Who killed Eric Garner?

A few years ago a member of our church was arrested and spent the day in jail. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, this Black man had been standing on a street corner with some friends when Chicago Police rolled up. Very quickly they had him against a wall before placing him in handcuffs and driving away.

Why? I asked. They said I was selling loose cigarettes.

I thought about my friend today when the news broke that the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner into an asthma attack that ended in his death won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Garner died, his faced pressed into the sidewalk, gasping for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Eleven times he told the officers who held him down that he was dying, that they were killing him. And then he was gone.

He’d been selling loose cigarettes.

Photo: Paul Silva

In a letter to his nephew in 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people are, “in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”

I’m thinking about Baldwin’s words of warning today because I’m remembering how my friend explained his day in police custody; it was, for him, an anticipated experience. Dangerous, yes. Potentially deadly. But also, a sort of expected tax on his African American reality. He understood that particular humiliation – hands against the wall, legs spread – to be part of the way of life under the power of those convinced of his inferiority.

I felt outraged for this man and his experience. He seemed to feel something different- a sense of the futility of convincing a nation that had long ago decided that his was an experience not worth understanding, an existence unworthy of our collective concern.

Eric Garner’s killer was not held accountable for the same reason so many other Black women and men who’ve suffered such obvious violence haven’t received the satisfaction of justice: in the eyes of this nation they do not deserve the dignity implicit to humanity. It’s not that they don’t see us, a friend told me the other day. She was responding to another example of white people erasing the voices and priorities of Black communities. It’s that they don’t believe we’re fully human.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was twenty-six years old when he was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965. Jackson had participated in a civil rights march and died trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s blows. Martin Luther King was called upon to eulogize Jackson from the pulpit of Zion Church in Selma. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him,” he reminded the community, “but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”

In her portrayal of that funeral, director Ava Duvernay has King demand with righteous fury, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” It’s the question honest people will ask about Eric Garner and the countless others who’ve suffered this nation’s diseased imagination. “[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” wrote Baldwin in that same letter,” and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

But Eric Garner knew it. So did Jimmie Lee Jackson. And my friend and his friends know it as well. Their survival depends on them remembering the simple fact that this nation is uninterested – passionately, intentionally, and vengefully uninterested – in their survival.

Who killed Eric Garner? We did.

Proclaiming Freedom

 8 The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. 12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 14 ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. 17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals. 21 “I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you. 22 I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.” (Jeremiah 34:8-22)

Band at the 1900 Juneteenth celebration at Eastwoods Park

Introduction

One of the challenges of commemorating Juneteenth is the tendency to view it safely through the soft-filter of history. If we received the typical American miseducation than we’ve been left with a hazy recollection of those Civil War years and the decade following when formerly enslaved African Americans began building homes, families, schools, and business only to have, in the words of Carol Anderson, white rage respond in the form of Jim Crow laws, domestic terrorism, and mobocracy. Juneteenth, a day to remember the delayed proclamation of freedom, resonates with those former days, but does it resonate today?

According to the Center for Law and Justice, the USA imprisons more people than any other country: we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners; we incarcerate 2.4 million people and POC represent 60% of those imprisoned; 1 in 8 black men in their 20’s are imprisoned; 13% are disenfranchised because of a record of incarceration; between 1997-2007 the number of women in prison increased by 832%. We spend almost 70 billion annually on prison, probation, parole, & detention. In 2015 the largest private prison corporation made 3.5 billion dollars. In 2017 the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reportedly locked up close to 40,000 people, including some children and youth who’ve been separated from their families for months at a time. Most immigrant detention centers are run by private corporations, some of the largest which have direct ties to the current presidential administration and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to its campaign.[1]

Unjust, state-sanctioned captivity which enriches shareholders and the politically connected is not a relic of our past; it is a reality that continues today. It manifests in racially unjust sentencing, in dehumanized migrants, in financial exploitation of the poor, and – if we’re willing to be very honest – the comfortable middle-class lives that many of us take for granted.

This sinful instinct to plunder someone’s body for my benefit is an ancient one. We see it in this passage from the prophet Jeremiah. God’s people had broken their covenant with God by refusing to free those who had sold themselves into slavery. Instead of setting them free as God had commanded, they kept them in captivity for their personal gain. And the response could not have been more direct: God condemned Israel’s leaders for breaking the covenant by enslaving their fellow Hebrews.

