The constant rehearsing of the trauma of racism has placed an indelible chasm in the soul of black folks. As we wrestle to understand and try to reconcile how other Christians can stand around as such heinous crimes were/are being done to black and brown … Continue reading Racism and Christianity
Racism is not a faith issue; It is a love issue. The opportunity to push forward in the face of differences becomes imperative as we seek to reveal the goodness of God. Racism robs us of community and sidelines us to minimal interactions. Yes, we will always see color but color does not have to be the determining factor for us to release and accept love from others. My young cousin says vehemently, “Racism is learned.” How man y times have we heard such language? The problem is that if it is learned then is it possible to unlearn it.
Honestly, racism and love mix about as well as oil and water. They can be in the same container but they will never blend. So for a person to say they operate in love but hates a group of people is problematic and at best untrue. Racism automatically places a blinder in front of your eyes…regardless. For many whites, racism is a non-essential but for the majority of blacks it is an everyday reality. Yes, racism is not a faith issue but my faith is surely impacted by racism.
How I see God is deeply impacted by episodes of racism? I may not understand it or may not be able to articulate it but racism is a major participate in our understanding of who God is. James Cone articulates this well in God of the Oppressed, as he shows, that for white people, the impact of racism is not a functional necessity as it is in the life of black people. Because it is such an everyday occurrence, we (black people) must rehearse our responses much the same as one prepares for a play. That may strike some as odd but in my world it is a reality. My father told me what to do when the police stopped me. I told my son what to do if the police stopped him. I told my son what to say when the police stopped him. We rehearsed what to say when those sworn to protect us become the threat or the perceived threat.
It is sad that as Christians we have failed to break through the structure of racism and allotted for our own treehouses in our own backyards –the church. We have exegeted our racism and made it doctrinally permissive. We have made a mockery of the faith and called it denominations.
Thank God that the younger generations have a different perspective of the chaos that we have made of humanity.
I remember the Saturday night that the Trayvon Martin verdict came out –not guilty. I had been attending Pilgrim Lutheran Church (PLC) for the past month but decided that would be my last service after that verdict. The people of PLC were great people but I couldn’t help but feel tension. It is a tension that resonates in the life and mind of black people who are in community with white people. It is the tension that is felt when something explosive and quite oppressive happens such as the Trayvon Martin murder. Michael Eric Dyson implies:
“So there are tensions and, in fact, these multiple tensions define my intellectual projects and existential identities: …But I think they are useful, edifying tensions, tensions that help reshape ongoing evolution as a thinker, writer, teacher, preacher and activist.”
It was that very moment when the verdict came down that I solidified, once again, that my identity was emblematic of an existential problem in America –racism. How would my blackness be affirmed at that moment? Would the gospel presentation address the racism linked with this decision? This was what plagued my mind and brought me to an unprecedented tension. This was not reflection of how the people of PLC treated me but it was more of an issue of identity. I needed to be around people I knew were grieving so that I could see how I should deal with the grief. I still remember the coldness that I felt when they let George Zimmerman walk out of the courtroom and gave him back the gun that killed young Trayvon Martin. I still remember the tears that I felt rolling down my cheek and how disconnected I felt, “God do you like black people?,” were the words that I screamed.
My identity called for something more than an exegetical sermon it called for some people to identify with me and my pain. Maybe, PLC could have done that but I was reluctant to even find out. (Truthfully, I stayed at home that Sunday and never attended another church for about 7 months.) I was making sense of what it meant to be diverse in a society that deems you the problem. I was wrestling with the notion if God had any affinity for the lives of black folks.
