An Anabaptist “In House” Discussion: Forming a Non-Racist Approach to Ethics and Social Responsibility

I am concerned that many Anabaptists have unconsciously and unknowingly adopted a model for social action and ethics that is problematic because it cooperates with our racialized and unjust society. Therefore, I figured I would offer an “in house” discussion on the subject. This all flows out of listening to the language and comments of my brothers and sisters (though mostly brothers) as they talk about engaging society (or not) in relation to various social issues we are confronted with in the U.S..

More specifically, I have observed many talk about desiring to remain “local”, “contextual”, “on the ground”, and “ecclesially” oriented when it comes to dealing with social realities. Let me be clear, I believe it is essential that we are rooted and grounded in local communities. When I hear these terms being used, it is often done so in great contrast to the Christendom logics for social engagement that is so common in American Christianity. Many seem to only imagine their social options for responding to injustice as being limited to the so-called democratic electoral process. More specifically, every four years, Christians pop blood vessels and gain grey hairs stressing over who the next president will be. This is the only active engagement that they will have socially, so I guess their limited options impose on them a certain manner of stress that cannot be released through daily resistance and activism. So, I am in agreement that our Christian imagination should not merely be defined by citizenship and the options given to the ‘good citizen’. However, there are also some serious consequences for swinging the pendulum all the way in the other direction, and again, they have racial implications, as well as others.

The first thing we must remember is that we live in a racialized society. By that I mean that race shapes how our societies movements and organization. Basically, race manages us socially and geographically. Unconsciously, most people are “patterned” by race in various ways. Most people go to a church where the majority of people are of the same race. Most people live in a neighborhood where most people are of the same race. Most people attend a school where the majority of people are of the same race. Most of the people that we call to actually chat with are of the same race. Most people regularly invite only people of the same race over to their homes for dinner. Based on race, we often have a sense that we “belong” in certain spaces and not in other spaces. In a sense, race has a sophisticated way of managing us and segregating us, despite that it is not legal segregation. This is no surprise, given that we are working with 400 years of deeply racialized laws and practices in this land. Those types of responses, if not intentionally resisted, will be unconscious and inevitable practices in our society.

If we take seriously the depth of our racialized society, and how it impacts our lives (which I have only unveiled a tiny fraction of), then we must consider the racial outcomes that flow from limiting and only concerning ourselves with “local” & “contextual” realms. For example, lots of research has been done exposing national racial issues that demand massive response. A perfect example is Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow. She exposed the national crises and confirmed with data what African American communities have been experiencing and prophetically speaking out against since post-civil rights era. Her simple point is that at every stage of “law and order” from policing, stops, arrests, trials, sentencing, and even after release back into society, the process is racially biased against Black people. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to order it and read it carefully. Anyway, if you live in a primarily white, suburban, middle class neighborhood, that is not vulnerable to these practices, and instead actually look to the police and judicial system expecting it to provide protection and law and order, then what are the implications of deciding to limit your social engagement to your local situation.

You see, by looking down and limiting your social engagement, you create for yourself an artificial social vacuum. It is as though your community and social life has nothing to do with what goes on regionally, nationally, or globally. That isn’t so. The reality is that our way of life always has direct implications beyond our local contexts, because we are interconnected much more than we realize. Only from a vantage point of privilege and comfort, blinded by the logics of dominant culture, can someone think that an ecclesial ethic is sufficient on its own, when it has not taken seriously its own social location and complicity in social systems. This is precisely why historic Anabaptists streams have a complicated history as it relates to slavery and racism in America. On one hand, most Anabaptists did not participate in slavery, unlike almost every other Christian tradition and denomination. On the other hand, unlike the Quakers whom many eventually became great abolitionists, Mennonites did very little to actively confront and challenge slavery and later racist manifestations like Jim Crow, Lynching, the convict leasing system, etc. So, it definitely is important to have a formational community that produces people that can resist participating in things like slavery. But it is also important to produce people that are willing to head towards Jerusalem and accept the consequences that come from confronting a social order that does not align with God’s Kingdom.