As we open our eyes to this nation – as we open our eyes to the wealth, middle-class stability, and global security built directly upon genocide and enslavement – as we open our eyes it is essential that we hear the voice of God with extreme clarity. God judges those who enslave. God condemns those who passively benefit from systems of exploitation and plunder. Or to say the same thing positively: God is on the side of the oppressed, the enslaved, the exploited, and the captives. God is a God of freedom, liberation, and salvation. And so today, as we do our best to position ourselves among the lineage of Juneteenth saints who commemorated a freedom that might be delayed but could never be denied, today the message for us is this: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.

We are surrounded by situations of captivity. There remain enslavers around us for whom our fellow-image-bearers of God are nothing more than resources to exploit. So let the Word of God speak boldly today: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We see this mandate in our passage first through God’s intention, then through Israel’s failure, and finally through God’s intervention.

God’s Intention

12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. – Deuteronomy 15:12-15

God’s covenant allowed for a kind of indentured servitude that benefited those who’d become indebted beyond relief. On the 7th year, the sabbatical year, the land was to rest and slaves went free. But not only did they go free, there were given material resources to decrease the likelihood that they’d return to slavery.

There were two important reminders within this covenant: God rescued you and God alone is sovereign. The people’s identities were no longer determined by someone who claimed ownership over their lives. They were children of God. And only God could claim power or authority over their lives.

In this country, slave owners generally tried to keep those they enslaved from learning to read. Practically this kept them from forging emancipation papers or following news of slave rebellions. But they also feared what would happen if these women and men began reading Scripture and encountered the God of freedom.

Denmark Vesey

They were right to be afraid. When enslaved people like Denmark Vesey learned to read, they began building coalitions to overthrow their enslavers. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in Staped from the Beginning, “Vesey likely spent time teaching, motivating, and encouraging fellow enslaved Blacks and challenging the racist ideas they had consumed, perhaps regularly reciting the biblical story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egyptian bondage.”

Though his rebellion was betrayed, people like Vesey saw through the slave owners’ lies to the truth of God’s covenant. They were not slaves but image-bearers of God and those who claimed ownership over them were not their masters, but rebels defying the God of freedom.

Vesey and others knew God’s intention. If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity, we too must remember God’s intentions. The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.

Do you know God’s intentions for you? Who you really are? Who God is for you?

Both the marginalized and the privileged are confronted by this covenant. You are a child of God. No one but God is sovereign over your life.

Israel’s Failure (and ours)

Understanding God’s intention helps us to see the extent of Israel’s failure, and our own.

Jerusalem was besieged by Babylon. Soon the city would fall, it’s walls and temple razed and its people sent into exile.

But at this point there was a pause in the action. King Zedekiah had been desperate. He realized that his people had broken covenant by enslaving fellow Hebrew with no promise to release them. So he called the enslavers to temple for covenant and they agreed to set slaves free [34:10]. But then the siege stopped and the former slave owners, as though the ancient spirit of Pharaoh had possessed them, changed their minds [34:11]. They took their own people captive again.

To rightly understand the history of this country we must see the persistent theme of The one group of Christians enslaving another. Early one the debate was whether enslaved people could be baptized. The answer at first was obvious. No, for then they would have to be freed. But this was problematic since these were, after all, Christian slave owners. And so new possibilities were explored.

The Virginia House of Burgesses wrote in 1699 that, “The gross bestiality and rudeness of [Africans’] manners, the variety and strangeness of their languages, and weakness and shallowness of their minds, render it in a manner impossible to make any progress in their conversion.”

Cotton Mather

The well-known Cotton Mather, believing in rigid social hierarchy between slave and master, picked up a similar theme in his writings directed to enslaved Christians of African descent. “You are better fed and better clothed, and better managed by far, than you would be, if you were your own men.”

In order to justify enslaving fellow-Christians, white people developed a racial hierarchy based on an unchangeable racial construction. In so doing, white Christians gave more authority to the racial categories of their own making than the baptismal waters commanded by Christ.

And so the state of Virginia could legalize the racist and heretical claim that “the conferring of baptisme doth not ater the condition of the person as to his bondage.”

We’ve never repented of this history. Not really.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes,

[We] are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century. The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others — of African Americans — wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston.

