The Social Dimension of the Power of God

power“What will people think

When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak

What will people do when they find that it’s true

I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak

There ain’t no disguising the truth.” – Jesus Freak, DC Talk

If there is anything Christian song that characterized my experience as a young person, it would have to be DC Talk’s Jesus Freak. Released in 1995, it defined what it meant to live a life completely sold out to God. Living a life on fire, as we so affectionately called it, was a big deal for youth like me who grew up in a Pentecostal context such as the Assemblies of God. In the era of the Brownsville Revival and the Toronto Blessing, being consumed with anything else simply wasn’t an option if you were truly a Christian.

We competed for God’s blessings, well rather, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The true marker of our commitment to God was whether or not we could speak in tongues. The second was whether we would get slain in the Spirit or at least, have a prophesy directed our way when the evangelist laid their hands on our head. And because I experienced both of these things, I was confident that I was a truly living a life that was pleasing to God.

We were mainly concerned with the visible works of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we cherished the fruits of the Spirit – things like love, joy, peace, and patience – but there were very little sermons preached about how we live in comparison to ensuring that we were full of the Spirit. We prayed for it. We fasted for it. We did all nighters and See You at the Pole rallies to prove just how sold out to God we were. We toiled and tarried at the altar, sometimes for hours, convinced that if we did our part, God would show up and pour out His Spirit in the same way He did in the early church, at least in the same way He did in the Azuza Street Revival. And we judged other Christians who were not pursuing God in the same manner, attaching value statements to believers, and churches, who were not experiencing powerful demonstrations of the Spirit.

And as God filled us with the power of the Holy Spirit, we hoarded the anointing and spent it on ourselves. We did not care, or cared very little, about how the same Spirit might turn the world upside down. Unlike the early church, fullness of the Spirit to us meant more manifestations evidenced in increased church attendance, new conversions, and acts of speaking in tongues. My, how we prioritized speaking in tongues. But we did not think about how the Holy Spirit might use us to dismantle the systems of injustice that were holding people captive to oppression and pain.

See the rest of this post over at Pentecostals and Charismatics for Justice >

White Church So Silent, White Church So Complicit

*A version of this post has been posted at RaceRhetoricandReligion.

14479586_1272218729477199_2797807119461754697_nOn Wednesday, I awoke to the news that Bethel University’s St. Paul, Minnesota campus – the school I attended for Seminary – experienced a racist incident. The Kresge rock that had been recently painted in solidarity with Black Lives Matter was now painted over in white paint with the message “BLM = Racist, Blue Lives Matter.” As I scrolled through my facebook feed, searching for clarity about the event, I became angry but I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Over the years, Bethel has experienced its share of attacks against Black people specifically and other populations of color as well.*

Back in 2003, there were a slew of incidents targeting people of color on campus which included one student’s car being vandalized with racial slurs. On the night that Obama was elected into office in November 2008, racist language was once against used against black students in reference to the president elect. Then in 2010, a white student dressed in blackface and impersonated Lil Wayne for a campus AIDS fundraiser. Disgusting, right? And sprinkled in between all of these incidents is your typical share of microaggressions and Minnesota Nice covert racism. So once again, I wasn’t surprised. But I was reminded that the school where I spent four years of my life, had a lot of work to do in terms of being an institution that would stand up for racial justice.

But isn’t Bethel University a Christian college?

Yes, it is. Since 1871, this school has been preparing future pastors, lay leaders, administrators, businessmen and women, nurses, and so many others, how to integrate their faith experience into their professions. And while it can be said that not everyone on that campus professes to be a believer, the vast majority of students subscribe to the Christian faith. And yet, these same Christians, who are studying theology and serving in their churches on Sunday, are guilty of racism. How do we reconcile these two realities?

I used to ask myself the same question when I first moved to Minnesota from Milwaukee, WI and attended another Christian college, North Central University, for undergrad. For the very first time in my life, I was surrounded by a sea of white people on a consistent basis – black people were few and far between. Also, for the very first time in my life, I felt as if I was being discriminated against because of my race – the fact that I felt more excluded at a Christian college than I did in one of America’s most segregated cities ought to say something!

In the North Central bubble, as students so affectionately called it, I felt isolated and alone. For nearly two years, I struggled to make and maintain friendships with roommates and classmates. Between the summer of my freshman and sophomore year, I watched my roommates help move each other’s stuff to another dormitory on campus and left me to carry my stuff alone. When I ended up in the emergency room due to a bad allergic reaction to God knows what, the only person who helped me in my moment of desperation was a Sri Lankan woman who happened to live down the hall (thank God for her). When I spent a holiday completely by myself, as all of my family lived in Wisconsin, and the church I attended was just as white as my school, I seriously contemplated hurting myself because the pain of isolation hurt so bad.

