A reflection for our church’s brief, online Watchnight Service.
Imagine a gathering of enslaved women and men, collecting in secret on any given December 31st. New Year’s Day was often when enslavers settled their accounts; should they find themselves in debt, it was likely they would sell some of those they had bought and abused
What do the conversations of those gathered sound like? What do the songs feel like? What do the prayers look like?
Imagine now a similar gathering on New Year’s Eve, 1862. Three and a half months earlier President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and word had reached this community that the new law would go into effect at midnight
What do those conversations sound like? What do those songs feel like? What do those prayers look like?
A Watchnight service is a sacred occasion, though not because we find it in Scripture or practiced by the early church. No, this service is holy because those who first gathered to mark the passage of one year to the next – first under the most extreme duress and then in anticipation of liberation – they sanctified it with their worship, praise, and prayer; with their songs, tears, and shouts; with their theologizing, organizing, and self-emancipating; they made holy this service of watching and waiting, of remembering and anticipating, of praise and petition by their refusal to renounce Habakkuk’s promise: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2:3)
Coming precisely one week after Christmas, on this night we turn our attention again to the Word made flesh. In him there is no separation of the spiritual from the physical, the spirit from the body, spiritual freedom from holistic liberation.
Many of the women, men, and children who gathered in hush harbors to speak and sing the truth away from the enslaver’s deception and violence, these saints held seamlessly together the God who saved soul and flesh, who restored sin-tattered spirits and bodies burdened by white supremacy, whose salvation could not be withheld by plunderers or exploiters.
2022 has been another long year. But let us not make the mistake of thinking ourselves unique in this regard. 1862 was a long year. Every year, as we await the revelation of our Savior, is a long year.
We come tonight with our burdens, laments, and petitions. They are each of them valid. Our Lord has heard and will hear our cries. He sees the desires of your heart, the ones you’re barely able to utter to yourself.
But tonight is a place for praise as well. You are still here. We are still here. There is breath in your lungs, blood pumping through your body, synapses firing with feeling and emotion. You have been kept this year. You have not spun apart. There has been manna enough to eat, water-turned-wine enough to drink. Your God has been a strong tower and a fortress surrounding your vulnerabilities.
So we gather tonight in a spirit of praise, alongside the saints who’ve gone before us. We gather in that most Christian of way: the night of sorrow has been transformed into the daybreak of redemption. What had been a practiced grief has become the site of good tidings of the greatest possible joy. Our mourning has been traded for a dance, our sackcloth for garments of joy.
In the days following the January 6 insurrection, a lot of us tried to make sense of the violence and chaos we watched unfold on live TV from the US Capitol. For as unpredictable as were the days following the election, the scenes of an enraged mob attacking police officers, chanting for the Vice President’s death, and waving symbols of national and religious allegiance defied even the most pessimistic expectations. In the months since, we’ve learned more about the motivations which drove the seditionists and which animate ongoing attempts to disenfranchise voters around the country. And, if we’re paying attention, Christians – and pastors who lead white Christians especially – ought to be rattled by what we’re figuring out.
So, who participated in or supported last year’s insurrection? In a thoroughly researched article for The Atlantic Barton Gellman investigates a number of possible motivating factors. But only “one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal, insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state.” Additional research drew out another disturbing nuance. “Respondents who believed in the Great Replacement theory, regardless of their views on anything else, were nearly four times as likely as those who did not to support the violent removal of the president.” This theory, popular in the right wing media, states that the day is rapidly approaching when white people will not only no longer represent an overall majority in the country, but “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”
In other words, those most supportive of the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government are white people from regions experiencing demographic change who believe they are losing their rights to people of color.
Animating this resentment has been the former president’s lying insistence that he won the election. In reporting done by National Public Radio, Dr. Carol Anderson connects Trump’s “big lie” with his birtherism conspiracy theories during the Obama presidency. According to Anderson, “This is about, ‘My nation is about the real Americans. And all of those folks aren’t real Americans.’ It is so vile. It is so racist. And it works. That’s the thing, it works.” When she says that the tactics work, Anderson is thinking not simply about the insurrection but about the successful attempts by many state legislatures during the last year to make voting more difficult for their citizens. We have, says Anderson, “these legislatures write these laws figuring out not only how to stop Black people, brown people, indigenous people from voting, but also how to lower the guardrails of democracy that prevented Trump from being able to overturn the results in these states.”
