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Racial Injustice is a Spiritual Issue

It feels like not a single week can pass without the unjust killing of people of color in America at the hands of police or white lynchers and protected by institutional whiteness that systemically oppresses black people. This is a reality that I as a white person can choose to ignore, that’s my privilege. However, for black people, this is a daily reality that cannot be ignored. The following is taken from a Facebook post by friend of mine, Gabriel Moore (though the author is anonymous):

Black people are so tired.

We can’t go jogging (#AhmaudArbery).

We can’t relax in the comfort of our own homes (#BothemJean and #AtatianaJefferson).

We can't ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).

We can't have a cellphone (#StephonClark).

We can't leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).

We can't play loud music (#JordanDavis).

We can’t sell CD's (#AltonSterling).

We can’t sleep (#AiyanaJones)

We can’t walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).

We can’t play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).

We can’t go to church (#Charleston9).

We can’t walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).

We can’t hold a hair brush while leaving our own bachelor party (#SeanBell).

We can’t party on New Years (#OscarGrant).

We can’t get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).

We can’t lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).

We can't break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).

We can’t shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .

We can’t have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).

We can’t read a book in our own car (#KeithScott).

We can’t be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover).

We can’t decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).

We can’t ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).

We can’t cash our check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).

We can’t take out our wallet (#AmadouDiallo).

We can’t run (#WalterScott).

We can’t breathe (#EricGarner #GeorgeFloyd).

We can’t live (#FreddieGray).

We’re tired.

Tired of making hashtags.

Tired of trying to convince you that our #BlackLivesMatter too.

Tired of dying.

Tired.

Tired.

Tired.

So very tired.

This is an exceptionally powerful thread, and there isn’t a lot I have to add to this, other than to say that white silence is white violence. White people cannot stand idlily by and ignore systemic injustice and claim to be “neutral” because one of the most misunderstood parts of whiteness and systems of whiteness is that white people can be disengaged. Disengagement is not passive, but is an active propping up of systems that maintain privilege, and only though active anti-racist activism, self-education, and fighting against these systems will complicity be transformed into ally-ship. Pastor Victor has been doing a lot of work in this area in our ACP community, and is working toward racial justice in our community. However, he cannot do it alone, white people need to take their own education on these issues into their own hands. He has already created a list of resources for anyone who is willing to work toward becoming active in the fight against injustice and oppression. Here is a list of some of his recommended books, films, and documentaries.

A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington

The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil G. Muhammad

Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Robert's

Women, Race & Class, Angela Davis

From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Capitalism and Slavery, Eric William

Racecraft, Karen Fields

Black Reconstruction, WEB Du Bois

Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation & How We Get Free, Keeanga-Yamahta Talor

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Policing the Black Man, Angela J. Davis

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

Womanist Theological Ethics A Reader, Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie M. Townes, Angela D. Sims

“Get Out” directed by Jordan Peele

“Atlanta” directed by Donald Glover

“I Am Not Your Negro” directed by Raoul Peck

Stamped from the Beginning, Ibrahim X. Kendi,

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Making A Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology, Monica Coleman

Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Delores S. Williams

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone

Martin and Malcolm and America, James Cone

God of The Oppressed, James Cone

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being

Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, Crystal Fleming

Black Skins, White Masks, Franz Fanon

The Danger of A Single Story, TED TALK, Chimamanda Adichie

Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, Cain Hope Felder

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Heavy, Kiese Laymon

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon

I have great hope for the Church to be able to move forward on this issue, and I think our scriptures can help us to become activists and justice workers. However, the move toward racial justice will not happen by accident, which is to say white people cannot be passive. White people (like me) must be active and help move the Church and society toward justice. And it is also important to say that those who benefit from privileges in a system are the ones who need to do the work to repair what is broken. Which is to say, white people are the ones who need education, work, and be made to feel uncomfortable, not black people.

