Tag Archives: raceless gospel

Lovers or Liars?

I recently completed my final report for the Louisville Institute.  These generous partners in ministry awarded me a grant to study the sociopolitical construct of race, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm and why persons fear Christian community.  I visited Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  It was Clarence’s “demonstration plot.”  He would create his own world, challenging segregationist laws in the 1940s.  The community was intentional, sharing in a fair wage and a common purse.

The farm was bombed.  The business was boycotted.  The members of Koinonia Farm were ex-communicated from their church.  Because they loved their neighbor, their African American neighbor at a time when it was not socially or politically advantageous to do so. Clarence is my kind of Christian.

So, I set out to learn as much as I could in the year and a half I had allotted.  I registered for conferences, signed up for workshops, ate fellowship meals, had tough conversations.  I asked hard questions of myself and those around me.  I dug deep and nearly scraped the bottom of my soul.

I conducted interviews and read a small library of books about the sociopolitical construct of race, intentional community, the life, work and witness of Clarence Jordan on Koinonia Farm, multi- cultural/ cross- cultural ministry, forgiveness and reconciliation.  I took copious notes, wrote extensively, preached the message of community faithfully.  I even redecorated my office in D.C. to reflect the work that had reshaped my life.  It was all about community- building.

I was being transformed, emphasis on the I.

In the end, the results were not what I expected.  No statistic or story could have prepared me for the narrative that would emerge.  Long story short– Christians are afraid of Christian community.  While there are those who would point to those who are doing it right (“See, we’re not all bad.”), there is a long and troubling history of Christians in North America who do not follow Jesus in the way of love, who refuse to integrate socially with persons of other cultures, who refuse to integrate their faith and life.  As it was during American slavery so it is now.  Bible in one hand and a whip in the other, European Americans are shamelessly able to oppress others while claiming to espouse the liberating words of Jesus Christ.

Call them what you will.  It makes no difference because at least they are white.  And in America, whiteness pays.  It pays to play.

It must be said that those who agree to the conditions of whiteness (that is, the oppression of other cultural groups so that they might have privileged access to wealth, the land and its resources) are a serious impediment to the healing work required for reconciliation in the Church.  You simply cannot build an authentic Christian community where whiteness and its interests are at the center, if socially colored white people do all the leading and none of the following, if they control the resources and determine the ministry emphases, if they influence the votes to ensure that it always goes their way in business meetings.  Because the identity of whiteness is protected at all costs.  Put above the cross of Christ, who persons are as white people and as the model citizens for the world in appearance, behavior and conduct is to be defended.

But it takes the place of Christ’s body and his work.  Or, is it that there are those who think that their body is his?  The work of race is complete in these cases, swapping out Christ’s body for their own, deifying their flesh and nullifying the work of his.

To be sure, this is not a matter of identifying with Christ’s body or doing what he would.  This is proof that America’s created identity of whiteness is wedged in between the cross and the crown for many European Americans.  The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God are at odds but there are those who believe that they are one and the same, that if you have seen a socially colored white person, then you have seen God.  Skin “color” long associated with good and evil and used to determine the heathen/ barbarian/ uncivilized versus the civilized/ cultured, the same is true for the Church in North America.  The social coloring of skin separates the righteous from the unrighteous.  It is not a matter of separating goats and sheep but “white” people and all the other “people of color.”  The Church has a color line.

Christians, who claim to be made in the image of God, live in and through racialized identities. They create segregated sacred spaces, somehow walking in the footsteps of Jesus while avoiding marginalized and oppressed people who are victims of race and its progeny.  The theological disconnect could not be more obvious.

Persons will close ranks and churches will close up shop in a community that is experiencing cultural change before it will integrate.  They will take their Bibles and believe somewhere else.  Christians need for power, all while worshipping an all- powerful God, cannot be underestimated. The impact of colonialism, American slavery and its other versions of domination continue to determine and influence the ways in which we relate to each other.  And even for persons of faith, they cannot get the colonizer out of their head.

John said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (First John 4.20).  In my estimation, there are only two choices, only two kinds of people.  Love is the deciding factor.  Because you cannot love God and not love everyone that God has created.  It is a package deal.  Take it or leave it.

So, Christians, if there is hatred in your heart for your brother or sister, the one you won’t speak to, who you dodge at the grocery store, whose food you don’t like though you’ve never tasted it, whose clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in, then you are not a lover but a big, old liar.  John is pretty clear that there are no little white ones.  There is no question about it.

You’re not race-less yet?

