Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Hagar, Sarah and Black Lives Matter

Hagar and Ishmael by Alan Jones

Ahmaud Arbery, 23 Feb 2020
Breonna Taylor, 13 March 2020
George Floyd, 25 May 2020
Rayshard Brooks, 12 June 2020

And–and still: Trayvon and Ayanna and Sandra and Mike and Amidou and Freddie and Miriam and Rekia and, and, and…

And Juneteenth and the millions who lived and died enslaved and did not see even delinquent freedom. And the millions who died, who were murdered–raped, butchered, thrown overboard, fed to sharks–millions who were murdered in the bloody waters of the maafa

And the ninety-ninth anniversary of the white supremacist massacre of black folk and evisceration of black wealth in the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma. An anniversary whitejacked™️ by the the most openly avowed white supremacist president in recent history–by no means the first–overwhelmingly elected by white women who turned on one of their own. 

Then comes Sunday and before that, the preacher at her desk, my only pulpit these days as I am in a wilderness of my own. In the Episcopal Church and many Protestant denominations, the first lesson proclaimed will be: Black Lives Matter – for those who have the eyes to see.

Translation, Gafney

It is a Black Lives Matter text not simply because as an African Hagar is black–which blackness is not on a binary scale with some mythological whiteness spackled onto Sarah and biblical peoples writ large in furtherance of white supremacist domination. It is a Black Lives Matter text because it is a text that normalizes and sacralizes slavery by its very existence, unrebuked, in scripture, a foundation stone in the bulwark of American slavocracy. 

I explore the story in detail in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne

 

We will not come to terms with the legacy of slavery in this country nor all the horrors that descend from it which continue to shape our world without  engaging – rebuking and rejecting – the normalization and sanctification of slavery in the text and views of the authority of scripture that require uncritical acceptance. That will not be the end of white supremacy, in the church, in biblical interpretation, or in this country, but it will be an unhooding.

If we tell the truth, Hagar’s life matters to God in the framing of the story because she is the mother of a son of Abraham, her inability to consent to sex or impregnation or surrogacy, irrelevant in the text. The reason her black life matters to those who told her story is not the reason her black life and that of her son matter to the God who transcends the sexist and ethnocentric portrait in these texts. The cry “Say her name” accompanies “Black lives matter” as a reminder that violence is often gendered as is the response and outcry which often follows.

All black life matters because black life is sacred, reflecting and embodying the God who dwells in the holiest of deep darkness.


The Fires of Pentecost 2020

A check-cashing business burns as a protester raises his fist late Friday in Minneapolis. John Minchillo / AP

What does Pentecost look like when the world is on fire? A rushing wind. Does it blow out the flames or does it whip them into and even more furious inferno?
What meaning does the ancient imagery hold today, human tongues forked like fire? What are those tongues saying? To whom are they speaking? Who can even hear or understand them in the roar of the flames?
I say forked tongues instead of divided tongues because some of those tongues are serpentine.
The assembly is in the street. There is no church house. The temple is there but it serves another purpose. (Too many people conflate church and temple.)
Today’s fire is not metaphorical. Neither is the presence of the spirit. She is there, in those flames, in those crowds, with the insurrectionists and the revolutionaries, with the dead and the dying, with the grieving and the mourning.
Yet, I look at the world and I ask: Where is your power now?


Three Days Later: A Womanist Midrash

Not every woman was at the tomb. Not everyone was in that locked room. Some picked up the broken pieces of their hearts and went home. Some would have visitors bursting into their homes to tell them unbelievable news. Some would be snatched by the arm in the market and dragged under an archway to furious whispers. For some, the news would travel more slowly than for others. How long did some of them mourn him before they heard the first whisper of life?

It’s been three days. I still can’t believe it. I haven’t left my house since… since Friday. I was there, so many of us were. There, in the crowd. We tried to pretend we didn’t know each other, know him. I couldn’t stay away. But I wasn’t brave enough to stand with his mother. How can I explain it to you? It was like nothing I had ever seen before, like nothing I had ever heard before, like nothing I had ever smelled before. You could taste the blood in the air. The stench, the smell of death, rotting pieces of people, unwashed bodied, fetid breath. The crowd roaring and hooting. It was nothing new for them, but it was too much a horror to ever be routine, even knowing they’ll be back at it again. Soon. With some of us who followed him.

Some of us sisters found our voice and blessed him and his mama and he blessed those of us who would never birth a child to die on their crosses. His poor mother. She did what she could for him before Shabbat. I know she was there again first thing this morning to bury her child properly. My heart aches for her and for us all.

It’s been three days now. The sun is up, I hear people going about their business, but I can’t just yet. When I woke there was a moment when I didn’t remember and then it all came crashing in. I can’t imagine a world without him in it. I can’t imagine going to the market, baking bread, like it’s any other first day.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll venture out…

This Easter required reimagining for so many of us. Without a sunrise service or any of the trappings of Easter, I returned to the story and all of the stories folded into the story and thought about those who went through the day and perhaps the next day, grieving, not knowing, shut up in their houses, not out of fear or pandemic, but out of profound grief. Grief for him and all he promised and embodied. Grief for the world his words and love created. Grief for all of their hopes and the future they had touched for a moment.

The Church is notoriously impatient with Holy Saturday. Each year I watch vigils begin earlier and earlier for the convenience of this or that constituency. This year I’m keeping vigil with a sister I suspect had many counterparts whose stories weren’t the dramatic point of the resurrection narrative. Sooner or later someone will come to tell her the news. There will be many different versions, all jumbled up, contradicting each other. She won’t know what to believe. But she will hope…

This year, may the Good News find us wherever we are, however we are. No sick house, no plague house, no house of mourning is shut up so tight that the Gospel can’t breach our doors. It just may take awhile. Such a death is not easily gotten over. Such trauma is not miraculously healed by a miraculous outcome. The grief will fade; joy is infectious. But there will always be a tender spot, just there.

Resurrection Sunday, 2020

 


Mother of a Movement

Her child hung dying on a cross, Mary the mother of Jesus.

Her child was snatched off the road and said to have hung herself, Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland.

Her child was slaughtered in a maelstrom of forty-one police bullets, Kadijatou Diallo the mother of Amadou Diallo.

Her child hung dying on a fence, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd.

Her child was robbed of his life-breath, Gwen Carr the mother of Eric Garner.

Her child was shot dead in the street, Angela Helton the mother of Rekia Boyd.

Her child just wanted to listen to his music, Lucy McBath the mother of Jordan Davis.

Her child was held down by one cop and shot in the back by another, Wanda Johnson the mother of Oscar Grant.

Her child’s body was left in the street like a dead dog, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown.

Her sleeping seven year-old child was shot in the head in her own home by a SWAT officer, Dominika Stanley the mother Ayanna Stanley-Jones.

Her child was murdered because some folk think trans lives don’t matter, Brenda Scurlock the mother of Chanelle Scurlock.

