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.

Advertisements

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.

Kony 2012: American Atrocities, Simplistic Solutions, and Christ Crucified

I shared a couple tweets on the subject, but other than that I have not really said much about the Kony 2012 agenda. I have mixed feelings critiquing the movement, because on one hand I do see the impact of Kony and the LRA as horrific and needing appropriatehuman response and on the other hand I see the campaign and effort to make Joseph Kony famous overly simplistic, naive, and blind to historical, political, and socio-economic realities that exist in Uganda, the continent of Africa, and also throughout western nations like America.

Furthermore, while I am all for putting an end to those atrocities, I think that we must also address the atrocities that have been and continue to be committed by our own nation. Millions, not thousands have died on account of American action here on our soil as well as on account of our military and the policies that we (a democracy) have allowed to be enacted around the world. The almost complete genocide of the indigenous people of the land and their continued discrimination and suffering are on the hands of America. Our very existence on this land alone ought to serve as a continual reminder of the millions that no longer exist because of colonial expansion. Probably those who participated in the unjust war crimes against the First Nations people should have also had a campaign against them with their faces on posters. I could continue on and on about America’s role in the middle passage, slavery, black codes, the sharecropper system, Jim Crow, nuclear attacks, unjust wars, participation with dictators (and then later turning on them and attacking them), immoral masses of money spent on the military industrial complex, over-imprisonment of our most vulnerable citizens, colonizing of other nations and people groups, foreign policy that punishes the poorest and most vulnerable, and the consequential and unimaginable number of deaths that have come from all these and other actions that America has perpetrated under the banner of innocence, freedom, and democracy.
I know this probably will not be a popular post nor will it be received well by many. However, I just thought it would be important to offer caution before we get too self-righteous as we look with shame at Joseph Kony, and instead first turn the judgment around for a moment to realize that we as a country collectively (and many individually as well) deserve to have a poster made with us on it. Then, when we realize our own faults and shortcomings as it relates to injustice, we can begin to humbly move forward doing true justice. This justice will no longer be done as though we are the center of and saviors to the world, but rather as those who being a part of the chaos, also understand that the ugliness and injustice we see is complex and will not be fixed with wristbands and posters. There are complex forces at work (spiritual, political, social, and economic) which all play factors in the injustice we see unfold around us. Stopping one man or making one man famous will not redirect these forces. The demonizing of one man may make us feel good and right, but it will not accurately explain the complex political context that gave space for such a movement to come to be. Not as an excuse for Kony, but as I have always understood it, Uganda has had ongoing political corruption since western invasion and colonization, which the LRA was responding against. Kony’s horrific crimes are not justified, however, wearing a bracelet to make him famous will not solve the problem at the root, but is merely putting a band aid on a fatal wound while scapegoating only one man for the actions of many people, nations, and forces. If Kony is arrested, I will not be complaining. However, I know that will not put an end to the oppressive rulers and authorities in Africa, in America, or in our world, that is what Jesus’ victory on the Cross was for; the continual defeat of oppressive and evil powers by God’s rule and reign which is breaking into our world.
Colossains 2:15 “Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Prophetic Priorities for the Poor and Democratic Duty Dichotomies: A Spin Off

One area for me that makes the discussion concerning Christian responsibility for the poor more of a complex one, is the reality that we do not live under Caesar and the Roman Empire, but rather in imperial America we have a democracy, which means we (everyone not just politicians) in some form take the place of Caesar (as the government). This means that we are accountable for the policies and laws of the land as individuals, in as much as our small voice, vote, and communal activity has influence. And it is clear that laws and policies can systemically have favorable or adverse consequences on the lives of poor people (and everyone else).  How does this play into the discussion of Christian responsibility for the poor? As Christians, as has already been stated, we are responsible to sacrifice, serve, and find solidarity with the poor as a part of our faithful witness. This responsibility is not to be a dichotomy in our lives where aspects of us are concerned for the poor and other aspects are not, rather it is a holistic totality of our being. By this I mean that we must consider our spending habits, our social circles, our speech/deed enactments, our exposure, and the various means that we have accessible to us as Christians to impact the lives of those who are socio-economically disenfranchised. One of the means available to us, as I began to discuss, is that of democratic influence. Certainly none of us are Caesar, and therefore we cannot snap and get whatever we want to be manifested. However, that does not remove the responsibility for us to do what we can faithfully. That is where the prophetic tradition and the Anabaptist tradition have been extremely helpful for me, given the reality that most Christians traditions have not been holistic in their response to those most marginalized, and likewise most Christian individuals politically are puppets for our imperial political parties, having nothing else to add other than their particular political parties ideology (of course with their Christianity-ism slant).

The prophetic tradition, evident in the likes of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King understood (even without democratic opportunity) that as Christians they have a responsibility to impact the fallen broken social order that they are a part of through a violent clash of ethics, values, and theological vision. It was their faith that shaped and motivated them to seek political change inspired by God’s revolutionary Kingdom.

