I loved Hidden Figures and cheered throughout and cried at the end. It was powerful. Go and see it and take your children. One my favorite images in the movie was Octavia Spencer as Vaughan under her car in full mechanic mode laying on a tarp with her lovely pump clad legs sticking out from under the car and her skirt. The accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were due to their brilliance, tenacity, nurture of the black community, and opportunities grudgingly granted them but denied most other black people.
But I was most particularly struck by the depiction of segregation and its impact on black wealth and upward mobility. There was no pretense of separate but equal segregated education when engineering courses were only offered at whites-only schools and books on computing were only in the whites-only section of the library, protected by police. (Virginia has a longer, uglier history of closing public schools rather than integrate and white churches opening whites-only schools leaving black folk to fend for themselves and their children with virtually no resources for their tax dollars.)
This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans-along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill-was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.
The legacy of segregation left generations of black folk perpetually behind white folk in every social and financial index by design on top of the inequities resulting from slavery, anti-Reconstruction policies, and Jim and Jane Crow.
At the same time the Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan were dealing with entrenched racism they were also dealing with entrenched sexism. (Note the adversarial and antagonistic posture of the white women under the same patriarchal hierarchy. Notice the colored-only bathroom was only addressed when Katherine Johnson’s commute to pee interfered with the larger project.) The idea that there needed to be protocols for women to attend Pentagon briefings or an engineering course wasn’t taught for women-meaning at their level-would be laughable it it weren’t also intentional structural discrimination.
Lastly, as much as these women are being celebrated now and their work was acknowledged to some degree then, don’t miss that Katherine Johnson could not put her own name on her own computations, not even in a subordinate position, and the man whose name was on the report could not do the math. (How did their salaries and benefits compare?) But it was her position in the group that was no longer needed–until they figured out they could not do the moonshot without her.
Hidden Figures was a wonderful, powerful movie that made me so appreciative for the love and nurture of the black community, especially teachers who see and saw what we and our children are capable of and help us succeed against the odds.
We gather on a day when the ugliness of humanity is on full display in our world. You may feel as I do at times that there is nothing we can do to fix, to heal our world. We cannot prevent people halfway around the world, across the nation or here at home from committing terrible acts of violence. But what we can do is mend the parts of the world that are in our hands, that work is difficult enough. We cannot dismantle the systems that wound and kill, oppress and imprison if we will not see them, admit they exist or that and how we have benefitted from them. Today I invite you to see yourselves, the scriptures and the world differently than you have seen them before.
Who are we when we read the scriptures? Whose eyes do we read through? When we hear Jeremiah lamenting for his people where do we place ourselves in the story? Christians like to read as though we were the Israelites to whom these texts were written because they are spiritual ancestors. But the truth is Christianity is much more like the Assyrian Empire than the Judean monarchy that survived it. Christianity became an imperial religion and like the Assyrian Empire invaded and enslaved and plundered. We also read as Americans but it has not been the experience of America to be invaded and occupied, to have our land stolen, our people enslaved and stolen to serve in bondage in a foreign land. It is easier for some Americans to read as Judah, Native Americans still living with foreign occupation can read as Judah. African Americans can read with Judah. But other Christians need to ask themselves difficult questions about power and privilege.
Our national and church conversations about race are also conversations about privilege and power. We must all learn to ask where the privilege and power lies in the text and where it lies in and with us. We are all of us, American and Christian empowered as the dominant group, society reflects our values and holidays whatever our numbers. Some of us have heterosexual privilege; the world assumes we are normal. Some have white privilege and male privilege. Some have able bodies and the ease of mobilities. Many of us have both privilege and peril at the same time and some have multiple markers of vulnerability.
These are hard conversations. Once we open our eyes to the issues at stake we will see them everywhere, even in the scriptures. It is a bit like taking the red pill in the Matrix, we will never be able to unsee the world as it is. We long for the blue pill and tell ourselves that ignorance is bliss. We were happier before people started talking about race all the time, even in church. Maybe not happy, more like oblivious, oblivious to the deaths that you did not see because no one stopped traffic and screamed “Black Lives Matter!”
Who can read as Jeremiah today? Let us listen again: [Gafney translation]
My joy is gone. Grief weighs heavy on me. My heart is sick.
Listen! The cry of my people far and wideâ€”across the land:
Where is God? Is She not in her place?…
Do we not have the best medicine? Doctors?
Why then have my people not been restored to health?
If only my throat were a waterfall and my eyes rivers of water.
Then I might weep day and night for the murdered souls among my people.
Jeremiah’s people had barely survived the Assyrian onslaught. At one point things were so bad King Hezekiah gave the Assyrians all of the silver and gold in the temple and when that wasn’t enough, he had his servants peel the silver off the doors of the temple. The rest of Israel did not survive the Assyrians. The other eleven tribes were invaded, conquered, disassembled, deported, dispersed, disappeared. The people to whom Jeremiah was prophesying were vulnerable. Judah was no longer a truly independent nation. They had a king but were in bondage to the Babylonians who defeated the Assyrians and seized their holdings including Judah. This is not the American experience. This is not the experience of most Christians in the United States or in the West. But it is the experience of Native peoples here in the American west, throughout North, Central and South America, and of peoples throughout Africa and Asia.
How are we to read the scriptures as our scriptures when the stories are not always our stories? Let me tell you, as a woman and as a woman who is the descendant of slaves, there are many stories in the bible that are not my stories, yet the scriptures are still my scriptures. When Jeremiah says he weeps for his murdered people, I see the bodies of my murdered people, in the streets, in their homes, like little Aiynna Stanley Jones—seven years old, shot by a police officer while she slept on the couch. He said it was an accident. He said it was her grandmother’s fault. He was indicted and all charges were dropped. And a seven year-old little girl didn’t get to hug her grandmother on her eight birthday because a policeman shot her. The Babylonian soldiers were the agents of the legal government. There was no one to hold them accountable either. The only tool Jeremiah had available to him was lament. So he wept.
If only my throat were a waterfall and my eyes rivers of water.
Then I might weep day and night for the murdered souls among my people.
Lament is a powerful tool. It is a prophetic response to grief. It heals, transforms and empowers.
Psalm 79 tells the story of what happened next to Jeremiah’s people: The Babylonian invaded. Psalm 79 tells the story of the assault on the temple. The Babylonians tore it apart with hammers and axes. They stole everything that they wanted and burned the rest. The toppled the government and the military and enslaved or deported the people. We have never experienced anything like that in the United States. No terrorist attack has destroyed our government and military. But we have toppled governments and left other nations in ruins. How de we read the psalm, we who have soldiers in a hundred different nations, some of whom don’t want us there? Perhaps we are not the Judeans, but the Babylonians. Who can pray this psalm with Judeans? What happens when Native Americans, whose holy places were just bulldozed by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a now-stopped pipeline, pray this psalm?
And what of the gospel? There the lines of privilege and peril are social and economic. Wealth is privilege. Neither privilege or wealth are evil—notice the rich man for whom the dishonest manager works is not condemned for his wealth. But wealth and privilege do come with responsibility. Privilege is access. My systematic theology professor Kelly Brown Douglas, a priest in our church, taught us to think of privilege as seats in an arena: Some have courtside seats passed down to them that they did not earn. Other folk who might like those seats and have saved enough to buy them will never get the chance because circumstances of birth mean they will never get the chance.
