Convocation 2020: George and Jesus: Policing an Insurrection of Hope

September 2, 2020
Cornell William Brooks
Cornell William Brooks, Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at HDS / Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons.

Delivering this year's Convocation address will be Cornell William Brooks, Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at HDS and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at Harvard Kennedy School. 

Brooks's address is entitled "George and Jesus: Policing an Insurrection of Hope." The entire HDS community, students and colleagues from the Committee on the Study of Religion, and other Harvard schools, friends, alumni, and guests are invited to the virtual ceremony below. 




Good afternoon, and welcome everyone to Harvard Divinity School's 205th convocation. My name is David Hempton, and as dean of Harvard Divinity School, I'm delighted to welcome you all today. Colleagues and the faculty of Divinity, our colleagues from other schools here at Harvard, fellow deans, emeriti, senior administrators, colleagues on the staff, guests, incoming and returning students, and all our friends, near and far all across the world, welcome.

Why is this the 205th time that the HDS community is gathering for the festival opening up an academic year. This is our first time completely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic that keeps us all physically apart. Please allow me to say a few words of thanks to everyone who helped put together today's convocation. From the various offices at HDS, and to the contributors and participants in today's festive opening of the academic year.

Eboni Nash, our HDS student, will do the reading. My colleague and our academic dean, Professor Janet Gyatso, Chris Hossfeld, our director of music. And last but not least, my dear colleague and distinguished speaker Dr. Cornel Brooks. Thank you for your work and your efforts under these challenging circumstances.

Each convocation is a time to reflect on the previous year, what we have accomplished, and what work still needs to be done. What we most want to achieve in the future, and how we want to adjust our course. Last year, our colleagues Davíd Carrasco and Cornell West celebrated our friend Toni Morrison with his convocation address entitled "Toni Morrison, Goodness And Mercy And Mexico," and what was an unforgettable event at Sanders Theater. Next year we hope to hold our convocation in person in a fully renovated and recreated Swartz Hall.

This year we are honored to have as our speaker, our distinguished colleague, Cornell Brooks, who was chosen as the title of his address, "George and Jesus, Policing And Insurrection Of Hope." Professor Brooks is of course no stranger to the HDS and Harvard community, nor to anyone in the country.

He is Hauser Professor of the Practice of Non-profit Organizations, and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. Is also director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership. And our esteemed colleague and visiting professor of the practice of prophetic religion and public leadership at the Divinity School.

He's also a fourth generation ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. These are difficult times in all our lives. We're living through the worst public health pandemic in over a century. We see violent acts of systemic racism almost every day. Our civic institutions are under unprecedented stress and strain. Truth and trust are bent, distorted, and undermined. At HDS we are not and should not be isolated from these challenges.

This coming year, our new racial justice and healing committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students, has chosen as its theme building an anti-racist and anti-oppressive Harvard Divinity School, in which our community will engage quote, "in the ongoing self-examination needed to unlearn and heal from internalized racism, oppression, and conscious and unconscious bias." These commitments are foundational to cultivating healthy relationships for a vibrant learning community.

This will further strengthen our study of religion and service of a just world, at peace across religious and cultural divides. As part of our community reflection, we will read together a book by Fania Davis, who has spoken several times at our school. The book's entitled The Little Book Of Race And Restorative Justice, Black Lives Healing, And US Social Transformation. The goal of this common read is for every member of Harvard Divinity School to engage collectively with this text and with each other.

The start of this common read next month will launch the beginning of our yearlong reorientation journey through racial justice and healing programming, organized around the book and our collective study of religion. We hope that these experiences will deepen our understanding of the manifestations of systemic racism, and equip us with tools for addressing it, and healing from it within the HDS community and beyond.

So I'm so delighted that Dr. Brooks has agreed to lead us into this new territory of an academic year, and I'm eager to hear his guiding words that will set us on our path into the academic year 2021. And the everlasting words of John Lewis, a courageous civil rights leader that we recently lost, never give up, and never give in. We look forward now to hear Eboni's reading of John 18, versus 1 to 11, and to the address from Dr. Brooks.

[Eboni Nash speaks]

John 18, one through 11. After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place because Jesus often met there with his disciples.

