Do #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black Theologians

It is an affront that Black people would even have to ask whether they “mattered” to those with whom they have an invested interest. The collective notion that one has to request whether #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black theologians beckons at an opaqueness and level of Tupac-ean hypocrisy.[1] Tupac makes a clear distinction about ecclesiological/theological authority in the third verse of Blasphemous.[2] Tupac writes:

The preacher want me buried, why? Cause I know he a liar

Have you ever seen a crackhead, that’s eternal fire

Why you got these kids’ minds thinking that they evil?

While the preacher being freaky you say “honor God’s people”

Should we cry when the Pope die? My request

We should cry if they cried when we buried Malcolm X.[3]

 

This is the rebellious stance of a woke generation. This assertion of Albert Camus’s essays of revolt constitute a means to be engaged in the process and impetus of rebellion; it is the “awareness” – being woke or awakened to the moment.[4] Tupac critiques the theological powers of the Black church with claims of negligence and malfeasance coupled with trickery of young minds. Furthermore, he is re-adjusting the theological lens through which he (and, maybe others) will envision a just God. Tupac is connecting the freakiness of the pastor with the honorability of God: if the pastor is crooked then God must also be captured within the same crookedness for allowing such a person to function. Ultimately, Tupac’s final critique, “We should cry if they cried when we buried Malcolm X,” belies the false piety of the theological/ ecclesial powers residing in the preachers/pastors and the Black theologian. Tupac identified how “papal authority undergirds the exploitation of colonized people, and he contrasts this colonial authority with Malcolm X’s authority, one who fought for the liberation of marginalized peoples.”[5]

What Tupac, other musicians and young activist express through their art and actions is a call to “report and reflect.”[6] It is the urgency of the moment that announces “so precisely the nature of the society, and of [the artist or theologian] in that society, that other [people] will be moved by the exactness of [their] rendering…”[7] These young Black activist are making Black theologians answer the call to re-imagine their theological ethic: to consider the need of those on the outer margin of the margins – Black bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies, criminals and the poor. It is the rethinking of how to make theology an existential practice that is usable for the everyday believer and not a theological sword fight in the academy between scholars.

#BlackLivesMatter: The Hip Hop Aesthetic  

The voice of Hip Hop is gradually “becoming” a viable stream of conscious that is beginning to register in the minds of Black theologians. The consequence of Hip Hop’s ontic swag, cautions many Black theologians to completely solidify it as an authoritative or persuasive voice within the church. I would claim that Hip Hop “is” the voice of the unheard with the same epistemological intensity that the riot “is” the voice of the unheard. I am deploying “is” as more of a locative term rather than a descriptive term. My attempt is to use it as a way of describing time, context and location in contrast with metaphorical usage. Thus “is” is more indicative of how King’s words were appropriated in the sixties; I am asserting that Hip Hop fuels this generation with the same fierceness. Therefore, Tupac clearly articulates, “I am not saying I will rule the world but I am going to spark the brain that will change the world.”[8] Kendrick Lamar is the product of that spark and his song becomes the soundtrack for the movement, We Gon Be Alright.[9]

Hip Hop captures the sensibilities of the #BlackLivesMatter movement through a poetic aesthetic – authenticating itself as a soundtrack for life. But, Hip Hop not only stands as a musical accompaniment to/for the movement; Hip Hop embodies an ontological metaphor of how many young activist enter into the convening space of protest. Their claiming of identity and ability to, genuinely, synthesize with a diverse group is a Hip Hop aesthetic.[10] In Faith and Ferguson, Leah Gunning Francis pens a memoir of what it resembles to engage, theologically, with such a group.[11] She makes the claim: “this was not an ideological movement, but a process in which bodies were taking to the streets to be seen and heard in the quest for justice.” [12] This is #BlackLivesMatter operating within a Hip Hop aesthetic that is calling the church to task, existentially. The calling is through active engagement on the streets, and not simply through sermons, prayers and useless words.

Francis recognizes the synergy that is happening amongst these young people and some Black theologians/preachers. There are “God moments.”[13] But, there are moments when the young activist insist on coming into the space with a Hip Hop aesthetic – doing it our way, protesting without prayer. And, this may be a place of contestation for some clergy, who are trapped in a puritanical Christianity: They can only envision assistance one particular way, and all other forms are wrong. This re-adjusting period is the gap or the fissure where one may propose whether #BlackLivesMatter to Black Theologians or is it indeed just a photo opportunity. Because the appearance is such, that one could assume, that if the Black Theologians cannot speak, they become useless. Retrospectively, for the young Black activist this may signal an inauthentic relationship with (their) God, ultimately, questioning their overall commitment and more importantly, their theology.[14]

Conclusion

Does #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black Theologians? That is a personal question that each Black theologian and preacher/pastor must answer for themselves. What I have presented in the few pages here was not an answer but more of a complication of the question. This is a process often employed by James Baldwin throughout his speeches. His methodology was to complicate the question, and by doing so, he would – inadvertently, but purposely – answer the question.