UnknownStill signing up and showing up for the role of colored people, black, brown, red, yellow, white and otherwise?  Well, here are a few words of wisdom from two of my favorite writers to get you to choose differently and to say something more about who you are as a human being.  Because race is just a word albeit systematized, politicized, capitalized on.

But there are many other words that can be said about us and our neighbor.  We need only seek them out and speak them out loud.  A new tongue is required along with a taste for full freedom and authentic being. It’s a stretch to get our mouths around words like racelessness and aracial; however, it is well worth it.  For if we are to build another world, it will require new words that equip new structures on which to construct our shared humanity.

Anyone who knows me at all, knows that James Baldwin is a must in this conversion experience.  This master- teacher, healer and word- therapist says,

“If you’re treated a certain way, you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real, they’re real for you– whether they’re real or not.”

“From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.”

“What you say about anybody else reveals you.”

“It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line.”

“The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.”

“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, without knowing that this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”

Zora Neale Hurston is another deliverer from this death of individuality.  She says,

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

“Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less.”

“For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear, and which ever expresses itself in dislike.”

“At certain times, I have no race.  I am me.  I belong to no race or time.”

Are you race-less yet?  If not, say these words again… and again until they become your own.

 

Asking for a generation

What could the Church in North America do if it put its hands together across cultures, if it desegregated its pews and pulpits, if it reflected the changing community outside its doors?  Who would we become and what witness could we offer the world if we chose our baptismal identity in Christ over and against racialized identities, if we adamantly rejected this superficial categorization of flesh?  What would we be saying if we lived within the counter- narrative of belonging in spite of class, gender and cultural lines, if we did not remake Jesus as a politician or political party leader?  Where could the Church in North America’s leadership go if it did not masculinize leadership, if we really believed that God was in control?

These are genuine questions because I don’t understand the color- coded scenarios of our relationships, these skin- incentivized experiences in North America and specifically its Church.  Segregation is illegal.  But churches break this law every Sunday at 11 a.m. and in some places three times on Sunday.

We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, segregated while identifying as the body of Christ.  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24).  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, claiming to be siblings in Christ and all apart of God’s family.  Then why the continued separation?

Oh, I know.  It’s the worship style.  We like our music this way.  It is about control.  Because Christianity in America has a paternalistic bend with persons who feel the need to oversee the movement of other Christians.  “Don’t clap.  Don’t respond to the preaching.  That’s not what we do here.”

The question of why the Church in North America remains segregated is fully answered by Henry Mitchell in his work Black Church Beginnings, where he offers priceless intel.  The “Black Church” was started under the surveillance of so- called white people.  Their time for worship was managed, no longer than two hours.  Their messengers were predetermined and approved by European American spiritual overseers, as it were, to ensure that the narrative of their conditional belonging in America was not questioned or challenged.  Their churches were funded by these spiritual overseers, another means of control and manipulation.  Dependent upon their financial support, African American people in “leadership” did not stray from the scripted responses of race, which brought the plantation into the Church.

Things haven’t changed.  There remains the mindset that African American bodies need to be controlled, evident in the continued murder of unarmed African American people who are “living while black.”  There is a continued devaluation and judgement of their worship practices, style and length of their spiritual services.  There is also a financial dependency in some denominations for their survival that maintain the roles of American slavery.  In my opinion, the Church in North America has yet to be started.

The colonizers did not seek to bring God’s kingdom near with chattel slavery as its foundation.  Those persons called “founding fathers” gave birth to nothing new but reproduced the slavery of their homeland, though far worse.  And while there are those who would shake their heads in agreement with me, their mouths tells a different story.  They continue to accept the answers that race gives them while what I hear is largely questionable.

Race cannot save you

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It’s not in the Bible, not a part of the creation narrative in Genesis, not stuck in between the serpent’s teeth or on the tip of its tongue.  This is not the devil’s work but ours.   We must take full credit.  It’s not even historical fiction but a modern day lie.

Not B.C. but way A.D.

Race didn’t come with Adam and Eve’s knowledge of good and evil or the Ten Commandments Moses receives in Exodus.  It was not a tree or on one in the Garden of Eden.  Race, its categories and prejudicial policies for human behavior and interaction weren’t etched in stone by the Divine finger.  Its stereotypes were not packed in one of the bags of the Israelites, who were on their way to the Promised Land.  Search them all.  Race is not there.

Race was never a law, Levitical or otherwise.  There is no saying, “We are as guilty as skin.”  It wasn’t joined with the priesthood, used in the selection of God’s chosen people, their prophets or kings.  Their physical appearance was not apart of the criteria.  The social colorings of skin didn’t make the list.  No skin- sins here.

