11/26/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Restlessness or Respectability? A Spiritual Freedom to Be Dangerous After Ferguson

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end. And humankind, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, humankind,...this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee (Augustine's Confessions, Book I.1-4).

African American historians, womanists in particular, have long warned that "respectability" is an elite ideology that encourages the marginalized to conform to sociocultural standards and mannerisms defined only by those in power. The killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the scapegoating, blame-the-victim response that ensued renewed that debate -- even before the grand jury verdict freeing his killer. The "burden of respectability" encourages the marginalized to respond to their own oppression by aggressive efforts to assimilate, trying to prove we are not "other" but really "just like you."

But these efforts are doomed to failure. Ferguson shows us -- as the civil rights movement, the Obama presidency, and countless other experiences, individuals, and movements have before -- that no matter how peaceable, reasonable, grounded in democratic and theological practices of justice and mercy they/we may be, those cast as "other" will never be treated as "just like me" by those in power. Back in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., warned Christian moderates (from his jail cell), "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." By then, he no longer bought into the politics of respectability, as demonstrated clearly by his subsequent controversial work to end the Vietnam War and urban poverty in the years just before his murder.

The same scholars, especially Audre Lorde and bell hooks, have described an intersectional matrix of oppression: By focusing on differences of race, gender, sexual orientation identity, or class, marginalized people stay isolated from one another rather than collaborating to effect social change. As a gay Christian and as a transgender and intersex person, I am grateful to stand with those marginalized in spite of a lifetime seeking professional, academic, religious respectability -- first by my faith and professional community as a "violator of Christian values" and later as "ghastly" and "grotesque" by those who urge binary gender conformity in the lesbian and gay community -- was a liberating, precious gift. I see the same gift in the protestors at Ferguson: Failure to be "respectable" (on the terms defined by those in power) is no defeat. In fact, it is freedom. We have now been liberated from what African American feminist Tamara Winfrey Harris rightly calls its "burden." We are free of this burden -- not because we cast it off (for God knows many of us have long tried to be reasonable, respectful and respectable) but because it has been ripped from us by those in power and those weak members of our communities who want to share in that power than to do the hard, self-profaning work or real, lasting justice. In 1952 (as the civil rights movement was about to erupt), gay African American Pulitzer Prize winner James Baldwin prophetically warned, "The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose."

In this national season of giving thanks, let us give praise and thanks to our Creator that, in fact, we are not made to be respectable but politically dangerous to those who make an idol of their own power. Let us be profane. Let us be disrespected. Let us be shamed and dishonored. Let us be restless and discontent. Our rest, our content, our honor, our respectability is not to be found in this world, defined by human beings. Yes, we WILL continue to work for justice in this world. We WILL continue to shine the light of grace in this world. And no human power can tell us how to do it "respectably." Nor would we be accepted or believed by those who cast us out even if we tried. Thank God, we are free -- and we are restless. Let all of us, freed to be dangerous, scandalous and discredited, work restlessly for true justice.