2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.

What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take that place. One must go no further than looking at Eusebius’ Church History to see that many Christian leaders were seeing Constantine rather than Jesus, as the new David. That Constantine presided over councils rather than the presence of Jesus, and the imperial edicts mandating and coercively enforcing orthodoxy following that council is not surprising when the way of Jesus is no longer normative. In fact, as people have noticed, even images of Jesus began to change after that point. Jesus himself begins to no longer be portrayed as a humble man, but as an imperial figure in art post-Constantine. The imperial figure, then is centralized, has the right to make calls on orthodoxy, and enforces those boundaries, reigning supreme over the Church.  It is the Bishops and the Church, and their gazing on “Christian” emperors that give them this power. It is a choice to fix one’s eyes on Jesus or the imperial figure.

Yet, can we really make huge distinctions between the past and the present, like we are above such problems? While no Roman Imperial Image reigns over us today, hasn’t the center still been occupied by something other than the Jewish anointed, crucified, and resurrected One? Certainly in America, that dominating figure since the 1600s has been “the White Male Figure”. The supremacy of the White Male Citizen as the standard to be measured against runs at the heart of the American experiment. When it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal, didn’t it really mean all “white men”?  Were not black people subjugated to the status of property? And finally, wasn’t Jesus himself recast and refashioned into a “white male figure” which remains on the walls of churches and homes even today?

When people want to learn about theology, there stands “the White Male Figure”. The White Male Figure has occupied the center, playing the role of the theological police for everyone else. Though western and American forms of Christianity have participated in some of the most atrocious and violent acts within Church History, the White Male Figure claims clarity and objectivity, accusing other ecclesial traditions without that violent baggage of actually being the violent ones or of transgressing faithful witness. Speaking from a position of power, those labels stick and stigmatize marginalized Christian groups. The White Male Figure, sees himself as apolitical, but in actuality, every statement, every accusation, involves strategic power moves and claims, that re-affirm hegemony and shut out dissenting voices.

Given the longevity of western Christianities tradition of exalting the White Male Figure as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice, but instead, the one that points out this form of domination is the one accused of participating in violence. It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic “White Male Figure” is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian.

However, what must be understood is that as long as the “White Male Figure,” in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an imposter and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppresser, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo. Two moves are necessary for the Church to get back on track:

  1. The Church must decentralize “the White Male Figure”: Unlike popular opinion, this is not an attack on “the White Man” but instead it is a humanizing project. The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt and see something other than someone who God found to be worth dying for in the person of Jesus Christ. When one succumbs to playing this role, it is unfortunately them that become monstrous, being enslaved to the elemental forces of this world and the dominion Satan. Only through being transferred from that dominion to the Kingdom of the Son in which humanity can do “life together” through the Spirit in solidarity and mutual sharing of love, can the humanizing project be accomplished. This means that those that have stood in the center must step off the table as referee and are now free to sit around the table sharing and embracing God’s beloved as equals, no longer enslaved by the logics of race and white superiority.
  2. The Church must centralize the Jesus of scripture and encounter the Resurrected One. This is a human and fleshly Jewish Jesus. Jesus of Scripture (who is synonymous with the Real Living Jesus that we can encounter and follow) moves on the margins, making those spaces the Main Stage of God’s mission. This Jesus must be followed. What is interesting when we encounter this Jesus, is that he opposes the option of both the Imperial Figure & the Dominating Figure for his followers. Check Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is on the move among the broken and oppressed but Herod wants to kill him. Jesus prophetically unveils Herod’s mythic foundation as a ruling figure to be respected, by naming his problematic praxis. He calls him a “Fox”! Let’s be clear, in Jewish tradition and Jesus’ usage there, it is clear that Jesus is not complimenting him for being smart, but rather that he is in actuality small, deceptive, and a predator. Likewise, when Jesus’ own disciples aspire for greatness, like that of Roman rulers, Jesus cuts that mimetic desire off as an option and says “not so” for you. He explains that the Gentiles dominate and “lord over them”, but his followers instead are called to be servants in the way he himself has served the least and the last of society. In following Jesus and centralizing him in the Church, God’s people will find an alternative response to racialization and white supremacy in our society. Right under the nose of our racist society a space is created for “Beloved Community” and “Life Together”. And from that solidarity, a prophetic movement that is a light to the dark corners of our world can begin.

But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way, or will “the White Male Figure” remain centralized in our Christian communities and movements. The challenge before us, given our long history of faltering, is great, but our God is able!