Her child’s last supper was Skittles and Arizona ice tea, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin.

There are mothers whose names I do not know whose children died in cages at the border.

Police forces, wannabe police forces and self-appointed policers of love and life and liberty have left a trail of mothers whose deepest griefs launched a movement. To them and to us as to John and his own mother Jesus says, “This is your mother.” And your mother’s heart is being ripped out of her chest daily because her children are being crucified by powers and principalities and those who bow down at the blood-encrusted feet of those tin-plated idols.  These are all your mothers and their children are all your children, your siblings, entrusted to you. There’s a certain romance in saying I will take your mother Jesus, I will honor and care for her and she will want for nothing. But Geneva and Dominika, Lezley, Lucy and, Judy are also all his mother. Their care is in our hands and what will comfort them is justice, and an end to all crucifixions.

Carrying the cross by himself… Carrying the burden of the empire’s hatred for his very existence and the liberation it enfleshed on his battered black, blue and bloodied back, Jesus went to the place where severed heads and disarticulated skulls gave name to the empire’s notion of justice.

There they crucified him… There they murdered him, executed him as a revolutionary, as an insurrectionist, as a person whose threat to the systems that dominate and decimate and dehumanize could only be extinguished in a spectacle lynching. Lethal violence is the resort of individuals and institutions confronted with realities that contradict their own world view: Free black children, women and men, relishing our blackness, our culture, our music, our love, unapologetically black and unafraid. Queer folk who are not going back into crucifying closets. Transfolk who refuse to answer to dead names. Non-binary folk whose very being teaches us there are more than two kinds of people.

There they crucified him…and there they crucified so many of us. Jesus was not alone on that cross. In some accounts, he was crucified with thieves, in others, bandits, who having no way to feed themselves or provide for their family under the tyrannical whims of the empire were crushed into desperate intergenerational poverty with no accessible offramps. More than that, Jesus was crucified with everyone that Rome found threatening, disposable, inconvenient or potentially entertaining on any given day. And Jesus is crucified again and again with every murdered child of every mother and father unwillingly baptized into this movement with blood and tears.

There they crucified him…and there we crucified him too. There our shame hung and hangs upon the cross for we too crucified him. We joined in with the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” because we were afraid to stand up and die for him the way he would stand up, though beaten down, and die for us. We were right to fear, for there are empty hills and available crosses, wood and nails and executioners standing by. His was not the last crucifixion. There would be one or more the next day or the day after, the week after, exchanging the cross for lynching trees and pickup trucks with chains and police-issued ammunition and hands and fists and guns and knives and clubs. So we shouted, crying on the inside, terrified. We did not stand for him and we did not stand for his kin. And then he took all of our fear and guilt to the cross for us too.

And there his mother stood, she the first priest of the new world she had birthed. Did she say at the foot of that cross, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you”? She stood there, mother of a dying child and the mother of a movement. Like Sabrina Fulton and Judy Shepherd and Lezley McSpadden, she found herself a member of a club she never wanted to join but not alone. Jesus bids us stand with them and not just as comfort in grief, stand with them in ensuring that not one other mother’s child ends up on the cross of hate.

Not everyone was afraid to stand with her and stand with and for Jesus. Those who stood in the face of the empire’s power were those it deemed less than threatening or they would have embraced their own crosses. Mary and her sisters in love and horror and grief, forever bound by this moment, one sister her own sister, others made family in Jesus along with one lone man, unafraid to be known as the beloved of Jesus, unconcerned about speculation and conclusions drawn, right or wrong. There they stood, his mother, his aunt, his aunties – family formed and forged in the bonds of love without regard for biology – and, his beloved. Patriarchal masculinity failed as it does and will; the men in whose names women would be marginalized in his movement were not there.

Then he spoke and the whole world was in that first word: Woman. Woman. You are the world to me. You have been my entire world from the first spark of my miraculous life. Woman. You were scarcely more than a child when you had to make a decision that would change your life and the life of the world forever. Woman. I know what this cost you, your childhood dreams and your name and reputation, and friends and family. Woman. I know who this cost you, who is not standing by you. Woman, if I call you mother will they take you away from me? Woman. There is only one person I trust to love you as I do. Woman. He needs you and your love. Woman. You can’t be to him what I was to him but if you love him as your son, it will be enough. And to his beloved, no name, no title of endearment, just the sacred trust of his mother’s love and care.

There suspended between heaven and earth and life and death Jesus loved, loved with his last breath. He loved those who stood with him and those who could not because that was his way. And that love became a movement, a movement that lives and loves and endures. And we are the caretakers of that movement and stewards of his love. The love of Jesus on that bloody cross is the love that transforms mourning into a movement that will transform this crucified and crucifying world.

Let us pray in the words of Kahlil Gibran, (from Jesus, the Son of Man):
Since your hasty visit and our brief welcome… your mother is with us,
I have beheld the sheen of her face in all mothers;
Her hand rocks cradles with gentleness,
Her hand folds shrouds with tenderness.
And Mary Magdalene is yet in our midst,
She who drank the vinegar of life and then its wine…
Your voice fathered their thoughts and their understanding.
Your voice mothered their words and their breath.
High or low, you name is upon our lips,
The master of infinite compassion…
Betwixt the cradle and the coffin…
The heart of the world quivers with the throbbing of your heart,
But it burns not with your song…
You are despised and mocked,
A man too weak and infirm to be God,
A God too [hu]man to call forth adoration…
May our God bless your name,
And the womb that held you, and the breasts that gave you milk.
And may God forgive us all. [Amen.]

John 19:17 Carrying the cross by himself, Jesus went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, also with him, two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and, it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothing and divided it into four parts, one for each soldier. As for his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
            “They divided my clothing among themselves,
            and for my clothing they cast lots.”
25 And that is what the soldiers did.

Yet standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and, Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Preached Good Friday, 10 April, 2020 through All Saints Pasadena steaming.


Torah of the Earth

Ecowomanism by Rev. Dr. Melanie L. Harris

It is for you that paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared, plenty is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established and wisdom perfected… 2 Esdras 8:50

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Western discourses of wisdom often situate wisdom in the head and identify it with maleness, intentionally in opposition to femaleness. Yet in spite of crushing waves of Hellenism colonizing Israel and its scriptures and, the near deification of Greek philosophy and its philosophers, the scriptures of Israel and, those of the Jewish Jesus movement and early church, are an Eastern canon. There, wisdom is not a matter of the head but, of heart and hand.

Consider Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and, with all your might. When Jesus taught it, he had to add the category of “mind” to make it contemporary and relevant in a world in conversation with those philosophers. He said: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and, with all your might. (Mark 12:30) Today he might say You shall love the Holy One your God with all your DNA and your quarks and quirks, your baryons, mesons, hadrons and protons – depending on the scientific literacy of his audience.

