Do You See This Woman?: Renisha McBride and the Imago Dei

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is invited over to a pharisee’s house for a dinner party. He has a place and space reserved at the table. His presence is welcomed. However, a woman realizes that Jesus will be at this home and decides to come by unannounced. However, the pharisee hosting the party only saw a “sinner”, rather than this woman who was made in the image of God. Her stigmatized reputation as a sinner was reason enough for many to marginalize this woman in that society. This woman recognizes Jesus’ worth and anoints him with costly oil. The pharisee, in his mind, believes he knows the essence of this woman, which is again nothing more than Sinner. Jesus and this marginalized woman, are now both bound together in judgment by the pharisee because Jesus’ allows her to anoint him. Jesus tells this pharisee, Simon, a story and then asks a simple question: “Do you see this woman?” 

Simon saw a “sinner” but Jesus saw a “woman” loved and created by God. Simon instantly judged this woman, as though he knew her essence. But Jesus flips the script and makes this woman who was marginalized in her society the embodiment of God’s in-breaking Shalom and Kingdom activity. Jesus lifts up this woman on the margins as an example and standard that this religious man had failed to live up to. She is told to go and continue on in God’s peace. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is continually portrayed as caring for, standing in solidarity with, and often discipling women in a way that would have been understood as threatening the social order of his time (and often still our time). Jesus loved to liberate women on the margins from the societal and physical bondage they found themselves in. This “sinful woman” must be understood in light of this larger theme seen throughout Jesus’ life that seeks to bear witness to God’s love for women on the margins.

On November 2, 2013, in the suburbs of Detroit, Renisha McBride, a nineteen year old black woman, got into a car accident and needed help. She came to the home and up onto the porch of Theodore Wafer. In her search for help, Renisha was shot in the face by Wafer. Two early findings. First we know that the shot was not close range. This is important, because this is a 19 year old woman, wounded from a car accident, who was not close to this man. What kind of threat could she have been to this middle aged man? Secondly, we know that Renisha, as the victim of a homicide, is already beginning to become the criminalized “sinner” because of her alcohol level. No one should drink and drive, everyone is clear on that. However, that is no justification for a grown man shooting this 19 year old in the face on his porch.

It seems that black women in our society are never given the same respect and dignity that most white women who participate in dominant society receive. The moment dominant society lays their eyes on black women, they are rarely seen as people to be protected and cared for, but most often are branded with a whole assortment of stigmatizing stereotypes. I will be honest, I wasn’t there so I do not know all the details of what happened. But what I do know is that racialized biases pervade every encounter in America. On top of that, black women always must confront not only being black, and not only being a woman, but being a black woman. Renisha McBride had to navigate this difficult space, and on November 2, 2013, it became a death-dealing space.

For anyone, who while gazing at a black woman, thinks they know her essence and nature instantaneously must now realize that Jesus still stands in deep solidarity with marginalized women. No matter how much we stigmatize black women, Jesus reminds us that they are made in the Image of God and therefore prophetically asks us all “Do you see this woman?”

Renisha McBride

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Disingenuous Solidarity: Keeping Track of Dominant Logics in Racial Tokens

[The intro to this post has been slightly edited to further protect the identities involved]

It seems that a brief follow up to my last post is necessary, just so my point doesn’t get domesticated or misconstrued, and then become operative for an opposing approach. This concern arose after someone recently pointed out to me that a person who happens to be an extremely right wing conservative with certain racial blinders, began suddenly posting videos of black people on the timeline that bolstered his already set ideology. This is a common strategic move seen often among white conservatives, though white liberals are also guilty of this maneuver as well. The logic (or lack of) is that certainly no one can label them racist for their thoughts, because, after all, there are racial minorities who are asserting the very same claims that they are.

Of course, this is only a plausible and convincing strategy in the minds of those that are novices in critical thinking around race. For those that have actually spent time, on almost any level, deconstructing how racism has operated in America, this tactic does not strengthen the argument, but instead exposes their own racialized reasoning. What they attempted to do, is to present themselves as colorblind and in solidarity with black, native American, and other minority perspectives and therefore hoping to repel any challenges that they are operating with a white supremacist logic.