Time and time again, no matter how hard I tried, I felt excluded, talked about and ridiculed at NCU. These feelings went on and on, in a Christian school, until I found a diverse church outside of campus that loved me for me, a dark-skinned African American woman. Once I found that place of refuge, I distanced myself from the school as much as possible and was there only to get my degree and leave. Other black students who encountered the same level of hostility at NCU didn’t bother completing their degree, they just left. I am no more brave than they were scared – we all make decisions to the best of our capacity with the resources and knowledge we have in the given moment.

It wasn’t until I learned the history of my denomination, the Assemblies of God, that I started to put things together. The isolation and racism that I experienced on my college campus, which was affiliated with the AG had everything to do with history of exclusion and racism within this body of believers. With intention, the AG broke away from the teachings of William Seymour, an African American man, who was the key leader in the Azuza Street Revival between 1906-1909. With intention, they defamed his leadership and said that it was ungodly for them to submit to it. With intention, they excluded blacks and latinos from their membership. With intention, they upheld the same bigotry and racism that was commonplace in America for far too long.

But it isn’t only the AG who has this tattered and torn history of racism, so many other Christian denominations in America do too. In fact, many churches and Christians themselves, have been complicit if not explicit actors in the terrorism against black lives throughout our country’s history. Everything, from the leadership structure to theology to the way it engages in politics to the way that it conflates the constitution with the Bible, suggests that Western Christianity and more specifically, the white Church, has a strong disregard if not flat out hatred, towards African Americans in this country. Which is why incidents, like those that occurred at Bethel on Wednesday are awful but not shocking.

The white Church’s history of complicity also explains why it, as an institution, remains silent as black bodies are continuously hunted and killed. Through all of the police killings in recent years, the white Church has literally nothing to say. #MichaelBrown. Nothing. #TamirRice. Zilch. #SandraBland. Nope. #PhilandoCastile. Who? Well, that is not exactly true. The white Church has been crying #AllLivesMatter, which sounds great in theory because yes Jesus died for all lives. But in practice, this chant is nothing more than a clever ruse to detract energy and focus from one of the most important movements of our time. Because if all lives truly mattered to the white church, they would not only turn up for our crucified sons and daughters, they would also rally against the senseless police killings of their own sons and daughters.

All Lives Matter lulls a church that is already asleep to the oppression of black people into a further state of hypnosis. And if the white church feigns unconsciousness, they can neither speak or act which is really their point – a clever ruse, right? Here’s the thing though: no matter how silent the white church is or ignorant it pretends to be about #BlackLivesMatter and its importance in this hour, God still holds it accountable. In the same way, that God called after Cain asking the whereabouts of his brother Abel, God calls out to the white church asking the whereabouts of its black brothers, sisters, and sons. Can you hear God calling? Or will you ignore Him, too?

*Thursday afternoon I had the awesome opportunity to participate in a prayer service led by two black students at the site where the racist incident had previously taken place. I am horrible at estimating numbers but it *feels* like hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and alumni showed up in solidarity with the black students on campus. The rock in question has been painted again (by the president and campus pastor) and now reads ‘Us for Us’ a message that the students chose.  

 

 

Do We Really Want Reconciliation? Or Are We Just Conflict Averse?

 

Diversity

Can we all just get along?

If you were around in the early 1990s, you would remember this challenge posed by Rodney King, a black man who was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. To quell the riots, perhaps, after the officers were acquitted for their level of inhumanity, King exhorted people to learn to get along instead of allowing the black-white divide to remain the defining characteristic of our society.

At first glance, King’s challenge appears to be a good one. As an American people, we should learn how to get along across racial, ethnic, and economic differences. We should be interested in building bridges that connect us to each other instead of constructing walls that intensify long-standing resentments towards those who do not share the same skin color or ideology that we do. These are worthy goals and even necessary as such actions do create some semblance of peace in our society. Some.

Far too often, however, our efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation stop at the getting along part. So long as our neighborhoods are diverse and we are able to attend multi-cultural churches and our workplaces have one or two people from a different cultural background than our own, we feel as if we have arrived. We host one or two potlucks that bring people of diverse cultures together and we think we have really done something fancy. The unfortunate truth is that diversity does not equal reconciliation and neither do our attempts at peace that make us feel so warm and comfortable on the inside. If at the end of that potluck – and even during – we cannot have an open conversation about why we are divided in the first place, we have done nothing more than apply a new shiny layer of paint to walls that are moldy and in decay.

More than showing that we are committed to the arduous task of reconciliation, “getting along” only reflects our inability to deal with conflict. We cannot handle disagreement, especially when people disagree with us. Neither can we handle being wrong. So instead of working through our issues with blood, sweat, and tears, we call for unity.

But the conflict that we want to avoid does not solely reside outside of us; in many instances we want to avoid having conflicts within our own person over what we understand to be true about ourselves in the world when we are presented with new information that challenges our assumptions. We cannot have an honest conversation about racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression because we are not able to handle what having this conversation actually means for our own lives. If police brutality exists; and rape culture is pervasive; and we are living on stolen land; and the Church is complicit in white supremacy; and internalized racism is a reality; and oppressed people really do oppress other people; and both political parties are corrupt; and even the most liberated man can exhibit sexism; and our justice movements still resemble white supremacist, individualistic ways of being in the world, what does that say about us as individuals and as a society at large? It says we are all guilty. And that we have some serious work to do.

