Antonio L. Ingram II is a Fulbright Public Policy fellow at the US Department of State in Malawi. He provides prosecutorial recommendations and trains government officials in corruption prevention strategies at the Malawian Anti-Corruption Bureau. Prior to his fellowship, Antonio worked as a federal judicial law clerk for Judge Ivan Lemelle in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and as a litigation associate at Morrison and Foerster LLP in their San Francisco headquarters.
Antonio and I are members of the same local church, where he is one of the voices shaping my perspectives on faith, justice, and community.
Ok Antonio, we basically listed your resume in the introductory paragraph. Can you break down your work in layman’s terms?
I am a lawyer who uses research, writing and oral advocacy to help my clients reach desired outcomes. For example, at my law firm I represented homeless clients pro bono and challenged laws in a California city that criminalized their existence. While clerking I aided my judge on numerous cases involving important social and legal issues. In Washington D.C., I advocated for criminal defendants who were economically, socially and racially marginalized. In Israel, I represented victims of terrorist attacks. I am currently in Malawi aiding the government in a fight against ubiquitous and endemic corruption.
At first glance my resume seems disjointed - Lower income criminal defendants, Israeli victims of terrorism, a law enforcement agency in sub-Saharan Africa. However, I see all of these experiences as branches on the same tree of oppression. I have a mentor who told me that lawyers could be compared to ministers or priests: lawyers listen to people’s problems and then provide advice to help them reach resolutions. As an advocate I believe in using all the resources at my disposal to help people and organizations find solutions in their fight against oppression.
Why are you drawn to your work?
I grew up as a black male in a single parent, lower income urban household. In my community I have seen firsthand the effects of racial discrimination, overt classism and police brutality. I am trying to promote justice and equity in my work so that individuals like me, in America and abroad, do not face similar injustices.
An example of this is the kind of work I’m doing in Malawi, where the history of colonialism has led to endemic poverty. Even though Malawi has been an independent and sovereign nation since 1964, to this day its government and citizens are overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid from its former colonizer and other western governments. The hegemonic power structure of colonialism fostered environments of scarcity fueled by racism and xenophobia, which encourage elites to take the limited resources available in the country and utilize them for personal gain.
Corruption here did not emerge out of a vacuum. Colonialism is a legal apparatus. It was the law that caused inequity and I believe that the law can be used to undo it as well. I see the law as a tool to challenge these structures of injustice and their contemporary permutations. We can’t change the past, but we can work to create structures that offer redemption to those whose inheritance has been stolen.
Something that’s really impressed me is how well you integrate work, activism, and faith. How do you view the relationship between these three areas of your life? How do you see them feeding into one another?
My grandparents founded a Pentecostal church in South Los Angeles. The community I grew up in prayed for God to intervene in their lives in all dimensions - health, finances, employment, safety. I grew up hearing these petitions, and then hearing testimonies demonstrating God’s provision and protection. I always viewed God as one who cared about the plight of the poor because we were the poor, and I saw him care for us.
I was taught that being a Christian meant imitating Jesus. The Jesus I met as a child loves the poor and the marginalized, and I experienced that love because he loved me and my family. As an adult, my faith consists of imitating him, his heart, and the works of justice I see him embody.
Are there areas where you experience tension between your work and your expression of faith?
Because of my faith, I consider myself a progressive and I have historically worked for progressive causes and organizations. However, one thing that makes me different from my colleagues in these spaces is my Christian outlook. The conversations around racism, sexism, gender inequality, etc. often treat these topics as insurmountable structures of oppression that, if we are lucky, we can partially chip away at. But in my Bible, giants fall down and underdogs win. My advocacy comes from a place of belief that victory is not a hope or a probability, but a certainty.
During my semester at the Public Defenders Service I remember meeting some advocates who were fueled by anger at the criminal justice system. I did not share that approach, and because of this, my commitment was questioned by one of my colleagues. I explained that my fuel was love, not anger, and that love for the people whom the system oppresses is a stronger tool than anger at the system. This is why I can come to a place like Malawi and fight against something as big as government corruption. For me, my faith and advocacy are intertwined, and allow me to have resilience even when confronting seemingly insurmountable injustices.
In the past two years, the American church has been renegotiating its relationships to women, ethnic minorities, and institutions of power, in what I think are very visible ways. Knowing how much you value your faith, and knowing how much you value equity and justice, how have you navigated the current political climate and the place of the church within it?
