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.

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).

Tribal Talk: Exorcism and White Supremacy (Guest Post By Kevin Sweeney)

(I am thankful for the opportunity to have a guest post from Kevin Sweeney. He is a true follower of Jesus, intellect, theologian, and friend of  marginalized people.   I have been personally encouraged by his transparency as he discusses, exposes, and confronts white privilege and systemic racism as a white male himself. His honesty, courage and knowledge on the subject are deeply needed within the Christian Church. Enjoy! – Drew Hart)

What Should We Do?

In the last section of his book, Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story” Will Coleman describes what some of the main characteristics of Tribal Talk are. The two that are most vital for understanding the nature of tribal talk are tribal talk’s commitment to liberation and exorcism. Coleman states “It is committed to the liberation of persons of African descent from the legacy of white supremacy—and of persons of European descent from the same.” Anticipating the question of why from his readers, Coleman goes on to say, “It (white supremacy) is a stubborn demon, but it can and will be exorcised. Constant exposure (the naming and sending away) of its false powers is the key to its exorcism.”[1] Although white people may have a visceral reaction to Coleman’s referring to white supremacy as a demon that must be exorcised due to its violent nature, it does not require much historical research—especially in our own country, the United States–to end up confronting the unspeakable violence that is the result of white supremacy and racism. Examples of this white supremacy include, but are not limited to the enslavement and dehumanization of Africans, the burning and lynching of black bodies, and the systematic discrimination against blacks in housing, healthcare, and employment. And if “constant exposure” is key to exorcising this demon, then we must develop the vision to see the ways in which this demon still operates, name it as the demon of racism and white supremacy that it is, and enact the courage to confront it and send it away. But the question remains, who is this we that I am referring to as I write?

The “we” that is being referred to in this response is the white church in the United States of America. And for the intent of this post, the white church refers to any individual white person who professes Jesus as Lord, any local, white homogenous church, and any institutions of higher education that are still harboring this demon of white supremacy—my school, Fuller Theological Seminary included. The critical response is not focusing on the white church in the United States because it is the only instantiation of the body of Christ that has racist sensibilities; rather because it constitutes the geographical, religious and socio-political context that I inhabit. Our brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora have invited us to participate in this tribal talk, and in order to be faithful to this legacy we have a responsibility to exorcise this demon of white supremacy wherever we see it, including the depths of ourselves. In the early 20th century, Ida B. Wells said, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” Since another element of tribal talk is listening deeply to our ancestors, we—the white church—must listen deeply to our sister Ida B. Wells and allow her to challenge us so we do not continue to embody the same demon of white supremacy that our predecessors did.


[1] Coleman, Tribal Talk, 194.

Kevin Sweeney studied sociology and world Religion at the University of Hawaii, holds a BA in biblical studies from Life Pacific College, and is currently pursuing masters degrees in both theology and intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a mystic, a poet, a student of black theology, and an unmasker of institutional racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. His greatest joy is being married to (and surfing with) his wife Christine.

Follow Kevin Sweeney on Twitter @kevinsweeney1

White Man’s Religion???

Did you know?

During the 4th century A.D., that both the church father of the east and of the west were both African.  Yes, that puts a ruffle in the Islamic claim that Christianity is “the White Man’s Religion”.

In the east, there was Athanasius of Alexandria.  It is noted, that some people even called him “the black dwarf” back then.  Nonetheless, he was the church father of the eastern church, and is noted for valiantly defending the full deity of Christ, even to the point of being temporarily excommunicated.

Simultaneously, Augustine of Hippo was the patriarch over the west and was also from North Africa.  His massive works and development on theology are still studied vigorously to this day. It is his theology that Calvin and Luther would later draw from to arrive at what we call today western theology. While their theology is very different and distinct from Augustine, making some claims and assumptions he never did, it is indisputable that he is the Father of Western Christianity and Theology.

While some could argue that the western tradition has used theology to promote and justify slavery, racism, and apathy towards social justice, those current ideologies were not held by these church fathers.  In fact, at that time the church was much more multi-ethnic, and its face was very diverse.  The amazing thing is that simultaneously both the two primary church fathers were African, yet few are aware of it.   Check it out for yourself.

Negro History Week – Once You Go Black…

Do you know the origins of black history month? it actually started this day (February 7th) back in 1926. It was initiated by Carter G. Woodson who wanted to make a concerted effort to incorporate the accomplishments and history of African Americans in the larger American story. Unfortunately, the black experience was systematically ignored as though black people were invisible and contributed nothing to society.  Well, I guess some things don’t change much, since a few blacks are hyper-visible while the majority of black people continue to live in the realm of dominant societal invisibility.  Anyway, Negro History Week was originally picked because it landed during the week of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Give us an inch and we’ll take a foot, give us a week, hey we are gonna take a month!

