Image

The Death of Respectability Politics

This weekend was the anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown.  A year has passed and the country has borne witness to countless uprisings and interruptions. The white left is losing its mind over protestors who dare to disrupt white political saviors with the message that “black lives matter.” The white right reflects on this anniversary with the same mantra they had a year ago: Mike Brown “was no angel.” Everywhere along the political spectrum comes critique of black voices: slow down, wait until the facts are in.

The only facts in my mind this weekend have been these:

mike1 mike2mike3 mike4 mike5 mike6 At the heart of all this commentary about how black voices should respond to black deaths are the unwritten rules of respectability guided by the cultural principles of white fragility. White fragility demands that any challenge to power come forward with respect and deference to whiteness. Dr. Robin Diangelo writes:

The Rules of Engagement

After years of working with my fellow whites, I have found that the only way to give feedback correctly is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:

1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

If you do, you break the cardinal rule:

2. Proper tone is crucial – feedback must be given calmly. If there is any emotion in the feedback, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.

3. There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.

4. Our relationship must be issue-free – If there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism.

5. Feedback must be given immediately, otherwise it will be discounted because it was not given sooner.

6. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of anyone else—even those involved in the situation—is to commit a serious social transgression. The feedback is thus invalid.

7. You must be as indirect as possible. To be direct is to be insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

8. As a white person I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Giving me any feedback on my racism will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe” what I really mean is “comfortable.”

9. Giving me feedback on my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (i.e. classism, sexism, heterosexism). We will then need to focus on how you oppressed me.

10. You must focus on my intentions, which cancel out the impact of my behavior.

11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

This isn’t new. The Civil Rights movement had his own set of respectability expectations. This is why we all know who Rosa Parks is, but Claudette Colvin, the pregnant teen that months before Parks’ defiance refused to give up her seat on a bus, remains obscured by Parks’ respectable image. This is why King himself and many others frequently marched in suits. But Dr. King knew as well as any black person in America today know, respectability won’t save you.

FullSizeRenderThe only way to challenge systems of white supremacy is to challenge the political structures that give it cover, which can be messy. It can appear rude and it will be out of order. These young organizers know that. And so, for their banner, they’ve chosen to honor Mike Brown. Not because he makes a pristine poster child, but because he was a human being gunned down in the street without dignity. They choose Eric Garner whose petty crime of selling loose cigarettes was met with punishment so disproportionately brutal that thousands would take to the streets singing, “I can hear my neighbor crying saying I can’t breathe. Now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave.”

They choose women like Natasha McKenna, who contended with mental illness and violent policing until the latter did her in by covering her face, shackling her hands, and tasing her until she died. This movement isn’t playing by respectability rules. I have to say, as a white Christian, I’m here for it.

The cross tells us all we need to know about respectability politics. You don’t get more respectable than the holy, sinless, Son of God. Rome was known for its cruelty, for its arbitrary justice and unmatched power. Yet there amid empire approached a young carpenter whose days and nights were spent with the poor, those who made their living from the land and sea, the politically disenfranchised, the zealots, harlots, and yes, even turncoats who once extracted payment from their own kin for the sake of the empire. He called them to Himself, and He went into their homes in pursuit of them. The company He kept alone could have sent Jesus to the cross.

Jesus dwelled among the radicals because in loving Him, one could not help but be made radicalized. Jesus’ challenge to empirical power was not a direct one. He led no military, He told men to put their swords away when they had opportunity to strike. Yet He confronted power at every turn. He denounced the legitimacy of entrenched institutional power: religious and secular. He stood captive before both the Sanhedrin and Pilate and in those crucial moments before power, as author-pastor Mark Buchanan writes,

Jesus is silent and He commands silence when speaking would gain the most attention, applause, financial support, adulation, self-protection. But He speaks when it costs Him the most.