Most people would rather not have THAT conversation. Most people do not want to explore the ways in which they have been complicit in oppression; they would much rather point out the ways in which others have oppressed and harmed them. I know it does for me. Even though I sit at the intersections of multiple oppressions as a black woman who was raised by a single mother in the hood, I also realize that I carry multiple privileges as an educated, middle class, homeowner. It is easier for me to talk about how my life is littered with examples of the ways I have been hurt by others; it is more difficult for me to speak to how I benefit from the hurt and pain of others.

Shallow attempts at diversity and unity allow me to downplay my own privileges but they also force me to ignore my pain. In pursuit of diverse workplaces, houses of worship, and neighborhoods, we cannot rock the boat – everybody must play ‘nice’ and ‘get along’ in order to have peace. In the absence of that peace, anything can happen when real trouble ensues. But the reality is that the persistent refusal to deal with issues leaves trouble festering behind our kumbaya’s and worship songs sung in three languages.

How do we move our culture and churches beyond ‘getting along’ to ‘being whole?’ And for that matter, is wholeness – total and complete shalom – even possible in a society that is so broken? I believe so. I trust in the Word of God and the salvation that Christ extends to everyone who believes in Him. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that through the shedding of His blood, the walls that divide us as a result of race, sex, class, religion, and every other distinction are utterly destroyed. In Him, we are made one.

But understand, while this gift is free to us, it cost Christ a lot. He was born in a stinky manger in questionable circumstances; He was on the run for His life from an early age; He lived in deplorable housing situations; He was a part of a marginalized ethnic/religious group in his society; He knew hunger, grief, and pain; He was ridiculed, despised and rejected; He was spat upon, abused, and cursed at; and He was ultimately executed by the same state that sought His life in the beginning. Christ’s efforts to reconcile us back to God and to each other was not an easy process but demanded a lot of sacrifice on His part. As His disciples, wouldn’t the same be required of us?

If we truly want unity, if we honestly want reconciliation, we have to be committed to doing the hard, laborious work to bring it to pass. Nothing in Scripture, or life itself, suggests that this is an easy process. It may appear easier to settle for artificial pleasantries that require no work and force us to all get along but the current frontrunner of a major political party should be proof enough to understand that ignoring the task of reconciliation only pushes the proverbial can down the road; it does not actually get rid of it.

Link to image: https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/initiative/diversity-and-inclusion

 

 

Black Gold

I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. – Psalm 139.14, NASB

black gold
I know that my identity as a black woman is affirmed and validated by the image of God!

And I also know that as God began to fashion humanity in the beginning, and imbued upon our DNA His likeness, that He had me and so many others who look like me, in mind. From the beginning, He knew our stories. He was well acquainted with the roads that we would travel, the burdens we would be forced to carry as a result of greed, capitalism, and imperialism. Placing His indelible image upon our souls was a living testament to the world that we belonged and came from Him, affirming our value in a world that says we are not.

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not see God’s creative license and sheer genius operating in the same way. While such persons would not necessarily deny, at least I hope not, God’s image residing within black people, they sure do act as if this is what they believe. You see this most visibility in the present racial justice movement, Black Lives Matter. As blacks and other justice minded folk proclaim the value of blackness to the world, others – particularly the #AllLivesMatter crowd and their sympathizers – shriek at the notion that black people actually matter. It is much easier for folks like these to assert the value of all life without pointing out the particular ways that black lives are persistently devalued – indeed, something has to first be valuable before it can be seen as devalued. Therefore, the very notion that black lives matter and are valuable comes across as an affront to their own understanding of reality.

Lack of regard for black people, however, isn’t solely concentrated within the white community; less than favorable sentiments also exists within communities of color and in the black community itself. The louder image affirming black people assert our humanity and likeness to God, the more cognitive dissonance occurs for others who primarily view their self-worth through the lens of the white gaze. Respectability politics is key here! “If black lives matter, what about black on black crime?” “We need to get things straight in our own community before we can demand accountability from cops.” “Well, they need to pull their pants up and get a job.” “Try harder, work more efficiently and stop complaining.” “Make better choices.” “If I can do it, you can do it too.”

Translation: We can only be human when we get our stuff together. Until then, we have no right to assert our humanity or expect others to respect it.

The reality is that respectability is often just a ruse. While it may appear to be innocent, well-intentioned advice, it actually deflects the responsibility of racism away from whites and places the sole burden on blacks to resist, correct, and thrive in the midst of white supremacy. It is hard enough to hear this rhetoric from media and political pundits who spend every waking moment washing their hands of guilt by blaming black folks for our own problems; it is harder still to hear it coming from the lips of those from within our own community who cannot see that our liberation in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, no matter how hard we try, will not come by appealing to whiteness.

