‘Around the Way’ Ethics: Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

The Church is filled with divisions. For the most part people have simply accepted this as a given and an inevitable reality. Hardly do people find themselves with enough Christian instincts to be deeply troubled with what’s going on. Even more rare than that, it is almost impossible to find followers of Jesus committed to doing the hard work of having honest and hard conversations in hopes of discerning a more truthful way.

I’ve been glad to find some communities and networks that are trying to do just that. These Christians are not doing the liberal ecumenism which ignores differences for the sake of unity, or conservative ecumenism, which sees its only faithful role as conquering ‘the other’ in debate. Instead, I have witnessed genuine attempts at true dialogue; speaking honestly and listening attentively in a manner that often (though not always) results in clarified disagreement and demonstrable growth in common understanding and renewed solidarity. This only happens through perseverance and ‘stick-with-it-ness’ because our one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism that we belong to under the One Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of these conversations are not for those that desire to avoid conflict (fake peace) at every turn, but instead demands vulnerability and a desire to pursue truth while guided by the Spirit. I can personally say that I have learned and grown much from many of them.

What is particularly interesting is that this group is able to discuss politics, atonement theory, racism, sexuality, gender, and a whole range of social concerns, always with people present coming from different perspectives and experiences on all of these concerns. That conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, and marginalized perspectives can come together in pursuit of mutuality despite at times having varying theological commitments and diverse experiences is a great testament to the possibilities latent in the Church that are scarcely attempted.

However, things aren’t all roses. Certainly any number of concerns could be brought up, however, I believe that one important factor that often does not get taken into consideration is the “around the way” factor. While race is spoken of often, it does not always expose the power-dynamics of cultural logics at work that often set the rules and norms of engagement. Because of this, there is constantly an unfair burden for folks from “around the way” to utilize their “code-switching” skills while operating in these 2nd cultures that they have been forced to learn, but never seeing reciprocity. The result is that dominant cultural logics (which are predisposed to accept civility only by its own definition and terms) hegemonically shape and limit the nature of the conversation, and hence forth its outcome. This is not because it limits the topics being discussed, but because it dismisses the validity of “around the way” ethics, considering it as inferior to the dominant culture’s sensibilities.

More clarity is most likely needed here. Many middle class and suburban (in formation, not necessarily current geographical residence) Christians that engage in dialogue on race or class, for example, tend to only engage “bi-cultural” code switchers. That is people that have been formed “around the way” (aka the hood), yet also by necessity have learned how to embody dominant cultural norms in speech and behavior when necessary as a strategy and tool for gaining access. These folks move back and forth into various cultural communities engaging fluently on the terms of both their original communities that formed them culturally as well as the dominant cultural space they had to learn. They are, in a manner, bi-lingual. The middle class and suburban Christian engaged in “reconciliation” work, often in reality, only engages with people on their own suburban and middle class terms. What seems to be lacking is any effort from those brought up in dominant culture to become fluent and formed by “around the way” ethics and norms. When will “Peter and Jane” so to speak, who claim to want “reconciliation”, begin to immerse themselves (not just physically but in cultural logics) in the poor urban centers, which would demand that they also code-switch and embody a different set of norms? It is one thing to converse with someone like me, whom has been conditioned to play by the behavior rules and speech norms of dominant culture when I occupy those spaces, and it is something else for Peter to do “life together” with ‘Jamal, Puddin’ & dem’ on the block. If someone is intimidated dialoging and listening to me (who is committed to doing it in truth and love because of my faith and code-switches culturally), how will you engage my neighbor who doesn’t want to have anything to do with white people because of the way this country has treated him?

The truth is that both the ethics on the corner as well as majority and mainstream sensibilities are culturally and contextually biased norms. Neither are better examples of civility than the other. The only reason so many unconsciously assume otherwise is because they have bought into a dominant cultural framework rooted in American Civil Religion. From there, dominant culture is universalized and moralized as right. No longer recognized as a cultural expression it is deemed sacred and holy culture. (Western European civilization has always been erroneously conflated with being Christian culture, which explains western colonization practices historically).

