jesus retorts, “Dude(s), for Christ’ sake, in a few days I’ll be dead! Not to be too blunt, but she’s sort of just anointing my body for burial. And besides, the poor will be with you always.” (Okay, that’s paraphrased, but only a bit—and the comment about the poor is exactly what he said.)

Movement for Black Lives –

Yesterday (July 7, 2020), the Movement for Black Lives unveiled their “Breathe Act,” a proposed set of sweeping federal legislation that would change how we think about policing and prisons, community safety and wellbeing, accountability for the system, and self-determination for Black communities.[2] Although the bill stops short of seeking to abolish police and prisons, the first of its four sections does aim to “defund the police and divest from incarceration” at levels that many of us—especially those who are white[3]—will find, frankly, impossible.

Our common sense tells us—and Jesus confirms it—that the poor (and the police and prisons) will be with us always. That’s just the way it is. And to think otherwise is dangerously utopian. Or is it? Why are we so quick to read Jesus’ words in a way that reassures us that we don’t really need to alter our lives or this world in response to his message? If we listen to almost everything else he says, it pretty much asks us to turn our lives upside down (which might well flip the world as well).

Is it any surprise, after 400-plus years of having armed patrols organized to terrorize them, that visionary black leaders want to imagine—no, they want to legislate—a world where that state-organized terror no longer exists. And our best response is to say, “But that’s just the way it is”?!

In her poem, “Home,” Somali poet Warsan Shire writes these haunting words about refugees:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark …
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land …[4]

Is it possible that we who find a world without police so unthinkable … is it possible that we have never known what it like to live—daily!—in the mouth of a shark? Or on land so dangerous—daily!—that even a rickety boat on the water seems safer?

I want to go further than this (and I will in another essay). Because abolition is NOT simply about the erasure of uniformed terror. It is also and ultimately about the wellbeing of communities, as the other three sections of the Breathe Act attend to. (Though again, to be clear, the Breathe Act is NOT an abolition bill. I reference it because it was just introduced, and it does seek sweeping and—to many of us—unimaginable changes.) But perhaps the alarm we feel at the prospect of life on the far side of police is bound up with an uneasy intuition of how much the relative comfort of our lives hinges on systems (including policing) that maintain the grinding discomfort of other lives.

Although it is those who die at the hands of police whose names we come to know, as Derecka Purnell writes in The Atlantic, [5] “most victims of police violence survive. No hashtags or protests or fires for the wounded, assaulted, and intimidated.” Most of the time, police simply “manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed.”

And because most of us are white, employed, housed, owners, it’s easier for us to blame police dysfunction on bad apples rather than an altogether bad system. Purnell observes, “Perhaps there are bad apples. But even the best apples surveil, arrest, and detain millions of people every year whose primary ‘crime’ is that they are poor or homeless, or have a disability. Cops escalate violence disproportionately against people with disabilities and in mental-health crises, even the ones who call 911 for help. The police officers who are doing the ‘right thing’ maintain the systems of inequality and ableism in black communities. The right thing is wrong.”

So maybe Jesus knew his mic was live, and maybe the disciples heard a biting sting in his remark that we tend (prefer?) to miss today. The novelist-essayist Kurt Vonnegut remarked that he was weary of hearing ‘good’ Christians excuse the ongoing suffering of poverty by citing Jesus’ words that “the poor will be with you always.”[6] He countered—with uncanny insight for someone who wasn’t even a self-identified Christian—that Jesus was responding to Judas’ feigned concern for the poor (which is exactly how John presents it). For Vonnegut, then, the passage “says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” In words fringed with prophetic sarcasm, Jesus is saying to Judas—and to the rest of us: “So as long as you fail—daily!—to see me in the least of these around you, your world will always include poor.”

The persistence of poverty—and policing and prisons (the overwhelming majority of those who are policed and imprisoned are also poor)—doesn’t reflect God’s priorities; it reflects ours. And when Jesus says, in a word of bitter commentary on the smallness of our imagination, “The poor—and the police, and the prisons—will be with you always,” he isn’t confirming our world, he’s calling us to change it. Abolitionists are on that same page. We should be, too.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

[1] Both Mark and John say the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii, and one denarius was equal to one day’s wage for a general laborer. Today a minimum wage worker, working a 10-hour day, earns $75, and 300 times that equals $22,500. Of course, it’s impossible to accurately compare wage values across differing time periods, cultures, and standards of living. But another passage (Mark 6:30-44) suggests that 200 denarii could buy enough food to feed five thousand persons. The point is, this was one pricey flask of nard.

[2] I’m not here to discuss the bill; I only mean to challenge our (white people’s) knee-jerk reaction to it as unrealistic. You can find the bill summary here (; and news story here ( and here (

[3] I’m following the Columbia Journalism Review in choosing to capitalize Black but not white as a racial designation.



[6] Kurt Vonnegut, “Palm Sunday Sermon” in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981).

This entry was posted on July 8, 2020. 3 Comments

The Hollow Man and the Fourth of July Fireworks

The Hollow Man and the Fourth of July Fireworks
July 5, 2020 – David Weiss

“Garryowen” is the name of an Irish song/tune (a drinking song and a quickstep dance) that became a popular marching tune for military units, both in Britain and the United States. It was the official marching tune of Colonel George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. They played while marching—it was, in fact, the tune Custer’s regiment was playing as it headed off to Little Big Horn. And they played it right before attacks as a way to rouse the men to a focused frenzy. The phrase Garryowen appeared on the regiment’s crest, featured on the pin worn by every Seventh Cavalry soldier.

The tune came to symbolize Custer’s merciless pursuit and massacre of Native Americans at the direction of the U.S. government.

One incident is particularly noteworthy. In November 1868 Custer’s troops had quietly positioned themselves around a small Cheyenne village on the Washita River in Western Oklahoma. Black Kettle, the chief—one of the Council of Forty-Four Peace Chiefs of the Cheyenne—had just returned a day earlier from talks seeking peace at Fort Cobb, about 100 miles to the east. At dawn on November 27 Custer’s troops—700 men—played Garryowen as they launched a devastating attack on the village of about 250 men, women, and children.

The village was destroyed. Around 50 persons, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed. Pregnant women were cut open, their babies left to die on the frozen ground. Many more were wounded. Another 53—women and children—were captured and used as human shields (deliberately positioned on horseback throughout Custer’s troops) to keep the regiment safe as they marched on to the next fort.

The body of a Cheyenne child killed in the massacre eventually wound up displayed in a local history museum in Cheyenne, Oklahoma.

In 1968 a centennial commemoration of the massacre (still heralded by white historians as a “great battle”) was held at the original site. A number of Cheyenne living in the area agreed to participate—reluctantly, and only on the condition that the child’s body would be returned to them for proper burial.

The Cheyenne erected tipis and whole families came dressed in their traditional garb to stand by the tipis at the original site. Unbeknownst to them a group of re-enactors, The Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, had been invited from California, and they—also dressed in historic uniforms—came riding onto the scene firing blanks from their true-to-the-era weapons. Children screamed in terror. Even the re-enactors seemed taken aback at the cruelty they’d just unwittingly carried out.