More than head knowledge, Hebrew wisdom is heart knowledge, the kind of knowledge one gets from study and contemplation, not as an academic exercise, but as a lifepath to seek and study the One who reveals herself that she might be found, studied, apprehended, comprehended. In Hebrew, wisdom, hokhmah, and understanding, binah, rhyme with torah; they are each grammatically feminine and each used as synonyms for the other. The way to wisdom is to study and learn torah – God’s revelation, God’s teaching and only perhaps thirdly “law” which is an insufficient translation on its own. Such study produces a wise heart, in the world of the scriptures a wise heart is one that is motivated to act in accordance with God’s revelation to and through her prophets, to and through her word and words, and to and through her world and its wonders.

We would do well to regain the notion of the heart as the seat of the soul, consciousness, wisdom and, volition. To stop thinking we can think our way out of the brokenness, disfunction and inequities of the world. We need wise and discerning hearts nurtured on God’s revelation of her vision for the world and for us. A wise heart is an understanding heart and a willing heart. It is more than euphemistically connected to a sage and skilled hand.

One of the most overlooked aspects of wisdom in the world of the scriptures was its skill component. To be wise of hand – an artisan like those who crafted the tabernacle and temple – is every bit as valued in the world of the text as setting one’s heart to torah. This too we need to regain, to see the wisdom of the sculptor’s hands on par with the scientist’s hypothesis. To see the knitter and the painter and the tinkerer as we see musicians whose handicraft we already value well. Wisdom’s well is wide and deep.

It is with these understandings that I invite your attention to Baruch, Jeremiah’s partner in ministry and ultimately in life, sharing his conquest by Babylon, then later, his abduction to Egypt, disappearing in and from the text along with Jeremiah. The setting of our reading is the immediate aftermath of the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and, the temple. The people who were left, a mere fraction of the nation itself a fraction of once united Israel, barely survived a blood drenched invasion and conquest. Those who were able were force marched past the unburied dead, the weak, the infirm, the aged, the pregnant, infants, small children – anyone who would hinder them – brutally dispatched or simply abandoned. The poor and unskilled left behind to eke out a harvest from the blood-soaked soil and scorched earth to feed the insatiable empire while those with wisdom and skill had their hearts and hands brought into the service of the empire to embellish and declare their glory.

The conditions under which the people lived were brutal, inhumane. An earlier chapter tells of cannibalism. Reckoned a prophet in Judaism, Baruch’s writings differ from others who promised miraculous deliverance like that of Miriam and Moses at the Red Sea. Baruch like Jeremiah has a different response, a pastoral response, prepare to stay. Bow the head, bend the neck, and bend your shoulders and knees, even in the presence of their gods, just say in your heart, “It is you O God whom we serve.” (Letter of Jeremiah vv 3-6) The wisdom of Baruch is a survival strategy for life under occupation and subjugation. Wisdom’s well is practical.

In the portion of Baruch set aside for our hearing today the prose of his prayers for his people gives way to the poetry of preaching as he calls his people back to the ways of wisdom, ways he saw neglected as Israel’s own tiny would-be empire spiraled out of control. He calls them to the study of the torah of the earth. Torah is all that God reveals and by extension, all that reveals God, the work of her heart and hands, She Who Is Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Ages, the Wisdom of the Worlds, worlds her hands have made, in wisdom, with wisdom, by wisdom. Baruch (3:14-18) calls us to:

14 Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding,
so that you may at that moment know
where there is length of days and life,
where there is light for the eyes and peace.
15 Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

Baruch’s questions are designed to remind his audience that might doesn’t make right, that the trappings of the empire are fool’s gold. Baruch speaks of a wisdom that is accessible to an occupied and oppressed people, an understanding that there is length of days and life and, light for the eyes and peace in the midst of the depredations and degradations of war. Those treasures are not located in the power and predations of the empire but in the heart of the wise; a wisdom not dependent on rolls of scrolls piled up in the libraries of the rich. Rather, a storehouse of treasures long left abandoned by those who seek only power and control of everything from the birds of the heavens to the fish of the sea and every one and every nation in between. Baruch knows that empires fall and tyrants topple. So he directs his people to that which does not change, the revelation of God in the world.

The heavens and the earth are God’s torah, God’s revelation, God’s teaching. They show us God in the world when she might be hard to see in our circumstances, a God in the world who is bigger, greater, grander than any gold-plated tyrant. The splendor of the skies puts to shame the trappings of tyrants. The chorus of the clouds silences the braying of battle hymns. The trumpets of thunder shame the hootings of the horns of war. The migration and susurration of the birds of heaven overshadow the mechanical maneuverings of military marches. Even as the empire grinds his people under, Baruch denies them their power and their legacy.

We who read the scriptures of Israel in our time must ask ourselves where we might find ourselves in them. Where their characters, editors and authors might place us once they get over their shock at an entire new set of continents on the other side of a world that is not quite flat. This nation is more conqueror than conquered. Its citizens as much a part of this empire as those who chart its course, benefitting from stolen land, plundered labor, ill-gotten gains, blood-soaked privilege built on a white supremacist foundation. And at the same time some of us enjoy the diminishing privileges of citizenship which can be nullified by legalized militias and a contemporary version of slave patrols executing us in the streets or our very homes for having been made monstrous by them for having been made in blackly radiant image of God.

Who are you in Baruch’s story? Are you being ripped from your land – a land to which Israel had at best a contested claim – or are you enjoying the fruits of a land that is not yours? If you found your very humanity denied by the empire that commodifies your life can you look beyond the temporality of their works to behold and study the torah of the earth?

Baruch’s reflection on wisdom and call to her embrace with heart and hand occurs in a context where common wisdom might say surrender. But he knows there is a wisdom in the revelation of God in all of her texts, wind and wing, sea and sky, mountain and meadow. Using my sanctified imagination in the preaching tradition of my people I imagine Baruch in conversation with Job.

16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

And I hear Job say in response:

Job 12:7 Now then, ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will expound to you.

Written in a completely different context, Job’s words send us to the torah of the earth for her wisdom. Indeed, the very words for teaching in this text are the word torah in verb form. There is a wisdom in the earth that many have neglected along with her care. But Baruch and Job remind us that earth and her creatures are a sacred scroll. Were we to listen more closely to the wisdom and torah of the earth, we might seek to mend rather than master, for empires devastate flora and fauna as much as they do flesh.

There is one other model of wisdom that I wish to leave with you, wisdom as the mother of the living and enduring word that is Jesus. Jesus of God, Jesus of Mary, Jesus of the Holy Spirit, Jesus of Wisdom. When folk questioned the wisdom of Jesus hanging with those who feasted and partied and drank and got drunk and sold their bodies and were abused, and were disdained, his response was nevertheless – in other words, yes, all that is true – yet nevertheless Wisdom is vindicated by her children. (Luke 7:35) For, a wisdom that does not speak to the despised is no wisdom at all.