I choose to extend grace and understanding to my brothers and sisters in Christ even when they behave in ways that are antithetical to my conceptions of empathy and understanding. When I hear Christians who come from racial and gender populations that have been historically and contemporarily privileged make offensive comments about race or gender I try to engage with them. So many non-religious progressives write them off completely, which leads to further polarization. I try to hear where they are coming from, explain my perspective, and share why I believe what I believe. I choose to stay in these sometimes-hostile religious communities because they will never change if we divide ourselves along ideologically comfortable lines.
One of my best friends is staunchly pro-life whereas I am pro-choice. We often have heated debates about this issue but we still stay close friends because we separate each other’s identity from our values. He views me as Antonio who happens to be pro choice, and not Antonio the advocate for murder. I view him as a friend who has strong religious convictions on the issue, not a person who wants to oppress women and strip them of agency. We have these debates under a posture of mutual respect for each other and know that we will still choose relationship even if we disagree with each other on fundamental issues. Our relationship is not predicated on having identical values and ideas. The same principle applies to the rest of my connections in the church.
You and I have also talked about what it means to be a person of color in the American church right now. How has your ethnic identity interacted with your faith? Is this different from how your ethnic identity interacts with the institution of the church?
As an African-American man I see my faith as a source of strength and identity. In a society that often demonizes black men as criminal, socially undesirable, intellectually inferior, and dangerous, it is the voice of the Father that gives me peace and stability. It doesn't matter who the world says I am or how the world attempts to define me. I am who God says I am. I had a dream one time - In the dream I told someone “what you are saying about me is not true, because God doesn’t think that.” Through this dream I was reminded to construct my identity on the voice of a benevolent father, a father who has always been on the side of those who the world tries to dehumanize and devalue. In a world were racial and gender identities are socially constructed in ways that lead to oppression, it is through my faith that I am able to say that I am a created being with intrinsic value that cannot be taken by those around me.
When I encounter the same forces in the Church that attempt to delegitimize me, my experiences, or my perspectives on race and social justice, I draw on that strength. I have been in religious communities that have both affirmed my ethnic identity and in communities that have attempted to “whitewash” or silence me and my racial perspective. It is through the confidence that I find in Christ that I advocate for a body of believers that represents every tribe, people and nation.
What do you think a Biblically appropriate vision of the Church looks like with regards to ethnic identity?
Racial minorities should never feel excluded in the House of the Lord or any other space. In Revelation 7:9, John writes, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” The Church should be an appetizer of heaven, and we know that heaven is diverse in every sense of the word. If God welcomes us as people of color into his Kingdom, there is no church, structure or organization that we should allow to make us feel excluded.
You still maintain friendships with individuals and churches that do not align with - and are sometimes even hostile to - your political values. Say more about this.
Jesus died so that we could gain admission into the family we call the Trinity; at the end of the day, the global body of believers we call the Church is a big family that we will have to deal with for all of eternity. Family is not defined by having homogenous ideologies or viewpoints. Family is defined by a mutual commitment to one another irrespective of personal choices or beliefs.
How do you hold to your beliefs and honestly approach areas of conflict within the relationships you described? How do you do this while keeping your friendships intact?
I have close friends across the political spectrum and I view these relationships to be integral in the formation of my own political ideologies, even when there are vast differences in the way we may perceive the world. It is through talking to conservative friends that I am required to articulate assumptions that my progressive friends and I take for granted. It is through friendships with people of different ideologies in and outside of the church that make me better able to articulate what I believe and why it’s important. For example, my progressive ideology means that my solutions to issues tend to be more structural in nature. However, many of my conservative friends have solutions that emphasize the personal agency of the individual. My conservations with my conservative friends remind me that even though there needs to be structural change, I cannot forget about an individual's ability to partner with institutions and agents of change in order to work towards their liberation. My goal is not conversion - it is to increase mutual understanding and empathy.
What do you keep in mind about your place as a Christian in America right now?
As a Christian in America’s current climate, I believe it is my role to represent the Jesus that I know. The Jesus who would not separate children from parents who are merely trying to seek a better life, who tells the crowd to drop their stones of judgment, who honors women and other disenfranchised populations. The Jesus who cares for the poor and doesn’t expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, whose empathy and forgiveness transforms the hearts and minds of those our society calls lost causes.
The Scriptures refer to Jesus as the desire of the nations. I feel like my role as Christian in America is to show the nation why he is indeed desirable.