“I have come to set fire to the earth.” These are the words of a First Century Palestinian Rabbi and social activist. Today most people who quote this man refer to him as “Saviour” or “Lord,” and remember him as a meek hillside teacher with a long flowing head of hair, soft features, and fair skin.
Jesus told people he wasn’t trying to bring peace or unity. Yet, Black people, speaking in favor of black freedom, dignity, and liberation from white supremacy, face consistent accusations about our stance’s alleged divisiveness. For many white evangelical believers in Jesus, “you’re being divisive.” is their go-to counter-argument against anti-racist reformers.
I’ve decided to wear “divisive” as a badge of honor. If one of the world’s most famous social agitators believed that the best strategy for social change was a disruption of the status quo, why would any of us think that passive submission to oppressive ideologies is a better method of change?
I’ve come to believe what most people mean when they lob the “divisive” grenade at an anti-racist is: “I don’t like what you’re saying or doing.” The reason they don’t like it is that they haven’t wrestled with their own biases enough to support anti-racism rather than trying to debunk or resist it.
White supremacy doesn’t just punish black and brown people, but it also rewards people who learn to leverage its oppressive hegemonic arrangement. People offer implicit and sometimes explicit support for racism, and in return, our anti-black society hands them participation trophies.
Anti-racism is about disrupting commonplace ideas, structures, and institutions that have hindered Black people since the birth of this Nation. We are not trying to make peace. We are trying to bring about justice.
We are working for justice in the way schools educate Black children. We are seeking justice in how police deal with black people they encounter. We are seeking justice in the way lenders do their business with Black people, and how cities zone and resource Black communities.
However, the quest for a more just society has never come without resistance. As Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without struggle.” Struggle connotes two sides creating tension by pulling in two opposing directions.
There is a struggle for racial justice because there are people who are pulling in the opposite direction towards more white supremacy. When we who are committed to a just and fair society pull toward egalitarian human behavior, folks content with the way things are pull back and call us “divisive.”
I imagine Jesus anticipated people considering him a divisive trouble maker, so he beat them to the punch and made the open declaration about himself. He lived in a time, like ours, where powerful people bullied, threatened, and oppressed their way to more and more power.
When secret police roam our streets capturing people using the agency afforded them by the Constitution of the United States to protest injustice, we don’t have time to defend ourselves from being called “divisive.” It’s time to embrace it so that we have the energy for the real struggle ahead.