Each of us would strongly agree about the wickedness of slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration. But consider again the statistics from the beginning of sermon. Do they not betray our ongoing belief in the narrative of racial difference?

In an op-ed in last week’s LA Times Jonathan Katz wrote about our current immigration crisis [2]:

Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.

Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody.

The narrative of racial difference that allowed white enslavers to baptize the women and men in their possession remains at work today. Perhaps not in our intentions, but certainly in the outcomes we’ve all agreed are the reasonable collateral damage of our empire.

If God is a God of freedom than we must ask, Are we on the side of freedom?           

Whose captivity are we benefiting from? Whose exploitation props up our privilege? Whose enslavement are we willing to tolerate for our comfort?

Whose bodies are we willing to sacrifice to the demon of incarceration? Whose families are suitable to be torn apart by border walls? Upon whose vulnerable ancestral lands will we condone drone warfare, debilitating sanctions, and the first devastating impacts of climate change?

If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity with freedom, we must confess our failure to reflect God’s intentions.

God’s Intervention

If the crucifixion of the son of God reveals anything it is that God intervenes in situations of captivity and enslavement.

God’s wrath was poured out on the people who claimed his name while re-enslaving their fellow-Hebrews. This intervention feels like condemnation to the oppressor and like liberation to the captives.

It is the oppressor’s instinct to separate spiritual salvation from physical freedom. But the God encountered by those women and men who celebrated the first Juneteenth pronouncement made no such false distinction. Spiritual freedom was physical salvation.

Jesus said of himself, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” [John 8:36] We have been conditioned to imagine a kind of spiritual freedom when we hear this promise. And that’s true, it’s just that spiritual includes everything. After all, when we see God’s passion for liberation in Jeremiah 34, we have to conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, carried that same passion.

He was born into captivity. His families knew generations of exile and occupation (. He grew up among the lynched bodies of his countrymen hung from crosses along highways. He watched generational land taxed into the hands of foreigners, religious leaders in the pocket of the Empire’s representatives, and political leaders beholden to those whose fortunes came from the plunder of war.

So what did the outcasts and the marginalized hear when Jesus pronounced freedom?

Did they satisfy themselves with heavenly promises of a one-day salvation? Did they imagine a God who cared nothing for their suffering as long as their souls had been saved? Were spiritual songs and well-delivered sermons an adequate response to state-sanctioned murder and theft? Within a situation of captivity in which they were made the laughing-stock of the empire, was it enough to know that God loved them… spiritually?

Or did they hear something else when Jesus spoke of freedom and salvation?

Could it be that when Jesus said, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, the Galilean peasants heard echoes of Jeremiah’s God? [John 8:32] The God who judged the enslaver; who refused to forget the Sabbath year of liberation and restoration, the God who pronounced Jubilee over captivity?

Might they have remembered their ancestors’ stories and songs of the God who spoke to Moses through a burning bush, who said to him: 7 “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. [Exodus 3:7-8]

Is it possible that when Jesus stood in the synagogue and proclaimed,  The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, those in the crowd who’d been made poor thought he was talking to them? And when he went on to claim that God, has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, those who’d been bound and bruised by the empire understood that their liberation was at hand? And when he concluded that he had come, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the entire crowd woke up to that ancient vision of Jubilee, when no one was without land, home, or dignified work; where no one oppressed or exploited their neighbor? [Luke 4:18-19]

History records that after the Juneteenth pronouncement on that summer day in Galveston, TX in 1865, some of the enslavers tried to talk the women and men they’d exploited and abused into staying.

But when a captive people who’ve encountered the liberating God hear freedom pronounced, there is no confusion about what to do next. When a people who’ve been made captive understand their true identity as the children of God, understand that God alone is sovereign and no so-called slave master can claim actual power over your life, there is no confusion about what to do next. You get free! You live free!

Because God intervenes in situations of enslavement, we can confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.

Conclusion

The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We live between Christ’s resurrection and his return. We live between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth Celebration. Victory has been won. Slavery and captivity have been abolished. And yet the spiritual forces of enslavement and captivity still plot their insurgencies, still coerce sinful exploitation and plunder.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. [Galatians 5:1] And yes Christ has set our souls free from the spiritual captivity to sin, but let us never reduce the liberating work of our Savior to the interior status of our souls. After all, he is the one who touched the lepers’ wounds, and rubbed healing mud on a blind man’s eyes, and offered fish and loaves to feed multitudes of hungry people. He’s the Savior who drew near to the outcasts, spoke words of life to the peasants who’d been driven from their land, and allowed his body to be rolled over by the bloody wheels of the empire… for us and our salvation.