In relation to the specificity of the Incarnation of God found in the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the universal claims of civility in American dominant culture are exposed as false, and instead we are forced to re-situate it beside every other cultural context including all its societal norms and ethical claims. By fixing our eyes on Jesus (of scripture and present among us) we can keep sight of all false claims of universality that our society tries to disciple us into rather than after the particularity of Jesus’ life, which is the only full revelation of God. EVERYTHING that we assume and take for granted, especially our “common sense” values, outside of the revelation of Jesus is speculative. Jesus is the Truth that entered in our finite historical moment so that we could see the Universal God. And yet, this type of discipleship that subversively follows Jesus, is never done in a social and cultural vacuum. Just like Jesus participated in custom and engaged concrete Jewish practices, so too must we embody our ‘followership’ in varying geographical & cultural spaces that are always accompanied with power dynamics that are not being named. One unique practice of Jesus, that I believe helped forge true Kingdom solidarity was his habit of entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms. Whether living water for the woman at the well, a word of liberation to an oppressed people, or utilizing shepherd language to communities that understood about grazing sheep, Jesus’ engagement was ‘fluent’ and adaptable because of his willingness to occupy marginal spaces and their modes of being.

I have briefly named “around the way” ethics and dominant cultural sensibilities in still very broad terms. Hopefully, at the very minimum, I have helped to begin to name and unveil an existing problem that is rarely addressed. True Christian solidarity and ‘togetherness’ in Christ is fragile and cannot be controlled. And yet as followers of Jesus it always remains “at hand” when we yield to the Spirit and reorient our lives through constant immersion into the only honest story, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and as we open our eyes to the truth about our societies violent and oppressive history and current state. In response, when we collectively repent and join the Messianic struggle for liberation and shalom, committed to truth and love, Christian solidarity is not only “at hand”, but it can be experienced “among you” as well.

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Never Lose Sight: Putting One Foot In Front of the Next

It literally pains me when I hear people take cheap shots at poor black people. Recently, I had a conversation in which someone did just that. The most troubling part is that 9 out 10 times when I have such encounters, the person offering such a diatribe is a white, middle class, person that lives, moves, and breathes purely in dominant culture. They have never lived in poor black neighborhoods and they certainly do not have significant relationships with poor black people.  Yet somehow this doesn’t appear as the slightest barrier for those who want to verbally abuse the most vulnerable citizens of this land. Apparently, actual 1st hand knowledge or experience isn’t a prerequisite for being an expert on black people’s problems. Stereotypes from media are apparently sufficient. Besides, poor black people are easy targets, people can say what they want, often have a laugh at their expense, and there will be no social consequences for such action. Poor black people have no champion to defend them socially or politically.

When I was growing up my family scraped by with the bare necessities but there was never a short supply of love. By High School, my family had clearly crossed over firmly into the black middle class. We moved to the burbs and I attended a middle class suburban high school from grades 10-12. Since college, I have been living in black neighborhoods (1st in Harrisburg, PA, then in Philly) comprised of mostly poor and working class families. However, my own family is most certainly middle class. Everyday I live with the realities that come with being a young black male. The fear, the stereotypes, the clutched purses, and the always present and perpetual threat of being suspected for the crime of being black at the wrong time or place, that is when cops are looking for any black body to fit their description. Being black is draining. Blackness still continues to be described pejoratively in America. To be a black american is to constantly have to tell yourself that you are somebody, that you are made in the image of God, that you are creative, and intelligent. To not do so will result in being drowned in the negative words that dominant culture has to say about your existence and ‘your kind’.

