Balancing Act: Facing Reality about Racism and Still Maintaining Hope

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Racism is alive and well in the United States. Those who were in denial about it before for one reason or another, must come to grips with this sobering reality post 2016 election. We have not progressed our way out of it as many have eagerly but ignorantly imagined. Nor have we come remotely close to dismantling it, in spite of all of our good, earnest efforts spanning generations. While political pundits analyze so many different components of the election results, all with varying and sometimes contradictory statements, one piece of truth that continues to bear out is that racism is the culprit laying at the root of the tree.

Let me be expressly clear about what I am and am not saying. I am not saying that one political party is racist and the other not. Both Republicans and Democrats embody deeply racist ideologies and both at times, can present policy platforms that appear to help vulnerable people while simultaneously screwing them over. And I am not saying that the other candidate was America’s salvation in any way – she represented more of the status quo way of doing things than any substantive change in either direction. And I am not saying that everyone who voted for the president-elect is necessarily racist, though I have some pointed questions for those who did. What I am saying is that the man who ran on a platform that was openly and explicitly crass towards African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and women – just to name a few – won. What I am saying is that the man who – without specifics – proposed building walls and banning people of a particular faith, just secured 304 electoral votes. What I am saying is that the man who received the endorsement of a known terrorist organization, is slated to become the next president of the United States. In just a few more days. God have mercy on us all!

To me this reaffirms this nation’s historic roots. In spite of all of the work that activists, faith leaders, community residents, academics, journalists, and even government allies have done over the last eight years – not to mention the work spanning hundreds of years which made the last eight years possible – racism is rearing its ugly head, insisting its pre-eminence and staking its claim on the United States’ soil, land, and air. Racism, the manner by which this country was built since it was stolen from American Indians, is here to stay. It is the only way that this country can survive – the entire nation’s economy, power, and way of being in the world exists only because racism exists. It is the nexus by which every other thing in this nation holds together.

Because it is the way of doing things in the United States, all of the effort that we put into uprooting this awful evil often seems to be ineffective. Sure, there may be short terms wins along the way evidenced through policy change and shifts in individual attitudes. But these wins, just as quickly as they come, can disappear when the political climate shifts, the economy fails, or when people simply grow tired of doing the right thing. When it is no longer expedient to do the right thing, when equity is no longer as appealing as it once was, when people forget all of the work that we have collectively put in to get us to this point, these wins – like voter rights and affirmative action – lose their effectiveness. They either lack enforcement metrics or laws change so that the metrics that secured equal rights are no longer valid as evidenced in the work to repeal Obamacare just this week.

It is very difficult to maintain hope in the face of such a reality. It’s not impossible, as with God all things are possible, but it is beyond challenging to keep imagining that liberation could actually be a tangible reality when this present-day system has endured for more than 500 years. Could this great imperialistic evil, that haunts our memories and threatens the future of our children and our children’s children – children who are increasingly of color as our nation’s demographics continue to change – come to an end so that we can all be free? Can we dismantle the spirit of white supremacy, that in the words of Toni Morrison causes people to do things that they otherwise would not do and abandon their sense of human dignity in the name of identity? “Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.” Is a reality beyond this current situation even plausible or are we merely deceiving ourselves?

Facesatthebottom2.jpgPermanence of Racism
I recently finished reading Derrick Bell’s ‘Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” Like December recently. I bought the book over a year ago and finally picked it up the week before the election. Perfect timing! Although it was written in 1992, I was struck by how relevant Bell’s analysis around the black experience was more than 20 years after he published the book.

One of the most compelling chapters in the book was the last one – the Space Traders. An allegory, it illustrated how in times of political and financial turmoil, black people are easily scapegoated for the nation’s problems while being simultaneously called on to fix the nation’s ills. In this particular story, visitors from another world visited the U.S. and promised the country financial resources, the means to clean up the climate, and other goods in exchange for its black citizens. Activists, journalists and other leaders representing different racial and religious backgrounds tried to make the moral case for denying the visitor’s offer. Business leaders also tried to make a financial case for resisting this great temptation, not in the name of morality but because of black citizen’s purchasing power. Some leaders who were worried about violating the constitution, even tried to make a legal case against the Space Trader’s offer.