This is the way the legacy of slavery works. As a whole, black people in the United States are financially behind white people in the United States no matter how many individual rich black performers and athletes we can name. At the end of the Civil War many freed persons had no source of income and were forced into wage theft sharecropping in which they had to pay to live in their former slave cabins, and pay for food, tools and clothing, and found themselves in debt they could never pay off. At the same time laws were passed that enabled the seizure and imprisonment of black folk who were not working who could then be sold for labor as a prison gang—but slavery was over. The GI Bill more than any other tool in modern history helped poor and working class white men and their families move into the middle class but black veterans were initially excluded. Unions often excluded blacks in the early days. Each of these practices and many in between meant that no matter how hard they worked black folk could not keep, invest or pass down the overwhelming bulk of what they produced. The disparities in wealth, wellbeing and social standing between ethnic groups in this country isn’t about meanness or individual acts of bigotry. It is the result of centuries of discrimination, profiteering and the plundering of black wealth and labor.
The question our gospel asks through the character of the dishonest manager is what are you doing with your privilege? The manager is bit of a buffoon. He was a terrible employee. He was dishonest. He also used the privilege he had to oppress the people who were in debt to his boss. Debt collectors collected as much as they could and got to keep the difference. That’s just the way things worked back then. Everyone did it. Just like slavery. And just like slavery, there were people who knew it wasn’t right. People who benefitted from it could not imagine their lives without it. When his job is called into question, the manager cut the interest on his master’s loans and just collects the principle in hopes someone will remember his “kindness” and take him in if he gets thrown out on the street. And someone may. Someone may be a better person than he has been. One point of his story is not that you should cook the books, but that it is never too late to do the right thing. Jesus also makes an unpleasant point: no matter how badly money has been made, you can still use it for good things.
I’d like to end with the rich man who Jesus doesn’t critique. He doesn’t get off the hook in my book because wealth and privilege come with responsibility and I am going to hold him accountable even if Jesus doesn’t do so in the parable. The uncritiqued rich man in the gospel did what everyone did. He hired someone to run his business enterprise. He didn’t get his hands dirty with the day-to-day management of his holdings. But he is responsible for what was being done in his name and on his behalf. He was profiting off of the exploitation of the families his manager was cheating.
As I close I invite you to think about the ways in which you are profiting and have profited off of the labor and exploitation of other people whether you knew it or not: If someone in your family got a first generation GI Bill or admitted to a union that didn’t admit black or Hispanic people, you reaped some benefit that accrues interest and passes down to the next generation. I want to invite you to consider your stewardship of your privilege as you consider the stewardship of your fiscal and temporal resources.
Luke 16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth [and privilege], who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God, wealth [and privilege.”]
I admit that I was disturbed at the news of a ROOTS remake, particularly at the hands of the History Channel that did such violence to the Bible in its whitewashed fan-fiction offering. I was somewhat mollified when I heard LeVar Burton was one of the folk behind it. Then I read Awesomely Luvvie’s (Luvvie Ajayi’s) endorsement. So I decided to watch it for myself with some hopeful anticipation.
ROOTS re-imagined was in a word: searing.
It was beautifully shot and powerfully effective. It was not as impactful on me as the original, nor could or should it have been. The original Roots mini-series was like nothing I or the world had ever seen. Its impact was devastatingly powerful on me as a child, even as a child raised by parents who taught me the unflinching truth about slavery.
Fortunately the new production did not try to recreate the old one but told the story in a new way for a new audience. I did not set out to track differences between the two productions however one stood out to me; Kunta Kinte’s Muslim faith was much more visible. ROOTS is a necessary lesson in American history. I hope families watched with their children as they did before. I hope teachers will incorporate it. I hope clerics will preach about it. I hope America will learn from it.
The musical cultural of the free and enslaved Africans was powerfully portrayed – the use of a trope to sing a subversive conversation about overtaking the slave ship and escaping was breathtakingly beautiful. In it I hear resonances with chanted Torah and Jewish and Christian liturgies and recitation of the Quran. I also loved the way that Kunta and Kizzy were able to connect to their parents across time and space.
I live-tweeted each episode and have storified my tweets. I am not surprised but am disappointed by the number of white apologists for slavery and those white and black folk who want to advocate for a Christianity that doesn’t include slavery, genocide, patriarchy or any other systemic failing so they can hold only individual persons accountable for their sins. We will not have learned the lessons of ROOTS then or now, of our ancestors – enslaved or free – or the history of this nation, the Church or the world if we do not understand that white supremacy and its get are systemic and endemic.
It is apparent to me from the questions and comments I received online that too few white people know the history of slavery in the Atlantic basin, not the fact of it – though there are those who still deny it – the history of daily degradation, malnourishment, torture, rape and incest, maiming, forced breeding, selling of family members and murder. Unlike when ROOTS first aired, the testimonies of former slaves are readily available and scholarship on American chattel slavery is widely accessible. We can’t rely on the educational system to teach meaningfully about slavery. Most of the African American people I know included myself were educated by our parents, other black folk and ourselves. I’m still waiting for white folk especially those who present themselves as allies to do the same in comparable numbers.
Finally let me say something about the truth of ROOTS. ROOTS is not factual in some ways such as the life details, genealogy and identities of some characters. Alex Haley was widely assailed for historical inaccuracies and embellishing. But ROOTS is true. It is true like the bible is true in spite of the places in which is not historically or factually true. Truth is broader, deeper and wider than fact. ROOTS tells the truth about America.
Image credit: Christa by Edwina Sandys
Let us pray:
God of our mothers, Hagar, Sarah and Keturah, fold us under the shelter of your wings with all your children of every race and every faith. Amen.
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!
Jesus was doing the kind of preaching that few women or men do today, the kind of preaching that will get you killed. When some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod is going to kill him he has to take it seriously. Herod is from a family where murder is a causal pastime. His father Herod the Great had murdered three of his sons, one of his wives and one of his mothers-in-law along with former friends and servants, and according to Matthew’s Gospel, he tried to kill Jesus before he was out of the cradle. (But Luke doesn’t seem to know that tradition.) Some folk believe the Pharisees were setting Jesus up, trying to get him to stop preaching and leave town with a fictitious threat. Others believe that the threat was deadly earnest because Herod was his father’s son and every bit as lethal.
However he understood the threat, Jesus looked at them and said, “Bring it!” Jesus told them to tell Herod he would be right there in Jerusalem whenever he was ready. Jesus knew that death was the likely, if not inevitable outcome of his ministry and he was ready. Even though he would have a reality check in the garden – no one wants to be brutalized, tortured, humiliated and executed, especially in front of their mama – Jesus would not back down; he would not run scared. As the Gospel of Luke presents the story, Jesus came to Jerusalem to die.
Jerusalem, the city of peace – Ir Shalom – never seems to have lived into its name, except perhaps for a few glorious golden years during the reigns of David and Solomon. The people of Jerusalem were Jerusalemites long before they were Israelites – in truth some of them never became Israelites. They were Canaanites. Thirty-five hundred years before the time of Jesus, more than fifty-five hundred years before our time, the people of what we now call Jerusalem were striking fear in the heart of Egypt. Then they were conquered by a Canaanite people the bible calls Jebusites. And David conquered them. David brought some measure of peace to Jerusalem before he died, but it was a bloody peace. He passed that fragile peace to Solomon under whom it withered and died from internal strife. Almost six hundred years before Jesus the Babylonians ravaged Jerusalem, the Persians liberated Jerusalem from the Babylonians but did not free it. They were followed by the Greeks and the Romans and alternating Christian and Muslim empires, then the Ottoman Turks and the British. Each wave of occupation was brutal. Jerusalem has long been acquainted with death. But that wasn’t the death Jesus spoke of in response to the warning about Herod.