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Resurrection and 1 Corinthians 15: Beyond Tupac Holograms

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

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

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

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

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

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

In It For the Long Haul: Gracialized Vision & The New Black Panther $10,000 Bounty

Well, whether some like it or not, we have been thrust into a national dialogue on race, violence, and the legal system. I can’t lie, I can often get very frustrated by the same old story being played out over and over again. How many more young black males have to die? Since slavery has ended thousands and thousands of black men have been killed, being seen as disposable, in contrast very few black killings happened during slavery because we were seen as valuable property. Ida B. Wells, a brave and courageous black woman, spoke up and brought national attention to the lynching crisis that exploded after slavery and went well into the 1900’s (Last recorded tree lynching took place in the 1980’s). In the 1950’s, Emmit Till’s murder became a national symbol after the country reacted to the images of Emmit Till’s 14 year old deformed dead body that was placed on the cover of black magazines. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting family down south when he was dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, and had an eye gouged out. He was eventually shot in the head, and had barbed wire and a heavy cotton gin tied around his neck as his body was disposed of in a river. His crime, supposedly whistling at a white woman.

There is a long legacy of black life being disposable and unvalued in American life. While there have been tons of senseless murders that have taken black life, some particular names have continued to shape Black American historical memory, probably because of the details surrounding each situation. Let’s remember some folks who have had their lives abruptly ended because of America’s pathological racism. Michael Donald, lynched in the 1981, James Byrd’s dragged to death behind a truck for 3 miles in 1998. Amadou Diallo shot at 41 times (hit 19 times) while unarmed and pulling out his wallet in 1999. Sean Bell was shot 50 times and killed the night before his wedding in the Bronx in 2006. Oscar Grant’s murder while handcuffed and on his stomach by a cop in Oakland was recorded by several camera phones and uploaded online in 2009. And more recently of course we have been mourning the death of Trayvon Martin while also dealing with the unarmed shooting of Ramarley Graham last month. There are so many other folks who have lost their lives similarly, but these names for most are familiar and recognizable names which remind us how vulnerable it is to be a black male in America, and also how the legal system often fails to uphold justice for ALL.

How should we (Black Christians) respond to such a legacy of racism or to the apathy towards black life? The New Black Panther Party supposedly has put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman. While I can sympathize with their frustration with our legal system and the reality of how many black people never find justice in it, I continue to believe that we can not utilize the same violent tactics imposed on us if we desire to see a new humanity usher into our world. That said, I find the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the spirit of Nat Turner and his violent slave rebellion as very natural and normal responses to injustice and oppression. While I reject the use of violence, I do share that same spirit of frustration with racial injustice in America. In fact, sometimes, that same natural response emerges in me in greater amounts than other times. I hate the negative ways black people are treated and the apathetic and cold responses that come from some in the dominant culture. And it is hard not to project those feelings onto all people who participate in the dominant culture.

And then I am reminded of the Oppressed and Crucified One being made a public spectacle and shamed on the cross. Jesus, like many other vulnerable Jews at that time, experienced the weight of an unjust and violent system that didn’t value Jewish life. According to all the gospels, Jesus was a threat to the Jewish-Roman power system in Jerusalem. In response, they employed their technique of public torture and humiliation, which was always just as much about intimidating the masses as it was to punish the individual. James Cone in his most recent book, rightly compares Roman crucifixion to American lynchings of black men. This offers us a helpful glimpse culturally into the horrendous nature and role of crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Yet it is there hanging on the Cross that Jesus cried out…

 Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

He didn’t demonize them, he didn’t call for a violent revolution like Peter or Barabbas. He graciously asked the Father to extend his forgiveness to them. The vision of Christ was a gracialized vision, in that those that his eyes laid on, burdened him, in that even those who were oppressors in the traditional sense, were ultimately enslaved and broken people needing to be shown the way back to the humanity originally intended by God. It’s as though his gaze continually made distinctions between the horrendous acts that he opposed, and the people who were enticed and enslaved by those systems which temporarily benefited them. His ability to see oppressive dominant peoples through gracialized gazes allowed him to make the root of the problem opaque and highly visible, that is he saw the evil systems and forces that enslave humanity rise to the surface, while graciously seeing the transparency of all humanity which desperately is in need of a Victor and Liberator. This doesn’t mean that Jesus responds the same way to all people, it is very evident in the Gospels that Jesus takes sides with and extends extra compassion towards the socially marginalized. However, folks like the young ruler and Zaccheus, who both hoard wealth, are both given the opportunity to accept the grace being extended towards them which would liberate them from the grips of this world. Just like then, some now will accept and some will not accept such grace, but that is not our issue to worry about, that is between them and God. Our responsibility is to hold firm to that same gracialized vision Jesus did, in that we see EVERYONE as needing liberation from invisible yet powerful forces.