According to the Times, the “Capitol riot continues in statehouses across the country, in a bloodless, legalized form that no police officer can arrest and that no prosecutor can try in court.” Almost three dozen voting laws, many in battleground states, which “empower state legislatures to sabotage their own elections and overturn the will of their voters,” have been passed in recent months. As should be clear by now, these laws will disproportionately impact citizens of color.
So the January 6th insurrection and the systematic attempts to disenfranchise voters are motivated by racial resentment and the desire to consolidate white power. But why should Christians be especially concerned? Shouldn’t we interpret these events through a civic lens?
This is undoubtedly a civic crisis, but recent research by scholars like Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead show how Christianity has been utilized by those who want to remake the country, often through authoritarian tactics, as a haven for white power. In a new article Perry writes that “Christian nationalist ideology — particularly when it is held by white Americans — is fundamentally anti-democratic because its goal isn’t ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Its goal is power.” Whitehead and Perry’s research shows that white Americans who support Christian nationalist ideology also favor making voting more difficult. Those surveyed were asked whether they’d support “a policy requiring persons to pass a basic civics test in order to vote or a law that would disenfranchise certain criminal offenders for life.” Such policies hearken back to Jim Crow laws which kept Black citizens from voting. “Why? Almost certainly because these arrangements currently give white, rural, conservative Americans an electoral advantage even when they are numerical minorities. Again, the goal is power, not fairness or democracy.”
The research into Christian nationalism is nuanced and shows, in some cases, that the more people participate in the historic practices of Christianity the less likely they are to affirm Christian nationalism. However, this leaves many more nominal Christians susceptible to this undemocratic and racialized ideology. The result is not simply the stomach-turning use of Christian symbols and language at the Capitol insurrection, but also the more subtle ways that white Christians support efforts to disenfranchise their fellow citizens.
And this is where we need to be precise. Many of the people these white Christians want to disenfranchise are their Christian sisters and brothers. Not that their efforts are more tolerable when they impact those who don’t share our faith; Jesus’ teaching on neighbor-love doesn’t allow for that ugly distinction. But the racialized grasp for power is made more evident when we can see that those affected are fellow members of the Body of Christ. Christian nationalists are not acting from their identity as members of Christ’s Body but from imaginations infected by racial resentment and visions of white, nationalistic power.
In the coming months and years we’ll hear a lot about the fight for voting rights. The events of January 6 will be debated and different meanings – traitorous insurrection or patriotic intervention – will be ascribed to them. What will typically be missed, though, is that many white Christians can hold the beliefs common to Christian nationalism, can nurse feelings of racial resentment and utter disregard for neighbors and Christian siblings of color, and simultaneously and happily participate in the ministries of their local congregations. They’ll be able to sing the hymns, amen the sermons, serve in the soup kitchen, and chaperone the youth retreat without their anti-Christian inclinations being disturbed in the least. And this is because their pastors and ministry leaders are interpreting these events in only the most surface of ways- as civic debates about which good people can hold different opinions. They will miss the truer story, which is that the Christians in their spiritual care are captive to racist and nationalistic ideologies that actively harm neighbor and kin.
However, for those willing to dig into deeper truths, a risky opportunity opens up. We have, in the next couple of years, a chance to invite people to renounce their idols and ideologies. This is not a call to partisanship. No, this invitation is better and way harder. With the psalmist we’ll ask, “How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” (Psalm 4:2) There is no gloating in this question, no shaming. Broken-heartedness and confession must characterize any attempt to lead people into the truth of the gospel and solidarity with the Body. We’ll remember that January 6 commemorates not only an insurrection but the miracle of Epiphany, yet more evidence of God’s unexpected grace displayed in the most unlikely ways.
The specific nature of this discipleship will necessarily look different in each congregation and community. We can trust the Holy Spirit for the contextual wisdom which will produce fruit of repentance. Still, for those willing to risk the invitation, here are a few suggestions. First, the work begins with clarity in our own minds about its specifically Christian nature. While others try to frame the struggle for civil rights in strictly political terms, we will remember the flesh and blood humanity whose well-being is threatened both by the lawlessness of January 6 and the unjust laws marching though legislatures throughout the country. The challenge is one of discipleship so it’s our responsibility to take it on. Second, we’ll count the cost before moving forward. Christian nationalism is powerful and its forming impact has been incredibly thorough. If my own experience is at all representative, we need to be prepared to be written off as misguided, partisan, and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus prepared us for this sort of thing so we don’t need to be afraid when the slander begins. Finally, we’ll be sober about how long this will take. The idols which have recently been unmasked are not new. We won’t preach this false worship away with a single sermon. A book club won’t be enough to rescue people from their warped allegiances. We’ll need all of the Spirit’s gifts and power and each of the pastoral and congregational resources discerned by the church over many generations. Thankfully these gifts and resources exist and are ready for us to apply them to this particular idolatry.