Jesus, the one of wisdom calls us to those who are being ground down by the ravages of imperial violence, to the powerless, to those who survive when they cannot thrive and thrive in what they should not survive, for there too is wisdom. Jesus who also preached from the torah of the earth stands with those relegated to oppression, subjugation and, degradation. What we do to others we do to him. And for those of us who find ourselves more colonized than colonizer, Jesus is with us and what they do to us they do to him. We are accompanied and surrounded by wisdom, within and without.

The wisdom of God is all around us, including under our very feet. And when God completes the redemption of the world and all her creatures, she will redeem and renew the earth herself. The wisdom of the earth, the torah of the earth, is the richness and wideness of God’s love for each soul, each life, each plant, each critter, each clod of dirt, a love that in expressed in her great gifts to us from creation to Christ. Amen.


A Pastoral Epistle on Texts of Terror

Yesterday we covered grotesque violence in Judges in my Introduction to Interpreting the Hebrew Bible in Context course at Brite Divinity School. The texts were traumatizing. I was traumatized. I felt the trauma of my students and held it through the night. This morning I sent them this pastoral professorial epistle.

Gentle Students,

Yesterday’s readings were traumatizing and you may not have rested well after reading and re-hearing them. While many of us learned to look for the good news in a text or preach it through the cross and resurrection to connect it to the Good News, not every text has good news and not every text needs to go through the cross and resurrection – this is difficult in many contexts and a non-starter in some, including the black church tradition in which I was raised and was first licensed and ordained. (I’ll come back to this.)

We are learning to read and interpret these texts in their literary and cultural contexts and a move to Jesus can absolve us of our responsibility to grapple with the text on its own terms. Sometimes we need to sit with the horror like Job’s friends did for the first seven days with our hands over our mouths bearing witness. Sometimes we need to sit with the exposed decaying bodies of the murdered like Rizpah and Mamie Till and call the world to see if “there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” Sometimes we need to pronounce the judgement of God on a world in which fathers kill daughters because of family honor, because they are lesbians, because they are trans.

And those of us for who these texts are scripture, who believe God is somewhere in this collection of texts that includes pornotropic violence needs must articulate a theology of God that accounts for these texts and a world that looks just like them in some places.

For me, that is a God who accompanies, God with us. God with us in horror. And God with us in grief. God with us in the rapine and butchery. God with us in the rationalization and weaponizing of trauma. God who refuses to abandon us no matter what is done to us or what we do, to ourselves or to others. I find that God in Isaiah, in the scriptures Jesus turned to so often. 

Yes, Jesus. I do this work as a Christian, ordained to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so I also turn to the cross and the crucified Jesus – but not because the Hebrew Scriptures are inadequate to the task of interpreting themselves or providing a sufficient theology of the God of the suffering. I turn to Jesus in he words of a song I can only hear in the voice of Mahalia Jackson, Sweet Little Jesus Boy:

Sweet little Jesus boy
The world treats you mean Lord
Treats me mean too
But that’s how things are down here…

I sit with the Virgin Mother, the mother of another black boy executed by the state and draw upon the strength of the Stabat Mater, the mother who is somehow still on her feet. I walk home with her, like her. Dazed but unbowed. And I wait to see what the morning will bring.

I am a Holy Saturday preacher. I wake in the aftermath – if I have slept – to the knowledge that the Beloved is still dead. And I take comfort in the God who is and has said I AM with you. And I rail and scream and curse at God knowing God hears and is there with me to hear. And I try to sleep one more night to see if it will be easier the next day.

And that is where the sermon ends. It is still too soon to talk about resurrection. But God-with-us sits in her chair grieving with us. Waiting with us, walking with us as we make our way through and make sense of our grief.

Be well,

Dr. G+


Lament for Jerusalem and Genocidal Violence


Luke 13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Go! And get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘See here, I am casting out demons and restoring health today and tomorrow, and on the third I finish. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next, I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you all were not willing! 35 Look now, your house is released to you. And I tell you all, you will not see me until the time comes when you all say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Let us pray:
In the name of the in whose image we all we created. Amen.