So Judas brought a detachment soldiers, together with police, from the chief priest and the pharisees, and they came there with lanterns, and torches, and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and ask them whom are you looking for? They answered Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus replied, I am he. Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, I am he, they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again, he asked them whom are you looking for? And they said Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus answered, I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go. This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken. I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave name was Malcus. Jesus said to Peter, put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the father has given me?

[Professor Janet Gyatso speaks]

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm really honored to have this opportunity to introduce to you our convocation speaker for this afternoon, Cornell Brooks. Cornell Brooks has many profiles, but they all fit together to spell a man with extraordinary capabilities, extraordinary commitment to racial justice, extraordinary acts of leadership, and extraordinary grounding in the insights and inspiration of religion.

The main hats Cornell wears as chief executive of nonprofits, as a civil rights lawyer. And he's an ordained fourth generation minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He currently holds two titles at Harvard's Kennedy School. He's the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organization, and he's also a Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice. And most important to us here today, he's also Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at Harvard Divinity School.

The last jobs he held before coming to Harvard where at Boston University's School of Law and its school of theology, which is also where he received an MDiv degree years ago. So he's got a thing about doing law and religion at the same time. The courses he's teaching for us at Harvard Divinity School this year, listen to these titles are Creating Justice In Real Time, Vision Strategies And Campaigns.

That's his course for the fall. And for the spring, he's teaching Morals, Money, And Movements, criminal justice reform as this case study. So Cornell Brooks can talk religion. And he can talk about how to take action for people's lives. For human rights, and for justice.

And most impressively, before he was at Boston University, Cornell Brooks brought his professional know how and his spiritual commitment together when he became president and CEO of the NAACP.

That was in 2014 to 2017. And in that short period of 2014 to 2017, he secured 11 legal victories in 12 months against voter suppression. And he reactivated the organization's legal department by doubling the number of pro bono firms and hours working for them. And he established a partnership with Yale Law School to address redistricting, and with Yale university to address trauma and policing.

And he advocated for the Ferguson Police Department pattern and practice suit report and settlement based on the NAACP's racial profiling law. And he initiated a lawsuit against government officials and contractors after the Flint water crisis. He led marches and demonstrations from Ferguson to Flint in hundreds of jurisdictions.

And he created a national coalition to protect the right to vote, with a Democracy Awaiting demonstration in 2016 in Washington, DC. And he led a 134-mile journey for justice march from the Ferguson home of Michael Brown to the Missouri State capitol go home of Governor Jay Nixon, going through a racial ambush and bypassing a Klan assault. Well, I can go on and on with this man's accomplishment and work for justice and democracy.

But instead, I'm going to let him speak for himself. And the title of his convocation address to us today is "George And Jesus, Policing And Insurrection Of Hope." That's a really interesting title. Let's find out what he means by that.

[Cornell William Brooks speaks]

On this, the 205th convocation of the Harvard Divinity School, I begin with a profound word of appreciation to the dean, to the faculty, to the administration, the staff, and most certainly the students. Their friends and their family, and most definitely those well beyond Harvard and across Harvard who depend on this sacred place, these called people, for soul sustenance in this tumultuous and troublesome time.

We find ourselves at a moment chastened by circumstance, monumental moral and historical consequence. In the midst of prevailing pessimism, and cynicism in so many quarters. But here at this Harvard Divinity School, we find ourselves at the outset the dawn of this semester, rebelliously grateful.

Rebellious Lee grateful that we are yet able to gather, even virtually. Rebellious grateful that we are able to yet see one another's faces, even virtually. Rebelliously grateful that we can yet sing the songs of Zion, even over Zoom. Rebelliously grateful.

Yet even as we gather in this moment, of generationally unprecedented activism there is a Caleb Generation of protesters, demonstrators, activists, prayer warriors, prophets in London, in Beirut, in Paris, in Los Angeles, and New York, in Boston, in Portland, in Kenosha, who are yet declaring with their minds, with their hearts, with their souls, with their bodies that Black Lives Matter. Understanding profoundly that Black Lives Matter he is the moral predicate to the ethical conclusion that all lives matter. Unless the first is true, the second will never be true.