I had the unfortunate pleasure of experiencing this first hand recently. In preparation for a small gathering in which I was invited to speak, I shared a bit of my speech online which was pro-black, emphasized the image of God on our person, and proclaimed our complete liberation in the New Jerusalem. I expected it to be controversial among whites who couldn’t see themselves in a narrative that explicitly affirmed black lives and even among folks who thought that my idea of liberation was too narrow. What I did not expect was to receive significant pushback from someone from within my own community who took issue with it because of how much I emphasized the image of God within black people.

“How dare you write that?” they asked. “And how could you connect this story to a prayer? Isn’t that reverse discrimination? Imagine how white people must feel? I am glad we do not worship the same God because what you did is heretical.”

More than shocked and I was definitely that, I was hurt by his words. I was hurt because he failed to recognize God’s image in me; failed to see it in himself as well. And in that denial, he not only minimized who God made me to be – an identity I fight to protect everyday – but he also discounted my relationship with my creator. In his mind, I could not be both black and Christian. As far as he was concerned, in order to be Christian, I had to deny my blackness and align my identity with whiteness as far as it was possible for me to do so.

I knew what was happening. I had all of the analysis and language to describe how internalized racism was functioning in this particular situation. I see this happening everyday when blacks, as well as other people of color, redefine our beauty, education, life experience, and self-worth in terms of what is valuable to whites. When one lives in a system that prioritizes whiteness above all else and when one’s livelihood is often tied to kowtowing down to that same system just to survive,  it is nearly impossible to avoid internalizing feelings of inferiority! Yet, instead of taking comfort in this analysis, I went for a walk. I found the Mali Music station on Pandora and listened as I walked and meditated on the truth of God’s Word. Still disturbed, I turned to music again once I got home from work. This time my remedy of choice was Esperanza Spalding who crooned:

Hold your head as high as you can
High enough to see who you are, little man
Life sometimes is cold and cruel
Baby no one else will tell you so remember that
You are black gold, black gold
You are black gold

You are black gold. Those words brought relief to my soul like none other that day. They affirmed who I was, the black woman that God made me to be, and projected my value in a world that said I was not valuable. To be clear, this affirmation is not a statement of commodification but a clarification of inherent worth – black people are worthy of life and love!

As Spalding continued singing, I once again turned to God’s Word. I rehearsed in my memory God’s amazing truth about me while rejecting all of the lies thrown my way because I dared to imagine that I could be a part of God’s Kingdom, blackness and all.

That was a little more than a month ago. And while I found some semblance of peace that day, the reality is that the fight for validation as an image bearer remains a constant struggle. At times, it is anxiety inducing until I remember that I am not defined by others perceptions of me, or who they think I should be. Instead, I am defined by how my creator sees me. I am characterized by His image and likeness. I can take great pride in the ways in which He fashioned me. I recognize His intelligence in clothing my body in mahogany skin and crowning my head with ebony, kinky coily hair.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

I am black gold.

The Danger of North Minneapolis’ Single Story: The Way We Talk About Black People Matters

northimage

Show a people as one thing and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Danger of a Single Story.

Dangerous. Crime ridden. Littered with trash and broken glass. Infested with miscreants and human vermin. Falling apart. According to a recent commentary in the Star Tribune, these are the characteristics that define North Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, the language and the sentiment expressed in the article are not new. North Minneapolis has a history of being associated with drugs, violence, and chronic poverty. A quick google search of the community accompanies words such as, ‘shooting,’ ‘crime,’ and ‘safety.’ Yet, these words are often racially coded euphemisms for describing black people so that the user of the word does not appear racist. And in North Minneapolis, where black people comprise of 43% of the community’s residents, those who are sympathetic to the same views that the article purports use these terms to talk about black people without naming them.

When many look at vibrant communities with a large population of black people, this is all they see. Such is the reason why black people in North Minneapolis and across our nation, regardless of income, education, or a host of other factors, are stopped and profiled by law enforcement. And it explains why, black people are assumed to be guilty of wrongdoing whether we are walking across the street, attending a child’s birthday party, or helping out a friend in distress – no matter which neighborhood we live in. It also points to the reason why black people living in a community with a high concentration of poverty are identified as the problem instead of the history of structural racism and policymaking that caused that poverty. Black people are left on the hook to not only solve a problem that the system of white supremacy created but that this same system continues to benefit from.

The Danger of a Single Story

But this single story of North Minneapolis – and the people who live in it – isn’t completely true. And most single stories about people, places, or things never are – they are usually limited in scope and reflect a narrative that is most convenient for those in power to tell. Think about places like Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Queens, NY, or where I am from, Milwaukee, WI – all of these places are heavily populated with black people who are only recognized for their poverty and crime. Growing up in one of the roughest parts of Milwaukee in the 1990s, I heard the same terms applied to North Minneapolis used to define my own community: ‘at risk,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘drug dealers,’ ‘murderers.’ Our neighborhood was so badly stigmatized that after church, my youth pastor would reluctantly drop me off at home and pull off before I even reached the front steps. Family members were concerned for their safety whenever they came over to eat dinner. When we first moved in, my step-grandfather bought us bars for our front door and insisted we get a dog. But the reality is that my neighborhood consisted of much more than its negative, pervasive stereotypes.

