On refusing

Submitted by SCM on Thursday, February 9, 2017 - 10:05

The way of Christ points to those farthest from the centres of power – and we must walk alongside them in resistance, says Kelly Colwell.

I was cautiously optimistic on Election Day here in California. I went to work in a ceremonial pantsuit, never having worn one before, and saw lots of others doing the same. Many more people mentioned it, and when they did, I felt warm. Pantsuit Nation was going to carry this thing. Watching the numbers roll in at an election party sponsored by my church was a sort of slow-motion torture. I felt my stomach sink as states turned red on the TV maps, and tendrils of fear begin to appear where before I’d felt just a slight nervous energy.

I cried for days. I cried in class, where I’m in the first year of a doctoral program in theology. I cried at home. I cried in church. I cried with friends. I gave myself two weeks—after that, I said, we’re going to need to get to work. And at the end of two weeks, I made a resolution to try to turn the fear and anger and heartbreak into something…well, if not productive, at least resistant. I made three resolutions:

  1. To follow the news, finding ways to care for myself without unplugging from what was going on;
  2. To show up in person, financially, and digitally to be counted as part of the resistance;
  3. And to pray.

It’s difficult to choose what to focus on – there are so many terrible things getting created, passed into law, and ordered. As soon as you turn your gaze to one sector, monsters appear in the area you’re not looking at any more. But I want to highlight what held my attention, scared me most, and gave me hope, last weekend. The travel ban had just been put into place, affecting not only the 90,000 people from the seven countries on the ban list, but the entire nation. It’s not our safety on the line – it’s our national identity as the refuge of the poor and vulnerable. And what I found most horrifying about the weekend, most disturbing, was that thousands of ordinary Americans with ordinary jobs put their uniforms on, went to work, received a new set of orders, and proceeded to split parents from children, deny entry to people with surgical appointments, deny students the ability to continue their studies, and return people to countries where they are under threat, in direct contradiction to the Geneva Convention on Refugees. Many of those ordinary Americans are churchgoers. 

I find myself thinking over and over about the failure of American Christianity to truly offer the kind of revolutionary life that Jesus offered. I’m not talking about just a general feeling of well-being, warm community, thought-provoking ideas, although those are all part of the package too. But I believe as Christians we’re called to resist the pull of Empire every time it calls, to turn our faces away to view those farthest from the centres of power, and to walk towards those people instead. Followers of the way of Jesus should be absolutely unable to follow unjust orders – it’s in our bones. We should be so well-formed through our faith practices, so much in the habit of resisting, that when an order like the travel ban is announced, hundreds of customs agents, border patrol officers, Homeland Security folks, and TSA inspectors rise together and say “No, we cannot follow that order. If you ask us to, we will quit.” That did not happen, and I’m still mourning the reality of Christianity’s failure.

However, in addition to mourning, paying attention, and showing up, I’ve resolved to pray. My prayers are energized in this time by the thousands of people who showed up together at airports to chant “Refugees are welcome here” and “You build a wall, we’ll tear it down.” This is new ground for Americans, who have been steeped for fifteen years in a post-9/11 brew of fear and scepticism, a belief in the world as a dangerous place, which has been given to us by our government. Resistance has been present all along, but the beautiful sound of my fellow citizens shouting that we want refugees, that we want to be a home for vulnerable people, that’s a new sound. In the midst of all this darkness, it is something for which I can lift my praise to God. Even in this moment: behold, a new thing. Can you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)


Kelly Colwell lives in Berkeley, California, and is a doctoral student in Practical Theology at the Graduate Theological Union. She got involved in WSCF at the North American Regional Assembly in 2010, and was active at the local unit at the University of Toronto for four years.

Tags: Faith in Action