Mind

In the spirit of using scripture as a tool in the fight for racial justice, I have included an excerpt from a paper I wrote for a course I took in my first semester in Seminary. The thesis is: The denigration of the body of Christ at the hands of the imperialist Roman state displays a radical solidarity of the God-human with victims of oppression at the hands of empire and the observance of the Lord’s supper is a remembrance and physical reconstitution of that radical solidarity. So basically, I am walking through how I believe communion (eucharist/the Lord’s table, etc.) is more than a spiritual practice, but is also an act of radical solidarity with oppressed peoples, and how our observance of it must move us toward just action and anti-racism. Though this reflection is not specific to the issue of the black people who are being killed at the hands of police and white vigilantes, I think it does serve as a very basic introduction to how scripture commands us all to be workers of justice for marginalized peoples.

The Mode of Jesus’ Death as an Act of Radical Solidarity

The phrase in the Apostles Creed, “…[Jesus] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…” is a key phrase not only for signifying the time, place and mode in which Jesus died, but under whose hands he suffered and died, imperial hands. John Calvin talks about this death “under Pontius Pilate” as significant because if Jesus simply died at the hands of thieves or a raging mob, his death would not have been satisfactory for our acquittal from sin, but because Jesus was an innocent man who freely died a guilty person’s death he took the penalty of our sin upon himself so that humanity would not need to suffer eternal death.[1] Furthermore, Calvin argued, the fact that Jesus died on a cross is a symbol of Christ making himself subject to the curse in both the opinion of humanity and of God because the cross is an accursed place (Deut. 21:23). [2] While this analysis of Christ’s death is a powerful image of Christ’s sacrificial love for all of humanity, it misses some of the beauty in Christ’s death by the hands of an imperial state and what that means for those who live oppressed under imperial rule.

Christ died because a corrupt Roman ruler decided that it was more important to please an angry religious mob than for justice to be implemented on the behalf of Jesus (Matt. 27:24). By submitting to this egregious injustice, Jesus displayed a radical act of solidarity with those who are oppressed at the hands of corrupt and unjust systems. Jesus could have fled before he was arrested, but he did not, he stayed not only because he knew it was his time to die, but because by dying at the hands of empire Jesus was declaring, in the ultimate act of solidarity, that he is on the side of those oppressed by empire and systems of injustice. Therefore, not only was Christ’s death for the sins of humanity, but through his mode of death was a declaration of unity with those who are oppressed.

In James Cones work, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” Cone details why Jesus’ mode of death is so important for black Americans who have been subject to similar unjust killings on the lynching tree by a corrupt ruling class. He says, “The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these’, the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices.”[3] This message of empowerment and liberation of the oppressed is not found in the spiritual significance of the cross, but in the actual suffering, humiliation and death of Jesus on the cross at the hands of the Roman empire.[4] The act of dying on the cross at the hands of the Romans, by the will of the religious, Dorothy A. Lee-Pollard suggests, is an act of Christ locating the Kingdom of God not in the religious systems or the powerful, but in the powerless, and in those who suffer at the hands of the religious and powerful.[5] It is through this understanding of the cross that one can begin to understand the mystery of salvation by the cross. Salvation by the cross does not only mean one is free from eternal death (though it does mean that), but salvation by the cross is “broken spirits” being healed, those without a voice being given a voice and the oppressed being able to love themselves because of Jesus’ death.[6]

When the cross is liberated from being merely a spiritual symbol into a physical reality present for those who are suffering, its power can be felt not only as an eternal hope, but as a hope that touches suffering people here and now. Cone places this understanding of the cross in the context of black Americans who under “the same principalities and powers” that crucified Christ, were lynched by white Americans making Jesus the “first lychee.”[7] This reading of the story of the crucifixion offers a unique contextualization for black Americans who have experienced lynching in their family line. When Jesus’ sacrifice is no longer understood merely as a theological reality but as a real solidarity with oppressed peoples, it gains significant power in the lives of oppressed people today, because it takes Jesus from being a figure of the past to becoming a present reality.[8] This reevaluation of the significance of the cross is a powerful bridge allowing suffering people to engage Christ in their daily experience and in their pain, but with this reevaluation of the cross there must also be a reevaluation of the Eucharist. The Lord’s supper must be reimagined as an act of remembering the solidarity of the cross with a suffering people.