On the other hand, the Anabaptist community is one of the few Christian communities in America that have continually been holistic in its understanding of our responsibility to the poor. They give generously, serve continually, and they even teach to sacrifice luxuries and comforts so they are able to give as a basic tenet of Christian faith and identity. Sacrifice and service (for the poor rather than one’s own church’s institution) is rarely one of the ABC’s of most church’s teachings.

In America, the closest thing to modeling the life and teachings of Jesus, as it relates to ministry to, for, and with the poor is seen clearest in my opinion when we do not get excited about which tradition has the best doctrine and systemic theology, but rather when we are ecstatic about traditions that have faithful theological vision and are obedient in embodying this divine narrative concretely in their communities and contexts.

The thing that is great about the gospel is that it is comprehensive. It is about Newness; New life, New Humanity, New Jerusalem, and New Creation.   The gospel is that Jesus came and ushered in a new social order in the midst of our old, decaying, and fallen social order. And in Christ, we can be a part of and experience this divine renewal of all things right now. So yes, as the Church it is our responsibility to be salt and light and our responsibility to care for the poor, which means we must be faithfully bearing witness and making a difference in all spheres of our influence, including our democratic system through prophetic  stance.  So sacrifice, give, share, vote, speak out, and stand alongside the poor as the active implementation of God’s gospel is rehearsed in your lives.

Empire of Fear

In America, citizens are overwhelmed, burdened, and often defeated by fear. Doom and despair are the working hermeneutics for participants in Imperial America. This becomes especially apparent in American two party politics. To gain support for any political agenda, both sides use the threat of doom to scare people into supporting their policies. This method is surprisingly effective again and again.

God help us to reject the Empire of Fear and accept the Kingdom of Hope!

Kenya: Who Am I?

In America black people constantly wrestle with racial identity. As a young black man I have to consciously resist the stereotypes of dominant society, as they attempt to define who I am. Likewise I have to resist dominant society’s portrayals of who they think I ought to be. While that is easily communicated on paper, actually walking the tight rope of identity is difficult. One of the most fundamental questions asked by all of humanity is “Who am I?”  As Christians we go a step further wanting to know who we are in Christ, and how do we reflect the unique aspect of the Imago Dei that has been imprinted upon us.

I do not want to sound cheesy, but being in Africa, spending time alongside my African brothers and sisters was a spiritual, psychological encounter that gave me an even deeper glimpse into myself. It wasn’t merely being in a context where blacks are the majority of the population, because I already have that in the neighborhood where I live (Philly). However, I think it was the knowledge of the fact that I didn’t have to worry about stereotypes or archetypes from white or black folk, but could comfortably be me without judgement. The racial climate doesn’t easily allow for  much of that in America. We must intentionally seek it out, even when it seems subversive to some who think we ought to all assimilate into one bland and uniformed cultural expression, disregarding the diversity created by God.  I believe that the better we truly know ourselves and who we are, the more capable we will be in ministering to others. Kenya was a timely gift.

Kenya: Four Kids and $25

One particular day while in Kenya, a few of us had the privilege of sneaking off the campus with Peter Odanga, the Word of Life Director, and driving up into the village in the hills. He would simply yell “candy” in Swahili as we passed by people’s huts and the kids would come running. We didn’t preach to them, all we did was give them candy, for which they were unbelievably grateful. From what I gathered, Peter does these runs about once a month, and I think it is his way of being a familiar face to those in that village.

We drove further along and then eventually parked, got out and begin walking through a field of high grass. On the other end of the field we came right into the middle of a families dwelling. Everyone was barefoot, a man was working hard on a piece of furniture I believe, and we were greeted very graciously by the women and children. They brought chairs out for us to sit down and by the time we were sitting the men had come over as well. Peter translated Swahili and English both ways as we spoke back and forth with this family.

During our discussion we eventually found out that four of the kids there were no longer able to attend school because they could not afford the school fees.  We asked how much it would cost to put them all back in school for the rest of the year. The answer was devastating. $25! The cost to put all four of them back in school again for the year was only $25. I don’t think my heart sank any lower my whole time there as it did at that point. We obviously offered to pay the fee and Peter said that it would be fine to do so. The family was so grateful, but I knew that we were only giving out of our excess, and we did not deserve the appreciation they gave. The head of the family actually climbed up a coconut tree and cut down several coconuts for us, chopped the tops off and served us. This was a humbling experience. It was one of those humbling and formational moments that a person can never forget.

Kenya: London Layover

Our trip to Kenya, must really start with our layover in London. We had a 13 hour layover, which gave us the opportunity to get out into the city and see the sights. It was my first and only time in Europe. I probably did not get to take it all in as much as I normally would have, since we were all dreadfully tired by the time we arrived in London, as it was time for bed in U.S. E.T., as we were getting our day started there.

We saw the sights…

We watched the changing of the guards.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the London bridge is not falling down (sorry, bad joke). Anyhow, we blended as much as a primarily black american group possibly can in London, which is not very well.

