Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “white supremacy

When Scripture is Violent

 

Pixaby

I love the Hebrew Scriptures and their stories but I understand why some folk have a hard time with them, particularly as scripture. Many of these epic stories include epic episodes of violence, sometimes at the bequest of God, sometimes enacted by God. It is easy to treat these stories like novels, movies, or video games, something we enjoy then put down to return to real lives where we do not behave like those characters. Speaking for myself, I love action movies: crime capers, shoot ‘em ups, superheroes, intergalactic battles, the occasional vampire or werewolf rampaging…

There is a difference, I believe, between turning to a movie or book you know is fiction for entertainment and reading your scriptures for inspiration, guidance, to discern God’s voice, or for a pattern on which to model your life. We are in a time when we are reassessing our ancestral legacies as a nation and as Church, and grappling with the horrific violence that is often our unwelcome inheritance. We are having serious conversations—when we’re not shouting at each other—about what to do with the physical reminders of our painful past, not just statues, but also churches in which all of the images of the holy people of God are white people. In these conversations I understand my role as a biblical scholar and priest to be to help us think about the ways in which we, nation and Church, have used the stories of scripture to harm rather than heal.

I also know that not all of the harm resulting from our interaction with the scriptures is just a matter of poor interpretation or even my personal nemesis, bad translation. Sometimes the stories themselves are the problem, and sometimes a well-worn and beloved story suddenly starts to look and sound different—like when you first started to understand how violent and downright gruesome some fairytales and nursery rhymes really are.

Sometimes the violence in scripture is illustrative and reflective, it tells some hard truths about who human beings have been and continue to be. Sometimes the violence in scripture encourages us to choose sides, good guys/bad guys, and we may find ourselves cheering for what happens to them, because they deserve it for what they did to us.

Exodus 14 tells the saga of the Red Sea crossing, one of the great stories in our heritage. Our lesson begins in verse 19 where the Israelites are safely ensconced in the wings of divine protection on their perilous journey. There is an angel in font of them and God herself, the divine hijabi, veiled in the pillar of cloud and fire behind them, protecting them from the army that wants to drag them back in chains to slavery. It is no small irony that the founders of this nation, who identified themselves with Israel and as God’s chosen, felt no compunction about enslaving others even as they celebrated Israel’s own deliverance from slavery. But then again, to tell the truth—especially in church—neither did Israel. They went on to be a slaveholding nation as well.

But at this point in the story assigned to us today, Israel is walking into their liberation, guided and guarded by God. Then God enables Moses to open the sea. We can imagine the spectacle much more easily than our ancestors because we have movies with special effects like CGI. Some of the disaster movies are better than the many versions of the Ten Commandments and other bible epics at portraying waters that reach up and out as far as the eye can see.

Understandably, the Egyptians flee. But that isn’t good enough. In the text God tells Moses to put the waters back in place which will drown the Egyptian soldiers. The text doesn’t care about the Egyptian soldiers as people, who have lives, families and loved ones, whose lives have value. In the text and in their world the Egyptian soldiers were simply an extension of the Pharaoh and they become casualties in his losing contest with God, one that he could not back down from even when he wanted to because God hardened his heart and made him stay in a losing fight. These are difficult portrayals of God mixed in with the shepherding sheltering images that are much more inviting and trustworthy.

This is not the one-dimensional God of our childhood’s faith. This is a complex and complicated character who is often inscrutable. The scriptures teach we are made in the image of God while offering a God who sometimes seems to be made in the image of humanity, showcasing all the worst parts. I ask my students if these portrayals tell us more about who God is or more about who ancient folk were and how they understood God. Sometimes I find it’s one, sometimes the other, sometimes a bit of both.

Can we, as thoughtful readers still treasure this story of divine deliverance without celebrating the deaths of men whose families would ache for their loss as much as you would for your brother, father, husband, or son? I believe we can because what makes these texts scripture, the living word of a living God, is their ability to transcend their context and its limitations even when it is reflected in their content. Indeed the psalm models that for us. Psalm 114 remembers the exodus by celebrating God’s power over the elements. It doesn’t glorify or gloat over the loss of life—though other psalmists will. Savoring the richness of scripture means savoring its complexity the way we savor bitter and sweet mingled on our tongues.

I find the gospels are increasingly bittersweet. There we encounter in Jesus an image of God that is radical and revolutionary, and rooted in the culture and context into which Jesus was born. Jesus models and teaches a beloved community and sovereign realm that is and will be nothing like the petty vicious kingdoms of this world yet does so using the same language that describes them, the language of kings and slaves, both of which are inherently violent concepts. And when Jesus teaches us how to live and love in this world that is being transformed by his redemption of it and us, his language and teaching examples often include the irredeemable practice of slavery without critique.