I thought about Jesus’ silence this week when I saw a video of a young mother refusing to give her full information to the police that were forcefully interrogating her in front of her kids. I thought about Jesus’ speaking and table-tossing when I saw a pair of black women take a Seattle stage set for Bernie Sanders. I saw it when Sandra Bland refused to leave her car and persistently articulated her rights. Everywhere I look in this movement for liberation, I see Christ.

You see, Mike Brown may have been “no angel.” He didn’t need to be. He was a human person like you or I, full of sin and yet made a saint in Christ. Like the alleged criminal on the cross next to Christ, Mike, Eric, Sandra, Natasha…they all suffered punishments that weren’t meant to bring justice. Their deaths were meant to send the same warning to the populace the thief’s crucifixion would have sent: don’t mess with Rome. Rome wins at all costs.

Jesus looked at the thief at His side and promised paradise. He gave the man hope of a place where justice actually would be just, where the meek would reign instead of being rained down upon by the powerful and privileged. In going to the cross and identifying with those He met there, Jesus demonstrated the injustice, utter brutality, and callousness of Roman culture. His death indicted that system the way Mike Brown’s death indicts ours, perhaps not in a temporal sin-fraught court, but in an eternal one that regards black life as sacred, and the marginalization of black lives a systemic sin of great proportion. It is from this place I hear echoes of the refrain, “black lives matter!” It is in those courts that like Isaiah, I say to the Lord, confessing my white fragility and renouncing my own desires for respectable confrontation:

Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

It’s not an easy to thing to do racial justice work as a white person. There are times when we will feel burned by our own legacy. Solidarity often has a sting like death. Will we open our mouths to relieve this commission?

In the book Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, Curtiss DeYoung writes:

Unjust systems appear normal to those in power, and any change will produce feelings of loss. True reconciliation, through the cross of Jesus, will affect the lives of the privileged. The colonizer has to completely leave the confines of power and privilege and join with those who are colonized. Of the colonizer, Memmi declared, ‘let him adopt the colonized people and be adopted by them; let him be a turncoat.’

This is exactly what protestors have been challenging us to do since Ferguson when they disrupted an orchestral concert singing a requiem for Mike Brown: “Which side are you on, brother, which side are you on?”

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross doesn’t give us a free pass to continue to cooperate with systemic evil. We must speak out about these black deaths, respectability be damned. It is time to work out our salvation here, white folks. This week as I reflect on all that has happened this last year, I want my white friends to count the cost of doing this work well. How freely do we give up space? How quickly do we make demands based on our own entitlement? Are we willing to take on burdens that aren’t our own and become turncoats? What are we willing to risk for solidarity and liberation?

Will we be humble enough to receive correction or will we defensively respond with our “good white person” resume? There’s only one Savior, and it’s certainly not us. White folks, do we truly want us all to be saved from white supremacy?

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn't exist since 1992 (or longer)

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn’t exist since 1992 (or longer)

Advertisements

One of the good ones

This weekend, I went to a DC Black Lives Matter training called, “Dear White Allies.” The training was created because of the hurt that some of the white protestors have caused protestors of color at local actions. Friends, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed up as an ally.

There comes a point when as an ally of marginalized folks, you’re tested. Truth be told, many of us will fail these tests. Some of us learn from failure, apologize, and pick up again, better allies for the lesson in humility. Those lessons are important, but we shouldn’t be cavalier about our learning curve: “I’m just going to keep showing up [and being abusive and checked for it] because that’s how I learn, through experience.” Nope. A big part of being an ally is learning that when we fail in these ways, we hurt people.

Even the most well-intentioned ally can stumble. After a while of doing this work, we begin to think we’ve arrived. We get comfortable with what we know and how trusted we’ve become. We may even get a little famous for it in our communities (or on the internet).

Unfortunately, not enough of us are...yet.

Unfortunately, not enough of us are…yet.

Calling our own people out becomes a way of distancing ourselves from the “us,” and makes us allies feel like the good guys. We’re the white hat deputies in the fight against injustice, don’t you know?

symbolsYet inevitably, as professing allies, we’ll say or do something downright stupid. We might have our act together on the outside, but our inconsistencies and personal prejudices will start to show. Our ignorance will prevail upon an unsuspecting victim. If we’re vigilant, these mistakes can create an important time of pruning for us. If we’re in loving relationships, someone who cares will point these things out to us.