Though it is not the main thrust of this article, I would be remiss not to mention the resurrection of the crucified one as a central part to the significance of the solidarity of Christ with the oppressed. Christ’s resurrection in the face of his oppressors (the Roman guards posted at his grave were powerless to stop the resurrection) shows not only that Jesus is joined in solidarity with the oppressed but that there is real hope for their liberation. By being resurrected and still bearing the marks of his oppressors (Jn. 20:20) Jesus simultaneously shows his power over empire in his resurrection and dignifies the struggle of this life by still bearing the marks of injustice and oppression.[9] Therefore, for the Eucharist to be remembered in its fullness this simultaneous solidarity and liberation need to be present in its observance.

Observance of the Eucharist as a Reconstitution of the Denigrated Body of Christ

In taking James Cone’s connection between “the cross and the lynching tree”, Americans, especially black Americans, come to a much more tangible understanding of the significance of the cross and what it means to oppressed people today. However, if this understanding of the connection between the cross and the lives of people today has no grounding in Christian practice how will it influence the lives of people? Though good preaching on the subject will help, the Eucharist is the most tangible, and equitable practice of remembrance of Christ’s death the Church can offer. For many years, (mostly white) western theologians have primarily been concerned with the power of the cross over sin and eternal death, and remembering Christ’s sacrifice (in the Lord’s supper) from that perspective. This practice has led to ignorance and resistance against an understanding of the solidarity of Christ with the poor and for Christ to condemn empire for the sake of the “least of these.” However, the Eucharist, seen through the lens of the oppression of Christ and of modern historical groups such as black victims of lynching and police killings, is a powerful “countersign to the devaluation and violence directed toward the black body” because their suffering is a mirror of the suffering of the crucified Christ.[10] The Lord’s supper orders the Church in relation to creation, people and the triune God. This order is a picture of where humanity should be headed, not only in society but as the Church and it critiques any attempt of the Church to “substitute itself [for] the body of Christ.”[11] When we allow the Eucharist to perform this function in the life of the Church, it goes beyond a ritual for which we simply go through the motions and becomes an image of what it means to reveal the presence of Christ in the world, which is to fight against systems and empires that seek to denigrate and destroy human bodies here and now.[12]

The goal of Jesus’ mode of death by hanging on a Roman cross was both a proclamation of his solidarity with the oppressed and a command for the Church to share in that solidarity.[13] To be in solidarity with oppressed peoples is not to feel pity for those who have been denigrated by systems and empires, but to compassionately stand and fight with them against the forces in our society, Church, and even ourselves that seek to kill and destroy.[14] To be one in Eucharistic solidarity means that the Church has an obligation to oppose any and all discrimination on any grounds be it “race, gender, sexual orientation, culture” or anything else that divides the community of God.[15] The remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice is incompatible with any form of superiority or oppression especially those espoused by the Church. If the Church allows this celebration of the Eucharist to become a lifestyle of remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and what that means for victims of violence and hate; the Church will become reordered as a compassionate Christian community. When the Church’s values shift from claiming a monopoly on the “truth” and moral superiority to becoming a community ordered by remembrance of Christ and solidarity with the “least of these”, then they will be the true body of Christ.

This social remembrance through the sacrament of the Eucharist must call the Church to unity with those who have been pushed to the margins of Church and society. It must call us to look outside of our circles to live lives of self-sacrifice through a commitment to love the unloved. However, in this calling we must also remember the real presence of Christ in our midst through partaking in God’s holy supper. The Lord’s supper is a remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial love and acquittal of sin for all humanity regardless of their wealth or status.[16] It should not push us into camps of transubstantiation vs. memorial views of Christ’s presence but should be an act of radical unity with all people and all traditions. The mystery of the cross, therefore, is twofold, it simultaneously frees us from sin and death eternal and declares the solidarity of the God-human with oppressed and poor people here and now.