This too is violent. There is real danger in normalizing or even minimizing the brutality that underlies slaveholding in the ancient world, in the scriptures, in our own past, and at the present moment when black lives are taken without consequence. Yet, I am convinced that neither the casual violence of slavery as an inescapable element of the biblical world nor the romanticizing of God as a king in a world when kings were little more than warlords, nor even the graphic violence in some of scripture’s great stories are grounds for leaving it behind. Rather they call us to listen, read, and hear deeply, what the Spirit is saying to her people.

In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a story to answer Peter’s question how often he has to forgive his sister or bother, meaning another Christian. Rather than focus on this text as a how-to-resolve-conflict-in-the-Church resource, which is a fine reading, I want to point out that Peter is talking about a world in which there is still an us and a them. He feels no moral responsibility to anyone outside their circle. He doesn’t consider that he has an ethical obligation to them the same as he does to those who are part of his community. Forgiveness is what God demands; it is justice in this text. And Peter like too many folk in our justice system and wider society have different ideas about justice when it comes to us and them.

In response to Peter’s question Jesus tells the story of a king and his slaves, their debt, and its consequences presenting an opportunity for us to examine the way we read scripture then to read more deeply. For example, we hear Jesus tell a story about a king and may get ahead of ourselves and say, “I know how this works. God is king. Done. Got it. Next.” But is the king in this parable God? I sure hope not. Just because Jesus is telling the story and using this character to teach us doesn’t make the king God or even a good example to follow.

Look at this guy. The king’s first impulse when his slave fails is to sell him, his wife, and their children. That is the opposite of the God who saves, delivers, redeems, and liberates though we hear this kind of theology all the time, in and out of the bible. I don’t believe in a God who sells people into slavery to punish them. Then, when the king hears that the first slave failed to show the mercy he was shown, the king had him tortured. That is not my God. But there are many who believe in a God who punishes with tornado and hurricane and every bad thing that befalls a person or community. You can hear them on TV blaming the storms or earthquakes or devastating diseases on other people and their supposed or imagined sins. The king in this parable makes an insufficient, inadequate and, unworthy God. We can look to him no more for justice than we can look to a society that has not exorcised the demon of white supremacy for justice.

The gospel in the text is not that God is a king who can do whatever he wants to a person so you’d better watch out, that is a deeply impoverished theology. Rather, the gospel in the text is that even a person of immense privilege whose wealth results from the exploitation of other human beings is made in the image of God and has the capacity to do the right thing which the king demonstrates in forgiving his slave. Yes, the gospel is that we ought to forgive one another, especially in the church but a deep reading reveals so much more. The gospel is also that the king relinquishes his claim on some of the benefits conferred on him by the privilege he held in an unjust society. And the gospel is that however much privilege you have in society when you’re not at the top, you still have the agency and holy responsibility to act justly, particularly to those who are vulnerable.

This gospel also tells us what we already know, that people who are ground down by oppression oppress others in turn. That helps me understand the passage in Exodus. Israel who had been enslaved and oppressed, defeated, conquered, occupied, deported and occupied again and again by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians and later the Persians, Greeks and Romans, tells its sacred stories in such a way that they could envision a god who would not forgive what they could not.

Yet God is present in that troubling text, in the waters and on the dry land, with the drowning Egyptians and with the liberated Israelites. God is present in all of creation and with all of her children. She reminds us we are not limited by our history and need not be hindered by our heritage. More importantly, God is not limited by or to our limitations, imagination or theology. The God who loves invites us into relationship with her and each other and in that space there is no enemy, friend, sister, brother, king or slave, only Love, the Beloved, and those who love. Amen.

 


White Supremacy in the White House, in the Church, and in the Streets

Take note of the women and children.

Before folk start issuing calls for racial reconciliation… Again. No.

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.

We haven’t been through that process, as a nation or as the Church in the US or in the West. 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.

 

It is well past time to talk about whiteness in the church–which is white people’s work–but because white people are not doing it adequately or sufficiently it falls to people of color. It is not easy. It is not nice. It is work. It is difficult work. Which perhaps is why it is often left to people of color who can then be blamed and dismissed for the feelings it generates.