I know that in the black community, the awareness of such not so tricky tricks is immediate and is un-strenuously spotted. What these perpetrators of dominant racialized thinking seem to not realize, is that black people who live or have been raised in black communities, or that have significant black networks, know what common or uncommon ideologies in their own communities are. That you sought out the 1% of African Americans that already agrees with your position and then propped them up as a symbol of solidarity with minorities rather than submitting to a community, truly hearing from them, and allowing that ongoing relationship to transform your own thinking is not missed. The temptation of people in dominant culture will always be to find the exception to the rule, the person that has assimilated into a framework and perspective that parallels your own and then disingenuously trying to associate with that person as though they actually care about what minorities think. No, this is precisely racist, since it is propping someone up solely on the basis of their skin, with complete disregard for being transformed by the experiences of those that have been historically oppressed and marginalized by one’s own community.

And while we are at it, this has been a serious enticement for the evangelical church (also read Missional here) as well. The classic tokenism strategy has been to find leaders that have completely bought into the agenda of dominant culture, in theology, politics, and cultural assessment, and then allow them to be the representative of their race. In reality, they are chosen precisely because they are an exception to their community. The harder challenge of hearing the concerns of the masses is bypassed through a disingenuous tokenism that actually doesn’t seek reconciliation and solidarity with minorities, but instead just wants somebody of another race there to deflect the image of an all white male ‘boys club’.

For me, I am thankful that when Jesus incarnated, he made solidarity with the masses of poor and oppressed Jews, rather than the privileged Herodians and Sadduceans of his time who did not represent the concerns and perspectives of most Jewish people. Jesus’ solidarity was not disingenuously working for the powerful, dominant, and oppressive system that was operative (Luke 4:18-19).

At that time, some Pharisees came up and said to Jesus,“Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.” But he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Look, I am casting out demons and performing healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the next day, because it is impossible that a prophet should be killed outside Jerusalem.’ (Luke 13:31-33)

Pain Medicine: Trayvon, Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus #MennoNerdsOnLoss

For several weeks I have been telling people that Zimmerman would not be found guilty. Silly folks all around me had convinced themselves that the evidence would result in the outcome of a guilty conviction. Most thought 2nd degree murder was possible but figured that Zimmerman at least would be convicted of manslaughter. I insisted that American history from 1619 all the way up to the present had data predicting another, less satisfying outcome. You see, I wasn’t going to get my expectations up, only to be crushed like I knew folks all around me were doing. So I did what I have been trained academically to do, to analyze and interpret the data from a more objective stance. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been very clear that the Zimmerman case is all about race, racial profiling, intimidation, and senseless and unnecessary violence. Trayvon Martin, still a child, became another victim of white people’s gaze of suspicion that has been cast on black bodies. However obvious that was, I still knew that America (dominant culture) was (and is) unwilling to admit to itself that it is sick, and that same pathology is what killed Trayvon Martin.

So when I finally heard the verdict ( a bit late, cuz I was socially unplugged), I found myself deeply confused with my own response. There I was, the one trying to not get emotionally set up for devastation, and I broke down and cried. Simultaneously, an anger burned deep down to my soul. All I could do was look at my two beautiful sons and consider what type of world they would grow up in. However, I was also confused with myself and why at this time I felt so broken, even when I had been telling people this was the most likely outcome.

Well, I think, deep down, I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to believe that America was able to come to grips with the oppressive racism and the long history of black vulnerability in this land. I apparently had outwardly and intellectually rejected the idea, but deep down in the black community is an optimism (most often rooted in naivety from the dominant culture but sometimes flows from a deep spiritual hope) that would not accept the obvious reality and state of the collective racial dynamics in the U.S.. Either way, I had bamboozled myself and played the fool.

Many black folks (and other people who stand in solidarity with our suffering) are broken. Big cases like these are very important in the black community. They are significant because often they are used as symbolic thermometers to measure the racial climate that we are living in. A win in the suburbs of Florida is a win in Philly, Chicago, Detroit, NY, and L.A. . Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so, Trayvon became our symbolic Sons, because we know that if someone can racially profile and hunt down Trayvon and not be found responsible, then all young black men are at risk of being gunned down because of white suspicion. Through the country, racial profiling is already an out of control epidemic, as black men are being harassed and stalked legally because of the xenophobic fear of black men among the dominant society. NYC right now is the most infamous for this right now, as the ‘stop and frisk’ program has been exposed as an unprecedented systematic tool of harassment aimed disproportionately at young black and brown men, whom statistics vindicate as having done nothing wrong. While many wrongly try to associate racist policy with the south, the truth is that throughout the country and especially in the North, black and brown youth are instantly seen as criminal and therefore are vulnerable to being grabbed, seized, searched, and often arrested without due cause.