But many of us buck against the critique when it comes. We do all the things we fuss at our own folks for: we reject critique because of tone, we deliver our ally resume and dismiss those we deem less-qualified to speak, we pick up our ball and go home. We complain that we are untrusted, persecuted, all the while losing sight of the fact that the folks we say we’re standing with of face that kind of scrutiny and skepticism daily. Sometimes seemingly “unfair” scrutiny is the price of solidarity. Good allies are willing to take that kind of heat.

Hours before they all run for the hills.

Hours before they all run for the hills.

We ignore the fact that our failure hurts folks and instead of centering the concerns of our friends, the stakes become about us and our reputations: “Y’all make me look like a bad ally. I look like one of *those* people we’re all against.” We make the mistake of thinking that allyship is about our heroism, our ability to be the exemplars, the shiny contrast among our kind. We forget how easy it is to betray our friends and their cause. We get offended that people are injured by our offenses, so we put up barriers for self-preservation, even obstructing the progress we once supported.

The Most Rebuked Apostle

The Most Rebuked Apostle

Being a good ally begins with centering the concerns of others. Remaining a good ally depends upon the same. Ally work isn’t about reinforcing “us versus them” by merely switching teams. This is humanity we’re talking about. Not some (albeit awesome) dualistic sci-fi adventure.

Sweet! Team Blue Swords

Sweet! Team Blue Swords

Allies fail when we get confused and think a good ally is one of “us” joining “them” in the fight against “us.” Ally work involves navigating both spaces: “us” and “them.” Allies help the rest of “us” shed personal prejudices and join the work to undo power structures that keep “them” oppressed by everything involved in the “versus.” We do oppose our own folks from time to time, but with the clear vision that our enemy is bigger and more insidious than the individuals in front of us:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Allies who trade difficult navigation work for self-congratulatory gate-keeping will fail every time. That’s not our role. Our desperation to preserve appearances and maintain our post at the gate can quickly become an idol. Let’s keep ourselves humble, listening to and weighing critique when we receive it. Let’s never let our reputations as allies become more important to us than the people we’re standing with in solidarity.

I began this post saying I’ve messed this up big time as an ally. I still do. As a disabled woman, I’ve also learned to forgive equally epic failures. Building a beloved, just community is hard work. Humility, empathy, and quick repentance are required. If you’ve messed up, confess it. Do the work in you and then get to dismantling structures of oppression (even those you’ve helped to build).

That’s the work of an ally. No gate-keepers need apply.

White lies: they won’t kill you if you’re peaceful

A lot of people I talk to about police brutality ask me, “Why don’t black folks just submit to cops and cooperate?” It’s a seemingly reasonable question, but it makes a couple of important assumptions: 1) black folks aren’t cooperative with or appropriately respectful of police in the first place, and 2) brutality and harassment are in some way the responsibility of the victim, and not the perpetrator. The idea that black folks can perform for their own humanity is downright offensive.

This concept is called “respectability politics.” A quick primer from Gradient Lair:

The politics of respectability originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery.

The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation. (There are arguments to be made that this helped the women’s club movement among Black women’s anti-racism, womanist work in the early 20th century). However, what it ended up doing in many cases was fragmenting the Black working class/poor from the Black middle class, who despite performing respectability to spec, were often still alienated from the Whites they sought approval from. (Where do you think “uppity Negro” comes from? This.) And Black people regardless of class were (and still are) targets of racism.

Today, the politics of respectability is forcefully injected into any conversation about race by both Black and White people. Bill Cosby and Don Lemon are examples. And anytime they shame and scold fellow Black people (as the President has done sometimes too) Whites applaud because once again, they have ZERO accountability for racism.

This myth that White-approved performance (versus actually living) will eradicate racism because Whites will finally “like” Black people is ludicrous and is pushed by those who engage in victim blaming, since it’s easier than admitting the truth about racism.

Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?” then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save.

When we white folks argue that black folks should just cooperate with dehumanization, we are ignoring the fact that black parents have been giving de-escalation advice to their children for centuries. Giving children counsel on how to show deference to dangerous white folks is such a common conversation that it has come to be known as “The Talk.”

In a country where respected black men like LeVar Burton can be pulled over without cause or men like professor Henry Louis Gates can be arrested for “breaking into” their own homes, attempts at de-escalation by black folks is certainly not guaranteed to be effective.

During the prosecution of Jordan Davis’ killer, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, talked with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the uncertainty that the killer, who had been let off by a hung jury in his first trial, would see justice:

I am disheartened that as far as we’ve come it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. It doesn’t matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived.

Jordan Davis, like so many of his peers, was raised in a loving home, by parents that taught him to respect authority and be above reproach under scrutiny, even though they knew it might not be able to save his life. Respectability doesn’t consistently win the day. Davis’ family finally saw a conviction of his killer, but for many others, their deaths go unpunished. Coates writes elsewhere, speaking of white parents who discover the dangers their black children face:

This scenario is almost indistinguishable from any black parent forced to confront the future of their child in this country. The heart of the problem is that the mother’s child has been kicked out the dome and thrown into the wiles where—like all of us—her child stands a not-insignificant chance of becoming Jordan Davis.

And [2014] was the summer of Jordan Davises, the summer of bodies when every day, a black parent could log on to the Internet and see the bodies of black people choked into oblivion, beaten on the side of the road, stalked and raped, tased for straying too long, pistol-whipped for running too fast, shot down for mental illness, shot down for cos-play, shot down for allegedly ignoring orders, shot down for too quickly obeying orders.

Respectability is not the answer. Respectability interrogates the wrong actor and puts the responsibility for not-being-killed on the victim rather than the person who is abusing power or perpetrating the crime. We casually tell young black people that if they just cooperate with abusive systems, they will be fine. They might get arrested, but they won’t be killed. They can get a lawyer and live to fight another day.

But that advice ignores the disparities that we have in the racialized justice system. Racist policing might be one of the first threats, but it’s certainly not the only one. It often gets worse after the arrest. Jonathan Rapping writes:

We have accepted a criminal-justice narrative that lumps the world into categories of villains and heroes. Police and prosecutors are good guys in white hats. The communities they police—particularly poor and minority communities—are presumed dangerous. It is this dehumanization that lulls us into complacency, suppressing our outrage over the fact that 2.2 million, almost exclusively poor people are warehoused in conditions so deplorable that some would rather die than live in them (consider the sixty-day hunger strike last year at Pelican Bay State Prison protesting inhumane living conditions). It allows us to remain blind to the fact that the vast majority of people in the criminal-justice system are processed from arrest to conviction with only an overwhelmed and under resourced public defender to try to get them justice. It enables us to accept a system which disproportionately punishes people based on race. It enables us to become completely detached from the people and families destroyed by our indifference, and to accept “tough on crime” policies that destroy America’s most vulnerable communities.

The battle for equal justice will only be won when we demand equal treatment in every aspect of our justice system. We must muster outrage over the routine dehumanization that happens in our criminal-justice system, rather than reserve it for the most extraordinary instances of injustice, if we are to maintain a movement for change.

As Christians, it’s even more imperative that we reject respectability politics. We have to start asking ourselves, why do we only value human life when it is respectable? Is that attitude consistent with the gospel of human life that we preach? Did Christ die for the respectable? When He walked the earth, did Christ live among the respectable? Was He Himself “respectable“?

Jesus challenged evil in the authorities and principalities of his day. Does He still not challenge the evil in ours? We should join Him there and stand in solidarity with the marginalized instead of blaming them for their oppression. After all, He is the prince of peace, and they killed Him, too.

FullSizeRender

Don’t buy the lies of white supremacy. Black lives matter.