In the end, politicians gave into their depraved lusts and took the visitor’s offer. They amended the constitution so that it was now legal, even honorable to exile a whole race of people – telling black citizens that they were now being enlisted in selective service to save the country. They shut down journalists who contradicted their narratives, published the names of Jewish leaders who were to secretly give black people refuge, and even published propaganda through religious leaders who could deceive their audiences into believing that this was the right thing. They even went as far as to criminalize and even kill blacks who tried to escape the country or who fought back. Nothing would keep them from securing the financial and material gain that could be theirs by turning over the country’s black citizens to God knows what fate met them ahead.

Fortunately, no visitors from outer space are coming to take any of us away! And still, the parallels between this allegory written more than 20 years ago and our present day reality are uncanny. While the sanctioned means of exploitation and oppression changes from generation to generation – slavery to convict leasing system to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to police brutality – the oppression of black people is part and parcel to this nation’s survival. And as the country becomes increasingly diverse the codified hatred of blacks has expanded to include everyone who is not white, and particularly, not a wealthy, white, able-bodied, heterosexual ‘Evangelical’ male.

Everyone outside of this narrow demographic has been blamed for the economic and social instability in our country, further proving that the struggle for human rights and survival is now a struggle shared by all of us – even the so-called disenfranchised whites who voted for him in the first place. Many of these – certainly not all – voted out of the desire to Make America Great Again. While the popular slogan never mentioned race, it was a dog-whistle that called out for days gone by when whites held more power.

But not all whites, let us remember that. Power, as much as it is divided along racial lines, is more greatly defined along economic ones. Race is not the foundation, the foundation is gross inequities and class divisions between wealthy whites and non wealthy whites. Race keeps those without resources from going after the wealthy, instead turning their attention to people of color of all economic classes. Race has been effective in warding off uprisings and political revolts as so commonly happened in Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries. And in order to hold on to economic power, the wealthy rally disenfranchised whites to put pressure on people of color. As Obama so eloquently stated in last week’s farewell speech, “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving (person of color), then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

If this is it, and this is all we have, and if policies that promoted human rights can be taken away with the stroke of a pen, and if it is so seemingly easy to incite people to turn on each other, what, pray tell, can we hope in? How do we keep ourselves from becoming filled with utter despair and sadness as we see history repeat itself right before our eyes? How do we keep marching forward and stay stedfast on the course of justice, truth and righteousness when others around us, even in the household of faith, have seemed to lose sight of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that is “about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion.”

A Reason to Hope
Unfortunately, many people have cast off hope. After seeing generations of their ancestors struggle and fight for the same basic human decency in which we strive for today, some have given up on the idea that things could actually improve. The unbelief, which manifests itself in various forms including nihilism and atheism, comes from a place of deep despair and hopelessness as a result of the continual failure of the system to change. And who can blame those who embrace such ideologies? It is not for wantonness and debasement that these choose unbelief, but rather out of desperation and pain. Persistent despair causes people to surrender hope in exchange for something tangible, something real in order to face reality for what it is. As the Word of God affirms, hope deferred makes the heart grow sick.

Still, I believe. For me, hope does not equate to a sense of false optimism, but it is a hope that is painfully aware of the current reality and still utterly convinced that another reality is possible. Though it may come off as mere foolishness to some, I sincerely do believe that change is not only possible but is on its way. You see, evil always resists the hardest right before a cataclysmic shift in the spirit. Remember the stories of Moses and Jesus, and how the ruling powers of their day both tried to extinguish the chance of deliverance through genocide and oppression? Similarly, in our time, the national and global intensity of oppression in this moment has to cause us to ask what the Spirit of God is about to do in this moment. Though we are prone to tremble and fear, we still have to understand that there is so much taking place in the spiritual world that we cannot see with our natural eyes. As hard as we are fighting for the cause of justice in the natural, we can trust that God is moving things in the supernatural. If He wasn’t, if things truly were not changing, if that moral arc of the universe was not ever more bending towards justice, peace, and reconciliation, Satan would not be fighting so hard. Satan fights because he is fighting a losing battle – he will not win, God’s peace, truth, and righteousness will prevail!

In that vein, I also hope because of the imminent return of Christ. Deep in my heart, I believe He is coming back to restore all of humanity to Himself, each other, and the environment. All of the relationships that were destroyed as a result of disobedience will be repaired and we will finally enjoy the fullness of His presence. In that return, the systems of this world will fall. Every empire built on the backs of the disenfranchised will not only be called into account but will also be done away with. You see, if Jesus is Savior and LORD, there is no way that any of the rulers in this world can occupy that space. Even the most powerful dictator will have to face the fact that they are not in charge and will be held accountable for how they marginalized vulnerable populations for the sake of financial and political gain.