In Mark’s Gospel account, in chapter 15 verse 21, we are told about a man name Simon of Cyrene who was observing the crucifixion process being carried out by the Romans. What was it about this North African man that fastened the eyes of these soldiers of the powerful Roman Empire onto him? Was it that he was darker than the others and therefore became more visibly ‘the Other’ to those Westerners? Was there an ethnic tension involved that brought undue attention to this man from Cyrene? Those things we can only ponder, but what we do know is that this man lacked protection and safety from the ever-reaching arms of the oppressive Roman empire. He was vulnerable and therefore was seized expectantly. Today, we remember Simon of Cyrene, who is only mentioned in this one verse and no where else, because he in many ways symbolizes the modern African diasporic experience. At mere sight, our bodies are the site of vulnerability in a foreign land, lacking protection. Therefore, we are seized. We were once seized for labor and we are now seized out of racial fear. And like our dear brother Simon, the end story of how it will all turn out is unknown, a hazy future that continues to haunt us. With such unknowns, we are left broken and often forced into death-dealing despair.

But for those that are hurting and struggling today, here is some pain medicine. God has and continues to hear the cries of the oppressed and violated. God, took on human flesh so that he once and for all could overcome the death-dealing and sinful forces that oppress and do violence to the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on Doulos flesh, in the Greek that is Servant/Slave flesh. Jesus did not come as emperor, governor, or as a part of the wealthy elite. Jesus did not come as one who benefited from the privileges of Roman society. No, Jesus was a poor Galilean Jew under Roman oppression, and who was under Roman suspicion and threat throughout his ministry (Luke 13:31), and ultimately died being accused of being a threat to the empire, dying a poor revolutionaries death, also known as crucifixion. That is to say that God took on the story of the vulnerable as a type of solidarity with those that suffer violence and vulnerability as way of life. God knows your pain and has joined in your struggle.

More than that, Jesus at the site where Rome exercised its legal and decisive power (blasphemously choosing to extend life or take life as though it had divine status, and as though Rome had the final say) exposed the powers of this world for what they are. They are stripped and unveiled as mere impostors. And so their greatest threat, death, which is supposed to be ultimate finality, doesn’t actually have the last word. Jesus conquered death and the cross through resurrection. And God invites us to be part of his Resurrection world that overcomes the violence and oppression of this current world and to participate in the world to come, where the vulnerability of young men like Trayvon (and our loved ones) will no longer happen.

And so, as we struggle today, let’s not struggle in despair, but in a hope for what is to come. A hope that stirs deep in our souls as we struggle for justice and peace with our backs straight and our heads lifted high, because God is with us and will vindicate us, no matter what the courts rule, the laws enforce, or how people respond. Today, we proclaim that Jesus our liberator, in solidarity with us, reigns and is victoriously marching us towards Zion.

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com  to see all the other posts in this series.

A Black Missional Critique of the Missional Movement (Guest Post by D. Kyle Canty)

(This post is written from a friend and old seminary peer of mine, Kyle Canty. As one of the pastors of a black, missional Church in Philly, I thought his perspective would be especially helpful for my readers in considering the larger missional movement’s homogeneity. Please join the conversation and let us know what you think.)

There’s a complex question that gnaws at my heart as I observe evangelical culture; “Does the broader evangelical church in America recognize that there is something that they can learn from the African American church?” I follow conferences and as of late, I’ve kept up with the missional movement. I love listening to those who have mined the themes associated with everything missional and topics around justice and mercy for the marginalized. I frequent blogs, YouTube videos and the major declarations put out by the evangelical machine. During the past couple of years I’ve recognized the homogeneity of these circles—most of the speakers are white. Interesting enough, many of the topics that are being written about and presented at these events are topics that I’ve heard about throughout my life. (e.g., justice, mercy, meeting felt needs, etc.)  Well before these were popular topics within evangelicalism, these were important issues among black pastors, preachers and theologians. The black church finds its uniqueness in the soil where it is cultivated—usually within marginalized and oppressed communities.