Yet, I don’t even have to deal with where my next meal is coming from, or the stigma of not having a college degree while searching for a job (God forbid you have a conviction, because there are almost no options for you when you are black). I have healthcare, food, housing, transportation, and a reliable and livable income. And in a couple years I will have a PhD, which will make me extremely privileged educationally speaking, within the black community. Blackness by itself is tiring enough, but to be poor and black is a burden I honestly can only sympathize with at this point (rather than empathize with) as  my neighbors share with me their struggles to find work and provide for their family. And yet, it is precisely poor black families that are often the most popular targets of the media and the middle class. Through vitriol and stereotype, they get blasted 24/7 for every aspect of their lives. They are the scapegoats of America, who will champion them?

And yet what is amazing, and surely a sign that there is a God in the world, is that many black folk courageously get up each morning  (and have done so for 400 years of oppression) with a renewed determination to keep going. They lift their heads, get up, put one foot in front of the next and continue to struggle and believe for better. Folks create out of nothing, stretch little into much, hustle, grind, and make due with scraps. Can some families do better in this area or that? Sure, which family couldn’t? Cause most folks who blast poor black folk need to look in the mirror at the log in their eye, rather than worrying about the spec in someone else’s. Some people’s dysfunction is just hidden behind middle class suburban-home walls and are not the topic of discussion for American consumption, but I know that the vanilla suburbs is full of drama and strife (remember, I lived in a mostly white middle class suburb for 3 years in high school!). So, maybe it’s time to stop scapegoating the most vulnerable among us, because there is one person that is a champion for the poor and oppressed, and his name is Jesus, and he doesn’t take kindly to those that would trample over the vulnerable.

“As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”” (NET, Luke 20:45-47)

the UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk – Book Review

The UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk

Mark Van Steenwyk has written a thoughtful reflection on the significance of Jesus and his in-breaking Kingdom as an alternative way of being in our society that is marred by evil forces, social structures, death-dealing oppression, and coercive violence.  the UNkingdom of God is a subversive and anti-imperial vision for a repentant life concretely following after Jesus, that doesn’t attempt domestication or try to mince words. The book reflects the radicalism of an Anabaptist vision, as well as a liberative and prophetic witness that takes seriously the abandoning of empire while walking humbly in the footsteps and Way of Jesus.

One of the most important things about the UNkingdom of God is the way that he exposes how America and Christianity have merged so profoundly, being so deeply intertwined, that it has merely become an imperial puppet and tool. This is primarily done through personal stories as he retells his own story of being indoctrinated with American Christianity, awaking from it, and then ultimately repenting from it. It is primarily his own lived experience being told, often humorously, that I believe will resonate with many that consider themselves Christian while also a part of the dominant culture. For example he begins in the introduction explaining his infatuation with America and its ‘Dream’, and how he responded when he heard the song “God Bless the USA” as he watched fireworks in the sky. He explains:

At this point, I could no longer sing along. With tears in my eyes and a sob in my throat, I broke down weeping. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and pride. I wept as the song played out, and I continued to weep as the fireworks began to fill the night sky. It was like a mystical experience.[1]

Clearly, Mark Van Steenwyk understands what it is like to be enthralled with America and American Christianity. However, he didn’t remain there. The goal of the book is to call people to repentance. And this is the particular strength of this book. I am not sure I have read a book that has so clearly and powerfully called people to repentance in a way that resonates with the way that Jesus did so. We are challenged to repent of our Christianity and how we have been unwilling to experience God because we have him figured out already. He names the issue. It is that “We think we are open to learning the way of Jesus, but our cup is already full of our own ideas.”[2] It is something that we are not conscious of, therefore, we go on engaging scripture and sermons as though we are growing in Christ, when in reality our cups are already full, so everything else just spills out. Steenwyk reminds us that “We need to empty our cups. We need to repent of the myths that crowd our imaginations. We need to repent of our Christianity.”[3] Ultimately, Steenwyk describes that we need to even release and let go of our image and understanding of Jesus before we can truly “be the love of Christ in our world.”[4]

