Lovers or Liars?

I recently completed my final report for the Louisville Institute.  These generous partners in ministry awarded me a grant to study the sociopolitical construct of race, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm and why persons fear Christian community.  I visited Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  It was Clarence’s “demonstration plot.”  He would create his own world, challenging segregationist laws in the 1940s.  The community was intentional, sharing in a fair wage and a common purse.

The farm was bombed.  The business was boycotted.  The members of Koinonia Farm were ex-communicated from their church.  Because they loved their neighbor, their African American neighbor at a time when it was not socially or politically advantageous to do so. Clarence is my kind of Christian.

So, I set out to learn as much as I could in the year and a half I had allotted.  I registered for conferences, signed up for workshops, ate fellowship meals, had tough conversations.  I asked hard questions of myself and those around me.  I dug deep and nearly scraped the bottom of my soul.

I conducted interviews and read a small library of books about the sociopolitical construct of race, intentional community, the life, work and witness of Clarence Jordan on Koinonia Farm, multi- cultural/ cross- cultural ministry, forgiveness and reconciliation.  I took copious notes, wrote extensively, preached the message of community faithfully.  I even redecorated my office in D.C. to reflect the work that had reshaped my life.  It was all about community- building.

I was being transformed, emphasis on the I.

In the end, the results were not what I expected.  No statistic or story could have prepared me for the narrative that would emerge.  Long story short– Christians are afraid of Christian community.  While there are those who would point to those who are doing it right (“See, we’re not all bad.”), there is a long and troubling history of Christians in North America who do not follow Jesus in the way of love, who refuse to integrate socially with persons of other cultures, who refuse to integrate their faith and life.  As it was during American slavery so it is now.  Bible in one hand and a whip in the other, European Americans are shamelessly able to oppress others while claiming to espouse the liberating words of Jesus Christ.

Call them what you will.  It makes no difference because at least they are white.  And in America, whiteness pays.  It pays to play.

It must be said that those who agree to the conditions of whiteness (that is, the oppression of other cultural groups so that they might have privileged access to wealth, the land and its resources) are a serious impediment to the healing work required for reconciliation in the Church.  You simply cannot build an authentic Christian community where whiteness and its interests are at the center, if socially colored white people do all the leading and none of the following, if they control the resources and determine the ministry emphases, if they influence the votes to ensure that it always goes their way in business meetings.  Because the identity of whiteness is protected at all costs.  Put above the cross of Christ, who persons are as white people and as the model citizens for the world in appearance, behavior and conduct is to be defended.

But it takes the place of Christ’s body and his work.  Or, is it that there are those who think that their body is his?  The work of race is complete in these cases, swapping out Christ’s body for their own, deifying their flesh and nullifying the work of his.

To be sure, this is not a matter of identifying with Christ’s body or doing what he would.  This is proof that America’s created identity of whiteness is wedged in between the cross and the crown for many European Americans.  The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God are at odds but there are those who believe that they are one and the same, that if you have seen a socially colored white person, then you have seen God.  Skin “color” long associated with good and evil and used to determine the heathen/ barbarian/ uncivilized versus the civilized/ cultured, the same is true for the Church in North America.  The social coloring of skin separates the righteous from the unrighteous.  It is not a matter of separating goats and sheep but “white” people and all the other “people of color.”  The Church has a color line.

Christians, who claim to be made in the image of God, live in and through racialized identities. They create segregated sacred spaces, somehow walking in the footsteps of Jesus while avoiding marginalized and oppressed people who are victims of race and its progeny.  The theological disconnect could not be more obvious.

Persons will close ranks and churches will close up shop in a community that is experiencing cultural change before it will integrate.  They will take their Bibles and believe somewhere else.  Christians need for power, all while worshipping an all- powerful God, cannot be underestimated. The impact of colonialism, American slavery and its other versions of domination continue to determine and influence the ways in which we relate to each other.  And even for persons of faith, they cannot get the colonizer out of their head.

John said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (First John 4.20).  In my estimation, there are only two choices, only two kinds of people.  Love is the deciding factor.  Because you cannot love God and not love everyone that God has created.  It is a package deal.  Take it or leave it.

So, Christians, if there is hatred in your heart for your brother or sister, the one you won’t speak to, who you dodge at the grocery store, whose food you don’t like though you’ve never tasted it, whose clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in, then you are not a lover but a big, old liar.  John is pretty clear that there are no little white ones.  There is no question about it.

