The question that still remains concerning race in America is the question of unity. What does it mean to live in unity with those who are not like us? What does it mean for the majority to recognize and accept the issues that are important to the minority? How can the minority who has been oppressed and still feels the remnant of that suffering move past the hurt to embrace unity with the majority? There are no easy answers to these questions but that does not mean we cannot attempt to have conversations that move us toward resolution. The prevailing sentiment is that we are too far gone; that people have dug their heels in and there is no room for negotiation or discussion. The prevailing sentiment is that any compromise will be seen as defeat; any concession of any point concerning what we believe about race/racism will be viewed as losing our principles. None of which is helpful. We have to be able to have discussions. We have to be able to honestly question each other and allow ourselves to be questioned. We have to be able to hear one another with the understanding that no one has all truth and no one is all wrong.
My hope that this is possible comes from my belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world. This week’s lection from John 17:1-11, reminds us that Jesus was given authority over all flesh to over eternal life (v. 2). The tricky part is found in the very next verse: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The unity we seek is in knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to know God? People have used their “knowledge” of God to justify many abhorrent behaviors and beliefs. Racism has been justified using scripture. Division has increased as people lay claim to God’s word as their own, refusing to believe that anyone else has knowledge of who God is. Yet, Jesus prays for all who are his followers. He prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one. This does not mean sameness but does mean an intimately close relationship that allows for difference without separation. We have to be willing to come back to the table and discuss our difference knowing that we are united in Christ. We have to swallow our pride and let go of our self-glorification born out of this belief that we fully know God. We have to admit our limited knowledge of God and embrace the knowledge that others have been given by Jesus Christ.
Until we face the problem with honest reflection, we will continue to live in the division and conflict we see in the world today. Until we let go of our need to be glorified, to have the light shine on our thoughts and beliefs, we will continue to fail to glorify God with the unity God intended. I’m ready, let’s talk.
Religion is a space where the boundaries of God are fortified through tension and reified through reformation. It avails itself to a strong critique while offering solutions that are filled with active love. Oftentimes, this is not the picture that is painted by the Christian church. Walter, in part 7, introduced the notion of a space where Black people are given the freedom to be, inextricably, themselves. One of the few spaces where black people can relive their liberation is the black church. The black church has provided black folks with a liberating space where their visibility and presence is honored. Racism loses its power within the midst of this fictive kinship.
Racism is a retardant that hinders sound judgement from processing. The oppress are influenced to look past their oppression and reinterpret it as security, instead of seeking freedom. Racism discourages freedom because freedom fuels intellect. Consequently, it is hard to keep intelligent people oppressed. No longer can the plight of white power and white privilege be held as doctrines of a constructed god, who dehumanizes and beguiles black people into believing that oppression is acceptable and godly. When the oppressed start to rebel against the oppressor, their words against oppression are labeled as radicalized hatred. James Baldwin declares this is when
“white power is broken.”
Baldwin also proclaims that when this white power is broken:
“an English man can’t tell an African what it means to be African and he believes it; a white man can’t tell a negro what it means to be a negro and he believes it, anymore.”
The black church has been the space where our humanity is unquestionable. It has been the sacred site of resistance where beauty emerges in spite of pain and trauma. The black church, constantly reconstructing herself as the avant-guard against this constructed, neo-liberal god that sanctions racism. The black church is a complex institution, constantly on the front-lines fighting against racism. It is a creative space where black genius reclaims the identity of Jesus. A Jesus that racism refuses to accept or serve.
In his last installment Brian writes, “we must be extremely clear of the danger of entering into spaces where your skin color has (been) weaponized and framed you with a malicious intent” in response of my reference to Luke 17:11-19. I refer to the ten people with leprosy being forced out of mainstream society and out to the borderlands as a parallel to the treatment of people of African descent in this country. I may have erroneously indicated that people of African descent have an option to stay in the borderland in relative safety. However, that was not my intent. The point I intended to make was/is that people of African descent are keenly aware that there are no safe spaces in this country for us. History has shown time and again that not even the church is a safe space for us. As a people, we have learned that even staying in the spaces where we have been pushed and limited to occupying does not ensure safety. We have also learned that staying in the borderland is not an option.