Throughout the UNkingdom of God, we are challenged on a variety of fronts, because our Christianity is so deeply infected with empire. Steenwyk keeps a healthy track of societal power and explores the significance of “the Powers” in Pauline thought. He exposes the “Plastic” and consumeristic Jesus that we adopt in America that fits our sensibilities and values. And in response, we are offered an invitation to encounter Jesus through child-like mysticism and by experiencing an undomesticated feral God. It is a subversive vision that recovers Jesus from being employed by those in power and privilege, while also offering a pathway for all people to follow Jesus and sit at his table. Its communal focus along with all else that I have already mentioned, will certainly inspire a new way being the Church in the midst of imperial America that has often not been imagined given the most prevalent options that prevail in our society.

Yet, there is one thing that I am not convinced is helpful. My problem is not a matter of faithfulness, but rather its contextual implementation. I question the choice of connecting Jesus with anarchism. To be honest, I actually have no personal problem with Mark Van Steenwyk’s proposal of utilizing anarchist thought to understand the subversive reality of God’s Kingdom as like something opposite of worldly empires and domination. So, if that is not a problem, then what is the problem? Well, I guess it is a strategic issue. Anarchism seems to me to be a theory rooted in Eurocentric ideology that is both foreign, unfamiliar, and possibly confusing to many that are on the margins of society in the U.S. Again, it’s not the implications of anarchism that I am questioning, but rather whether anarchism will practically be heard as a term on the margins that is inclusive of the political imaginations of racial minorities in pursuit of liberation. I think there might be other ways of getting at the same issues that are at least a little more rooted in the experience of racial minorities on the margins of American empire. I do think that our identifying linguistic categories matter, and ought to be chosen carefully. For example, postcolonial theory and critical race theory, and empire studies in general, leave space to address those same issues and to define Jesus appropriately as subversive and defiant to the authorities. Let me say one more time, I think Steenwyk is correct in his interpretation of Jesus, and technically, anarchism works fine in helping highlight those realities in Jesus, his Kingdom, and his Church. But from a contextual vantage point, I do question if anarchism is the most helpful term to use, if he desires to walk in solidarity with racial minorities. I am not settled on this, but certainly it is something I will reflect more on.

In conclusion, the UNkingdom of God: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance is a terrific piece of work. I have not read a better book on repentance. This is not a book for those that want to continue blindly with a diluted and domesticated Christianity. This is not a book for those that want comfort and wealth more than they want to follow Jesus. Nor is this a book for those that refuse to disentangle the logics of empire from their Christianity. But this is a book for anyone that honestly wants to follow Jesus with abandonment and encounter his presence afresh. The book calls us all into the ecclesial vision of Anabaptism as well as the prophetic and liberative presence often found in many black Christian communities. It is an easy and enjoyable read in one sense, and yet challenging and demanding in other way. It certainly is the type of resources we need to recover what it means to be the people of God within an oppressive and sinful empire.

(As full disclosure, I was given this review copy of the UNkingdom of GOD with the purpose of having it reviewed publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)


[1] Van Steenwyk, The Unkingdom of God, 12.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Ibid., 80.

400 Years of Blinders, Counterintuitive Solidarity, and the Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed

“In being pushed to the margins of the system the repressed not only gain an alternative perspective–you see things from the underside that you cannot see from the top, especially the distortions of the system–but they also gain surplus energies and enjoyment that escape the powers that be in a twofold sense.” – Joerg Rieger[1]

Like clockwork our country cycles through event after event that sparks outrage over issues of race and racism in America. The responses to events like these are predictable, as many fall into their default positions, because people’s perceptions of what took place are equally shaped by race as much as the event itself that triggered the conversation. A slight majority of white Americans will deny and dismiss the outcry and experience of black Americans, claiming that it is emotionalism and an inability to deal with the facts. From their vantage point, only they are seeing things objectively. Their experience tells them that America is generally speaking a good, fair, and equal country. The continual outcry of black Americans, therefore, is a result of media manipulation and race card playing for sympathy. In the end, these White Americans apparently know and understand black experience better than black people themselves know it. Despite the fact that those who deny systemic racism most, are actually more likely to have less racially diverse networks than white Americans who also recognize the racial inequalities in America similar to African Americans (check out Divided by Faith).

