Brothers in Conversation about race… ( Part 2)

What does it mean to be an (a)merican? It appears that to be an (a)merican, one has to identify with a culture plagued with greed, that infects the lives of all people. It is hard to talk about race without seeing the influence of  greed. An (a)merica’s greed makes it hard for real conversations about race to be effective. As Walter denotes  in Part 1 ,we know there is a problem but it is greed and selfishness that hinders progress. Honestly, it would call for a relinquishing of power in many forms for reconciliation to “stick.” Racism is too complex of an institution and I am not sure if we have mastered the language of reconciliation well enough to provide a solid solution.

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Is Racial Reconciliation Even Possible?

Yesterday, I posted a statement on Facebook that stirred a little bit of conversation. My initial point said,

“Racial reconciliation is an existential lie that pushes the oppressed to enter back into the hell they have been trying to escape.”

Throughout the rest of the day, I had conversations with many brothers and sisters, about my comment. As I pondered, upon the conversations, I started to wrestle with some thoughts about racial reconciliation. It is my sincerest hope that my thoughts will be conveyed with clarity as I attempt to unpack my line of thinking. These are not definitive, well researched thoughts, but somethings that I have been wrestling with:

First, we must understand that racism has worked. Race was never meant to be a tool to build community. The quest to identify someone as the “other” has always been a tactic to say that I am better than you. Dr. Mitzi Smith writes, “Difference is constructed in order to distinguish ourselves from proximate others. Our constructions of the other generally function to subordinate the other to us.” So, when race and the politics of race were implemented they were not done with the hope of building community. It was designed to disempower a group or groups of people that did not meet the pigmentation requirement to be white. Also, the premise of developing the concept of race was to make sure that the group designated as important always remained the important group. That is why it is extremely hard for some white people to grasp the notion that racism is a real trauma in the black, brown and Native American communities. Because, to make the claim that racism is live and active, would then force that white person to have to deal the reality that they have prospered on the backs of others. Their positions and privilege spaces were not always the products of hard work but often time engineered by what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “elegance of racism.”

Secondly, racial reconciliation is not an applicable reality. As I said before the concept of race was not developed to build community, it was meant to divide. Once race enters the picture the aspects of relationship start to diminish: No longer am I an African connecting with a European, but a black skinned person interacting with a lighter skinned person. The cultural beauty of our tribe or country is sidelined by color. The cultural aesthetics are secondary to color schemes.

Furthermore, if we are honest, when racial reconciliation is stated it is usually slanted to ascribe that those designated as minorities conform to the characteristics of those who are the majority. Thus, racial reconciliation usually calls for a sacrifice from those who have been the victims of racism.

Thirdly, we must be very clear that we do not confuse the reconciliation of the scripture to mean racial reconciliation. The scriptures make no room for race. They do make room for nations and tribes, but not people based upon the color of their skin. When we make efforts to force racial reconciliation into the reconciliation of the scriptures, we force God to be a racist.  God has called us to “put on Christ.” (Romans 13:14) God has not called us to be black or white. We have adopted these labels and most of us live by them wholeheartedly, including me. The reconciliation of the scriptures calls for us be put back into a place where we can receive the blessed favor of God. It is not a space where we come and disrobe our authenticity, so that others feel safe. It is a sacred space where God allows us to be in community with Godself, while being in community with others and color is a non-factor.

Unfortunately, I do not think we can have that type of encounter outside of the love of God. We live in a society that promulgates the racism with ease. The hatred of anything non-white becomes evident just by turning on the television. When the safety of an ape Trumps (pun intended) the safety of a young black child, racism is real. When good Christian folks see nothing wrong with the rhetoric and politics of Donald Trump, racism is real. So for someone to believe that racial reconciliation is feasible is treading on some sticky ground. Spiritually, God makes no room for it and in reality it is just not going to happen.

Just take a look at your local congregation and that should be a good indicator of the importance of this so called racial reconciliation.