The sermon can be heard here.
The entire gospel of Luke can be described as facing Jerusalem. Where Luke deviates from Mark and Matthew, it is often in the sequence and geography of Jesus’s life building towards a single momentous trip to Jerusalem in contrast to multiple trips in the other gospels. Jerusalem for Luke is the place where God redeems the world in the resurrected death-canceling life of Jesus. But Jerusalem is so much more. Lent, like Luke, is taking us to the cross and the tomb, not just anywhere, but in Jerusalem.
The sacred geography matters. Jerusalem matters. The Rector of the historic African American St. James parish in Baltimore explained the saga, story, and significance of Jerusalem this way:
“Jerusalem was once a place where there was room for everybody. And yet as the years have gone by, human beings have refused to listen to the lesson of love. [He’s been preaching about love for a long time.] There have been more wars, more fighting, more chaos over the holy city than anywhere else on the rest of the earth…In 2500 BC, Jerusalem was a Canaanite enclave, inhabited by the Canaanite peoples…In 1000 BC King David came and he conquered the city and made it part of the nation of Israel…In 587 King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it and made it part of the Babylonian Empire…In 537 BC King Cyrus of Persia came, conquered the Babylonians and took over Jerusalem…In 392 the Selucids took it over. In 198 the Ptolomes took it over. In 63, Pompey from Rome came and conquered it. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed it. In 135 AD the Romans destroyed it again. In the 4th century, Constantine made it a Christian city. In the 7th century, the Muslims took it over. In 1099 Christians took it from the Muslims. In 1187 Muslims took it back. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks took it from the other Muslims. In 1870 the British took it over. 1949, the United Nations…” (I give him an A- and play this clip for my students.)
His recitation – without notes – doesn’t even include the time Jerusalem was subject to the Assyrian Empire or a Pharaoh picked his own king for Judah, more than once, or how Jerusalem and the rest of the word fell under the control of Alexander the Great. Stopping before the founding of the modern State of Israel and the forced resettlement of Palestinians or the resulting wars and continuing intifadas, (then Fr.) Michael Curry cried out, “How long O Lord?”
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jerusalem. The name fires the imagination, conjures up awe, holiness, and violence. It is a legendary place of sacred story and a thriving prosperous city, and a divided inequitable city, and a holy city, and a mecca for tourists and pilgrims. It is a legendary city and a real city. It is a place with a bloody history and a bloody reality. Jerusalem is the place where the stories of scripture are made real in stone and bone. Jerusalem is a place that Americans politicize, and Christians romanticize.
Some parts of what makes up Jerusalem have been inhabited since the Stone Age before there was such a thing as an Israeli or Palestinian, Israelite or Canaanite. As far as I’m concerned, everyone after the Natufians is a late-comer and an immigrant. Between the mighty empires of Egypt and those of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem and Canaan and ancient Israel were not just on the road to war and imperial expansion, they were the road to war and empire building.
Jerusalem is forcibly dragged into Israel’s story when David conquers it to provide a neutral base from which to rule so as not to show any favoritism to northern or southern tribes. We’ve been taught all our lives to read from the perspective of the Israelites and give no consideration to the Canaanites. A whole lot of us grew up cheering Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites and gave no thought to what it was like for the people of Jerusalem to be occupied by David for the convenience of a well-situated capital city. That kind of thinking made it easy to identify the native peoples of this land as the new Canaanites and attempt to eradicate them like the old Canaanites. That kind of thinking causes some to conflate the ancient nation of Israel with the modern state of Israel. They are not the same. They are connected. There is a largely direct line between them, but they are not the same.
Romanticizing Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David’s conquest of Jerusalem leaves genocidal language unchallenged in the scriptures, our genocidal past unrepented, and, provides theological language, and sanction for those calling for genocides today. We saw a horrific, chilling, glimpse of that in the massacres at the mosques in New Zealand, a man who murdered children, three and four years old so they wouldn’t grow up to be adult Muslims and have and raise Muslim children. That is genocidal white supremacist violence wrapped up in a toxic empire of Christiandom shell. Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem must be heard in its ancient and our contemporary contexts.
The ancient Jerusalemites were people created in the image of God like the rest of us, both victims and perpetrators of violence. Their tiny home was invaded and conquered by a warlord in the name of a God they may or may not have worshipped. The shining moments of the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies were purchased in blood. Their Jerusalem passed into Assyrian control where it was squeezed for every shekel, including the silver on the doors of the temple. They were subject to wanton acts of violence like the siege and razing of Lachish where the Assyrians tortured Israelites by hanging them on only slightly sharpened sticks and cutting their still living bodies open down to the bone. Archeological sources record that when they took tribute and hostages from King Hezekiah, they even took his daughters–who are never mentioned in the bible, likely because of the shame.
Then the Babylonians came, and Jerusalem was subject to more violence than they had ever experienced or could ever had imagined. So much so that when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return home, he was hailed as God’s messiah in Isaiah. (There are multiple messiahs in the bible, but that is another sermon.) Alexander’s conquest was relatively mild, but those who followed him were savage. And then Herod got Jerusalem and Judea in part by knowing which backstabbing Roman general to back.
Jesus’s Jerusalem had a bloody history. But it wasn’t just conquerors, colonizers, and occupiers who were spilling blood. Like all other peoples they shed their fair share of their own blood. And among the most notorious crimes were the murders and attempted murders of several prophets. It wasn’t just that the prophets were preaching a word of God that the people didn’t want to hear, but that the prophets were also preaching highly political words that that challenged the power, authority, and sometimes competence, of civil and religious leaders. Prophets and preaching have always been political. These prophets preached against Jerusalem. They preached against their puppet-kings and their puppet-masters. They preached against the inequities in Jerusalem among her own people. And they proclaimed the inevitable fall of the holy city where God dwelt and which God had previously protected from invading armies, because not even in Jerusalem could those systemic institutionalized inequities stand.
And so the prophets were targeted rather than heeded. One of those puppet-kings, Jehoiakim, sentenced the prophet Uriah to death, and when he escaped to Egypt, had him killed there and his body brought back to Jerusalem, Jeremiah 26:20–23. When Jeremiah preached the fall of Jerusalem, after beating him and throwing him in jail, the people of Jerusalem called for his death, and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, let them have him. Jeremiah was only saved because someone remembered the prophet Micah–whom everyone agreed was a trustworthy prophet unlike Jeremiah, who wasn’t believed until after his death¬–Micah had said virtually the same thing, Jeremiah 38:4–6. And then there was the infamous murder of the prophet Zechariah, not the one who wrote a book of the bible¬–everyone, including Matthew and Jesus mixed them up–Zechariah was murdered on the temple grounds, in the court, in sight of the altar, 2 Chronicles 24:20–22. Jerusalem’s reputation as a place that kills prophets even makes it into the Quran five hundred years later:
We gave Musa, Moses, the Book, and followed up after him with the messengers, and We gave Isa, Jesus, son of Marium, Mary, clear signs, and supported him with the Holy Spirit. (But) whenever a messenger brought you what you yourselves did not desire, you become arrogant, and some you called liars and some you killed. Sura 2:87
According to New Testament scholar Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, when Jesus said, “it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem,” he was saying, “it is not destined that Herod will kill me, but that Jerusalem will,” (Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, p 1032).
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
I am struck that Jesus’s response to the threat from Herod and murderous history of Jerusalem was not to resort to a toxic masculinity, call for force of arms, or even call down fire and brimstone. Instead he portrayed himself as the most ridiculous of animals, the very image of protective motherly devotion, almost mindlessly so. I imagine mother hen Jesus wanting to gather all of the disparate chicks of his, her, Jerusalem under her, his, wings: Not just Israelites, but Geeks and Romans, and Syrians and Libyans, and everyone else from everywhere else. Jesus wasn’t distinguishing citizens from immigrants and refugees; he wasn’t even distinguishing between the oppressed and their oppressors. He just wanted to hold them all to his heart, and like a mama hen, sit on then when they looked to get out and get up to trouble. Some will see in this image a call for mass conversion, certainly that is how the church has operated, often to its shame. But I want to point out that Jesus didn’t lay any requirements on those he wanted to embrace in the city for which he lamented.
The City of Peace has never known lasting peace. Neither have the rest of us. There is still blood in the streets of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still a city of many peoples from many nations with many faiths; there are still those who are occupied and those who occupy. And there are still prophetic voices crying out against inequitable governing structures and policies that cannot and will not stand. Now those prophetic voices are Palestinian, and sometimes Israelis, and sometimes, other voices. Those voices crying out against the occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and the targeted shooting of unarmed protestors, and the continuing eviction of Arab residents of Jerusalem to hand their houses over to Jewish citizens is not anti-Semitic. Critiquing the policies of state of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That’s a lie that has to be prophetically called out because there is real, vile, lethally violent anti-Semitism in the world.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia are the both the spawn of white supremacy as we have seen acted out in blood in the Linwood Islamic Center and Masjid al-Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg PA, and at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, and at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Oak Creek WI, and at the Overland Park Jewish Center in Kansas City KS, and at the Islamic Center of Quebec City, and, and, and… [h/t @Michael Skolnik https://twitter.com/MichaelSkolnik/status/1106534709302042624]
In the Lenten season we are called to the holy practices of self-examination and study of and meditation on scripture. Today that means reflecting seriously on the stories we tell and the stories we were told. This Lenten season I bid you join me in repenting for the violence of Christians against Jews and Muslims, for Christian complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and for those of you who have white privilege, for silence and inertia in the face of the rising tide of white supremacist violence, in word and deed.
Let us teach and tell new stories about Jerusalem and all of her peoples and those who love her. I will begin by praying Psalm 122 in a new way.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
and pray for the peace of Palestine:
May they all prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers,
and may the walls that divide be torn down.
For the sake of my Muslim and Jewish relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of all the houses of God,
I will seek your good. Amen.