I also hope because there are so many people who are rallying for justice. People of different races, ethnicities and creeds. People of different income and educational levels. People within the nation’s boarders and without. People of different genders and sexual orientations. People of different abilities. People of all different shapes and sizes. People of different religions and faith expressions. Even people of different political ideologies. All of us, in spite of our differences, are pursuing justice. Because of our differences, we may not all take up the same approach but the point is, each of us with our gifts, skills, and abilities are doing what we can to usher in peace and justice, and stomp out evil and oppression. The sheer vastness of this coalition of folks also tells me that there are more people intent on securing righteousness than those bent on evil. Evil, at times, may seem to be more powerful. Because of its reach, we may even begin to feel that we are outnumbered. But let us remember the apostle Paul’s admonition to the early church who faced persecution under the Roman occupation, saying “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew! Do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left and they are seeking my life!” 4 But what was the divine response to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand people who have not bent the knee to Baal (Romans 11.2 – 4, NET).”

There are more of us than there are of them. Though those bent on evil may wield power and resources, we are mighty if we stand together under the common bond of love, mercy, justice, and reconciliation. As the words of the 1973 Chilean socialist movement declared, ‘El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido (The People United, Will Never Be Defeated)! If we stand united in purpose, even if our approaches and methodologies differ, we will not only be able to stand against the present day threat to our collective human rights, but we can stand against structural racism and capitalism that continues to devastate our beings and witness the unfolding of the kin-dom of God before our very eyes!

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Lament Song


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I woke up Wednesday morning feeling lost and confused, remorseful over the events of the night before. So much shame and a deep feeling of wantonness filled my chest, comprising the air circulating in my lungs trying to keep me alive. My head ached, my body was sore, and I wanted to vomit up the evils that threatened to overtake the dark-skinned body that I inhabit, telling me that I don’t belong.

For years, I have felt this though sometimes in less subtle ways. Being a product of the 80s, my grandmother’s realities were not my own. After all, I have always lived in the progressive north and was born after monumental civil rights legislation was passed. At the same time, racism has always been part and parcel of my life’s experience, whether I lived in the hood or the burbs. Mass incarceration. Rodney King. Massive unemployment. Displacement and gentrification. Police Brutality. And discrimination. These are all daily realities of living in this black body, here in this country that claims to love God so much while it despises God’s very creation.

But Wednesday, Wednesday the day after that night that we have all been dreading more than 18 months, further intensified what I have always feared. In many ways, it made the covert nature of racism more overt as the nation elected a fascist, white supremacist for president. This man was clear about his intentions for people that represent any difference from the cis-gendered white male identity, you know – Black, American Indians, Asian Pacific Islanders, Women, Differently Abled, Queer and Gender Nonconforming folks. 

And his people salivated for it, no matter how much we tried to reason. They ignored our pleas and appeals to the higher conscious and Christian morality. They so much lusted for the power of days gone by when it was okay to call people Nigger and lynch them in the next moment. They craved the freedom that comes with male patriarchy and treating women as sex objects with no personal ideas and inclinations. To them, this was liberation, they only felt secure in their humanity when they stripped others of theirs. They denied the image of God in people who look like me, insisting that in a world of 7 billion people their’s were the only lives who truly mattered. So they refused the call of the prophets and priests and the saints among us, quenching the spirit of God begging to break forth in themselves in order to satisfy the depraved yearnings of the flesh.  

So now. We grieve. We lament. We the black ones whose lives are already under attack every single day. We the American Indian ones who are fighting to hold on to the last bit of land we have and save our earth. We the undocumented ones – Asian, Latino, African, and Caribbean – who fear instant deportation, whose children are too scared to go to school, who are afraid to even comprehend what it is to go back to their own countries of origin that have been decimated through US foreign policy, trade, and war. We the queer ones, whose bodies people just won’t allow to exist. We the Muslims who’ve been called unworthy, who’ve been labeled terrorists, who are stopped and profiled before we even leave our homes. We the women, who already experience assault, whose bodies are already over sexualized, whose voices are already silenced because no one dares to believe our stories are real.