And there lies the problem. White intuition and experience (limited by homogeneous networks) is signifying one thing while black experience is claiming an alternative reality. What are people who participate in dominant society to do when their intuition and experience contradict the experiences of oppressed people? It is on that subject that we must gain some historical insights from before we can offer a constructive path forward.

It was in the 17th century, that masses of Europeans bought into the myth of race as a justification for chattel slavery. Ironically, the majority of Europeans were not wealthy enough to purchase slaves themselves. In fact, many Europeans were themselves indentured servants in no better situation than most Africans. The motivation of wealthy Europeans who could actually afford paying for slaves was obvious; they could increase their production and labor while living a more luxurious life. But, what was the motivation for poor Europeans who could not afford to pay for slaves? It seems as though the main reason was simply the relative status offered of knowing that no matter how hard things were, they could count their blessing that they were not black! That is right, the relative social status of being a part of the new found ‘White Male Citizenry’ proved to be more important than linking arms with the people who actually had more in common with them economically in absolute terms. The invitation from the elite to participate in the relative psychological gain of white identity and social life outweighed the absolute realities these European men were living with. The privilege of Whiteness blurred the reasoning of these people, which while looking back now seems “self-evident” (to use modernity’s universalist language) that they were blinded by their desire for acceptance and superiority. It is also worth briefly noting that throughout most of slavery, the majority of White Americans did not think we had a racial problem.

Let’s jump forward to 1857 and the Dred Scott decision. It was at this point that the honorable and esteemed Supreme Court of the United States, dispensing truth, justice, and equality, came to the clear minded 7-2 decision that black people are not citizens and could never be citizens, and therefore did not have the right to sue for their freedom when moved into free states. This decision after the fact has been agreed upon by just about all legal scholars to be one of the most horrific decisions by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, at the time, while still a boost to the Southern way of life and the larger U.S. slaveholding economy, it was not so obvious to most people who benefited from this arrangement that this was a poor decision. White privilege blinded people’s moral vision.

That was not the only decision that now as Americans we can all look back on and (almost) agree was a terrible decision by the Supreme Court. Consider Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. It was in this 7-1 decision by our highest court, that racial segregation was decisively affirmed as legal and promoting equality. Looking back, most white Americans could agree that that was a terrible decision, but that was not the sentiment at that time.

Jump forward to the racial unrest of the mid 20th century, which climaxed during the Southern Freedom movement. We can all picture from the old black and white footage, black school boys and girls being hosed down against walls and sliding down the street while dogs are set loose on them during the Birmingham demonstration in 1963. Or how about remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama, where peaceful marchers were clobbered and beat senselessly. We all (mostly) can look back and say that racism was a huge problem at that time. Guess what, when polled in May 1946, about 7 out of 10 White Americans believed that “negroes in the United States are being treated fairly”.[2] This of course was in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, the terror of the KKK and the White Citizens Council, and the regular lynching of black people in America. That almost 7 out of 10 white Americans could think that black people were being treated fairly, questions the capacity of any oppressive dominant society to look even remotely objectively at a situation. Of course, for the black community the majority of them knew that they were being treated unfairly. That so many in the midst of racial segregation and oppression could think that things were fine and pretty much equal for all, at that time, must be seriously wrestled with for its epistemological significance.

What I have very briefly and quickly tried to do is highlight the epistemological blinders that most White Americans seemed to have had for about 350 years. That they were epistemologically impaired is a given today. Almost everyone, except for the very fringe of society will agree that the majority of white people got it wrong for the first 350 years. What we are considering now is the implications of 350 years of those within dominant society, to not be able to recognize, see, or know racial injustice in whatever new social manifestation it appears in their time.

