Fragmented Stories: On Love, Loss and Memory

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Dear Granny.

I’ve always loved you. I hope you understand that. Since I was a little girl, you were one of my most favorite people in the world. Your smile brought me great delight and your house, at least for an eight year old, was full of treasure waiting to be discovered. I remember playing in the backyard and on your patio some afternoons you looked after us while mom worked. Not too frequently though, you lived at least 25 minutes away. But you were close enough so that when we needed you, you were there.

One of the things that I have always loved about Christmas was coming to your house for dinner – most likely because your deep red carpets made it seem like Christmas was an all-year affair. And that brought me joy.

But Christmas was also the one time of year that I was guaranteed to see family. It was essentially our family reunion – cousins, aunties, and uncles from all over would come around your table to eat your collard greens and sweet potato pie. I hope you know, I still haven’t mastered your pie recipe, though trust, I will keep trying.

More than pie and red carpets, I lavished in the fellowship of my family. The family that your sprawling dining room table brought together. And I gobbled up the stories that were passed around that table just as fast as I did your pie. Learning about our history helped me weave disparate stories of our family together into one coherent whole. I needed to understand more.

When I started writing, I promised you that I would sit down and write our family’s story. I needed to understand more about the house that the government tore down so that they could build a freeway. And I needed to know more about our beginnings, our heritage. You were thrilled and excited to share your life with me. Though we never did made any concrete plans, I always assumed there would be time.

(2)

As I grew older and wiser, our connection changed. Oh, the factors are many – some of those factors revolving around whether or not you approved of my life decisions. School. Marriage. Career. No matter the circumstance, if you were not completely behind it, you showed a strong level of disapproval – something I have never even seen in my own parents.

Still, I reached out. But at some point, you stopped calling on your own volition. You congratulated my husband and I on the birth of our children. And you seemed to be pleased that I found a full time job after I graduated from seminary. Other than that, you seemed distant. Gone were the conversations we used to have where we would blab on and on about everything.

And then, gradually, you started to lose yourself to Alzheimer’s. Mom and her siblings stepped in to take care of you the best that they knew how to do so. There were some snafus along the way, but we traversed them all and got you to a safe place where all of your needs would be provided for. I know you never wanted to go into a nursing home or degenerate to the point that you would need care like this, but trust me, this is the best. We are trying to do our best.

(3)

They buried your husband this year. Did you feel a piece of you leave your body as they lowered him into the ground? It frustrates me that they didn’t even let you know that he was gone. You were his wife for over 40 years, you had the right to know. You had the right to grieve even if the capacity to do it escaped you. They took away your agency. And so it ends like this. I am sorry. We did not know ourselves. You deserve more than this.

Mister’s mortality makes me wrestle with your own. I just can’t bear that thought. Surely you are immortal and have some secret beans hidden in your stash of belongings at the nursing home. Please take those now so that you can go back in time at least 20 years. It would give us more time to catch up to the thought of ever losing you.

There are so many things I want to ask you. But the time for that is no more.

(4)

You once told me that your father was a part of the sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis – the day before Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Besides that fact, I know little about our family’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps, this is because we are so private – we share very little with each other, even the minutest of details are top secret.

But maybe, we just weren’t that involved. After all, you moved up to the Midwest in the early 50s. My mother herself was born in Indiana in 1951 and spent the majority of her life in Milwaukee. Maybe you felt those fights were distant memory once you left the Jim Crow south.

Or maybe the demands of a young family kept you from engaging in the fight for justice for our people. I’d like to believe the latter, because as I am sure you know, racism has long existed in the North. It’s more passive aggressive in nature and doesn’t come off so in your face, but it is alive and well here just as much as it was in Tennessee. In Minnesota, they call it Nice. By they, I mean white people. But we blacks know better than that.

I never really heard you talk about the struggle peculiar to black folks. But to be honest, I did not hear anyone in our family do so either. Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. But I was definitely attuned to religion. From a young age, both you and Grandpa Hatch took me to church. With him, I attended Greater New Birth and got in trouble for trying to catch the Holy Ghost. With you, it was an Assembly of God Church close to your home in the suburbs. Grandpa’s church was distinctly black – the music, the shouting, the hats – my God the hats. I came home with headaches every Sunday that I attended. But I loved it.

Yours was a different kind of church, but I loved it too. There was a distinct children’s program at yours so we didn’t have to sit in the sanctuary with the adults the entire length of service. It was in that children’s program where I found out about salvation in Jesus Christ – and I believed it. I confessed faith in that belief on Easter Sunday of 1992 mostly because I misunderstood the preacher. But never mind that, you were proud of me and I was proud of me, too. 24 years later, I have sorted out that confusion and am still going strong in my faith.

As I grew in my commitment to Christ, I started to express interest in pursuing the ministry as a career. You supported me in this. I quickly learned that pursuing that call took precedence over everything else, even my blackness. No, you never said that. But it was something about the way that I was told to give up my own identity and adopt Christ’s that made me feel that being black was not as important as being saved.