Jesus spoke of the death of prophets like himself. Women and men who stood up to power. Jesus wasn’t willing to die because he was the son of God. He was willing to die because he was the kind of man who stood with the poor and oppressed peoples of earth against the demonic corrupting power of empire. Jesus preached in the lineage of prophets like Amos and Micah who stood with the poor and Noadiah who stood against Nehemiah who aligned himself with the Persian Empire. They didn’t stand up because they were immortal. They stood up because they were moral.
Prophesying in Jerusalem could be dangerous because Jerusalem was a wealthy religious city. Wealth is not intrinsically evil but it can be seductive and corrupting as is the privilege it engenders. Jerusalem is where the monarchy and priesthood organized and institutionalized religion, leaving the prophets largely outside of the formal structure. For the Israelites Jerusalem was the only city that mattered, and theirs the only God or at least the only one that mattered. Preaching against empire, those who designed and implemented it and those who benefitted from it is dangerous, as is me preaching against the current manifestations of empire, white supremacy, wealth and privilege built on the backs of enslaved and exploited black and brown peoples. I don’t believe my fellow Episcopalians are likely to kill me but I know Episcopalians like other Christians have been on the wrong side of slavery and civil and human rights as well as on the right side.
Jesus knew that prophet could be a terminal occupation because prophet is also a religious vocation. Prophets don’t just have to worry about those who hold political power. Prophets have to contend with those who hold religious authority and are every bit as lethal. This congregation isn’t going to rise up and stone me if they don’t like my preaching but baptized and communing Christians are responsible for the Crusades and slave trade, the Holocaust, burning and bombing of churches, lynching, and now, the murderous martyrdom of black Christians in church at bible study and demonization of Muslims and Mexicans, some of whom have also been murdered. There is an ugly side to religion, including ours. Sometimes religious folk, Christian folk, are willing to kill or to die to prove a theological point. Jerusalem had a reputation for being the place where folk killed prophets they didn’t want to hear from.
The tradition of murdered prophets, particularly in Jerusalem was an old one by the time of Jesus. The author of Luke is seemingly obsessed by those murders; he mentions them four times including in Acts. The most outrageous murder of a prophet was that of the Zechariah ben Jehoida who was stoned at the king’s (Joash) command on the holy ground of the temple, (2 Chr 24:20-22). Two hundred years later Jeremiah tells of the prophet Uriah ben Shenaiah who preached the same things that Jeremiah did and was executed by another king, (Jehoiakim in Jer 29:20). The outrage that someone would kill a messenger of God, reject the word of God with lethal violence was so strong that stories of the murdered prophets found their way into the Quran.
God says in surah 5:70: Certainly We made a covenant with the children of Israel and We sent to them apostles; whenever there came to them an apostle with what that their souls did not desire, some did they call liars and some they slew.
And in surah 2:87: And most certainly We gave Musa (Moses) the [Torah] Book and We sent apostles after him one after another; and We gave Isa (Jesus), the son of Marium (Mary), clear arguments and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. And, what, whenever then an apostle came to you with that which your souls did not desire, you were insolent so you called some liars and some you slew.
Jesus didn’t turn from Jerusalem, the place where prophets are killed. He went to Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem because he loved Jerusalem. He loved Jerusalem at the cost of his life. We too are Jerusalem. We may not have a reputation for killing priests, pastors or prophets but we break the heart of God every bit as much. And Jesus loved and loves us too, even at the cost of his life.
Love is at the heart of this lesson. Jesus opening his arms wide and sweeping us up and into his embrace. In choosing for himself the image of a mother hen collecting and protecting her brood Jesus gives birth to some of the most enduring imagery to shape the church’s prayer language.
I suspect that St. Julian of Norwich reflected on this passage when she wrote: …Christ is our mother, brother and savior…. Our natural mother, our gracious mother, because he willed to become our mother in everything, took the ground for his work most humbly and most mildly in the maiden’s womb… A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.
Some of us are unwilling to be mothered. And some have never been mothered at all. In the Gospel Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” What does it look like to refuse to mothered by Jesus? At one level it means to accept a Jesus who troubles our notions of gender and sexuality.
An unmarried Jewish man was a scandal and a man without children was pitiable. As a Jewish man who would not have accepted the tradition of giving thanks for not being a woman, which came into Judaism from Greek philosophers as the gospels were being produced, Jesus offers a masculinity and a divinity that is neither patriarchal nor even androcentric in this text. But some want no part of that kind of Jesus; nor any kind of Jesus who doesn’t agree with what they agree with or hate who they hate. For some the bible’s androcentric grammar and predilection for masculinizing God has become an idol, so much so that folk would rather be unmothered by God than embrace God or Christ as our mother. Yet God is so far beyond gender that in scripture God has a womb, birthed the sea and fathered the rain – though the bible stops short of giving God male parts; no one gender can contain God. God is trans, transgressive, trans-gender, transcontinental, transnational, trans-religious. God’s love transverses and encompasses all things.
Our first lesson reminds us that Abraham is the father of many peoples, many different peoples. We don’t all have the same stories, memories or traditions. We don’t even share the same prayers or scriptures. But we do share the same God. The one God who is known by many names. We don’t all believe the same things about that God, not even in the Church, not even in the Episcopal Church. God is big enough to weather our disagreements. God is who God is whether we understand or accept someone else’s understanding of God. God doesn’t need us to argue or fight or prove who God is or isn’t. Our job is to bear witness, by loving as God loves – which though impossible for us is still a worthy goal.
The promise of God to Abraham is not for Israel only. It is for all of Abraham’s descendants. We are children of Abraham and the one God, whether Hagar, Sarah or Keturah was our foremother. The Hebrew Bible traces more peoples than I could reasonably count to Father Abraham including but not limited to the ancient Israelites and their Jewish descendants and the Ishmaelites and their Arab descendants. Those peoples have one father but many mothers; they are all our kin. Family has always been complicated. Some of us have more than one mother, some have had mothers who were fathers and fathers who were mothers. We were mothered by godmothers, grandmothers, aunties and big sisters. Their love was God’s love in human form as is Jesus. I have always had trouble with the trinity but Christ as brother, mother and savior makes sense to me. This is love incarnate.
The love of God for us is so deep and wide that there are not enough words or images in any language to tell it. Lent is an opportunity for us to reflect on and rest in that love. We relinquish things that that give us pleasure that we might take more pleasure in the love of God. We let go of things that distract us from the love of God. We take on disciplines and practices that draw us more deeply into the embrace of God’s wings. In the austerity of Lent it is a great comfort to find not a stern father but a loving mother. As we explore new patterns of prayer during Lent today’s Gospel is an invitation to embrace God in new language and different images as open, free and boundless as is the love of God for us.
When we come to the table, we dine on love. When we come to that table we are one. Our differences don’t disappear; they bear witness to our love which is not reserved just for folk who are like us. When we get up from our knees, there is a whole wide world that needs that love. Amen.
Let us pray:
God who dreams in flesh and blood, teach us to respond to the cries of your people with justice, compassion and unfailing hope. Amen.
