Stakes Is High

Race, Faith, and Hope for America

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Michael W. Waters
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Chalice Press
    , February
     112 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael W. Waters’s Stakes Is High is a call to anamnesis—an invocation to the public theologian, the faith leader, and the conscious faithful to remember America’s violent racial past and to dismantle oppressive systems and institutions that persist today. For Waters, America’s racial heritage reaches as far back (and beyond) the 1964 Freedom Summer murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and maintains its unrelenting grip on 21st-century American consciousness. Given a past far too present to be considered history, the content of Stakes Is High gains its potency via an even more important element: style. Waters’s readers range from activists, to clergy, students, and concerned community members. It is likely that most of the readership of Stakes Is High is already familiar with the state of racially-motivated killings in America. For those who are new to the dynamics of American race relations, the text offers an executive summary of the highlights. However, the most important contribution of Stakes Is High is its form, which reveals a richness that belies its short length. Waters’s text simultaneously bears witness to the violence perpetrated against black and brown bodies in America, while issuing a liturgical and institutional response to this violence, moving the text from testimony to action. 

Borrowing its name and rhetorical style from the 1996 hit by the hip-hop trio De La Soul, Stakes Is High reads best as a litany, complete with an invocation, a supplication, and a response. Waters structures the text in brief chapters that chronicle the racially-motivated killings of 21st -century America. Each account follows the previous in rapid succession, intentionally mimicking the staccato style of hip-hop. Intense, relentless, and unapologetic, Waters’s roll call of those whose names must never be forgotten might be overwhelming to a reader expecting normative scholarly discourse and prose. Yet in defiance of a system that normalizes violence, Waters eschews epistemological convention and writes in the manner of the radical change for which he is advocating. Waters’s follows his roll call, or invocation, with his own supplications—deeply personal accounts of the direct action that his faith has compelled him to take in response to each death. The response to Waters’s invocation and supplication answers the question of why people of faith and public theologians should continue to remember the Trayvon Martins, Tamir Rices, Sandra Blands, Michael Browns, Ahjah Dixons, Terence Crutchers, Kendrick Johnsons, and countless others. One should remember these martyrs of racially-motivated violence and act to put an end to this violence because “Stakes is high / Y’all know them stakes is high” (3). Stakes Is High, the litany, allows Waters to formulate a theological response to police brutality and killings—one that is evident in the excerpts of speeches and sermons that connect each chapter.

Interspersed between hair-raising and soul-crushing accounts of killings as a result of police brutality and racial hatred are excerpts of speeches and sermons that Waters offers on the front lines of protests and rallies, often at his own peril. Although these speeches and sermons are self-contained in brief chapters, they function as illustrations of faith meeting works in troubling times. Each of Waters’s testimonials locates him at the front line of community responses, protests, rallies, and vigils against police brutality, and contains a plea to the reader to not be a bystander, but to implicate themselves in the fight for racial justice and equity for all Americans. Far from being a distant voice crying out in the wilderness, Waters channels his faith in an immanent God by choosing to be present with mourning mothers, angry neighbors, exhausted activists, and frightened allies—the hopeful faithful—who are tirelessly fighting for justice. His speeches and sermons are also a refrain of hope, encouraging those on the front lines to see the victory in unity, even when indictments fail. Yet Stakes Is High does not just offer a liturgical and theological response to police brutality; Water closes the text with a clear call to action.

The roll call of martyrs serves as a rhetorical tool that Waters uses to bring the reader to an inevitable question: what must I do? Curiously, rather than augmenting the fears that shape social structures—fears with which many Americans already contend—Waters skillfully applies just enough pressure on the conscience to invite the participation of the reader. He demonstrates the gross futility of most (if not all) racially-motivated killings and the arbitrary designation of violence, threat, and danger to black and brown bodies, inspiring the reader to believe in simple actions that can have great impact. He proposes two actions: the demilitarization of the police and increasing community reviews of local policing. However, Waters neither elaborates on these two recommendations, nor offers examples of the impact that his call to action has already had on the ground. Nevertheless, his key premise still stands: mitigating police brutality and killings of black and brown people is critical for constructing a more just America, because the stakes are most certainly high.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Georgette I. Mulunda Ledgister is Visiting Lecturer of Ethics & Society at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael W. Waters is founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Dallas, Texas, one of the newest and fastest-growing A.M.E. churches in the state. As a pastor, professor, author, community leader, and social commentator, his words of hope and empowerment inspire national and international audiences.


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