We are the voices calling out from the margins, raising our voices to denounce America’s sin. We weep because you have chosen the fleeting pleasures of whiteness over our existence. We wail because you used religion to cover up your hatred of us, insisting that this was about God when in fact, you denied him over and over again. We shake our fists in rage, fearing what may happen, agonizing over what has already happened to our babies, our folks, and our kin as the hoods come on and the racists, who we’ve always known to be racist, come out of hiding to denigrate our existence. 

And yet.

We forgive you. And we will resist you. Our liberation and even yours, is tied to our resistance of this great evil that eats at your soul.

We love you. And we will rebuke you. For if we do not rebuke, we do not love.

We wish to be reconciled to you. And we will protest you. For reconciliation cannot occur without a prophetic telling of our pain and suffering. If Christ could not reconcile us to God without calling us into repentance, you should expect nothing less from us. We call, no we implore you to repent and be delivered from the sin of white supremacy that steals our land, kills our bodies, rapes our women, and denies our sons and daughters the opportunity to be free.

In our liberation, you will find deliverance.

In our liberation, you will find deliverance.

In our liberation, you will find deliverance.

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)

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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

Feigning Ignorance

In my brief 33 years of living, I have come across many people of all walks and stripes – conservatives, liberals, Christians, agnostic, men, women, rich and poor – who sincerely believe that blacks and other people of color in America are afforded the same opportunities as whites. In their heart of hearts, they sincerely believe that the playing field has been leveled, that blacks can be aspire to whatever position in life that they choose, and that if racism exists at all, it actually affects whites who are supposedly disadvantaged because of affirmative action initiatives in education and employment.

People who believe as such choose not to look at the facts. They willfully ignore the data that reveals a different truth. They typically do not associate with those whose very lives tell a contrary narrative. Isolation, denial, and downright ignorance affords them the opportunity to trust the stories of those who validate their assumptions: “he probably did something wrong otherwise he wouldn’t have run,” “oh, well, she probably didn’t have enough education to get that job anyway,” “he didn’t have enough experience to land the internship,” “her natural hair is unkept, she shouldn’t be allowed to attend school until she fixes it,” “he probably would’ve felt uncomfortable in this workplace environment because of his culture,” “they are lazy, entitled, and disrespectful – if they would work hard enough, they would have all of the things that my family worked so hard for.”

Even though these narratives are popular, the reality is that people really do know that structural racism exists. No matter how much they try to run away from the facts and arrange their lives so that they do not have to be confronted with contrary perspectives to their own, they know. Oh, they know.

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The thing is once people are confronted with the truth, they are held responsible to it. It is one thing to not know about something and quite another to know, and to still choose not to act accordingly. This is why people would rather feign ignorance about racism – admitting that they know it exists, would require too much. At the very least, coming to grips about racism demands that one take a look at their life, opportunities, and privileges and how they were acquired. Were they really wrought about through hard work, initiative, and ingenuity, or did they come at someone else’s expense? The latter contradicts America’s narrative of European immigrants coming to this country and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps – instead it underscores the reality that they propped themselves up by someone else’s labor, life, and land. Most people are not ready and willing to even begin to have that conversation and choose ignorance out of convenience. The unfortunate truth is that God still holds us accountable for that which we willfully choose to ignore.

 

 

Ontological Flaw in God’s Design? Or a Massive Human Screw-up?

CreationToday, we find ourselves in a world where there doesn’t seem to be enough resources to provide for the needs of many. Good, healthy, and affordable food options are out of reach for many over the globe. Water resources, that are not contaminated with toxic chemicals, are drying up. Land is becoming uninhabitable. And the supply of adequate housing is limited. As these rich resources diminish, humanity hangs in a fragile balance teetering between life and annihilation. Such a stark picture suggests that the abundant world described in the biblical text is not only unattainable but seemingly a cultural myth, like Santa Claus – in theory, it’s a good idea but it simply isn’t reality.

To what can we attribute the mismatch in projected truth and what is actually our day to day experience? Should we call God into question? Is there some ontological error in His design? Perhaps. But there is little evidence that supports the idea of God being on the hook here. In fact, God has gone out of His way to ensure that this world is a place where all of creation can flourish. Says Psalm 65:

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. 9 You care for the land and water it;   you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water  to provide the people with grain,   for so you have ordained it. 10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges;  you soften it with showers and bless its crops. 11 You crown the year with your bounty,  and your carts overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;  the hills are clothed with gladness. 13 The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing (Psalms 65.8 – 13, NIV).”