Ritualizing Bathsheba’s Rape

Bathsheba with her dead or dying child produced from David's rape while he prays for the child.
Pauline Williamson by permission

In the powerful image by Pauline Williamson (who creates as Sea), Bathsheba sits with her dead or dying child produced from David’s rape while he prays for the child. See her own interpretive work on this passage here.

It is Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday when Christians traditionally went to confession and were shriven, and celebrated the sweetness they would deny in Lent with delicacies or full-on Mardi Gras and Carnival. Some of us still go to confession; now we call it the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Reconciling a Penitent.

Perhaps we need to repent for how we have ritualized Bathsheba’s rape while excluding her from the penitence it generated while the bodies of women and girls (and not just) are still being plundered, desecrated, and profaned in the church and by anointed leaders.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51 will be our corporate litany. It is ostensibly David’s psalm of repentance after his abduction, rape, and forced impregnation of Bathsheba, and his subsequent murder of her husband. Yet he does not mention her or his specific transgressions against her in it. To be fair, the biblical text constructs David’s sin as being against God and Uriah, her husband, but not against her.

A titular verse likely from the hand of an editor – and it is questionable whether a shepherd boy turned bandit possessed the literacy to write a psalm though he could have composed it and had it recorded – a titular verse proclaims the context of the psalm as that time he “went to” Bathsheba: When Nathan the prophet went to him on account of his going to Bathsheba. (my translation)

He didn’t go to her. He had her brought to him. “His going to her” is perhaps supposed to evoke a Hebrew euphemism for intercourse. It does not describe her as an active participant, an adulteress, as many would later wrongly claim. But it does not make clear the nature of his crimes.

In the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer, the psalm appears without the superscription so no reference to Bathsheba remains, misleading, fallacious, or otherwise. We will in David’s voice confess to sinning against God alone, with no specificity (unlike our Jewish kin who collective own a litany of transgressions on Yom Kippur).

In the Litany of Penance that follows we will confess our transgressions against others. But it is striking that we have so abstracted Psalm 51. Now that we are really talking about sexual violence and harassment in and out of the church, #MeToo and #ChurchToo, and calling once beloved figures to account for their sexual predations – Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson – and laicizing priests, bishops, and cardinals, perhaps we should stop allowing David to get away with structuring his act of contrition around an abstract concept and tell him to leave his gift on the altar and first make peace with his sister.

And perhaps we should repent for our treatment of the survivors of rape in and out of scripture, our coddling of rapists, our refusal to hold great men accountable, and our love of occasionally disembodied liturgy.

In the spirit of Phyllis Trible, when we pray Psalm 51 as our prayer of repentance, we plead the blood of Bathsheba:

She was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon her was the punishment that made us whole,
and by her bruises we are healed.

For more on Bathsheba’s story see: Womanist Midrash.


When the Crucified Rise: A Black Lives Matter Easter Sermon

 

After the Sabbath… Those three little words can’t possibly convey the emotions of that morning. After the sleepless night that turned into a Sabbath that was anything but a day of rest… After another sleepless night that turned the Sabbath into mundane time on a day that was anything but mundane… After wrestling night and day with the shrieking memory of Jesus’s execution, the hammer falls echoing, echoing, echoing…

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

The prophet Miriam lived on in these daughters of her name including the absent Virgin Mother. In this gospel Miriam of Migdala—who wasn’t an English school girl named Mary—and another woman also named Miriam, these Miriams, these so-called Marys, went to see the tomb. Just to see it. To see if it had really happened. In other gospels, yes to prepare the body of Jesus for his burial after the fact, but here, just to see it. Maybe then it would feel real.

They barely had time to process the sight of Jesus’s tomb when their world was turned upside down again. Indeed, the very earth could be said to be turned upside down herself.

The earthquake, the angel, the blinding clothes, the paralyzed guards, one sensory shock after another, piled up, with no time to process what it all meant. And now the tomb is open, maybe they could go and sit with him, see him, touch him one last time. But this creature who is not of this earth speaks… Fear not. They were way past fear.

And then, those words: He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.

This is the gospel. This is the heart of our faith.

The love of God incarnate in Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus the son of Mary, transcends the evil and brokenness of this world—betrayal and abandonment, empire and occupation, torture and execution, even death itself. God’s love is real, tangible and present. Jesus is God’s love is poured into this world, this crucified and crucifying world. God’s love is also poured into us. And God’s love is powerful. God’s love is stronger than death, sin, hell, hate and hurt. The loving, liberating, life-giving relationship God began with us at the moment of our creation transcends death. This is the good news.

Come, see the place where he lay, then go and tell… “Come and see” is an invitation to experience that death and remember it. That is what we are doing today, remembering, with our bodies, our whole selves. There are a couple of traditions about the place where he lay, more than a couple. You can see them, touch them, pray in them in Jerusalem. I have, and one in particular is holy to me. But it strikes me as I read this gospel that the place where he lay is more than the place his body was laid in death.

Jesus lay at the place where the poor and dispossessed are ground underfoot by the powerful and power hungry. Jesus lay at the place where people of one race, religion and ethnicity dominate people of another race, religion and ethnicity. Jesus lay at the place where the unjust render judgment over the just. Jesus lay at the place where police brutality goes unchecked and deaths in custody go unremarked. Jesus lay at the place where capital punishment is used to shape the social order, executing the innocent and guilty alike. Jesus lay at the place where the cost of protest and resistance was death. Jesus lay at the place where a doomed empire thought itself invincible. Jesus lay at the place where mothers and lovers wept, where the bodies kept falling in death because Rome kept killing, kept crucifying. Come, see the place where he lay, then go and tell

Go and tell his disciples… “His disciples.” What were they, these Marian evangelists and apostles? Mary Magdalene will come to be known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but the gospels hoard the title “disciple” for men. Jesus also lay at the place where hierarchies were challenged, rejected and reasserted.

Jesus lay at the place where Hannah’s Hymn and Mary’s Magnificat prophesied those on the underside of all the structures of power would subvert those very structures and be elevated by God herself as tyrants and their empires were dashed to the ground. And so God appointed two women to witness the resurrection, women who could not legally testify to anything in the courts of their own people because they were women. In the place where Jesus lay there were hierarchies within and without. Some gospels will have one or more men come and see but not here. Here the women’s word will be sufficient. The men will obey these apostles. But then the movement they start will wrestle with those old hierarchies and the empire that could not hold Jesus in death will gain a toehold and more in the Church that will be built with women’s labor. [As the students in my Bible and Black Lives Matter class pointed out:] People will remember the names of the disciples who were neither at the cross nor at the tomb but the women who were at both will be collapsed into a cloud of Marys, in the same way no one quite remembers the three black queer women who started Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti and Patrisse Cullors.