We gather together in a moment in which so many of us return to the Divinity School, into the Divinity School with the arrest and the death of George Floyd heavy on our hearts. So as we begin the semester, I want to share a few thoughts of considered inspiration. From the Book of John the 18th chapter, the first to the 11th first, under the topic "George And Jesus, Policing An Insurrection Of Hope." "George and Jesus, Policing An Insurrection Of Hope."

For your consideration, I just lift up these few words of scripture found in the book of John. Here we find This periscope that speaks to our hearts. When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples over the Brook of Kidron, where there was a garden which he and his disciples entered. And Judas who betrayed him also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples.

Then Jesus, rather than Judas, Judas having received a detachment of troops and officers from the chief priest and the pharisees came there with lanterns, with torches, and weapons. Jesus, therefore knowing all things that would come upon him, went forward and said to them whom are you seeking? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus said to them I am he. And Judas, who betrayed him also stood with them. Now when he said to them, I am he, they drew back and fell to the ground. Then he asked them again, whom are you seeking? And they said Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he. Therefore if you seek me, let these go away. That the same might be fulfilled, which he spoke. Of those whom you gave me, I have lost none. Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear.

The servant's name was Malcus. May the Lord add a blessing to the reading and hearing of his most holy word. In this moment I just want to offer up three lessons of encouragement, three simple lessons, three fundamental lessons, three elementary lessons.

Those lessons being our purpose precipitates policing. Our purpose, our presence is God's people precipitates policing. The second lesson is our identity gives us boldness. Our identity gives us boldness. The third lesson, if you will, is our identity as God's people's, prophets, and scholars, as students, as faculty, as administrators, as members of this Harvard Divinity School community, our identity gives us power.

We come to this text as a community broken, hurting, traumatized, triggered. We come to this text this afternoon with George Floyd heavy on our hearts. Many of us would call all too well the first time we saw the George Floyd video, characterized by three distinguishing elements. The first of which is the video, this cell phone video took place in emotional slow motion. That is to say over the better part of 9 minutes, or eight minutes and 46 seconds, to be precise.

Second this video possesses a moral intimacy. It draws us in. Yet now, having been serialized and viralized, it draws us in. And lastly and disturbingly, it is pornographically violent. It is reminiscent of the image of Emmett Till from 1955, the 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi by white racists on the eve of the Montgomery Boycott.

And you recall that his photograph-- the image of his disfigured, and tortured, and young black body inspired and ignited the modern day civil rights revolution. So that image, that video, is heavy on our hearts this morning, or rather this afternoon.

And so we come to this text this afternoon, mindful of the fact that the Book of John describes the instruments of policing. It describes those instruments as simply, weapons, torches and lanterns. But the Book Of Mark on the other hand, describes those weapons with some granularity as clubs and spears, roughly analogous to guns and tasers.

The police force deputized to arrest Jesus was comprised of soldiers and the temple police. That is to say, the temple guards and a detachment, or an auxiliary of the military, joining with religious police, to effectuate the arrest of Jesus. This military auxiliary was not sent to keep the peace, but rather to squelch, to pre-empt resistance.

That is to say, Jesus was subject to a militarized police presence. This sounds very familiar to those of you who've been watching current events play out on your Twitter feed, on Instagram, on Facebook. You will recall that in the weeks and days since George Floyd was killed, there were between 15 and 26 million Americans who participated in protests, and demonstration, and acts of civil disobedience.

Over 550 sites in towns, cities, villages, and hamlets across the 50 states of this country. And yet even around the world, the largest such present protest in American history, you'll recall that in the same period of time, in the wake of George Floyd's, death in the wake of Ahmed Arbery's death, in the wake of Rashard Brooks's death, in the wake of Breonna Taylor's death, in that time in which so many Americans were protesting, demonstrating in the streets, Americans bought five million guns to add to the 400 million guns already in circulation amidst a population of 330 million.

And in this time, we have seen the National Guard. We have seen sheriffs. We have seen state troopers. We have seen police dispatched all across the country to police these protests, these demonstrations, these acts of civil disobedience. There's something about the presence of not merely those who are criminal suspects that brings out the police, but something about people protesting, demonstrating, engaging in activism that precipitates unlawful, unjust, unconstitutional and immoral policing.

