A Pastor’s Take: Repairing Democracy for Black Lives

By Andrew Wilkes | August 4, 2020

Protesters gather near the White House during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd on June 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Samuel Corum/Getty)

“The bones of love are everywhere but I won’t let it be.
There will be no love dying here for me.” Gregory Porter, “No Love Dying”


The bones of love, of Black lives, are everywhere in America. As a co-pastor providing congregational care and delivering sermons to a Black congregation each week, it is difficult to watch politicians and pundits deploy love as a rationale for a hollow unity or thin call to civility. This summer, members of Congress have called for national days of civility, asking Americans to rise “above our disagreements and unite for the greater good of our nation.” Police unions and associations across the nation, from cities like Chicago to states like Minnesota, are calling for the return of civility in our public life. As I witness such calls, I wonder: How would these calls to action, if heeded, affect our congregation?

Despite superficial calls to civility, which effectively ask us to love one another as citizens in a conflict-averse way, I’m not ready to give up on love as a meaningful civic virtue. If we suppose that love is not simply sentiment nor a technique of public discussion, but rather, a sustained, organized commitment to realizing a just future, then we might conclude that love as a force for social reconstruction in this nation is alive yet wounded, on fire yet in ashes. Media outlets gush that more participants joined the protests declaring Black Lives Matter than any movement in U.S. history. Some estimates argue that 15 to 26 million Americans may have joined. That’s surely worth celebrating. Still, there is but modest evidence that the social motion and moral imperative of this moment—impressive as the numbers are—constitutes a movement whose policy impacts will abolish our government’s reliance on surveillance, violence, and punishment as the go-to policy response for working-class Black communities.

Certainly, there are multiple, meaningful reasons—murals, street signs, convincing arguments to abolish police in our societies and our schools—to feel that this moment might be different, that it might be an inflection point of sorts. We may very well stand at the beginning of a movement for racial, economic, and gender justice that will make the long years and forlorn hopes of the Black freedom struggle worthwhile. All this could be true. And yet, to use a biblical image from the book of Ezekiel, the dry bones—of love, of Black lives—are everywhere. The Hebrew Bible depicts the prophet Ezekiel, in conversation with God, surveying a valley filled with dry bones. God asks Ezekiel if the bones can live. Ezekiel responds: “O Lord, you alone know.” God then reveals that the dry bones represent the people of Israel, whose possibilities and hope will be revived with a divine wind.

A beautiful image, and yet what might the bones mean for us today? Dry bones represent the beleaguered vitality of our collective existence. They are people, places, and things that appear dead at first blush, but upon closer inspection are, in fact, alive. Principal among dry bones, yet not alone in the vast valley, is the love-laden hope that Black lives will indeed matter in the customs, court decisions, and law codes of our society.

There are too many Black folks’ bones dismembered from the breath of life, at the hands and from the knees of police. Too much Black unemployment, more than 15 percent for the past three months, according to the Department of Labor. Too much reluctance from national political parties to provide robust legal protections, community wealth strategies, and public programs for working-class and low-wealth people. Too many injured and dead people—whose bones, again, are lifeless—from Covid-19. Too many unnecessary caskets resulting from unequal healthcare systems in African American and Latinx communities. The bones of love, of Black lives, are everywhere.

Yet I take courage in jazz singer Gregory Porter’s defiant lyrics, cited above. He begins with a lament: “The bones of love are everywhere.” Then, he continues, “but I won’t let it be. There will be no love dying here for me.” While not necessarily about romantic love, Porter penned the lyrics with the understanding that they might be interpreted that way. On NPR’s beloved Tiny Desk series, Porter expounds on the song’s meaning as follows: “I’ve really enjoyed singing that song around the world, and really, whenever there’s any trouble in my life. So, you can take it the same way. If there’s any trouble in your house, there will be no love that’s dying here for you and me.”

Notably, Porter explains that these lyrics not only furnish joy when he experiences trouble, but that the audience can also interpret the song in “the same way.” For Porter, trouble and the subsequent undying love are linked for us all. To my mind, there is a certain kind of love whose work, amid the dry bones of our society, must be performed in this moment.

What I have in mind, here, is a love of reparative democracy. By reparative democracy, I mean viewing politics and economics as avenues for redressing generations of policy harm, extraction of value from Black communities, and legacies of exclusion—or in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s choice phrase, predatory inclusion—within government decision-making about resource allocation. The starting point must be to remove the root causes of harm from Black communities, which is racist capitalism and its associated harms, such as redlining, which decimated Black neighborhoods, and private prisons, which disproportionately incarcerate folks of color. We should begin with these reforms rather than the more abstract, often race-neutral starting point of, say, realizing a more perfect union. Reparative democracy might also join Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, to pick two well-known proponents, and call for reparations for Black people, beginning at a minimum with the passage of H.R. 40 in Congress, which would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

Ultimately, repairing the foundations of our public life requires turning the page on a capitalism that occasionally consults its citizens on the decisions of its largest investors, donors, and industry leaders—we call these elections—and instead moving to a participatory socialism. Elections certainly have consequences, particularly in the case of ballot initiatives and legislative reforms, but elections will continue to be an important but painfully piecemeal exercise in progress without the redistribution of wealth, wider membership in unions, and the leveraging public investment—taxation, monetary policy, and trade policy—in order to meet public needs.

Instead of capitalism, a participatory socialism happens when everyday people can help make choices about our common life, from regional planning and public banking to setting the agenda for local economic development. The recently conducted Strike for Black Lives, for example, mobilized more than 60 labor organizations across the country in coordinated worker walkouts from their jobs, illustrating the promise and social power of explicitly centering the wages and well-being of Black people in our polity.

In addition to redesigning our economy, the promise of reparative democracy also gives us an opportunity to unlearn America’s rituals and routines of white supremacy. Unlearning white supremacy is about curating a political culture of radical candor and interdependence that seeks to understand how deep the wounds of anti-Black enslavement and its afterlife run. Redressing those wounds is essential to our democracy’s future.

The incessant push alerts on our phones, notifying us yet again that the dream, the hoped-for future, indeed the bones of another, beautiful Black life have gone to glory are as emotionally unsettling as they are ubiquitous. What I am hoping, and praying, is that enough of us will coalesce into a movement for Black lives, filled with a love for reparative democracy, suffused with the passion of that psalmist, Gregory Porter, and say with one voice: We won’t let it be.

The Rev. Andrew Wilkes is the co-pastor of the Double Love Experience in Brooklyn, New York. He is also a Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center and the former executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a social change organization started by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

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