Afterwards, when the Cheyenne chiefs received the body in a small coffin from museum staff, a young Cheyenne woman draped it in a traditional blanket for the procession to burial. The chiefs were dismayed to see that members of the regiment had assembled again at the burial site, this time to offer a solemn gun salute to the dead child. But they decided, per Cheyenne tradition, which required them to present the blanket to someone present, to ask their Peace Chief, Lawrence Hart, a great-grandson of a survivor of the massacre, to present the blanket to the captain of the Grandsons. Once the blanket had been draped around his shoulders, that leader, in tears, removed his regiment pin—bearing the phrase Garryowen on it—and presented it to the Peace Chief with his deepest apology and solemn pledge that never again would Garryowen be played against the Cheyenne.

Fireworks over Mount Rushmore
Credit: PBS News Hour

And yet, at the start of President’s Trump July 4th fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, the very first tune played in the “Spirit of America” medley was Garryowen. Weaponized once again against Native Americans, on land sacred to the Lakota and in the shadows of a rock formation known to the Lakota as the Six Grandfathers (representing Earth, Sky, and the Four Direction) now desecrated with the visages of four white presidents.

Did many in attendance know the dog whistle being sounded in this tune? Of course not. But for any Native American within earshot, the tune would’ve sounded a note of instinctive terror and historical trauma. And among Trump’s deepest, whitest base the tune would’ve offered reassurance that Trump (and those in his inner circle) were in fact celebrating the resurgent rise of white supremacy in this country on the Fourth of July.

When a man is that hollow, there is no end to the evil he can hold within.

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Sources: I first learned of this story in a post by Jim Fussell shared on Rebecca Voelkel’s Facebook page. That post referenced only an article from an online Irish newspaper ( After some further searching I confirmed and filled out the story through pieces on Wikipedia (, DailyKos (, and most significantly, several Mennonite sources that carry the tale as recounted by Chief Lawrence Hart himself (in its fullest version here:



David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at


This entry was posted on July 5, 2020. 9 Comments

Follow the Drinking Gourd

Follow the Drinking Gourd – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 3
July 4, 2020 – David R. Weiss

NOTE: In this series of posts (beginning here and here) I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.

“Follow the drinking gourd.” When Black people escaped from slavery and began their flight to freedom, this phrase served as their all-natural GPS system. Traveling by night to avoid capture-beating-and-return or summary execution by the police,* they looked to the night sky and “followed the drinking gourd” (the Big Dipper, used to locate the North Star) as a heavenly compass to ensure their northward movement.[1]

*Yes, police were called “slave patrols” at the time but they later became the police, and until we see—and feel—the weight of that deadly and unbroken legacy between Black people and armed patrols, we haven’t yet even begun a conversation that acknowledges their history … which is our history from the other side.

Perhaps this phrase—“follow the drinking gourd”—can help us white people[2] understand the twinned meaning of phrases like Defund the Police and Abolish the Police. They strike us as impracticably, indeed foolishly immediate and as well as frightfully absolute. They’re neither … and both … and, well, it’s complicated. No seasoned abolitionist (the movement for abolition has been around for decades, so, yes, there are seasoned scholar-activists of abolition) expects total defunding and abolition will happen overnight.

Still, unlike some of the memes initially circulating on Facebook and some of the comments appearing in news articles, for those who identify as abolitionist, this call to abolish is absolute (and they would say it’s the delay that remains frightful), even if they recognize it won’t be immediate. And only if we can also hold in mind this paradox of ‘absolute-though-not-yet’ can we begin to really reckon the challenge that abolition poses to our world today.

So let’s return to that drinking gourd. The end goal of following it was uncompromisingly absolute: freedom in the North (the Northern states or Canada). Nobody followed the drinking gourd with a goal less than that. However the practical meaning of following the drinking gourd could be quite different from one context to another. Does it mean cross an open field or hug the edge? Follow a riverbank or fjord the stream? Skirt a mountain or wind one’s way to the top and over? Bide your time—or run like hell? “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” It’s one phrase with a singular admonition—an uncompromisingly absolute end goal—and yet a multitude of ways to put into practice.

So, too, with defunding and abolishing the police. Given our present political and social realities, abolition won’t happen next week or next year. But before we place too much weight on the reality of those social conditions (which I’ll address in another essay), it’s important to be clear: some large portion of the challenging social conditions that have seemed to make police so necessary are the direct result of our having decided as a nation (ruled largely by white Christian men) that we would rather invest in police than in societal justice. We made that choice and built the brokenness of our world around that decision. But that’s another essay.

As with following the drinking gourd, the pursuit of police abolition will happen step-by-step—year-by-year—and will follow different paths in different places. And yet, just as for those who followed the drinking gourd, the end goal is also uncompromisingly absolute: abolition, a community without prisons and without police.

Here, too, I’ll ask you to bracket for the moment whether such a community is truly possible or purely utopian. I’ll argue in a later essay that the best reason for believing it’s possible is that if it isn’t, we all die. The only path forward toward a livable future is a path that involves the renunciation of capitalism and its exploitation of both people and planet. That path is obviously fraught with complication. But, besides being abolitionist, it is also PROFOUNDLY CHRISTIAN and if we cannot imagine it as truly possible and worthy of our best imagination and most concerted energy then we have already betrayed our children and grandchildren to a future wracked by both human and natural violence the scale of which humanity has never known. But that’s another essay, too.

Bottom line in this essay: despite their resounding call, the movement to Abolish the Police is not about simply trying to erase police forces from our communities tomorrow—except that, of course, it is. And only as we acknowledge that paradoxical character can we fathom the true nature of this call.[3]

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, at 70 one of the Black matriarchs of abolition, has been working on prison abolition, (close kin to police abolition) for over thirty years. She is unflinching in her commitment to close every prison, yet readily acknowledges, “No abolitionist thinks the system will disappear overnight.” For her, abolition is both a long-term goal and a short-term angle of strategic vision. That is, abolitionists ‘test’ the ‘legitimacy’ of any proposed short-term police reforms by whether they work to lessen the footprint of policing or simply further entrench it in our communities.

“We have to act with the urgency of the moment and the patience of a thousand years,” says Mariame Kaba (about 50), another one of the Black women visionaries whose work (both in theory and in practice) on abolition is measured not in years but in decades. “This will take generations, and I’m not going to be alive to see the changes,” she admits—although that admission has not dimmed the fire in her soul one bit. She could just as easily be commenting on the Sermon on the Mount. We Christians are heirs to a gospel vision no less demanding; we’ve simply managed to negotiate with God for terms of justice that strike us as more … ‘practical.’

William Morris, a ‘proto-abolitionist’ (he was a Marxist-socialist artist-writer noteworthy for writing News From Nowhere, an 1890 futurist novel in which prisons have been eliminated) wrote in 1885, “Every age has had its hopes, hopes that look to something beyond the life of the age itself, hopes that try to pierce the future.” The vision of contemporary abolitionists holds such hope and is determined to pierce the future.

Would that we, rather than negotiating downward the claim of the gospel on our lives, chose to embrace it with the same passion as these abolitionists embrace their work. If and when we do, we might join them in rewriting the next chapter of our shared history, piercing the future with the gospel and abolition.

*     *     *


David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

[1] It’s unclear just how historical the now famous song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is. But, whether the song, with its detailed “map” of verses, traces back to the Underground Railroad or was a later creation that honored the many northward journeys made, there seems to be no doubt about “the drinking gourd” as a reference to the Big Dipper to maintain a northerly route.;;

[2] I’m following the Columbia Journalism Review in choosing to capitalize Black but not white as a racial designation.