Thoughts on Fire Next Time: James Baldwin’s Hardcore Talk on Reconciliation

There is a certain frame of reference that avails itself to the writings of James Baldwin – his inner city upbringing, his time as a preacher, his extreme openness about his homosexuality all while growing up as a black man in America. He laments in his letter to his nephew, “…to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it give up all hope of communion.”[1] These are the expressive thoughts of James Baldwin that inform “these yet to be United States” that the hard work of reconciliation is a personal mission.[2]

Baldwin gives us much to ponder as he shares this existential truth that causes us to rethink the particular positions in white privilege. His mode of attack was not steeped in violence but was occupied by pity. Baldwin had an “unsentimental compassion for whites so trapped by their fear that they are deeply alienated from their true selves.”[3] He understood with clarity that hatred made for a short life and as well as made one unproductive. This pity and unsentimental compassion is the result of a people who are trapped in a history which they do not understand.[4] It is this lack of understanding that leads to the improper treatment of others. As Baldwin denotes that until that understanding is received “there can be no release.” The understanding is the connection to commitment and it is very hard for people to “act on what they know.”[5] It is the act that drives the commitment and” to be committed is dangerous.”[6] In an interview with Francios Bondy, Baldwin shares,

…there is no prospect of setting Negroes free unless one is prepared to set the white people in America Free…Free from their terror, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices and free, really, from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.”[7]

So we ask, “Why do we not see systemic change as it relates to racism?” –it is too dangerous. Baldwin’s ability to reshape the narrative of the Negro idiom is the unspoken challenge in a controlled rage.[8] He calls all to the table for a dialogue of truth that is predicated on producing change. (A truth informed dialogue will prove useless if all parties are unwilling to be honest to themselves or have a lack of personal introspection.) His ability to speak with such honesty about the plight of black folks in America but yet move within many white circles was epic. We have to take notice that he never cowered away from an issue because it would prove uncomfortable for his audience. Though he spoke with an unwavering intent about his love for the black community he also had a love for humanity as a whole. It is uncommon in many circles, especially in the church, to see folks who can make this type of transcendence. What impact can be made if we all had the vulnerability to be honest?

Vulnerability

The ability of Baldwin to be vulnerable in his writing aids in the reconciliation process. Writing is a revolutionary act of human catharsis that has the potential to send one to the ultimate edge of sacrifice. For Baldwin this is crucial and mandatory for the formation of his life. His entire existence appears to be based upon re-presenting the totality of his experience. Baldwin shares with an interviewer from the Paris Review[9]when ask about writing from one’s experience,

“Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.”[10]

It is the act of being “there” and being able to show that image that helps in the reconciliation process. Baldwin’s ability to help all see his world and his experience gives a vivid picture of what black people have to endure. His vulnerability to share his life with others allows for those from different ethnic groups to have a peek into the world of an oppressed black man. As a writer Baldwin’s places himself at the center of the issue and then proceeds to write himself out of the predicament. It is through his writing that he is able to connect the dots that leave us asking more existential questions: 1) How would I communities change if we were able to be totally honest with each other? 2) Can our understanding of ourselves really impact the nature of our relationships with each other?

Conclusion

Dr. William Augustus Jones, in his book, God in the Ghetto, suggests that one’s theology, how I see God, determines one’s anthropology, how I see humans, and one’s anthropology then determines one’s sociology, how I order my society.[11] I believe Baldwin writes from a similar frame of reference regardless of the fact that he is anti-church.[12] His lived theology is one that models reconciliation during a turbulent time. His observance of the humanity of Jesus in ways that shaped the thinking of people impacted the way others saw America. Baldwin understood that “to accept one’s past-one’s history- is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”[13] How can the past of the blacks and whites be used to bring about a collective change for reconciliation? Could it be that we need to have a”transcendence of realities of color, of nations and of altars.”[14]

[1] James Baldwin. Fire Next Time.(New York: Vinatge International,1963),30.

[2] These Yet to be United States is a poem by Maya Angelou where she drives home a hard critique of the united States not living up to the nature of its name.

[3]Nilson, Jon. 2013. “James Baldwin’s Challenge To Catholic Theologians and the Church.” Theological Studies 74, no. 4: 884-902. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 1, 2014),888.

[4] Ibid.,Baldwin,8.

[5] Ibid.,9.

[6] Ibid.,9.

[7] James Baldwin and Francois Bondy, “James Baldwin, as Interviewed by Francois Bondy,” transitions 12(1964) 12-19., 12.

[8] Ibid., Baldwin,69.

[9]Jordan Elgrably; The Paris Review; http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2994/the-art-of-fiction-no-78-james-baldwin accessed 3/30/2014

[11] William Augustus Jones. God of the Ghetto. (Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1979), 13-20.

[12] I choose to refer to him as anti-church rather than anti-Christ because he mentions that Christ was a very good example for all to follow. His discontent came with the church not with Jesus.

