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Merging the Blues with the Gospel: Rev. Otis Moss III on Trayvon Martin and Building a More United America

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Rev. Otis Moss III

Rev. Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and a leading progressive Christian activist and cultural critic. Rev. Moss is an accomplished author and poet. His sermons are widely publicized, and his voice and views on cultural, spiritual, and political matters have made him an important and inspiring leader in our nation.

Sally Steenland: Welcome to you, Rev. Moss.

Rev. Otis Moss III: Thank you very much. It’s just my pleasure to be part of the conversation.

SS: We want to talk today about Trayvon Martin—the killing, the trial, and the verdict. I want to get into the powerful remarks that you gave at your church on Sunday, but I’d first like to get your thoughts as to what were some issues that this horrible tragedy brought to the surface for you. Were some things illuminated in a way that usually they’re not?

OM: I think that it highlighted the divide we still have in reference to issues of race, or what I like to say, “the racialized imagination in America.” It also highlighted the ill-conceived gun laws that we are constantly putting forth in the United States. This is an issue of community; this is an issue around gun laws; this is an issue of race. It even highlighted issues of gender, the entire trial. It illuminated to me how, as a black parent, I have to communicate very differently to my children and share with them, unfortunately, the realities of being a person of color and how you are perceived by other people.

SS: How can we expand that conversation beyond your family and immediate community so that it becomes part of the American conversation? Sometimes it feels like we live in two separate worlds. Awareness is very keen in some communities while in other communities there’s lack of awareness or even denial. How do we bridge that gap?

OM: Well, I think there are several things. One, there is always the personal conversation that many of our conservative brothers and sisters love to lift up, but should not be discounted. Then there is the structural conversation that connects to policy. How do we create the kind of policy that includes everyone within the United States as a part of the democratic character of our country—where people are seen as citizens and not “othered”?

We have the tendency to “other” people in the United States: “other” people who are people of color, “other” someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender; we “other” someone if they are of a different religious affiliation, we “other” someone if they are a woman. And this case was about “othering.” Who is really a citizen in the United States? George Zimmerman raised the question, “Does this person belong in my community?” And those are the questions in Florida, with a rising number of people of color being a part of the state, and also in Texas and New Mexico and California. So the conversation around “othering” becomes important to how we consider policy and how we develop legislation that deals with America’s original sin—that of racism or “othering,” of not seeing everyone as a part of the citizenry of this country.

SS: I think you are exactly right. It feels like the necessary work to do, but it also feels a little daunting to me. As I was doing some writing on this after the verdict, a friend of mine said, “Oh, when you raise those issues, you are going to close white ears.” People don’t like to be called a racist; people don’t like to be called a bigot. I’m struggling to figure out how we do not close the conversation but really expand our moral imagination so that the “othering” you are talking about—those barriers drop and we see us, all of us, as belonging together.

OM: I think that you raise the question around moral imagination. Walter Brueggemann talks about prophetic imagination, and I think that that’s what people in the religious sector are called to do—to constantly imagine a new world, new possibilities. And the language that we bring to the table as people of faith—the language of love, reconciliation, justice, forgiveness, grace, redemption—this is the language that is lacking in civic dialogue. Rarely do you hear a politician who is going to run talk about love and forgiveness.

We talk about issues around retribution but we do not talk about distributive justice. Distributive justice says, “I desperately want to see you fully human, even though I may have power, even though I may be in a particular context. But in order for the community to flourish, I have to ensure that you are flourishing.” And I think that that is very clearly spoken within the Gospel, very clearly spoken within the Old Testament where God holds us accountable, not just for our individual actions. God does, but God also holds us accountable as a community. When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? That’s community accountability. That’s communion. That’s the language of love and justice and grace and redemption that says, “I cannot be fully human, who I am, unless you are at your absolute best.” But rugged individualism bumps up against the Gospel.

SS: We are all bound together in moral ways but in practical ways, too, and, in a democracy, we can’t afford to discount or discard any of our citizens. We have to value all of our people because that’s the way we are supposed to function as a country.

I want to switch to policy, because you were talking about the importance of the Stand Your Ground laws, gun policies—and all of these laws and policies are sometimes seen to be neutral but are not neutral at all. One of our colleagues was talking about laissez-faire racism. There’s a very disproportionate and harmful impact of these laws on communities of color. So how do we raise awareness about that and get people engaged so we change those policies?