Why am I talking about Black Lives Matter on Easter Sunday? Because Jesus died with those who were deemed criminals, who got what some folk say they had coming to them. Jesus died, not just with them, but as them, as a victim of state violence, miscarried justice and public execution. And Jesus died for them, for those who are not thought to be worthy of him. And, because Jesus’s life was a black life that was deemed not matter. And, because the intentional misrepresentation of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites and Palestinian Jews as white is anti-black violence in our sacred spaces. My former student Lura Groen warns: “If we don’t crucify the idol of the white male Jesus, he will continue to crucify the rest of us.”

The angel sent the women to proclaim the gospel in a world in which crucifixions continued and violence between persons and between nations has never abated. We are called to proclaim the gospel in that world, in this world where transwomen of color are murdered in the state of Texas at a rate that eclipses all other states. We are called to proclaim the gospel in this world where we have closed our doors to refugees while we bomb them at home. We are called to proclaim the gospel in this world where our nation was built on stolen land by stolen bodies and builds walls rather than come to terms with the legacy of that past even as it plays our before us. We are called to proclaim the gospel in this world where immigrants are welcome as long as they are white and Christian. We are called to proclaim a gospel so radical, so threatening to the entrenched powers – in fact we may be the threatened entrenched power – we are called to proclaim a gospel that like the gospel Jesus proclaimed with his life may ultimately lead us to the place where he lay. And in that place is death.

But in that place is also life. Jesus lives in the places where he lay dying and dead. He lives with us and in us as we live out his gospel with those whom the world wants to crucify. Come and see. Go and tell. And listen for the rumbling, not the grumbling. Listen for the rumbling of the hierarchies and inequities, empires and tyrants falling never to rise again. Jesus has been raised as he said. The world will never be the same. When those whom the world crucify rise, the world cannot help but change. Amen.


Gender, Poverty and the Bible

Sexual Politics and the Surveillance of Black Bodies: Implications for Gender & Poverty, a downhill at Friendship West Baptist Church sponsored by Brite Divinity School and Columbia University.


Being Black In Public Is Exhausting

Being black in public is exhausting. I don’t know that I can do it this week. Public laments take their toll. Being seen, counted and representing is costly in currency that is not easily replaced or renewed. I live with the reality of being black all day every day. I can do without the performative elements. Particularly this week. I also need white people and institutions to do the work they’re going to do without the expectation of my presence, participation or approval. Too often the few black folk in a PWI have to show up at all the programs, consult on or approve them whether that’s in the best interest of their health, grief and sanity or not. White folk need to do their own anti-racist work by themselves for a while. I am fully committed to the wise womanist principle of being a separatist when necessary for my physical, emotional and spiritual health.


White Supremacy In the Church

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)

Some thoughts on white supremacy in the church (excerpted from my Lenten presentation at the Church of the Transfiguration on Dallas).
Whiteness has been equated with Christianity and civilization so that to be Christian was to be civilized when the only Christianity that was recognized was white Christianity. Our religious language in and out of the scriptures is used to reify whiteness. White Jesus is the god of white supremacy. The role of white supremacy in the Church just like the role of the Church in the carving up and colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas is neither accidental nor incidental. The Church and every other American institution has profited materially from slave labor and the exploitation and plundering of black wealth.
images-1White supremacy in the church doesn’t always wear a white sheet but can regularly be found in the sanctuary. Unexamined whiteness endures in the sanctuary, in the halls, on the walls, and yes even on the altar in the sacraments of the Church, in biblical interpretation, understandings of God, Jesus and ultimately effects Christian identity and its expressions: theology, liturgy and iconography. When the images of God, Christ, the angels, the saints and the faithful are white, and only white, white supremacy is at work. When those images are all that children see, even when their Sunday school and vacation bible school curricula include pictures of black and brown children – because Jesus loves us all – but maintains an unchallenged white norm for Jesus and biblical characters, white supremacy is successfully passed down to another generation. White supremacy blinds, distorts, cripples. It obscures the image of God in the scriptures, in the church, in the world and particularly in black and brown bodies.

KKK-Jesus-Saves-Christian-Prayer-Meeting
Historically, the whitening of the holy served to identify the holy with whiteness against all others explicitly and intentionally. Contemporarily white iconography continues that work, without the active reflection of those whom it shapes. It is of course, not a sin to see the holy in yourself and those like you. UnknownSeeing God in your image and only in your image makes it hard to see those who are not like you in the image of God; it is even harder when nothing in your experience has every portrayed God unlike you. In many churches the Blessed Sacrament is white and only white. Is it any wonder everyone else is other?
There is a direct line from whiteness to domination in and out of the church. It is not only historically inaccurate but the sovereignty and sanctification of whiteness in the church is one of the primary obstacles to reconciliation. It is often unacknowledged and unrepented.
Reconciliation is the culmination of a process that begins with conviction and leads to confession and contrition, public and private, followed by individual and communal repentance. Much like the stages of grief, these steps are not rigidly sequential, though some more easily presage others. Persons and institutions may move from one to another and back again. Some like repentance may occur repeatedly, for example repentance may (and should) both lead to and follow confession.
Reconciliation is not possible without repentance. True repentance is public and private, individual and communal and is not possible without genuine heart-felt contrition.
Contrition is not simply feeling bad about the way things are (or were) or wishing things were different or had been different in the past. Contrition is concrete. It is at one level interior but must be simultaneously voiced.
The articulation of contrition, confession, is the concretization of repentance. There is no repentance without contrition and confession.
Conviction, in the language of the church, conviction of the Holy Spirit, is the impetus that drives the process that can lead to reconciliation.

It is a process and none of the steps are optional. Services of reconciliation without confession, liturgical litanies of confession without conviction, the language of repentance without conviction, all of these are theater, none of these are healing and the multiplication of these kinds of programs squander whatever ethical capital and good will the white church and white Christians have.


Blogging In The Closet

CL_racism_in_church_small_648351767The world is on fire. Black women and men are being slaughtered in the street, in jail and in church. Some of the country is talking about race out loud and in meaningful ways. Some mainline denominations are following suit – not leading. Eavesdropping on a couple of these conversations brought me back to the beginning of my teaching career at a predominantly white and segregated seminary (black folk dominated the evening courses which were often less rigorous and more often taught by adjuncts) in one of the whitest denominations in America.

I blogged in the closet, anonymously, because I didn’t have tenure to save my sanity in the face of micro aggressions like students calling me by my first name while calling my colleagues by their titles – I shut it down. And macro aggressions like being called a nigger in chapel and having white faculty and administration white-splain that the way the student used the term wasn’t the same as calling me a nigger. I paid for my defiance and insistence by being forced to apologize to a white woman who was offended that what I was saying reflected poorly on her partner’s leadership.

I didn’t have tenure. I did what I was told. And I blogged. Anonymously. A few, very few, knew who and where I was.

As I look at conversations in that church and others this summer I have decided to exhume some of my original blogs. I think it doesn’t matter whether I wrote them 2 or 12 years ago, nothing has changed.