In 1963, Martin Luther King decided to protest in Birmingham, which was not his actual residency or home. In the process, he was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement over Easter weekend (which is probably the most faithful observance of that weekend that I have ever seen). However, some moderate yet influential white ministers, who were supposed to be “for” integration, critiqued King and the movement while he was sitting in jail. One of the big critiques was that the civil rights movement was moving to fast and was being provoked by “outside agitators”. They argued that it needed to be dealt with by local Birmingham citizens, not outsiders. Dr. King in contrast, understood the danger of limiting one’s social responsibility merely to one’s own local context. Here is just a small portion of his response, in his now famous, Letter from Birmingham Jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.[1]

So, in wrapping up, I hope to stretch the focus from merely being ecclesial ethics and local concerns. We do not want to fall back into Christendom logics, where the only options are from the top down, but nor can we disconnect between what goes on in Nazareth with what goes on in Jerusalem and Rome. I encourage us all to continue to practice an ecclesial ethics that is simultaneously a socially located and marginalized ethics. I’m not sure the Church collectively can truly follow Jesus faithfully in the world if it isn’t exploring the world from the vantage point of being in solidarity with the crucified among us. And if one suffers, we all suffer, therefore, as King argues we are no longer outsiders because everyone’s suffering pertains to us.

 

[1] King, A Testament of Hope, 289–303.

Advertisements

Why do you call me Lord?: Praxis and Foundations

 

In America, it is common to hear people comment on how hard it must be to be a Christian overseas where persecution is rampant. Unfortunately, in response many begin cheering patriotically because of our so called American rights and our supposed ‘freedom’ to gather in Jesus’ name. While we could explore the faulty label and deployment of the word freedom in relation to American life we will forsake that explicit task for today. But there is something to say about reflecting on the nature and character of people’s faith in places where there is an inherent cost in claiming the name of Jesus and the absence of such opposition here in America. To be considered a Christian in many places demands deep conviction because their decision comes with a high cost or risk in their society. On the other hand, here in America, if someone pursued the most powerful position in the American empire (the Presidency), it is still strategically wise to identify as Christian if one desires to have an ‘effective’ campaign. What I am pointing to is the manner in which Christian rhetoric and association in America provides social, political, and economic space (for some) to move, gain prestige, obtain resources, and be considered a good and respectable citizen within American boundaries. Some may read this as positive but here it is not diagnosed as so. Instead, the end result is an expression of Christianity in which our adherence is cheap, easy, and comfortable; a life contrary to a life of following Jesus, as defined by Christ himself (Luke 9:23). 

Popular Christian expression and sentiment here on our part of the globe are found deficient, leaving many in a terrible position because they are being bamboozled and hoodwinked in their own identification before God. On one hand we have many who call Jesus Lord within the United States but on the other hand it is hard to find anyone who practices what Jesus taught or are willing to live alternatively in the world with Jesus as their foundation. Loving one’s enemies, not hoarding possessions, confronting evil, lending without expecting anything in return, making solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, sharing the good news of God’s alternative Kingdom with the poor, doing justice, being merciful, and confronting empire and evil forces to the point of laying down one’s life are not compatible with American life or reasoning. Yet the absence of the markers of a Christian life has not even slightly worried  or bothered the self confidence  of self proclaimed Christians in America.

While Christianity in America is on a decline, it certainly has not gotten to the point where Christians are disenfranchised for their faithfulness to Christ (despite popular sentiment from many American evangelicals who complain about Christian victimhood from contexts of comfort, wealth, safety, and security). What a miserable condition we find ourselves in. We all believe that we are Christians and are followers of Christ and have been conditioned by our Christian leaders to believe that everything is fine and that there is nothing to worry about. At the same time, there is no fruit of discipleship (defined by the life of Christ rather than American standards of what is expected and reasonable for our 21st Century American lifestyles). We think that somehow the call to proclaim Jesus as Lord meant that we just had to verbalize the words but didn’t have to truly reorient our lives thoroughly around the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his inbreaking Kingdom. This misunderstanding was something Jesus was fully aware of, warning his followers that true surrendering to Jesus’ Lordship demanded practicing what Jesus taught and emulated as the foundation of our lives. Here is Jesus’ teaching from Luke 6:46-49:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I tell you? “Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice – I will show you what he is like: He is like a manbuilding a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against that house, it collapsed immediately, and was utterly destroyed!”[1]

            It’s time to move beyond empty words and cheap adherence. May we make Jesus’ life and teachings the foundations of our lives taking them seriously and putting them into practice as we yield to Christ thoroughly in our own life. When we step back and revisit where it is hard to be Christian, it is recognized that the domestication of Christianity in America provides a near impossible context to follow Jesus because we are completely enslaved to our way of life and logic. Thankfully, all things are possible with God.


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

Christians in the midst of Imperial Political Debate (My Quick & Brief Thoughts)

So many Christians are bent out of shape because of the political atmosphere. Blood pressures are high, as though everything depended on the outcome of the coming election. It doesn’t matter if you are democrat or republican, the general consensus is that if “their” guy doesn’t get into office all hell will break loose in apocalyptic fashion. While I do vote and favor one of the politicians over the other, I am not a yessir boy for either. Most often I describe the political process for Christians as one in which we must choose the lesser of two evils. Both imperial choices are sooooo far distinct from the unique and peculiar Way of Jesus and his Kingdom, that it is inevitably a terribly horrific and scandalous distortion to Christ to even consider any choice as “Christian”. Both the republican and democratic party have always shared a more common ground with Blasphemous Babylon than God’s Kingdom.