[3] I’ve read pretty widely on abolition now, but the ideas and quotes below (including the quote by William Morris) come from these sources:;; and regarding how an abolitionist viewpoint assess the merits of specific reform measures:

This entry was posted on July 4, 2020. 4 Comments

Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff – On Abolition and the Gospel

Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff – On Abolition and the Gospel
June 30, 2020 – David R. Weiss

The congregation … was pissed. (Okay, Luke says “filled with wrath/rage” (KJV/NRSV) or simply “furious” (NIV), but “pissed” works, too.) In fact, they were so pissed, that this synagogue sermonette, the very first public message in which Jesus announces his “platform,” is nearly his last. Luke tells us that the congregants “filled with rage, got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Luckily, for Jesus, Luke adds quite matter-of-factly, “But he [Jesus] passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (The full scene is in Luke 4:16-30.)

It isn’t entirely clear what so provokes their anger, but there are a few clues. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Some scholars note that Jesus stops reading right before the ‘really good stuff,’ where it says: “And the day of vengeance of our God.” (Is. 61:2) That is, Jesus announces good news to the Jews, but he stops right before he’s supposed to announce judgment on the Gentiles.

Luke describes their reaction as being “amazed at his gracious words” (NRSV), but the Greek behind “amaze” is more ambivalent than we might guess. It can mean ‘puzzled,’ even ‘disoriented,’ and if his listeners were waiting to hear about God’s anger being unleashed against their enemies, then perhaps they were, in fact, “puzzled, disoriented at his gracious words [because there was no vengeance in them.]” But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Apparently sensing their desire for an angrier God (angry at the Gentiles, of course!), Jesus takes a teachable moment … and rubs salt in it. He says he’s brought no miracles with him to his hometown, and reminds them of two key incidents in the lives of other prophets when God’s grace was poured out precisely upon Gentiles rather than Jews. No wonder they’re pissed. Hometown boy—“Joseph’s son”! (you know, the handyman’s boy!)—grows up, forgets where he came from, and snubs his own people.

No wonder these folks are ready to throw Jesus off a cliff. But we are, too.

And that’s what I want to talk about today. In case you missed it, Jesus has just placed abolition of prisons, police, and ICE at the heart of his gospel message. He’s named the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed as the central recipients of the Lord’s favor. And those blind who recover their sight? Well, there will be others whose actual vision Jesus restores later in the gospel accounts, but in this passage—given the context and the parallelism often used in Hebrew poetry (this is Isaiah’s prophetic poetry after all)—“the blind” are those who have been in solitary confinement, now blinking their eyes against the light as they are drawn up out of a dark pit where they’ve been held.

For Jesus, abolition is God’s work. Yet many of us, when we hear “Defund the Police” or “Abolish the Police,” cannot help but say “What?! Wait, you can’t do that!” And we say it as good Christians committed to “law and order” in our communities. But … when we say that on impulse, we are the ones rushing to throw Jesus off a cliff. (And even as I say that, I’m looking for the nearest exit in case any of my good Christian friends start looking for a cliff with my name on it!)

But seriously, if Jesus declares that abolition is God’s work (which he does!), and if Jesus claims God’s work as his work (which he does!), then he also commends abolition to us as our work. That would be … discipleship. And if we find that so hard to believe today, that says more about the domesticated Jesus that’s been preached to us than about the foolishness of the idea itself. I’d argue that Jesus died in faithful witness to God’s abolitionist agenda—and that the church was born as a resurrection community bearing witness to abolition in its imagination and, at least initially seeking to live it out in its life. So maybe we should, too.

I’m not even close to being an expert on abolition as a philosophy or practice or strategy or policy. But I’ve spent the last several decades listening for the rising call of justice in the biblical tale, and in my initial reading in abolitionist literature I hear a lot that resonates with biblical faith. I’ll write more about some of these things in the coming days. Here are just a few images to get started.

The historical truth of American policing is not pretty. It is wholly bound up with white supremacy and protecting the property and wealth of the rich. In the South this took the shape of slave patrols specifically commissioned to terrorize slaves into submission and to capture any who sought their freedom. It was a system designed to attract, cultivate, and reward racist sadists—most of whom went to church every Sunday. After slavery ended the slave patrols helped birth the KKK as well as the Southern police whose job was keeping Black people in their place. In the North policing originated in the need of the wealthy to control the restless masses of poor, immigrants, and Blacks. In a manner only slightly less brutal than Southern slave patrols, Northern police were used to harass and intimidate and brutalize—particularly those who agitated for fair wages or working conditions, or who simply lamented their grinding poverty, or even those who just dared too raucously to celebrate life.[1]

In other words—listen carefully—from their inception as organized rural-local-state forces, police have been those whose actions Jesus’ words in Luke 4 were precisely aimed to overturn. It is fair to say that there is no chapter of American history in which police have not posed a threat to the safety of black, brown, and red bodies in this country. This is not to indict every individual officer, but it is to utterly indict the police system. Policing was established to make sure that Mary’s Magnificat was never more than a quaint song that soared in choral strains but never took shape in the streets of America.

Image: Moon Palace Books, Minneapolis, June 2020
Renoir Gaither/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When ‘Defund’ and ‘Abolish’ started showing up on posters and in hashtags everywhere, a lot of people second-guessed the “branding” of those phrases. They can’t be serious, so why use phrases that sound so absolute? Besides which the phrases (which must be mostly evocative, since they can’t possibly be serious) are too negative. These are the reactions of persons who’ve never had their blood run cold when a police light flashes behind them. And I don’t mean a momentary racing of nerves—I’ve had that when stopped for speeding. I mean the chilling of blood that tells you your life is in danger. Once you’ve known that fear, then ‘Defund’—or better yet—‘Abolish’ are not at all negative phrases. They’re life-giving, liberating utterances. The very fact that white people saw fit to second-guess them just reveals how little we know of the desperation that characterized the people Jesus set at the center of God’s abolitionist energy.

Would you believe that in the 1970’s—I was hitting my teenage years then—there were actually penal experts who expected prison abolition to happen … soon?[2] There was a growing sense that prisons were not effective either at deterrence or rehabilitation and that a civilized society could—of course—do better. And then you know what shifted? Well, a bunch of things. Civil rights threatened to let that Magnificat echo in American life until the New Jim Crow rolled in. Economic shifts and political shifts also played a role. But … so did Christianity. That’s right. As mainline liberal denominations waned and evangelical Christianity rose, so did the ease with which we as a public imagined that vengeful God that Jesus’ first audience longed for. Christianity slipped from (an admittedly limited) vision of a renewed society to an interior, moralistic faith that traded in fear of otherness and prepared a nation to cast “others” of all sorts endlessly into cages.

In July 1980, as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination Ronald Reagan claimed God as the chaplain for his presidency, asking “Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely?” Meanwhile Black men continue to cry out, “I can’t breathe.” Moments later he concluded, “God Bless America”—the first time a presidential nominee used those words in a speech. He later used the same phrase to end his State of the Union address—as has every president since then. During his eight years in office the prison population rose by more than 300,000 persons, effectively doubling—and disproportionately putting persons of color behind bars. It’s fair to say that Reagan publicly—presidentially—baptized mass incarceration as a Christian endeavor. And no president since has dared to do otherwise.

Jesus, however, only ever announced an abolitionist God. It might be time for us to do the same.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

[1] “Origins of the Police,” David Whitehouse:; “The History of Policing in the United States,” Gary Potter:

[2] For this paragraph and the next see Joshua Dubler and Vincent W. Lloyd: Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, Oxford University Press, 2020, esp. pp. 65-103.