Deflection

A dramatization of ‭Matthew‬ ‭23, inspired by conversations I’m having about Ferguson‬:‭

Then Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

And a man nearby responded, “Not all Pharisees.”

IMG_4560.JPG

Creative destruction: Ferguson, White Responses, and the Gospel

I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about the world Jesus was born into: a world where some Jewish people were exiled, others living under Roman occupation. The Jews in Israel were ruled by one of their own, a royal governor, whose allegiance to his people was never as strong as his allegiance to the Roman state, the source of his power. It is into this system our God comes in the flesh to dwell among humankind. His birth is immediately met with sweeping violence, the loss of a generation of young boys and babies because the mere existence of a Jewish Messiah was too great a risk for the governor to take. For this Emmanuel threatened to completely expose the king’s misplaced loyalty. Christ questioned the legitimacy of the king’s power simply through the defiant act of growing up, of surviving.

Our Emmanuel still comes to us in these times when young people lose their lives to powers that were supposedly installed to protect and serve justice.

KilledByCops_Infographic8Our Emmanuel still comes and flips over tables in our temples, asking us to consider what could possibly be more valuable than the human beings that bear His image? Surely not our places of commerce. Surely not the well-established disorder we absentmindedly worship. I think about the heat and rage in this image of Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple. I can’t imagine a more upsetting scene than a previously patient and peaceful teacher, a devout Jewish man, thrashing about and destroying property His people thought was sacred, devoted to God’s work.

141126065626-03-ferguson-1126-horizontal-gallery

The Jews were so used to this system. It’s just how it worked. This is how God wants it, right? It was painful to the most vulnerable, yet so familiar and entrenched it demanded cooperation. But Jesus wanted them to see it for what it was: a yoke of oppression. In Luke, He says, “The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” He delivered on that promise, but whether it was in the temple courts or on the cross where Jesus died, surely from the outside, it all looked like destruction.

Austin Channing wrote this week:

I serve a demonstrating Christ. Surely Christ could have stood on the steps of the temple, at the entrance and waved his arm toward the commotion. Surely he could have declared to anyone who would stop long enough to listen, “Do you see what is happening in there?” “Don’t you think someone should stop this?” Surely he could have taken his twelve from stall to stall and quietly pointed out each atrocity before his eyes. Calmly explaining his rationale to each seller, he could have ministered to each one persuading them to do what it right. Surely he could have been patient and kind asking each one to please leave the temple. Surely he could have used humor to catch people off guard. Or perhaps he could have waited- waited until the day was done, until Passover was done, until the Temple was done. Surely he could have… could have done anything other than demonstrate.

But I serve a Christ who disrupts.

In the past week, we’ve seen much agitation in our country. There have been intense and deliberate attempts to discredit the work and motives of the righteously indignant people of Ferguson. For months, for years, even lifetimes for some of them, these folks have been working for a new order that addresses historic and systemic injustices. Scripture says the enemy of God prowls like a lion. It warns us to be sober and alert. Twitter activists keep reminding all of us to #staywoke. I imagine the Enemy’s pace is quickening even now as we collectively and individually consider the possibility that this system we take for granted and call “order,” is in fact, white supremacy: an evil that must be uprooted in our hearts, our churches, and every human institution.

We are told in Scripture to get mentally and spiritually destructive about this:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭10‬:‭3-5‬ ESV)

Yet, I’m still seeing white Christians post this malarkey unchallenged by their white friends:

Image links to Organize Missouri's donation page for Ferguson protestors' bail fund

Image links to Organize Missouri’s donation page for Ferguson protestors’ bail fund

So when we see conversations about Ferguson take the ugliest of turns, we must respond with truth that affirms the humanity of all involved. We cannot congratulate any person on the taking of human life. Nor can we sit idly by while people are called or treated as “animals.”