I irritated both my mother and my father with my reductionist approach to the faith experience. My father, more so because he was a part of the Nation of Islam and didn’t so much buy into so-called ‘white man’s religion.’ And I irritated my mother because Christianity was seemingly the only lens that I could see out of. ‘Not everything is about Christianity,’ I remember her saying as I took a story she told me and concluded that the reason that the main protagonist in that story had such a difficult time was because they were a Christian and was being persecuted for their faith. In my eyes, their discrimination had nothing to do with being black.

(5)

A part of me believes that you kept the stories about how racism deeply impacted your life in order to protect us. Afterall, you grew up in the 30s and 40s – there was nothing glorious about that era and most folks with any kind of sense would most likely try to forget about all of the horrors associated with living in that time period. The lynch mobs. Who wants to tell those stories and relive the trauma every time they recall the images of burning flesh?

Perhaps silence and respectability is our salvation. At least, that is what many of us have believed for some time now. We have psyched ourselves into believing that if we were good and upright and saved that we would be spared the wrath of whiteness. That if we educated ourselves, got good jobs, owned our homes, worked until our last breath, that we would not be a stain on the nation’s consciousness. So that’s what we did. We gave respectability all of our believing that even if we lost our dignity, we would at least keep our lives.

But you and I both know that our efforts would be futile. Our oppression was never built on the lack of respectability in the first place; it was constructed on the commodification of our dark, ebony bodies. We were stolen away from our ancestral home and brought to a stolen land for profit, not because we failed to live up to some societal ideal of what it was to be human. So though we labored and gave it our all, we were still cut down like trees.

(6)

blacklivesmatter

Did you see us marching as we filled the streets after they killed our brothers, daughters, and sons? Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Keisha Jenkins, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Jamar Clark, Maya Young, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines – all strong and free, yet their blackness succumbed them to the fate of others gone on before. Did you see us protest their murders? Did you see us shut down the roads that took our homes and diminished whatever wealth we had? Did you hear us chant and scream, cry and pray, trusting God that another reality beyond this constant trauma was at our fingertips?

It’s all new for us millennials. We didn’t grow up seeing the perpetual execution of our kin like this. Social media is to blame, at least in part. Within seconds, the scenes of the latest fill our homes. I watched Philando die. Footage of the last moments of Oscar Grant and Eric Garner are still too accessible. These images haunt our imagination and push us to our breaking point where in fear, we turn on each other.

Old millennials like me remember Rodney King. Aside from him, I don’t remember ever seeing mass brutality against our own for simply being black. At least, seemingly justified brutality. The War on Drugs made it permissible for police to profile and attack us. The law said we were wrong so we believed and internalized it. And then, instead of rallying around each other for support, we distanced ourselves from those who were all too easily caught up in that life lest we become a target. Too many of us were. You remember – the times our house was shot up. The family refused to visit us. We almost perished. But by the grace of God, we are still standing here!

After spending 8 years living in a war zone, we moved up and out – like the Jeffersons. And for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of hope that we could really escape this. Though living on 66th and Villard was no Whitefish Bay, it was definitely felt easier to navigate. Mom felt safe enough to let me go to catch the bus nearly 30 minutes away from our home to go to work and balked a lot less to the idea of me taking the bus at 6.30 a.m. to go to school. That would have never happened on 37th and Lisbon.

And I guess a part of me equated my own personal liberation to the liberation of my people. Or at least, when I didn’t have to come face to face with the hopelessness I forgot about it. Instead, I turned my attention to the needs of the world. I took my first missions trip 2 years after we moved to the house on Villard and the next once I graduated from high school. I convinced myself that I was going to be a missionary, believing that if people just knew Jesus they wouldn’t have to live in poverty and despair. To me, the rest of the world needed rescuing from it’s crippling despair. I failed to recognize that the one in need of the most rescuing was me.

(7)

I did the missions thing for a while, or at least, I accumulated nearly 100k in debt so that I could pursue it. I just knew that the world was where God was calling me; the U.S. didn’t have any issues that needed to be solved in my little imagination. I remember a friend of mine from the Caribbean asking me why I did not exhibit the same commitment towards my own. I still shudder at my reply. Truth was, I was so blinded by the plight of my own people because my Western faith expression did not have a place for it. I continued to interpret every single life experience through the lens of Constantinian Christianity, a lens that did not validate or even try to explain the experience of people who had been systematically oppressed.

It did not take me long to come to my senses. Life has a way of putting you in your place, whether you like it or not. And as reality looked me dead in my face, I yielded to the Holy Spirit and began the process of coming to grips with who I really was – a dark skinned black woman living in one of the racist countries on earth.

At times, my identity as a black woman stood in stark contrast to the form of Christianity that I was taught to embrace. But the more I read the scriptures, I saw myself and my experience reflected in them in a way that I had not picked up on before. Gone were the over-spiritualization of passages that were calling out structural oppression and exploitation. I began to see this ancient text, the Bible, for what it really was: a testimony of God’s faithfulness to the exploited people of the world.