This entry was posted on June 30, 2020. 5 Comments

Coming Out Against White Allies

Coming Out Against White Allies
June 21, 2020 – David R. Weiss

I’ve invested a lot in being an Ally. I’m done.

We don’t need more or better Allies in the pursuit of racial justice. In fact, the very notion of “Ally,” while perhaps well intended, is ultimately misguided and, worse, constitutively incapable of framing the work that must be done.

I’ll credit Catherine Pugh’s recent essay, “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally’” [1] as the catalyst that brought together a whole set of inklings long simmering inside me. Here’s a brief review of her argument. An Ally is a person who helps someone else meet a challenge or solve a problem specific to that other person. Thus, to be a white Ally is to assist Black persons with “their” problem: racism/white supremacy. BUT, she asserts, racism isn’t “their” problem; it’s white people’s problem. Yes, racism/white supremacy does cause problems for black people: it regularly kills them and limits their flourishing in a host of nefarious ways. But to frame our (white) response to it in Ally language sets this problem of racism/white supremacy somehow at a distance from us—so that being an “Ally” seems like optional, however praiseworthy, activity. And this is to seriously misdiagnose the problem itself as “out there.”

So long as we see racism/white supremacy as a problem “out there” (created and maintained by others) we miss our ownership of it as white people. Moreover, as long as we insist on being “Allies,” we implicitly demand that Black people assist us in our self-deception about where the locus of the problem lies. And Catherine Pugh is done with that. So am I.

Racism/white supremacy is OUR problem. It only accidentally involves blackness (Black people are the target, but not the cause). It absolutely involves whiteness (even if it was constructed long before our birth, it was made by white people for white people). So long as racism/white supremacy endures, it poses a damning, sometimes life-and-death challenge for Black people. It limits their flourishing. But its enduring presence stands in a qualitatively different relationship to white people: it contradicts our humanity. It fundamentally morally condemns our very existence as white people. While the prospects, fortunes, and lives of Black people are clearly at stake here, the soul of white people is entirely at stake as well.

As King (and others before him) put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Here’s the particular edge that Catherine Pugh’s essay adds (I’m reading this into it, but I think she’d agree): white people must either own racism/white supremacy as our mess to clean up—and do so with existential urgency … or we forfeit our moral right to exist. As the arc bends, we (white people) either DRIVE the bending with all our might, or—for the love of God—the moral universe has no place for white people. Yikes.

Pugh’s essay, on the heels of George Floyd’s murder and the multifaceted uprising it sparked, pressed me to recover and join together a set of convictions I’ve held for a long time. And dispensing with the word “Ally” is central to putting this insight into practice.

The phrase “Kingdom of God” sits at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and message. We read “kingdom” as a noun and so think of it as a place, maybe the land where God rules. But, as I learned in seminary, Norman Perrin, drawing both on the Aramaic words behind the Greek text and the richness of Hebrew Scripture, clarifies, “The Kingdom of God is the power of God expressed in deeds; it is that which God does wherein it becomes evident that he is king [emphasis added]. It is not a place or community ruled by God; it is not even the abstract idea of reign or kingship of God. It is quite concretely the activity of God as king [emphasis added].”[2] This isn’t just word trivia. The way Christians hear that phrase shapes—or misshapes—the way we understand the gospel and Christian discipleship.

Now add in José Miranda’s evocative reading of God’s self-revelation to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3), also encountered in seminary. He notes that YHWH, the Hebrew “name” God offers to Moses, can be rendered as either present tense (“I am who I am”) or future tense (“I will be who I will be”). It’s the same word; the tense is determined by context. Miranda argues, based on the string of future commitments God makes to Moses as part of this self-declaration (“I will bring you out … I will deliver you … I will redeem you … I will take you … I will be … I will bring you into … I will give it to you … ” Exodus 6:6-8) that it only makes sense to render YHWH also as future tense. And he suggests very provocatively that in this scene God makes their own ‘godness’ contingent upon God’s ability to deliver liberation.[3]

For the first 22+ years of my life I was given a “domesticated” sense of Christianity. One that seemed certain (maybe even intended) to prevent me from unleashing any of its real strength. But if the God to whom the Bible bears witness defines their divinity, hinges their being itself, on the fulfillment of a pledge to liberate the oppressed, this means that God is irrevocably committed to challenging every condition of existence that oppresses anyone—including racism/white supremacy.

And if Jesus’ message and ministry centers on “the Kingdom of God”—the liberating deeds by which God is king—then he was interested foremost in fostering liberation for the oppressed in this life. And in fashioning a community to do those deeds … with the urgency of those who somehow “get” that God’s very being depends on their determination to conspire in freeing everyone. This is a God who is far less concerned with “law and order,” and far more ready to “burn shit down” (think the Exodus plagues or the Temple cleansing). Who knew?

Finally, 25 years ago in graduate school I read Sharon Welch who confirmed and deepened my growing conviction. “Within liberation theology and within a feminist theology of liberation, authentic Christianity is identified as that which liberates. … The truth of liberation faith is rooted not so much in its correspondence with themes and practices of the church in the past, but in its power to liberate people in the present.”[4] For Welch, liberation theology and faith begin the search for truth, not with what Scripture or tradition declare but with the lived experience of those who are suffering. Like Miranda’s provocative reading of God’s name, Welch argues that Christianity, as a lived response to that liberating God, realizes itself only—as it provides liberation. In any other expression it is merely window dressing for the status quo, or, like Trump’s recent photo-op with a Bible outside St. John’s Church, it is the very betrayal of that God.

So I’m done being an Ally. Words matter: they shape and channel the energy that enters life through humanity. To call myself Ally hobbles the energy necessary to make justice happen. It undercuts the existential urgency in front of us. Racism/white supremacy is a gaping breach in the moral universe. A breach opened by white people, maintained by white people, and benefiting white people—while causing ongoing harm to Black people, indigenous people, other persons of color, most other persons marked by “difference” of any sort, and most other life forms. Of course, Black people are organizing against this. Their lives are at stake in this breach. And their power is rising. But we (who are white) own racism/white supremacy. And the “royalties” of that legacy are paid out to us whether we’ve asked for them or not. So there’s nothing “helpful” about “assisting” others in doing work—on our own house.

Photo by Hjalte Gregersen on Unsplash

I’m not saying white people should lay claim to leading all this work. Black people are and continue to be the architects of their own liberation. We (who are white) need to be listening to their voices because only through them can we fathom the underside of racism/white supremacy that has been (mostly) hidden from our view. There is plenty of work to go around. Our particular work involves several things. Self-education: recognizing that “Black history” is OUR (white) history—told from the underside. Calling out our own: we must engage our fellow whites in challenging racism; graciously when possible, bluntly when necessary. Making our voices—and votes—loud in the political arena. And standing with our Black siblings as they rise up.

Henceforth, I commit to seeing myself—to acting—as a Co-Conspirator in the work to end racism/white supremacy. A Co-Conspirator alongside many others, but not an Ally, because this is fundamentally my work to do.