Lord, be merciful, for we are quick to condemn that which we are slow to understand. I thought momentarily about prefacing this whole post with “I don’t condone rioting,” but I’m not going to dismiss what’s been happening that easily. The situation requires inquiry and empathy not qualification or pat denouncements. Such condemnations attempt to keep the pain and anger of this community at a distance, and it reinforces a respectability standard that is unjust and impossible for black people to maintain. Roxane Gay wrote this week:

If we were talking about the murder of my child, I would not be dignified. I would be naked and hideous with my grief. I would rage. If I were murdered in such a manner, I would want people to rage on my behalf. I would want to be remembered loudly, with fire. Such visible outrage could be its own kind of grace.

Don’t misunderstand those words. Violence is not the answer but neither is peace.

White supremacy has been pressing down hard for centuries. Sometimes, folks are going to push back hard, especially when little attention or recourse has been given for their pain.

I believe it’s going to take a lot more agitation before we see progress. The frustration may get worse before it gets better. I do not know if those of us new to the fight have the stamina for it. We are untested and unreliable. We have to be willing to push forward anyway. We have role models among us. Let’s get behind them and learn.

I have hope that things are changing because I know God stands with the oppressed. He kneels to wash their feet and bind their wounds. He does not condemn them even if, in the weakness of their humanity, they falter. He says, when you see them, you see me. What you do to them, you do to me. What you do for them and with them, you do for and with me.

But He doesn’t stop there because He offers hope and conciliation for repentant oppressors, like Paul and Zacchaeus too. He gives second chances and a new calling to those who, in their ignorance or despair, did not recognize Him even as He walked and talked with them for miles.

God’s justice is not [color]blind justice. The only scales in His hands are those He has lovingly removed from our eyes so that we can see our brothers and sisters, and fully commit ourselves to them. If things feel out of balance right now, ask yourself why. Could it be that God has come and is righteously wrecking the former things, so that He can show us once again, “behold, I make all things new.” Sometimes it’s good to be unbalanced.

Perhaps like Isaiah, when we recognize the image of God resting on our black brothers and sisters, we will rightly respond with Isaiah’s confession when he saw the glory of God: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” It’s possible when we do that, He will invite us to join Him in the work He’s already doing.

May all of us who have been missing what God is up to in our day be made new in this generation to stand for justice alongside the oppressed.

**If you’re not already reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, start now.

Sunday meditations: Where do we go now?

Andrew Wilkes, from his piece in the Huffington Post, “Ferguson as Christological Challenge: Rethinking Jesus in an Unjust Society:”

The Christological consensus of American Christendom — and its corollary ecclesial equation — is that our Savior changes persons that, in turn, change the world. No sense of institutional iniquity or social sin here, just an excessively voluntarist, volitional account of discipleship and good works. This Christology does not resemble the Jesus of the Gospels or Paul’s epistles, is politically untenable, sociologically flat-footed, and inadvertently anoints hierarchies of power, wealth, and opportunity. Further, this self-help Savior is a privatized pardoner of individual indiscretions and secret sins — not the Righteous Reconciler, Palestinian prophet, and cosmic Lord of the New Testament. Let us bury the New York Times-bestselling, life coach Jesus, along with the ecclesiology of egoism it implies.

 

Instead, I propose that we restate a conviction that requires interpretation in every generation: Jesus saves us from sin. One sin from which we need saving now is our unjust treatment of and implicit bias about who bears God’s image. The idea that each human refracts, however imperfectly, the qualities of a just and loving God, is a precondition for Christian redemption. Everyone who breathes — even when police officers choke out their capacity to do so — mirrors the ineffable yet discernible attributes of God. Black folks are not candidates for redemption when our inalienable rights, endowed to us by our just and loving Creator, cannot be asserted without rigorous rejoinder. If these things be true, where do we go from here?

To the foot of the cross, equally needed by all, where Jesus redeems the privileged and the precarious — red, yellow, black, brown, and white — by renewing our embodied minds from self-sovereignty, God-hostility, and interior acceptance of ugly, social asymmetries of power, opportunity, and wealth along the fault lines of race. Jesus can save us from sin, especially the sin of white supremacy and all its imago Dei-negating works.

 

Operation Help or Hush is providing supplies for people on the ground in Ferguson.