Whiteness is the unspoken norm against which everyone else is defined. The categories of race and ethnicity were invented to articulate how other people differ from the persons constructed as the standard, normative, default or base model of humanity. 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. Christ is the light of the world. The light that overcomes darkness. Light and dark are antithetical, one vanquishes the other. It does not matter that light is not white and dark is not black. There are light and dark shades of human flesh so the struggle of light against darkness has been mapped onto human bodies and provided the rhetoric for civilizing the dark heart of Africa with slavery and the light of Christianity, conveniently ignoring the most ancient Christian tradition, Egyptian Coptic Christianity. We can’t escape that language in our scriptures but we can take care how we use it, how we preach it. The mechanism that enforces whiteness as the norm in and out of the church is white supremacy.

The doctrine of white supremacy is for me best articulated by philosopher David Hume in his Essays: Moral, Political and Literary:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

This is the ideology that is in the White House in there person of the president who welcomed and cultivated the support of white supremacist groups from the Klu Klux Klan to neo-Nazis and appointed some of them as his advisors. This is the ideology that worships at the altar of the Confederate treason and will kill to protect its icons. This is the ideology that has murdered—crucified, lynched—castrated and raped black children, women, and men, and Jews and Latinos, and the occasional white folk labeled race traitors. This is the ideology held by the folk who beat protestors and clergy and murdered a man and injured others in a domestic terror attack in Charlottesville. White supremacy are the words the president refuses to say while he governs because of its voting power.

The role of white supremacy in the church is neither accidental nor incidental. The role of the Church in the carving up and colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas is history many white folk and churches don’t bother teaching or learning. That is white privilege. I won’t spoon feed it here. The Church is also implicated in the settling of this continent articulated in the language of the settlement of Canaan providing divine sanction for the genocide of its inhabitants just like Joshua alleges happened to the peoples of Canaan. And then there is the way the church and every other American institution has profited materially from slave labor and the exploitation and plundering of black wealth. (Google 15 major corporations you never knew benefitted from slave labor; look up medical experimentation on black people.) 

White 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. Jesus is Jesus. But Black Jesus is extra.

Historically, the whitening of the holy served to identify the holy with whiteness against all others explicitly and intentionally. Some of what is at stake in talking about the biblical world as “the Middle East” and not the confluence of Africa and Asia, is claiming ancient Israel and its theological significance and ancient Egypt and its cultural significance as white. Ancient Israel and its peoples, like its languages are Afro-Asiatic. The African and Syrian tectonic plates come together in the Great Rift Valley in which the Jordan River lies. The valley runs from the Nile River Valley in Egypt—which is in Africa—to the Zambezi River Valley in Zimbabwe. Ancient Israel straddled the Jordan with the bulk on the cis-Jordan, African side, i.e. Galilee and Jerusalem, and only the territorial holdings of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh on the trans-Jordan, Syrian side. Contemporarily the Jordan is the boundary between Israel and Jordan and the West Bank and Jordan so that Israel and the Palestinian territories are all on the African side.

Contemporarily white iconography continues the work of whitening the scriptures (as did its classical forbears), 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. Seeing 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? Of course some churches use dark bread, and have multicultural art and icons whether their people are people of color or people of pallor. I’m talking about the dominant construction of God in the Church, in our nation and in the Western dominated world, those places where Christianity coincided happily, prosperously and intentionally with slavery and colonization and in which the cry of Black Lives Matter is all too often muted to All Lives Matter or combatted with Blue Lives Matter. 

There is a direct line from whiteness to domination in and out of the Church. Decentering whiteness requires centering black and brown iconography – not adding a piece or two or more, but dethroning white jesus and casting him out as the idol of white supremacy that he is.

We will never dismantle white supremacy in the White House, in the Church or in the streets if we dare not say its name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[The text of this post was adapted from two of my prior public lectures at predominantly white churches.] 


Exorcising America’s Murderous Demons

The Creation of Adam by Harmonia Rosales

 

[In an earlier version the title was misspelled as “exercising.”]

In the Name of the God who loves we who are hated, those who hate, and those whom we hate. Amen.

Forty-nine. Forty-nine lives cut short. Forty-nine people murdered. Forty-nine souls martyred. Forty-nine of God’s children executed for living and loving out loud as gay, trans, bi and lesbian human beings, and for loving them, being with them, dancing with them, serving them, entertaining them, and protecting them. They were targeted on Latin Night at the Pulse Nightclub one year ago, an evening that was known to draw in the Hispanic gay brown and black community.

They were killed because a man decided they didn’t deserve to live, that they weren’t deserving of God’s gifts of life and love to them. Who was he to say who was worthy of God’s love, worthy of life, worthy of being created in the image of God? He was someone who chose an image of God to worship that was as broken and twisted as he was, a god who hated what he hated and feared, perhaps even what he hated and feared about himself. We may never fully understand all the reasons why he chose a god who hates over the God who loves.

