A Seat at the Table: When Standing Will Do

Updated: Nov 30, 2018

On August 1, Trump met with “inner city pastors” to discuss prison reform. It’s hard to believe that a man who touts himself as the law and order POTUS, boosted the private prison economy, maligns protests against systemic injustice (of which criminal justice reform has been a key element) and created a chant calling for the imprisonment of his campaign opponent would actually care about prison reform. But somehow, he convinced 19 Black and Brown preachers that he does.

Trump invited them to discuss the Kushner crafted First Step Act. According to the bill, the aim is “to provide for programs to help reduce the risk that prisoners will recidivate upon release from prison.” Should the bill become law, incarcerated persons would be able to earn credits toward early release by participating in educational and vocational programs. Additionally, if they have an exemplary behavior record, they could be eligible to have their overall sentence reduced by a week for every year they’ve been incarcerated. On the surface, this bill sounds like it’s doing something. However, its issues are legion.

When discussing the efforts of faith leaders and ministries to end recidivism in our community, a few names ring clear. Any conversation about returning citizens that does not include Harold “Doc” Trulear isn’t a serious conversation. The New Jim Crow, written by Michelle Alexander, is considered an essential text for all congregations and The Samuel D. Proctor Conference created a helpful companion study guide. There are numerous pastors, activists, practitioners and scholars who are known in our communities for doing this work. None of them were there. They were absent because this wasn’t about creating meaningful change and substantive dialogue. It was about stroking the ego of a narcissist and finding people desperately seeking acceptance who were willing to do it.

I wasn’t surprised by some in attendance. Paula White, Alveda King and Darrell Scott decided long ago that gaining the world was much more lucrative. I expected to see them. I did not expect to see John Gray seated at Trump’s right hand. That shocked many of us. Folks like John. They watch his show. They celebrated his recent appointment as Senior Pastor of Redemption Church and rebranding it as Relentless. He’s funny. He seems to genuinely care about people and many believe he’s trying to approach ministry differently. Nothing about what he presents suggested that he would hold court with 45. Nevertheless, the two reality tv stars were sitting side by side.

I wanted to feel bad for Gray. He looked uncomfortable…like he knew wasn’t supposed to be there. And he wasn’t. Through social media, Gray told us that his wife told him not to go. Fumbling through his rationale and sprinkling it with faulty interpretations of scripture, the same man who told Black women they are the “Favor Factor” didn’t listen to the favor walking around in his own house. Black women tell these dudes time and time again but they’d rather talk at us than listen to us. Where are his friends? Who has his ear? Why didn’t anybody tell him this wasn’t a good look? Folks kept asking these questions. But someone did discern the ruse and give him wise counsel; he just didn’t listen to her. Everybody wants to be David. Nobody wants to be Pilate.

And while marveling at the hypocrisy and how much water those we love will carry for the adoration of Whiteness, entirely too many told us not to judge those who met with Trump. After all- the prophet always had the king’s ear, even Jesus met with the tax collectors and Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies. All of that is true…but it only tells part of the story.

Nathan could have died when he told David that HE was the man.

Ahab could have killed Micaiah for saying that, as king, he surrounded himself with yes-men.

Esther faced death when she went before the king to save her people.

Three Hebrew boys were sentenced to death for holy disobedience.

Jesus consistently called the rulers of his day to task for their mistreatment of vulnerable and marginalized people.

Yep, Jesus sure did go visit the tax collector. And just from being in his presence, Zacchaeus repented for the ways he mistreated people. You mean to tell me that Trump was in a room full of people carrying the heart of Christ and power of the Holy Spirit and, under the weight of all that, the only thing he could do was continue to praise himself and lie about his accomplishments? I have to wait to see the fruit of his conversation with them when Zacchaeus couldn’t wait another minute after meeting Jesus to get it right? The biblical prophets risked certain death to speak prophetic truth to the king but I’m supposed to understand that all these pastors had the power to say, when in the presence of a man whose policies recently had babies in cages (many are still there), is “thank you for a seat at the table”?

Our faith calls for us to proclaim the gospel when it is inconvenient and costly. Our history bears witness to those who spoke truth to power, facing great consequence, because it was the right thing to do. That the faith of a man who has shown none could be celebrated by pastors and that they could thank him for displaying Christian witness and integrity is shameful. And every leader who was there should rightly be called out for it. Because they pastor our big mamas and our aunties. Because we know how hard it is for our siblings and cousins to find jobs and decent housing when they get out. Because, for us, this is more than a photo op. It is real life. Because long after Trump has used them and they realize that the affirmation they sought was unsustainable and unfulfilling, we will still be here doing the work.

Every table does not merit our presence. We are seated in heavenly places. God help those of us who would forfeit such a divine place setting because they’d rather be given a trough covered in fool’s gold.