It is for freedom that we have been set free. In a world that hasn’t heard of its emancipation, we are called to be a Juneteenth people. Among a people who assume their captivity to be final, we have been sent to proclaim freedom. To the enslavers, exploiters, kidnappers, and thieves, we are sent to brazenly and bravely announce the judgment of the God who sides with refugees and migrants, children who’ve been separated from their parents, and parents whose children have been snatched by state-sanctioned and politically-orchestrated violence.

The liberating God is looking for a generation of free people to proclaim freedom over every place of captivity. Will you go? Will you resist the tendency to so spiritualize your freedom that you pose no threat to enslavers and captains of empire? Will you proclaim the singular Lordship of Jesus Christ in response to every idol and ideology? Will you remember the chains that held you back- back from the God who created you, back from the flourishing future for which you were created? Will you remember, as the Scripture says, that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm?

The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the desperate migrant and the landless refugee. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every child whose future is assumed to be written by underfunded schools and intentionally segregated neighborhoods. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the sisters and brothers whose ancestors built this nation’s wealth with their blood and bodies. We will join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every single place of captivity, over every single dehumanized image-bearer of the holy God. Today this God sings songs of salvation, freedom, and deliverance over this captive world. Will you join him?


[1] https://eji.org/news/private-prison-population-skyrockets; https://immigrantjustice.org/staff/blog/ice-released-its-most-comprehensive-immigration-detention-data-yet; http://www.cflj.org/programs/new-jim-crow/new-jim-crow-fact-sheet/; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/04/us/migrant-families-contractors-campaign-contributions.html

[2] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-katz-immigrant-concentration-camps-20190609-story.html?fbclid=IwAR2NlZtTN1IVophhiTjel9N0cHJWrOU-Fi0ybS3wpg2EhFMueM207On0tkg

Juneteenth

In 1905 African Americans in Richmond celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the end of slavery.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter in anticipation of our Juneteenth Worship Service this coming Sunday. I offer it here for those who aren’t familiar with this important tradition with the hope that others will see the many theological implications of this commemoration of freedom.

On June 19th, 1865, the Union commander of the Department of Texas arrived in Galveston, Texas and went to a prominent home at the center of the city. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years earlier, but slaveholders in Texas had kept the news from the women, men, and children they enslaved. From the balcony the commander read out General Orders Number Three.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

Having been declared legally free years earlier, Texas’ African Americans now learned of their freedom. June 19th immediately became a day to commemorate freedom, and in the ensuing years Juneteenth became an essential holiday for a people whose freedom within a racist nation could never be taken for granted.

In a chapter about Juneteenth, historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner writes about the importance of Juneteenth to formerly enslaved people’s memory.

The powerfully subversive collective memory that former slaves and their descendants preserved found its way into public space almost every year, a reminder to the nation that African Americans, while sharing a common history with white southerners, did not bow to the icons of Confederate bellicosity or deny that freedom was immensely preferable to bondage.

The free women and men who left behind enslavers and captivity made their way in a nation that rarely recognized their freedom. They were met instead with a narrative that sanitized those who had kidnapped, exploited, and tortured them. They were told that their lives were better during slavery. They walked beneath hastily erected monuments to heroes of the Confederacy.

Within this white supremacist culture, Black people’s decision to publicly commemorate Juneteenth with parades, speeches, and special church services was a conscious act of resistance, a choice to develop a “powerfully subversive collective memory.” This memory would cut through racist retellings of history. It would tell the truth about African American dignity and freedom. It would put the dominant culture of white supremacy on notice- though it had grown powerful through theft and exploitation, it’s deceptive rationale had been exposed.

Celebrating Juneteenth was not only a bold declaration of freedom for the captives, its existence was a word of righteous judgment against white supremacy and all those who buttressed it’s malicious narrative and benefited from its deadly plunder.