This text and others like it paint a wonderful picture of God’s good creation. His creation, called into existence by simply speaking a word, is rich and beautiful in every possible way. Not only is creation beautiful, God’s active participation in sustaining it is awe inspiring. Every day, since His words created the heavens and earth and all that is in between, God has upheld His marvelous creation. As the psalmist describes, God continuously provides nourishment, shelter, and care to all that He has made.

What this shows us is that there is more than enough in God’s good earth. More than enough beauty, more than enough resources, more than enough love and connection to provide for all 7 billion of us! In fact, God’s intelligent design ensures that there is enough to go around to the extent that even birds of the air and cattle in the field have their needs met. If there is lack, it is not because God has not provided; it is because we have mistaken his rich blessings that are to be shared throughout the earth as personal property to be hoarded and protected with the rule of law.

Unfortunately, the practice of hoarding is common to the human experience and goes back thousands, if not millions, of years. As soon as Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have had trouble trusting that what God provides is actually enough. Such distrust is rooted in:

(1) anxiety. We fear that there is not enough to go around. Out of that fear, we reach out to grasp resources that should be shared with all. Instead, we keep them for ourselves.

(2) covetousness or greed. We set out to possess and own all that our heart desires.  Instead of appreciating the earth and all that dwells within, we seek to colonize it and keep the profits for our own gain.

(3) insecurity. We look to things outside of ourselves to define who we are. Instead of being confident in who God made us to be, we look to status, possessions and others to form our identity and make us feel good about ourselves.

With anxiety, covetousness, and insecurity governing our lives, we are liable to commit grave atrocities in our quest to have a piece of the proverbial pie. Wars have been fought, people have been hunted and killed, and lands have been plundered – all with the ambition of getting more food, wealth, and resources. And yet, this does not take into consideration what our practices have done to the physical earth through invasive resource extraction such as tar sand removal and mining.

In the human drive for expansion and empire building, we have hurt our relationships with God, self, the environment, and others. Fear of others now seems to be normative, permissible in fact, even when that fear causes us to do irrational things such as trust in guns and more arms for our salvation. The realities of climate change threaten human existence and yet corporations and other monied interests inhibit our collective ability to protect and preserve this shared space for future generations. Police brutality, violence against women, and the consistent erasure of narratives from indigenous communities around the world – all for the sake of profit, power, and control – not only marginalize vulnerable populations but compromise our shared humanity. Yet and still, though the signs of chaos are all around, we continue on in the slow march towards destruction and alienation.

The question before us is if we can ever find our way back to a place of more harmonious, fruitful living? Can shalom ever be restored? Could we ever get to a place where we put people over profit or a time when we consider the impact the decisions we make today will have 10 generations after us? I believe so. In Christ, all things are made new. All of the fear and anxiety that governs human interactions will dissipate and at last, we will live as equals because we are no longer competing for resources. And while we typically think of newness in the context of relationships with God and others, that newness is also extended to the entirety of creation. Waters begin to flow again. Lands become inhabitable again. Food is abundant. The air is clean. All that was once abundant and pure about God’s good world is restored.

As we wait expectantly for Christ’s return, we have a job to do. As believers and those who profess faith in Jesus, we have a duty to imagine the world differently. We have to imagine what it is like to live in a world where the needs of everyone are met. We have to daydream a little about what it would really be like to live in an environment where there is so much balance and flow. In that imagining, we reject anxiety, greed, and insecurity as normative. Instead, we lift up love, justice, and peace and promote these as the gospel truth. And then we share these visions of wholeness with the world around us so that they too can imagine and live more justly. We do all of this understanding that this is only the beginning in seeing God’s kingdom fully realized.

I’ve Been Thinking: Thoughts on Racism, Oppression, and the Kingdom of God

silhouetteI’ve been thinking…
…about how racism compounds the already complex nature of original sin. Of how, because of sin, humans already have a tendency to exploit and abuse one another. On our worst days, and under the right circumstances, we can all be lured into sin and take that which belongs to another. But racism validates it. Racism legitimizes it. Racism makes stealing, genocide, rape, and murder okay. Racism systematizes that oppression, making it that much harder to pinpoint and break. Sin, thus, is not only committed by racist individuals but by anthropomorphic structures that do not think or feel, breathe or feel in order to serve the interests of rich and powerful white men.