(8)

One of the most important things I have learned over the years is the notion of structural racism and oppression. I used to believe that racism solely functioned at an individual level and my imagination mostly pictured dudes in white robes burning crosses or some bigot shouting the N-word. These were obvious forms of racism that even in my naivety I could not deny. But the idea of structural oppression, or that racism was codified in a system of laws and practices in the United States, was new to me.

It took me a while to understand the depths of that. Honestly, I think my Western ideas of individualism and Christianity got in the way. Or perhaps, it was because even without the burning crosses and hoods, I still saw far too many racists walking around, hiding behind the veneer of Minnesota Nice progressivism. Their passive aggressive behavior made it impossible for me to abandon the idea that structural racism was our only foe – structural racism has and continues to be nurtured by individual attitudes, practices, and behaviors. The realtors who refuse to sell homes to black families are acting out of individual prejudices that then get formulated into de facto laws. And employers who refuse to hire blacks – regardless of education and experience – are acting on their own biases in spite of the mandated equity and inclusion workforce goals. The attitudes of the most bigoted and powerful among us get baked into laws that govern our bodies and dictate when and where we walk, live, worship, and play.  

(9)

This racism thing seems to be only one piece of the puzzle. Another closely related if not intersecting piece – I think – is this notion of white fragility. There is just something about the black body, our mere existence, that threatens white people’s identity.

Perhaps it’s because they didn’t expect us to make it this long. We’ve survived the Atlantic, slavery and rape, the convict leasing system, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and in spite of what it seems, police brutality cannot kill all of us! Maybe they didn’t think we would be this resilient, this stedfast in the face of the ever-morphing racist attacks against us. And maybe this ongoing existence is a residual reminder of what they did to us. As much as they strike us from their history books, forget our names and contributions, and sanitize our prophets, our presence is a constant reminder of their oppression against humanity. They were the criminals, the soul-less bearers of inextricable evil against image-bearers, forsaking their own identity for the sake of whiteness.

For many, whiteness only means that they are not discriminated against because of their race. That aside, they have given much in exchange for a fleeting, unsustainable dream. And they will go to great odds to defend this dream, a dream that in fact proves to be a nightmare for them to the extent that many in their community are suffering exponentially. The pastor in me wants to reach out, wants to solve their crisis. Be their black savior. But the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates cautions me:

Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

(10)

I think the biggest identity crisis for white folks are our nation’s changing demographics. In less than 25 years, our country will have more people of color and American Indians than white people. Even now, there are more children of color being born than white children. Which is exciting because there is so much beauty in diversity! But the same thing that fills me with joy is a source of anxiety for white people because they fear loss of wealth and power amidst the changes.

The election in 2008 put a face to many of their fears as a black man from the southside of Chicago was elected to one of the highest seats of power in the world. Obama’s election sent shock waves down the spine of white people who saw his administration as a threat to their well-being. From the moment he secured his seat, they gave him nothing but trouble. I am sure you took notice as the tea partiers hoisted themselves into power, seeking to hold on to whatever they could grasp from a yesterday that was quickly fleeting. For all of their disdain towards organizing, they sure as hell did a fine job growing and organizing a base of people who worked to ensure that there would never be another Obama.

In 2010, they unseated many Democrats and moderate Republicans with their rhetoric. But as 2012 came to a close, it was clear that the Tea Partiers had become irrelevant. Though many of those elected held onto their seats, the Tea Party as an organized identity failed to thrive and died a quiet, unsuspecting death.

And in 2015, Trump resurrected pieces of it. The idea of taking the country back along with his entertaining presence, pushed him into the lime-light. Surely, someone of his station – with his toddler like tantrums and adolescent boyish antics – would be disqualified. God, we hoped and prayed that it would. But the media fanned the flames of his existence and his supporters thought those flames to be true fire. They, overwhelmingly white and anxious over the browning of America swallow his words whole, blind to the fact that his rhetoric is as void of nourishment as it is virulent.

I’m not suggesting that I am with her. At least completely. She’s shady but she’s stable. What I am saying is that he has re-awakened the consciousness of white folks who feel that they are losing ground in this country that they do not have legitimate rights to. They ‘earned it’ by conquest, genocide, and war and that is the only way they imagine they can hold on to it. This is essentially at the root of the push to build the Dakota Access Pipeline and the way that those in power respond to the water protectors’ agency. And the irony around the rhetoric about Mexicans crossing the border undocumented when the border actually crossed them through violence and war! How they fight against Islam and LGBTQ and women and everyone who is not a cisgendered heterosexual white man! Reminds me of the oft quoted saying, “If you have a problem with everyone, maybe you’re the problem.”

The reality is that they are losing ground. Fast. They know it and are grasping to hold on to it by any means necessary. And this is what shakes me to my very core. As a spiritually sensitive person who is well versed in the Word of God and history itself, I see a change coming. But I suspect that change will not be good for people who look anything like us.  

