Rev. Levi Combs III Calls Out Injustice in Camden

By Rann Miller |Guest Blogger AC JosepH Media

The role of the (Christian) Church is to carry forth the gospel of Jesus Christ: that Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind in accordance with the scriptures, was buried and was resurrected on the 3rd day in accordance with the scriptures. But what does the gospel look like with respect to how we are to treat one another and live amongst each other in the earthly realm?

In Camden City, New Jersey, it looks like a pastor calling out injustice on behalf of the poor.

Rev. Levi Combs III, pastor of the First Refuge Progressive Baptist Church, led a press conference last month to call out local, county, and state officials, as well as quasi-officials and other political stakeholders for abandoning the residence of Camden City in favor of providing a benefit to corporations. Political powerbroker George Norcross has come under fire from Gov. Phil Murphy for a tax incentive program whereby he and his associate received $1.1 billion in tax benefits.

The Press conference also included Camden County NAACP Vice President Colandus “Kelly” Francis (also head of the Camden City Taxpayers Association) and Mo’Neke Singleton-Ragsdale, President of the Camden High School PTO. The group rightfully call out the unfair nature of this program. While city residents pay their taxes to use city services, corporations are exempt from doing much of the same thanks to the 2013 law that created corporate tax benefits.

A number of people are to thank. Norcross’ brothers played a role: Philip Norcross used his law firm to draft amendments to the original 2013 bill to provide greater tax incentives for companies relocating to  Camden while then state senator (now U.S. Congressman) Donald co-sponsored the bill. Also, Steve Sweeney, childhood friend of George Norcross, and former Gov. Chris Christie played their part to ensure the amended legislation was passed.

As a result of the legislation companies relocating to Camden, including Subaru, the Philadelphia 76ers, American Water, Holtec International, and Norcross’s Conner Strong & Buckelew received large tax breaks whereby they wouldn’t have to pay Camden taxes for over a decade as well as receiving tax abatements. Monies that would go to fund public education, public safety, city roads and infrastructure would remain in the hands of the companies who can well afford to pay their way.

However, with an outsourced police department and more children attending privatized schools it is no wonder Camden is an attractive place to house your corporate headquarters. According to Rev. Combs, Camden is not rising, as some say it is, but rather the only thing rising is the budget deficit.

Rev. Levi Combs, Courtesy Rev. Levi Combs, Twitter

Many have argued that the Black Church has largely been absent in the face of injustice; that the Black church has retreated to a brand of theology that is more self-help than social justice oriented. However, there is a remnant within the Black Church dedicated to a more prophetic tradition. Rev. Combs with his organization Grassroots is continuing in a prophetic tradition where by the church serves as Christ’ body in action on earth with the mind and the heart of Christ as its guide and decision maker. The Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina is another example of one who continues in that work with his organization Repairers of the Breach.

The word church comes from the Greek word ecclesia or ekklésia, meaning a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place. In ancient Athens the ecclesia was the principal assembly of the democracy; responsible for declaring war, military strategy and electing military leaders, rulers, and other officials. When speaking to the Apostle Peter, Jesus proclaimed that upon himself, he would build his ecclesia or his gathering of called out ones – to do what? As the ecclesia was responsible for carrying out the will and purposes of ancient Athens, so too is the ecclesia responsible for carrying out the will and purposes of Jesus Christ.

What is the will of Christ? We can find the answer from the life Christ lived on earth. In his inaugural message, Jesus declared that the Spirit of God was on him to proclaim the gospel to the poor, to free the prisoners, to recover sight for the blind and to liberate the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus said in his sermon on the mount that, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). The word righteous(ness) comes from the Greek word dikaiosyne, meaning justice, justness or divine approval.

While those under Roman occupation were told to revere the name of the Caesar, Jesus prayed that hallowed was the name of our father in heaven. Jesus instructed that we turn the other cheek; not to be further abused by authority, but to render an offender powerless in the face of one’s self-determination.

Jesus called the religious leaders of his day vipers; calling out who were more legalistic than spiritual (Pharisees) and who were devoted to an earthly kingdom over God’s kingdom (Sadducees). Jesus shut down the temple because the aristocracy, which was made up of the priests and teachers, were robbing the people of their money with so many fees and temple dues for sacrifices and services.

The Jesus we find in scripture is not your Paul Ryan Jesus. Jesus was in fact political and confrontational. So too is Rev. Combs.

When the mayor, city council president and a state senator told the governor that he was not welcome to Camden, Rev. Combs hosted the governor at his church on the fourth of July. As the state legislature fights to prevent a tax on millionaires, Rev. Combs joined with other clergy from around the state advocating for the tax on behalf of the voiceless and the unheard. While at his press conference said that he and his coalition would continue to “shed light on the apartheid-like conditions.”

Not only is Rev. Combs continuing the work of the ecclesia, but he is also continuing the long standing work of the Black Church on behalf of Black people and all oppressed people; racially oppressed, economically oppressed, or some combination of the two. Such work dates back to the ministries of numerous clergymen including Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Henry McNeal Turner, Nat Turner, Adam Clayton Powell, Dr. Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson.

None of what Rev. Combs, and other prophetic clergy, is saying or doing is popular amongst those in power politically and otherwise. However, the prophetic tradition is an unpopular walk for any minister of the gospel, including Dr. Martin Luther King before his death. Yet the gospel message is prophetic and political one at its core fore it requires that God’s kingdom be brought for – executing God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven.

The gospel is not a message of complicity but of action. It demands that power be held accountable and that the needs of the people be met with liberty and justice for all. And to achieve that, it requires that people of faith speak up and piss a few people off. Cheers to Rev. Combs and the other clergy who is here to do just that. 

Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.  

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