I suspect that Francis gets it right in her presentation of Faith and Ferguson: she lets the narrative tell itself. What we find in her work are theologians and pastors who are willing to take a backseat to the young Black activist, who are boots on the ground in Ferguson. They are there for support when needed and soldiering up for the fight at other times. Comprehensively, the end result is:

The fight for justice in this movement is a fight for the freedom to be seen and valued as human beings “just as you are” –not in a prescribed way that renders you acceptable so long as you fit a particular mold, but in an authentic way that makes room for each person to be able to be fully him-or herself.[15]

 

 

[1] I am drawing on the framework of Charles Long’s usage of the “theology of opaqueness.” This thought was introduced to me by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Ph.D. student, Bryson White, during a conversation about Tupac. White acknowledges Tupac as opaque theologian that is addressing the sociopolitical ills of Black bodies trapped in a neocolonial project. Charles Long, Signification: Sign, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, Davis Group Publishing: 1996., 199-213.

[2] I am intending, purposely, to make the pastor/preacher and the theologian to reside in the same existential setting. Though they may function in a slightly different manner, I am situating them in alignment with each other as a (Black) figure that Tupac would be addressing within the church.

[3]Tupac, Blasphemy [Explicit] (Interscope; 1996)

[4] “Awareness, no matter how confused it may be, develops from every act of rebellion.” Albert Camus, The Rebel, Vintage International: New York, 1956.,14.

[5] This was a point of contention that was made from Bryson White in our discussion about Tupac’s critique of the church.

[6] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Home, New York: William Morrow, 1996., 251.

[7] Ibid.

[8] I Will Spark The Brain That Will Change The World – Tupac [September 14, 2014]. Youtube Video [September, 2014] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uijBebYpoto

[9] Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, [Interscope, 2015]

[10] Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson makes this clear in the The Hip Hop Church: “You would think that their various takes on truth would make this kind of postmodern freedom march impossible, but it seems as if in the urban community there is a way to bring people of faith together with people of goodwill around issues of social justice. Hip hop culture has an influence as well as a tolerance that brings disparate people groups together… A more liberal political agenda seems to lead to a relative stance on truth, with high regard for multicultural tolerance.” Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005., 110-111.

[11] Leah Gunning Francis, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 2015.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] Ibid., 24.

[14] This is with the theological supposition that theology has the potential to drive practice.

[15] Ibid., 109.

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Ph.D. Coursework: the refreshing or a bullet (I had some time to kill)

For the past few months, I have wrestled and wondered about the importance of finishing my Ph.D. program. I figured , I could read the same books and have the same stimulating conversation with the brilliant, Black minds without the neverending deadlines. But, every week, I find myself mining through the books and conversations, trying to push Black hope just one inch further. I admit, there are moments of guilt and resentment, when I see brothers and sisters in the midst of the struggle, while I am sitting at my table trying to analyze the political theology between Tommie Shelby, Charles Mills and John Rawls.

 
Ph.D. coursework feels like an infinite fight between two futile adversaries and no one wins.

 
This constant need to be in the fight is a strange calling; it is a call to something that is greater than you but appears to register your being. Honestly, coursework has the same feeling but it operates in a different mode. There is another type of calling that pulls at different places of the spirit –an overwhelming, that transforms into a refreshing and/or a bullet.

 
How you view and experience the bullet is the strange place…

Black Rage

This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”

I came into a STM (Master of Sacred Theology) program at a Lutheran seminary in that crucible where the disparity between Black America and the America posited by white folks. I came, again, into the dialogue around hatred and race as the seminary struggled to adequately face the death of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and the Charleston Nine. The reflections of this thesis is tattooed on the backs of black bodies in every town in “these yet to be united states of america.”[1] Here begins my fresh perspective of addressing hatred in the face of the Cross.

Imagine being one of seven black students, at a major university, with a current student body of over 40,000 students.  Furthermore, envision attending a philosophy class, where your professor asks all the students to bring in a picture of Jesus to the next class. Finally, on the day of the class, all of the pictures are gathered, and discussed from the perspective of the professor. Most of the pictures are of a nicely manicured white, Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes made popular by Warner Sallman.[2] This Jesus is striking a pose with a full set of beautiful teeth and a look of perfection. But, within the stack of pictures there arises a photo of the mangled black face of Emmitt Till. A face that looks as if all of hell has been unleashed upon it; a face so distorted that it would be hard to notice that it was the face of a human – (head swollen five times its size, tongue out of his mouth from being choked so hard, eyes out of socket, skull split in two from the blade of an axe.)[3] After viewing the picture, the professor asked, “What the hell is this?” The black student responds, “This is what God looks like when he dares to offend white folk!”[4] This narrative isolates, while pinpointing, the vast differences in the ways Jesus is viewed across the black community. When such evil is perpetrated against black bodies, Jesus cannot be viewed through a lens of whiteness.