You'll recall that the legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, and the historian Khalil Gibran or rather Khalil Muhammad describe the fact that modern day law enforcement has its roots in the slave patrols, the slave catchers of old. You'll recall that the police departments of contemporary America have their roots in slavocracy and white supremacy.

So the moment in which we find ourselves is not merely about controlling crime on the streets, riots in the streets, looting in the streets. But it is largely a response to God's people in the streets. I want to suggest to you this afternoon that there's something about the presence of Jesus in the garden, something about the presence of Jesus in the midst of religious authority, and Roman authority, that precipitates an unjust, unlawful, unconstitutional, and immoral policing response.

In other words, when we stand up for righteousness when we stand up for justice, when we stand in the gap for those who cannot stand up for themselves, in other words, Blake, who was shot in the back, who is now physically paralyzed, when we stand for them, that something about our godly witness, our holy witness, our prophetic witness, that brings about an unjust policing response. We have to take this as a matter of course. We have to take this as a matter, and a cost, a price if you will, of discipleship.

Then when we as God's people show up, unjust policing will also show up. When we confront Roman authorities in the present moment, when we confront religious authorities in the present moment, we have to be prepared to face the police, to face the National Guard, to face unjust authority in the midst of holy authority.

Second lesson of this text is our identity gives us a sense of boldness. For those of you who are starting here at the Harvard Divinity School, for those of you who are returning to the Harvard Divinity School, for those of you who work here at the Harvard Divinity School, for those of you, like me who are visiting the Harvard Divinity School, I want to suggest to you that our identity as God's people, as God's prophets, as God's called, gives us a voice. You will note that typically when police encounter a civilian, they often ask for identification.

They try to establish identification when they take a person into custody. How many Black people, how many immigrant people, how many migrant people, how many brown people, how many trans people, how many Muslims, how many young people are afraid to be in the wrong place at the wrong time without government issued ID? But in this biblical instance, Jesus confronts the police by asking them for the identity of the person they seek, by saying or asking whom do you seek?

And they answer Jesus of Nazareth and he answers I am he. In other words, when the police say that Jesus showed me some ID, they do so after he asked them whom do you seek? We, to be clear in this moment, are required to act in the boldness of our identity. We identify as God's people.

We identify as God's prophets. We identify as God's pastors. We identify as gods imams. We identify as God's priests. We identify as God's ministers. We identify as gods lay people. We identify as God's chosen.

We identify as gods, so as we identify as God's scholars, we identify as God's faculty. We identify as God's broken humanity. And in so doing, we declare who we are, boldly. Knowing that by identifying with God, with his purpose, our presence suggests a boldness. Lastly, our identity gives us power in the face of our enemies, and even over our enemies.

We, as God's people, are confronted by those who are far more powerful than we are. But we're reminded that in this text, when Jesus announces who he is, the police, the authorities, fall back. They fall down. They retreat in the face of his identity.

May I suggest to you it's not always easy to believe that God's god-given, the imago dei that the notion that we are created in the image of God, and as such, we have innate value and worth. It's not always easy to believe that because of who we are, those in authority will retreat, they will fall back.

They will not prevail, that we will ultimately prevail. But I'm reminded of a prophet by the name of John Robert Lewis, who found himself on a bridge called the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. I'm reminded that he was confronted, like Jesus, like George Floyd, by the police. He was confronted with police, with billy clubs wrapped in barbed wire. He was confronted by police armed with batons, armed with guns, armed with gas, armed with snarling, vicious dogs.

Armed with the authority of the state, armed with badges, armed with uniforms, armed with credibility, armed with the full backing of segregationist Jim Crow law. It could not have been easy to believe that the authorities would fall back, that they would fall down, that they would retreat in the face of God's chosen and God's call.

But history tells us that ultimately, those state troopers, those police officers, those brutal unconstitutional, unlawful, immoral police ultimately retreated before the forces of justice, the forces of righteousness, the forces of God's call in our history, in our time.

We have power. So if you're here at the Harvard Divinity School, if you're here as a student as a faculty member, as a staff member as an administrator, as a family member, as someone is simply listening to this convocation service, I just want to suggest to you that you have power, as a consequence of who you are. That you are affiliated, you are part of God's family. You have power no matter how powerful those around you seem, no matter how they're armed and road with authority, you have power.