God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Exodus 3:9
We all have multiple identities at the same time, aspects of which may be more dominant from time to time but which are not separable from other aspects. For example, when I hear that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, I correct that to white women make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Black women make 69 cents for every dollar black men make. And, Latinas make 58 cents for every dollar Latino men make according to the 2012 census. I am a black woman. There are things I hold in common with women of all races and things I do not, things I hold in common with black men and things I do not. That is true for all of us.
We have multiple identities, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. Sometimes we elevate one identity above others. As Christians we are called to live out of our Christian identity which is not separate from but co-exists with our other identities. Dr. King’s Christianity looked different than the Christianity of the white clergy who wrote an open letter telling the black folk in their community not to demonstrate with King, who they called an outsider and to wait for the local political leadership in Alabama to work on segregation themselves. How long might that have taken? How much longer did the good white folk think that black folk should wait for the full dignity of human and civil rights? The clergymen – and they were all men – called the demonstrations “unwise” and “untimely.” It was too soon to talk about voting rights for black folk, even if they were serving in the military like my father. They accused Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of inciting “hatred and violence.”
The undersigned included:
The Rt. Rev. Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, The Rt. Rev. Joseph A. Durick, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church, The Rt. Rev. George M. Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage, Moderator of the Synod of Alabama in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and Pastor Earl Stallings of the First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.
They penned this letter 12 April, 1968, more than a decade after the speech from which we heard a portion of as our Epistle reading. They were leaders of church and synagogue, interpreters of scripture, they prayed – many of them – the same prayers we pray, many sang same the same songs we sing and they were fundamentally on the wrong side of God’s love. To be fair, none of them were saying black folk shouldn’t have the same rights, at least not in that letter. They were saying it wasn’t the right time, and Dr. King wasn’t the right man and he wasn’t using the right methods. Folk are saying the same things today about the Black Lives Matter movement and its leaders.
This wasn’t the first time the church has been wrong. The very first slave ship to reach the American continent was named Jesus, a British ship, given to its captain by the head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth. She gave him two ships so he could make her more money in the slave trade. It would be a long time before the church, Anglican and otherwise determined to live up to and into what is now in our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human person. Sometimes we still fail at that. As church and as individuals. Sometimes we get it right.
We in the Episcopal Church have decided that all of the sacraments are for all of the people. We do not restrict the sacrament of ordination to male people and we do not restrict the sacrament of holy matrimony to heterosexual people. And again some of those who read the same scriptures we do and pray the same prayers we do and sing the same songs as we do and perhaps live in the same houses as we do say our actions are “unwise” and “untimely.” In fact, the Anglican Communion has given us a time out.
And Dr. King is still saying: We have not learned the simple art of loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity and worth of all human personality…
Dr. King preached a strong word to the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in Nashville back in 1957. A word that is still uncomfortably and maddeningly relevant. I would like to think that Dr. King would marvel at the progress we have made, not just the success of extraordinary individual figures in politics, sports and entertainment but the fundamental integration of our society at many levels and the real and meaningful relationships people have with folk who are different from them at work and church and school and in our neighborhoods, sometimes in our own families. So much in our world is different. And yet so much remains unchanged. There is still deep and abiding racial animus; the old race hatred lingers on and other biases have come out of their closets, biases against Muslims and Arabs – who aren’t all Muslim though it shouldn’t matter, biases against Spanish speaking folk, particularly Mexicans which is interesting in Texas where Mexicans pre-date Texans in many places and now, biases against those who have been driven from their homes with nothing but their children in their arms fleeing from war, even though some of those wars have our nation’s fingerprints on them.
Our lesson from Exodus gives us another reason to cast our lot on the side of the oppressed. God is watching. And more than that, God is there. God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Do not be deceived by the fact that God has not and will not wipe all violence and oppression from the earth. God sends us and accompanies us. Will we go? We might be afraid like Moses that we aren’t up to the task. God knows and offers us companions along the way. Moses did not go alone. He had his sister, the prophet Miriam. He had his brother Aaron. He had his wife Zipporah – and then after a messy divorce, another wife. He had his father-in-law. Moses was a great and humanly flawed leader. And God used him and sent him some help.
Dr. King was a great man. And he was a flawed man. And God used him. But he wasn’t out there alone. Dr. King was surrounded by Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer and more the way Moses was surrounded by Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Dr. King also had the sage counsel of his friend Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man.
We in this Episcopal Church and in our larger global church are talking seriously about race and reconciliation. That requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations; we have begun that work. It will mean having more, especially when we get to the point that folk are saying enough already, it’s too much. We also have to look deeply and honestly at our own past, in our nation, in our church and in our families. We have to tell the whole truth, the hard truth, for we know that confession is a reconciling sacrament. Confession is liberating and healing and makes room for repentance. Too many folk are trying to be reconciled without confession or repentance, even in the church and we know better.
We have these multiple identities as women and men, gay, straight, bi and trans, black and white, Caribbean and Latino, American and Episcopalian, members of Trinity and the five o’clock gang. And in all of these things we are God’s children and we are Christian. Sometimes some of us look more like the Egyptians doing the oppressing and sometimes some of us look more like the Israelites being oppressed. And God is watching all of us, listening for the cry of the broken-hearted, raising up deliverers from among us to do the work of justice.
God is watching. God is listening. God is with us. Amen.
The 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.
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 crucial – ideological 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.
Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:
2 Sam 11:4 David sent emissaries to kidnap Bathsheba and she came to him then he raped her. Then she cleansed herself from her defilement and returned to her house. 5 [After some time] the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” (translation, Wil Gafney)
These are hard words. These are hard times. Hard times call for hard words.
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear. Amen.
[Note: all of the tweet links are broken. I’ll fix them when I can.] As Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi watched Trayvon Martin being put on trial for his own murder they created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many have joined the movement and when others have tried to hijack the prophetic proclamation by focusing only on black male lives or heterosexual or cissexual black lives we who agitate and protest in social media and in the streets remind and correct them: all black lives matter. [tweet this] Black women’s lives matter. Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives matter. Black Muslim lives matter. All black lives matter because black life is sacred. [tweet that] The lives of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman and Jasmine Wright cut short this past week matter because they were the very image of God and someone could not or chose not to see God in them.
And when folk want to turn away from the death that is stalking black lives in the streets, in the church, in police custody, in WalMart, in public parks and in the case of 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by a cop in her own little bed, we say no. Don’t look away. Don’t change the subject. You don’t go to a breast cancer rally and change the subject to all cancer or another disease or all the people who aren’t killed by cancer or even blame folk for behavior choices that you think may have contributed to their cancer.
That’s what the folk who invented the all lives matter hashtag in response to black lives matter were doing. [tweet this] We said black lives matter. They said no, all lives matter. They said we will not acknowledge that black life is under siege. We will change the subject. We will look away.
We have a hard time talking about race in this country. At this moment we are looking at an escalating tide of black death and some of us are saying black lives matter. In the church we should also say Black life is sacred.
