April 21, 2023
If there was any doubt that racism is alive and well in our nation, the Tennessee State House of Representatives put those doubts to rest and to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. On Maundy Thursday, their decision to expel two extraordinary men from their body was an act of racism. To her credit, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who survived the fate of Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson (both black) by one vote, has consistently stated that it was her whiteness that saved her seat.
As members of the Dismantling Racism Team, we believe it is our duty, indeed the sacred duty of all Christians, to uphold the teachings of Jesus. Jesus ministered to and uplifted those who were most vulnerable and marginalized. Jesus consistently called to task a repressive government and religious leaders/authorities that collaborated with that government. Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice for living out God’s word. That the Tennessee Three were abused by a government institution on the eve of Good Friday makes the connection even more poignant and our call even clearer. We must stand against racist and abusive treatment in all its forms, wherever we find it.
The vote to exclude Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson came about after they peacefully protested that something be done about the deaths of three nine-year-old children and three adults at a Christian school in Nashville. They insisted they be seen as equals with the white majority. Their decision to use a bullhorn was more than a white-supremacist culture could endure. Young black men protesting in such a way was seen as threatening and childish. Indeed, the Tennessee Republican Party issued a statement that read in part, “[Jones and Pearson’s] adolescence and immature behavior brought dishonor to the Tennessee General Assembly as they admitted to knowingly breaking the rules.” Such statements were made in an attempt to discredit the representatives and justify the white majority vote to kick them out of the legislature.
Now, some may argue that it all turned out okay because as of this writing, both Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson were provisionally reinstated by their local boards. However, both must run in a special election to regain their seats fully. This argument also misses two critical points. First, these types of behaviors against people of color—even when they are fighting to save the lives of every mother’s child from gun violence—take a heavy toll on their mental and physical health. Second, it would be too easy to blame what happened on certain individuals as racist. The actions of the Tennessee General Assembly and their statements to support the expulsion are deeply embedded in our white-dominant society.
Throughout our nation’s history, from the earliest abuse of the native people, to when Africans were first brought to the Americas to be enslaved, through the Jim Crow era, and into the present, people of color have been expected to “know their place” or face the consequences — beatings, lynchings, or as in this case, stripping people of their rightful positions and authority. This is what we call “systemic racism.”
And what about the third protester, Rep. Gloria Johnson? Gloria Johnson joined hands, literally and figuratively, with Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, as they’ve spoken truth to power, never shying away from their initial fight for gun safety and from the racist actions that led to the expulsion of the two men. She was there with them through the expulsions and in their re-instatement. She is a living example of a white person acting as a “co-conspirator” in the cause of racial and social justice with people of color. Her courage is as admirable as that of Pearson and Jones.
In this season of Resurrection, we affirm that God offers new life and brings forth goodness out of evil. We can see God’s resurrecting hand at work here, even as Rep. Pearson has predicted. By attempting to silence three prophetic voices, the legislature has provided a platform from which these voices will be heard louder and clearer, throughout the nation. By taking away their literal megaphone, they have unwittingly provided a virtual megaphone, and the world is listening!
We, the members of the Dismantling Racism Team, hope you will reflect on the racist action of the Tennessee legislature and its implications for our ongoing work to dismantle racism. We implore you to stand for justice and to call out racism and
systematic abuse of others whenever you see it. Many of our congregations have taken the pledge to be Matthew 25 churches. Now more than ever, we need you to lean into this pledge.
Dismantling Racism Team of the Presbytery of Baltimore (congregation for identification purposes only):
- Elder Lea Gilmore, Minister for Racial Justice & Multicultural Engagement (Govans)
- Rev. Cat Goodrich (Faith)
- Elder Bobby Hall (Faith)
- Rev. Richard Jones (Chaplain)
- Elder Charese Jordan Moore (Knox)
- Rev. Ken Kovacs (Catonsville)
- Rev. Jessie Lowry (Christ Our Anchor)
- Rev. Ray Meute, Jr. (Highland)
- Elder Guy Moody (St. John United)
- Elder Annette Snyder (Hunting Ridge)
- Rev. Tim Williams-Hughes (Light Street)
- Elder Susan Krehbiel (Social Justice Consultant for the Presbytery)