Category Archives: Privilege

Doing justice to our bodies: How race wrongs us (Part Two)

See the source imageWith an increase in the surveillance of bodies socially colored black, I feel it necessary to talk about the valuation of the human body and the Church’s role in such a conversation.  With some persons feeling it necessary to call the police as if a customer service agency for humans they deem damaged due the social construct of race, it is important that we not only talk about race but speak to its theological implications.  Made in God’s image, it would seem like an easy one to have.  The silence around the visibility of whiteness and the socially desired invisibility of those labeled and socially assigned the identity of black is dumbfounding.

Thus, I submit a second section of the paper I presented at the Baptist World Alliance in Zurich, Switzerland just a few weeks ago:

There are several familiar passages of Scripture that praise the creation of human beings, namely the Genesis account: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[i]  Noteworthy, the narrator does not describe any physical characteristics or distinctions, not even based on their gender differences.  Unlike our hyper- body conscious society, there are no measurements, no height or weight, no mention of size, shape or any other perceived physical trait.  Man and woman, animals and insects, trees and rivers, they are described the same: “very good.”

God praises the work of God’s hands and the psalmist chimes in, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know them very well.”[ii]  Made in God’s image and identified in Christ, the believer’s identity has divine boundaries.  Buried with Christ, our new life with Christ is not expected to resemble the old self or its nature.  In Christ, we are new creatures.  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[iii]

Paul’s point cannot be overstated. Even though they knew Christ “from a human point of view,” even though they knew his mother, Mary and his stepfather, Joseph, his birthplace, his siblings, his habits and human needs, they don’t know him in this way anymore.  There is a change in the way that they relate and desire to know Jesus.  This new creation does not require the information that the cultural, personal or social self might need.

For the new creation, it is unnecessary and dare I say, irrelevant. And it is a choice.  While they have personal information about Jesus, that perspective is not helpful to the work of ministry that he has entrusted to them, to the community that they have been called to serve, to the gospel they have been charged to share with the world.  They must know him and consequently, each other differently.  This is not human being as usual.

While the early Church initially wrestles with cultural inclusion as recorded in Acts 15 at the Council at Jerusalem, revelations given by the Holy Spirit make the gospel’s goal clear: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between us and them. Now therefore why are putting God to test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord, Jesus, just as they will.”[iv]

The presence of the Holy Spirit makes evident those who God has saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. No physical marking of the flesh, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a distinction not made with human hands but much like the children of Israel, it is a matter of the heart.  Anything more would be making salvation more difficult than it needs to be, harder than God has made it for them, the writer of Acts says.

They are identified by the Holy Spirit and found in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Galatia of their identity in Christ, which the outside world has nothing to do with it.  Baptized, believers rise with Christ no longer to be identified as they have been by society: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[v]  Baptized into Christ, there is a depth of identity to which all others will not survive.  This is more than an immersion; it is a death, a burial with Christ to rise to new life in him.

Theologian William Willimon makes a fine point in this regard,

What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?

In baptism, the text becomes Scripture for us, canon, laid on us as a new story that illumines our stories. In baptism, we are adopted into the people who answer to this story and are held accountable to its description of reality… Scripture suggests that authority has shifted from ourselves to Scripture’s use of us… Baptism asserts that we meet and speak under an identity that challenges and endangers all other identities.[vi]

If we profess Christ as Savior and Lord, then there is no longer black or white, red or yellow, brown or beige people. There is no longer immigrants and strangers, marginalized and centered, minority and majority, privilege and oppressed people; we are now one in Christ Jesus. Like Paul, we are to count as loss all that brought us gain so that we might know Christ.[vii]  Accepting race and its socially constructed identities ensures that we “boast in the flesh” and maintains our confidence in it.[viii]  But, baptism erases the lines and destroys our boxes. T.B. Maston asserts, “God is not a racial, national or denominational deity… so there is no racial discrimination in God’s family.”[ix]

When we accept the transformative power of baptism, the social construct of race will lose its grip on our skin and slip away.

Because we cannot serve God and race.[x]  When we are baptized, we must die to our racialized selves, drowning out the voices of culturally justifiable hatred, prejudice and supremacy.   Race cannot go down with us and come up in Christ Jesus— because race has no resurrection power.  If we are baptized and remain people of color, then we may need to stay under the water a little longer.