 

I was originally introduced to the missional conversation by my pastor; who is one of very few African American professors teaching within evangelical seminaries. We engaged in doing contextual ministry within Philadelphia with limited resources and tremendous opposition. One of the things that missional theology taught me was to question the things that contradicted God’s kingdom agenda. The thing that was missing for me as I viewed the movement was color. I wondered to myself, ‘Does a black pastor of an inner city church have anything to teach a white suburban pastor?’ This question gets me thinking through power structures. The question is loaded with complications. Although loosely associated, the decisions regarding the broader missional movement rest in the hands of the few.  The answer to my question gets to the heart of a problem.

 

The missional movement is relatively new within evangelical circles. In fact, the missional movement is still fighting back accusations that the overall movement is a sinister break from ‘traditional conservative Judeo-Christian principles and values’. There is a rapid delivery of books, blogs, conferences, fashion, tweets, FB pages and posts about this Biblical theme that’s been missed for so long by so many. Although there is this rediscovery of mission Dei and what it means to be sent, there is also a danger that the voices are predominantly white and suburban. If the voices of the missional movement remain largely those of the dominant culture, then there is the possibility that the movement will begin to speak with a privileged accent. Call it what you want—whether it is in a suit, tie and comb over or in skinny jeans, fashion rims, tatted up, it is still coming from a place of access, comfort and homogeneity.

 

Although we are in the age of post-Christendom, the existing structure of evangelicalism still wields a significant amount of power. The presence of Christian publishers, magazines, academic institutions, conferences, conference centers, radio programs and mission organizations are all part of a construct designed to win the battle.  The proverbial ‘table’ that is so often talked about is actually nestled inside evangelicalism’s board room. So it is often said that Blacks need a seat at this ‘table’ in order to influence what goes on as the movement becomes more mainstream. Why is it so hard to sit down at this table called the Missional Movement? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the missional movement is nestled inside of evangelicalism and this movement has not properly dealt with race. Different clothes and music, but the same homogeneity exists.

 

The movement that sought to deconstruct Christendom needs deconstructing. The task of addressing inconsistencies within the movement is best handled by those who can view omissions and pathology from the outside. As the black church gets used to hearing about missional theology and the movement, it will recognize and embrace and add its unique accent to the conversation. However, I wonder if many will simply bristle at yet another predominantly white movement talking about Christians opening up coffee shops to engage in post-modern conversations when the national unemployment rate is 6.7% for whites and 13.3% for blacks.

 

In conclusion, yes, the black church is not without blemishes and the need to transform.  We are not perfect, but who is able to speak to the ills of White Evangelicalism like the Black church?  Additionally, one black conference speaker, professor or friend is not diversity, but could be construed as tokenism. It was brought to my attention recently by a friend and mentor that most Blacks can sniff out tokenism and so the Missional Movement needs to know that many of us know that a black woman on a panel covers two categories on the diversity checklist.  I guess one of the things that I need to say is that there are many things that the movement can learn from the Black church outside of gospel music and our unique preaching style. The Black church and those it has produced are not novelties to be observed from afar—instead the body was meant to benefit from parts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

 

Let me make this clear—preachers, pastors, Bible believing black folk have been busting their tail ministering to people in the worst conditions for a very long time. Suburban White academics are ‘probably’ not the best folk to reference when you need to figure out how to minister to oppressed people groups. If the missional movement is concerned with reaching the kind of folk that Jesus reached, then perhaps they may want to diversify their think tank to include inner city, bi-vocational Black pastors who serve within extreme conditions.

 

Bio

Married to my lovely wife Pam for over 13 years. I love my children, 10 year old Micah, 8 year old Karis and my new born Shiloh Elyse, born May 4, 2013. I enjoy the challenge of seeing how the Biblical text interacts and speaks to culture. I love the city and reading about God’s heart for the marginalized of society. I love Jesus, His church and the city. I am an assistant pastor at Great Commission Church in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, where I presently live. My love for urban culture springs from growing up in North Philly–those that know can understand why your heart never really leaves this place.