Our justifications and reasoning in our minds reflects our inability to have any sort of theological vision, lacking all comprehensible grasps at the in-breaking messianic rule that completely stands in utterly drastic contrast to the world we live in. Again, I think that we should vote, because our vote may offer short, temporary relief, in very small yet tangible ways for people that are struggling. But this pursuit of minor reform for the world is not the Christian mandate, the Kingdom of God is not reform but revolt. It is a rejection of this world and the participation in an alternative community and ethics centered around the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.

All that said… lighten up. As Christians everything should not depend on the outcome of these elections, whoever you vote for. If you can’t laugh at (or sometimes cry over) the ridiculousness of it all, your foundation is off and needs to be re-evaluated. This is not a challenge to disengage, but rather to be engaged with a unique and peculiar orientation. Lord Jesus Come!

Book Review: the POWER of ALL: Building a Multivoiced Church

For the typical American Christian, Sunday morning is the time in which a faithful believer attends a church service, where they will be lead in worship and are hoping to hear an impactful sermon from their gifted and informed pastor. Directly following the program, it’s not uncommon for people to verbally acknowledge how good church was. At that point it is time to get home to eat or catch the afternoon football game. This is the image that the New Testament paints of the Christian community, right?

Well, for Sian and Stuart Murray Williams, they decisively must contest that portrayal of the Christian community, despite how overwhelmingly common such practice is. While they have addressed various issues concerning the nature and role of the Church in the past, what they are most concerned with in the POWER of ALL: Building a Multivoiced Church, is whether the Christian community ought to be passive or participatory in its ecclesiastical life.

To get at this issue, the primary term that is employed is “Multivoiced Church”, which is a description of the actively participative Church in its worship, learning and teaching, and even discernment processes.  The term may seem odd or confusing at first hearing, but rest assured, it has a very clear and concrete implication. “There is nothing mysterious about the meaning of the term “multivoiced worship.” It means simply that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many formats, tones, and accents.”

One of the books strongest arguments are in chapters two and three, in which they look at the New Testament account and Church History. Without getting into any specifics, I think it is more than fair to say that the book does an exemplary job at looking at various New Testament ecclesiologies, demonstrating pretty adequately that life was in one manner or another best described as multivoiced. Likewise, the book attempts to locate the turning point for Christian churches gradual transformation from multivoiced churches to monovoiced churches.

This book is not written for scholars, but it’s highly researched and well documented information is made extremely accessible. What I particularly found helpful was the way in which the authors share real stories from their own experience as well as others who have wrestled with these church implications. Just as helpful are the various questions and even warnings that are provided for anyone that might consider transitioning their church in a more participatory course.  Their care and concern for the life of the church are one of the most compelling aspects of the book.

I highly recommend this book for any Christian that is tired of the consumeristic, passive, mundane, and ultimately boring congregational life that is found in most churches today. If you would like to see the local congregations BE the Church as it gathers as well as when it goes out into society then this book is for you. This is for the pastor that wants to foster this type of community and this for the “member” that wants to participate in the life of the Church as I believe God intended. Definitely grab a copy of the Power of All.

 

(As full disclosure, I was given this pre-release copy of the Power of All for the sole purpose of reviewing it 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.)

‘Tweener Jesus’ Visits the Temple: Luke 2:41-51

Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. But when the feast was over, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but (because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers) they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:41-51)[i]

This passage in Luke is a familiar passage to me. However, if I am honest, I never spent much time practicing Lectio Divina with it, but would typically run through the passage thinking to myself that someone should have called child services on Joseph and Mary. Yes, Jesus was a special child, the end, right? Well, there are some other things that have struck me more recently.

In reality, it is understandable that Jesus’ parents lost track of him, given that they were most likely travelling in a large caravan full of family and friends from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back, which would probably offer a certain amount of safety and security in such a pilgrimage. If Jesus was hanging out with his cousins (possibly playing tag) then his parents could have easily lost track of him. However, it is interesting that the text says that “they assumed” Jesus was in their group. I’m not always an allegorical interpreter (not that I have anything against such readings), but a more recent reading lead me to jump immediately to how we as so proclaimed Christians in America so often venture off with our plans, mission, goals, and conquests, all while assuming that Jesus is with us. It is as though we believe that whatever we do and engage in, Jesus will automatically endorse and stamp his approval of divine will on.  This can be seen in historical events like the colonizing of lands or in the materialistic and self-driven decisions we make as individuals in terms of career choices and accumulation of toys (big houses and fancy cars). We just chase our dreams believing that God just so happens to always want us to go do it.

