Most now know that Richard Twiss recently passed away. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak when he visited my church when I was on staff at Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church. Anyway, just wanted to share this video of him being interviewed.
So, I am realizing more and more that I am more of a post-Christendom theologian than a purely postcolonial theologian (though they are highly related). This is especially true because of my concern that the ‘Christendom Shift’ (the imperial favor Christianity received during Constantine that mutated its core essentials) has marginalized, distorted, and domesticated Jesus. This has been done first by changing the center of Christian teaching to be something other than the narratives of Jesus and his teaching as something to be followed and obeyed, as well as by creating theology that accommodates and justifies dominant society’s self-interest.
If one does not start with the narratives of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to understand who Jesus is, but rather abstract and dogmatic doctrines about Jesus’ salvific work, then Jesus can either accommodate anything (crusades, persecuting the Jews for 1500 years, waging war against other nations, colonizing continents, and slavery to name a few examples). If it is not an accommodated Jesus, it is skirting Jesus all together. People try to dismiss Jesus by going backwards to the Old Testament (an unfulfilled narrative by all Christian account) or past him to Paul (unfortunately Paul is most often misread through European eyes as writing theology books rather than contextualized theological letters). Either way, the end result is one not having to follow Jesus’ life or obey his teachings.
We need to recover the ancient practice of early Christians who understood that Jesus’ life and teachings were meant to be taken seriously and followed. It’s time to let the abstract and domesticated Jesus of the West die, and let God resurrect the true and living Jesus in your lives. This is the Crucified One that actually spoke and lived in a manner that was supposed to be ‘the Way’ to follow. We need to go back to the particularities of Christ. What are the actual and concrete ways that Jesus lived? What did he specifically teach? Howard Thurman talks about recovering Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity, poor upbringing, and minority status as important aspects of Jesus’ identity. Furthermore, Black and Anabaptist theologians have been pointing the Church towards Jesus’ particularity in both word and deed. This is why they can boldly talk about Jesus as liberator (Luke 4) and peace maker (Matthew 5). It is in the particularities of Jesus’ teaching and life as recorded in Scripture that he is known, not through the memorization of human articulations of doctrines, creeds, and confessions which are inevitably more abstract than the Gospel narratives themselves.
1 John 2: 6 “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.” (NET)
(I am thankful to have a guest post by a new friend, Samantha Lioi. Things like Justice, Peace, and Community, are not just ideals to hold for her, but are integral parts of her life. I thought it would be helpful to have a countering perspective to the model I presented earlier, for which I have not completely sold myself on nonetheless. I’m thankful for my sister’s radical and anti-imperial witness in the midst of complacent and comfortable approach to politics. Enjoy! – Drew)
“Love does not enter into competition, and therefore it cannot be defeated.” Karl Barth
The acts of love we must undertake as disciples of Jesus, the risen Christ, are much riskier than voting. Using our voices—our real-time, audible voices—and standing with our bodies in the way of injustice (for ex., standing with someone at an immigration hearing, sitting with a family whose son was arrested on false charges, walking with a community whose right to exist is threatened by neighbors or armed corporations) is much different from thinking of voting as voice. If we consider our vote to carry our voice, we must consider whether voting functions this way for members of society whose voices are routinely set aside or completely unheard.
I’m grateful for the written voice of my friend Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, whose family immigrated to New York City when she was in grade school and who is a naturalized citizen of the United States. In explaining her choice as a black woman not to vote, she questions this idea of voting-as-voice, and points to what I find to be a compelling trend from the Civil Rights era. “Between 1955 an 1977, acts of civil disobedience decreased, and the number of black registered voters and elected officials increased. In this period, legislation favorable to blacks also decreased, and economic positions of black people deteriorated.” It may be that direct action involving physical risk is much more effective in moving lawmakers toward justice than electing a representative we believe will enact justice or attempting to direct current lawmakers through our votes.
It is important for Christians to ask the practical question, “What actions and collaborations with God and others will contribute to increased well-being for the weakest, most at-risk members of our society?” It is equally important for us to realize this is a question about how we use our power, and when Christians think of power, we should think of the upside-down, unreasonable power of the cross and resurrection. We are easily seduced by our belief in our ability to make things happen. I do not want to dismiss effectiveness; however, I do want to remind us that the cross did not appear anything close to effective as a way of bringing deliverance to the Jewish people. It was, quite obviously to all onlookers at the time, a defeat—a shameful, final defeat, the kind from which people turn away their faces. I know you know this. But we are human and we forget. This is the Gospel we proclaim; this shameful, strange, violent death and the equally shocking rising of Jesus is, for his followers, the undeniable picture of our God, the God who dies in human flesh and the God who breathes life in places of death. And voting for President of the United States of America, a participation in choosing who will have the highest seat of power in our government, does not immediately appear relevant to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It is often a way of claiming power over those with whom we are at odds (including other Christians), and it is a turning over of our power to someone more influential, to someone higher up. Jesus surrendered his power only to the One who sent him, and drew his healing power from this One, and we are to imitate this way of living.