Graduate of Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) with a B.S. in Bible/Pre-Seminary and an M.S. in Christian Counseling. I also have a Master of Divinity Degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I’m currently pursuing a DMin in Urban Missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary.

 

You can engage more with Kyle Canty over at his blog http://thecityrooftop.com/ and can follow him on twitter @kcanman.

Why Highlighting Paula Deen’s Offensive Words Are Part of the 21st Century’s Sophisticated Racial System

Yup, you didn’t misread me at all, pointing to Paula Deen’s racially offensive words is nothing spectacular or courageous, but rather it is the expected response within America’s 21st century context. I am not going to debate, argue, or defend Paula Deen, that would be absurd. I am not even suggesting that we consider her comments and perspectives something other than racist, because that is exactly what they are. All I am suggesting is that the outrage and scapegoating of Paula Deen is a sophisticated cultural reflux of a highly racialized society that doesn’t want to own up to how racism works systemically.

The greatest threat to black life and existence, is not Paula Deen calling someone a Nigger! Rather, it is the racial domination and the embedded systems in place in our country that offer some citizens of the U.S. access to wealth, comfort, security, and safety at the expense of the welfare of others. It is the segregated and unequal public school systems, the war on young black men (known as the War on Drugs), mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, the lack of adequate housing and little to no access to affordable jobs. It is the practice of white hegemony and the overwhelming stats pointing to white people receiving and giving preferential treatment for employment regardless of qualifications (while many who have benefited from such a job from their all white networks simultaneously complain about affirmative action’s unfairness). I am sorry, but it is not Paula Deen’s pitiful ideology that is most harmful, it is the entire society that is sick and that ignores the daily welfare of people who are of African descent. In fact, Paula Deen can only come to be and think as she does within a society like ours, that is so oppressively racialized.

So, when we point the finger at Paula Deen, we misdirect all of our attention to one small isolated symptom of a much bigger problem. I would like to redirect the focus back to an entire dominant culture that has benefited from an economy built on free slave labor and that continues to apathetically oppress the descendants of those slaves. The magic of it all, is that the racial oppression in the 21st century has become so sophisticated, that no one feels like their hands are dirty. One out of three African Americans will go to prison at some point in their lives because they have been deemed suspicious. Young black and brown kids cannot walk around in NYC without being stopped and frisked, even though the stats have shown that it is mostly innocent people that are being harassed and humiliated over and over again.

But, so long as the dominant culture is fine and have not dirtied their hands directly, they can claim innocence while pointing the finger at blatant ideological racist and offensive comments from the Paula Deens of the world. The noise surrounding these events compared to the silence around the things that are daily destroying African American communities by the masses is deafening. Who cares about holding Paula Deen responsible if we refuse to do anything about the sophisticated racial oppression that produces people like her a hundredfold everyday?  When the dominant culture makes an example of Paula Deen, it both turns her into a scapegoat and it also creatively claims its own innocence, because it limits the definition of racism to individual acts. If you want to hold her accountable, then let us also hold the entire sophisticated system of oppression accountable for its calculated violence against black life.

Emptying Whiteness: Engaging In Absurd Christian Social Performance

The reality of whiteness affording privilege in America continues to be a touchy subject in our nation. While many (not all) would agree that minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, somehow the idea of some necessarily being disadvantaged does not automatically translate into privilege for those who enjoy dominant places in American society. The truth is that to be considered white, and to have obtained whiteness in America has always, and continues to offer privileges.  Consider this finding, in which various ethnic minorities went to the courts to legally battle for white status before the law in the early 1900’s.

Court decisions on white status were based on a mix of supposedly scientific criteria and the common understandings of the day, leading to a mess of contradictions. Syrians were deemed white in 1909, 1910, and 1915, but no in 1913 or 1914. Asian Indians won white status in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but not in 1909, 1917 or after 1923. The persistence of immigrants in suing for whiteness is evidence of the financial and social benefits that came with white status. After all, no one sued to be considered Asian, much less black.[i]

Beyond the absurdity of the fact that the criteria for whiteness was so arbitrary that people went back and forth being deemed white and then once again recognized as a person of color, we must also consider its broader significance.  Very quickly, even in the 1900’s, immigrants realized that there were serious social benefits that went along with being recognized as white in America and therefore they fought for such status in the court room. Whiteness then clearly affords benefits to those who arbitrarily fall into the right side of the haphazard pseudo-scientific racialization of people groups.

