Tag Archives: faith and race

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.”

 

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[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

Questioning Race during Advent

IMG_0103.JPGChrist has come! This first Sunday of Advent reminds us that power was found in a cradle– not a crown.  Like persons in Jesus’s day, we are guilty of looking for him in the wrong places and among the wrong people.  As outlined in his stories, Jesus came to rearrange and change the order of things, beginning with himself.

The first will be last (Matthew 20.16). The greatest will be the servant (Matthew 23.11). Love your enemies (Matthew 5.44).  God becomes a human being.  A virgin will give birth to God.

In order to bring salvation to the world, God runs to a woman’s womb– not for office. God is with her.

Creator God becomes “Infant God” as described by Francois Mauriac in his book The Son of Man. So, how is it that the Divine is capable of such humility and we are not?  The only supreme power, God did not need skin, the social coloring of it or a cultural affiliation, because it is not needed for the image of a God.

The Word became flesh; the transformative power then rests with the Word and not the flesh.

God did more than meet us where we are; in Christ, God became one of us.  So, how is it that we are so different?  God is divine and yet, without obstacle in maintaining a relationship with us. Still, we cannot seem to get around race.

If God is with us all, then why do we use race against “them”?  Jesus came as the Savior of the world so what about us allows for self- segregation? Coming in the flesh to save us, why do we continue to deny the humanity of our sisters and brothers who can only be human?

God is with us, looking on and listening in as we make some people invisible and unheard of. Why do we do that despite the fact that Christ has come?

 

Raise the questions

url-1The question of race is one that I use to wrestle with.  For a long time, it won because I thought that its answers to my identity were stronger and better trained.  Looking back, I think that I let race win because I did not perceive it as an enemy but more like a coach, a sparring partner.  I thought that it was a friendly match and I am not real fan of fighting so I gave in.  I didn’t take the ring seriously.

In terms of race, one of the hardest things I had to do was question it.  In fact, it was a question that answered me:  Do I have to be black?  Because for me, race is about being and becoming.  It is not just about who I am or how society defines me but who I will become.

Raised in the South, questioning authority does not come standard for me.  It is not how I was taught; neither adults or God are to be questioned.  It was understood and I never entertained the possibility.  The mere thought I considered to be heretical.

But, the thought came to me.  And I was also taught not to be rude so I entertained it.  I raised my head, cleared my throat and interrupted the conversation that race was having about me without me.  “Excuse me.  Who  gave you this authority?”

Question raised and I’m still standing.  Question raised and I was not struck by lightning.  Question raised and I am answered.

I fought race and I won.  Get in the ring and raise the questions.

 

The theology of race

theology-570x420Why I am so adamant when it comes to my position on race and its position behind me?  Why can’t race represent me or introduce me?  Why do its prejudices not speak for my neighbor, the stranger or the immigrant?  Why can’t its stereotypes inform my understanding of human beings?  I’m glad that you asked.

I don’t like the social construct of race because its ways and will for humanity and our relationships conflict with my understanding of God.  Frankly, I don’t like what race says, suggests, infers and implies about God.  And it frightens me, disturbs me what we will do for race, what we say about God in order to support the social construct of race.

But, race is not a theologian.  Race is not a believer.  Race is not a Christian: righteous, set a part.

Race is an idol, hand made, fashioned with our tongues.  Race is a false god who spreads lies about the true and living God.  What lies?

Race says that God creates no one new, that God is a copy cat, that we are all the same in our cultural groups, members of a boxed set, a collection of social colors.  Race teaches us that God stereotypes.

Race says that God sees each culture according to race, that God uses race, condones its practices and endorses its beliefs concerning our humanness.   Race implies that God treats us according to the social coloring of skin, that it is a part of God’s plan, purpose and will, that God is pre- judging us according to the image that He made us in.  Race teaches us that God is prejudiced.