Our scriptures teach we are all created in the image of God. That is easy to say. Our history and our very present demonstrate that some of are not counted in that “we.” Our own Episcopal Church told my enslaved ancestors that freedom in Christ didn’t mean freedom from slavery. They would be free when they died. We weren’t counted in that “we.” The founders of this nation, many of whom were also founders of the Episcopal Church, both founded in my home Diocese of Pennsylvania, had no trouble excluding people of African descent from “we the people.” (Yes, they excluded others but we’re not going to look away or change the subject.) [tweet this] Those founders for whom the bible was scripture could appeal to its pages to support slavery. Yes, Paul said there is neither slave nor free – but he told Onesimus who freed himself from slavery he had to return to slavery and his master and also wrote “slaves obey your masters.” [tweet this] And for all his talk about freedom, Jesus never freed any slaves.
In the biblical world just as in ours there were people who counted and people who didn’t. Often those people were identified by ethnicity. Race as we know it didn’t exist in the biblical word but ethnicity functioned very much as it does now. Ethnicity in antiquity and modernity is identity rooted in people and place often with distinct language and cultural attributes. In their scriptures Israelites were the people who mattered and non-Israelites often did not. For me there is more than a little irony in Gentile Christians claiming the scriptures of Israel as our heritage. And, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, women in the scriptures often – but not always – but all too often – were treated as though they didn’t matter. And yes, there are those texts where women and foreigners and even foreign women turn the tables on exclusion and bias but don’t rush to those texts too quickly. Don’t look away from what is hard to see just yet.
Part of what is so infuriating to many us in the Black Lives Matter movement is that all too often our fellow God-crafted citizens whom we pay, support and need as police officers are killing us and our children. They have the power of the state at their disposal, a sacred trust to use lethal force only for the protection of all of us, for our common good. But some of them abuse that power. [tweet this] The sheer scope of extrajudicial killings of black folk by police is an abuse of power. Some take it further like Officer Daniel Hoytzclaw who spent his on-duty time targeting black women for sexual assault. [tweet this] He took at least 13 black women like David took Bathsheba. Don’t look away.
The church has a history of looking away. The church has looked away from David’s abuse of his power, running to his repentance. Don’t look away. [tweet this] The church has even looked to Bathsheba blaming her – some call her rape adultery – looking at her instead of David just as some folk have blamed victims of police killings: if they had just done what they were told… If she hadn’t mouthed off… The penalty for non-compliance and being mouthy is not summary execution, not in these United States. Besides, compliance won’t save us. Don’t change the subject. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t look away from the abuse of power in this text.
Hold David responsible for his actions. I tell my students and the preachers I mentor not to say “Bathsheba was raped” but to say “David raped Bathsheba.” When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting his war and then he took her, raped her and tried to discard her. Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped.
God, the prophet Nathan and the scriptures are clear that Bathsheba was not at fault for David’s sin. Only he is accused and held accountable. But the text doesn’t regard David’s rape of Bathsheba as a crime against her. In the bible her rape is a crime against her husband. That’s hard for me. But I won’t look away. As an Episcopalian and a biblical scholar I know the bible is more often descriptive than prescriptive, describing things as they were and not as they should be. [tweet this] We are called to learn from, not always imitate Iron Age theology. We are also called to look for those spaces where every once in a while Iron Age theology is revolutionary and revelatory. So don’t look away when the text and even God are hard to look at or you might miss it.
David who was so handsome when we met him is ugly in this text. David rapes because he can. Rape is about power and domination. It is not about sex. [tweet this] David had sex partners. He was married like so many other rapists. David has been engaged to Saul’s daughter Merab, then married to her sister Michal then married to Abigail after her husband died and, on the way home with Abigail he stops off and picks up Ahinoam.] Before he sends men to abduct Bathsheba so he can rape her, David has sexual access to a minimum of six wives whom we know, seven if you count the banished Michal and an unknown number of Saul’s wives whom he inherited. That does not include servants – or slaves since they could not say no – and prostitutes with which Israelite men could have sex without consequence because adultery at that time was only having sex with a married or engaged woman.
[Now those of you who have medical or public health training, tell me what does a person with multiple sexual partners run the risk of, particularly when those partners have more than one sexual partner themselves? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 38:
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bent over and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
[tweet this] David had an STD and wrote a psalm about it. If you asked him, I’m sure David would tell you, “It’s good to be king.” David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder-by-proxy of her husband need to be understood in light of his treatment of other women. [tweet that] He would go on to have children with seven women that we know by name: Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and, Eglah. He fathered another seven children with a group of nameless wives, and he still had Saul’s leftover women. But the church has looked away from David’s sexual ethics.
To cover up his crime, David killed Bathsheba’s husband. And as a result she had no place else to go. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes. Sadly, all that most people seem to remember about Bathsheba is the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day David raped her, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to marry her rapist. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. It’s good to be king and I will be the mother of kings.”
I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies – four of them – in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands should stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. Bathsheba made the best she could out of the situation.
In so doing she changed the course of history. Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan decide between them, without an old, then-impotent David at the end of his life, that her son Solomon and not David’s oldest son Amnon or even his favorite, Absalom will be king. [tweet this] Bathsheba put her son on the throne. And after David died, Solomon put her on a throne. In 2 Kings 2, Solomon enthrones his long-suffering mother who has survived her rape, her rapist and their forced marriage. Bathsheba became the right-hand woman in the kingdom. And when Solomon got up off of his throne and bowed at her feet, everyone else in the throne room did too.
Solomon learned it’s good to be king and followed in the footsteps of his father David. Where did you think he got the habit of collecting women? It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapists. [tweet this] David and Solomon represented the golden age of Israelite monarchy and Jesus didn’t want to be anything like them. David and Solomon collected women for their own personal use. [tweet] Jesus collected and respected women disciples like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles whose feast was this past Wednesday.
Yet the Church and the scriptures have given the title “king” to Jesus. His disciples then and now never seem to get that he never wanted to be king. In today’s Gospel, after he has demonstrated his power by feeding five thousand people with a child’s lunch Jesus has to run away and hide because the people want to make him king. Just after his resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked again, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom?” If he could raise himself from death to life surely he could put Herod and even Caesar to death. Because the one sure way to become king was to kill the previous king. But Jesus would die, not kill.
[tweet this] Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. [tweet this] A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.
As king David had the power of life and death at his command. He used that power to rape and murder. There were good kings in Israel and terrible kings and kings who did good things and terrible things. There are good people and horrible people with the power of life and death over others. And there are people who do good things and terrible things with the power of life and death over others. Some of those things are so terrible we may want to look away and change the subject. [tweet] But the lesson of Bathsheba and Black Lives Matter is that the victimized and the vulnerable matter to God and none of the biases of text or culture, in the Iron Age or this age will ever change that.
In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amene.
We should not have to tell you, we should not have to teach you, that we are the very image of God. You should see God when you see us.
But you worship a pale deformed perversion of God that mirrors your biases.
I find myself saying again: We affirm that black lives matter and are sacred in the face of actions that communicate the opposite. This is not a philosophical conversation on the value of all life because all life is not equally imperiled in the United States of America.
We are your fellow citizens, your neighbors, your sisters and brothers sharing a common humanity, we are all children of the same God.
I should not have to remind you that we who are blessed with radiant blackness are the image of God.
When you grind our faces into the dirt, you grind the very face of God into the dirt.
When you slaughter us you slaughter God.
Whether we share a religious worldview or not we are co-citizens of a common humanity.
We call on you to live up to and into your own humanity by respecting our humanity and that of our children.
On days like today I think you would rather slaughter God than accept that she is black like me.