Now if race is a racial construct, which has the sole purpose of racially dividing society to benefit some while disadvantaging others, then whiteness from a Christian perspective must be dealt with. To be European, is to talk about one’s ethnos, a people group and ethnicity recognized by God. To be White, however, is to embrace and utilize man-made racial hegemony and social domination. Whiteness equals oppressive societal positioning. Following Christ however, necessitates a rejection of privilege and oppressive lifestyles. Remember what Paul said:

You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)[ii]

For the Christian, an emptying of whiteness and a taking on the form of marginality is a necessary social performance that must be enacted to faithfully have the same attitude that Jesus had. The fairly obvious theological conclusion has been avoided and skirted around for a long time, because in America, despite our peculiar calling, we have decided that it is best to take advantage of all our privileges and opportunities. The concept of rejecting any privilege runs counter to American values and norms. Only a radical awareness of the Lordship of Jesus over all things could and would lead someone to rearrange their lives in ways that currently reject social, political, and economic benefits. Hopefully, the end result will be the humanizing response of European men and women who stand with rather than on top of their darker pigmented brothers and sisters.


[i] Meizhu Lui and United for a Fair Economy, The color of wealth : the story behind the U.S. racial wealth divide (New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2006), 250.

[ii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).

In It For the Long Haul: Gracialized Vision & The New Black Panther $10,000 Bounty

Well, whether some like it or not, we have been thrust into a national dialogue on race, violence, and the legal system. I can’t lie, I can often get very frustrated by the same old story being played out over and over again. How many more young black males have to die? Since slavery has ended thousands and thousands of black men have been killed, being seen as disposable, in contrast very few black killings happened during slavery because we were seen as valuable property. Ida B. Wells, a brave and courageous black woman, spoke up and brought national attention to the lynching crisis that exploded after slavery and went well into the 1900’s (Last recorded tree lynching took place in the 1980’s). In the 1950’s, Emmit Till’s murder became a national symbol after the country reacted to the images of Emmit Till’s 14 year old deformed dead body that was placed on the cover of black magazines. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting family down south when he was dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, and had an eye gouged out. He was eventually shot in the head, and had barbed wire and a heavy cotton gin tied around his neck as his body was disposed of in a river. His crime, supposedly whistling at a white woman.

There is a long legacy of black life being disposable and unvalued in American life. While there have been tons of senseless murders that have taken black life, some particular names have continued to shape Black American historical memory, probably because of the details surrounding each situation. Let’s remember some folks who have had their lives abruptly ended because of America’s pathological racism. Michael Donald, lynched in the 1981, James Byrd’s dragged to death behind a truck for 3 miles in 1998. Amadou Diallo shot at 41 times (hit 19 times) while unarmed and pulling out his wallet in 1999. Sean Bell was shot 50 times and killed the night before his wedding in the Bronx in 2006. Oscar Grant’s murder while handcuffed and on his stomach by a cop in Oakland was recorded by several camera phones and uploaded online in 2009. And more recently of course we have been mourning the death of Trayvon Martin while also dealing with the unarmed shooting of Ramarley Graham last month. There are so many other folks who have lost their lives similarly, but these names for most are familiar and recognizable names which remind us how vulnerable it is to be a black male in America, and also how the legal system often fails to uphold justice for ALL.

How should we (Black Christians) respond to such a legacy of racism or to the apathy towards black life? The New Black Panther Party supposedly has put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman. While I can sympathize with their frustration with our legal system and the reality of how many black people never find justice in it, I continue to believe that we can not utilize the same violent tactics imposed on us if we desire to see a new humanity usher into our world. That said, I find the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the spirit of Nat Turner and his violent slave rebellion as very natural and normal responses to injustice and oppression. While I reject the use of violence, I do share that same spirit of frustration with racial injustice in America. In fact, sometimes, that same natural response emerges in me in greater amounts than other times. I hate the negative ways black people are treated and the apathetic and cold responses that come from some in the dominant culture. And it is hard not to project those feelings onto all people who participate in the dominant culture.

