Tag Archives: race-less gospel

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

Books can take you places

Image result for ruth haley barton life together in christAs many of us gear up for summer vacations with flip flops, sunglasses and sunscreen, I want to remind us of the journey offered in books.  Words can take us places.  Within their pages are invitations to journey not just to distant and magical lands but to places closer to home, to undiscovered holy sites within us.  Dependent upon our imagination, openness and receptivity to the Spirit, books offer more than an escape but a way in to the deeper places.

Recently, a book offered just that for me.  I was looking for a spiritual locale but not sure how to get there or if there was a guide.  The words of Ruth Haley Barton provided the transportation.  She writes in Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, “Community is the most ‘overpromised and underdelivered’ aspect of the church today. … There is another overpromised, underdelivered aspect of the church today that is equally disillusioning, and that is the promise of spiritual transformation. … I made the disheartening discovery that it is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community but not change at all in ways that count.”

She was not putting words in my mouth.  She was speaking for me, repeating what I had been saying to myself.  The disappointment and disillusionment were palpable and I was not alone in this feeling.  What a relief!  Because the work of Christ must not be confused with Christ’s witness in us.  Church attendance should not be confused with Christ’s being present and tending to us.

The disconnect between Christ and transformation that causes me to groan most is that of the social construct of race.  That we, as Christians, continue to color in his body, that we allow the social construct of race to segregate his members brings deep grief and disappointment.  The power of Christ’s resurrection and our baptism into his new life is mocked here.

Still it must be said and said again, there is no community as ‘races.’  No one holy race.  No one human race.  For race cancels out community and gets in the way of our seeing all as humans.  The social construct of race says that there is no transformation.  We are only and always socially colored beige, brown, black, red, yellow and white people.  The stereotypes speak for us.

And to make believing harder, we have no faith that God can change us when it comes to the social construct of race.  The reach of Christ’s cross falls short here.  But, it is simply impossible to be God’s people and colored people.

***

I have a deep longing for transformation in community.  I want very much to experience life in Christ in ways previously unexplored and unexpressed.  I want to be a new creature, changed by my travels with Christ.  Returning home not with trinkets from my daily walk but testimonies of the difference that Christ has made in my life.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I want my heart to burn when Christ speaks (c.f. Luke 24.32).

I carry a collection of what I refer to as journey words.  These are words that I have met along the way, that I have run into or have been introduced to, that speak to where I am supposed to be.  Not only are they a source of encouragement but they keep me on track.  These journey words remind me of my identity and place in the world.

Barton’s book has affirmed the aim of my life.  More than the trip of a lifetime, I believe that I will have arrived where I belong when I am in a community that is transformed, with me as its first member.

Now carrying journey books in addition to journey words, my bag will be much heavier but the load will be lighter.  Knowing that there are persons walking ahead of me, who have not only been there but remain has taken my spiritual life to new heights.  I will not return the same.

 

 

Happy 6th anniversary!

Image result for happy anniversary

Today, my blog turns six and she remains my baby.  While I have been graced to write for several other outlets and to even become a published author, this blog is my greatest accomplishment.  It was here that I took the risk to share the race-less gospel of Jesus Christ and I remain committed to this message.  To celebrate, I will work harder to spread this truth that God is not socially colored beige, brown, black, red, white or yellow– and neither are we.

Happy anniversary to me and to you.  Thanks for reading, writing, sharing, supporting, recruiting and following me along this race-less journey.  Let’s go another year!

The Race Pass: A Compromised Faith


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, I introduced the concept of the race pass and through social media continued to unpack the idea.  I often pray for divine insight into the social construct of race with the hope of further revealing its weaknesses and prayerfully, loosening its grip on our faith.  I think this idea of an excused absence from our convictions in order to profess our prejudices is a way to do that.  So, my aim is to unpack the ways in which the race pass works.

Unlike the hall, bathroom, nurse and office passes we received in school and from our teachers, this permission is given to us by our parents and peers.  As adults, we write these passes for our selves.  Every time that we make an excuse for a racialized belief or behavior that contradicts our confession of faith in Jesus Christ, we have given ourselves a race pass.  It is permission to put our faith down in order to practice our racial prejudices.

A few practical examples of how this happens or what this looks like are best offered in questions for your consideration and reflection.

How do we proclaim “salvation to all” while believing that our ‘race’ is God’s choice?

How do we believe in an all- powerful God while claiming our human supremacy, making exceptions to God’s rule?

How do we behave unmercifully to persons who look and live differently than we do while believing in a merciful God?

How do we hate our neighbor and love ourselves?

How do we harbor unforgiveness, resentment and bitterness while claiming God as our refuge?

How do we deny and delay the calling to the ministry of reconciliation?

How do we benefits from the privileges of race while knowing they come at the expense of oppressing other people?

How do we explain, justify and make room for historical disinterest, anger and resentment?

How do we repeat after Jesus and see in stereotypes?

How do we follow Jesus and historical prejudices?

Why do we think that our hatreds our justified– even as we profess our belief in the God of love, compassion and justice?

The answer: the race pass.

We cannot believe in the social construct of race, hold its prejudices and stereotypes and profess faith in Jesus Christ, holding his hand and our cross.  We cannot keep the race pass and carry the cross of Christ too.  We have to put one down.