None of this is new to you. You survived the Great Depression, you lived through Jim Crow, and you witnessed the Civil Rights Movement – you know what they do to us when they fear loss of power and resources. You have witnessed with your own eyes the frequency of which we become the sacrificial lamb for this country’s sin, called to atone for that which continues to oppress and marginalize us.

And yet, you are also well acquainted with hope in spite of the permanence of this beast. For you, that hope was rooted in your faith in Jesus Christ and the promise of the Second Coming where He would come and make all things new. It is this same faith that you passed down to me and that centers me when I would rather cower in fear of the future. In spite of what I see in this present hour, I know that this system of dehumanization and destruction will not last forever because God will pull the veil down on this whole thing. In that moment, we will discover that racism is nothing more than a cowardly wizard hiding behind a twisted version of reality. And God will defeat that wizard, liberating all those who have been oppressed by its grasp.

(11)

How I wish we had more time. How I long to hear your stories and learn from your experiences. Although that time has escaped us for now, I know that I will one day have the opportunity to sit and hear from you again.

In heaven. I hear God is preparing you a home. And if I could guess, that home will be covered in velvety red carpet with matching pillows to boot. The windows will have the same Christmas wreath that you have held for years. You will have your patio overlooking your expansive backyard. When I come for a visit, you will offer me a soda just as you always do and I will turn it down, just as I always do since I haven’t drunk that diabetes inducing beverage in years. But I’ll take a slice or two of your wonderful sweet potato pie. Keep it cold because that’s the way I like it.

We’ll sit down at your kitchen table eating our pie. I’ll pull out my paper and pen so I can write down the stories as you tell them. This time I will be ready. I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world.

Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

The Limits of the Liberal Imagination

No matter how much liberals try to remove themselves from the burden of racism, white supremacist ideology – which governs all systems in America – holds them just as guilty to its effects. Like Pilate, their hands are still full of so much blood; though they may not directly offer up communities of color and indigenous communities to be discriminated against and oppressed, colorblind policies do very little to stop the mass annihilation of a deeply marginalized people.

Appearances can be deceiving. Sure, liberals may be down for the cause, march in our marches, go through the anti-racism trainings, attend conferences on social justice and reconciliation, advocate for equal pay and living wages, press for an end to mass incarceration and police brutality, and even quote the thought leaders of our present day movements – so long as the freedoms of others do not threaten their own, they are there. But the moment, the moment, when the freedoms and power of people of color and indigenous folks appear to threaten their own sense of ownership, pride, and identity, they function just as criminal as the conservative other.

Of course, the tactics of the liberal beast may not be as racially overt and in-your-face as the conservative bunch. More often than not, liberals – particularly those who equate their stance toward policy and social issues to spiritual salvation – harbor a more paternalistic, condescending mindset toward people of color and indigenous populations. They throw out a ‘there, there,” and a pat on the head, as we lose our children, homes, and jobs. They insist that if we just had more training and experience, things could be better. And if all else fails, they erase our identity and minimize our experience of hurt and pain in the world, insisting that our interpretation of events cannot be true because they have a friend, co-worker, or neighbor whose story is different, usually a story that holds more closely to a negative stereotype.

But we know this, right? At least many of us do. Many, if not most, people of color understand that the dangers of liberalism are the same dangers expressed in conservatism. And dare I say, progressives themselves also know that as an ideology, liberalism fails to liberate people from the long lasting effects of structural racism. However, because it seems to be all that we have, we continue to hold out hope, and that is, hope in the possibility that if we work hard enough, scream loud enough, hold people accountable enough, that the liberal ideology could embody the freedom that we are looking for. We imagine that it could be more inclusive; more just and much more fair; that it could aspire to our greatest ideals of what democracy could be; that it could even contain the elixir that brings structural racism and capitalism to its needs.

We hope in vain. Liberalism does not have the capacity to deliver us from the crushing blows of racism any more than conservatism can. This is mostly true because both ideals turn around the same exact axis, and that axis is beholden to representing and protecting America’s economic interest both domestically and internationally. Throughout our country’s’ history, power has gone to great lengths to ensure the economic prowess of a nation whose land and labor was stolen in order to build it. In particular, this has meant the continual dispossession of those whose involuntary sweat and blood made the country for what it is. No matter who has held political office, and the political party/ideology that they espoused, this has always been true.

For comfort’s sake, I guess, we keep trying to convince ourselves that liberalism affords us the opportunity to live up to our highest potential – both individually and corporately. We keep trying to psyche our minds and erase our memories, ignoring the harmful policies that have been passed by many of our liberal elected officials. When will we wake from our slumber and call a spade for what it is – flawed? Deeply, deeply flawed.