So does North Minneapolis.

house 4

This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows us in her TED Talk, Danger of a Single Story. In the talk, Adichie tells the story of Fide, her family’s hired help when she was a child. Upon hiring Fide, Adichie learned that his family was extremely poor. Her parents would send old clothes, food, and other goods to support Fide’s family. And as a means to control her own behavior, Adichie’s family would even  juxtapose her reality against Fide’s – “Don’t you know? People like Fidel’s family have nothing.”

Poverty was the only idea that Adichie ever entertained in relation to Fide and his family. Because they were poor, she never stopped to consider other facets of Fidel’s identity. Was he industrious? Was he interested in math or science? Was he good at soccer? Did he like to draw or build things? Was he a good cook? Did he have a sense of humor? These questions never crossed Adichie’s mind because all she had grown to recognize in someone like Fide was his level of poverty.

It was not until Adichie visited Fide’s village that she began to construct a new narrative about him and his family. Seeing artwork crafted by his mother forced her to abandon the monolithic framework in which she pigeonholed Fide and all who might represent him. At last, she was able to consider that while Fide was poor, he was also much more than that, which likewise opened up the possibility for her to connect with Fide as human equals instead of relating with him from a place of hegemony.

If people would allow their deeply held sentiments about black people to be stretched, like Adichie, they would begin to see us as equals and people deserving of the same access to rights and opportunities that are afforded to them. Such a framework would subsequently give them the ability to affirm the humanity of others and would likewise prevent them from exploiting it for personal or political gain. All of a sudden society would stop defining black residents in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, and North Minneapolis by crime and see us for all of the beauty, power, wisdom, and ingenuity that we carry.

Unfortunately, this framework is missing from the article in the Star Tribune. Instead, it validates another dehumanizing narrative that has dangerous consequences including further disinvestment. In the words of Dr. Bruce Corrie, professor of Concordia, “If I can devalue you and minimize your self worth, I can exploit you.” When the narrative that this article projects is maintained, developers are able to justify investments that push blacks and other residents of color outside of their neighborhoods; decisionmakers have a platform in which to intensify the presence of police officers in already heavily policed communities; and nonprofit agencies positioned to ‘help’ continuously examine these places through a lens of pity instead of seeing the innate power and beauty that is compellingly present.

Crafting a New Narrative
We need a new narrative that breaks beyond the despotic viewpoint of places like North Minneapolis and instead offers the complexly wonderful stories about these communities.

Of a truth, poverty and crime are realities in North Minneapolis. Yes, there are safety concerns. And yes, there is a level of despair because of decades of structural racism that has stripped the community of essential economic opportunities that are needed to survive. Systematic oppression and exploitation over four centuries has surely taken its toll on the black body in detrimental ways.

All of this is true.

And yet, North Minneapolis is also much more than that. Every time that I step into the community, this is what I see:

North Minneapolis is overflowing with a deep sense of cultural pride and a spirit of resiliency. Resiliency that dates back to the 1930s, when black people first started to settle there and began to build a community that withstood highway construction, redlining, environmental pollutants, and every other malady thrown their way under Minnesota’s version of Jim Crow policy.

There are bricks and mortar institutions, created by the community, for the community, under the leadership of the community including business and nonprofit organizations. Religious and cultural institutions. Workforce training and education centers. Restaurants, barber shops, playgrounds, and recreational spaces.

And the people. The people themselves are as rich and varied as in any other community – lawyers, students, artists, preachers, poets, politicians, janitors, doctors, activists, entrepreneurs, executive directors, sales associates, imams, architects, bikers, construction workers, healthcare professionals, consultants, videographers, and so much more. And these are black people!  

And there is so much love and connectivity. A trip to Avenue Eatery on Broadway guarantees that one will see at least five people either known personally or through professional circles. Every event feels like a family reunion of sorts – a place where everybody knows somebody. The sense of solidarity runs miles deep, something that was evident in the Jamar Clark protests this past fall.

This is just a small sliver of the allure that characterizes North Minneapolis. And these exist because the people, the same people which the article dehumanizes, made it happen. People are creating and recreating all that is good and wholesome about this community every single day. In fact, if people who held such demoralizing ideas toward North Minneapolis and other urban areas nationwide could see that, much of the crime and poverty concerns would be minimized.

It is time for society to open their eyes to the beauty that lies in places like North Minneapolis. Step beyond the framework that only validates the experience, expertise, and humanity of white people, and affirm the experience, expertise, and humanity of black people as well as other communities of color in this rich community. And lest we forget: North Minneapolis gave Prince to the world. That alone has to count for something!