Theologically, to frame our work for racial justice as being an “Ally,” doesn’t simply fall short: it completely misses the mark. We work for racial justice because in a moral universe only this work justifies our being here at all. We work for racial justice because only so do we bring the church into being. We work for racial justice because only when we conspire in this work do we meet the God who meets Moses in the burning bush and cries, “I can’t breathe.” The truth of God’s name is that holiness only IS in so far as liberation occurs. We either conspire (breathe together) with God in liberating deeds … or we have our knee on God’s neck. It’s that simple.

*     *     *


David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

[1] From June 15, 2020:

[2] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1967), 55.

[3] José Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974), 293-297.

[4] Sharon D. Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 52-54.

This entry was posted on June 22, 2020. 4 Comments

Everybody But

This poem has been brewing for the last several days. It’s posted below in two versions …

Everybody But

It runs 8 minutes and 46 seconds—
and the last 400 years—give or take,
but as that video played around the globe,

pretty soon its reach rivaled a pandemic;
unleashing protests and riots and all out uprisings;
and the blood that was spilled on the pavement

beneath his face, now that blood cries
out for justice and can be heard
echoing in streets and memorialized by many;
hell, that video took “Defund the Police” public;

still, as he lay there groaning, pleading for life,
did he even know “police abolition” was a thing?
now that video—the knee on his neck and him calling
for his Mama until his breath ran out—is breathing
new life once again into calls
for justice that he’ll never know;

destined to become a defining moment of our day,
it sure seems like that video
of an unknown man, now so well known,
must have been seen by almost everybody;
well, everybody but— 

*   *   *
David R. Weiss – June 19, 2020

Everybody But

It runs 8 minutes and 46 seconds—
and the last 400 years—give or take,
but as that video played around the globe,

pretty soon its reach rivaled a pandemic;
unleashing protests and riots and all out uprisings;
and the blood that was spilled on the pavement

beneath his face, now that blood cries
out for justice and can be heard
echoing in streets and memorialized by many;
hell, that video took “Defund the Police” public;

still, as he lay there groaning, pleading for life,
did he even know “police abolition” was a thing?
now that video—the knee on his neck and him calling
for his Mama until his breath ran out—is breathing
new life once again into calls
for justice that he’ll never know;

 destined to become a defining moment of our day,
 it sure seems like that video
of an unknown man, now so well known,
  must have been seen by almost everybody;
well, everybody but—

* * *
David R. Weiss – June 19, 2020




David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

He cried for his Mama

He cried for his Mama

I heard an earthquake today.
We were at the Capitol steps
keeping vigil, lest the Senate decide
to adjourn without doing justice
(albeit too late) for George Floyd.
At the start of an open mic time
a woman stepped forward
looking a bit uncertain
as she took the megaphone.
She lowered her facemask
and began to speak haltingly,
which I mistook for nerves—
it was, in fact, rage,
tempered by anguish,
but I only realized that later.
This earthquake began in near silence.
“My heart is heavy,” she said,
in the brightly clipped English
of an African (Nigerian) immigrant.
“And I just want to say ‘thank you.’
I am a parent, and I cannot
tell you how scared I am.”
She went on to try and do just that:
voice the fear that abides,
that grips her soul every moment
her son is out in the city on his own,
wondering whether he
will make it home this time.
Fearful because George Floyd
didn’t make it home that time.
As she spoke, her voice rose in strength,
drawing together raw anguish
and righteous anger.
After decrying those who would
stall, weaken, or belittle
the calls for police accountability,
she yelled, “This fall let us vote in
people who have hearts!”
And I felt the earth tremble.
But then she said, still at an all-out pitch,
wrapped in a mother’s holy rage,
“George Floyd, he cried for his Mama!
A grown man!
A papa himself!
A grandpa, even!
She wailed, and the earth split beneath me,
and I, also a grandpa, fell in.


David. R. Weiss – June 18, 2020

NOTE: I learned (only later) that her name is Ngozi Akubuike, and she is running for a Ramsey County judgeship. She did not announce herself that way; this was no stump speech. But I will tell you, she earned my vote, because I would instinctively trust her deep resonance with anguish, which is often the very place where justice is born.

*     *     *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

Trump’s Pride Month Assault on Trans Lives

Trump’s Pride Month Assault on Trans Lives
June 15, 2019 – David R. Weiss

Yesterday my childhood friend, Scott, posted a “news” article about the Trump administration’s announcement of a new “rule” to interpret the meaning of “sex discrimination” in health care law. Titled “DEBUNKED: Trans health care isn’t being ‘rolled back’ by Trump,” he added his own introductory comment, “Well I’ll be damned. Maybe some other people aren’t doing their research.”

This essay was my rather lengthy reply (spread out across multiple Facebook reply boxes). It’s part of my commitment to “up my game” in actually responding to some of the racism and xenophobia (in its many forms) that I see on Facebook. I do it partly to hold my friends accountable; more so, to hold myself accountable; and, as a bonus, to share some of my thoughts with you.

Disclaimers: I’m not an expert on the Affordable Care Act. And while I try to be a trans ally, even an accomplice for transgender affirmation-liberation-justice, I’m not an “expert” on trans issues either. But choosing silence just because I’m not an expert is too easy for me. Too dangerous for others. So I’m choosing something other than silence. This is what chose instead of silence:

Hi, Scott, as your good friend, I have to tell you this article is a lie. On the up side, looks like you don’t have to be damned after all. 🙂

I count at least a dozen transgender persons as beloved family and friends, so I follow news like this pretty closely. But this particular story has a pretty complex history. So tonight I did the research—took me a couple hours to wade through the details. And having done so, I can now tell you with complete confidence this reporter is either lying or incompetent.

[Aside: I discovered in prepping this for my blog that the “reporter,” Blaire White, regards herself as a “center-right trans-activist,”(!) although most of the trans community seems to view her the way much of the black community views Candace Owens: as someone who feeds both their ego and their pocketbook by riding rightwing bias against their own respective community all the way to the bank.]

After announcing that once again the LGBT community was “all worried” that the Trump administration was trying to remove protections for transgender persons in health she claimed to offer “the truth.” She writes: “The truth: The transgender protection that everyone is hysterical about being revoked was ruled against in court before Trump was even president.”

This is true; but only sort of, as you see below.

She writes: “It was never law; therefore it is impossible for the Trump administration to revoke it.”

This is FALSE. The protection in question was law from July 2016 until October 2019—and it remains so, in a way, until 8/2020, when the new “rule” just announced by the Trump administration will go into effect. [The “protection” was a “rule” released by the Obama administration to serve as the defining interpretation of the term “sex discrimination” in Section 1557—the Health Care Rights Law—of the Affordable Care Act.

She writes: “The mandate was struck down in 2016 before Trump was inaugurated, which means Obama was still president.”

This is FALSE. A conservative federal judge in Texas put in place an “injunction” against Health and Human Service (HHS) enforcement of the 2016 Obama rule in December 2016 (so, yes, Obama was still president), but that rule, which went into effect in July 2016 remained in effect and individuals could (and did) file complaints and lawsuits based on it—and still can (and still do).

She writes: “The mandate was attempted, again, in 2019 and overruled by another federal judge.”

This is FALSE. It wasn’t “attempted again”; it remained in effect the whole time— HHS was just prevented from enforcing it. And the “final judgment,” delivered in October 2019 was not made a different federal judge, but by the same Texas judge who made the December 2016 injunction. By now it’s clear she has little concern for accuracy; this is incredibly sloppy/incompetent reporting.

She writes: “In fact, as Director of the Office for Civil Rights Roger Severino puts it, transgender people are already protected by various statutes that prevent discrimination in health care.”