Get Ethnic

When you say your ethnicity is American, there is no American ethnicity. You had to throw away your ethnicity to become American. That’s what it means. That’s what it means. You give up who you are to become American. And you can pretend that it’s OK because you’re white, when we give up who we are to become American we know that we’re dying from it. You’re dying from it too but you don’t know it necessarily. Get ethnic, you know.

Victor Lewis in The Color of Fear.

What Victor Lewis says about the conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and whiteness (beginning at 3:36 in the clip above) is one of his many insights in The Color of Fear, a documentary featuring men of different races and ethnic backgrounds speaking candidly about race and racism. Here he’s responding to another participant, a white man, who has asserted that he is simply an American, without any ethnic distinction, and who wonders why the men of color can’t, or won’t, say the same about themselves.

What Victor says about how a person becomes American is important for the way he shows how ethnic particularity is incompatible with being white. Ethnicity and cultural particularities have to be shed – thrown away – in order to attain the promises of whiteness and, just as importantly, to distance one’s self from racial blackness on the other end of our racial hierarchy. This is what it means to be American, something Victor’s antagonist hasn’t been able to see because he’s lived his entire life within the assumptions of American whiteness.

Just as important – perhaps more – is Victor’s claim that those, like himself, risk life itself in the pursuit of American-ness. Holding onto one’s particularities is a life-saving act within a society whose demand for assimilation may very well include your personal demise.

All of this points to a question which Victor alludes to with anger and fatigue when he says, “Get ethnic, you know.” The question, I think, goes something like this: What are white people to do after realizing our conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and race are neither an accurate reflection of reality nor a neutral state of being? Or: Can white people, having woken up to the fact of their whiteness, reclaim their particularities that were long ago thrown away?

This is what I take Victor to be responding to. “Get ethnic” is a demand to take steps away from the malicious generalities of racial whiteness to something more humane, like the uniqueness of ethnicity. This strategy is somewhat common among those who think carefully about race and whiteness. The idea is that if I, a white person, can get in touch with the long-forgotten aspects of my cultural and ethnic past, I have a better shot of moving beyond my default to whiteness- a default that isn’t neutral, which has warped my understanding of myself and others. Victor’s demand, though it sounds somewhat sarcastic, is actually quite gracious. He’s offering the white man an escape route from his whiteness

But can this actually work? For as often as I’ve heard white people encouraged to get in touch with our ethnicity – often by other thoughtful white people – I’ve never actually seen a white person stop being white by reverting back to their ethnicity or, more likely, multiple ethnic backgrounds. As good as it might be to maintain a connection to one’s history, that connection itself cannot provide a strong enough lived experience to counteract the racialized society through which we’re constantly feeling our way.

If I can be my own case study to make this point, what would it look like to reclaim my ethnic backgrounds? Which would I choose? German? Swedish? What about the parts of my family that spent generations in the American South? And which specific aspects of these different regions and cultures should I choose from? Would I have to learn each of the languages of my ancestors? Would I need to travel to each of these places and spend significant time living there?

It seems to me that any attempt by a white person to replace whiteness with a discarded past ends up a sort of strange act of reverse cultural appropriation.

This isn’t only a problem for those of us who currently perceive ourselves as white. As Victor points out, whiteness is attainable for some – not him – who are willing to shed generations of particularities. There are, for example, many American immigrants who today are perceived as foreign or other but whose children or grandchildren will have assimilated to whiteness. The price, of course, will be the intentional forgetting of what had been essential to their immigrant ancestors.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with holding onto or rediscovering parts of one’s ethnic or cultural uniqueness. We just shouldn’t confuse those acts as being enough to escape the constrictions of whiteness. That’s simply not how race has ever worked in America.

Is their an alternative, or are we left to understand that all those who can assimilate to white American-ness inevitably will? For me, this is the most important question. Another way to ask it: Is there anything strong enough to subvert the deforming power of race? Ethnicity, I’m claiming, is not strong enough, not as generations are shaped by this racialized society.

I think there is another possibility. It has to do with land and the way people are formed by place. I hope to explore this in a future book, though for now I’d best focus on finishing this first one

Young Leaders: Here Are 10 Ways to “Lead Up” for Reconciliation and Racial Justice

My most recent article for Missio Alliance has been posted.