400 years of white male abuse of black girls and women is written in this image. pic.twitter.com/YfMYkOXqXR
— Wil Gafney (@WilGafney) June 7, 2015
There are somethings you will never know if you don’t have a black-girl-body, if you are not or have not been a black girl or woman. Here’s what too many of us know, groping hands and sexually explicit requests and demands from girlhood, long before womanhood and frenzied demands for compliance from the first emergence of the slightest curve on our frames.
Our bodies are torn from us, gobbled up by relatives and strangers of all races. We have been put on display alive and dead, fetishized, coveted, demonized, ridiculed and raped on an industrial scale to produce more of us.
One particularly enduring experience of being a black girl or woman anywhere on this world is the right white women and men assert over our bodies. They put their hands in our hair and think they have done us a favor if they have asked permission first. Then become enraged when we say no. One woman offered me a Christian apology and hug to which I foolishly/innocently consented to find her stroking my now accessible hair. They demand explain we explain our skin – can we tan? do we burn? – our grooming and account for all of blackness everywhere.
[Some will look for me to say not all white folk and talk about my white allies, friends, loves and family members. If you need to hear that to hear me you are not hearing me.]
When I saw the video of Dajerria Becton with a white male police officer grabbing her by her hair and head pushing her face down into the ground, at one point dragging her on the ground by her arm, pressing himself onto her body, his knee in her back, his body clad in the uniform of the community in which she lives, adorned with the badge and gun funded by her parents’ taxes, her body clad in the bikini uniform of summer sun and fun leaving her body exposed for his grasping hands, I remembered too. I recognized what I was seeing because I have a black-girl-body too.
She will remember those hands. She will remember the weight of an unfamiliar, unwanted man pressing her down into the ground, trying to force her to submit, to comply. She will remember the entitlement with which he cursed her, snatched her, positioned her and released her at his leisure. Her memories will be located in the beautiful brown flesh of her black-girl-body.
Even without the litany of horrors that have made 2014 a year to forget if we could – hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted, sold and raped into slave marriages, their teachers and male classmates slaughtered, a plane with all souls aboard inconceivably disappeared into thin air, another plane from the same airline is shot down as Russia invaded and annexed Crimea – this Christmas is marked by violence the likes of which I have no comparison in my lifetime.
The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and lack of consequences faced by their killers are the tip of an iceberg of death. Black boys and men and, women like Renisha Boyd and girls like 7 year-old Aiyana Jones are being killed with abandon, particularly at the hands of the police. Black people are being killed by police at rates ranging from one every 72 hours to one every 28 hours by some accounts. (These accounts cannot be verified because of the lack of reporting by individual police departments.)
The racist biases against black people in this country and individual internalization of that bias lead to the disparate treatment of black folk at the hands of police. Unarmed black people, including children in their beds are shot to death and armed white folk are not even checked to see if they are in compliance with Open Carry and other firearm laws while white cop-killers are brought in alive to stand trial.
Too many black families are grieving the loss of their loved ones, many during these holidays and holy days. And many of us mourn with them, not as they mourn, but we mourn. And some of us are afraid for our brothers, sons, fathers, nephews and husbands. It is all too much. How can this be Christmas?
What does Christmas have to say to our broken fearful hearts? I’ll tell you the truth, the promise of eternal life is not comforting right now, neither is forgiveness of sins. I want to know what Christmas has to do with, say to, say about black life being snuffed out in American streets with little consequence.
There is one reason I haven’t thrown my bible against the wall and walked away long ago. One word actually. Immanu-El. God with us. God is with us. God is with us, dying in the street. That comforts me.
Mahalia Jackson’s Sweet Little Jesus Boy is one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is a poignant articulation of how much the story of the poor Babe of Bethlehem has in common with that of the black person in racist America. It is decades old, originating in Jim Crow and still relevant.
This Christmas I remember Jesus born to a fast-tailed girl and God was there, with her. Pregnant, single, presumed promiscuous. I remember a marginalized man, born into a world in which his people were subject to brutality at the whim of the people who oppressed his people. And God was with them. I remember a man who didn’t stick around for long eventually leaving a single mother to manage on her own, but God was with her. I remember a man whose protests against the powers of this world, including the collusion of some of his own folk led to death row. I remember a sorrowful mother told in his infancy that she would feel pain like being stabbed in the heart because of what the world would do to her child. And God remained with her. Even when the state executed her child and placed his bloody corpse in her arms.
The violence of this Christmas season is not new. It is not new for African Americans who survived the Maafa, slavocracy, Jim and Jane Crow, state-supported lynchings, the prison industrial complex. We have survived because God has been with us. It is not new in the history of the world. We will survive trigger-happy police trained by their fear and society’s racism to demonize and exterminate black people. We will survive because God is with us.
We will survive and the world will change. Empires, conquerors and oppressors fall, rot and die and the world continues to turn. Another favorite song is The Canticle of the Turning, a modern take on the Virgin’s hymn, The Magnificat. Mary’s response to threat of death she was under as an unwed pregnant girl in a society that policed women’s bodies and sexuality with lethal violence was to look back at how her people made it over because God was with them. Mary looked back to one of the Mothers of her faith, Hannah who would be known as a prophet in Judaism – perhaps she was by then – Hannah for whom tradition teaches Mary’s own mother was named.
Hannah sang that God is a World-Turner (using the imperfect signaling future or even present action). Mary sang that Hannah’s prophecy was true (using the past tense). The empires that occupied Hannah’s Israel were long gone. Mary’s Song survived the empire that oppressed her and executed her son.
Finally (but perhaps not finally!), Immanu-El is with us in death and beyond death, transforming death into life.
The violence of that first Christmas, and of this one, those between and those to come will never have the last word because God is Immanu-El. God is with us. We will survive. We will thrive. And we will turn this world around.
The fires of your justice burn in us and will not be extinguished. With you we proclaim that our black lives are sacred. And this crucifying, lynching world does not have the last word. It is Christmas and you are Immanu-El. God is with us.
If you cannot be merry or happy this Christmas, be blessed. Blessed Christmas.
God of Justice who declared black lives matter at the dawn of creation by scooping up a handful of black earth with which to craft humanity in the image of divinity,
We thank you that our radiant blackness is neither accidental nor incidental to your glory.
We join you Holy One, in your lament for the stolen lives of your precious children: Trayvon, Rekia, Mike, Renisha, Tamir, Ayanna and so many, many more. And we partner with you in righteous action to transform this sin-sick world.
We pray your heavenly benediction on those assembled [here], those who will protest and those who will not or cannot. We bless those protesting in other places around this nation and world proclaiming that black lives more than matter but that black life is sacred, and your very image.
And we pray your earthly benediction on and with us, for you are Immanuel, God with us. We pray your protection and know that you are with us in the streets because you are a ride and die God. Lastly we pray for the work: the transformation of the culture of policing, prosecuting and the entire unjust justice system. We pray for those police officers and citizens whose hearts are full of hate and fear. Touch them with your love in and through us. And let us together dismantle white supremacy that all black life: gay, straight, bi, trans, women, men, children in their beds, felons on lock down & homeless teens in the street will survive and thrive because we matter. Black life matters. Black life is sacred. Amen.
Live recording from 22 Sept 2014 including my talk: Turning Tables and Snatching Wigs: A Biblical Response to Ferguson and Forney
It’s in the soil. It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s as American as apple pie.
Racism perfuses the soil and soul of Ferguson MO as it does everywhere in these (dis)United States and the Western world. click to tweet It is our legacy and the stuff shaping the building blocks of this nation.