In his article, Gellman writes about January 6 that “the chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of rehearsal.” The events of a year ago will not remain in the past; they are a glimpse into a reality many of us had missed but which will continue to exert great and terrible damage. The devastation will be inflicted not only on our democracy but upon our Christian sisters and brothers as well. Are we prepared to stand in the way? To disciple people away from the idolatry of Christian nationalism and into real solidarity with the Body of Christ?
May God give us the wisdom to understand our times and the courage to respond with the love of Christ no matter the cost.
There is a strange warning being passed around these days and I expect, with Independence Day coming up, its urgency will be heightened. It comes in different shades, but essentially we are being alerted to a frightening new development which seeks to retell this country’s origin story. If you have even a passing awareness of the back-and-forth about, for example, Critical Race Theory or The 1619 Project produced by the Times you know what I’m referring to. It’s not that most of the critics of CRT or Nicole Hannah-Jones’ work are engaging with particular nuances about the way U.S. American history is being reexamined. Rather, at their most flustered, they have labeled these efforts as un-American and, in some circles, anti-Christian.
However, as we approach July 4th it’s a good time to remember that criticizing the story this country tells about itself has a long history and is, in fact, a deeply Christian instinct.
One of the most obvious example comes in the form of Frederick Douglass’ famous speech on July 5, 1852 to a gathering of abolitionists in Rochester, New York. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is the question Douglass put to his audience that day. By questioning the fundamental meaning of the day the nation celebrated its independence, Douglass was forcing his listeners to imagine a different – and truer – story.
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
For Douglass, to not confront a national myth which erased the suffering of so many people, which narrated the privileged as God’s innocent chosen ones, would be deceptive and un-Christian. It would represent a failure of discipleship.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America!
Again, Douglass understands it to be his Christian responsibility to compel those who prefer their comfortable myth to open their eyes to a shameful reality. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.”
There is, of course, room for disagreement and debate as we discuss the complexities of this country’s history. But the wholesale rejection of attempts to tell a truer story, a story which does not center those of us who’ve benefitted from the lies we’ve told but on those who’ve long endured under them, well, this is an un-Christian instinct and one that disciples of Jesus, like Douglass and so many others, must firmly reject.
Using fearmongering and shaming tactics to reinforce a false narrative is to live coherently, if wickedly, from this very narrative. People who have lied about their own goodness and innocence for so long, at the expense of so many, are today repeating what they have always done. Douglass reminds us that despite this long trajectory of deceit, it is possible to stand before the beneficiaries of a warped mythology and speak the plain truth. In fact, our allegiance to Jesus, if not this country, demands it.
I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
This is a lightly edited version of my sermon from the Sunday before Juneteenth.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)
Imagine being an enslaved person in Texas at the beginning of another hot summer in 1865. Given the state’s relative distance from the rest of the divided nation and given that Texas itself saw little action during the Civil War, it had been relatively easy for plantation owners and enslavers to hide the news of the Emancipation Proclamation which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years earlier. And so, despite this federal proclamation of freedom, these enslaved women and men toiled under the old status quo of bondage and terror. Imagine being an enslaver and, having heard the proclamation of freedom, choosing to cover it up. Here were people who understood that liberation had come and yet who willfully, purposefully did all they could to obscure and withhold freedom from those who were dying for it.
The freedom about which the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth was a freedom from bondage to the law. God had given his covenant law to his people as a template for flourishing. And yet, as we often do, the people had focused on the law not as a sign of God’s covenant love. Instead, they devoted themselves, in Paul’s words, to the letter of the law. They made keeping the law a sign of their righteousness and it quickly became a deadly burden, captivity even. The good news Paul taught in this passage was that the Holy Spirit brought freedom from the condemnation of the law. In Christ, we see through the condemning letter of the law and find instead the covenant of love and freedom that God always intended for us.