Canada’s prime minister reminds us that it is not “a whole new world”

A picture has surfaced of Justin Trudeau, now the prime minister of Canada, wearing “brown face.”  To offer a comprehensive description, he also has a brown neck and hands at an “Arabian Nights” themed event back in 2001.  He is a 29 year old teacher– not a student– at West Point Grey Academy.  It’s a group pictured in a yearbook.  Sound familiar?

It’s at a private school and a private party, which only adds to my questions regarding the private lives of public figures, namely politicians.  They are supposed to represent the best of us.  They promise to represent all of us.  But, time and again, we are reminded that they only represent some, who don’t want to be lumped in, grouped with or counted as part of us.  No, all persons other than those socially colored white are mere costumes to be worn on special occasions, dressed up in on holidays and for one’s entertainment.  It is part of a masquerade.  Because the only real human being is the one underneath it.

And we have yet to peel back that layer and examine why persons continue to use the flesh of others for their amusement, why some hues warrant hubris and others our humiliation.

Why do human beings who share the same flesh and bones continue to make dressing in black or brown face an option on an Arabian night or any other?  Why not question yourself as you smear the paste or cream on your face, neck and hands?  What do you see when you look in the mirror when you are finished, when you have transformed yourself into the so- called other who is actually your sister and brother?  What do you find so funny about it?  Where is the humor in it?

And I cannot ask how would you feel if it happened to you because it won’t.  In fact, persons from other cultures who “act white” are applauded, promoted and pointed out as fine examples, the right way to be a human being.  Whiteness is a bully so you make fun of those who are not in your color click.  Still, where do you think this is going when you mock the image of another human being, who had no choice in their skin’s hue, same as you?  And really who do you think you are?

I ask again, “Who do you think you are?”  Your skin will wrinkle and rot in death the same as any other.  It does tear and bleed the same as mine.  It does bruise and swell upon injury.

But then there is this belief in the color white and its immunity.  It’s only social.  The sociopolitical construct of race is not even skin deep.  It only goes so far as the society would allow it and as the people in power would have it.

Trudeau has apologized. “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better and I didn’t. I’m really sorry.” He didn’t think that the photograph was racist but he does now.  But, because someone else pointed out or he has a different perspective?

At 29 years old, he still didn’t know any better?  He didn’t consider it racist in 2001.  But he darkened his face while at Jean Brebeuf High School.  He was pretending to be Alladin at the annual dinner but this time, he was Harry Belafonte.  And then there was that time when he is wearing blackface back in the 1990s.  This one is on video.

Once, twice, three times a racist.

There is no need for a history lesson, diversity training, an apology tour, a dialogue with persons from the communities you have hurt, a town hall meeting on race relations, a new movie featuring two people from opposite sides of the track who crossed to the other side to find some sort of paradise in this divided world.  And stop apologizing.  Words are not enough.

Trudeau and others like him can talk a good game.  But, eventually it is revealed that nothing has changed, that progressive is but a name, that in private, they have no intentions of co- creating a whole new world where all are treated equally.  It’s just more of the same old racism.

Sunday morning segregation

It’s almost 11 a.m., that holy hour that is concentrated with our hubris, when the worship services are but a reflection of our preferences, when the pews are filled with the people we are most comfortable with.  It’s almost 11 a.m. on this fine Sunday morning where people dress up or down and then sit down and get up unchanged and unchallenged to go out and subvert the kingdom of this world.  Instead, we fall in line and when told, we will skip to the front of the line.  I know that Jesus has an order, “The last will be first,” but this is the way they do things down here.  We act as if Jesus didn’t come down here and show us the way.

Called to turn the world upside down, we don’t feel comfortable touching anything (Acts 17.6).  Just leave it the way that it is.  Just go to work and come home.  Just live according to society’s schedule and its election cycles.  America will change in its own time.  We’ve got plenty of time.  Now is never the right time.

What time is it now?  Oh, we’ve got to hurry up and get to church now.  But, the Church is so late, so behind the times when it comes to race and its progeny.  Jesus came and stood side by side with us.  The miracle of divinity became human just to be close to us.  And yet, we human beings are still not close enough. Not wanting to live on earth together, we divide up dirt.