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Here’s some of what I blogged to keep myself sane:

I. There is nothing so dangerous as person who thinks that their progressive social and political values make them bias-free. There is no racism like liberal racism and no sexism like progressive sexism.

 

II. As important as is racial, ethnic, gender, orientation and ability diversity – and it is crucialideological diversity seems to be rarely invoked. I have noticed that some communities are happy with visual diversity as long as there is no theological, philosophical or ideological diversity. You are welcome as long as you think like the dominant culture (even if you don’t look like them). Physical diversity has become for some an opportunity for self-congratulation, proof of liberal/progressive identity and/or fetishism. Frequently the basis for accepting visibly different bodies into a community is the degree to which they accede to the values and beliefs of the majority culture.

I do not suggest that communities – particularly believing and worshiping communities – have no right to theological, philosophical or ideological boundaries. I do wonder how much space there is – and ought be – between confessional communal identity and individual theological convictions.

My experience has shown me that my black woman’s body is acceptable when it performs, preaches, teaches and worships in the image of whatever community I’m in, even if it is my own. Tension, rejection and rebuke arise when my theological commitments, perspectives, beliefs and practices are divergent.

How hollow is that diversity which is only as thin as a photograph of variably colored people!

 

III. When I teach about privilege – white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied – I also teach about peril. I’m careful to point out that privilege and peril regularly coexist in individuals and communities to avoid setting up an “oppression olympics.” For example, the peril I experience as a black person and as a woman coexists with the privilege I experience from my socioeconomic status and the privilege I experience from my hierarchical standing as a professor and as a priest.

Apparently, that’s just me. I have been watching other folk who also enjoy privilege while living with peril who have no interest in articulating or acknowledging their own privilege. In this case it is white privilege. I have been watching and listening as some white gay men dominate the equality movement articulate gay identity over and apart from black identity, build on and steal from the Civil Rights Movement and proclaim that black liberation is “over.”

I have also observed white women who are deeply concerned about the status of women in the academy and the church invest in, nurture and support white women and only white women. For these women, women of color are not women – unless we want to support the white women’s agenda. Support for women of color is called divisive, shifting the focus from gender to race and ethnicity.

Neither group, white gay men nor white women in these contexts acknowledge the power they have from their white privilege. But they use it. It is a peculiar thing to see white privilege wrapped in a mantle imperiled victimhood.

It seems to me the movements for women’s equality and LGBTQ equality when divorced from any concern about the status of women of color or queer colored folk is not really about civil or human rights. On one level these culture wars are about the fury white folk feel when their white privilege is not universally acclaimed and honored. As a result, some white gay men have no problem using sexism or racism in their campaigns for – not equal rights – but the restoration of their privilege. And, some white women cannot identify or partner with women of color in achieving equity for all women because their womanhood is intrinsically linked with their whiteness, rendering women of color unrecognizable as women.

Unarticulated privilege is still privilege. White privilege is nearly inescapable.

 

IV. I am a woman.

I am a man.

I am a person.

I am human.

I am somebody.

These ancestral affirmations refuted the twisted logic of the American slavocracy, Jane and Jim Crow and polite northern racism.

Their time has not yet passed.

The accomplishments of Barack Obama directly benefit him, his family, his children, his friends and his inner circle.

For the rest of us it has opened up a new and unimaginable experience:

We are told that our experiences of discrimination no longer matter, or are no longer even real because of his success.

The Black Church has been the bulwark of black peoples since the Candace’s servant was baptized on the road to Damascus.

The Black Church is also, ironically and unfortunately, a bulwark of sexism and heterosexism.

I recently participated in a conversation with scores of black women, most of whom are pastors or preachers, who uncovered the widespread practice of male clergy regularly inviting them to preach and forgetting to pay them, sometimes for months, if ever.

The irony is apparent.

Many of these male preachers are lions of the Civil Rights movement who marched around in signs saying, “I AM A MAN.”

For some of them, male identity was more important than human identity.

The silent Civil Rights protestors who marched in signs proclaiming, “I AM A MAN” were denying the dehumanizing agenda of white supremacist society with every breath.

They were demanding simple human (humane) recognition, which turns out not to be so simple after all.

Recognizing the full humanity of other persons requires full recognition of all of their rights, abilities, gifts and possibilities.

The male hegemony of the Black Church is not alone in seeking the power and privilege of white, male, hetero-patriarchal society for themselves. They are not alone in seeking a few more chairs to be added to the table of exclusion for their benefit, or even seeking to replace a few chair-holders.

There are white feminists who seek a place at the table for white women, no others need apply.

There are white gay men who believe that theirs is the only expression of Queer identity that exists or matters and the movement must be guided by them to achieve their goals, and theirs alone.

I am a woman.

I am because we/you are.

I AM.

I…

 

 


Black and Beautiful and Sunburned

 (By request)

“Can you tan?”

“Do you burn?”
Assumptions about the normatively and inherent value of whiteness – “fair” being light and attractive – are imposed on me as a black woman every day, living in a white supremacist society. I am regularly asked to give an account of my presumptively alternate biology, imagined to be fundamentally different from the interrogator’s own normative experience of being human.

“Can you tan?”
“Do you burn?”
I am expected to answer when questioned. To explain myself and my race. Public access to my body is unquestioned.
And deeply entangled with the notion of otherness is the notion of beauty.
How can something, let alone someone, be black and beautiful?
So never mind that Song of Solomon 1:5 has a simple conjunction, black am I and beautiful, (and emphasizes her blackness by opening with it), a myriad of bible translators continuing into modernity persist with “I am black/dark but beautiful/comely/lovely.” Blackness and beauty cannot occupy the same space in the imaginations so they cannot occupy the same space in their translations, no matter what the text actually says.
Some say, they “get” that, but (negate that “getting” with their next comment) doesn’t verse 6 say that she is sunburned, therefore, she can’t be black – that’s what the notes in my study bible say…
As though being black and sunburned were impossible, as impossible as being black and beautiful.
If the text had not said that the woman was as black as the tents of Qedar – as black as the black goats’ hair tents woven from the famed goats of Qedar renowned for their beautiful black coats in antiquity, but instead was as white as a lily and that the sun had “gazed” on her, white (and other readers) would have no problem imagining that her lily-white complexion was damaged by the sun, along with all of the class implications associated with laboring outdoors.
But the antithetical constructions of blackness and beauty, blackness and normatively, even blackness and sunburn mean that far too many readers cannot hear that the woman in the text ruined her beautiful black Qedari completion with a sunburn, in spite of what the text says.
Yes, I am black! and radiant – 
O city women watching me – 
As black as Kedar’s goat hair tents 
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries. 
 
Will you disrobe me with your stares? 
The eyes of many morning suns 
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine 
Black as the light before the dawn.
 Rabbi Marcia Falk,
The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible
Whiteness and assumptions about whiteness permeate nearly all things in our society like an anti-light obscuring non-Eurocentric realities.