'From Chaos to Community' explores the role of religion in social justice movements

Andy Downing
Community leaders and clergy members march in Erie, Pennsylvania. The protest march was staged following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr. spent a few days in mid-January in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he protested against the federal executions of Lisa Montgomery and Dustin Higgs, both of whom were killed duringan unprecedented 2020 run in which the Trump administration carried out the death penalty against more people than the federal government had executed in the last 56 years combined.

“It is my fundamental belief that executions are immoral,” said Sullivan, who serves as the executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches and will be part of “From Chaos to Community,”a virtual panel set for 3 p.m. today (Wednesday, Jan. 20) that will explore the role of religion in social justice movements. “They’re hollow instruments of death that don’t offer any hope or healing or redemption or restoration. They just perpetuate a cycle of death.”

Sullivan has close personal ties to the issue, as well, having lost his sister 24 years ago to an unsolved murder in Cleveland, a loss he said inspired him to help “end the cycle of violence whether it took place through criminal activity … or at the hands of the state.”

At the time Sullivan learned of his sister’s death, he was working as a pastor in Detroit, and he said the experience strengthened rather than tested his faith, forcing him to recommit to the idea that the true work of Christianity was linked to the twin pillars of love and social justice.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

“I was nurtured in the value system of the historic Black church, which was formed as a protest against slavery, against racism, inequality and Jim Crow,” Sullivan said. “The historic Black church was the resistance movement, and it was America’s original and most authentic freedom and justice organization. … And out of that tradition I came, and that shapes how I view the world and certainly how I view the church.”

In recent years, though, much of the media focus on religion in public life has centered on the conservative Christian right and the hand it has played in shaping Republican policy.

Even the conversation around “religious liberty” has shifted away from protecting the freedoms of minority groups, said Ohio State associate professor Dr. Isaac Weiner, with some conservative Christians pushing the concept as a means to allow for discrimination against LGBTQ groups (see: the Christian baker whorefused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple).

“I think there are a lot of folks on the religious left, especially, who are concerned about the ways that religion in America has kind of gotten a bad name, where it becomes associated with racial injustice or bigotry or discrimination toward LGBT groups,” said Weiner, a scholar of American religious studies who will serve as moderator for today’s panel. “When people talk about religion, especially in politics and public life, it can become shorthand for white conservative Christianity, and I think many of us have an interest in expanding on what people think religion is, taking into account the way other Americans practice religion, and how that practice shapes their political commitments.”

Programs such as “From Chaos to Community” can play a role in shifting this conversation, allowing people to consider more broadly the way that religion can shape public life. More recently, Weiner said, he’s been struck by the way the renewed Black lives matter movement has been embraced by faith groups across the spectrum here in Columbus, unfolding within churches, synagogues and mosques.

Even churches located in largely white communities have embraced these renewed calls for social justice,including David’s United Church of Christ in Canal Winchester, which held weekly Black lives matter sit-ins every Friday through the summer and fall of last year, a practice it intends to continue this spring once weather allows.

“This is predominantly a white congregation, but we want our African American neighbors to know that we support them, that we’re speaking out on these issues, and that there is a welcoming place in the community that is working for change,” David’s UCC pastor James Semmelroth Darnelltold Alive last year.

Sullivan said he’s even witnessed renewed dedication to the cause within the historic Black church in the aftermath of George Floyd's May 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police. “I do think that churches are rediscovering themselves,” Sullivan said. “I’m calling it a spiritual transformation they are undergoing right now, becoming more of the movement and recognizing that churches are not buildings, the people are the church. We’re supposed to be a movement for love and justice.”

While “From Chaos to Community” adapted its title from the last book Martin Luther King Jr. penned before his 1968 assassination (Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?), both Sullivan and Weiner noted the unintended connection to this unfolding political era, with the panel taking place just two weeks after Trump supporters led a violent siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Weiner, for one, was struck by two developments that occurred within that same 24-hour span, including the senatorial run-off elections won in Georgia by Raphael Warnock, a former Christian preacher, and Jon Ossoff, whose Jewish faithwas used against him in the campaign run by opponent David Perdue, and the subsequent storming of the Capitol.

“Warnock and Ossoff were really hailed as vanguards of this new, resurgent religious left, where they were really trumpeted as this sign that religion is not just the religious right in America, but here are two people whose liberal mindsets are deeply shaped by their religious commitments,” Weiner said. “And then later that afternoon, the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in a riot that was rife with religious imagery and prayer. There was a sharp contrast between these two moments that really struck me.”

For Sullivan, the storming of the Capitol served as a reminder of America’s history of systemic oppression, as well as an overdue wakeup call to faith communities that now is the time to push for needed social and political change.

“Here we are now, just two weeks after that shameful episode, and we have to ask ourselves: Where do we go from here?” Sullivan said. “Do we invest in and accept chaos? Or do we use the best of our resources and try and forge a new kind of community where everybody’s needs can be met … and no one will be trivialized?"

“Many are waking up to the reality that systemic hate and repression are not a new phenomena," he continued. "They go back to our earliest days as a nation and are deeply entrenched in the fabric of who we are. ...This is a time for us, especially for the faith community, to make some life choices concerning where we invest our resources, our energy and our creativity. Everything we have that can be used for the constructive good must be used now.”