We eventually got back to the airport and onto the plane, heading for Kenya. Our final destination was the Mombasa Airport. I can still remember vividly as we drove off of the airport property, and immediately adjacent to the airport were shacks, and by shacks I mean people’s homes. During our hour long drive back to our campus, we saw neverending poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen poverty like that before, but not that much. I can remember in Jamaica seeing the shack towns, but then you would also see some middle class areas as well. Here there seemed to be no middle class at all, and it wouldn’t be until more than half way through the week that we would see actual upper class neigbhorhoods.

As I stared out the window watching black people live in terrible conditions, my mind just kept taking me back to London, where we saw palaces, grandiose churches, and generational wealth. The reason my mind kept going there, is because as a psuedo historian, I know that Kenya was a colony of the British. I would be reminded by my friend John a Kenyan, that they were a British colony up into the 1960’s.  And so it became pretty evident that there was a direct line between the wealth enjoyed in London, and the poverty that was being endured by the Kenyan people.

Little did I know that our London layover would serve as a historical reminder for me, in an in your face way. This theme seemed to come back a few times as we experienced Kenya. We also got to be in Kenya during Madaraka Day, which is the celebration of Independence from the British. The imprints and residue of British colonization were permeated throughout Kenyan culture. While that was obvious for me to see, I am sure that forms of colonization are imprinted on my life as well, to which I am oblivious to. And yet Jesus promises an alternative to the imperial imprint that tries to determine our values and practices, and that is the Kingdom of God. And so all I can say is let us resist some more.

Kenya: My Cohort

I have been sitting on my Kenya experience for awhile, probably good to share it with you all. Here is my cohort from Biblical Seminary outside Tsavo National Park. I am right in the middle sporting the drifit baby blue shirt and shades.

I love these guys, and there would have been no better team to organize and go to Kenya with than them. Many of us really bonded over the trip, even more than we had previously over the past 3 and a half years.  Everywhere we went in Kenya we were greeted with “Welcome Home!”, which felt good.

Many of us expressed how welcomed we felt while there, in many ways we were more accepted and appreciated there than our home country.  The conflict of what it means to be African and American was something we rapped about after our return. That type of paradox is our history, our legacy. Our ancestors were unfree people in the land of the free. And then we come to Kenya, and felt so welcomed everywhere we went.

Race is something we never avoided talking about in our group, we didn’t always agree on the solution (or even sometimes the problem), but it was all apart of our daily existence and could not be thrown in the closet and ignored. Here in Kenya, race came up more, but even more so colonization. I will have to share more of that in a later post. Stay tuned as I share my experience in Kenya.

Woke Up This Mornin’ With My Mind Stayed On Jesus

I have never been one to tip toe around my opinion of mainstream american religiosity. I have trouble labeling what passes for Christianity in America as such. This is not a statement on whether or not folks are among God’s family (which isn’t really for me to decide), but rather it is an ecclesiological and theological concern which aims to critically consider what qualifies a group of people to be the Church, as well as what is the heart and substance of Christianity.

Unfortunately, American christianity-ism, has inundated itself with very elaborate abstract and systematized theology. The lack of theology being done rooted in specific 21st contexts as well as understood through situating Jesus in the biblical narrative, history, and his Palestinian socio-political context is at the core of our contemporary theological plight. In doing theology with the attempts of building universal systematic principles, we have in essence landed upon vague theological musings that can and often are manipulated regularly.

An example may prove helpful. Jesus challenged his followers to take up their cross and follow him. In America these verses are loved by so-called Christians. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear people talk about the various ways in which they daily take up their own cross and follow Jesus.  The only problem is that they have an abstract understanding of what that means. Taking up the cross of Jesus and following him hardly means to literally consider the actual life, deeds, and teachings of Jesus as they broke into the realities of 1st century life while reflecting and then living out its implications for 21st century American life.  No, instead we get to decide what that means based off of our own personal preferences. (Yes I am critiquing the way Americans read and apply scripture).  It is not strange to hear someone talk about getting up and throwing on a christian tee, listening to their favorite christian artist in the car on the way to work, and reading their bible at the work place as succesfully taking up their cross and following Jesus throughout the day.  While those things are not inherently wrong, they have little to do with taking up one’s cross and follow Jesus’ as was originally intended.  Our abstract and vague theology allows us to creatively reimagine the Christian life in light of our own comforts and unwillingness to have our lives disrupted by the Jesus way.

We have lost sight of Jesus, having replaced him for systematic theology. With our abstract and vague theology, we are able to justify and convince ourselves of just about anything we want. But when we consider Jesus, the Crucified One, who is situated and concrete in real human existence, it will disturb and disrupt our agenda. The realities of Jesus’ sermon on the mount subverts our american ethic, forcing us to wrestle with whether we are serious about following Jesus or not. It is only as we turn our eyes to the Revealed One that our religious justifications are undermined. This can not be done through our tainted imaginations of a nice western Jesus. This demands that we read the Gospels anew, examining the life and teachings of our Lord with utmost seriousness. May we all turn in our clean and pretty systematic theology for Jesus and the cross, which are often not so comfortable and nice, yet open our eyes to seeing the world in truly fresh ways.