Why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned, polls continually demonstrate that race tends to be a decisive factor in interpreting these highly charged racial moments in our country. Likewise, I have seen online and in person some people speak from a place of privilege in which they dismissed the experiences of race in American society as expressed by black Americans. Their own experience and intuition tells them that race is not a significant reality in this country. However, we must keep history in perspective as we consider current perspectives on race.

I guess, given our history, should we really consider it logical to believe that people, who benefitted from the racial system and have repeatedly been perceptively wrong for 350 years, now have suddenly gained an epistemological advantage over those whom they have historically oppressed? Even more implausible is to believe that at that exact moment that those in the dominant culture somehow suddenly got their act together that black people who have been epistemologically right for 350 years also instantly lost the ability to interpret their own experience now. To affirm that position seems to be the more emotional response not based on serious reflection of our past.

This is where I will employ some Christian white men to make this point for me. John Howard Yoder argued that those at the bottom actually have an epistemological advantage and what they know to be reality is closer to the real thing than the perceptions of those in dominant or privileged positions in society. In his words, “This phrasing points us to the awareness that the first question is not who should be fed or who should govern, but whose picture of things is correct. We speak of an epistemological advantage. To see things from below is a truer way to see things as they are.”[3] In light of the Trayvon case, some have seemed to think that since the courts ruled a verdict, that justice has spoken and the case is closed. This flows out of a naïve assumption that our legal system actually dispenses justice. Black people now that the verdict and reality often do not coincide. Yoder pushes this point as well. He states:

We are still part of the generation that believes that the wicked won’t really prosper, at least not for long, at least not if we do our job right. We believe that some of the people in power in Washington, DC, are on the side of the good; some of the oppressors’ hearts can be touched, and some people will give in a little, if just to get us off their sidewalks. That the wicked really prosper is a piece of world history and a part of the Old Testament witness, and a part of the Jewish and black experience, that we have not learned to take with deep seriousness in North America.[4]

What we are moving towards as a solution is completely counterintuitive. It is to trust the intuition of oppressed people over against one’s own gut and experience, which is proven to lead you astray when operating from a vantage point of dominance. Privileged people must do something very absurd and unnatural, they must move decisively towards a counterintuitive solidarity with those on the margins, while allowing the eyes of the violated to lead and guide the way.

In the end it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really understood the need to do that very thing. Coming from a very elite and privileged family it boggles the mind to think about the type of solidarity Bonhoeffer repeatedly sought after throughout his life. Whether it was in Harlem attending the famous black prophetic church, Abyssinian Baptist, while Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor or his later participation with the Confessing Church in Germany as he defiantly confronted the violence being done against Jewish people, Bonhoeffer continually chose solidarity with the oppressed. This counterintuitive solidarity gave him new eyes to see and evaluate the world. Therefore, as he lived out his final days in prison before being hanged, he could write these profound words:

It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only during this time bitterness and envy have not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.[5]

This call for counterintuitive solidarity and trusting the historically marginalized and oppressed perception above one’s own is not easy. But I believe that Jesus’ own emptying of himself and taking on slave humanity models for us The Way forward. Jesus’ own solidarity performance is a call to discipleship and imitation as a way of being in the world. It is the cure for privileged blinders that leaves people’s own vision impaired and unreliable. The Spirit is pulling all of us to see things “from below” because that is where God has chosen to move, work, and transform the world (1 Cor. 1:18-31).


[1] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Hazel Gaudet Erskine, “The Polls: Race Relations,” Public Opinion Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1962).

[3] John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way From Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (Spr 2000): 175.

[4] John Howard Yoder, Glen Harold Stassen, and Matt Hamsher, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009), 195.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress Press, 2010), 52.