OM: Let’s look at Stand Your Ground. I talked about this on MSNBC recently. If you look at Stand Your Ground and we were to lay it out along racial and color lines, we would find that defendants who are of European descent who use Stand Your Ground as a defense are found overwhelmingly not guilty. We find that people of color who use Stand Your Ground as a defense are found overwhelmingly guilty. In the racial imagination of the United States, people of color are automatically viewed as criminal or criminalized, which makes a law that is supposedly neutral complicated by historical context by which it is undergirded.

We have to shift our gun laws from the idea that protection means conceal and carry. There are no data suggesting that people are safer, that you reduce violence, by concealing, carrying, and standing your ground. We have no data to support that. In fact, I’m in Chicago where people are concealing and carrying, and that is the problem. We have so many who are concealing and carrying and they are choosing to stand their ground and saying, “This ground is mine.”

We have to get back to the issue of how we create community. Number one, by reinvesting in education. Number two, by lowering foreclosure rates. When you lower foreclosure rates and increase homeownership, you drop the poverty rate in communities. Number three, communities in Chicago that are experiencing gun violence, all of those communities have a high poverty rate, high vacant lots in that area, and also have some of the most challenging schools. But if you look at the stats, when you own your own home, you are invested in the local school system. Those are policy pieces.

Then we look at how we fund the school system. It makes absolutely no sense to do it through real estate taxes. It creates a separate and unequal system. Then we need to break the prison pipeline that is prevalent because we are willing to invest in the prison industrial complex, but you will have a fight in any state capital across the country to increase funding for programs and projects that work to reduce violence. There is something wrong with our psyche. We are politically bipolar and schizophrenic, and we don’t have the moral imagination or the prophetic witness to say that we want to build community. That means we need to deal with the personal and the structural.

SS: Talk about the cultural and the political work that goes toward changing these policies. We will invest in prison, but not in education or prevention. How do we shift that so that a critical mass of people start to say, “This is crazy. As Americans, in terms of economics, in terms of people of faith, in terms of being citizens, we say no, we’re not going to do that.” What do we do?

OM: If I shared with any businessperson that I have a business that has been in operation for the last 30 years and has shown absolutely no return, the businessperson would say, “You need to shut it down.” If I said that I have increased the funding for this business every year for the last 30 years and have seen absolutely no return and, in fact, things have gotten worse as a result, a businessperson just on paper would say, “You have to rethink this thing.”

It’s interesting that if I placed the issue of corrections up there that people all of a sudden would say that this somehow fights crime. But in reality, programs that go to education fight crime. The war on drugs itself is a complete and utter and absolute failure; it’s a war on poor people. The amount of money that is being spent, millions of dollars every year—let’s say, for example, in Cook County the millions of dollars that we spend on new prisons, but yet our hospital system is completely underfunded. And so I said to one of our hospital administrators, “Let’s get together and work on a piece, that the $20,000 we are spending per inmate, why can’t we shift that? Let’s just say we’ll take $8,000 and make sure that goes to the county health system, which is an increase in health care for the community.”

I think there is one group that will be moved by the economic argument. There’s another group that will be moved by the moral argument. There is a third group that will never be moved, because they are invested in this. The “othering,” as I mentioned before, is how they stay in power. If I don’t have an “other,” if I don’t have an immigrant, black person, gay person, or woman to say that this is “the downfall of America,” then my political power ceases at that moment. Because I then have to negotiate; I then have to recognize that all are a part of the democracy. I then have to share my ideas and figure out how I come to the center, if I make that admission.

SS: It’s about who belongs and who doesn’t. Who’s in the community? Who’s worthy of our human concern? To listen to that one juror speak after the Zimmerman verdict—it kind of made my head pop off a little bit, in terms of the lack of awareness of what she was saying. One of the things that struck me is, why didn’t Stand Your Ground apply to Trayvon? Here was this unarmed young man walking home. If somebody started chasing you with a gun, you have every right to do whatever you can to save your life. That’s Stand Your Ground right there. It was completely an unequal battle.

OM: But in the racial imagination, it’s not. If you are dealing with a young African American who, and I said this to our congregation, if you take his age at the time that he was killed, he’s about two years outside of finishing puberty. He’s a baby; he’s a child. And you have a child who is being stalked, chased down—however you want to frame it—by an adult who has a firearm. And he’s in his neighborhood; he’s just going home. And so the question that I have to deal with as a parent—the question that all African American parents deal with—is, how do I have to communicate to my child now? Do I now have to tell my child that in order for you to be safe, you must wear a tuxedo in order to go out now? In order for you to be safe, you must acquiesce to any questions that come from anyone? I mean, it’s crazy.