And then I am reminded of the Oppressed and Crucified One being made a public spectacle and shamed on the cross. Jesus, like many other vulnerable Jews at that time, experienced the weight of an unjust and violent system that didn’t value Jewish life. According to all the gospels, Jesus was a threat to the Jewish-Roman power system in Jerusalem. In response, they employed their technique of public torture and humiliation, which was always just as much about intimidating the masses as it was to punish the individual. James Cone in his most recent book, rightly compares Roman crucifixion to American lynchings of black men. This offers us a helpful glimpse culturally into the horrendous nature and role of crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Yet it is there hanging on the Cross that Jesus cried out…

 Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

He didn’t demonize them, he didn’t call for a violent revolution like Peter or Barabbas. He graciously asked the Father to extend his forgiveness to them. The vision of Christ was a gracialized vision, in that those that his eyes laid on, burdened him, in that even those who were oppressors in the traditional sense, were ultimately enslaved and broken people needing to be shown the way back to the humanity originally intended by God. It’s as though his gaze continually made distinctions between the horrendous acts that he opposed, and the people who were enticed and enslaved by those systems which temporarily benefited them. His ability to see oppressive dominant peoples through gracialized gazes allowed him to make the root of the problem opaque and highly visible, that is he saw the evil systems and forces that enslave humanity rise to the surface, while graciously seeing the transparency of all humanity which desperately is in need of a Victor and Liberator. This doesn’t mean that Jesus responds the same way to all people, it is very evident in the Gospels that Jesus takes sides with and extends extra compassion towards the socially marginalized. However, folks like the young ruler and Zaccheus, who both hoard wealth, are both given the opportunity to accept the grace being extended towards them which would liberate them from the grips of this world. Just like then, some now will accept and some will not accept such grace, but that is not our issue to worry about, that is between them and God. Our responsibility is to hold firm to that same gracialized vision Jesus did, in that we see EVERYONE as needing liberation from invisible yet powerful forces.

I am not sure how much longer this national dialogue will go on. We continue to be the United States of Amnesia, quickly forgetting recent history, or as Dr. King called it, “a 10 day nation”, which moves on to the next big thing after 10 days. But for me, I am in it for the long haul. I will be like a persistent poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). And as I confront empires, systems, and forces that enslave people and oppose God’s Kingdom, my prayer is that God would help me have Christ’s gracialized vision towards others, especially for those in the dominant culture who participate in oppressive practices and who are blind in their ability to see Jesus in those they harm (Matthew 25:31-46).

The Hoodie (Revisted and Expanded): Racialized Gaze and Trayvon Martin

 About 2 years ago my wife and I stopped for pizza way up in the Souderton/Telford area (philly suburb outskirts). We were in the area already and had received a strong recommendation for this particular place. As we walked into the restaurant, we immediately received stares from everyone in the facility, adult and child alike. Once seated, my wife who is white, and who tends to not always pick up on glares from others as quickly as I tend to, immediately said to me “whoa, did you feel that!”, and of course I responded by saying “uh, yeah, of course I did”. Our presence there was disruptive to whatever norms that were typically played out in that building. It was summer time, and I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts. And my black skin was bare, on display, and held social meaning beyond ethnic difference. I could not hid or cover myself from the racialized gazes that looked at me and projected meaning onto my black body. I honestly do not know what exactly was running through the minds of the people who rudely stared at us as we came in and took our seats. Was I perceived as a threat or did I appear suspicious? Was it taboo to be an interracial couple in their minds? Or maybe it was just my hyper-visibility as other, and different. I will probably never know precisely what those stares meant, other than that they were not welcoming glances. My body had once again become an object to be observed and interpreted, which was not my first experience with this, nor my last, but yet certainly a memorable one.

Since college, I have learned and mastered the importance of manufacturing a public image when I go out. Yup, that’s right, I intentionally choose clothes to wear to manipulate how I am being perceived by others, particularly by the dominant culture. What you must understand is that I do not have a choice, as a young black male I must always know how I am being perceived by others, and play into that, to not know could prove detrimental. For example, since graduating college, most people probably conjure up in their minds an image of me in which I am wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat. However, when I was in college, my uniform of choice was most often a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodies. There is something familiar and comfortable about a hoodie for me.  The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into my own self awareness of identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live.  The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as space does for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, reminding me of who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to the racialized gaze.