This is really FALSE!!! He doesn’t say this at all. THIS IS A LIE. If you read either the official HHS press release or the official HHS “Fact Sheet,” Severino nowhere says “trans persons are already protected …” He doesn’t say this because he doesn’t believe it, and the new rule announced by Trump IN FACT DENIES IT. One heading of the Fact Sheet states that the new Trump rule “Omits Overbroad Provisions Related to Sex and Gender Identity” (as had been provided in the previous Obama rule). It then explicitly states that the new Trump rule rejects any idea that “discrimination on the basis of sex includes prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The new rule merely confirms the Trump administration whole-hearted rejection of protections for transgender persons.

She writes: “In fact, as Director of the Office for Civil Rights Roger Severino puts it, ‘Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and according to the law. Our dedication to our civil rights laws is as strong as ever.’”

This is also super FALSE. Okay, yes, Severino said those words, but he chose them very carefully. He’s just announced the new Trump rule, which clarifies that “according to the law,” transgender persons have no right to be protected from discrimination. So treating them “according to the law,” means being able to discriminate against them. In fact, the full text of the new rule (300+ pages) argues that it will save $123.4 million per yearbecause trans persons will no longer be able to file complaints about discrimination. She is quoting him completely out of context to prove a point that is an outright lie.

In fact, Severino is on the record (in a legal brief written prior to being appointed by Trump as director of OCR) as saying, “gender identity and sexual orientation … are changeable, self-reported, and entirely self-defined characteristics”; he can say “our dedication to our civil rights is as strong as ever,” because he doesn’t believe civil rights laws protect trans lives!

She concludes: “So what does all of this mean? This means that health care in terms of how it affects transgender people today is the exact same as it was in 2016. Nothing has been rolled back by the current administration. Trans people can still seek out doctors, surgeons, and medical professionals at the same capacity in which they always have.”

This is FALSE—a complete lie. Now, this is complicated, but her conclusion is not: her conclusion is a total lie. Here’s why:

From 2010 when the ACA went into effect until 2012, trans persons could assert a health care right under the ACA, Section 1557, the Health Care Rights Law, but they were largely on their own. In 2012 the Obama Office of Civil Right (OCR) backed up their claim with an “opinion letter,” stating that discriminations protections indeed included gender identity. In May 2016 the Obama OCR and HHS released their final rule affirming this (it went into effect in July 2016).

Immediately some conservative religious health care providers filed a lawsuit lest they be required to recognize legitimate medical needs of trans persons.

In December 2016, a conservative federal judge in Texas, issued a national injunction against OCR/HHS enforcement of the rule. But this didn’t overturn the rule; that didn’t happen for 3 more years. And that meant that individuals who felt their rights were violated could still file complaints and sue in court. The injunction simply meant that OCR/HHS couldn’t go after organizations who openly violated the rule. This effectively put these protections intended by the ACA out of reach of anyone who couldn’t afford by themselves to fight a hospital or insurance company in court.

Finally, in October 2019 the same federal judge in Texas went beyond the injunction and rendered a final judgment vacating (revoking) the transgender protections in the 2016 Obama rule altogether. That judgment basically said the Obama rule went beyond the sense of binary biological sex in its interpretation of what “sex discrimination” meant—and that it infringed on religious conscience. Which is ultimately a fancy way of saying that when the religious convictions of a hospital system are in conflict with the current medical consensus regarding the complexity of biological sex or the validity of transgender identity, then religious beliefs outweigh medical science … when it comes to medical care. That’s a pretty scary notion if you just say it out loud slowly.

Besides all this, she’s even more wrong.

Between 2017 and 2018 four other federal court cases in Minnesota, Wisconsin (twice), and California, all ruled that the 2016 Obama rule does include protections for gender identity. And even when the Texas court vacated/revoked the 2016 Obama rule, in that same decision it granted both the ACLU and a regional Gender Alliance group the right to appeal its decision—which they have.

All of this has meant that from July 2016 through August 2020 (when the Trump rule will go into effect) any insurer or hospital that chose to roll back coverages they had offered in begrudging compliance to the 2016 Obama rule knew they could still face lawsuits. And, in that full (300+ page) text of the new Trump rule, they state that they EXPECT 65,000 insurers, hospitals, and other health care programs (that is, about HALF of the entities covered by the Health Care Rights Law) WILL choose to allow discrimination against transgender persons based on the new Trump rule. (This could mean anything from denying preventative care to someone who has transitioned, to purposefully mis-gendering them in medical records, performing unnecessary exams, treating them in demeaning ways, or giving hospital room assignments that deny a patient’s chosen gender identity—all of which have been found to be discriminatory in court cases under the Obama rule.

So it is an absolute lie to say that this new Trump rule changes nothing.

Finally, the new Trump rule eliminates explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in ten other HHS regulations that aren’t even part of Section 1557, many of which were in place prior to the 2016 Rule.

In other words the new rule makes very clear that it the Trump administration intends to erase protections for LGBT persons as far as it possibly can. Which is to say, this administration wishes to erase the legitimacy of LGBT persons—in this case particularly trans persons. And to erase someone’s legitimacy is to erase their right to dignity, to safety, to life.

That’s the goal. And either this reporter knows it and is trying to hide it, or she’s too incompetent to even be called a reporter. You can decide which.

[Aside: that was the end of my reply to Scott.]

I add the following conclusion to my blog post: trans persons follow a journey toward authenticity that requires as much rigor and courage—and exacts as much anxiety and fear—as any journey toward selfhood. They deserve no less than the health care protections offered to others in our society. In many ways, because of the bias and fear and outright hatred often vented toward them, they need those health care protections even more.

Those of us who listen to their lives with attentive humility learn so much—and love so much better for that listening. May we stand fiercely alongside them in these days. They are beloved.

*     *     *


The “news” story:

On Blaire White:

On Roger Severino:;;

HHS Press Release:

HHS Fact Sheet:

My understanding of the long twisty saga of the 2016 Obama rule and the 2020 Trump rule comes from the blog of Health Affairs, the leading peer-reviewed journal of health policy thought and research.

June 13, 2020—the announcement of the new Trump rule:

October 16, 2019—the October 2019 decision to vacate the 2016 rule:

September 18, 2019 update on the sage:

October 2, 2018—other court ruling at odds with the Texas court:

January 2, 2017—on the injunction:

May 14, 2016—the release of the original 2016 Obama rule:


+     +     +     +     +

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

This entry was posted on June 15, 2020. 1 Comment

Come This Wilderness

NOTE: This post turned out to be the first in a series of posts* in which I wrestle with the notion of police abolition. I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how that would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I present a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.

* “Come This Wilderness,” June 8; “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff,” June 30; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” July 4; “The Poor Will be With You Always,” July 8; “When Stones Shout” July 9; “From Mount Sinai to Minneapolis” July 12.

Come This Wilderness
June 8, 2020 – David R. Weiss

I hear the nervous shuffling of feet among my family and friends. From some the derisive laughter that carries more than a hint of unease beneath attitude. I’m uneasy, too. I do not know what lies … out there, up ahead. I only know what lies behind—and that I am not going back.

Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul suffered broken windows in the unrest-uprising following George Floyd’s murder. The plywood now joins the uprising in rainbow colors.

Defund, dismantle policing?! The challenges—and the possibilities—run far deeper than either phrase or any sound byte can suggest. I may unpack some of them in another essay. Here I only want to re-frame the emotions that rise within us at the prospect of such unimaginable change.