The scriptures make it clear that Jesus has power. And because we choose to follow Jesus, we choose to follow the prophets, we choose to follow our lord, we too have power. I just want to close by noting that late, or rather later in the book of John, Pontius Pilate, acting as judge and jury, had the opportunity to grant a pardon. Grant a reprieve to two people subject to a death penalty.

We have Barabbas, who in this gospel is described as a robber, a petty thief. But also in another gospel, in the gospels, also described as an insurrectionist. Someone responsible for a uprising against Roman authority. So Pontius Pilate could have extended a reprieve, a pardon to a political insurrectionist and a thief.

Or he could have extended a pardon to Jesus, viewed as a threat to both religious authority, and Roman authority. Now the Bible tells us that ultimately Jesus did not receive a pardon. He was still subject to the death penalty. This is not surprising, because of course Jesus was born under an had an infancidal edict. This is not surprising because he was born under a death penalty.

This is not surprising because in the words of an NAACP report on racial profiling, in those words, Jesus was born suspect. And so it's not surprising that he did not receive a reprieve, did not receive a pardon. But I want to suggest to you that though Jesus did not receive a pardon, did not receive a reprieve, there is an occasion to hope in this text.

Because Jesus as an insurrectionist, as one responsible for a uprising against religious authority, an uprising against Roman authority to the extent that both represented the constraint of the human spirit, they both represented humanity's inhumanity to humanity, to the extent that he represents an insurrection and uprising against anything that is unjust, immoral, and inhumane, ultimately we have our hope in the insurrectionists led by God's people, by one of God's prophets.

I want to suggest to you that Jesus as an insurrectionist gives us hope. Certainly if you look at the cross, we might grow pessimistic, we might grow despairing. But when we think about the souls, the hearts, the bodies, that have been freed as a consequence of his example, as a consequence of his love, as a consequence of his sacrifice, we have every reason to hope in that kind of insurrection. And so this afternoon, for this 205th convocation, I want to call upon you as students, as faculty, and staff, as administrators as family, as friends to rise in your hopes.

To rise and hope in a moment in which God's children have been locked in cages, on certain borders, beside unconstitutional walls, rise and hope that we have the means to teach, to preach, to pray, to convict, to challenge and change policies so that every child, in any detention camp, can get leave and sing walk together children, don't you get weary. Walk together children, don't you get weary.

Walk together children, don't you get weary. There is a great calm meeting in the promised land. Rise in our hopes. Rise in our hopes in a moment where nearly all of America, and much of the world is divided into racial factions, and ethnic fiefdoms.

Rise in our hopes are that we can preach from our pulpits, protest in the streets, proclaim policies from the ballot box, and legislators such as we are able to transform racial battlegrounds into a pristine playground, where all of God's children can laugh, play, and sing. Red, yellow, black, brown, and white, we're all precious in God's sight.

Rise our hopes. At a moment where the right to vote is being choked by COVID-19, on one hand, strangled by voter suppression on the other hand, rising our hopes so that we are able to persuade this republic that voting is a civic sacrament so much so that like Jesus, we are able to throw the thieves out of the temple of our democracy.

Rise in our hopes at a moment when Muslims cower in fear, Christians cower in fear, Buddhists cower in fear, Hindu cower in fear, Sikhs cower in fear, LGBTQ folk tremble with trepidation, black and brown people quake with apprehension that policing is so brutal as is, it is brutal as it is unlawful. But rise and hope so that we, like Jesus, are able to declare I and he whom you seek. I'm the black life that you seek.

I am the brown life that you seek. I am the person of color, light that you see. I am the LGBTQ life that you seek. I am the immigrant life that you seek. I am the migrant life that you seek. I am he that you seek.

I am she that you seek. I am they that you seek. I am willing to declare who I am, what I stand for, and who I represent, and whom I belong to. And you should be prepared to fall down before us. Rise in hope.

Rise in hope that we might be able to sing over the course of this semester, and throughout the year, lift every voice and sing till Earth and Heaven ring. Ring with the harmonies of liberty, let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies.

Let it sound loud as a rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on. Let us march on. Let us march on. Let us march on ‘til victory is won.