Category Archives: Race and Faith

Good Skin

Bad skin.  Good skin.  A larger problem than pimples, blackheads and an oily T- zone, the social coloring of skin and the meanings we associate with it are important.  We talk about our flesh as if we expect it to behave or perform in a certain way, as if it represents our character and can somehow let us down.  Ah, but in America, it can and it does.

The social construct of race says that my skin defines me, tells you what my presence means not just in this present moment but for the rest of my life.  Much like how we look at fruit and inspect it for ripeness, I am expected to believe that solely by looking at my appearance one can determine if I am good or bad.  Worse still, persons can toss me aside based on their observations without ever having a personal experience with me.

Wanting the preferred “color,” many of us train our epidermis with bleaching creams and lighteners, change the skin around our eyes, nose and lips to look right and consequently, to be right.  We are then the right kind of person.  We are socially acceptable.  We can show our faces here.  Our bodies are safe and safe here.

And we have made the process of identification very simple.  We have color- coded good and bad people.  And all we have to do is look at persons to tell the difference.  Goodness also comes in degrees.  Consequently, the lighter the skin color, the better the person.

Still, the social construct of race is a troublesome invention.  It is a meddlesome creation that gets in the way of our humanity.  It restricts the way that we see God, ourselves and our neighbor.  This is why our declarations of the race-less gospel of Jesus Christ is so important.  This is why we must repeat again and again that we are not children of color but children of God.  Again, we are children of God not children of color.  Because there is a difference as race is not our creator; it is not the beginning of us.  Because there is life after the flesh, it’s salvation is limited.

The social construct of race offers salvation through the social coloring of skin.  However, this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  As Christians, it is his nail- scarred hands that save us– not the color of our own.  Because if whiteness is our salvation, then what does it atone for?  If all we have to do is be born in the right skin, what is socially colored “white” skin, then what salvation are we secure in?  If the social coloring of skin saves us from suffering and/or affords unearned privileges, then why believe in the work of Christ’s cross?

The fact is, our belief in race does not supplement our faith in Jesus Christ; instead, it supplants it.  The message of race does not affirm the good news of Jesus Christ.  Because who needs a good God if you have good skin?

If we think that God is ‘a white man’

Image result for God is a white man“God is a white man.”  This is not a new declaration but an old reduction made by persons who argue against a belief in the God of Christianity because in the name of this God, persons have stolen, enslaved, sold, raped, murdered, pillaged and annihilated indigenous cultures of the earth.  They surmise, God must be white because they are not being punished but are getting away with it.  It is a judgment against God, now viewed as giving them a pass and their privilege, labeled whiteness.  I suppose that many of us are looking for an Old Testament demonstration of who God is for and who God is against.

But, as Christians, it is not whiteness that saves any of us but the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Our belief in whiteness suggests that there is within some of us, literally and quite physically on us, the ability to save us. Our faith in the deliverance of whiteness nullifies the salvific work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  It is whiteness– not his blood– that makes the difference.

“God is a white man.”  This is also a statement of faith for those who believe that they have a divine right to dominate, oppress and colonize other people, that “the earth is theirs and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24.1).  It is the belief that socially colored white people were made by God to dehumanize other people.  This is a faith that denies the inherent worth of all human beings and the unconditional love that God has for all people.  And it is about the goodness of people, particularly socially colored white people, not Jesus and the two are not synonymous.

“God is a white man.”  If we think this is true, then we are saying that God is in cahoots with the socially constructed white race, that those who oppress are all- powerful because it is usurped from a divine source.  If we think that God is a white man, then God created some and not all in the Divine image.  The rest of us are rejects, having no place with God or humanity.  It also suggests then that God has a holy ax to grind against “them” and we are being used to cut them off– because they are not the right people because they are not white people.

But, while there is social support for this idea, there is no scriptural support for this confession.  God took on the form of a human being but God is not a human being.  Consequently, when we say that God is a white man, we are in fact interpreting God through the lens of race, making God one of us, writing another salvation narrative: “For God so hated socially colored beige, black, brown, yellow and red people, that God sent socially colored white people into the world.”