I am not sure how much longer this national dialogue will go on. We continue to be the United States of Amnesia, quickly forgetting recent history, or as Dr. King called it, “a 10 day nation”, which moves on to the next big thing after 10 days. But for me, I am in it for the long haul. I will be like a persistent poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). And as I confront empires, systems, and forces that enslave people and oppose God’s Kingdom, my prayer is that God would help me have Christ’s gracialized vision towards others, especially for those in the dominant culture who participate in oppressive practices and who are blind in their ability to see Jesus in those they harm (Matthew 25:31-46).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Trayvon!


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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics of Poor Plight and Prophetic Priorities: A Brief Response to Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney recently made an interesting comment about his lack of concern for poor people. According to him, we need not care about poor people because America has a safety net. Rather, he is concerned with America’s middle class because they are the ones who are struggling. Yes, that’s right, the people with more resources than poor people are the ones who are hurting most in this economy, according to Mitt’s logic.

While I am thankful that we do have a safety net in America, considering the thousands who have died from the famine in the Horn of Africa in the past year, I can not fathom how one could argue that poor people are doing well in America and the middle class is the group suffering most. This is so ridiculous that I won’t spend any more on that point.

However, as a Black Anabaptist Christian shaped by the Israelite scriptures and it’s fulfillment in the person of Jesus, I have particular priorities that shape my own ethics/politics. My Jubilee-Shalom-Kingdom of God politics must always prioritize “the least of these” among us, to not do so would be to disregard God’s  intervention and revelation in the world, particularly the Bible. The Bible clearly keeps watch of, defends, and centralizes the concerns of poor people throughout the entire narrative. To be in continuity with the God of scripture, and specifically Jesus the Crucified One, we must embrace the same ethics concerning poverty that is consistently woven throughout scripture. It compels us to embody Jesus’ story now in our own contexts. A faithful reading of scripture demands from us particular prophetic priorities to enact if we are to claim to be Christian (Christ-like), and they are not really optional. One of those ethical priorities is our care, sacrifice, and provision for the poor. To state that you do not care for poor people is to reject the Israelite narrative and ultimately to reject Jesus, that is assuming we can not slice him up and then choose which parts we like and which we do not like as if Jesus were a buffet line.

Sorry Mitt, but you have absolutely no credibility with me. (Neither do any of the other candidates, so please don’t take this as an endorsement for anyone). Finally, let me make myself clear by stating that as far as I am concerned, both major political parties in America are off the mark when it comes to the issue of poverty. One party (in my eyes) is aggressively against poor people, and the other (again from my perspective) pays lip service and offers a few minimal government programs, however each fall drastically short of the Jubilee paradigm from the Old Testament that Jesus continues to echo in his own ministry. As Christians, our ethics and political priorities ought not be confined to the arguments of the day between two imperial political parties, but ought to begin and end with theological vision rooted deeply in scripture and particularly in Jesus the Christ, as they are manifested in love for God and others.

Here is a tiny fraction of the biblical passages that remind us that we ought to prioritize the poor as a part of our Christian ethics and witness.

Psalms 82:3 “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!”

James 2:5-8 “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Dueteronomy 15:11 “There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.”

Proverbs 14:31 “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.”

Luke 6:20 “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.”

Ezekiel 16:49  “‘See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.”

Galatians 2:10 “They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do.”

1 John 3:17 “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow brother in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?”

Dr. Jeremiah Wright

Dr. Jeremiah Wright and Drew Hart

So Jeremiah Wright was in Philly, on my block. He spoke on the 14th and the 15th at the traditional baptist church on the corner.  Unfortunately, I was sick and was only able to make it out on the 15th. He looked at how Paul and Silas were treated, along with how they responded to that treatment, and its final outcome. He compared their being put “in an awkward predicament” having done nothing wrong, and having been lied on, with the African American experience of slavery, suffering, and stereotypes (my alliteration, not his).

He called on folks to respond with prayer, realizing that our prayers are being heard by God in ways we cannot fathom. He also called on us to praise, in which he particularly highlighted the need to pass on the negro spirituals and old songs that have sustained our community for generations.

He also reminded us that God likes to work in the midnight hour, over and over again, he shows up in the midnight hour, turning the situation around. He said much more, unfortunately I didn’t take notes, and so this is the core of what I remember of the top of my head, two days later.

Jeremiah Wright in the Pulpit

Finally, I just want to state that Jeremiah Wright is a lyricist. Yes, he is a wordsmith, who carefully crafts and delivers words with power, courage, creativity, and prophetic imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed just hearing him speak, nonetheless actually receiving the content packaged in his brilliance.

I know that Jeremiah Wright is a controversial figure to many in our country, but I urge you to move past the sound bites, and you will see that he is nothing more than a continuation of the black prophetic tradition that we see in the likes of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other courageous black christian leaders who spoke truth to power, whether or not it was convenient or popular. In the case of speaking against racism on a systemic level in America, it has never been popular with the dominant culture.