Hope cannot lie in the conservative vs. liberal paradigm; it must rise outside of it! Any meaningful change has to represent a new system and a new ideology – particularly one that does not continue to exploit communities of color and indigenous communities but that has these communities at the forefront of leadership and decision-making. Thus the political revolution that Sanders so eloquently speaks of – and which is completely necessary and which I deeply support – can never truly happen within our existing framework because that framework will not allow for it. Indeed, Sanders own sense of revolution only extends as far as ensuring that low income communities have more economic opportunity but his target audience consists of white people. By default, or consequence rather, any policy change that addresses the needs of low wealth communities could very well have a positive impact on communities of color. But the benefits will be marginal unless taken with intentionality. Reparations represents intentionality. Yet as philosophical as Sander’s rhetoric is, it still cannot imagine the possibility of righting the wrongs done to communities of color and indigenous communities for centuries.

The reality is that at a heart level most liberals cannot imagine the possibility of reparations and restitution to a people so deeply wronged because our country continues to profit off of those wrongs. Without the perpetual marginalization of these communities, our economy simply will not function. At best, liberalism only offers a raft in an upending storm. But the waters are rising and we are going under.

Opportunity Gap? The Biggest Opportunity We Lack is The Opportunity to Live

Mixed race woman on urban rooftop
(Link to image)

We are all familiar with the gaps in access to opportunity that black Americans experience in education, housing, and employment. While these are important issues that need to be addressed, we also need to identify and name the biggest opportunity gap that black Americans face – that is, the opportunity to live and be fully human.

After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, black Americans continued to find themselves oppressed and cut out of opportunity in a society that was committed to keeping slavery intact. Things such as the end of the Reconstruction Era, the convict leasing system, Jim Crow, and segregation all ensured that freed blacks would never be able to access the liberties that were afforded to their white Americans. Yet, in spite of the presence of these injustices, there has always been a vanguard charting a new way forward, imagining an American society where blacks were not discriminated because of the color of their skin.

The persistence and advocacy of leaders through the ages has certainly paid off. Indeed, it was the tireless, often life threatening work of abolitionists – both black and white alike – that essentially gave way to the nation ending slavery. Ida B Wells’ campaign to expose and document the horrors of lynching helped to significantly reduce its occurrence. And the advocacy and nonviolent resistence of leaders of the 1960s put many policies in place that secured civil rights for black Americans such as the  1965 Voting RIghts Act which gave black Americans unrestricted access to the voting booth. That same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed executive order 11246 which established non-discriminatory requirements for hiring and employment, meaning it was no longer legal to refuse to hire black Americans based on their race. The 1968 Fair Housing Act ensured that blacks would have greater access to housing opportunity by profiting discrimination concerning the sale, rental, or financing of housing. Just last month, in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, the Supreme Court preserved disparate impact, a tool of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which ensures that people of color – as well as persons with disabilities, women, and same-sex couples – will not be discriminated against in housing.

All of these policies and more, have significantly contributed to the ability of black Americans to live better lives than before. If you don’t know, just ask a 80 year old woman who remembers the day her life was threatened because she dared to go to the polls. Such threats no longer exist! And yet, racial disparities remain just as intact. In fact, many of the gains that have been made through the Civil Rights legislation of the 60s are under constant attack and some, such as the Voting Rights Act, have been weakened altogether through individual state’s own version of a 21st century poll tax. In addition, in spite of the presence of these more equitable policies, people in power often find ways to ensure that they are not thoroughly implemented.

As a result, on nearly every indicator that is a measurement of success in the United States, black people seem to continuously lag behind. Homeownership in the black community is lower than that of white Americans. Black children, particularly young males, are falling behind in school. The PBS documentary ‘American Promise’ states that young black males are twice as likely as white boys to be held back in elementary school, three times as likely to be suspended from school and half as likely to graduate from college. While more black Americans are employed today than they were five years ago, they are more likely to be underemployed and earn lower wages than their white peers. The health status of black Americans is significantly worse than their white counterparts – indeed, black Americans are 1.5 times as likely to be obese and black women are about 60 percent more likely than white women to deliver babies early; black infants are 230 percent more likely to die before their turning one year old.

The million dollar question is why. Why, in spite of all of the good, hard work, on the part of many in this society, has racial disparities persisted as they have? Over the years foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, faith based leaders, activists, and average Americans have all fought to ensure that the daily reality of blacks in this country changes. And yet, in spite of the long hours, policies and initiatives, reports and think tanks, organizing and advocacy, the beast just stares back at us, unflinched and unchanged.

But maybe, just maybe, we have been attacking the wrong thing or a symptom of a deeper, more entrenched issue. In large part, much of our collective work has been aimed at civil rights and increasing economic opportunities for black Americans which is completely necessary. I shudder at the mere thought of what things would be in our society if these rights were not being in place. However, the underlying problem has never been that black Americans lacked the financial wherewithal to thrive in a capitalistic society. The problem, that has existed since the first African slaves arrived on our nation’s shores, is that black Americans have lacked the opportunity to be recognized as fully and completely human.