A Tribe Called Quest has just released their last studio recording and one of the tracks is titled “The Space Program.” This track speaks to the notion of making space for people of African descent in this country. Using the recurring hook, “ain’t no space program for niggas.” As much as I detest the word “nigga,” I felt its use here is appropriate and would pray that my inclusion of this word does not sidetrack the conversation. For in many ways debates about the use of the word “nigga” or other side debates take the focus off of the real problem that the Tribe is addressing. This track calls us to understand that space is not limited to physical, geographic space but rather refers to social, cultural, and historic space. People of African descent are often denied space in this country. The teaching of African American history has faced opposition and hostility even in school districts that are more than 80% African American. The use of the name “African American” itself ignites debate and hostile opposition. People of African descent are often invited out of the borderland to sing, dance, and/or play a sport with the understanding that no space will be made for you. African American culture is often co-opted, from rock and roll to hip hop, from soul food to spirituals. There is no space for people of African descent.
Yet, we survive. We continue to exist and that existence cannot be denied. It is the denial of our existence; the lack of space being made that continues to fuel the conflict. We are here and we are not going anywhere. The simple but complex answer to our racial problem in America is the creation of a space program for people of African descent.
The road to integration is an unforgiving assault on the hearts and minds of black clergy that serve in predominately white denominations. The continuous reshaping to make one’s authenticity fit into another’s warped shape of the Gospel becomes a perpetual task that tries to hijack one’s sense of being. The tragedy of being present, in spaces, where my humanity is only confirmed by my acceptance to assimilation is a solidarity to injustice, which I refuse to accept.
It is clear that the many within the ELCA camp voted for Donald Trump. (Lenny Duncan wrote a good piece about it) I am left to wrestle with this problem, “Why I am in the ELCA?” Why do I continue to connect with people who are so opposed to equality, equity, and justice? I used to say it was a sense of calling to the mission fields of whiteness but now I stand bewildered beyond reasonable thought. The constant awareness of having to explain your presence is insulting. I was assisting with the officiating of a funeral at the church. It was a very small funeral so there were no ushers. I took the liberty to greet friends and family as they arrived. Well, as I was opening the door, a lady comes to the door and says, “I almost ran when I saw this big, black man standing at the door.” Why am I in the ELCA?
Every day, it feels like the very essence of my being is sucked out of me. There are a lot of good people in the ELCA but there is no emotional safety. The task of naming and eradicating racism has been co-opted as racial reconciliation: the place where Black and Brown must become like us (white) instead of us becoming like them.
There were moments, when I thought that being in the ELCA was an honorable journey. I understood that it would be a hard road ahead, but I never considered the theological racism that masks itself as legacy and doctrine to be such a high mountain to climb. My faith has run out of faulty forgiveness that amounts to more opportunities to be dehumanized. I am tired of hearing that this is just how Lutherans are…The truth is that a Lutheranism that is still steeped 1517 rhetoric and liturgy never really had me in mind from the beginning.
Why am I in the ELCA? Well….
My friend Brian Foulks writes, “Racism shapes itself to this form of identity where only those who are willing to conform to dominate culture are seen as Christ-like and worthy to be humanized.” My initial response was to immediately disagree and point to the need to not give this much power to the evil that is racism. I am always tempted to simply point to the sovereignty of God and remind anyone who will listen that there really is no battle between God and evil. Yet, as I began to write I was convicted that I am speaking as I would like things to be but not as they actually are. I am reminded that Sunday service is still mostly segregated. I am reminded that we have a ways to go in dealing with racism in this country and if there is going to be any real change it has to start in the church.
However, the gospel stills speaks to me. Luke 17:11-19 relates the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. Verse 11 tells us that as Jesus travels along the border between Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus is between two groups of people, two different and opposing worlds. We are reminded of the current race relations in America. Whether we want to admit it or not people of African descent and people European descent often live in very different worlds in this country. Jesus not only travels along the border between these two worlds but he brings healing in this space between these two worlds. In our time we have to meet each other at the border. We have to realize that we cannot continue living separate from each other and still claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus travels the border between all existing conflict that separates people from each other. Jesus travels the border between what is and what should be.
As a person of African descent it is not unusual to have border experiences. I often find myself in places where I am surrounded by people who are unlike me. The key, and this is where I agree with Brian, is people of European descent being willing to come out to the border. There will be no racial reconciliation until people of European descent are willing to come to the border and participate in the healing that Jesus offers. There is hope but we have to be willing to acknowledge what is while believing God for what can be.