Facing Racism, Embracing Hope Part II

Slavery. Convict leasing system. Sharecropping. Jim Crow. Restrictive housing covenants. Redlining. Eugenics. War on Drugs. Vietnam. Mass incarceration. Police brutality. 400 years of continual oppression and marginalization, with no end in sight, has the tendency to create a sense of hopelessness and even nihilism. As the author of Hebrews attests, hope deferred really does make the heart grow sick. In spite of the insurmountable evidence to the contrary, I choose to believe that there does exist a future completely free of racism and oppression.*

Anticipate with joy this scenario: there will be no more weeping in the streets over African American sons and daughters, sisters and brothers lost too soon due to police brutality and white supremacy. There will be no more African American babies who die because they were born prematurely or because their mothers’ were unable to access the proper nutrition. People will live full life-times, no life will be cut short due to a stray bullet, mistaken identity, rap music, or skittles. African Americans will be able to access quality, affordable housing – we won’t be charged exorbitant rent prices, sold sub-prime loans, or forced to move out of our beloved communities as kale eating, kombucha drinking neighbors move in. We will have access to green space free of environmental toxins and pollutants so that they can grow fruit and vegetables to provide for our family and community. Exploitative farm and agricultural policies that keep us from doing so will be long gone. African Americans will have access to employment that pays a living wage, that does not exploit our labor and does not bar us from promotions or higher paid positions because of their race. And God, God will hear us before we even lift our voices to call on Him. Because remember, the tabernacle of God will be among us, and He will dwell among us in the same manner that Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago. No harm or manner of injustice will befall us in God’s re-creation of the world before us.

The above passage is inspired by Isaiah 65.17-24, contextualized to speak to the current and pervasive African American experience in this county. Though the text in Isaiah was originally written to the Jewish people to encourage them while they were in exile, this promise of restoration and redemption has far reaching implications that extends to all of humanity – God’s re-creation of the heavens and the earth promises a future free of pain, death, and exploitation. 

In this same future, Palestinians will no longer be discriminated against and will be able to live, work, and grow food on the same land as their Israeli brothers and sisters. Latino immigrants will no longer be called illegal or undocumented or trespassers or even discriminated against because (1) all of humanity will share the land and (2) foreign trade policy will not drive them from their homes. American Indians will likewise not have their land, rights, and their very humanity taken away from them. The word terror as it relates to the identity of non-white Americans or Europeans will be wiped from the lexicon of every language. Sexism will be no more. Ableism will be done away with. People will not be chastised because of whom they choose to love. The image of the oppressor in each and every one of us will be washed away as we are fully loved and indiscriminately give love. No more competition for we will have nothing to lose.

This is our hope and our future. Yet it is not a cheap, optimistic hope that ignores the problem of structural racism and insists that everything is going to be okay. It is this kind of hope that is deeply embedded in progressive politics – that we are better than we once were and will eventually progress our way toward a better future. This kind of thinking is nice, but in truth, it has minimal scriptural or historical support. There is little evidence that the problem of racism and oppression simply improves by humanity ingenuity and strength. Many of the changes we can account for benefit only a select few in our society; usually those with an accepted economic and/or educational status. In the few instances were there is significant change that promises to lift the many, new tactics are divised that put us back into chains. 

This is why our hope cannot be based in human effort and goodwill. Effort is good, even necessary, but ultimately the work of restoration and uprooting entrenched systems of injustice is a work of the Spirit. This has to be based in Christ and the conviction that Jesus will redeem this lost, broken world. Not a world that we are escaping but one that we will all enjoy as His Kingdom is fully realized among us.

This is what we just celebrated less than a month ago, the inauguration of that Kingdom made possible through His death and resurrection. In His death, He yielded to Rome. He yielded to power. Jesus allowed Himself to beaten, cursed, and ultimately killed by empire. Yet, in His resurrection, He not only broke the power of sin and eternal death; he also shattered the grip of empire. He proved that while empire may set its sights on destruction and ultimate alienation of those who contest it that the Kingdom of God brings back to life those very ones whose breath have been snuffed out further proving that for all of the smoke and mirrors, Rome – and other empires like it such as America – is utterly inept.

So rather than being controlled by oppressive regimes that profit through the continual dehumanization and degradation of the marginalized in their path, in our case African Americans, we fix our hope on the reality that this is not all there is. There will be a day, as the scripture says, that God will wipe every tear from our eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.

The question is: what is our role as the Church, as a community of believers until then? To what extent does the Holy Spirit invite us to take part in His mighty work of redemption and justice? I invite you to consider these four things:

One, we have to tell the Good News that Jesus is coming back. We have to let the world know that He will redeem it back to Himself and that all of the injustice that is felt throughout will no longer be a reality. We have to tell it, we have to loudly proclaim the fact that Jesus is in the business of making all things new meaning that this system of oppression and exploitation of African Americans will be completely done away with. This is good news, my friends. In fact, it is fantastic news. And as believers, God has given us the responsibility of sharing it. Speak up about God’s justice, my people. And you better speak loudly so the world can hear you.