Stories on housing integration, social networking integration, and churches that have been harassed for serving as a refuge center for Ferguson residents/protestors.

churchAn amazing theological Twitter discussion about Marissa Alexander’s case (image at bottom links to more info).

killjoytweetAnd a piece by Sarah Jaffe and Mariame Kaba and Randy Albelda and Kathleen Geier on the criminalization of mothers.

Stay prayerful, and as Katelyn at By Their Strange Fruit says, let’s “put some feet to our tweets” this week, y’all.

Art by Jawaan Burge (2014)

Art by Jawaan Burge (2014)

 

The Silent Idol of Whiteness

Since my post over the weekend, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about whiteness. And I don’t like it. To talk about whiteness is to saddle up the angry elephant in the room and ride that sucker around.

In America, whiteness is our default. I catch myself in conversations with my husband where I’m describing a new acquaintance and I’ll describe everything about her BUT her race if she’s white. If she’s not, race is the first thing I usually mention. White is my default. Everyone else is other. I’m learning to see whiteness.

And what I’m seeing when I see whiteness isn’t just race. I’m seeing the lies behind the labels. I’m seeing my own fears and biases. (If you want to borrow my mirror on this, there are bias tests that can help you see your own ugly.) This week, I shared this comment on Facebook. It felt like a plea for help, like all confession does.

I don’t condone destruction or looting. I have to ask, though, why collectively we’re more concerned about storefronts and the destruction of property than we are about loss of human life? Why are we more afraid of a large group of unarmed angry black protestors than we are of armed angry white protestors? I’m asking these questions of myself as much as I’m asking any of you guys. When it comes to racism, there may be differing degrees of complicity and perpetration, but we’re all in recovery together. Let’s admit we have a problem…Hi, my name is Cayce and I’ve adopted racist constructs and fears.

Most of the conversations I’ve been having about whiteness go off the rails immediately. The biggest obstacle to productive discussions and reflection comes when a white person I’m talking to says, “Are you calling me a racist?” I’m immediately put on the defensive, and compelled to walk back what I’ve said, etc. because where we live, being called a racist is worse than actually being one. Now, there are a lot of fantastic resources on the web to deal with this particular derailment. (My favorite is this one.)

But the truth is, no matter what facts you give, no matter how you walk it back or try to explain it, the accusation that you’ve called a white person a racist just sticks. So from here on, I’m changing my strategy. If you ask me am I calling you a racist, I’m going there with you:

Yes. You are a racist. So am I. Let’s get some help.

If I’ve learned anything from my walk with Jesus, if someone is calling me out, I will want to fight it. But every confrontation with the truth goes easier for me if I surrender quickly. So, my reputation as a white person with racist attitudes is out there.

There is a fear in facing the whiteness and all the privilege it entails. We can’t seem to look it in the eye. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think the most likely is this: we like the lie.

Bejamin Corey addresses this at Patheos:

If we admit to the existence of systemic racism in America, it will prove false the American narrative so many of us grew up believing…We can’t admit that systemic racism exists, because that will mean the narrative we were taught about America is a huge lie…If we admit to the existence of systemic racism in America, it makes us guiltyWe don’t want to admit it because we’d have to admit that we’ve been complicit in the sin by not addressing the sin…If we admit to the existence of systemic racism, it would demand costly change.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates nailed it this week in the context of conversations about what’s going down in Ferguson:


We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun. The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, “You’re gonna die tonight,” and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear.

Taken all together, the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks. And that is terrifying because it shows us to be neither providential nor exceptional, and only special in the subjective sense that our families are special—because they are ours.

As Coates points out, we have a distorted view of our history in America. We want the good old story so bad, so we will refuse to see the connections of the evils in our past and the evils in our present.

Squandering opportunities to do it better than we did before.

Squandering opportunities to do it better than we did before.

