Civil rights activist and public theologian Ruby Sales first came into the public eye on Aug. 20, 1965, in Lowndes County, Alabama, when a young white seminarian, Jonathan Daniels, took a bullet meant for her. She created a nonprofit, which she still runs, called the SpiritHouse Project, to honor his memory. Krista Tippett interviewed Sales in 2016 for On Being and that interview was rebroadcast last Sunday.
The power of her prophetic voice brings clarity and healing to the issues that divide us. Here are some excerpts I thought were timely and applicable to our current national impasse/debate. I should mention that it’s one thing to read Sales’ words. It’s another altogether to hear her say it. She speaks with great authority.
Where does it hurt?:
A defining moment for me happened when I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. She had sores on her body. She was just in a state — drugs. So something said to me, ask her. And I said, “Shelley, where does it hurt?”
Just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother. She talked about having been incested. She talked about all of the things that had happened to her as a child. She shared the source of her pain. And I realized, listening to her and talking with her, that I needed a larger way to do this work, rather than a Marxist, materialist analysis of the human condition.
‘I’ sight vs. ‘we’ sight:
One of the things theologies must have is hindsight, insight, and foresight — that is, complete sight. I think fragmentation really shatters that sight; it’s not “I” sight, it’s “we” sight. … How [do] we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? This goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel their lives have no meaning because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination, and when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying? That’s why Donald Trump is essential because, although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain they’re feeling.
I don’t hear anyone [else] speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia who is dying at a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines for them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today.
There’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning. We talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European-American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.
So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.
Love and anger:
Love is not antithetical to being outraged. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. Redemptive anger is the anger that moves you to transformation and human up-building. Non-redemptive anger is the anger that white supremacy roots itself in.
I became involved in the Southern freedom movement not merely because I was angry about injustice, but because I love the idea of justice. It’s where you begin your conversation. Most people begin their conversation with “I hate this” — but they never talk about what they love. We have to begin to have a conversation that incorporates a vision of love with a vision of outrage. I don’t see those things as being over and against each other. You can’t talk about injustice without talking about suffering. But the reason I want to have justice is because I love everybody in my heart.
Always, there is a tension between liberation and oppression, between justice and injustice, between love and hate. I will go further and say the kind of resistance movements that came out of black folk religion have saved America from tilting over into the abyss of fascism. It has been the salvation of a country. It has been the balance, to talk about that kind of justice. To talk about that in the heat of empire, to talk about God as a liberating God, has really been an important stopgap to save America from itself.
Being human vs. being humans:
Tippett: What does it mean to be human?
Sales: What it means to be humans. We live in a very diverse world, and to talk about what it means to be humans is to talk with the simultaneous tongue of universality and particularities. As a black person, to talk about what it means is to talk about my experience as an African-American person, but also to talk about my experience that transcends being an African American, to the universal experience. I think we’ve got to stop speaking about humanity as if it’s monolithic. We’ve got to wrap our consciousness around a world where people bring to the world vastly different histories and experiences, but at the same time, a world where we experience grief and love in some of the same ways. So how do we develop theologies that weave together the “I” with the “we” and the “we” with the “I”?