The concept of leading up within organizations is common. Leading up, when done well, benefits the entire congregation, as the insights and innovations of youth are brought into conversation with the foresight and wisdom of older generations of godly leadership.
This dynamic is important when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, particularly among majority-white churches. Given the inertia of racial privilege and the insulating impact of racial segregation, these churches benefit from the idealistic voices of younger leaders. If these women and men can leverage their influence up the leadership ranks with wisdom and humility, the entire church stands to grow in racial reconciliation and justice.

Read the rest on the Missio Alliance site.

Courageous Discipleship in an Idolatrous Nation

What follows is the last part of yesterday’s sermon from 1 Thessalonians 1.

What are you known for? What is our reputation? Our Lord Jesus wants his gospel to so thoroughly transform us that we cannot control our reputations. He desires for us to have been so completely rearranged, so completely put back together, so completely rescued from sin, saved from death, and liberated from the devil’s deceptions that the message of the gospel leaps out of us.

I need to be direct about this. Some of us, myself included, risk mistaking our association with someone else’s reputation for the gospel as our own reputation for the gospel. What do I mean?

We have among us women and men whose discipleship to Jesus has led them to costly sacrifice and suffering in the face of this nation’s idols and ideologies. Their love for and allegiance to Jesus has allowed the message of the gospel to spring forth from their lives as a beautiful witness to Jesus’ saving lordship.

Others of us, shielded by layers of privilege, have avoided sacrifice and suffering. We  content ourselves with private beliefs about Jesus rather than whole-life discipleship to Jesus. Worse, we have mistaken our proximity to those men and women who have sacrificed, who are suffering as evidence of our own faithfulness. But proximity is not faithfulness and some of us are guilty this morning of appropriating somebody’s else’s reputation for the gospel as our own.

We must not be content with living a vicarious life of discipleship. Turn away from your idols. Serve God alone. Wait on the Lord Jesus. God wants his gospel to leap out of your life. Don’t be content with anything less.

When the gospel transforms you at the levels of your motivations, priorities, and reputation it will no longer be possible for you to be a passive citizen of this idolatrous nation. The miscarriages of justice we saw from the Cook County Courthouse this week are the rancid fruits of a nation that has longed worshiped the god of white supremacy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a temple to white supremacy or carved statues to the god of racial superiority. But look a little closer and our deceptive gods begin to reveal themselves. We see our idols when we look closely at who fills our prisons. We see our idols when we listen to how our border is debated and how those who cross it in desperation are publicly debased. We see our idols when we listen to how Laquan McDonald – murdered and gone for four years – was put on trial again and again in that courtroom, his character assassinated long after his body had been shot down, the particularities of his image-of-God-bearing-body used as justification for his extrajudicial killing by a man whose racism was renowned.

5ac26ecd1e00003b137b058fFifty-two years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Riverside Church in New York City and said, “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We see the devastating impact of our idols a half-century later when we observe that rather than transforming the Jericho Road or dismantling it, we have paved it over, made it more efficient. Rather than restructuring the edifice, we have made it larger: more prisons, more immigrant detention centers, more wars.

Our idols are bloodthirsty. Some of you know this all too well. The travesties of justice we watched this week are not theoretical to you. You cannot help but see your sons and your daughters in Laquan, Rekiya, Sandra, Philando, and Tamir. You felt the news on Thursday and then again on Friday in your bodies, reverberating like death knells, simultaneously shocking and not at all. Your discipleship to Jesus has led you to stay awake. To choose the way of love and reconciliation. Even to forgive. And some of us are tired today. Because you are living this story, have only lived this story in this idolatrous nation.

Today I say to you the words in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. We know brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you. Despite its malicious intentions, this nation has not destroyed you. The devil cannot have you and death has no claim on your life. You are loved by God. He has chosen you. You may be tired this morning. You may be afraid or angry this morning. Depression and despair may be nipping at your spirit this morning. But God… has chosen you.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has transformed you at the deepest level of your being. Our culture’s idols will one day go the way of Thessalonica’s temples and cults. Racism will die. White supremacy will die. Injustice will die. Courtroom injustice will die. Every idol  which seems to hold endless power will go the way of all things, will crumble and disintegrate. But you, brothers and sisters loved by God, will live. You may be tired, but today you live. You may be angry, but today you move and breathe and have your being held together by the Lord Jesus.