Now here’s the thing about God’s freedom: it is comprehensive. For example, in a passage that Jesus will one day borrow for his own mission, the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s freedom is good news for the poor, liberty for captives, release for the prisoners, comfort for the mourners; it includes rebuilt ruins and renewed cities; it involves inheritance, ancestral lands, and everlasting joy. Yes, we have the capacity to turn something like God’s covenant of love into a letter which condemns, but God’s desire for our good is so complete that nothing but our total freedom can quench it.
On this Sunday when we remember the news of freedom which finally reached those enslaved image bearers of God, news which had been delayed but which could not be denied, it’s worth spending a few minutes with God’s character of freedom. The enslaver could not hold back the freedom cry. The flesh traders, the kidnappers, the powerful men who had turned human plunder and exploitation into the nation’s most profitable sector, none of them could turn back the word of freedom. The most their pitiful power could do was to slow it down. History tells us that when that transformative word reached the now-freedmen and freedwomen, some simply walked away, never to return. Others negotiated for a wage. In one documented instance, a man named Jourdon Anderson wrote to the man who had enslaved him with a reparations bill: he’d added up the long hours he and his wife had worked, and he figured he was owed a cool $11,680, surely enough to bankrupt his former enslaver. Spouses and parents who’d been separated from each other, stolen from each other, began the search to be reunited. They built schools and churches and elected hundreds of Black representatives to every level of public office. Freedom changes everything. And the Apostle Paul reminds us this morning, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
There are always those who would hinder the Spirit’s freedom. Sometimes the foe is visible and obvious: one who enslaves, exploits, plunders. Other times the foe is subtle: a heart which condemns, a memory which captures, deeply held assumptions which conceal the Spirit’s freedom fruit. Scripture tells us that we have a common enemy who despises our freedom, the evil one who desires our demise. But our Lord Jesus is near, even in those oppositional places, through the presence of his Holy Spirit. And so this morning, I’m asking us to remember that freedom prevails by the Spirit’s presence. In other words, despite the existence of sin and evil in this world and in our hearts, God’s loving freedom will prevail because the Holy Spirit is present. The incarnate Son of God who walked the Galilean hillsides hundreds of years ago is now manifest by his Spirit in and among his followers everywhere. Freedom prevails by the Spirit’s presence.
I use the word prevail intentionally: freedom overcomes, perseveres, outlasts. Prevailing assumes opposition and there is always opposition to freedom. The Corinthians felt condemned by the letter; Black Texans remained captive after emancipation, a result of opposition. But Paul is clear: Don’t be deceived. Freedom is here because Jesus is here. The condemning voice is loud, but Jesus triumphed over condemnations of every kind. The schemes of the enslavers were brutal, the plots of violent men were depraved, the complicity of a nation built on stolen land and plundered bodies was total… but Jesus raised in victory over enslavers and lynchers and the powerful who washed their hands in as a show of innocence all the while trafficking in subjugation and suffering. Jesus triumphed even over these oppositions.
When Jesus was hung from that crucifixion tree, the powers and principalities thought that they had prevailed. The spiritual forces of evil were under the delusional impression that the divine hand which had restrained their worst impulses had finally been removed. But what had Jesus said earlier? “Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away?” (John 16:7) Why? Because having returned to his Father, Jesus would send his presence, the Holy Spirit. Rather than eliminating Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus has now been poured out on all who believe. There is exponentially more Jesus now and so there is also more freedom.
Now, the spiritual forces of evil have always worked to obscure God’s freedom. The freed Black women and men were faced with onc deception after another: enslavers tried to keep them captive; governments failed to compensate them with the land they had been promised; white mobs attacked Black citizens as they voted. The more of their freedom they claimed, the more violent and devious were the attacks to conceal and dismantle that freedom.
It was no accident that at many early Juneteenth celebrations, the Statue of Liberty was featured prominently, a reminder to everyone of the liberation that was the freedperson’s birthright. Neither was it accidental that these celebrations often included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation: ...all persons held as slaves … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States… will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
In response to the deceptions of captors, oppressors, and enslavers, these citizens stood boldly in their freedom. No matter what the liars said, they were free, and they intended to live their freedom.
Do we see this kind of freedom today? We see people fleeing violence on the southern border, gun violence in our city, and violence toward Asian Americans. We could go on. Unquestionably, our situation is radically different from those Texans who had to wait over two years for the news of their liberation, but if we’re honest it can be hard to see freedom’s advance. It can seem as though the forces opposed to freedom are more powerful than God’s desires for the flourishing of his entire creation.
