We Need Faith Narratives that Heal—Now

By Mahogany Thomas ’20 M.Div.

As a recent transplant to Washington, D.C., I remember the summer of 2020 like it was yesterday. A church on fire. Broken glass. Shattered windows. Defaced property. Rubber bullets. Tear gas. Rage.

I was barely settled into my new home when protest for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor erupted not far away. In early June, less than 24 hours after a fire damaged the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, came the famous photo opt: the 45th president of the United States used St. John’s as a showcase for his imperial power. Not to offer prayer or apology as he teargassed peaceful protesters. Instead, a burnt church became the latest vehicle for the distortion of justice.

To offer new faith narratives, we have to remove distortions and create new space for justice to emerge. A generation of truth-tellers unleashes a generation of healing.

A few months passed, and this is what we saw: Black Lives Matter banners on fire. Property destroyed. Hate crimes in front of churches. Televised burnings. Trending social media threads of videoed flames, mirroring the crosses burning from the ’60s. This time, white supremacists swapped crosses for banners they burned in front of sanctuaries. Here in Washington, fires were once again used as a vehicle to distort justice, vandalism promoting white power.

Twisted God-talk

A few more weeks passed, and this is what we saw: the US Capitol in distress. Confederate flags and targeted hate. Mobs of angry people and, at the back of the crowd, banners that said, “Jesus Saves.” As a nation, we witnessed religious rhetoric twisted into harmful actions, whiteness using god-talk as the vehicle to distort justice once again. This incident also transpired only a few miles from me; it felt personal. In my gut, I began to feel rage. But this time, my anger was accompanied by conviction: if these violent outbreaks embody religion, then I do not want to be a part of it.

The common denominator in these disturbing moments is justice warped by white oppression, falsehoods knitted into our understandings of religion and embedded in our theologies. Yes, some of the attacks of the past year were inflicted on our sacred spaces, but that does not negate our Christian institutions’ participation in the formation of imperial whitenessdistortions embedded in the crevasses of our beliefs. Now we are seeing these beliefs not only exposed but intensifying.

Empire Masquerading as Faith

These startling events may not be the truth of our individual faith journeys, but they are truths of our sacred institutions. Empire masquerading as faith and truth is revealed to be a dangerous idol. We cannot live with these illusions.

Religion that was coopted under imperial whiteness and domination must repent and reemerge reimagined. Without a willingness to reimagine our faith, we continue to wound those who are most vulnerable among us and hinder ourselves from healing. Without the determination to name the truth, we, too, distort justice.

Let us look at these truths from another position. Scientists and public health officials use the word syndemic to describe concurrent epidemics, where two or more epidemics are unfolding simultaneously, interwoven, with residual embodied effects. The life-threatening complexities of a syndemic are deeply intersectional, connecting illness, poverty, inequality, racism, public health dysfunction, and other social crises in tandem with one another. When a syndemic emerges, the only way into remission is to reimagine the conditions in our common life that produced the threat.

Healing and Accountability

I am neither a public health official nor a scientist, yet I know as a pastor that our traumas are interwoven. Our oppressions are happening simultaneously, and we experience these deadly effects. If we want to heal the intersectional oppressions of our world, we have to reimagine our world. We must reimagine something beyond our current condition that initially produced the injustices. It becomes a necessity to reimagine our faith.

These days, my proximity to power as a millennial pastor who lives and serves in our nation’s capital forces me to wrestle with these truths constantly. If religion contributes, both consciously and unconsciously, to our systems of oppression, is healing possible? That question leads directly to another: is religion capable of healing our wounds? If the answer is yes, then we, as a community, have an active responsibility to foster healing and spread it, so a new narrative of justice can emerge. Yet the truth is, our religious convictions cannot do the work of healing without first learning accountability.

A Generation of Truth-tellers

We all carry partial responsibility for our world’s trauma. Healing comes by way of accountability and truth-telling, especially in this era of interwoven pandemics. Reimaging new narratives within our faith journeys will help us to heal beyond our traumas. The power to heal our wounds resides in our ability to become truth-tellers from inside our wounds.

When we are unable to find the words to describe these historic days, we can share the truth of our frustration. When we cannot grasp the magnitude of what has unfolded before us, we can share the truth of our disarray. When we are wrestling with disbelief at our national crises, we can share the truth of our rage. A generation of truth-tellers unleashes a generation of healing.

We have a responsibility to offer faith narratives that heal. To do that, we have to remove distortions and create new space for justice to emerge. Healing is impossible if we do not acknowledge our participation in that which is antithetical to our recovery. However, accountability and truth-telling require momentary discomfort.

It is uncomfortable to think of ways we participate in stifling our neighbor’s healing due to the very institutions we adore. It is not easy to think of the ways we have innocently contributed to one another’s neglect. These tasks are not comfortable, and yet they are essential. Reimagining creates sustainable healing, not just for the individual but for our collective well-being. 

I Will Share the Truth, Regardless

To reimagine new truths, this is what I have decided: I will share the truth of the traumas inflicted on us, regardless. I will focus on healing before likability. I will honor and empower truth and accountability, even when it is hard to share. Perhaps in hearing my convictions, you will make similar commitments for yourself. Perhaps if we both commit to being truth-tellers in a wounded world, we can help one another heal. Perhaps if we both are willing, then we can reimagine something new beyond our current condition.

Our sacred spaces do not have to be robed by imperial power or white oppression; they can become restorative again. Fire and vandalism should not have to erupt in order to prompt our willingness to bring healing. Enough distortions have already come to pass. We have all witnessed and suffered enough trauma. It is time for something new. The journey of our healing and our faithful reimagining intersects. If we can commit to them, we can embody new truths.

The Rev. Mahogany Thomas ’20 M.Div. is the Executive Minister of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC. At YDS she was a recipient of both the Andover Newton Seminary Diploma and the Black Church Studies Certificate.