Human beings have convinced themselves that we come in colors and daily attempt to create distance between each other.  And Sunday morning doesn’t bring us any closer.  The Church in North America offers segregated services. “If you don’t want to worship with those people, you don’t have to.  Hallelujah and Amen.”

Instead, I suggest that the Church in North America close its doors until Christian leaders work up the courage and the nerve to point persons to the narrow way, to preach the life of Christ that is a tight squeeze, that would not allow our racialized, hyper- politicized, capitalized prejudices in.  If not, it makes no difference as a generation has closed its ears to what the Church would have to say.  The Church isn’t getting any younger as the members are all turning gray.  They were turned off by pastors turned entrepreneurs and worship spaces that became little kingdoms unto themselves.  Or, they took note of the Church when it did not chime in or hold her hand when she told stories of sexual predation, harassment, abuse and rape.  Or, they circled their absence when the bodies of unarmed African American children, women and men were being outlined with chalk.  Despite testimonies and video surveillance, they managed to preach a manacled gospel that suggested God was with some of us.

Let’s hurry along now.  Get in the car and pray that no one is parked in your spot or sitting in your seat when you arrive at church.  Pray that the choir sings songs that you like and that the pastor’s sermon is one you like, that it is one that is sweet and polite, that she not say anything to upset you or cause you to sweat.  Pray that the service doesn’t go more than an hour because that would be ridiculous and you might have to change your plans.

It’s 11 a.m. and time for a nap, time to stretch out in our pew- cribs, time for songs that sing our soul’s passions to sleep, time for sermons that redirect our callings to the marketplace.  Don’t start any trouble.  Don’t say anything that might trouble our conscious or renew our conviction that we are sisters and brothers.  Just leave well enough alone as if this society has ever been well, like all of us have ever had enough.  Let’s just say our prayers but then sit on our hands and in effect hold back the answer to them.

It’s that time again, that special time when Christian believers go into our color- coded corners for worship and come out swinging.  We all have an understanding, a memorandum of understanding regarding race though most Christians don’t have an informed understanding of race.  Our meanings for the social construct vary and are more than a little shaky.

But, we don’t need to know what it means.  We know what it means for us.  We have experienced racism, prejudice and privilege.  No need to question the impetus behind the biased or preferential treatment as if our skin explains this treatment.

We do not challenge our belief in the differences associated with our skin’s pigmentation.  No, we will confess that God is the Creator of all, that Jesus is our kinsmen redeemer, that the Holy Spirit blows upon all flesh and then hate the person standing right next to us for no reason at all.  All buttoned up, clothes, lips and all, we think that we can worship God and hate our siblings.  But, this is not love at all (First John 4.20).  It’s a lie and all who would live it are liars.  It should be illegal, this Sunday morning segregation.

Don’t touch my hair

I’ve had to say this in church, at a so- called multicultural, we are the example of inclusion and God’s kingdom come to earth one.  “Don’t touch my hair.”  After compliments, hands uninvited reached forward to finger my tresses.  “It’s so soft,” she said.  Her response revealing much and undoing more of a potential relationship than she could ever imagine.  Her ten digits reached forward and created a boundary.

She would never get that close to me again.  We would never see eye- to- eye.  Because she was inspecting me now, examining my hair as if it was completely strange and foreign and intriguing.  It’s not.

It’s just hair, same as hers though a different texture.  And it is hair seen for four hundred years in America.  So, why the surprise, the intrigue?  It is no mystery.  And why does she still not feel the need to ask, “May I touch your hair?”

Because her tilted head is bewildering to me.   She doesn’t really see me as a human being.  Because in America, there is a history of inspecting African bodies during American slavery on auction blocks.  Because her touch in this way triggers that ancestral, deep in my bone, drilled into my head memory.  “Don’t touch my hair.”

It is a necessary declaration, a reminder of the change in my position, that sadly needs to be stated again and again.  It is a portion of my Emancipation Proclamation.  My body belongs to me.  I am and will remain free.  These attempts to touch my hair are more than finger pricks but little deaths, small entanglements, bondages, links fo chains.

It is habits like this one that have yet to be unlearned by so- called white people who are not really free of their strange desire to oppress, to lay claim to other human bodies.  Some are able to hide it in their speech, but the body memory of oppression and dominance lives on.  It is acted upon when they reach out without thought for repercussion to touch hair that doesn’t belong to them, to violate personal boundary.   It is not merely a bad habit but the strange character of whiteness.