Do we see freedom? There are those who don’t want you to see freedom. Some believe that more freedom for you means less for them so they work actively against it. There are people in our city and suburbs who have secured enough success and stuff for themselves and have turned away from those who struggle and suffer. Others of us can’t seem to see freedom. There are, for example, young people in our neighborhoods who see no roadmap to a free and flourishing life; they’ve seen too much loss already.
If God’s freedom prevails, why don’t we see more of it? Listen to Paul’s claim again. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Is it possible that in our struggle to see freedom we have forgotten that the experience of freedom, like the rest of our discipleship to Jesus, is a matter of faith, not sight?
In John 3:8, Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” You see, the joyful proclamation that the Spirit brings freedom is also a gentle invitation to see what Jesus sees.
Jesus was surrounded by powerful men who wanted his attention: religious leaders, soldiers, kings, and representatives of the empire. Yet most of his time was spent on the margins and among the marginalized. While others planned for freedom by way of a bloody revolt, Jesus was calling a kingdom of righteousness and peace into existence beyond the gaze of controlling power.
Jesus raised the little girl to life, and freedom took a step forward. He healed a blind man’s eyes and freedom took a step forward. He restored a woman to her community, silenced the religious leaders with their condemning letter of the law, washed his disciples’ feet and freedom stepped forward. Jesus gave himself over to bloodthirsty and violent men, men for whom freedom was a threat and not a promise, a curse and not a blessing. Jesus, the free-est person in the universe, became captive for us and our salvation, for us and our freedom. And freedom leapt forward.
Do we see freedom? Ask yourself, what does Jesus see right now? Do you see people getting free by giving themselves to Jesus? Do you see marriages getting restored? Do you see volunteers gathering each week to water and weed the Jackie Robinson Garden? Will you be among them in a few weeks when they begin sharing fresh veggies with our neighbors? Did you hear that our friends at Southside Blooms actually grew during the pandemic? They’re now growing more flowers on more abandoned lots, employing more young people, producing more local honey, and on July 1stthey’re opening their first storefront facility. Do you see the state of Illinois being the first in the country to ban cash bail?
Do you see freedom? What does Jesus see? May I suggest that Jesus sees young people being mentored, he sees overly incarcerated people walking out of prison, he sees brothers who have too much money giving it away to brothers who don’t have enough, sisters who have access to halls of power opening doors for the sisters who don’t. Jesus sees people getting free because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Perhaps you’re struggling still to see freedom. Ask yourself, Where is the Spirit of the Lord not? Show me the place in God’s creation where the Spirit of the Lord is not present. Show me the group of people among whom the Spirit of the Lord is not present. Show me the circumstance, the moment, the season that was too painful, too unjust, too wicked for the prevailing Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. Was there ever a debt so debilitating, a grief so great, a lament so long as to overcome the Spirit of the Man of Sorrows, the God who is acquainted with grief, the Son of God who suffered? Was there ever a place or a people so forsaken that they overwhelmed the forsakenness of Calvary?
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And let us shout this truth over our city this morning: There is not a single square inch of this creation where the Spirit of the Lord is not present! Open our eyes, Holy Spirit. Open our hearts. Help thou our unbelief. Let us see what you see. Show us your freedom.
Believing that the Holy Spirit brings freedom opens up new ways for us to live. Think again of the Black citizens after the Civil War. They were technically free, but white people regularly opposed them, sometimes violently. This is one of the things which makes Juneteenth so significant. Each June 19th, African Americans would gather publicly in their cities and towns. The day would often begin with a church service before migrating to a parade through the city’s major thoroughfares. Then, people would gather in a public park and the freedom celebration continued with food and festivities. And when white dominated town councils tried to stop these public celebrations, wealthier members of the Black community (like Robert Church in Memphis) purchased land so that no one could stop these visible demonstrations of freedom.
This, I believe, is an image of God’s freedom. We don’t simply believe that freedom prevails, we live and seek that freedom. The African American citizens who gathered in public spaces knowing that their presence agitated the racists, that the White Citizen’s Council and the Ku Klux Klan were looking on, were not content to think about their federally sanctioned freedom; they didn’t want to hold freedom in their hearts; freedom wasn’t an invisible ideal to hold onto when things got hard. No, those early June 19th worship services and parades and public celebrations were more than a commemoration of the past- they were a proclamation of freedom into the future. A testimony that freedom is always meant to be lived.
