Doing justice to our bodies: How race wrongs us

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“The problem is solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long.”

| Ludwig Wittgenstein

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Baptist World Alliance’s Annual Gathering in Zurich, Switzerland and to present a  paper as a member of the Commission on Racial and Gender Justice.  Below is a portion of the presentation.

Post- racial.  The word causes angst and anxiety.  “Race is not behind us,” some say.  Because we continue to judge persons based on their external appearance.  But, not only that.  Based on physical characteristics and traits, we have created a system of rewards and punishments.  It is a privilege to be socially colored white and it is a problem[i] to be socially colored black and most any other skin “color.”

More than a word, the social construct of race creates a way of being and seeing others in the world.  Race is about what we have agreed to concerning ourselves and others, what we accept as determining our meaning and treatment, how we will involve ourselves in our communities and country.  More than a word, race represents a covenant.  It includes an experience, good and bad treatment based on the category that we fall into.  Also, it has been divinely sanctioned by the Church in America.

We have given it sacred rights and privileges, a place of honor in our fellowship.  The social construct of race tells us who belongs in the body of Christ and it is not a matter of profession of faith but our acceptance of them.  And since we cannot see their heart,[ii] we look at their bodies to determine their membership.

And if we are to talk about Christian community in America, then we must begin with slavery.  The institution of American slavery not only built the nation’s wealth but raided the Bible of scriptures that would be twisted to support the kidnap and enslavement of African people.  Denominations were created and formed around the issue of slavery and the practice of prejudice, segregation and stereotyping.  Churches took sides during the Civil War, named their buildings after the cause and its leaders.

Historically, the Church in North America has employed the social construct of race to support its oppressive regime.  Korie L. Edwards would also remind us us, “Historically, Christians and Christian organizations were complicit in the establishment of slavery.”[iii]  Enslavers used the Bible to divinize their treatment of African slaves and to re-create the body of Christ as socially colored white.  Therefore, the good news of Jesus Christ included the dominion of European Americans and the divine approval of white privilege.   Race had not only created colored people, but colored theologies.  God became a colored Person and/or white Person.

The Church in North America approved, endorsed and included the subjugation and segregation of African and later African American bodies in their understanding of theology, their practice of segregated worship, discipleship and fellowship.  Society dictated the meaning, value and purpose of African people and the Church in America wrongly used Scripture to support this system of dehumanization.  Church leaders believed that enslaved Africans did not have a soul, which demonized bodies socially colored black and divinized bodies socially colored white.  Leaders then went so far as to create separate churches, the White Church and the Black Church.  This historic departure from central tenets of the Christian faith and the resultant hypocrisy has long been evident to persons of African descent and those who would oppress them.  Frederick Douglass observed the difference saying, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

Winthrop Jordan in his book The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States says, “After about 1680, … a new term of self- identification appeared—white.”[iv]  In fact, Du Bois said, “The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s people is a very modern thing.”[v]  It was a way to separate slave from master and later citizen from alien and today, innocent from guilty.  It is no different than the Greeks attempt to separate the barbaric from the civilized.  The Church now uses it to distinguish between the people of God and the heathen.

It is no wonder then that persons would work toward it.  David Roediger records the journey of this social transformation in his book Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs.  There is only one way to be an American and that was to become white.  Roediger records the realities of those who were “not-yet- white”, “conditionally white,” “situationally white,” and “not quite white.” “New immigrants often existed between nonwhiteness and full inclusion as whites, not just between black and white,” described as a kind of “inbetweenness.”[vi]  Clearly, this was not about color but inclusion, membership and belonging.  White was just the name of the club.

James Baldwin witnessed their change, writing in 1971, “I had my fill of seeing people come down the gangplank on Wednesday, let us say, speaking not a word of English, and by Friday discovering that I was working for them and they calling me nigger like everybody else.  So that the Italian adventure or even the Jewish adventure, however grim, is distinguished from my own adventure.”  Poet Diane di Prima said, “This pseudo ‘white’ identity… was not something that just fell on us out of the blue, but something that many Italian Americans grabbed with both hands.  Many felt that their culture, language, food, songs, music, identity, was a small price to pay for entering the American mainstream.  Or they thought, as my parents probably did, that they could keep these good Italian things in private and become ‘white’ in public.”[vii]

On the altar of race is sacrificed our real selves, our inherent relationships with each other and our natural connection to God.  We deny ourselves to pick up the privileges of race.  This is our reasonable service.[viii]  But, there is an unspoken but understood conflict.  It is a well- guarded lie and nothing of our faith is allowed to interact with it.  Our faith is not allowed to question it.  Instead, we incorporate race into our faith.  We try to put the two together, becoming half- race and half- Christian.