We’ve scraped it down to the bedrock in places but never removed all of that poisonous soil. So it putrefies, befouls and infects the soil and all that we have built upon it. Like the United States of America, our (in)justice system and penal code.
The Church is build on that racist soil. Which is why the Church, its structures, images and people are affected and infected by racism. We have failed to expose and eradicate the racism in our midst.
The police of Ferguson MO reflect an American reality. They are not an aberration. tweet
At the root of this race-based violence is more than a rejection of the civil rights of African Americans as citizens; rather it is a fundamental rejection of the human status of Black folk. This is a theological issue. I invite religious communities and the Church in particular to begin to have these discussions anew.
Dear Mr. Daniels,
I had the great pleasure of meeting you during one of your visits to the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in the company of your mother whose ministries in music and service have enriched my life as a congregant and as a priest.
I had the tremendous pleasure of seeing your film, The Butler, earlier today. It was simply phenomenal. I want to thank you for making this moving, poignant, revelatory film. And I want to commend you for how you made it. In telling the story of Cecil Gaines and his family, you have told the story of America, our shared history, from slavery to freedom. [For those who haven’t seen the movie, specific details follow.]
While this film was wildly entertaining and full of laughter, I appreciate that you did not shy away from horrors of slavery and its legacy in America. I say “slavery,” because although the film begins in 1926, you demonstrate with incisive clarity that the world of the share-cropping south in 20th century America was no different than that of the previous slavocracy in many ways: White men and women did what ever they wanted to black folk – raping and killing without consequence. The regular rape of black women in from of their families, often including children who were products of those rapes, continued well into the Civil Rights Era. It would be another half-century before a black man who tried to protect his family could hope to be protected or supported by the law. It was particularly important for me as a black woman that you started with that horrific reality and its aftermath.
I’m a seminary professor who thinks about how we teach and tell our sacred stories. I am so grateful your visual text. Your masterful storytelling and cinematography told the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the tender story of an African American family, showing their life, love, and laughter through celebrations and struggles with heart-warming intimacy; a rare portrait of a black family on film or television. Thank you.
I particularly appreciate the way you used contrast in the film: the shots of the lunch counter-sit in cutting in and out of the state dinner were breathtaking. There were others but the contrast between Mr. Gains and his son Louis and their journeys to political action were particularly profound. I loved that each had his own journey and could not see or understand the other’s journey. While each was changing the world in his own way he struggled with the incomprehensible choices of his son/father. I was particularly struck by the refections of the King character on the subversive dignity and service of the black domestic – weaving those storylines together was sheer brilliance.
And, as a priest and pastor I deeply appreciate your honest look at intergenerational conflict, the often difficult relationship between fathers and sons and estrangement that many experience. I loved the many small moments that bore witness to the stories of black folk in America like Mr. Gaines who had never been to school sending his children to college and reading to the President’s daughter. And I noticed with delight that there was a character with your mother’s name.
There is so much more I could say: The cast was incredible. Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. were all stellar. The transformations of Robin Williams and Live Schreiber into Dwight Eisenhower and LBJ were inspired. The script was compelling. And Carol’s afro was everything! I want to thank you deeply for making this powerful film, telling the story of my people and my country. May God continue to bless you with vision and the means to bring those visions to life.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
Don’t ask me how I am if you don’t want to know. If you can’t handle it. If you will need me to help you understand. Just don’t ask. You know how I am. How we are.
I am not ok. We are not ok. I am not safe. We are not safe.
I am not safe as a woman. I am not safe in America. I am not safe because I am black. I am not safe because I have a Ph.D. because I am black. I am not safe because I am middle class or even upper middle class because I am a black woman. I am not safe because I am an American because I am black and a woman.
My Episcopal priest’s collar will not keep me safe. I am not safe in this liberal Christian institution. I have been called nigger in the chapel of one of these seminaries. And I have had white faculty and administration colleagues white-splain to me that just because the student used the word nigger in a sentence while talking to me didn’t mean that she was calling me a nigger. I didn’t understand. I remember being forced to apologize for calling that place a plantation because I hurt the feelings of a white lady. And I did. I didn’t have tenure. I have tenure now. And I am not safe because I have tenure because I am black and a woman in America.
Don’t ask me what you already know.
Just keep playing Strange Fruit and Mississippi Goddamn until you get it.
And then let’s make the world safe for our children.
Many viewers of the History Channel's Bible mini-series saw and see a resemblance between the character of Satan and President Barack Obama. Comparison photos such as the one above are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The History Channel denies any resemblance and any attempt to pattern the character after the President.
Whether one sees a resemblance or not, the History Channel has produced a biblical epic with virtually no actors from contemporary corollaries of biblical lands, so the North African (Moroccan) actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouzaani is highly visible as Satan in a production where the Israelites are portrayed by white actors. I have previously addressed the use of race in the series here and here and here. The History Channel is responsible for what it broadcasts just as the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and their casting agents are responsible for the product they produce.
I can't say whether the resemblance between the Satan character is intentional or not, or present or not if it is not visible to some viewers. I can say that the casting of this actor for this role was an intentional one. He looked the part to someone. Whether that was because of a resemblance to the President of the United States in full makeup or because he is a North African is equally problematic.
I say as a biblical scholar that the casting of this series is unhistorical as it pertains to the Afro-Asiatic world of the bible with one or two critical exceptions. At the same time, the treatment of race by these producers reproduces the racist history of Christianity in the West, particularly in the Americas where it supported and benefited from the Atlantic slavetrade.
The choice to make Samson a big black man with a sexual appetite for white women was an intentional one. The choice to erase Samson's father from the narrative so that his black mother was single mother was an intentional one. The choice to cast essentially every other biblical character from lands corresponding to those from Egypt to Iraq with white actors, including some with Scottish and British accents was intentional. The choice to portray the creation of the first human as a white man emerging from sandy white soil rather than a black or brown person arising from the red-brown soil of the region was an intentional one.
The History Channel's production is aimed at an American audience – in addition to a global one – at a time when the first African American President of the United States is subject to repeated insults and regular disrespect from public and political figures. This production with its whitewashing of the people of God on whom colonizing settlers modeled themselves as they exterminated Native Americans like Canaanites and enslaved Africans like Gibeonites is contributing to the racial discourse at the present moment. And what it is contributing is a distortion of beloved biblical history and fodder for white-supremacist ideologies based on racist interpretations of the bible.
It might all be the working of a collective unconscious. Yet even on that level it is intentional, real, present and destructive.
The History Channel’s miniseries on the Bible is a ratings blockbuster. The Bible is an incredibly important text in the history and culture of the United States and Western world, and has its roots in the Eastern world. One would think that the media outlet that entitled itself the “History Channel” would be concerned about those roots. One might even think that the History Channel would endeavor to expose and explore those roots. But last night on episode two, the ill-named History Channel offered us a modern day Mandingo fairy tale.
The choice to cast Nonso Anozie (a black man in a bad dreadlock wig) as Samson as is in no way an attempt to demonstrate the visual and ethnic diversity of the ancient Near East in which this story is set, specifically the West Asian, East and North African context of the scriptures. The absence of characters of African descent up to this point makes that clear. (Just as the use of Black and Asian actors for angels makes them wholly “other” in the cast and not legitimate human bodies.)