The point is made again to the community of believers at Colossae: “…seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”[xi]

How then does the Church in North America continue to speak of God and God’s people in color- coded terms, to speak of people of color and people of God interchangeably?  Because we cannot credit two creators.  Why does the Church in North America continue to employ the social distinction of race though we identify ourselves as people who are “led by the Spirit”?  How does the use of the social construct and its progeny, namely prejudice, stereotype and white privilege, survive baptism and continue to participate in our life with Christ and with other believers in community?  How does race help us to sing God praises for our creation and the creation of our neighbor?

Known for having all the answers, the Church in North America and communities of faith across the world must begin to question its long- standing relationship with race.

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[i] Genesis 1.26, 27, 31a, NRSV

[ii] Psalm 139.14, NRSV

[iii] Second Corinthians 5.16-17, NRSV

[iv] Acts 15.8-11, NRSV

[v] Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV

[vi] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 7,

[vii] Philippians 3.8

[viii] Philippians 3.2

[ix] T. B. Maston, The Bible and Race: A Careful Examination of Biblical Teachings on Human Relations, (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959), 24-25.

[x] Matthew 6.24

[xi] Colossians 3.9-11, NRSV

America First and the last time we heard it

Image result for dr. seuss america first cartoonAmerica first.  For some, this slogan sounds like we are getting our priorities together.  We need to focus on our economy and give jobs to real Americans– as if the persons who are employed at these businesses are not real people with real needs.   Still, we need to take from them in order give it to us.  Because “this land is my land.”

This is the language of privilege and American exceptionalism, the belief that America is inherently different from other nations and that this difference is divinized in our favor.  “We are the chosen ones and we can take what we want.  It belongs to us– even if you have it.  Stop working and give the job to me.”

There is a segment of the American population who feels that Donald Trump is going to pay attention to them, that he is putting the needs of their communities and families first.  “And it’s about time that we start to focus on us.”  We need to stop helping immigrants, refugees and other persons in vulnerable spaces.  They need to work for citizenship; they have to prove themselves if they want to come here, if they are to be counted as members of our society.

Get to the back of the line.  America first.

Hand it over.  America first.

Get out.  America first.

For Christians, the problem with this slogan is that it is not Christ- like.  Jesus teaches as recorded in the gospel of Matthew: “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give this last the same as I give you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?  So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (20.14-16).  And it is not a new campaign.

One of more than 400, Dr. Seuss’ (or Theodor Geisel) political cartoon above is dated 1941.  It was created during the time of Hitler’s reign.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

Christ did not come so that we could push and shove people out of the way, so that we could save the best for ourselves, so that we could hoard the land.  Christ came to save the world in the name of Love– not for our nationalistic enterprises.  And you would think that we would know this by now.

His words were first and will outlast these.  It’s not America first; it’s God first.  Any other expression is out of order but I am certain that this won’t be last time that we hear it.

Additional Reading

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, The Atlantic, “When Dr. Seuss took on Adolf Hitler“, January 15, 2013.

Where Injustice Lies

Image result for micah 6.8 word art“(Justice) cries out in the streets; in the squares she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner, she cries out; at the entrance of the city gate she speaks: ‘How long, O (crooked ones will you love being crooked)?’”[1]

No matter where we are or where we find ourselves, there are cries for justice.  The sound cannot be avoided, tuned out, talked over or talked down.  More than background noise or elevator music, these cries will go on record, disproving that our lives are as comfortable as the sounds that we surround ourselves with.

The cries for justice do not harmonize well with the voices of capitalism, materialism or racism.  No quartet there.  No possibility of a record deal or a break out hit.

The sound wraps around us like yellow crime scene tape, screams like sirens rushing to the scene, like family members given the news that no one wants to hear that is then reported at 6 and again at 10 and again at 6.  It captures our attention and becomes our cycle, our pattern as the news is covered with violence.  It is one long, mass shooting, one burial after another.  And in between each commercial break, we find that we are burying something of ourselves too.

We are covered by violence, wrapped up, tangled up, tied up, ensnared by it.  Yes, we are all in this net together.  Knots and strings, we are pulled on and rendered immobile all at the same time.  Trapped by violence, we cry out for justice— to make it stop, to still the hands that pin ours down.  “Let my fingers go!”

Whether raised or thought reaching, they are taken down.  No more protesting there.  Another voice lost so justice must scream louder.