Race says that God is colored, that God is socially colored beige/ black/ brown/ red/ white/ yellow, that we can create God in our own image, that God is not the Spirit, that God is somehow more human, more of a social color than divine (John 4.24).  Race teaches us that God is flesh and thereby limited, unable to be omnipresent.

Race says that we can put God on our side, the side of the oppressed or the privileged, that we can discern based on the outward appearance who God loves and hates, who God accepts and rejects.  Race teaches us that God is predictable, that we can know His ways.

Race is the false teacher, an instructor without credentials, a messenger.  We make it up as we go along.  We must stop teaching race.  It is a learned behavior that neither edifies us nor glorifies God.  Being a member of a socially constructed racial group does not mean that we will get extra credit.  In fact, it is the wrong answer to questions concerning our identity for those who believe.

We are who God says we are not who race says that God says that we are.  That’s gossip.  That’s hearsay.  That’s not the truth.

So, when race enters a room, don’t sit down and pull up a chair.  Don’t listen because race knows nothing about God and consequently, race knows nothing about you.

Living From Offense to Offense

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.”

~ Colossians 3.1-4, NRSV

Baptized and raised with Christ, we are dead yet born again.  It is both a funeral and a wedding, earth and altar, old nature gone: “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” and new name given: “I now pronounce you…”  We are not said the same because we are not seen the same.  So, what of our own eyes?

We have been raised with Christ and are commanded to search, to actively look for things that are above.  We have been raised with Christ and thus, are also able to rise above situations, to set our minds on things that are above.  It is not due to our own strength but Christ’s resurrection power at work within us.  It is only because we have been raised with him, lifted, elevated, positioned higher and consequently, given a different perspective.

This is how we are able to get above the battle, how we are equipped to look beyond the war of words, the latest and most tragic event brought to us by racism.  It is because we have been positioned in Christ (John 15.4; Galatians 2.20; First John 4.15).  And we must see and speak from this place.  We must live and move from this place that is not race neutral or colorblind but race-less.

This place is not ensnared by race’s prejudicial history or positioned to respond based on stereotypical expectations.  It owes no one, has no cultural or social allegiances, is without economic dependence or investment.  Instead, it comes from an eternal place; its decisions and decisiveness not determined by time, media cycles or the fickleness of what is in and out, popular, acceptable, correct.

This place is much deeper, a steeper ascent for the soul.  A place that does not require or depend on flesh: the Spirit. And while this seems easier to write than do, still we must do it or we ought not say that we be it: Christian, Christ- like, believer, disciple, follower of the Way.  We must speak from our birthplace as Christ said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above” (John 3.7).

The other option is to wait for the next injury, to lie down and take it, to talk about it and take it, to protest and take it, to debate it and take it.  The only other option is to continue to live as race’s latest and greatest victim.  And every time that it hits us, we say, “That’s it!  I’ve had enough! I cannot live with this! I can’t take it!”  But, then we do. Again and again and again.

Then, time passes and the distance of days makes it hard to maintain our position. Our anger and disgust wanes. Our tears dry up. The pain and our hurt subsides.  We have to go to work, to school, to church, to the theater, to the grocery story, back to business as usual, to our cultural corners to recover and prepare for next time… because there is always next time.

This race war causes us to live from offense to offense.  It has gone on for hundreds of years and I am afraid for the generations that will be enlisted as there is no discussion of surrender or solution.  There seems to be no end in sight, no new strategy other than fight, no white flags waving.

This is why we are not in a place of healing.  This is why we cannot address the wounds.  It is because we cannot live beyond our flesh; we cannot move above our skin.  Sometimes, it is hardest to do because we won’t say it: race- less.

We must live above race, move beyond the offenses and stop this cycle of socially acceptable violence.  We must have a way of being and seeing that is beyond the interactions of our flesh so that we can live with and love our selves, our neighbor and our God… so, that we don’t see our selves, our neighbor or our God as an offense, remembering that “whatever is born of God conquers the world” (First John 5.4).