I have heard some say they fear that if we don’t vote, we who are most privileged (and I include myself in that category—in terms of racialized identity, education and access to financial resources) will disengage, because more often than not, our lives are not significantly affected by changes in the Oval Office. But apathy and complacency among those most comfortable is a constant problem in every society, and as I observe our behaviors, voting does not address this problem. We privileged one’s vote and feel we have done our duty. Having voted for a man we believe will best support the nation’s common good, we can then disengage from the day-to-day struggles and lives of people who lack the social, financial, and cultural padding we enjoy. If we take time at all to struggle with the questions around voting, perhaps we will choose to act, showing up in the flesh to work for widespread well-being.
Still, I admit it is sometimes true that getting certain people into office helps the immediate cause of vulnerable people. And I have deep respect for those who choose to vote because their daily, direct work with vulnerable people makes it impossible for them to imagine not voting—especially when those vulnerable people—because of legal status or other barriers—have no possibility of voting themselves. In cases like this, I understand that voting feels like the action with the most integrity, and there is a sense of acting on behalf of specific people, friends, with faces and stories one knows like one’s own. At the same time, let us also admit that this situation and this amount of thoughtful deliberation is not descriptive of most U.S. Christians or their reasons for voting.
Whether we choose to vote or not, as the people of God we do not arrange our lives around the timetables of elections but around God’s year-round actions of reconciling love, remembered in the story of the Divine taking on flesh, growing up as an ordinary child, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and sending the Holy Spirit. Nor do the decisions of elected officials limit the boundless plenty of the Creator, from whose open hand the desires of every living thing are satisfied. Whenever and wherever the needs of God’s creatures are not filled, it is ours to partner with this ever-creating God to see that the plenty is justly shared. This partnership is not dependent on voting or upon any other human institution, including church institutions.
The acts of love we must undertake are much more costly than voting. Let us encourage one another in the risky, full-bodied love of the Risen One.
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!
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).
The reality of whiteness affording privilege in America continues to be a touchy subject in our nation. While many (not all) would agree that minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, somehow the idea of some necessarily being disadvantaged does not automatically translate into privilege for those who enjoy dominant places in American society. The truth is that to be considered white, and to have obtained whiteness in America has always, and continues to offer privileges. Consider this finding, in which various ethnic minorities went to the courts to legally battle for white status before the law in the early 1900’s.
Court decisions on white status were based on a mix of supposedly scientific criteria and the common understandings of the day, leading to a mess of contradictions. Syrians were deemed white in 1909, 1910, and 1915, but no in 1913 or 1914. Asian Indians won white status in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but not in 1909, 1917 or after 1923. The persistence of immigrants in suing for whiteness is evidence of the financial and social benefits that came with white status. After all, no one sued to be considered Asian, much less black.[i]
Beyond the absurdity of the fact that the criteria for whiteness was so arbitrary that people went back and forth being deemed white and then once again recognized as a person of color, we must also consider its broader significance. Very quickly, even in the 1900’s, immigrants realized that there were serious social benefits that went along with being recognized as white in America and therefore they fought for such status in the court room. Whiteness then clearly affords benefits to those who arbitrarily fall into the right side of the haphazard pseudo-scientific racialization of people groups.
Now if race is a racial construct, which has the sole purpose of racially dividing society to benefit some while disadvantaging others, then whiteness from a Christian perspective must be dealt with. To be European, is to talk about one’s ethnos, a people group and ethnicity recognized by God. To be White, however, is to embrace and utilize man-made racial hegemony and social domination. Whiteness equals oppressive societal positioning. Following Christ however, necessitates a rejection of privilege and oppressive lifestyles. Remember what Paul said:
You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)[ii]
For the Christian, an emptying of whiteness and a taking on the form of marginality is a necessary social performance that must be enacted to faithfully have the same attitude that Jesus had. The fairly obvious theological conclusion has been avoided and skirted around for a long time, because in America, despite our peculiar calling, we have decided that it is best to take advantage of all our privileges and opportunities. The concept of rejecting any privilege runs counter to American values and norms. Only a radical awareness of the Lordship of Jesus over all things could and would lead someone to rearrange their lives in ways that currently reject social, political, and economic benefits. Hopefully, the end result will be the humanizing response of European men and women who stand with rather than on top of their darker pigmented brothers and sisters.
[i] Meizhu Lui and United for a Fair Economy, The color of wealth : the story behind the U.S. racial wealth divide (New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2006), 250.
[ii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).
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.
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).
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.