Because I wonder. Were there any Egyptians who—having endured those ten ruinous, calamitous, riotous plagues—chose to pack their bags and leave with the Hebrews on that first Exodus?

I mean, I really wonder. If I had seen how their God inspired them to yearn for lives they’d not yet known, to break at last their years of bondage—which, plagues or not, meant choosing wilderness as their way out—had I seen this with my own eyes, would I have had the courage then, to leave behind my comfort, long built on the back of their servitude, to join them on a journey toward some … imaginary promised place?

I’d like to think I know, but all I can do is wonder. If all I knew (besides their brutal lot in life—inextricably tied to my personal peace) was that, beyond the dried up seabed, they were headed somewhere marked on the compass only as lying in the direction of Beyond. And toward something called Beloved. Would I have lifted my Egyptian feet to walk besides those former Hebrew slaves?

Standing as I am—as you are, too—at the edge of a land I have never seen, I honestly cannot fathom what it means to safeguard a community’s life after defunding, dismantling the police. But, for that matter, just as honestly, had I been an Egyptian or a wealthy Southerner (likely even a barely-getting-by Southerner), I suspect I could not have fathomed what it would mean to reshape my life without slaves beneath—their oppression the unquestioned infrastructure deemed essential for life back then.

But even in my not knowing, I remain persuaded (against my own fears) that they—slaves, black people, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants—know things we do not know. Things we cannot imagine. I don’t think they know the route to that next place. But they know, better than all the rest of us put together, the folly of reforming an institution whose very formation (via Southern slave patrols) was intended to unform the idea of freedom in those to whom freedom was denied.

The Exodus tale agrees, it seems. The story says—to be as pointed about it as possible—that of all the policy papers that might’ve discussed “the future of slavery in Egypt,” the truest point of view came from the underside, carried by the cries, the anguish and the anger of those enslaved. And if their cries questioned the value of even robust reforms and opted instead to defund and dismantle Pharaoh’s slave economy and culture by their Exodus, then our Scriptures say that viewpoint carries truth. Although, in truth, we’ve done our best to tame that tale, contain it to another time and place. Surely such disruptive steps for freedom have no claim to truth today.

But I wonder. Because the logic—the theo-logic, God-driven understanding—of that story seems to say that still today those who feel a knee laid heavy on their neck have uncanny insight into the damning ways that persons and societies, cultures and institutions, “innocent” policies and practices prioritize white knees over black necks. So, I’m uneasy, yes, but I can’t help but wonder. Because to bring it to this point, that ancient sacred tale tells me today that black people have a type of knowledge—an expertise—about the prospects for reforming the police that those of us who grew up never worrying about a knee upon our neck … simply do not have. Their knowing is borne of lives ground up generation after generation, borne of labor the wealth of which wound up mostly in our hands (and homes) not theirs, borne of rights ever bounded to ensure our rights (and wrongs) held sway. And now their knowing hums a steady searing truth about the whole project of policing: “All that is familiar, stable, safe … is unsafe for you.”

We wouldn’t doubt that those ancient Hebrews heard as much in the groans that tolled their hours day by day by day. We wouldn’t question their wisdom in choosing wilderness over all that they had ever known. But still we count it prudent to call for slow and measured moves to ease the discomfort of our black siblings just enough to keep them off the streets and keep the system safe … for us.

We, who have blindly benefitted from all that is so perniciously familiar that it passes just for “normal,” we cannot fathom why anyone would think the unfamiliar, unknown, uncharted idea of life beyond the police could possibly be wise. But they know. And in their knowing they make demands that shake us and our good sense to the very core. Alas.

I hear the nervous shuffling of feet among my family and friends. From some the derisive laughter that carries more than a hint of unease beneath attitude. I’m uneasy, too. I do not know what lies … out there, up ahead. I only know what lies behind—and that I am not going back.

The former site of an Ethiopian restaurant, a tax service, and an auto parts store in St. Paul.

I am uncertain, as you are. Behind me the rubble of so many buildings (only some of which lined our streets, while others towered within our hearts and minds). Ahead, this sudden, unexpected—dare I say, miracle of—dry land where once a sea had blocked the way. And there beyond: this wilderness. Out there, perhaps, a place where we might be … Beloved. Together. Who knows. Only the journey will tell.

But I say, with fierce and fraught resolve, Come this wilderness. Come.

*                *                *

NOTE: Twenty-four years ago, while teaching a First-Year Seminar on Intro to Bible at Notre Dame, it was common practice to begin my class with a prayer. In September 1996 I wrote this prayer to open our class the day we discussed the Exodus. Time to pull it out and use it again.

God of freedom and justice, give us the wisdom to feel a bit of fear as we read these passages. Give us the uncomfortable honesty to see that we today stand closer to Egypt than to the Hebrew slaves. In a world where many live like slaves so that a relative few can live like kings, we are among those who wear purple. When third world citizens—or when the poor in our own cities—clamor for justice, too often and too easily, like Pharaoh, we ignore your demand that we let your people go. Forgive us, Lord. Do not harden our hearts, but soften them. Awaken in us feelings of compassion. If we would truly be your people, move us to place ourselves alongside those persons whose company you have chosen to keep: the weak, the forgotten, and the outcast. Exodus means freedom for slaves, Lord. We know that. But for royalty, Exodus means sacrifice. Give us the courage—and the humility—not to resist the freedom you intend for others. Indeed, give us the courage—and the humility—to welcome their freedom as the basis for our own. AMEN.

*                *                *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

This entry was posted on June 9, 2020. 6 Comments

Sometimes a Riot is an Act of God—

Sometimes a Riot is an Act of God—
May 30, 2020 – David R. Weiss

and sometimes not. And these riots are BOTH—which makes them extraordinarily dangerous.

[NOTE: I am writing and posting this on the fly. I have been reading about fringe groups for some time (months!) now as an offshoot of my concern over the social chaos likely to ensue during as the climate crisis worsens … and as part of my writing on the pandemic and the role these groups have played at the edges of the “Open the Economy” protests … and as part of my work for racial justice. I am far from an expert, but unless you have devoted yourself to this topic, PLEASE trust me on this. These groups are NOT-NOT-NOT to be taken lightly. I may come back later and add in links to supporting articles, but for now I am just pushing this out the door as fast as I can.]

First, because we need to be very clear about this for the sake of long-term racial justice, these riots ARE an act of God: they are an instance of holy rage. And if we fail to perceive that, we are doomed to ever realize Martin Luther King’s (and God’s!) Beloved Community. There is no path to that community that does not run through Holy Rage. That is NOT the whole of what’s happening’s here, but we cannot miss this piece.

I’ve heard and seen many people criticizing the riots for causing such harm to innocent businesses. True, some businesses are hardly innocent, but there have been many black-owned, immigrant-owned, and other genuinely community-oriented business that have been harmed, even destroyed by these riots. How can that be the result of HOLY rage?!

Here’s what I mean. If a tornado tore through a couple block area of Lake Street or University, it would also take out a swath of businesses—some of which we might think were deserving of such “judgment,” while others would be tragic losses. And yet, we would still colloquially call that tornado “an act of God.” We don’t mean that these things are truly the acts of a capricious or vengeful God. The language may be archaic, but the phrase retains still today legal status for natural hazards that fall outside human control.