There were no race wars or hierarchies or systems at work.  Race was not in their vocabulary.  It was not how they saw themselves or others, including their enemies.  They saw color but not as we did; they did not attribute such power to flesh and certainly didn’t believe that they could rule persons based on the color of it.

Race wasn’t the inspiration for anything in the Bible.  It wasn’t a muse and is not listed on the extended worship track also known as the Psalms.  They did not worship a colored God, beige, brown, black, red, yellow or white.  Race had nothing to do with the Israelites’ relationship with God.

It wasn’t apart of the prophets’ pronouncements and judgments.  Through “forty and two generations,” race is not passed down.  It begat nothing in the Old Testament or the new one.  Jesus spends no time talking about his physical appearance– because it makes no difference though we create images to our liking.

Don’t believe me?  Take noted biblical scholar Cain Hope Felder’s word for it.  He writes in Race, Racism and the Biblical Narratives:

In antiquity, we do not have any elaborate definitions of or theories about race. … Ancient authors of biblical text did not have color conscious (awareness of certain physiological differences). … In fact, the Bible contains no narratives in which the original intent was to negate the full humanity of black people or view blacks in an unfavorable way. Such negative attitudes about black people and persons of direct African descent are entirely post- biblical.”  He cites Dr. Cornel West, American philosopher, political activist and public theologian who writes, “The very category of ‘race’—denoting primarily skin color—was first employed as a means of classifying human bodies by Francois Bernier, a French physician, in 1684.  The first authoritative racial division of humankind is found in the influential Natural System (1735) of the preeminent naturalist Carolus Linnaeus.”[1]

It’s not in the kingdom/ kin- dom of God.  It didn’t slip past Peter or scale the pearly gates. Race won’t make it in.  Race cannot save you.

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[1]Cain Hope Felder, Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 2.

Felder is citing Dr. Cornel West’s book Prophetic Fragments,(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 100.

Circling back

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Do you see the world through race- colored glasses?   Are you totally dependent on race to survive in the world around you?  Can’t leave  home without race?  Don’t know how you could understand the world without its prejudices and stereotypes?  If this is how you feel, then I understand.

I’ve been there and I have the Afro pick, the Kiswahili textbooks, the incense and the resistance poetry for beginners to prove it.  I used to be black, black and proud, black and angry, black and beautiful, black and conscious, a pre- cursor to being “woke.”  It was a cultural immersion or maybe a self- guided cultural exchange program, a total rejection of my Americanness and an intellectual pilgrimage back to Africa.  Blame it on my undergraduate history courses and the required readings for a concentration in African and Afro- American studies.  Before reading the slave narratives, the abolitionists’ witness and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I had a Black History month education of the African experience in America.

I feel like I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m not.  Growing up, we didn’t have many books in our home.  There was no local library.  Now with hundreds of books of my own, I cannot imagine my life without one.  Books make a house a home and I owe countless writers credit for guiding me to a place within myself that I could call the same.

After singing the spirituals and the blues, reading Olaudah Equiano’s startling testimony, the incidents in the life of Harriet Jacobs and the harrowing escape of Frederick Douglass and gaining the insights of  Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Charles Chestnut, W.E.B Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Robert Hayden, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks and of course, James Baldwin, I experienced a kind of conversion.  I had new eyes and ears.  There was a clarity and perspective that made me antsy.  I couldn’t get out of America and so I wanted America out of my head.  It started with my hair.

It was permed, processed, straightened out.  I cut my hair close to the scalp and learned that it curled.  Now nineteen years old, I don’t remember ever seeing my natural hair.  It had been corrected before I knew there was a problem.  Standing in front of the mirror, I liked what I saw and wondered who had a problem with my tresses.

All this time, I thought that something was wrong with my hair.

Those race- colored glasses were sliding down my nose and to my surprise, I was starting to look over them.  I had no desire to push them back into place again.  I began to see race for what it was and more importantly, for what it was not.  I realized that there was nothing wrong with my eyes either, that I could see just fine without them.  And rather than question myself, I began to question race.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the beginning of my raceless journey after reading Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others where she writes in parenthesis, “What would we be or do or become as a society if there were no ranking or theory of blackness?”  It is a necessary question for those who claim to be engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.  Do we even know how to answer it?  Or have we become so dependent on race that we dare not look at ourselves apart from it?

I’ve been there and if that is where you are, I am circling back to get you.  Race does not have a better view of our humanity and there is nothing wrong with your eyes.