As a 41 year old black male there can be this intense feeling of impending doom around every corner –wrestling whether God is on my side is a normal reflection. To those who have not been kissed by nature’s son this may appear to be frivolous or trivial, but in my world it is a real issue. My identity is locked in how I see and experience God. Thus, when the verdict came down then God appeared to be unjust. The body of Christ appeared to be unjust because there was silence from many within the church. It is Dr. Martin Luther King who says,
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
The injustice of silence speaks through proverbial sounds of privilege. When we refuse to address the sin of racism, privilege and prejudice, we give credence to injustice. The murder of Trayvon Martin was an act of injustice that should have brought the church to a standstill with prayer –yet, we turned a blind-eye and accused the murdered teenager for looking like a “thug.”
(All of this entered my mind in that brief 10 seconds when Zimmerman was pronounced innocent.)
Eric Wolf said “The problem with being white in a world and in a denomination where being white is considered to be normal. When you’re normal, you don’t have to notice. It’s only if you’re not “normal” that you can’t help but notice; because if you don’t, many kind people will help to point that fact out.”
It becomes apparent that my “normal” and his normal are two different things. In my world, I am the norm but I also have to be vigilant and aware of the other norms in my space. And, the important thing about this reality is that it causes me to see and experience God differently. In all the places where Eric can walk with uncertainty on the Earth I have to be sure. I can’t be lackadaisical in my understanding of racism and privilege because it can get me killed. The moment that I forget that I am black is the moment, that, I think I can respond to a white police officer the same way that I have seen white guys respond. It is in that instance where my life will likely (be terminated.
The one place where I can wrestle with levels of uncertainty and feel a level of peace is in my view of God. Hopefully, God is just and will not destroy me if I forget that I am black.
I came back to the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 2012 after having a conversation with a professor that would later become a mentor. At his prompting, along with many others, I made a decision to enter into the ordination process of the ELCA. For me that brought mass levels of trepidation because of the horror stories I heard about the process. It became another process in my life that would become a part of my redemptive story. I knew the commitment would be stringent and I decided to make that plunge.
My journey was completely different because I already had pastoral experience and two master degrees- one from Liberty University and the other from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (the seminary of Lenoir-Rhyne University). It was a step into a world that was foreign to my world – the “Black Church.” Yes, we serve the same God but my experience in life was vastly different than most of the Lutherans that I had met. Then on June 17, 2015 my life and work was flipped upside down as 9 black bodies were massacred while attending a Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Honestly, my quest to finish the ordination process almost came to a squelching halt as I debated becoming a pastor in the AME church. I wanted to show my solidarity with the good people of the AME and the black community in general, and being a part of the ELCA seemed counter-cultural.
Yes, I wrestled with how can I be a part of a denomination that would produce a murderer of beautiful black people? How would the ELCA respond to such a tragedy? How would the SC Synod respond to such an atrocity? These are the existential questions that pummeled my mind daily. The queries that stood as constant reminders that as much as I we try to ignore it…color does matter.
My being a part of the ELCA in the SC Synod heightened my awareness of the lack of cultural competency that we have in America. I watched as white Lutherans tried to make sense of this terrorist act and to find answers. I watched as black people mourned yet again, wrestling with the constant reminders that there are no safe spaces; tired of forgiving white folks for their senseless hate at the expense of their black bodies. And, here I was in the beginning stages of being a part of this denomination.
Reflecting on the past three months has brought me to strange places in my faith. I wish I could say that I have it all figured out and I am comfortable in all the confines of the ELCA and SC Synod but I can’t. I see the stares, not sure if they are disbelief, utter rejection or simply shock, but they are noticeable. I still feel the overcompensation because of the overtly racist atmosphere that is cultivated in the south. It is understandable, but it also resonates with my soul that we still have so much work to do. There are many beautiful people in the SC Synod of the ELCA that I have met in the last three months. We have talked and broke bread as well as visited with each other during a Sunday service, but, I state again, we have such a long road ahead.
I have been asked, “Why would a black man decide to become a part of the ELCA –the whitest denomination in America.” (according to Pew Research) Then on top of that become a part of a synod that has only ordained one black clergy member.
God is up to something a lot bigger than me…