That’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ and that’s not the God of the Bible, of history, experience and revelation.  That’s our racialized imaginations running wild.

Unmasking Whiteness

“However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man, there is only one destiny.  And it is white.”

~ Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

“This contradictory longing to possess the reality of the Other, even though that reality is one that wounds and negates, is expressive of the desire to understand the mystery, to know intimately through imitation, as though such knowing worn like an amulet, a mask, will ward away the evil, the terror.”

bell hooks, “Representations of whiteness in the black imagination,” Black on white: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White

The Apostle James writes, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1.12).  When the Bible speaks of God’s plans for believers, God does not speak in terms of race as Fanon and hooks have written.  Thus, it is necessary to explain why we need not confuse the two.

While American society provides our perspective, it is important that we are reminded of the big picture or perhaps, the Biggest Picture.  We cannot forget that God’s eyes frame our lives very differently.  It is our senses and our temporal nature that confines us to such limited views of our humanity.  We cannot see more because our eyes are so small, so dim.

This, along with the fact, that we see as we are told.  We focus on what the group, what the majority, what a society, what the powerful tells us is worth looking at.  And even if we have to look away from ourselves, we will lean into the image that is being held up and prized for fear of being left out and consequently, being out of sight.

But, this is not a test or a trial.  This is not about acceptance, endurance or even survival.  This is assimilation.

Primarily, the testing that the oppressed endure due to the social construct of race is social.  It is a proving ground not ordained or created by God.  It is not a test that God is grading us on because we are not being judged according to the social coloring of skin.

Thus, whiteness is not the answer.  Whiteness will not get a pass.  Whiteness is not to be learned but unlearned.

This testing is also not rewarded by God.  Those who aspire to whiteness will be rewarded socially not divinely.  There is no crown for the whitest.  This is not the crowning achievement of our humanity.  There is no life for whiteness in eternity.

Secondly, the plans of whiteness and the plans of God are not synonymous.  The plans of whiteness and the plans of God are not in partnership.  There is no connection there.  They do not support each other.  Two kinds of righteousness, two saviors, to different sets of commandments, whiteness is an idol.  Only one can be right.  God.

The destiny of whiteness and the destiny that God has for us are not the same.  We will end up in two different places.  Thus, our relationships with race and God are about faith.  Which one do we believe in?  Which one is truly rewarding?  Which of these really matters?

Because you can possess whiteness and its privileges yet not know God.  Putting on whiteness and putting on Christ are not synonymous.  Only one can save you.

Thus, whiteness and all social colors are not tests but rather evidences of our lust.  And they are not new lusts: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life (First John 2.16).  Race is about visibility, choosing who will be seen, valued and rewarded while God sees us all.

So, don’t put it on; instead, take it off.  It will make the value go down.

And let us stop being reproducers of these masks.  Let us stop providing, making concessions and excuses for them.  “I’m sorry.  You cannot wear that mask here.  We will need to see your real face.”

Let us no longer order or carry masks in our institutions and the marketplace, in our families and social circles.  Let’s not keep spare ones in the drawer, inherited ones in a safe deposit box or emergency ones under our mattress.  Let us no longer offer these masks, wrapped up and presented as gifts.  Let us not treat them as essential to our survival, tied to our destiny and who we must become no matter what of ourselves we lose.

No, let us prove that whiteness means nothing at all without us.  Reveal our true selves and demonstrate that we can understand ourselves without it, that we can see ourselves without it.  Move whiteness out of the way so that you can get a glimpse of the Biggest Picture.

When ‘Satan Goes to a Prayer Meeting’

prayer meetingI love prayer. Despite the popularity of social media, status updates and tweets do not compare to sharing a prayer request with God. There is no better connection.

The fact that we can be in direct dialogue with the Divine, a kind of call and response between heaven and earth, amazes me. I delight in the sounds and scenes of prayer, the moans and sighs, the bowing of heads and bending of knees, the folding of hands and quieting of minds. I am grateful for the reverence expressed and the reminder that God is listening out for us.