Synthesis

Viewing the death of Christ through a radically different lens than ever before can be a difficult task, but Virginia Mollenkott reminds us in her article, Reading the Bible from Low and Outside, the importance of being open to reading scripture from a perspective you do not yet understand.[17] In this article, she talks about growing up as a Christian lesbian woman in the 1930’s and 40’s and how she always had been taught to read the Bible from a heterosexual, white, male perspective but that reading was never significant to her.[18] She had to learn how to read the Bible from a perspective different from what she was taught, and in her reading “from low and outside” has been able to reveal truths about scripture that were often missed. Western, white Christians, need to learn to listen to people like Mollenkott, Cone, Copeland, Sobrino, and Lee-Pollard and hear their perspectives because when we open ourselves up to finding truth in unfamiliar places it allows us to be struck anew by something as familiar as Jesus’s death and our observance of that death in the Eucharist.

Soul

I encourage you this week for your soul exercise to watch one of the documentaries or movies or read on of the articles or books Victor recommended on the problem of racism in America. These are not fun things to watch or read, and can often leave us feeling heavy and even overwhelmed by the depths of depravity in the world, but it’s also essential to remember that engaging with the legacy of empire and of whiteness is a vitally important to our ability to work for real justice and liberation.

After engaging with the hard truths in one of these texts/movies take some time so consider how that applies to you. Especially if you are white, resist the temptation to think of this as something you are excluded from, because, as I mentioned before, silence is violence. These are really difficult and sometimes overwhelming things for me to engage with as well because they are great evils and the idea that I am in any way responsible for them hurts. But the truth is, until white people (like me) educate ourselves about oppression, acknowledge our complicity, and act justly, there will never be true peace and justice. This is a long journey and a process, but no matter where you are now, we all have a choice to do the next right thing and the next right thing after that. So even if it’s scary, any step toward justice is a good one and is a spiritual act, no matter how small it begins.

Body

Privileged people have the luxury of never having to consider their bodies in a serious way, because it is not used against them by others. However, black people, women, queer people, people with disabilities, etc. all have to consider their bodies in specific ways because their identities are used to discriminate and alienate. So, as an activity to help us all consider the identities we inhabit I want to introduce the “Social Location Map” which helps us to name our identities and thus see both areas of privilege and of oppression. I encourage you to print this map out and fill it out with yourselves or with friends/family and to talk through or consider how your identities shape who you are, and how if those identities were different your experiences would be different. Being able to see ourselves as having various and complex identities can help us to understand why people with different identities have different experiences which will in-turn lead to a greater empathy and ability to see oppression where it operates.



https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/2017/08/16/social-identity-wheel/ - go here if you want to print this out








[1] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Pg. 508-9. [2] Ibid. Pg. 510. [3] Cone, James H. The Cross and The Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011. Pg. 156 [4] Ibid. pg. 156 [5] Lee-Pollard, Dorothy A. “Powerlessness as Power: A Key Emphasis in the Gospel of Mark.” Scottish Journal of Theology 40, no. 2 (1987): pg. 188 [6] Cone, James H. The Cross and The Lynching Tree. Pg. 158 [7] Cone, James H. The Cross and The Lynching Tree. Pg. 158 [8] Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013. Pg.124 [9] Sobrino, Jon. No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2008. Pg. 99-101. [10] Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. Pg. 124. [11] Ibid. pg. 125. [12] Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom. Pg. 125. [13] Ibid. pg. 126. [14] Ibid. pg. 126. [15] Ibid. pg. 127. [16] Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom. Pg. 128. [17] Mollenkott, Virginia. R. “Reading the Bible from Low and Outside” in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. Alpert, Rebecca T., Robert E. Goss, and Mona West. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001. Pg. 13-14. [18] Ibid. Pg. 14.

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