The Bible makes it clear that there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps it’s because despite our lip-service to the contrary, we don’t really want to learn our lesson. But God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. He’s given us the opportunity to start again. He died and brought Himself back so that we could know the liberation of confession, forgiveness, and contrition. He’s given us His Word to bring us hope and to teach us what to do. He’s calling us to stand with the oppressed.

Greg Ogden writes:

The symbol of justice in our society is a blindfolded woman, indicating that justice is blind. The fair judge is dispassionately objective, free from bias, who rationally decides what is right before an impersonal law. On the other hand, the role of the judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemtively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful. So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and the righteous…

Time and again we see God’s prophets rail against the abuses of the powerful. To those of us living under the illusion of “American justice” as it stands today, reading the Scriptures can be disconcerting. We want to explain this aspect of God’s character away with a hermeneutic, “Well, He meant poor in spirit. Well, He meant that for that time, and that culture only. He doesn’t do that to nations or expect that of us anymore.” We just ‘splain these texts away.

To us, Biblical justice feels unfair. It feels like partiality. Because it is.

God in His wisdom, has accounted for our propensity for sin and abuse of power. He has anticipated our behavior, both the individual and the collective, and He talks about it. A lot.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter…

He also gives us a solution for these problems in confession, repentance, and ultimately, solidarity:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

-Ecclesiastes 4

The privileged among us don’t just stand in solidarity just to be helpful. We are called to need the oppressed. The oppressed keep us accountable for our complicity in oppression. They remind us of the suffering servant Jesus. They give us the opportunity to participate with God in an act of restorative justice. They shatter our insulated, white-informed [un]consciousness with their prayers of lamentation:

We are touching the bibles handed down from our great-grandparents gnarled hands to our smooth, desk-working ones. We are reciting the promises inside them. Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousnessBlessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

You promised, we pray, as though we’ve been betrayed. You promised, we repeat, as though we may have been forsaken. But we’d forgotten that we are still walking and that the shadow of death may not look like a hospital bed at the end of a long, storied life, but instead like a city on lockdown, asphyxiating its citizens, imposing a curfew on all who seek justice, donning riot gear and rolling tanks simply to protect a police officer who murdered someone whose skin looked like our own.

(There is still time left, right, Lord? There’s still time, isn’t there, for You to redeem these dark times?)

 Please. Please. Just be patient. We are making our way. But you must understand that it is hard, when we are cordoned on all sides by toxic clouds. Surely, you can empathize with how difficult it is to be clear-eyed while gagging on these cannisters of cover-ups.

Stacia Brown

We’ve worked hard to build this American narrative: of founding fathers, hearth-tending mothers, courageous colonizers, forbearing minorities, and magnanimous white benefactors. But hard work does not a truth make. We have become like the blacksmith constructing an idol in Isaiah 44:

The blacksmith takes a tool
    and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
    he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
    he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
    or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
    or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
    some of it he takes and warms himself,
    he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
    he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
    over it he prepares his meal,
    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
    he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
    “Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
    no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
    I even baked bread over its coals,
    I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
    Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

It’s time to acknowledge the singe story we’ve told ourselves, and admit we’ve bought into a system of oppression. We’ve believed it. We defended it. We’ve taught our children to love it. We have worshipped the idol and laid waste to the image of God that He set before us in the bodies of our black brothers and sisters.

policeAcknowledging the truth about America doesn’t mean I hate it. It doesn’t negate the sacrifice people before us have made with their lives. For the love of God, Christ died for sinners while they were still sinners. We’re no exception to that because we’re American or because we’re white. We’re full of error. And that is an amendable fact if we own up to it.

shirleyWe have to ask ourselves if we have biases that inconsistent with God’s justice. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Who gets scrutiny? Who do we easily love? Who do we easily fear? These aren’t fun questions. The answers are often embarrassing. But they don’t have to be the last word because we have a remarkable capacity for change.

Am I racist? Yes, but I might not be racist tomorrow. It’s possible to do better. Rather than defending my reputation, I want to change my posture and seek to be saved from this. I have to hold out hope, despite the things I’m seeing to the contrary, that us white people can get it right.