Holy Spirit-empowered freedom is not an abstraction. This freedom works its way into us; it changes how we see the world around us, but this prevailing freedom also ensures that we will prevail. If God’s freedom prevails, then you’d better believe that God’s free people will also prevail. We can hear this conviction in Dr. King’s last words in his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis (1968): I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Think of Isaiah’s freedom proclamation again, the one Jesus would one day apply to his own life and ministry. The reason the promises rang so powerfully was not because they were a beautiful articulation of liberty from sin, sickness, and suffering. It’s because the people who first heard these words were desperately in need of an experience of God’s freedom. The poor were ready for the good news; the brokenhearted were ready to be put back together; the captives were ready for liberty; the mourners awaited their God’s comfort and those who grieved anticipated the day when mourning would be exchanged for joy, despair for praise.
Their cities had been laid waste; the walls which symbolized security and prosperity had been pulled down. They were a people who needed far more than a description of freedom, a theory of freedom, a sermon about freedom. They needed an experience of divine freedom which would enter their situation and allow them to endure. This is the word of God which Isaiah spoke to a besieged and beleaguered people. It was an active and accomplishing word, a word that would prevail.
How many know that this is the freedom word our world is desperate for today? We have been set free by Jesus. What is it that we are doing with our freedom? Jesus said in John 8:36, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And what do people do who’ve been set free by Jesus? What do people do who understand that where the Spirit is there is freedom? What do people do who can stand amidst the rubble of captivity and condemnation with an unshakable conviction in the prevailing nature of God’s freedom? We seek that same freedom for everyone. Free people, free people.
I know this has been a hard season for many of us. Our losses have been great. The grief has been persistent. The opposition has been real. Do we actually have the ability to peer through all of this and find Holy Spirit freedom breaking in? Do we have the energy to be agents of freedom ourselves? To proclaim the saving and liberating gospel of Jesus to those bent down by the letter of the law? To those who’ve yet to hear the gospel of grace? Do we have the courage to stand in our freedom against the spiritual forces of evil whose lies have infected our systems and societies? To stand against the powerful interests bent on disenfranchisement and disinvestment?
The Holy Spirit of God who is himself freedom everywhere in creation is the same Spirit of freedom who is in you. The same Spirit of God who animated the saints before us, the women and men who had every reason to believe that their captivity would be permanent and who yet lived and breathed and agitated for freedom, that same freedom Spirit is alive in you.
Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, freedom is upon you. And so, through you, anointed child of God, filled with Spirit of freedom, good news will be proclaimed to the poor; the brokenhearted will be restored; captives willbe freed and prisoners released; the Lord’s jubilee will be announced; mourners will be comforted and those who grieve will be granted crowns of beauty; spirits of despair will be exchanged for garments of praise.
I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Clement Eastwood.)
In this post I’m delighted to feature the following reflection by Dr. Suzie Sang. Dr. Sang responded to my recent social media post – “Beware the colonizer disguised as a multicultural pastor” – and was gracious enough to turn that response into this article. I can’t thank Dr. Sang enough for sharing her experiences and wisdom with us.
America is my chosen home. I am a Black Caribbean immigrant woman who has lived in the United States for 17 years. I migrated from my island home of Jamaica as a bright, energetic and hopeful young adult ready to take on the world. My first round of migration to America (there were two) came in response to a call to seminary to be trained for ministry. At the time of migrating, I knew that I was called to ministry and had already been ministering for 5 years. But I knew I needed some theological training to undergird and supplement the hands-on experience I already had. So off I went to sunny Southern California for a 10-year sojourn of life and ministry in my second home. At the end of my time in SoCal, I moved back to Jamaica for a 5-year stint and then migrated again, this time to Chicagoland. Fast forward 7 years and today I feel settled and established in the city that has captured my heart – Chicago.
In a recent social media post, Pastor David posted the following statement – “Beware the colonizer disguised as a multicultural  pastor”. To be honest, I had a visceral reaction to his statement. My response on social media was “Oh yes, I hope there is more to come about this”. I then emailed Pastor David to ask him to say more. Instead of him saying more, he flipped the script and asked me to say more. So here we are.
Over the years, I have reflected on the wide and varied church experiences I have had – some were really good, some were OK and one in particular was the most traumatic experience I have had with a Pastor in my 26 years of being a follower of Jesus. I would describe him as a multicultural colonizer. In 17 years, I have been to a plethora of churches in a couple different denominations and with a variety of ethnic make ups. There were large and small African American churches, large and small predominantly white churches, church plants and churches that self-describe as multi ethnic.