Two, we also have to also be truth bearers and name what that means. What does Christ’s imminent return mean for those in power who have exploited African Americans and other people of color? Unfortunately, it means judgment. Scripture bears truth to this. God will judge those who have been on the exacting end of oppression in this society. While they may seem to be sleeping soundly now, God will call them into account for their sins. Fortunately, however, God is merciful and continuously extends opportunities to those who have blood on their hands to repent, turn away from oppression, and restore, to the fullest extent possible, the resources of those who have been stolen away.

Third, believers in the American Church need to commit to undoing racism meaning that we need to do all we can to rid our churches, families, and even spaces where we have influence in this society of racism. That process must start by fully understanding our nation’s beginnings which detail a history of colonialization, genocide, and slavery but it also has to include an honest assessment of the things that have transpired since then that continually ensure that the humanity of  African Americans and other people of color is denied. From there, we as believers can begin to think more critically of the ways in which we uphold a system of racial hierarchy – how are we complicit in this country’s sin? Very! We do not need to look any further than Azuza Now, the 110th anniversary of the Azuza Street Revival when the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh in Los Angeles, CA in a way that could only be comparable to Acts 2. While the original work of the Spirit was led by an African American man, the commemoration of one of the greatest moves of the Spirit in our country was not! Racism even affects how we respond to a move of God. Undoing racism in the church not only means comforting this truth but leading others in thinking through the same things through our preaching, testimony, and revising of our theology.

Finally, we must count the cost. Nothing that is good comes without a cost. What will that cost look like for those who commit to walk the arduous journey toward racial justice? Time. Resources. Comfort. Friendships. Family. Peace. Safety. Life. Convenience. While the specifics of this look different for every person, we should not be naive of the fact that justice isn’t cheap. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Now this may make some who prefer things to come relatively easy to feel uncomfortable. But just think, African Americans have never had it easy. 400 years of exploitation and captivity ain’t easy. Jim Crow lynching and segregation laws ain’t easy. Dilapidated housing ain’t easy. Unemployment ain’t easy. Being locked up ain’t easy. Dying needlessly in this streets ain’t easy. And neither is dying on a lonely cross, allowing oneself to be subjected to the treatment wrought on the marginalized and despised in society. But this is what following Christ is all about: taking up one’s cross daily, daring to risk it all for the salvation of the world.

*This post is the second in a 2-part series. Click here to read the first.

 

 

 

Black History Month and the Precarious White Identity

We are now in the final week of Black History Month.* During this month long observance, Americans call to their consciousness the many contributions of black Americans in our society. Or at least that is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to remember people like Frederick Douglass, Ida B Wells, W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Shirley Chisholm, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou. We are supposed to remember heroes and heroines like these, who changed the course of American history by refusing to allow the dictates of a racist society to keep them in their place. We remember these as inspiration for moving forward in our present day, drawing on their example in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

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The reality is that for many Americans, Black History Month is a sore spot. Many Americans, mostly white, cannot wrap their minds around the need to dedicate a whole month to appreciating black Americans because of their inability to affirm and recognize our humanity. This is because they have so distanced their identity away from blackness through suppression and exploitation, to the extent that any affirmation of such feels like an unforgivable insult to who they are. 

This is so much so that in the face of our nation’s changing demographics, white people seem to be experiencing a certain existential crisis. By 2050, people of color and immigrants will be in the clear numerical majority which expands the American identity from just white, or rather, European Americans, to people who look a little more like me. As Langston Hughes said, I, Too, Am America. And with those demographic and national changes, the pool of people who are able to work, lead colleges, serve in political office, run companies, and govern our nation, looks much more black and brown than it does white.

These changes are threatening for white Americans. At least, that is what I assume based on the rhetoric coming out of the 2008 election of our nation’s first black president. “We need to take our country back.” “From whom,” I ask rhetorically, knowing that the answer is from black and brown people who also now hold power. The idea that a black man could sit in the highest seat of authority in the land is baffling to the white identity. This shows that there is also a shift in the social-political landscape amalgamated with our changing demographics that is sending folks into a tailspin.

As a result of this crisis of identity, the pushback against black Americans has been ridiculous. Police brutality and race-based terrorism are all symptoms of a people furiously looking for a means to maintain their identity, and unfortunately all of which get codified into an twisted, ideological belief system that supports the centrality of the white American identity. This is predictable, actually, it is not an aberration to the black experience in America at all.

What is a departure from the norm, at least, now it is coming to light, is what is going on in the white community itself. A recent Princeton study authored by economists Angus Eaton and Anne Case, highlights the dramatic increase in the suicide and drug overdose rates in middle-aged white Americans. This spike is particularly unique to this group as other racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans, have seen their mortality rates for all reasons go down.

American Dream over

The reason for the rise in mortality rates? In addition to the challenging demographics, things such as the economic crisis, prompted by the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the housing market, in addition to the closure of working class manufacturing jobs has threatened the economic security of white Americans who have long thought that if they worked hard enough – and even believed in God – that they could achieve the American Dream. Now it is clear that this is simply not true. For all intents and purposes, white Americans are losing the narratives of their lives.