I appreciate the variety of prayers — contemplative and silent, communal and chatty, spontaneous and written. I love prayer groups and prayer chains. I even write a prayer newsletter for our member churches at the District of Columbia Baptist Convention and a column, Pray-Her, for Smyth & Helwys’s blog. Cheryl Sacks wrote a book, The Prayer-Saturated Church, but I think I am well on my way to becoming a prayer-saturated person.

I spent my formative years in weekly prayer meetings, seated next to my grandmother, Sister Thomas. Attending church was my extracurricular activity and I felt naturally gifted to serve. When I was not in church, I would practice with my cousins. We called it “playing church,” as we would pretend that we were the preacher, a deacon, an usher or one of the mothers of the church. You can guess which one I was.

A mid-week service for blue-collar workers on a nameless country dirt road, it was essential to the community’s emotional, personal, physical, social and spiritual well-being. The church services kept us going and kept our heads up. While it did not have the resources of today’s megachurches with barber shops and beauty salons, gyms and exercise classes, banking centers and conference-style meetings rooms, it still met our needs. Besides, our church membership extended beyond the building as we went shopping and out to dinner together often.

There was nothing perfunctory about the prayer meetings. With no printed program, we left the service’s order up to the Holy Spirit as persons were invited to sing and testify, to tell of the goodness of God made evident in their lives or to share of suffering or testing for which they requested our prayers. Anyone could testify but everyone began with these words: “First giving honor to God who is the head of my life, to the pastor, visitors, saints and friends.”

Now an adult and an associate pastor, I lead our time of prayer. While I write down my prayer, the order is left up to the Holy Spirit. And I still first give honor to God who is the head of my life.

“Satan goes to a prayer meeting” is the title of a sermon by the late Reverend C.L. Franklin. It appears on a sermon collection released in 1994. I was reminded of the title on June 17, 2015, when I learned of the murder of nine church members, including the pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The horrific acts put Charleston, S.C., on the map as authorities tried to locate the suspected killer, Dylann Roof.

In light of this sad reality, I was stunned to hear of this “campaign to eliminate hell.” I didn’t know that it was a goal or an expressed need of America’s Christians: better education, better economy, more jobs and no hell. I suspect that it is the privileged view of those seated in academia’s ivory tower with its socially-engineered greener grass. But it’s foolishness to those whose communities are burning and an unstable perspective. Light and darkness, mountain and valley, salvation and sin, these combinations are the human condition — at least for some of us.

Furthermore, our desire to rework God’s plan so that everyone fits into heaven, to relocate those who have done evil because it makes us feel better about God and ourselves is misplaced. It sounds a bit like Oprah: “You go to heaven and you to heaven.” While we are “the hands and feet of Christ,” our hands don’t balance God’s scales.

Besides, if everyone is a “good person,” then the nails in Christ’s hands are meaningless. That’s not tradition but the gospel and our story, summed up in a popular Sunday school memory verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).

God’s love requires justice — because sin matters. If not, then what is the hope of the world’s victims, the vulnerable and those deemed valueless? Are they mere scrap people, piled into an overcrowded prison system, crammed into tight, poverty-stricken areas or sold for pleasure in our lust-driven world? What is the good news for those nine praying members?

Evil is real and the Devil does not come in a red jump suit. Though I am not suggesting that Roof or any other person who commits heinous acts is Satan or even beyond the saving grace of God, I am certain that good and bad do not pray well together, that bowed heads should not have bullets in them and that evil is present with all of us (Romans 7.21).

For those who have rightly judged the Church due to hypocrisy, sexual misconduct, spiritual abuse and financial mismanagement, what do we do when the Church is the victim? When we welcome the stranger in love and he turns out to be a hate-spewing enemy? When a church becomes a crime scene and yellow tape covers the stained glass, it’s probably not the best time to talk about the end of hell. But when Satan comes to a prayer meeting, it certainly changes the order of things.

I couldn’t find meaning in their murders then and I cannot come to terms with it now. I suspect that it will take many more prayer meetings.

*This post was featured as an Op- Ed for Baptist News Global and was published on June 9, 2016.

The Gospel and Racial Reconcilation

This year’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Leadership Summit featured author Trillia Newbell.  Her book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity is discussed and she offers practical steps for reconciliation in relationship.