My church experiences in predominantly white churches where I was in the racial ‘minority’, presented an air of welcome but reeked of either tokenizing or exoticizing me. I was different from the other Black and Brown folks and there was always a fascination with how ‘well I spoke’ or how ‘I knew English’. At the time, I didn’t realize that these were racist tropes – my ethnic identity was rooted in a national identity and I was just Suzie, the Jamaican girl living in the United States. I didn’t see the racism. As if white evangelical churches weren’t enough, I attended two predominantly white Christian institutions to obtain graduate degrees in those 17 years. While these institutions amplified my encounters with white supremacy and racism, I grew in my racial consciousness and was able to clearly see the unholy marriage of white supremacy, theology and Christian nationalism that created what Dr. Anthea Butler poignantly names “white evangelical racism”.
So why is all of this important to a conversation about multicultural pastors being colonizers? Good question. I share these examples to frame the making of a multicultural colonizer. Some of the multicultural colonizer development is very subtle and may not be initially seen. White evangelical theology is typically presented as theological authority and that has sadly shaped and formed many BIPOC locally and I would also say globally. Think about it – most seminaries are predominantly white and only until very recently did some of these institutions start to shift their perspective from BIPOC theology being on the periphery and as an elective to affirming its place as valid theological understanding on par with white evangelical theology. Make no mistake, we are on the journey but we are a long way from systemic sustainable change.
So, what are we left with? BIPOC who are influenced, trained and impacted by white evangelicalism sometimes succumb to divesting ourselves of our ethnic identity for the sake of assimilation. And some of us have endured enough trauma and drama in these non-affirming spaces to force us to walk away hurt and homeless. And when this happens, some BIPOC look to Pastor a third alternative – a community that reflects a multiethnic Church, capturing the Revelation 7:9 idea, as it were. Mind you, these is of course nothing inherently wrong with this desire or vision but for BIPOC who have been influenced and impacted by white evangelicalism, there has to be a deliberate interrogation of their white evangelical experiences to explore how those have shaped how they perceive and do ministry.
So then how does the multicultural pastor become a colonizer? How does a marginalized BIPOC who has faced racism, marginalization, white supremacy etc. turn around and become the colonizer they escaped? Remember I mentioned that I have had a lot of experience in a variety of church environments. Well, I had the unfortunate front row seat of being in a church led by a multicultural colonizer. And I can tell you that the trauma and harm from this type of colonizing may actually be worse than that of a white colonizer. Why do I say this? Because there is a feeling of double betrayal – one in which the colonizer marginalizes his or her own people and where you witness firsthand the colonizer relinquishing their soul on behalf of white evangelicalism. The source of this colonization is whiteness.
By definition, whiteness is a hegemonic system that perpetuates certain dominant ideologies about who receives power and privilege. Whiteness maintains itself in cultures through power dynamics within language, religion, class, race relations, sexual orientation, etc.  And racism is based on the concept of whiteness—a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white . Whiteness is a powerful construct that has real and very tangible, violent effects and it embodies white normativity based on white culture, norms and values that wields power as a tool of control. Let me be clear and say, whiteness is not based on skin color, it is rooted in an ideology, whose weapon is power, whose action is violence and whose lifeblood is lovelessness and inhumanity.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire warns about the dangers that oppressed people need to be aware of lest they become oppressors. He talks about the task of the oppressed to be liberating themselves and the oppressor as well. He suggests that it is the power that comes from the weakness of the oppressed which is strong enough to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. It is the humanizing of the oppressed and a desire to extend love and charity that leads to counteracting the acts of lovelessness which is at the heart of the violence of the oppressor.
He says that in this humanizing, the oppressed need to be careful that they do not become oppressors themselves because they have been conditioned by and adhere to the existential situations of the oppressors. If we are not careful, the oppressed cane become a multicultural colonizer. All of us suffer from the effects of white supremacy, racism and oppression. No one is exempt, neither the oppressed or the oppressor because it is in the literal air we breathe. We are aware that the oppressor may never interrogate themselves enough to do and be different but when the oppressed absconds from doing that work to interrogate the ways whiteness has influenced and shaped them, the fall for the power, control, deception and lies that whiteness promotes which only leads violence and further inhumanity of those they lead. Because the oppressed, by nature understand what it means for their humanity to be stifled and subjugated, when they do the work, they can leverage their resilience and promote the embodiment of a fuller humanity.