Here I do not speak of Allah or al-Islam. Allah is one of many names for the One true God whom we share with Muslims and Jews—in spite of Trinitarian arithmetic. Allah it is the name in which Arabic-speaking Christians have always prayed because it is God’s name. Islam like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, has followers who choose the most hateful and violent texts and traditions, interpretations, misinterpretations and misunderstandings of their religion. The hate cult to which the murderer pledged allegiance is as far beyond mainstream Islam as the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are beyond mainstream Christianity.

Nine. Nine lives cut short. Nine people murdered. Nine souls martyred. Nine of God’s children executed for being black in a Charleston church two years ago this week.

Our nation and our world are full people who choose hate and death for others, and sometimes for themselves. The Alexandria shooter who hated Republicans for being sexist and racist also chose hate and death. He too took it upon himself to decide who should live and who should die because of his personal and political beliefs.

The Pulse shooter represented a particular ultra-conservative ideology and the Alexandria shooter an über-progressive one, and what they have in common is the self-righteous justification of their own lethal violence. They share a belief that other human beings with whom they don’t agree have neither a God-given right to life nor a constitutionally protected right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They both chose hate and death, but God offers us life and love.

God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. [and]…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:8, 5)

We have the Spirit of God within us. She breathed us to life with our first breath and she was poured into us at our baptism. And the defining characteristic of that Spirit, of God, is love. God is Love. And God loves. God loves all, without exception. God loves those who hurt and hurt others and God loves those who hate. God loves those we do not yet know how to love, those we do not want to love, and God loves those we hate. Some of us hate. It’s hard not to in the crucified and crucifying world.

Love is a choice. In the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony we ask if the beloveds will love and they answer, “I will.” The real question is not “do you,” today, but “will you,” next week, next year, in some cases, once all the guests leave. Will you love? Will you love when it’s hard? Will you love when you don’t want to? Will you love? That question is not just for those who take vows of love, marriage and life-partnership.

The question is for us as well. Will we love? Will we choose life and love?

The choice to love is a difficult one. Have you met people? They’re horrible! But… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. We are not on our own. God’s Spirit, God’s Love, is with us and in us and among us. And that love comes with responsibilities. It is not for us alone. It is for the world, for the healing of the world’s hurts and hates.

Some of those hurts and hates have been baked into our American bones.

Philando. Philando Castile. Sitting in his car with his baby girl and her mother. Live on Facebook. Like many here in Texas and across the US, legally exercising his Second Amendment rights with a licensed handgun tucked away in its holster. He even notified the officer so there would be no misunderstanding. But he was black. Black like me, black like Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and 6 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot in her own bed, black like Walter Scott who was running away unarmed when shot in the back by a police officer and blackness is terrifying, in part because this nation was founded on the idea that to be black is to be inhuman and there fore not entitled to life, liberty or justice.

We have to talk about how this culture inculcates fear of blackness because it is killing us. Some of us more than others. It is not simply racism, biased opinions. It is a white supremacist structural system that infects all of us including black and brown police officers and jurors who believe it is so reasonable to be so in fear of blackness that no one should be punished for killing unarmed black folk because they too share that fear. It is the unholy communion[1] of the American enterprise. [American religious scholar Candace Benbow puts it more strongly: “Black bodies and Black blood. The holy communion of Whiteness.]

There is a deep-seated loathing of blackness and black people in this country. It is at best a disease, at worst a demonic affliction, perhaps both. It feels overwhelming but we are neither helpless nor hopeless.

Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1)

Jesus has authority over death, disease and demons and that includes white supremacy, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and all the hatreds and hurts that infect and plague our world, including toxic masculinity that batters at home then terrorizes in public. (The two things most mass-shooters and perpetrators of domestic terror have in common is being men and having a history of domestic violence.) And Jesus has given that authority to us. Jesus called his disciples, empowered his disciples, then he sent them out to do the work of the reign of God. That work is now ours: Proclaim the good news, ‘The reign of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

That is our work, the dismantling of white supremacy, systemic racism and the hate and fear of non-white peoples and cultures that are behind them. Those are the demons that bedevil us. Those are the diseases that sicken our nation and the church. We do this work by accepting our calling to it, by identifying the demons and diseases, cutting the infection out of our society and its systems—educational, health and justice—and where it cannot be cut out or cut off, let it die. For we are also called to raise the dead and some of what is broken in this world simply needs to die and be raised to new life in Christ Jesus, and that includes the Church.