Williamsburg: Hearing the Subversive Stories

I am wrapping up my family time in Williamsburg, which has been good despite it being a ‘working’ vacation. Eleven of us in total spread across several units, have enjoyed hanging out in Virginia and spending time with one another. We decided to actually visit Williamsburg, which most of us were hesitant to do, because well, we are not that patriotic as a family, and therefore tend to not be as inclined to relive early American colonial life. My dad however, urged us to do it, and so most of us did.

On the surface, it was a ‘beautiful presentation’ of early colonial America, with reenactments happening all around as you walk the streets. We of course were too cheap to pay for tickets, so we didn’t get to go inside any buildings, but rather took it all in from a sidewalk view. I honestly was bored, and uninterested in the domesticated propaganda tour we were on, which presented early colonial times through a non-existent pleasantville-esque view. I know enough history to know that just because you are walking the very geographical streets, does not mean you are getting a significant glimpse into the context and times. So I decided to grab the first black ‘enactment’ actor I could find and proceeded to ask him about slavery and slave quarters. Unfortunately, he pointed out that to actually see the slave quarters you would have had to pay the ticket price, which again we did not do. But, he then began to personally share his own knowledge of the African American slave experience in Williamsburg.

What he shared was a counter-narrative to the dominant narrative that brushed slavery and oppression out of sight. While I was not surprised necessarily by any particular details he shared (not to say it wasn’t interesting), the more fascinating experience was again to unearth the voices and experiences of those who are not allowed space within the hegemonic center of American life. Everywhere you go, if you listen carefully, you will find subversive voices testifying to narratives other than the dominant narratives being told. These bottom-up heterogeneous stories are dangerous, in that they provoke and disturb the deceptive homogeneous story being told from the top-down. May we all hear, learn from, and be shaped by these subversive stories.

Baby Jesus Presented in the Temple: Luke 2:21-39

At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angels before he was conceived in the womb. Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39, NET).

At the start of beginning of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited[i], the argument is made that there are certain elements that are often neglected in western Christianity. Particularly Jesus’ Jewishness, poverty, and oppressed and dominated state are highlighted as being often neglected. Here in the passage in Luke chapter 2, we see all three of those elements of Jesus’ humanity witnessed to in the text.

Jesus is not only ethnically Jewish, but he is obviously raised Jewish as well. He is circumcised, and even presented in the Temple to God, all according to the Law of Moses. Despite many people’s desperate attempts to cast Jesus as a western figure throughout history[ii], Jesus is very much a Jew. Sorry for those who continue to perpetuate the devastating lie that Jesus is a western hero, representing and endorsing all things European, but that house is falling fast. We must continue to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, because in that particularity of ethnicity we are revealed to the universality of Jesus’ Lordship. It is because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that we gentiles can be engrafted into that story and salvation.

Ethnicity is not the only concern in the text or for Thurman. We also see that Jesus comes from poor and humble beginnings. This could be easily missed, but Jesus’ parents are noted for offering two birds. The preferred sacrifice would have been a lamb, the two birds as a replacement was a specific prescription for those who could not afford the costlier animal[iii]. The fact that Luke notes that they opted for the pigeons is not by mistake, but to remind the hearers of the gospel that Jesus was a common poor man, like the masses of humanity that struggled to make it day by day. Sorry folks that push that Jesus was wealthy, it’s not true, he was homeless and had no place to lay his head.

Lastly, we must take notice of the messianic expectation that is leaping of the text. The devout are anticipating the consolation and redemption of Israel. There is a common feeling of continued spiritual exile and political and social oppression because of the continued hostile occupation and taxing from the Roman Empire. Jesus is born under these conditions himself, and must be seen as a colonized person. The desire for independence and God’s full presence and reign for the Jews was real, and thoroughly shapes Jesus’ own experience, life, and teaching. Sorry for the folks that imagine Jesus as a part of the dominant streams of society, but Jesus has more in common with postcolonial thinkers and freedom fighters than he does with those safely situated in comfort and security without any fear of political incarceration or execution because of one’s ethnicity and social position.