My friend, Howard-John Wesley, who pastors at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, said this and I thought it was a beautiful statement: Someone said to him, “Well, you know, I shouldn’t be held responsible for some of the things other people do; we’re all equal in America.” And Howard simply said to the gentleman, “OK, I hear what you’re saying. How did your father teach you how to drive?” He said, “Well, he showed me how to back up and parallel park.” Howard said, “For every black father, we have to tell our children what happens when you get pulled over by the police: Keep your hands on the wheel, don’t make any sudden moves, say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’”

This means there is a fundamental difference in terms of how we have to communicate, which means that things are not equal, which means our children are at risk even when they are scholars and they’re doing excellent work, or they’re just being regular kids. It’s heartbreaking for a parent that you have to worry about those things.

SS: How do you walk that balance? Your remarks on Sunday brought me to tears. They were an incredibly powerful and poignant combination of acknowledging the horrific crime and not shrinking from that sorrow but, at the same time, moving on in an inspiring way so that you don’t sit in a corner for the rest of your life and sob. You moved on from that. How do you do that with your son who asked you an incredibly painful question? And how did you do that with the congregation?

OM: Well, I think that within the African American church, we have been at these moments several times, historically. There is a tradition in certain black churches of what I call the merging of our blues with the Gospel. In order for you to accurately sing gospel music, [you must know that] gospel music is built on the chords of the blues. And I think in the best of the black church tradition, the blues speaks to the existential, to what you’re dealing with. And the best of our tradition says, “This is the reality, this is the existential crisis, this is the problem. We serve a God who demands that we take our blues and sing the Gospel simultaneously.”

And so to the congregation, I used the Emmett Till narrative. Not just the death of Emmett Till, but what his mother did. And many people don’t know this. I got a series of very pointed and lively emails from some people who were not in our congregation who were not familiar with the context. I said, Mrs. Till said at the funeral of her child—first of all, she said the casket will remain open because many of those who were in power in Chicago said it must be a closed casket. They were afraid people would riot; there are always these assumptions that black people are going to riot and it never happens. And so she said, “Keep the casket open. Why? Because I do not want to turn your face from the horror of this moment. But as you look at this horror, I want you to organize in love so that my pain becomes an echo of the past.”

That’s powerful—that’s merging the blues with the Gospel. And this is what we’re called to do. This is a blues moment for many people. I guess for some people, they might have thought this was a joyous moment, I don’t know. But it was a blues moment for many people, for America. And we have to have a conversation around our blues. We have to be real about the pain of our past and our present and the challenges that we face. We can deal with tragedy, but we can never fall into being tragic. There’s a difference. And that is what I think a great spiritual and faith tradition demands that you do: that we face tragedy but never fall into despair.

SS: And that’s what you did; you looked pain in the face and people felt it in their hearts and you rose up from that. So, let me end with asking you, what now? What will you be doing in your congregation and what’s your rallying cry for people who are listening and reading this?

OM: Well, for those who are listening, we’re going to be focusing on several things, as we have been. One, fighting these conceal and carry, Stand Your Ground laws, because we believe that there’s a moral imperative to build community. And community is not built by “othering” someone and making the assumption that someone is coming to get you, but by figuring out a way of building dialogue with each other.

Number two, the issues around voting rights are also directly connected to this. Why is this directly connected? Well, in the nine states that we’re dealing with, in [Sections 4 and 5 of] the Voting Rights Act, there are laws in place that are similar to Stand Your Ground. If people are disenfranchised from being able to vote, then more of these repressive laws will be put in place.

The other piece is economic reinvestment—that we look at how we build community. There are over 1,000 vacant lots in the Englewood area of Chicago—over 1,000! Now, to me, I see that as an opportunity for an entrepreneur to say, “If I have 1,000 vacant lots, then how can we reinvest in an area that used to be one of the strongest working-class neighborhoods in Chicago?” This is an opportunity for us to reinvest in our communities and especially in cities. I’m a sports fan, I played sports, ran track in college, did basketball, football, and there’s something called weak side, strong side. You strengthen your weakest areas if you expect to win a championship. And if America expects to rise and become the United States, the yet-to-be United States of America, then we strengthen where we are weakest and it makes us all strong.

SS: Amen, Rev. Moss. Thank you so much for being with us and blessings to you and your good work. 

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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