Moreover, today we could explain (and to an extent predict) the weather conditions—air pressure, temperature, wind, moisture, etc.—that produce tornadoes, but that doesn’t mean that they become manageable. They still wreak havoc when they erupt. And do so indiscriminately.

Now, consider—from a faith perspective, or even a humanistic one: human beings carry intrinsic dignity amplified by creative energy, emotional yearnings, and cognitive potential. Those are one set of “weather conditions”; then add onto to them 400 years of unremitting (shifting, changing, but unremitting!) physical, economic, political, social, psychological, and spiritual oppression. 400 years! You have all the makings of a societal tornado. All you need is a spark to set it off.

In this case the excruciating video of Minneapolis police officers effectively carrying out a public lynching of George Floyd. Coming on the heels of so many killings of black men and women at the hands of police—a civil institution that most white people (at least middle class and higher) have no historical understanding of, because we’ve always been taught they’re here to keep us safe. But many black people know the roots of police departments are interwoven with those of slave patrols in the South and equally oppressive anti-black/anti-poor/anti-union police in the North.

We (white people) see each individual police killing of a black person as a “tragic death” that we should (of course) be sad about and (maybe) try to prevent from recurring, although we’re as often likely to make excuses for why the dead person was really responsible for their own death. But black people see all these killings as a pattern that shows the racist depth of white society. And they see this with a clarity we couldn’t bear (it would call our entire way of life into question) and hence we mostly deny it. Black people, despite the grinding, heart-wrenching clarity of their lived experience in the world, rarely have the power to challenge it. So they endure (itself, a heroic deed).

But in moments like this, their God-given dignity, coupled with their generations-long experience of having that dignity denied and abused for so long, and then sparked by a particularly evil instance such as Floyd’s murder—that translates into a societal tornado, an act of God. What might begin as holy grief (which we can affirm) can, under the right conditions, transform into holy rage … holy because it is rooted, in part, in the holy yearning of their own inward God-given dignity to flourish. And that holy rage may well take the form of rioting that wreaks indiscriminate damage. And when it does the responsibility for that damage lies foremost with those who created, tolerated, and benefitted from the conditions that led to it. And that’s white people.

We white people sowed the seeds for this rage, and we tended the soil so carefully (so hideously well) for generations. If conditions are now right for societal tornadoes—which include ALL of public grieving, political protest, and economic riot (even some instances of looting), that energy is going to move beyond the control of any individual. And it is.

Thus, these riots are acts of God in that they flow fundamentally from holy rage at 400 years of white people brutalizing the sacred dignity of black people. Such riots are “simply” what happens when human dignity is ceaselessly oppressed. We act surprised and dismayed. And unless we can actually OWN the deep racism that is woven into our world to our benefit—and then actively invest our lives in working to change it … unless we can do this, we are doomed to see societal tornados like this happen again and again. And each time they happen, these riots will be an act of God beseeching us to recognize the extent to which we are denying the God-given dignity of others. We bring them on ourselves.

They are nothing less than the fiery wind of Pentecost beckoning us to hear. And I fear we are so determined NOT to hear anything that would challenge us to look inward into our whiteness and our white supremacist society, that we will use the destruction and the looting as a reason not to listen. But if THIS ASPECT of the rioting is an act of God, we are only attempting to stifle Pentecost. Which cannot be done.

Thus far, the unsettling, even terrifying holiness of riot. We need to recognize this aspect or we will waste this moment’s opportunity for repentance and transformation.

And yet—this is not all that is afoot in this moment, and that makes for a harrowing reality.

I have been reading—and now our elected officials are acknowledging—that there are a frightening assortment—growing (perhaps exponentially) by the day—of others “lurking” as “allies” among the grieving and raging masses, whose actions are NOT rooted in the dignity denied to or the life taken from George Floyd or the black community as a whole. Rather, they are rooted in the desire to seize this moment and twist it to purposes that are unholy. Among the protesters and looters (and both of these have a “right” to be there—and that is a hard truth for us to hear!), there are now also anarchists, white supremacists, anti-government actors, guns-rights fanatics, and accelerationists—none of whom give a damn about the black community, not its pain, its dignity, or its dreams. They are only interested in riding this holy wave of rage (for which we white people bear fundamental responsibility) into an unholy direction.

Anarchists see it an opportunity to disrupt society, but they have no common cause with the black community beyond that momentary coalescing of interests. White supremacists see it as an opportunity to insert themselves into a confrontation where they might be able to escalate things even worse into an all-out race war. They will feign being allies just long enough to set up conditions to for catastrophic reactions. Similarly, anti-government actors and guns rights fanatics (groups that overlap with but are not identical to white supremacists), are actually willing to stand with black people in opposing police/state-sponsored violence, because their goal is not race war but a war with the state itself. Yet they have zero interest in racial justice or any Beloved Community. They will betray black people the moment they’re no longer useful to their sense of war with the government. And accelerationists (who overlap with these other groups—sorry, but these are blurry, messy categories) are persons determined to wreak whatever havoc they can (and this is a moment pregnant with opportunity to do just that) in order to “accelerate” the fraying of society toward a future state that will NOT be friendly to black people.

Listen, there is real evidence that representatives of all of these groups are embedding themselves opportunistically within the masses gathered in response to George Floyd’s murder! They are coming from across the country to seize this moment of holy rage and spin it out of control. I suspect that is why the MN Department of Public Safety (who acknowledged their awareness of such groups within the protests) initially stationed the National Guard at the Fed and the capitol and power stations—because these things may well be the targets of some of these other groups when they’re ready to act. And it’s why they acknowledged (at the 1:30 a.m. briefing) that they have heard of persons coming to these protests with the goal of killing a national guardsman.

This is some genuinely unholy rage just waiting for the chance to creep out. And the Hennepin County Attorney’s game of slow deliberate investigation (even when carried out at “breakneck speed” as we wants us to believe) completely underestimates the peril of this moment. His inaction fuels the holy rage—and widens the window for unholy rage to build explosively.

And it seems clear after Friday night that both the mayor and the governor grievously underestimated the holy rage. Willing to offer words of authentic empathy, they nonetheless imagined themselves caught in the limits of what is realistically possible in the short term regarding politics or policy (to dismantle the racism endemic to the Minneapolis Police Department and elsewhere). And—as a result of that—they unintentionally exposed our community to a far greater risk of destruction. Can we get back from this edge? I don’t know. But the alternative is civic catastrophe.

And the protesters—at time (legitimately!) triumphant at the power they have touched in this moment—seem also oblivious to the threat posed to all of us (themselves included!) by persons/groups hiding within their numbers … who might be working to “guide” legitimate rage into actions that are intended for ends quite different than the protesters have in their heart and mind.

This IS a moment pregnant—painful, bloody, and labored—with possibility. And we dare not erase the holiness of the rage within the black community. It has sparked a HOLY riot tilting (HOPEFULLY!) toward social revolution and transformation, which would be good for all of us.

But, if we (any of us) remain unaware or are too quickly dismissive of the unholy elements (entirely outside the black community, and mostly from outside Minnesota) acting within this moment, it will become a moment of chaos, whose toll will be measured not in property loss, but in loss of life, safety, and trust in our community.

There is MUCH we need to do. In this moment, that doing begins by claiming each other as beloved members of a community not yet fully beloved, but presently under assault by forces from outside that hope to damage us all.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

This entry was posted on May 30, 2020. 3 Comments