Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou moved to his native Ferguson, MO, immediately following Michael Brown’s murder of August 2014. He was quickly at the forefront of the protest movement organizing and training young people in methods and disciplines of non-violent civil disobedience. I invited him to come to Chicago and train SCUPE’s seminary students. He gave them an unforgettable hands-on training in non-violent civil disobedience.

“These young people,” he said, referring to the Ferguson protesters, “These queer, black, young women, and these saggy-panted young men are the very ones leading the movement towards justice. Those who are the most marginalized in society are leading where the church is failing to go. This is where God is speaking, and the church is not listening.” “It’s 50 years since Martin Luther King,” he said, “50 years since the Voting Rights Act, 50 years since Bloody Sunday in Selma, but it is as if nothing has changed—it’s open season on black men and women.” So he asks, “What’s wrong with our theology that 50 years later we are still struggling with this?”

That framing, “What’s wrong with our theology?” puts the onus on religious leaders --theologians, theological educators and preachers -- for not privileging the contextuality of the streets. Sekou’s criticism is also this: had the discipline of theology taken seriously the racial revolution of 50 years ago, and had given space for a theological revolution to take place, would the churches allow the atrocity of police brutality to happen today? This requires a paradigm shift for theologians, who are used to holding the “received” tradition sacrosanct. The best we know to do with the questions and struggles that arise from the context is to tinker at the edges of our received theological traditions.

Sekou’s question is still valid. And now we have another opportunity -- the kind of opportunity for which OMNIA was made. For we are not satisfied tinkering at the edges. We are willing to look courageously at the malevolent forces at the heart of our religious traditions and seek change.

OMNIA is already busy around the world helping birth this New Reality. Interfaith Peacemaker Teams are already challenging the received traditions and taking seriously the contextual realities. We are doing this in Northeastern Nigeria (where Boko Haram is active), where Muslims and Christians are putting aside their historic antagonisms and coming together. We are doing this in Sri Lanka, where Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians are coming together, despite last year’s Easter bombings by an extremist Muslim group, and continuing instigation to violence by some extremist Buddhist monks. We are doing this in Bangladesh, where increasing extremism among Muslims sees a corresponding increase in extremism among Christians and Hindus.

OMNIA trains religious leaders and people of faith how to collaborate despite their differences, to build power by building relationships and alliances, to think and act strategically to win. Each small victory leads to building greater power and to greater victories. Soon it becomes evident that formerly antagonistic groups can work together, and that they can achieve victories that were otherwise impossible.  This begins to shift the culture from one that tolerates extremism to one that affirms pluralism.

We have learned many lessons from our engagement around the world. We have learned to take the questions and struggles of the people on the ground seriously. These require us to critically examine our received theologies that legitimize our oppression and undermine our liberation. As our theology changes, rather than legitimizing oppression, it becomes a force for liberation.

This happened throughout history. A great example is the religious legitimization of Apartheid in South Africa. When the World Conference of Reformed Churches under Allen Boesak’s leadership declared Apartheid a heresy in 1983, the entire system began to crumble. Boesak was responding the cries that were arising from the context of deep suffering and struggle. This can be true of White supremacy as well.  

We are also clear that we can’t do this alone. We need lots of partners, friends, supporters. Our Tuesday Talks are a way for you to join the movement. Please do join us.

Shanta Premawardhana

President

Shanta Premawardhana is president of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. Prior to OMNIA, he served as the Director for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He was also the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches, USA. While serving as pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in Chicago, he engaged in community organizing work in the Southside of Chicago. He is an emeritus trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, National Council of Churches, USA, and Common Cause Illinois. He earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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