God sees you. God loves you. God has chosen you.  What does it mean for God to choose you? It means, that the same Jesus who is Lord of the universe has drawn near to you. Not in some theoretical, merely theological sense. No, God took on your flesh and came close. God took on hungry flesh. He took on thirsty flesh. God clothed himself as a stranger. God took on naked and vulnerable flesh. God took onto himself imprisoned flesh. God took onto himself the flesh that made him a despised and dangerous target to the Empire. And on October 20, 2014, God took on Laquan McDonald’s bullet-ridden flesh.

God has chosen you. He has drawn near to you. And no matter the lies from the Cook County Courthouse or the White House, you are being transformed in such a manner that nothing will stop the testimony that God has for you. No matter how your heart betrays you, the devil tries to deceive you, or this world rises up with the rage of hell to oppose you- the Holy Spirit of the Living God will fill you power, conviction, and the joy of your salvation. So today we speak life over all who are tired. We speak courage over all you are afraid. We speak endurance over anyone who is ready to give up. We loose every spiritual gift for those who are marching into battle with our enemy. We loose work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope. We bind racism and racial supremacy. We bind materialism and consumerism. We bind false comfort and blinding privilege. We proclaim today, in this city, in these circumstances, that there is only one Lord. Jesus. God with us. God for us.

It is not light that is needed, but fire.

frederick douglassIndependence Day is always a good day to re-read Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, given to an abolitionist group that had gathered in Rochester on July 5, 1852 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass – the former slave, abolitionist, and renowned orator – used his speech to draw attention to the absurdity of African Americans celebrating a holiday which did not include them in its nostalgia for independence. For him, America’s sins against slaves and former slaves were never more obvious than on the day the nation celebrated its freedoms. “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. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

In the very next paragraph the masterful orator anticipates his audience’s objections to his purposefully blunt language.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. 

Douglass has identified a tendency that remains potent in 2018. He identifies – after, I imagine, having encountered it countless times among his white abolitionist allies – a reaction to his harsh language that demanded he shift his tone from denouncement to argument, from castigating his white audience to more gently helping them see the work that remained to be done.

This is the sort of thing that is common to hear today when advocates and activists precisely and directly oppose injustices perpetuated against, say, migrants and their children or, as is currently playing out here in Chicago, young victims of gun violence. Reacting to plainly spoken demands for justice, well-meaning people ask for more time, more understanding, even more empathy from those who are suffering. So, for example, those working for an equitable public school system that will serve all of its children are chastened that they must understand how bureaucracies and governments work and that, if they did, they would be more gentle with their critiques. In fact, these advocates, and the underserved families they represent, understand exactly how these institutions work since they’ve experienced firsthand how resources are consistently allocated for the privileged at the expense of those on the margins of the city’s power structures.

But Douglass will grant not a single inch to these kinds of banal requests: “I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” He goes on to list a number of arguments his hearers might wish him make, arguments that are so plainly obvious that they are an offense to those Douglass represents. “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?” And then: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body?” And then, with fire:

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?

The fundamental mistake that Douglass’ fellow-abolitionists consistently make is one that remains with us; they move the focus from the wrongs of the sufferer to the emotions and perspectives of the advocate. He’s sick of it!

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

Those who are offended by unequivocal demands for justice would do well to remember that our offense is nothing compared to the outrage experienced by those who suffer injustice, outrage that is exacerbated by the entrenched reticence by those of us who have the capacity to right what is so obviously wrong. We are not the point. Our feelings are not the point. Our comfort is completely and totally besides the point!

What then, if not argument and persuasion? What tact did Douglass take a decade before the Civil War, when freedom for enslaved people was far from a foregone conclusion?

For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. 

It’s not that Douglass chose fire over light as a way to vent his righteous anger. He believed, rightly I think, that convincing the comfortable was a battle without end. Beginning with the perspectives and concerns of the privileged meant never extending beyond the limits of extraordinarily limited imaginations. It would require constantly negotiating between delicate white sensibilities and bloodied black bodies. It was an immoral negotiation and one in which he was no longer willing to be implicated.

If they were to move forward into the battle with him, Douglass’ abolitionist friends and allies must leave behind their tender feelings and patriotic delusions for something more difficult, more honest, and, as Douglass concluded that day, more hopeful. Of course, to those of us steeped in the patriotic privileges of this unjust nation, this way will not feel hopeful. But that, in Douglass’ pursuit of lasting justice, was exactly the point.