We are the temples of race, worshipping our skin, the texture of our hair, the size of our lips, the shape of our eyes and nose.  Sin functions here when we are deluded into making an idol of our condition and physical appearance.  In so doing, I and persons like me become the standard by which other human beings are assessed.[ix]  We give up looking for the image of God within us and settle for the cheap duplications of race.  We all conform our bodies to the image of whiteness, in hopes of attaining a social perfection.[x]

“Historically, the church has tended to accept race and agree with its conclusions regarding humanity while affirming the creation narrative in Genesis and claiming the believer’s position in as redeemed in Christ.  Instead of challenging the use of race in society and ensuring that it has no place (in our understanding) of the kingdom of God, we have tended to create theories, theologies, denominations and worship services that support the social construct of race and its progeny.  Winthrop Jordan wrote of ‘this fusion of religion and nationality,’ saying, “From the first, then, the concept embedded in the term Christian seems to have conveyed much of the idea and feeling of we against they: to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black.  (By the early 1700s), “Christianity had somehow become intimately and explicitly linked with complexion.”[xi]  

J. Kameron Carter writes in Race: A Theological Account on “the theological problem of whiteness”[xii] and recounts “how whiteness came to function as a substitute for the Christian doctrine of creation, thus producing a reality into which all else must enter.”[xiii] Whiteness became a kind birth canal, wherein persons were given a new name and language, extended the opportunity to start over again and become a part of a whole new world. Becoming white would erase their history and secure them a life free of hardship and struggle. They needed only to call on the name of white.

White became savior.  So, it seems only natural that God would begin to reflect this social belief and practice.  We started creating God in the image of race.

Many of us believe that Jesus comes in colors and the Spirit of God behaves and interacts with us according to our cultural traditions.  Kelly Brown Douglas argues that there is a Black Christ and a White Jesus.[xiv]  Never mind his suffering on the cross, God is not with us if God does not look like us.  If Jesus is to prove his commitment to us, then he must be the same color as us.  We put Christ in the middle of this race war.

But, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey rightly capture and catalogue the inclusion of Jesus into the white race in their book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  So real and thorough has been this kind of pseudo- religious indoctrination that William R. Jones titled his book, “Is God a white racist?”  The social construct of race makes us question the character, abilities, intentions and will of God.

Blum and Harvey write, “By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face.  But, he was a shape- shifting totem of white supremacy.  The differing and evolving physical renderings of white Jesus figures not only bore witness to the flexibility of racial constructions but also helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting.  With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming.”[xv]  And this idea carried over to other cultures, who also made Christ in their image.

Our faith in race has become a supplement to our Christianity.  But the truth is, race draws our attention away from God and to ourselves.  Our sanctification by race through the social coloring of skin, that is whiteness, is an external perfection and ultimately, we are bowing to ourselves.  We continue to believe in race because we believe in us and our goodness apart from God.  Our belief in race puts confidence in our flesh.[xvi]  The social construct of race is but a representation of our desire to rule and to be like God.  And the Church says, “Amen.”

 

__________________________________

[i] Booker T. Washington, W.E.B DuBois, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Charles Chestnut and others, The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today, (New York, NY: J. Pott & Company, 1903).

[ii] First Samuel 16.7: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’”

[iii] Korie L. Edwards, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008, 4).

[iv] Winthrop Jordan, The White Man’s Burden, Historical Origins of Racism in the United States, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1974), 52.

[v] David E. Roediger, ed., Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1998) 152.

[vi] David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005), 13.

[vii] Ibid. p. 3

[viii] Romans 12.1

[ix] Susan E. Davies & Sister Paul Teresa Hennessee, S.A., Ending Racism in the Church, (Cleveland, OH: United Church Press, 1998), 36.

[x] Portions taken from my blog post titled “What Our Faith in Race Reveals,” The Daily Race, April 6, 2011.

[xi] Starlette McNeill, “In Search of a Raceless Gospel,” Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity, (Kelowna, BC, Canada: Copperhouse, 2013), 50-51.

[xii] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 5

[xiv] Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, Ninth Printing (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002).

[xv] Edward J. Blum & Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 8.

[xvi] Philippians 3.3

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