So, no matter the sounds that would crowd our ears, there is one sound that climbs through the clamor, that pushes its way through the noises that would distract us, that keeps coming to forefront of the conversation—no matter how often it is pushed back, shouted down, ignored and dismissed and it is the cry for justice.  Not to be confused with whining, it is a lament, a familiar composition of grunt and sigh, a consistent moan that causes the head to sway and the earth to tremble.  It is a mix of grief and guts, pride and passion, loss and the need to live freely, unencumbered, unsupervised and without the disruption of flashing lights.

It is a wail, somber and yet strong, like the marching of feet on city streets, blocking traffic and interrupting commerce.  She will not be pushed aside but she will be heard.  She will have her say and so she says it over and over again.  “Justice!  Justice!  Justice!”

She says her name and it bears repeating for persons will assume that because she is present that her practice of fairness and equity is too.  But, it is not enough to say, “Justice.”  Justice doesn’t look good on paper; it is not her best side.  Instead, she prefers natural settings like institutions, organizations, governments and personal relationships.  She prefers group pictures— not posed with good lighting.

If accountability and fairness are there, she smiles and says, “Justice.”

The word only causes anxiety for those who do not seek it.  They don’t want to hear it for it is a reminder of their hollowness, their hubris, their hypocrisy.  They like the word but prefer the benefits of injustice.  They put it on their resume without reference, speak of it without relationship and name it as the perfect candidate with no intention of electing it.  Injustice lies comfortably on the bed of assumption and the conviction that those who need justice will wait for it instead of working for it.

***

Thomas Watson, a 17th century Puritan minister wrote, “Injustice lies in two things: either not to punish where there is fault or to punish where there is no fault.”  His words remind me of the case of Freddie Gray while in police custody.  His death was ruled a homicide and yet, they could find no murderers.

In times like these, I am reminded that there are at least two sets of laws, two justice systems, two juries.  There is also one unspoken punishable offense: blackness.  There is also one defense that has proven victorious time and time again: whiteness.  “If you’re white, you’re right.”

But, punishing people for the racial crime of not being socially colored white and therefore, one of the good people, one of our people is wrong.  Life is not about “protecting our own.”  Life was not created to be lived selfishly but abundantly.[2]

Supporting a system of race that constructs light and dark people, right and wrong people, in and out people, center and marginalized people and rations out social privileges and burdens based solely on appearance is wrong.  Believing in this social righteousness that rewards those who, before their first breath, receive value above all other human beings is wrong.  Unearned privileges for some and undue burden for others is an unjust system.

Justice requires that these scales and others fall from our eyes, that these scales be balanced.  Now, the people fall apart, then the system self- destructs, the country topples and the rubble of government buildings become the pavement for another kingdom.  So, listen up, “Justice cries out in the streets.”

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[1] Proverb 1.20-22, NRSV

[2] John 10.10

Christena Cleveland talks about “Paying Privilege Forward”

She is a graduate of Dartmouth and the associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  Sharing her personal story, Dr. Christena Cleveland invites us into her life and the reality of the privileges that she received from her parents.  She unpacks the meanings of privilege, challenges the myth of individualism and explains why we need to pray privilege forward.

 

Naming White Privileges

imageSo often in matters of race, we only talk about the impact of oppression, the effects of blackness and the negative impact of the social construct of race. But, race has a bright side.  It’s called privilege, white privilege.

While we are familiar with “the race card” and now due to this presidential election cycle “the woman card,” we have not discussed the full deck that persons identified as socially colored white are handed in American society. I suppose that discussing it would “show their hand.”

Still, I dare you to name the privileges that you have benefited from due to your “appearance”, to go beyond Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” and name your own.  What are the personal privileges that you have benefitted from due to a social constructed white identity? What favorable assumptions have been made about you that are not true– but true of the stereotype of whiteness?  Are their instances when you have used your white privilege to your benefit and to the detriment of someone not socially colored white?  What support did you give yourself for the action?  What lie did you tell yourself in order to play this race card?

I am convinced that while we may be talking more about race, we are thinking less and less about what race means to us. Instead, we outsource it to the latest public outcry of racialized injustice.  We find a bad racist to pin our problems with race on.  “It him and not me.”  “It’s them and not us.”

But, the privileges that we hold are holding us back from authentic relationships with our selves and each other. Naming the privileges of whiteness allows us to expose the lies that we live by, dismantle the deceptions that prop up faulty hierarchies of supremacy and remove the mask that allows us to smile and oppress at the same time.