[13] Ibid.,Baldwin,81.

[14] Ibid.,82.

The Realness of Reconciliation- The Price

I asked the question today, “Is it possible to come out of prayer feeling worse.” I really didn’t expect to get a lot of answers but I got two that went in the direction that I would have gone-yes it is possible. One reminded me of the story of Jesus in the Garden praying right before he goes to the cross. (Matthew 26:36-46) There is this intensity associated with his time in prayer that is unlike any other scene that I can remember in scripture. We read up many times that Jesus goes to pray but never are we allowed to take that deep of a look at him while praying. The synoptic Gospels tell the story, each one with a different twist but still the same wrenching effect, that Jesus is praying but wrestling with the outcome. How do you really pray about something that needs to happen but yet the price it will cost you will cost you your life.

Reconciliation takes on that concept in some areas for me. I read of cases of hatred, racism, sexism and classism every day and wrestle with the entire premise of reconciliation. How do you reconcile with folks who do not want to be reconciled with…? Yes the bible declares that we are minsters of  reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18) but the price that comes with that position is tremendous. This title engenders us to a position of peace that places in right in the line of fire to be ridiculed for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We have to endure racist taunts, sexist commentary and  tasteless class jokes all in the cause of preserving the image of Christ–the opportunity to participate in spreading the fame of Christ through our daily living.

Reconciliation is a revolutionary act of God with an established blueprint set by Jesus as he comes and gives his life for us. he prayer time in the garden exemplifies this struggle. His humanity debates with his divinity about the price of reconciling man back to God. This is a real dilemma and phenomena to understand because Jesus understood that not everyone wanted to be redeemed or would treat him fairly, as we would soon see with Judas. I am not sure if Jesus reconciled this within himself but I do know that he did the work. So as a blueprint for us, maybe we need to get past our own fears and trepidation and just do the work.

…still wrestling

Unmasking a Preserved Blackness: Infrastructure for Reconciliation

(White and black church are used as terms of identification not for separation identifiers.)

The need for a dialog about racial reconciliation is long overdue. The Trayvon Martin Trial (I use the Trayvon Martin Trial because he appeared to be the one on trial not George Zimmerman) brought an end to the entire premise of post-racial. The margin between black and white became extended with intensified reluctance from both parties in a search for a common place of peace. Even my own perspective highlights this point as well. Yes, I believe Trayvon was murdered because he was a young black male with a hoodie. There are others who believe Zimmerman was honestly trying to defend himself. But opposing views are highly based upon race. At the end of the day the only person who knows the real truth is George Zimmerman.

What this case has done is bring light to the racial disparity that this country has never really dealt with and probably never will deal with. But to add insult to injury the church has done an even poorer job of the very same thing. We have replaced reconciliation with silence and a theological stance of providence. We have not brought our prejudices to the table with clarity and boldness in order to develop a comprehensive plan of attack in our local context.

Here are my three points to ponder;

1. There must be an honest understanding leveraged by the white church that denotes that racial divide is a direct reflection of their behavior. There would not have been a need for a black church if everyone was treated equal. Black folks wanted and needed a black church to worship without feeling the need to still be in a submissive status to the slave master. (Even today many older black folks raise one figure up when leaving the church.) This was sign to the master that they need to excuse themselves and the finger was their form of asking permission. The maltreatment of black folks in church produces an AME church, National Baptist Convention, Progressive National Convention, COGIC and many more.

” America’s sin of racism has never even been confessed, much less repented for. Repenting for past sins against each other and being reconciled to one other” — Jim Wallis

2. The Black church is really not interested in having that conversation or a meaningful fellowship in white mainline denominations. These organizations have developed a theology and precedent that they are not ready to release in order to make white churches feel comfortable. They have carved out a sacred space that places them in preservation mode. There are traditional practices that have become emblems of progress and change that the black church will never relinquish just to be considered diverse.  To allow the white church to infiltrate that would resemble something remotely close to a Trojan Horse ethos.

3. Most pastors will not engage this topic for the simple fact that it might expose them as being the main culprits of the act. There is not that type of honest introspection being done by most because they live a box with people who look like them. There is an escapism mentality that calls for the problem of racism to be overlooked. It is Derrick Bell who quotes a friend when he says,

“People looking to escape are not worried about solutions.”- Derrick Bell

This is something to start the dialog. There are a lot of things flowing in my mind but I think this gets it going in a right direction.