That Samson is a big black man with brutish strength and a predilection for white women is no accident in this casting or production. One of the hallmarks of Rona Downey’s and Mark Burnett’s vision of the Bible is the erasure of the Afro-Asiatic Israelite ethnic identity and its replacement with a white, American fundamentalist Christian identity. They do this in several ways.
1) Casting: they cast an abundance of white American and European actors and occasionally paint some dirt on their faces to make them look a little brown. Consider the creation of humanity, told in a flashback. Humanity was created from the humus, an earthling from the earth, in Hebrew an adam from the adamah. Instead of the rich brown-red soil native to Israel, Palestine and the Great Rift Valley which descends from the Holy Land down into Kenya and Tanzania, the producers use sandy white soil from which springs a sandy white man. However, Satan is played by a Middle Mastern man, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni. While widely advertising a “Hispanic” Jesus, the producers actually cast a Portugese actor, Diogo Morgado, with white skin as Jesus. His skin has to be white since Roma Downey (of Touched By An Angel fame, part of the powerhouse team along with Mark Burnett behind this anachronistic whitewash of the bible) cast herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary – shades of Mel Gibson casting a white Jesus so he could insert his own feet into certain shots.
2) The second way the production replaces authentic Israelite identity with a white American fundamentalist and evangelical construction is in the use of quintessentially American race motifs like that of the big black buck or Mandingo, the brutishly strong, bestial black man and his preferential taste for white women. By transforming all of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites into white people, “simply” casting an Afro-British actor as Samson stages a lynching propaganda piece that the Klan would be proud of under the cover of the bible and “diversity.”
3) The third re-writing strategy of the team involves gender. The bible is an androcentric and patriarchal text. It is also a text that has many women’s narratives, including those of strong women wielding power and authority in spite of their patriarchal and androcentric context. There is no room in the Burnett-Downey recreation of the bible in their own image – right down to their own skin tones – for strong biblical women so they simply exclude them. A partial list of the women who have been cut from the narrative include: Yocheved, Moses’ mother and the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Zipporah, Moses’ wife and her sisters so that Moses is not the product of a strong community of women all of whom save his life in different episodes, but a lone ranger, a man who became a hero on his own. Hoglah, Milcah, Maacah, Noah and Tirtzah, the daughters of Zelophehad who are mentioned in more biblical books than there are Gospels, for whom God changed inheritance laws in the Torah that women might receive an inheritance – not worthy of attention. The great woman-warrior, Prophet and Judge (sharing those titles with Moses and Samuel and no one else, not even Joshua) Deborah, who ruled the nation – excised. Hannah, the theological revolutionary who taught the priesthood how to pray – unnecessary.
There is a final whitewashing, silencing strategy employed by these producers. That is sanitizing genocide, slavery – when the Israelites are the slavers, sexual violence and heterodox theologies. The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to. We must take it in its entirety seriously as a cultural and historical artifact and as scripture – if that is our confession. But this series erases the texts in which Joshua and the Israelites slaughter babies, kill their mothers, fathers and brothers and take their sisters as war-brides as long as they haven’t had sex – prepubescent girl-children – on the orders of Moses and God. They ignore the texts in which God calls for the enslavement of non-Israelites and their children in perpetuity – the scriptural and theological basis for the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavocracy. They ignore the texts in which entire ethnic groups are exterminated by divine command. And they even ignore the horrific sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls within Israel: Lot’s offer of his daughters to be raped by a mob, Israelite fathers selling their daughters into sexual slavery with the permission of God and Moses, a Judge of Israel sacrificing his daughter like an animal and celebrated as a hero of faith in the New Testament, abduction, rape, forced pregnancy used repeatedly as tools of war. Bathsheba’s abduction and rape recast as consensual adultery.
In the American context when rape is being redefined while male bible-thumping legislatures require physicians to forcibly insert instruments into women’s vaginas one day and deny them access to legal medical procedures the next, it matters that and how the bible is being distorted in primetime. Whereas evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis watched with “great delight,” I watched with horror.
In the American context the Israelite identity has been claimed by Christians and particularly by Western, European Christians who were also constructing the categories of white into which they placed themselves and the Afro-Asiatic Israelites. And, the United States was viewed, claimed and seized as a new Canaan for the new Israelites to conquer and subdue, hosting the reincarnation and reenactment of biblical slavery painted in black and white. This is why the whitewash of the bible on the History Channel is so pernicious. It is a continuation of slave-holding racist exegesis. And they ought to be ashamed.
Twitter Stream from Dr. Gafney:
(I inadvertantly mispelled Quvenzhané in the earlier version of this post affecting the text in the link. I have corrected it in the post I sincerly apologize to her and to her family.)
A black girl-child must be the most fearsome thing in the world based on how hard so many adults in the juggernaut of
Hollywood Hollywierd are working to demean and debase her. Whether it's reporters who can't or won't learn to say her name – "Can I call you Annie?" No. "My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané." (I am not naming the offenders. I refuse to call their names.) Can you imagine a reporter not bothering to learn the name of a world leader because it makes demands on her articulation? Yet some want to call her uppity for insisting on the dignity of her own name. We've seen that before: Grown black women called "Gal," never "Mrs."
And then there was the person and organization who thought it was ok to call a nine year-old baby girl carrying a stuffed dog a vaginal slur.
I am reminded of the prophetic and prescient bell hooks and her continually relevant essay "Selling Hot Pussy." Black women and girls and our brown sisters are commodities from plantations to picture shows reduced to our urogenital orifices. (Bootylicious anyone?) The claim of comedic license would be a joke if it were not so feeble and so deadly. The law of this land not so very long ago was that black women and girls could not be raped because we had no ownership of our own bodies, no right to withhold consent or access from any white man or any black man to which he wanted to breed us. A black woman or girl who defended herself and her womb against violation and pollution was beyond uppity; she was a criminal.
White privilege and its daughter, White Ladihood, cover white child-actressess from Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore to Dakota Fanning in its embrace. They were not and would not be called filth and out of their names on their big night. The actions of these journalists reveal their belief that Miss Quvenzhané Wallis is not deserving of the protections afforded white ladihood, not even at the tender age of nine. Like a slave, she is not afforded the luxury of a childhood.
No baby, we haven't come a long way. Some have never left the plantation. Others are trying desperately to recreate it and impose it on the rest of us. We are not a post-racial society. We are a society in which a few people of color have made extraordinary accomplishments and are then used as shields to defend against claims of racism. We also live in a world in which violence against women and girls is epidemic and cataclysmic. Little Quvenzhané lives at the intersection of black and female and is doubly impacted, doubly marginalized, doubly vulnerable.
That the writer who called Quvenzhané Wallis a word no nine year-old should hear, know or have to be shielded from should be held professionally accountable and lose his (or her) job must be said. That so many in the twitterverse an on other social media platforms are outraged is a hopeful sign. But that the media outlet which posted that comment and later took it down without apology has not taken responsibility for its vicious act of sexualized (verbal) violence against a child is reprehensible. That the people who work there don't understand that they feel entitled to treat Quvenzhené they way they are because she is black is the point and the problem.
Quvenzhané, I say your name with pride and respect. You are a gift to this world. You are brilliant and beautiful, made in the image of a loving God whom many cannot or will not recognize because she is a black girl flowering into womanhood. And the world that lynched a Jewish single mother's child simply can't handle God in black female body. (See Janet McKenzie's iconic image of Jesus using a black woman as Christ/a.)