I’ve been thinking…

about how racism dehumanizes people of color in so many ways. We struggle to find employment and when we find it, it does not pay a livable wage. Without family sustaining wages, we fight to put healthy food on the table. No matter because we lack decent stores that shelve those healthy foods in our communities. And yet, convenience stores and fast-food chains line our streets along with the check cashing place. And if by chance, we ‘make it’ and get an education, buy a home out of the hood, and do well by the standards of this world, there is no guarantee that we or our children will not end up back in the place we desperately tried to escape: oppression. Someone else, usually white and most often male, feels the need to make decisions that should be ours to make. We cannot live where we want to live, send our children to the schools we wish to send them to, or stand up for ourselves without someone corrupting our narrative or taking the microphone away from us while we speak. At every turn, we seem to be duped and plotted against. Where does freedom exist?

I’ve been thinking…

…about how they keep terrorizing and killing us. Whether at the hands of a power-hungry cop or a self appointed vigilante, our bodies are under constant siege. It does not matter what we are doing, it does not matter what we are wearing, it does not matter who we are worshipping, it does not matter how old we are and definitely not how educated we are – on an hourly basis we are targeted and on a daily basis, we are discarded like waste. It’s maddening and it’s simply exhausting. 400 years of this. When will the storm end?

I’ve been thinking…

…about how much violence exists within our own communities. So much blood has been spilled of our own sons and daughters by our own sisters and brothers simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing coveted status symbols or for being connected to the wrong people. Internalized hatred and shame is trapped in our bones, and that hatred we can so easily project onto others, usually those who live, work, or play within proximity to us. We compete with each other, turn our backs on each other, shame each other, and even exclude each other from life and community even though, truthfully, we are all we have. How can we unite together, putting our differences and opinions aside, in order to go head to head with the demon that is racism? Together we stand, divided we fall. 

I’ve been thinking…

…about internalized racial superiority perpetuated by many white people. Many whites have adopted and hold on to an identity of ‘better than,’ one which they are willing to protect at all costs. In order to protect that identity, they label immigrants ‘illegal,’ Muslims ‘terrorists,’ black people ‘thugs,’ and anyone who dares to ask for help ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled.’ And then they pass policies to back up their rhetoric, all the while demanding their rights to free speech and gun ownership lest someone challenge their twisted ideology. Politicians race to say the craziest, outlandish thing in order to rile up their base ignoring the fact that if they did half of the things they promised, we would all be screwed. Truth of the matter is, none of us will be free, none of us will find justice, until whites themselves are free and healed from the lie of superiority that they have internalized for so long.

I’ve been thinking…

…about how in our pursuit for justice we are sometimes only really committed to our own personal liberation instead of the liberation of all of us. We want racial justice but are not willing to challenge capitalism and corporate greed because as much as these systems hurt us, they benefit us, too. We refuse to call the American Dream a nightmare because we still want a piece of it, believing that this is what justice means. However, even in a case where we had unrestricted access to that dream, who pays for it? Whose blood is spilled to secure it, whose family destroyed to maintain it, whose land devastated to sustain it? If not our own lives and our own families, surely those of our sisters and brothers overseas. Our foreign policy has devastated whole communities in lands far away, but what costs them much benefits us a lot. We cannot accept this, we must reject any notion that suggests we should.

I’ve been thinking…

…about what it will take to dismantle racism and white supremacy. We cannot move into a future free of oppression and pain, using the same tools and the same tactics that have gotten us here. We cannot keep building on a foundation that was designed for our failure; instead we need new governance, new theology, new economics, and new sociology. The time is now for new wineskins in which to pour the sweet wine of justice, peace, love and solidarity.

I’ve been thinking…

…about what is the spiritual moment in our nation. As much as racism is a political strategy it is also spiritual. What is going on outside of the realm of this world that we cannot see that is yielding the current results? What is the Kairos, or opportune, moment upon us? How will a deeper understanding into what the Spirit of God is doing in this season in our nation strengthen our ability to dismantle racism.

I’ve been thinking…

…about how we cannot dismantle racism without the intervention and power of the Holy Spirit. While we intend well, we simply cannot fight this intense battle without God. Because of our imperfections and our tendency to pervert justice, we need the Almighty God to go before us. We need God to empower us with the ability to prophesy against this evil system of injustice and call forward the fullness of His Kingdom, where death will at last be defeated and racism will finally be put to rest. That our hearts would rejoice and remain expectant for that day. Marantha! Come quickly, Lord!

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