The need for a Jesus that embodies the pain of an oppressed people is warranted. Albert Cleage expressed this view in the book The Black Messiah, which depicted Jesus as a black revolutionary leader that critically engaged oppressed black people.[5] The by-product of such pain and torture is beheld in Black Rage. Black Rage is distinct from simple rage. Simple rage is compounded by the experience of being black and therefore, the socially acceptable target of enacted hatred. The full possession of one’s blackness thickens the impact of the experience of rage. Even so, blackness simultaneously critiques and identifies the distinguishing factors of trauma. James Cone expresses the need to emphasize the black component of one’s experience in his naming of Black Theology of Liberation.[6] Cone states that he was black before he was a theologian.[7] Cone asserts, “My identity with blackness…controls the investigation.”[8] The reality of Cone’s and others’ black experience augments the overall perception of any emotive concept. Black is not just a color or racial construct. Black is a rigid identity of faith where an embodied rage seeks to understand and interpret God. This identification is similar to Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation where he deliberately focuses on a one-sided view of Jesus. He theologizes upon the injustice done to the black community equating the suffering of blacks with the suffering of Jesus.

Cone’s and Dr. Carter’s depiction of Jesus reinforces a stagnated hope that has plagued the lives of black folks.[9] Even in the midst of massive social chaos, black folks were able to persist in their faith in God. Nonetheless, a history of heinous acts perpetuated upon the black community impacted their faith –Black people endured such hate and still remained able to say there is a loving God. How does a loving God allow such evil to dismantle a particular group of people? These are questions and thoughts that many black Christians and theologians have wrestled with for years.

Black Rage emerged as a social strategy for progress. Black Rage is a catalytic force that helped produce a creative response to terror without reciprocating the level of hatred that was perpetrated upon their bodies. Black Rage, the outcry of people rendered legally and socially invisible, searching for peace in a nation that designated them as the “other.” As the culture of the black community developed over the years from enslavement, to Emancipation, to reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights Movement and the backlash of shootings of Boyd, Rice, Martin, Scott, etc., so did the Black community’s understanding and articulation of God. Within those decades and decades of growth and development, the impact of Black Rage surfaced in the black body in many ways: church, jobs, education and imprisonment. The concern of this work is to describe and analyze how Black Rage has shaped how the black community sees God.[10] The thesis of this study is that Black Rage, embodies people who have endured heinous crimes on a continuous basis therefore manufacturing a Black Rage. Black Rage opened the black community to experience God through narratives that detailed their generations of struggle. As a people that respond to God from the experience of pain instead of being the people who are the purveyors of pain, where their Black Rage shaped their hermeneutic for understanding God.

 

 

[1] These Yet to be United States of America is a poem written my Maya Angelou. The use of lower case are mine which are used as a form of protest for brutality levied against the black body.

[2] Warner Sallman was a Christian painter from Chicago. He is most associated with his portrait, “Head of Christ,” of which more than 500 million copies have been sold. In 1994, the New York Times wrote he is likely to be voted the “best-known artist of the century”. Obery Hendricks writes about Sallman’s white Jesus: Then there was the famous blue-eyed Jesus…the most popular and most fanciful image of him (which I, like most folks I knew, thought to be the exact likeness of the Lord). The Scandinavian features and the clipped beard and carefully coiffed blond curls –not to mention the piercing blue eyes –gave Sallman’s Jesus a nobility that assured all who gazed upon him that the last thing he would do was cause trouble or upset anyone’s day.” Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teaching and How They Have Been Corrupted, New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006., 2.

[3] These are words and details that were provided by Mamie Till when she had the opportunity to see her son. Mamie Till, “The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till,”TV1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAemBpFM1NI, April 28, 2011. (accessed April 28, 2016)

[4] This is the true story of Dr. Mack King Carter during his undergrad years at Florida State University. He was a major part of the integration of that campus in 1972 and became one of the country’s foremost black preachers. He died in October of 2013.

[5] Albert Cleage Jr., The Black Messiah, Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, Inc., 1989.

[6] James Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, New York: Lippincott, 1970.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, New York: Orbis Books, 1969.,33.

[9] Black people, black community or black folks will be used at different times to indicate the black experience.

[10] I am inserting that to “see God” is to experience the love or lack thereof of the same God one claims. Seeing, then, is just not a visual exercise but a tangible experience of the believer that leaves a permanent pathway to transformation. “Seeing” God is the primordial hope that God enters into the struggle with black people.

 

I needed to write…(Day 2)

This is day two of trying to find the words to write again. I am not sure what happen but something made me stop. The past couple of days, I have been wrestling with one reason: fear. I have done all of the work to get to this moment of starting a PhD. program and now they will find out that I don’t belong. Never has that been something I have struggled with or hindered by until it dawned upon me a couple days ago. Now, I feel like I am learning to write all over again.
It is hard to be creative in a space where fear is paramount.

I needed to write…(Day 1)

It has been months since I have made an attempt to write anything. I have wrestled with myself: a lack of things to say or simply fear of critique. It appeared for the first time that I had developed an awareness of the critique. What I had labeled a lack of interesting events was really my unwillingness to be vulnerable. Writing places one’s perspective in a space of judgement where all stand as judge and jury. It is a place where the untamed life restructures itself into a sanctuary of peace –chaos becomes fortified spaces of comfort. I had become too consumed by the hustle of “trying to show I belonged.”