One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was when two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that they were afraid of me when they first met me freshman year. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have felt that way, because after all I was Dru, and everyone who knew me loved being around me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule.  I actually applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me what I had known I was experiencing more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely a Christian College problem, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.

This narrative has been lived out over and over again with different characters. Hoodie or no hoodie, there is a gaze which has been racialized to see dark skin and make it opaque, in that it cannot be hidden. The visibility of dark skin on human bodies in America immediately makes one the other, but not mysteriously other. Nope, the dark skin is believed to be known, understood, and mastered. Dark skin can be interpreted not only as uniquely visible but uniquely suspicious and threatening. The racialized gaze imposes this storyline on unfamiliar bodies. The hoodie allows one to shut out those who gaze at you while also making one hyper visible and apparently more readable in the minds of the dominant culture.

Trayvon Martin’s last moments become transparent when we are honest about the racialized American experience that plays out over and over again. Zimmerman saw an unfamiliar black body and based off of his own words, he reinterpreted Trayvon as suspicious. Trayvon, just a child, adorned in his hoodie both blocked the direct gaze of Zimmerman and yet nonetheless became more victim to Zimmerman’s racialized gaze. Zimmerman believed that Trayvon was “they”, the other, who “always get away”, in reference to his belief that young black men had recently committed crimes in his neighborhood. Trayvon’s presence then is a disruptive presence for Zimmerman, and so he believed that he must be removed out of his gated community. Zimmerman took on this responsibility himself, convinced that he knew Trayvon. Zimmerman could not see a child terrified for his life before him because his racial gaze impaired his vision.

Let’s be honest, while I believe Zimmerman is guilty of murder and our justice system needs to respond accordingly, he did not create the racialization that is in our country, but rather he is a byproduct of hundreds of years of racism in this country. Since the 1600’s, people of European descent in America have been gazing upon the African, seeing only 3/5’s a person, uncivilized labor, inferiority, and danger in those beautiful black bodies. This impaired vision is societal. The hoodie in black urban communities in many ways is a response to the racialized gaze. We covered ourselves up and defiantly hid ourselves from view. We controlled who saw us and who didn’t. Yet the racialized gaze only grew. The hoodie reminded us simultaneously of the stereotypes projected onto us by the dominant culture andalso the rebellious spirit born out of the urban hip hop culture. It taught us to resist. So, the hoodie for me then has interwoven well with my embracement of the subversive prophetic tradition and my anabaptist leaning. Consider how Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of the Zealots, calling people to take up the cross. So too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s hip hop subversive spirit to begin to challenge the criminalizing gaze that is fixed on black bodies in America. We can ALL cover ourselves with symbolic hoodies from the racialized systems and stereotypes that disrupt justice, by resisting with a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ. 

I Am Trayvon!


The Hoodie: Racialized Gaze and My 90’s Hip Hop Subversive Spirit

Given my vocational contexts, most people these days probably associate me with wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat when they see me. However, when I was in college, the uniform I wore most often was a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodie’s, there is something familiar and comfortable about hoodie’s for me.  The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into the awareness of my identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live.  The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as Time and Space do for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, and reminds me who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to racialized and stereotypical gazes.
As I stated, I most often wore hoodies throughout college. I also received the most constant racialized gazes there on my Christian campus, than I did anywhere else in my life. I knew myself to be a young bible geek excited to have the opportunity to study the scriptures as my major and to be among other believers in Christ. However, what people most often saw was a suspicious, scary, and dangerous young black male in a hoodie. I can still remember the awkward way people avoided eye contact as they awkwardly moved to the edges of the sidewalk when I came by. This was in contrast to the extremely generous smiles and greetings being displayed on campus normally between students. One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that when they first met me freshman year, they used to be afraid of me. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have thought so, after now knowing me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule.  I applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me, which I had experienced more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely an isolated issue to Christian College racism, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case, even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.
For me, my hoodie reminds me simultaneously of the stereotype projected on me by the dominant culture and the rebellious spirit of early 90’s hip hop, that positively reminds me that I must resist such dehumanizing elements in my life. The hoodie for me then, has interwoven well with my embracement of the prophetic tradition. In the same way that Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of taking up the cross from the zealots of his day, so too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s 90’s hip hop subversive spirit to thrust us into a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ.