“Fred Hampton’s Jesus Movement”
Text: Acts 11:1-18
Among other influences, I was trained in organizing by a few leaders who came out of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. One of my mentors, Willie Baptist, came of age during the Watts Uprisings in Los Angeles. He describes this as a critical stage of his formation—watching his suffering community step up and reclaim its own streets. Several times he’s told me the story of witnessing the local neighborhood drunk, who was usually passed out in a doorway, on his feet in the middle of an intersection directing traffic during the Uprising. This is one of the images I picture when I think about resurrection, and why we bother to fight for it.
Willie has been one of the people most strongly encouraging our organizing at Chaplains on the Harbor, a mission station of this diocese in Grays Harbor County, where our constituency is rural and 70-80% white. Willie’s enthusiasm for our work with poor whites sounds strange to a lot of people because the legacy of the Black Panthers is still poorly understood in this country. From the beginning, the Panthers—while building infrastructure, self-defense, and dignity in poor Black communities—also built alliances with other poor communities across racial lines. This was not a soft, rose-tinted neoliberal form of “celebrating diversity.” It was a series of gang alliances. It was Black Panthers visiting Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, home to poor white Appalachian migrants, to lead popular education workshops and find common ground in their shared experiences of slum housing and police violence. It was twenty-one year old Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton’s ability to organize a multiracial coalition with the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Chicano Brown Berets, the Chinese-American Red Guard, and the white Young Patriots. The Panthers did this work because they sought to end poverty, and to end poverty, they knew they needed a massive coalition of poor people—that they could never ultimately end poverty in Black communities without recruiting help and solidarity from other poor communities. The fight was and is too big for one community to wage alone.
I think about the Black Panthers when I read Acts 11. We have used and abused passages like this to exhaustion and I kind of dreaded the prospect of preaching on it. We have used these words to make the same false and tired anti-Semitic argument, “The Jews were mean and legalistic but Jesus was nice and laidback! See Peter learning to be nice and laidback. Yay Peter.” We have elsewhere used it to argue, “The Jews were oppressed, but look at them being nice to their oppressors! This is what Jesus is all about.”
That is not what I see when I read this passage. The term “Gentiles” here, from the biblical Greek “ethne” means “the nations.” It does not mean “people who oppressed the Judeans” although it certainly includes many of them. “The nations” is more accurately translated as a descriptor for people living in other nations (outside of Judea) that were also colonized by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire of Jesus’ time, like our own, was a murderous ransacking plague. “The nations,” the Gentiles, overwhelmingly did not fare well when they were invaded by the Roman army. A handful of puppet dictators and elites did ok, the rest were dispossessed of their land, labor, and liberty.
My understanding of the early church, the church of Acts, is that it was a poor people’s movement—a movement delivering good news of the poor, by the poor, for the poor, across the empire. To be sure, it did not remain this way. It was targeted and undermined and ultimately co-opted by the empire itself. This is because broad-based poor people’s movements are always a threat to the powers and principalities of this world. Fred Hampton, the Black Panther who orchestrated the non-aggression pact between Chicago’s warring gangs across racial lines, was assassinated in his bed by the FBI while he was sleeping. He was twenty-one years old. The FBI investigation of him and the Panthers specifically sought to disrupt and destroy their gang truce work, their free breakfast programs for children, their health clinics, their education programs, and other initiatives that delivered material resurrection for poor people’s quality of life.
I read Acts 11 as a Panther-style gang alliance. There is a documentary, “American Revolution 2,” that includes video footage of the Panthers working their way through a solidarity meeting with the white Appalachian migrants of Uptown Chicago. When I watch it, I see the Book of Acts replayed: blunt truth-telling paired with tremendous skill and strategy and, at the bottom of it all, the risk of love. Not the equivocating and squishy let’s-all-just-get-along love so adored in liberal mainline churches, but the kind of radical big-picture love that comes from understanding that in order to topple a death-dealing social and economic order, we must build collective power. This kind of love requires that we do not simply forget and forgive the damage we have done, or the bloody histories to which our families and our neighborhoods are tied. This kind of love, while always propelling us forward in solidarity, does not permit us to prematurely slap a label of “reconciliation” on the whole affair to assuage our discomfort.
In today’s reading the Judeans, upon hearing Peter’s story, responded, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life”—to be sure, they knew painfully well the Gentiles’ long list of sins demanding repentance. Repentance is not a one-time act, but a way of life. The Panthers did not walk into Uptown Chicago naively, or even unarmed. They went with full knowledge that they were entering a community where, despite nearly identical conditions of poverty and exploitation, many people had drunk deep from the poisoned well of white supremacy. They did not go to Uptown believing they would win every heart, and they didn’t. But the few people they did reach were able to reach others. And with this handful of leaders, despite brutal repression, their coalition accomplished the kinds of resurrections we still say are impossible in this country.
Think of the early church. It was full of messes, drama, infighting, sabotage and it, too, was a movement that fed and loved people who had been exploited and then left for dead by the empire. Imperial order kept people of “the nations” long pitted against one another, and often most lethally pitted against the Judeans, for the purpose of taking each other out while Rome grew richer each day. And yet the early church was also a solidarity movement rooted in the work, leadership, and vision of Jewish people—Judeans like Jesus and Peter, the most dispossessed people of the whole empire. This movement posed a fundamental threat to the empire’s bottom line and it caught like wildfire among the poor of the occupied nations. It sparked hope where none had existed. It restored bodies and souls through healing, teaching, and eating. It built power through unifying poor communities that had been trained to hate each other, and at the forefront of it were the Judeans, the nation of people who had been most hated and most oppressed. If that’s not a Panther-style platform, I don’t know what is.