And this would not have come to mind if not for the pictures of Executive Director Sally Hazelgrove of Crusher’s Club touching the hair of two African American young men.   It is made worse because the organization is funded by the National Football League, which has recently come under fire for its partnership with Shawn Carter as persons believe it circumvents the social justice work of Colin Kaepernick.  With school scissors in hand, she is cutting off their hair, their locs.   Hazelgrove shared the pictures online and one was captioned, “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”

The pictures have since been deleted but when asked by The Washington Post about cutting the men’s hair off, she responded, “I did not think about the ramifications.”  And therein lies the problem.   African American hair has long been viewed as problematic, difficult and unattractive– by European Americans.  In fact, it is only a problem because these beauty inspectors say so.  The natural hair that grows out of African American heads has been used to determine academic performance, gainful employment and other social success rates, which is why so many women chemically straighten their hair or wear wigs.  Still, the leader of an organization that serves African American youth, picked up a pair of scissors and touched a nerve.

Hazelgrove shouldn’t have touched his hair because it implies that she defines beauty, that her kind of beauty determines a “better life,” that this “better life” is based on appearance, that his mere appearance is troubling and starts on top of his head, that goodness and beauty go hand in hand.  The scissors in her hand represent a total disconnect from African American culture, its heritage and the history of defiance against socially colored white hands.  That’s what she is touching.  Hair and habits are not synonymous.

That’s why race is all wrong– because it would have you and I to believe that hair, threadlike strands growing from our head and face, arms and their pits, legs and toes, hair that we pluck from our noses– determines who we are.  Seriously?  My hair doesn’t speak for me and if you touch it, you will never really or truly or fully hear from me.  So don’t touch my hair.

The history of our days

On this day in 1955, a fourteen year old African American boy named Emmett Till from Chicago, Illinois was killed in Money, Mississippi.  I know his story by heart; it was the first one I learned on domestic terrorism and mob lynching when I began my personal study of African American history.   He went to visit relatives, a kind of summer vacation and was accused of whistling at a socially colored white woman.  Sexual harassment, rape, whistling at a so- called white woman are all the same for these domestic terrorists and all common themes in the murder of African American men.

Emmett’s death spoke to the historical and hysterical fear of cross- cultural relationships despite the common knowledge of the rape of African and later African American women by their European American oppressors, the “tainting of the pure white race” and the myth of inherent inferiority for those socially colored black.  The two were never to meet, mingle or mix.  Death was not considered a high price but the necessary cost of admission to race and its capitalist superiority complex.  It was deemed necessary to maintain these pseudo- distinctions and color- coded divisions.

Emmett– not his murderers– had crossed the line for whistling at her.

It was a common charge, included with those recorded by the Equal Justice Initiative like “not allowing a (socially colored) white person to beat him up” as was the case of Jim Eastman in Brunswick, Tennessee in 1887, for “refusing to abandon their land to (socially colored) white people” William Stephens and Jefferson Cole are lynched in Delta County, Texas in 1895, “for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Haynes Turner, Mary Turner was lynched with her unborn child at Folson Bridge at the Brooklyn- Lowndes County line in Georgia in 1918.”  Thousands of lynchings, perhaps Emmett’s murderers didn’t think that his would matter.  But, they were wrong.  Emmett’s heinous death would change the trajectory of a nation.

Persons said his name and realized that their lives mattered, that if persons could beat and lynch and shoot and tie a child’s body to a cotton gin fan and throw him into the river and not be found guilty of a crime against our shared humanity, then justice was not blind but looking the other way.  It inspired the Civil Rights Movement and a man named Martin Luther King, Jr., who on this same day in 1963 received the Nobel Peace Prize.  He had a dream: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  But the nightmare of race continues and his children aren’t getting any younger.

Race and racialized identities continue to inspire the lynching of African American men, women and children in police- states for suspected crimes like selling cigarettes for which Eric Garner was choked to death, for listening to loud music as was the case for Jordan Davis or simply walking back to his father’s home from a convenience store like Trayvon Martin.  From chants of “I am somebody” to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living the history of our days.  We are stuck in the past, never to see a brighter day or the light at the end of our tunnel vision because we human beings refuse to stick together.

It should have never happened to Emmett Till but when it did, it should have never happened again.  The struggle to share our humanity continues.  What will you do to change the present on this day?