Black History: Focusing in on Bonhoeffer???

It could be seen as a bit strange to be focusing in on a white person during black history month, right? After all, the whole purpose of black history month is to finally learn about the experiences, culture, and heritage of black people in a culture that only values white history, culture, and literature.

Nonetheless, today on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday, we briefly stop and remember this man who literally gave his life because of his Christian convictions.  However, I will not spend most of your time on what he did to resist Nazi Germany (which you probably already know), but rather to remember his time in Harlem, NY.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and also attended Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Very few white Christians in America have been willing to place themselves under black spiritual leadership (the opposite is much more frequent), yet Bonhoeffer did just that and was shaped significantly by those experiences. He not only loved the Negro Spirituals and culture there (which he admitted he did), but he also had his faith impacted dramatically has he began to see life “from below”.  It was here that he  fully grasped the Church’s call to pursue justice and its unfortunate participation and perpetuation of racism and segregation.

So why Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Because he offers a model for what can be. People in the dominant culture can indeed emerge themselves into black culture and community, and more than that… they can actually learn and grow from that opportunity. So, I invite you to take the Bonhoeffer challenge, and immerse yourself in black culture, community, and history this month and see how it might impact you. Let me know if you are up for the challenge.

Martin & Malcolm

This picture was taken during the one and only time these two great men met. No one knows what exactly was said between them and so we are left wondering what was shared in that moment where their destinies briefly crossed. Was it a friendly exchange or was it one of tension and disagreement? We know that they were drastically at odds during most of their lives, however both went through monumental shifts in idealogy in the final stages of their lives.  Malcolm X clearly began moving away from his radical ideology which endorsed hatred of white people, to embracing all people who were willing to struggle for equality. On the other hand, Martin Luther King became more aggressive, realizing that the injustices and racism in the North were more resistant to justice and equality than he originally thought.  Many have even suggested that the ideological trajectory of the two men would have eventually met in the middle had their lives not been ended so abruptly (both where murdered at the age of 39).

I personally appreciate both men.  I love that Malcolm X was able to affirm his humanity and manhood in the face white supremacy and hatred. He did so with courage and strength, which is why he has and will continue to be an important icon in the black community.  I love what Martin Luther King did and stood for.  When I imagine someone taking serious the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ I think of Martin Luther King Jr., because of his commitment to peace, justice, nonviolence, and love for all humanity even to the point of death. Both the Church and all of American society are indebted to him for his example and unwanted progress he accomplished.

Freestyle with me, what are Martin and Malcolm’s significance to you…

Messiah College Hosts Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Feb. 25th

Messiah College Centennial Celebrations: Keynote lecture

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University
Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for
African and African American Research at Harvard University

Messiah College Humanities Symposium Lecture
“Genetics and Genealogy” • February 25, 2010, 8:00 p.m.
Brubaker Auditorium, Eisenhower Campus Center

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ph.D., will deliver the second keynote lecture of the Centennial year and the keynote address for the Messiah College Humanities Symposium. Professor Gates is editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American Studies and Africana Studies, and of The Root, an online news magazine dedicated to coverage of African American news, culture, and genealogy. In 2008, Oxford University Press published the African American National Biography. Co-edited with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, it is an eight-volume set containing more than 4,000 biographical entries on both well known and obscure African Americans. He is most recently the author of In Search of Our Roots (Crown, 2009), a meditation on genetics, genealogy, and race, and a collection of expanded profiles featured on his PBS documentary series, “African American Lives.” His other recent books are America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans (Warner Books, 2004), and African American Lives, co-edited with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Oxford, 2004).

Immediately following the lecture, audience members are invited to attend a public book signing by Dr. Gates in the Eisenhower Campus Center.

This event is open to the public. Seating is by ticket only; no charge. Tickets available beginning January 14, 2010 through the Messiah College Ticket Office, (717) 691-6036.

Happy Birthday Rosa Parks!!!


On February 4th, 1913, Rosa Parks was born. She is now famously thought of as the “mother of the civil rights movement” for courageously sitting down on that city bus, so that the African American community could finally take a stand. It was her faith and resilience that gave her the strength to make that courageous move. We remember her today, and her faithful commitment to God’s principles of love, justice, and equality. Happy Birthday Rosa Parks!!!