Tag Archives: race-less faith

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

A Prayer to the Peerless God

See the source imageThis morning, I was afforded the opportunity to provide a prayer for a gathering of faith leaders from Washington, D.C.  We were all invited by current Mayor Bowser and former mayor Anthony Williams.  We joined together in celebration of African American history and heritage as well as to reflect on the strides that this community has made against all odds.  I offered this prayer to attendees:

Peerless God, who is in all and through all and yet, above us all, still You do not look down Your nose to judge whose better or worse.  For better or for worse, You take us all.  Because You created us wonderfully and fearfully, beautifully and equally, intentionally differently, each uniquely Your vision.  You are the familiar in each of our faces.  You created a family— not a bunch of races.

Forgive us for color- coding Your image, painting You into a corner, pushing You to choose sides.  Because You are either with us or them.  Omnipresent, we manage to put You in the middle.

Yes, God, “choose this day whom You will serve.”

Forgive us for appropriating Your power, masquerading in divinity;

The Word made beige, black, brown, red, yellow and white.

Forgive us for our hubris, for subjecting the Imago Dei to our ego, for making You a little lower than us.

Still, You love us all and You love us well, better than we love ourselves, our neighbor, the stranger and the immigrant.  Clearly, You see and sup with those who sacrifice, who rub nickels together and start fires of entrepreneurship, which keeps the family going, keeps the community growing, and spins this cycle of reaping and sowing.

You are the strength of those who built up a land and pulled up a people with calloused hands, with lacerated backs carried cotton and babies, whose voice was not taken, still telling their story and singing our song with voices not shaken, “Swing low, sweet chariot,” who saw a vision through sunset eyes.  Still, they rise again and again.  Because joy comes in the morning.

So, we have gathered to applaud Your work—because You have been with us through it all.  Valleys and mountains, from living water to colored fountains, we taste and still see that the Lord is good.[1]  Because a resurrected people cannot be kept down for long.  Now, help us to live up to all that You see in us.  No competition, one people, one vision.

In the name of the one who raised me up, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

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[1] Psalm 34.8

By God’s Name

Every Sunday, I lead our congregation in a time of intercession.  I create sacred space for persons to share their joys and concerns.  And I don’t take the task lightly.

I am certain that I am facilitating a dialogue, starting a conversation for which some cannot find the words, that I am helping persons open up and listen up.  Hands folded are the busiest.  Heads bowed work the hardest.  Knees bent are traveling at a speed not known to humanity.

I have been asked often how I came to this understanding of race.  How do I write with such conviction?  Why does the social construct have no power over me?  The answer is simple.  Prayer.  My release from the captivity of the social coloring of flesh was done in conversation. I shared my concerns about the meanings of flesh that had been attached to me and my neighbor with God.  I “took it to the Lord in prayer.”

Rather than wrestle with race, I gave it to God.  And God did not hand it back to me.  Instead, the words of Galatians 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” came to me.  They introduced themselves to me personally.  No longer some letter written to the church at Galatia, those words were addressed to me.

John Wesley said, “Prayer is where the action is” and I am a firm believer.  My best work, my hardest work, my deepest and truest convictions have come from prayer.

Here’s the prayer that I shared with our congregation yesterday.  It is proof that belief if not just walked out but talked out.  I am delivered from the social construct of race by God’s name.

***

God, we call on Your name because this is where the action is. “Author and Finisher of our faith,”[1] we need only say Your name and can consider the matter settled.  There is no doubt in the ability of Your name or the agility of Your presence.  Needing no approval rating, Your name satisfies our deepest needs.  We are met in places unseen and at times not suited to regular business hours.

You are not a nine to five God.

Because when we call on You, we are not asked to take a number or to take a seat. There is no time delay in prayer.  You never say, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

But, from our mouth to Your hand, each prayer is stamped urgent.  Holding galaxies in place and our hands, cupping the borders of oceans and collecting our tears, directing angels and speaking to our fears. “[You’ve] got the whole world in Your hands,” but, You still hold us individually, specifically and uniquely.

Not held too tight, we are not crushed by the calendar of Eternity. You do not have to fit us in but there is always room for us.  Never consumed by Your work, You have gathered with us to hear about our week, to mourn and rejoice with us.  You want to hear our story just as much as we want to hear Yours.

With elbows on pew, You have come to participate in our lives, to see what this worship service is about. And to answer those who call on Your name.

We are so grateful that we can mark You present, God.

You have heard our prayers; now give us the faith to mark You present in our homes and in hospital rooms, in war- torn countries and in divided nations, on playgrounds and at cafeteria lunch tables, in the halls of government and in our schools, in hopeless corners of the world and in hearts battered and bruised by addiction, depression, rejection and abandonment. Let us be marked present.  Encourage us to use Your name as an action word and not an excuse.

In Your name, we pray, act, help, love, protect, defend and serve all You have created. Amen.

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[1] Hebrews 12.2

A crime that the Church should be guilty of

Picture-29It’s Sunday, both my favorite day of the week and my weekly reminder that we have a lot of work to do.  Believers around the world will gather to sing and pray, testify and fellowship, all drawn by the unconditional love of God.  But, we will drive to churches that do not reflect the height and depth of God’s love.  In fact, it will look like God only loves one cultural group or that God loves them separately.

The people of God have a long history of moving in step with society, of mixing gods together.  The church has blessed American slavery and the subjugation of women. The jury is still out as it relates to the acceptance of those within the LGBTQ community as the church wrestles with Scripture.  Details at eleven.  But, for the latter:  Guilty and guilty.

I am not one for getting into trouble. I try to avoid it and people who might be accustomed to it.  My mother will tell you that I am a recovering people- pleaser.  The first born and tasked with setting an example for my other siblings, that duty has been my discipline for as long as I can remember.  I have never been arrested though I was suspended in high school for fighting after many attempts to avoid several school bullies.  Guilty.

In hindsight, I wish that I would have stood up sooner.  It is something that I wrestle with even as an adult, trying to continue setting a good example while protecting myself from those who would abuse and misuse.  I wonder if the church will ever have such feelings, if the church will wish that it would have opened its arms more readily.  This morning, I wish the church would be guilty of miscegenation, that is race mixing.

Nothing

urlI wish that I had the time to share all that I read and learn with you, all of the stories– historical narratives and personal testimonies alike.  I wish that you would be fully persuaded that God does not love you like race does or as race says.  Perhaps, this would aid in your understanding my conclusions regarding race.  Nevertheless, I depend on the spirit of Christ within you to move you  to this race- less faith.  If you believe that the spirit of Christ does not work in such matters, then maybe this article might move you closer to my side.

Often persons speak about the biological reality of race as if the physical reality of the social coloring of skin somehow means that race is real.  But, while the social coloring of skin is real, the reality of race is socially constructed.  The values that we assess and the judgments that we make are all our own.  Our skin does not come with a key or a legend or a hierarchal ladder to determine its meaning and measure.  It’s all make believe.

The article that I alluded to earlier was featured in The Atlantic and says, “Genes Don’t Cause Racial- Health Disparities, Society Does.”  Billions of dollars in research and the findings were nonexistent.  There’s nothing there.  I have spent years reading and researching race and let me save you the trouble, stop looking at your skin as if it is a problem or a solution.  There’s nothing there.