The web of whiteness is tangled mess rooted in hegemonic power often married to misogyny. It thrives on the fact that the multicultural colonizer is wounded and craves for power and control. It creates a false persona which can suppress the colonizers own ethnic identity in favor of adopting the tendencies of whiteness as normative. It is hard to reconcile how one can do this knowing that they too have endured the pain of marginalization. Crazy making, right? Yes, it is. But what is worst is the actual demonstrated colonization of your own BIPOC. It is literal violence (mostly mental and emotional). And it causes trauma, hurt and pain that is both terrible to observe and even worse to endure. To inflict trauma and violence on your own people is a different level of cruel – but that is what whiteness does.
What follows are some of my observations about the ways that multicultural colonizers operate. At their core, they are driven by ego and the wield weapons of control, domination and power over people. Unfortunately, in most of the stories I have heard, Black women are on the receiving end of the rage of a multicultural colonizer because it is not uncommon for them to be misogynoir as well as being a narcissist. This combination terrorizes Black women by a consistent suspicion of their motives, voice and word which then leads to widespread censorship of those who dare to speak up. The colonizer prefers to lean into the voices of white people as trusted authorities and struggle to deferring to the expertise or wisdom of Black women. And when they cannot control the Black woman, they fabricate stories about them, accuse them of not being a team player, paint them as angry, problematic and uncooperative in an effort to punish them and force them into submission. They are unwilling to adopt a posture of learning because they are experts and so they forfeit the ability to live out nuance and intersectionality among the issues of race, socio economics, immigration etc. Therefore, what could make for a rich diverse experience is traded for the safety of white ignorance and a lack of interest.
If the multicultural colonizer is called out about their colonizing, they rebel against any form of accountability and there will be violent backlash towards anyone who would dare to insist that they are accountable. At the core of the multicultural colonizer, I think is a battle for their ethnic identity and sense of self. Because of the influence of whiteness, I believe there is internal turmoil that manifests as rage and anger. While they may be committed to a vision for multiethnicity, they don’t reflect an understanding about restorative justice and I think the reason for this is because justice demands accountability and cannot begin without ownership. Multicultural colonizers don’t want to own their own pain, much less the pain, hurt and damage they inflict on others.
In closing, where do we go from here? Is there hope for BIPOC to not get tangled in the web of whiteness towards a trajectory of multicultural colonization. Emphatically, yes. I believe that the Spirit of God calls us to decolonization and deconstruction. We have all been impacted by whiteness and we cannot ignore its effects. The work of racial justice and healing must therefore be done in contexts of nuance and where there is a safe environment reflecting humility, mutual submission, unlearning and relearning from the marginalized people within a community. Navigating a variety of ethnicities with a myriad of cultural histories and stories in multiethnic spaces requires a heart and posture of learning. It requires prioritizing the lived experiences of BIPOC over white normativity and at the same time interrogating, confessing and repenting when one discovers another place where whiteness shows up. It requires the embodiment of a faith that is communal and cohesive and that demands self-awareness and other awareness.
It is a lesson in growing more towards our humanity and less about performance that leads to oppression. The struggle to become more human is an exercise in exploring our inhumanity to ourselves and others. Our inhumanity is forged and fortified in systems and perceptions that are ruled and reigned by whiteness. We must interrogate and dismantle them all as part of the work of racial justice. The work demands our commitment to Jesus and the common good standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. To do that work requires us to have the courage to work on our own racial identity and the areas that need healing, help and hope. Because if we don’t, we continue to re-enforce the persona of multicultural colonizer who uses trauma and violence to enforce the very injustice that they claim to want to eliminate. I believe we are called to build a different type of community based on mutuality, submission, accountability, learning and growth. It is hard work. It is necessary work. And it needs to be done because in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer “nobody’s free until everybody’s free”.
 For the purpose of this article, the term multi ethnic and multicultural are used interchangeably although the term multicultural by definition is much broader than multiethnicity.
 “What do You Mean by Whiteness?”: A Professor, Four Doctoral Students, and a Student Affairs Administrator Explore Whiteness Stephanie Power Carter, Michelle Honeyford, Dionne McKaskle, Frank Guthrie, Susan Mahoney, Ghangis D. Carter”
I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: David Buchi.)