From the moment that America erected chattel slavery, white Americans needed a reason to justify its existence. Conflicted between their Christian beliefs which condemned the practice and the vast wealth they were gaining through stolen labor, on stolen land, they needed to come up with a rationale that not only permitted but encouraged slavery to exist. Gradually, certain laws and thinking began to give proponents of slavery the justification they were looking for, such as the Three Fifths Compromise of 1787. As the nation was establishing the constitution, southerners wanted to count slaves as part of their populace in order to get greater state representation in Congress. Northerners, however, did not think that slaves should be recognized as part of the population since they were property. The conflict gave way to counting only three fifths of every black person. While the resolution did not categorically state that blacks were not fully human, their perpetual designation as property instead of living souls, suggests that they were not regarded as such.

Building off of the classification of blacks as property in the constitution, the Dred Scott decision further solidified this perpetual state. Of the decision, Andrea Smith explains, “…Black peoples have the ontological status of property that derives from their origins in Africa, the property of Europe. Consequently, this ontological status does not change simply because one’s owner relinquishes his property rights. Black peoples remain property whether or not an individual owns them.” As property, black Americans had no rights to the legal system. More than 150 years later and this still holds true!

The work of Carl Von Linneaus also had a hand in minimizing the humanity of black Americans. Linneaus, a Swedish botanist and the father of taxonomy, developed a system for categorizing different organisms such as plants and animals. However, Linneaus also classified humans into four different categories – Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus – all which were based upon where they were geographically situated at first. However, later he interpreted these distinctions based on skin color, or race. Says the New World Encyclopedia of Linneaus’ methodology:

Among the numerous attributes he recognized, Native Americans were considered to be reddish, stubborn, merry, and angered easily; Africans were black, relaxed, crafty, and negligent; Asians were sallow, avaricious, and easily distracted; and Europeans were white, gentle, and inventive…He also divided them by how he thought they were governed: by customs, caprice, opinions, and laws. Linnaeus’s races were clearly skewed in favor of Europeans. Linnaeus considered these varieties of people within the same species.”

Laws, science and religion all worked in tandem to exclude black Americans from the human family. And while these are ancient laws and practices, the sentiment continues today. From Mike Brown being described as Hulk Hogan, to Serena William’s raging biceps being credited as the reason for a recent victory, the underlying message is that blacks are not fully human, only property and expendable, culpable enough to be guilty of the crimes committed against them but not human enough to stop the occurrence of those crimes. Yet and still, we are consistently told that the answer to these crimes is access to greater economic opportunity.

However, it was not the lack of economic opportunity that took the lives of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor just last month.

And it was not the lack of economic opportunity that killed Sandra Bland and Kindra Darnell Chapman in the last few days. Or for which a police officer wrestled teenage Dajerria Becton to the ground as he drew his gun on others.

It was not the lack of economic opportunity that took Tamir Rice’s life or that made Trayvon Martin’s end too soon. Or that makes black men, women, and children fall victim to police brutality every 28 hours in this country’s 21st version of lynching and Jim Crow. It is not for lack of economic opportunity that nearly 1.5 million men are missing in the United States, either locked behind bars or 6 feet under. In fact, history shows us that when blacks possessed economic opportunity, their businesses were often destroyed and in the most heinous cases, they were killed.

These things are happening because black Americans lack the opportunity to be fully and completely human. And that lack of recognition consistently denies us the opportunity to live and be free. The lack of economic opportunity is only a symptom of this but it is not the main problem. As such, fighting for civil rights only addresses that symptom and not the actual cause of the problem. Therefore, as we continue to demand economic opportunities – because yes, this is necessary – we need to fight even more for human rights and the ability to live, raise our children, grow old and die in dignity. We have to break the centuries-long demonic force in this nation that has persistently seen black Americans as property, possessing only a fraction of the humanity that whites possess. Without doing this, we will find ourselves right back here in another generation, fighting a newer version of Jim Crow.

Through effective policy, we could actually get to a point where black Americans are able to attain the economic opportunity that this society affords. It will be hard but it is not difficult to imagine. However, until we can live and are treated as brothers and sisters in the human fabric, we will not be free! This is the challenge before us in 2015. In my next post, I will share thoughts on how we can collectively address this challenge. Stay tuned!

Not ‘Either Or’ But ‘Both And’ and More

I believe that the Bible is the unadulterated Word of God. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it carries the power to instruct us in the way that we should go, rebuke us when we have fallen short of the glory of God, and teach us every other thing in between.

A book of such significance and power should not be revered lightly. We don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we will uphold, and which parts we will ignore. No, God calls us into absolute obedience and when we make selective choices like this, we are saying that we are choosing to ignore God and what He has to say.

As a people of faith, we do this all of the time. Throughout the trajectory of human history, we have made a record for ourselves in this particular area. We accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, but we don’t do what He says. We give our tithes and offering, but we don’t forgive those who have wronged us. We go to church, but we don’t love our brothers and sisters.