Therefore, when we talk about the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must allow these aspects of Jesus concrete existence to shape how we begin to perceive, imagine, and come to know Jesus. And it this Jesus that we are also called to follow, imitate, and risk life for. May we all find the courage to follow Jesus radically as we also link arms with the underdogs of the world in our own contexts and communities.


[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949).

[ii] J Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[iii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001), bk. Leviticus 12:8.

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).

Resurrection and 1 Corinthians 15: Beyond Tupac Holograms

Not sure if you have heard or seen about Tupac’s recent performance with Snoop. Nope, you didn’t misread anything, and yes I meant to say Tupac. Tupac, the one in whom there has always been urban myths surrounding his death, which has led some to believe he is still alive. Yup, that Tupac! In a somewhat creepy manner, Snoop and Dre paid a premium to have their old friend perform once again with them live, by hologram. I can’t lie, it was pretty impressive. It was also very eerie to see someone we all (or most of us) know is dead on stage performing, with life like movement, traversing across the stage, and getting the crowd hype. Regardless of whether you agree with this action or not, certainly we can all understand the desire to bring back such a legendary and almost mythic hip hop artist. Tupac, in many ways, has become a larger figure after his death than when he was still living. He is considered to be hip hop’s pinnacle cultural prophet of the 90’s in the mind of most hip hoppers with any collective memory that reaches back before the turn of the 21st century. However, the reality is that Tupac is gone, and in many ways, there continues to be a hole and vacuum in the hip hop world that has not been filled by most of our contemporary mainstream hip hop artists. The hologram is impressive, but if anything it ultimately brings our attention to the reality that he is truly gone and that he is missed, rather than that some measure has speciously fooled us into believing he has come back to life.

I’ve been reading 1 Corinthians 15 a lot recently. It has been consuming my mental faculties for various reasons recently. If 1 Corinthians 13 is the Love chapter, then chapter 15 should likewise be deemed the Resurrection chapter.

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. (1 Cor. 15:1-8)

What is important to note, as Paul rehearses the gospel which was passed down to him, is that the emphasis and launching point is the resurrection rather than Jesus’ death. The whole chapter is the outflow of Jesus’ resurrection. Notice also that Paul is initially interested in Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, the crowds, and ultimately even to him after his resurrection. However, Jesus’ resurrection, unlike Tupac’s hologram, is one that offers hope not despair. Tupac’ hologram is a reminder of our fleeting mortality, our brief visitation in these decaying bodies. Jesus’ resurrection, in contrast, points us towards hope beyond death.

For Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit of the resurrection that we will join him in (15:20). Jesus’ resurrection, was a physical and tangible reality, despite what some liberals have argued from within the confines of modernity’s limited theological vision and faith-killing enlightenment approaches to logic and reasoning. It was in the firm conviction of Jesus’ resurrection that people were able to risk everything and to be fashioned after Jesus, the prototype of a new humanity (15:49). Similarly, the oppressive threat of death, a favorite weapon of imperial and oppressive powers and forces in our world, no longer has any teeth in its bite (15:54-56). Disciples subversively rejected the Roman Empire has having rule over their life, because only the Messiah and his Kingdom were granted that. Likewise, we can also live with radical postures, as we reject false claims to the reigns over our lives, because nothing that can be done to us will pass through death to the other side. So we can speak boldly and say “No” to “God and Country” and simultaneously say “Yes” to “God and His Kingdom”. And if we say we reject the reign of America over us and accept the reign of God’s Kingdom over us, then we also embody those eternal realities right now as we begin to participate in the Kingdom of justice, peace, and righteousness that has centralized the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed at the Lord’s table.

Our new found resurrection boldness allows us to defy the social order, the status quo, and the dominant culture’s power plays. We should no longer be bamboozled into the belied lies of the ephemeral mainstream. Tupac’s hologram was neat, but nonetheless impermanent and death-dealing. Jesus’ resurrection offers us a game-changing imperishability and a life-giving hope the world needs.

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!