But you know, white Americans aren’t the only ones in history to experience this crisis of identity. In fact, the Jewish people, as shown in our biblical text today, did as well. Let me set the scene for you: You have a people who built their entire existence around the notion of being God’s chosen nation. Because this idea went to their head, they started going about the world acting like they have a right to oppress, exploit, and kill others, even people in their own nation. Sound familiar? God got angry about this and punished them by sending them into exile. He then has mercy on them and allowed them go back to their homeland and rebuild the temple which takes us to about 519 B.C. But the next several hundred years were nothing but a series of false starts due to their continual disobedience, outside oppression, and the increased Greek influence on Judaism.

In the face of the shifting culture and socio-political environment, the Jews began to construct a new narrative about themselves. At a base level, this identity formation is good because it is important that we know ourselves in the context of other selves. However, when you base your identity on a culture of superiority and oppression, this is where the problem lies. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Jews did. They began to emphasize the centrality of their identity as God’s chosen people to the exclusion of anyone who did not fit their very narrow paradigm of acceptability, which demanded following endless strict moral and ceremonial codes. Something that only well-off men could do.

While this paradigm brought them comfort, Jesus called their pretense for what it was – a farce. Instead of validating their very shallow, shame-based identity, Jesus invited them into repentance which we see taking place in verses 1 – 17 of chapter 13. He challenged their understanding of righteousness and called them out on their hypocrisy because in their strict observance of the Sabbath day, they ignored the needs of others in their midst, including the hungry, the sick, and those who were political prisoners. The pursuit of justice got lost in the drive to secure salvation for ‘just us.’ Ironically, the very thing that they thought would bring them security was separating them from God.

The Jews were on the fast track to living outside of God’s Kingdom permanently. Ironically, the very thing that they thought would bring them security is driving them further away from God. But, wait, let’s look at those who are entering in. Verses 29, 30 say: “And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” In other words, it’s the Gentiles, the sinners, the prostitutes, the oppressed, the socially marginalized, who will be welcomed into God’s Kingdom. The Apostle Paul affirms this in Romans 9.30-32b, saying,

“What shall we say the? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.”

Those who the Jews were distancing themselves away from, the ones whom they were oppressing, the very ones whom they were saying were excluded from the Kingdom based on their socio-political identity, were in fact the people who would see themselves in the Kingdom of God!

It is at this moment, while Jesus was challenging the Jews on their identity in the context of the Kingdom of God, that the Pharisees came to warn him about Herod’s plan to kill Him. Now we know why. If the Jews really believed what Jesus said, it would change the way that they interacted with empire. Most likely, they would probably stop subsidizing it the way that they had. And most certainly, like Jesus, they would begin to speak out about the injustice inflicted by the hands of the empire. Perhaps, like Black Lives Matter activists today, they would begin to stage protests and other demonstrations to shame the empire into acting right.

But never mind that. Jesus does not concern himself with Herod at all. In fact, He completely de-centers him because he knows that Herod cannot kill him before it is his time to go. Instead, he turns his attention back to his original audience, crying:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD (Luke 13.34, 35)!”

Jesus’ heart broke for his people. He longed to rescue them, provide for them, in the same way that a hen cares for her children. Listen to his need to protect a people who simply cannot understand the impact of their choices because like children, they cannot see beyond their own primal need for survival.

But they refused. In spite of the sincere pleas to get it right, the Jews refused to let go of this false narrative that they have about themselves. In fact, they went to great lengths to maintain it, to the extent that they eventually handed Jesus over to the Roman Empire to be put to death.

Jesus, being the Son of God, knew this was coming. As he urged the people to get right, he also saw and understood that they simply wouldn’t. And so, exasperated, at least I imagine, he lets them have their way. Have it your way, if that is what you want. If you can’t let go of this one thing, this one thing that has shaped you but is destroying you at the same time, have it your way. But trust, judgment is coming.

Black people throughout our nation’s history have been the voice calling for white Americans and others whose basis of identity is the oppression of others, to change. Black history month, in many ways, offers whites the opportunity to surrender an identity based on 400 years of exploitation, rape, and theft, in exchange for an identity that recognizes and validates the humanity of black Americans. Essentially, it is an invitation for whites to stop hiding behind a culture of superiority, to face its history, and to commit to walking the path of anti-racism and justice in the future.

The process of redefining the white identity has to start with affirming the identity of black Americans and seeing black Americans as people who also bear the image and likeness of God. In that reframing, whites will begin to see blacks deserving of the same human rights and opportunities that are afforded to them. No longer is it a question of whether black children should have access to good schools and education, or whether they should be able to work livable wage jobs with health benefits, or if young black men are less deserving of the right to live and be free, or if black women have the right to speak out against their unique oppression. No. All of these questions become absolute when the white identity is reframed away from superiority and otherization. These questions and the need to define whiteness as something abhorrent to blackness dissipate because at last, you see our humanity. And in our shared humanity, we can walk forward together in peace to transform the world around us.

*This post has been amended from a sermon that I preached over the weekend at First Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights. You can listen to the sermon here. Please note that the sermon’s link also includes a brief children’s message before my own.*

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