For Jesus’ parents, they are abruptly disrupted from this assumption with a moment of realization that Jesus indeed was not journeying with them. How devastating it must have been to realize your child has been left behind in the big city (remember, they are small time country folk from Galilee) and they have no clue as to where he is. As a father myself, I can only assume that they felt helpless, vulnerable, broken, and scared. It is no coincidence that they must go three days in Jerusalem, because for them the loss of their child is like torture and death, a psychological crucifixion.

After three days of searching, they finally decide to look in the Temple. Contrast the parents with Jesus. The parents are anxious and frantic while Jesus hanging out, seemingly un-phased by this familial separation. Like any Mom, after realizing that their child is fine, Mary digs into Jesus, disturbed with how their child could put them through such hell. Jesus simply says “didn’t you know” that I had to be “in the things of my Father” (it’s a more literal Greek translation than Father’s house or Father’s business). Again contrast the parent’s posture and approach with that of Jesus. The parents assume that Jesus is journeying with them. However, Jesus has aligned and arranged his life in line with, and around, the things of the Father. And there is a great challenge for us. May we surrender our will to the Father, rearranging our lives and decisions around the reality of the Messiah, and may we be joining God in his subversive in-breaking Kingdom in the world rather than seeking God to merely rubber stamp and approve our conquests.


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


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Trayvon!


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

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

Trayvon Martin and the White Christian Leader’s Response

To My White Christian Leader Friends:

For those who are not familiar with who Trayvon Martin is, he is another young black male (a teenager in this case) who has fell victim to a racialized lethal attack while unarmed, by a man who has about 10 years and 100 p0unds on the boy, and who also happened to be carrying a gun during the attack.  The racialized gaze which interprets black male bodies as suspicious and dangerous bodies, played out once more. This time, Trayvon was not armed with a wallet or cell phone (other apparently dangerous looking accessories when  being held by black bodies) but a pack of skittles and a can of soda. Apparently, the man who shot him had called 911 because Trayvon looked “suspicious” and that something was wrong with him. Deciding to ignore the advice of authorities, this vigilante decided to follow the young boy and then proceeded to fatally shoot him. Several witnesses have claimed to have heard the young boy screaming for help right before the gun went off. However, no arrests have been made, and the vigilante is claiming self defense, because this young boy armed with skittles and a soda obviously is a threat to a grown man armed with a gun, who himself decides to follow this child. At the minimum, does not the loss of this child’s life deserve an arrest and a hearing in court?

Black life continues to carry little value within America’s dominant culture. I wish that this was an isolated event, but in reality, with unfathomable regularity, there are these events that remind me over and over again that black bodies and black life are not valued in our country if they are not entertaining America. Simultaneously, I hear directly from many white Christian leaders, who claim that they want to break the pattern of racial division in the Church, not making the same mistakes of their ancestors, and wanting to have a more racially diverse and representative group. While I think all of those things are great, I sometimes wonder if people actually value black bodies and back life, or if it is merely just trendy and cool to have (or at least claim to want) a racially diverse group.

One thing I have noticed, since the few years I have been blogging and using twitter, is that when these racialized tragedies occur, my less pigmented brothers and sisters in Christ tend to often be ridiculously quiet. While many black and brown Christian leaders speak up and out about the senseless violence, (internal and external) very few white Christian leaders have anything to say on the subject matter. In fact, it at least appears as though many are so disconnected from black life, that they are business as usual throughout the tragedy and protest.  The question must be asked, can my brothers and sisters from within the dominant culture expect racial diversity in their communities while they enact no type of solidarity with those who are vulnerable under an unjust system? Restated, how can a person want to be racially inclusive and yet not care about the livelihood of those same people they want to attract? At quick glance, one could see this happen and assume that the outward expression of desiring a multicultural community is really masking the same old racially apathy that has been passed on for generations.

My challenge is for White Christian leaders (particularly those who have stated verbally their desire for racial diversity) to make solidarity with their systemically vulnerable black and brown brothers and sisters, standing with us as we expose and shame these atrocious acts.  Please, research it yourself, then talk about it within your own sphere of influence, deciding how you can best make a stand in solidarity for love, justice, peace, and reconciliation in your communities and nationwide. And for those who have shared their concern, ignore this, this was not meant for you, your solidarity is appreciated.

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.”