I think the Pharisees modeled this perfectly. They were notorious for obeying commands regarding fasting, tithing, honoring the Sabbath  and so many other things. And their religious activity looked good to others around them. But not to Jesus. He saw right through the guise of their religiousity and called them out on numerous occasions because of their failure to obey the whole Word of God. In Matthew 23, he says to them “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

I wonder if Jesus was here in the flesh today if he would say the same thing to us. In the face of the election next week, many people of faith have taken a stance for some pretty clear commands of God regarding homosexuality and abortion. And this is fine because I do believe that God has a lot to say about these things. However, many are neglecting what the Word of God says about justice, oppression, exploitation not to mention a lot of other things. God tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those in prison, relieve widespread suffering. But on a large scale, many of us don’t seem to be paying attention to this. Instead, we are so concerned with what people are doing in the privacy of their bedrooms that we give license for our nation’s decision makers to do what they see fit in their treatment of those who are seriously hurting.

One of the arguments, I believe, that many people of faith use in this regard is the judgment of God that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah because of its sexual immorality. Some say that if we are not careful, the same judgment could be ours so we must ensure that our nation protects the sanctity of marriage as established by God between a man and a woman. There are many reasons that this argument is full of holes, but one is that it ignores the fact that God also dealt heavily with Israel and Judah, driving them into exile and destroyed a host of other nations for their failure to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. And you can look at Amos and Habakkuk for proof!

So what does all of this mean in light of the election next week? Although God calls us to honor His entire Word, clearly, we cannot vote that way because neither of our presidential candidates measure up! And unfortunately we cannot take what we see as the best components of both parties and leave the rest, and its probably too late to form another party that adheres to every single command of God in its public policy making (and I am not recommending that we EVER do that). But still, we can vote. In fact, we must! But not because of biblical principles, because once again, neither candidate does that perfectly. In addition, it is my firm belief that legislation and laws cannot make a society turn its heart toward God. That is the role of the Church! Not the government!

Here is something we cannot do: we as pastors, board members, deacons, elders, nursery workers, lay leaders or if we find ourselves in any other role where we are leading people, cannot continue to manipulate people into voting a particular way. We have to stop saying that the way we vote connotes some sort of spirituality that others are missing, and we have to stop using scare tactics to get what we want out of the election. In the last few weeks, I have seen pastors, bishops, and other prominent men and women of God in the public eye do this. Not only is it morally wrong, but it is deceptive, and I believe that God will hold us accountable for that.

All of this being said, I believe there is a great opportunity for people of faith after the results on November 6 have come in. Regardless of how the votes swing, we have a duty to live our lives in such a way that we are bringing people into the kingdom of God. You see, voting is a one time thing. Once you have done it, its over. Its easy to take a stance regarding homosexuality, abortion, justice, the environment, our military, or any other thing when voting is all that is required of you. But its not. God demands more. If you feel that passionate about abortion issues, might God be asking you to disciple young women so that they are never in a position where they have to choose? Or might he have you support a young family financially so that when they are faced with that decision, they know that they are taken care of? And if you are concerned about homosexuality, maybe God would have you take a moment to listen, truly listen, to the hurts, the fears, the grief, the confusion, that sometimes people in this lifestyle feel instead of beating them over the head. And if you are concerned about justice, the hungry, the poor, maybe God would have you sacrificially give to an advocacy organization who is doing work to end these injustices. Or better still, invite someone to sit at your dinner table with your family, and just love on them, the way that Jesus loved the marginalized in his midst.

I believe that as we do these things, we are truly living out our calling as people of faith. And this, my friends, God delights in!

Could SNAP Cuts Have Implications on A Future President?

Today, the House’s Agriculture Committee decided to slash SNAP (formerly food stamps) by more than $35 billion. This is an outrage! Think of all of the families in our struggling economy who still have not found employment to support their families and what this will mean for them. It will mean a lot of hungry nights and mornings for that matter. It will mean that mothers will have to choose between putting gas in their car or feeding their children. It will also mean that the very poor in our society will be pushed even further into poverty, making our nation comparable to a ‘third world’ nation that we hypocritically criticize for their lack of justice.

No matter what your political view is, letting people starve is not a godly idea. In fact, God’s Word commands us to take care of the marginalized in our society. He calls us to look after the poor, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed in our midst, and He could care less what side of the political aisle we are coming from! The Bible tells us that He listens to the groans and prayers of these people, and you know what, He acts on their behalf. Look at what Amos has to say about this:

This is what the LORD says:

“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.

God is set on bringing justice to those who call on His name. He will not tolerate this type of evil, and in fact, asks us to likewise take a stand in the same regard. I guess, however, that as a nation we are content with making decisions everyday that basically tell God that we don’t want to follow His Word and stand for justice. I wonder what He has to say about that.

But I also wonder why that is. Why is it, that in a nation that has so many of its leaders, members of Congress, state legislators, pastors, business owners and others supposedly following after God, that our behavior hardly resembles anything that He is about? Yes we have, well some of us have, taken a stand against homosexuality and abortion. And you know what, I believe these are important issues to stand for (although I likewise believe that the way we are standing is horrible and does nothing more than criticize and condemn people, rather than reaching out in love which is what God would have us to do). But these, in my opinion, are not the real issues of our day – they only distract us from the main thing. And that main thing is that in the most developed nation in the world and 43.6 million people (as of 2009) are in poverty!

If you begin to break that figure down, what you will find is astounding.

– Of those poor, only 9.9 percent were non-Hispanic white compared to 26.6 percent of Asians and 27.4 of African Americans
– The poverty rate for children under the age of 18 is 20.7 percent.

What is even more interesting is that 45 percent of the nation’s children are from communities of color, 23 percent are Hispanic and 14 percent are black. These numbers only continue – by 2040 people of color will represent the majority population. And so when a decision like this is made, to cut SNAP benefits so drastically, you have to understand that this decision will disproportionately affect communities of color and children of color.

And then I wonder if this was the point, the intention of those who made this decision. You see, as our nation’s demographics keeps rapidly changing, the children, the people of tomorrow who will be our presidents, our leaders, our decision makers and who will hold so many different positions of leadership, will look drastically different than the people that hold them now. I think that is really scary for some people. I also think that these same people believe that these children who represent this changing demographic are not their children, and so it is quite easy to ignore their needs for the sake of their own children, children who look more like them.

I honestly believe, whole heartily believe that the House’s decision today has everything to do with these statistics. Yes, they want to cut the budget, I get it we are in debt! But more so, I believe this decision served as a means to make sure that what happened in 2008 never happens again. Because if an individual/ family is food poor, chances are they will struggle in education and in other areas, and never be able to reach the levels of attainment as our dear black president.

What thinkest thou? I really want to know.

Faith and Politics

To what extent should Christian ministers engage in politics?

As Christian ministers and leaders become more politically active, this is a question that must be considered. Whether we like it, or rather acknowledge it or not, ministers have spiritual power to speak into the systems of this world, and prophetically call forth the things that are not, while at the same time nullifying the things that are that do not reflect the glory of God. How we use this power can both influence people for good or for evil, and so we must be mindful of how we use it.

In his article, Applying Volf, Greg Metzger speaks to this truth as well. For him, as well as Volf for that matter, persons who exercise dual roles in both the ecclesial and civic life are more exposed to the power of systemsthey are vulnerable to manipulation by religious or political organizations because of the power those organizations perceive dual leaders having. As Metzger states, such can have positive affects, however, the reverse can be true when dual leaders are forced to speak for the organizations that they represent instead of the God that they serve.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of this happening in our culture today. Ministers and church leaders have greatly compromised their testimony, their prophetic voice by playing to the systems of power that are at work in the world. Even more unfortunate, they persuade their audiences, congregations, and other followers so that they begin to believe that the words from the minister’s mouth are God’s words, God’s ideals, God’s truth when in fact they are nothing more than partisan politics wrapped in Christianese.

I believe that we as ministers can get beyond this juncture, but we have to be willing to lay down our own political agenda. We may have to even lay down the political party that we tend to associate the most with. As we do, let us take up the Word of God, and allow the Word to speak to the things that God has been waiting for us so long to challenge. It might not be easy, especially since we tend to define ourselves so much by our political identity. Yet herein lies the problem, our identity should be in Christ and in nothing else. When our identity is found in him, the prophetic voice that God has given us truly comes forth and the political systems that once ensnared us begin to break under the power of His name.

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Divided and Conquered

I am not one to believe that there is a demon hiding behind every bush nor am I one to go looking for them. However, I believe that Christians, myself included, do not recognize the power behind demonic oppositional forces in that we constantly seem to be waging war against one another instead of powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places.

The Bible tells us that our struggle is not with one another but with this spiritual realm where evil reigns. Fortunately for us, through Christ, we have power to cast down and destroy every imagination exalted against the knowledge of God and make it obedient to Christ. The Bible also says that a house divided cannot stand, and so when we use this authority that we have to destroy the power of the enemy to instead destroy ourselves – our families, churches, cities, nations, and our very own faith suffers the consequences.

No place serves as a greater example of this than our current political system. The right divided against the left. The conservatives divided against the liberals. And Christians caught up in the middle of it, playing to either side’s ideology for its own political purposes, once again dividing an already fragmented church with a deeply scarred history. Instead of being the prophetic voice for change and transformation that God has called us to be, we are conquered just as the enemy has planned. We remain stuck in our silos, talking about silly things that sidetrack us from the most important things instead of being genuinely concerned about bringing people into the kingdom of God.

It all has to stop! The divisiveness, the trickery, the greed – it has to end! If we, the Church, want to be the hope of the world in this 21st century where the average person could care less about our theology and are more concerned about our actions, we have to come together, put our differences aside and speak to the things that God wants to speak to, and put to rest, the rest. God has given us this amazing authority to breathe life into dead bones, heal the sick, blind, and lame, preach the good news to those who are perishing, feed the poor, clothe the naked, proclaim liberty to those who are captives, freedom to prisoners, and victory, victory to those who grieve in Zion! Let’s cast off this garment of complacency and do that which God is calling us to. Eternity, cannot, will not, wait!