The gospel is that the reign of God is among us, the love of God is among us, the antidote to all that is broken and diseased is among us. We are the ones we have been waiting for. The work is ours. It begins in earnest when we go out of these doors. Our gospel less says that Jesus first sent his disciples to his own people, their own people. The work of dismantling all of these structures and the hatreds on which they are built begin at home, in homes and families, and friendships and congregations and classrooms, move theatres and surgical theatres. Every place that we are, we must affirm the human dignity of all God’s children and call out and stand against every indignity and every injustice.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Amen.

 

[1] Martha Simmons, modified “holy” to “unholy” in response to Candace Benbow, Facebook, 16 June 2017.


Are You My Sister?

rs-trump-crowd

Update: The image (below) I first used for the post was apparently altered by someone else without my knowledge. The original is above. I have decided to keep both. The truth is I and meany others understand “great” in the Trumpian context to mean “white.”

screen-shot-2016-03-11-at-2-14-08-pm

My bones ache with the memories of white women’s betrayal encoded in their marrow.

Plantation mistresses equally responsible for the rape and ravagement of black girls and women, spinning their savagery into black gold, ever lighter. Brutalizing, burning, maiming, cutting, blinding, disfiguring enslaved black women for having been raped by their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. Choosing white privilege and white supremacy over humanity and solidarity. And calling it Christian. Their betrayal is in my bones. Passed down through the wombs of my mothers. It greets me in the mirror in my less-than-black black skin.

Suffragettes whose commitment to women’s right to vote included black women as long as it was understood they were there on suffrage and they and their men would be sent to the hungry arms of lynch mobs if their forgot their place, behind white women.

Too many colleagues and coworkers from too many jobs, white before feminist, white before woman, white before colleague, white before scholar, white before administrator. White before all. 

And let us not forget the Church and its good Christian white women. My sisters in Christ. White bread and white Jesus surround you reminding you that you and your lily white skin are created in the image of the white god fantasized and fetishized by your fathers.

Are you my sister?

Or does your whiteness preclude you from seeing me in my blackness as human?

Do not tell me that you are my sister.

You have already shown me who you are.


America, Amerika, Amerikkka

donald-trump-endorsed-by-the-ku-klux-klan-696x400

America has revealed its true colors. Its core values are racism, sexism, misogyny, Islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. White folk, look to your uncles and aunties, sons and sisters. You have heard their jokes around your tables and left them unchallenged. They are you. These are your values. Misanthropy is a pitiful rallying cry.

The fall of the Amerikan empire is inevitable. All empires fall. Often from within. Will we be decimated in its wake?


Returning to our ROOTS

Both actors played Kunta Kinte

LeVar Burton and Malachi Kirby

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.


A Lament for Violence

Holy Wednesday Sermon

Cross on calvary, Jerusalem

In the Name of God who hears our cries, bear our tears on her wings and empowers us to dry each other’s tears. Amen.

Today is a day for lament, even though we will celebrate the Eucharist. The lessons call for lament. The state of the world calls for lament. The state of our nation calls for lament. The state of the Church calls for lament. And some of us have deep personal laments.

I am lamenting the reassertion of white supremacy in our public and political discourse and in the church. I am lamenting the murders of black and brown trans and cis women and men by police and anyone else who thinks they can get away with it. I am lamenting the language of hate and fear that targets Muslims and Arabs and immigrants. I am lamenting the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. I am lamenting violence in the streets of Jerusalem. I am lamenting terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Cote D’Ivoire and Brussels. I am lamenting rampant sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy especially in the church. And I am lamenting violence in the world particularly violence enacted against women and girls by Boko Haram, the violence perpetrated by all sides in Syria and the ravening violence of Daesh that looks a lot like the violence remembered in our lessons today.

Today’s texts commemorate the great sorrow of Israel, the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and the temple. My students will know, should know, that the trauma of the fall gave birth to the scriptures in written form, in order to piece together a theology that accounted for the trauma of Jerusalem’s destruction and to pass something of their heritage to the next generation.

Psalm 74 reads like a first hand account of the sack of the temple, an event often neglected in the Christian rush to get to Jesus and the New Testament. The assault and its success were unfathomable. The last time barbarians appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, they were miraculously turned back. Not even the historical record can explain why the mighty Assyrian Empire could not capture Jerusalem in 704 BCE. The Judeans had a theological answer; Jerusalem was the home of the living God and inviolable. That’s why Ps 46 proclaims and promises:

God is in the midst of the city; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when the morning dawns.

Yet more than a century later the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and raged into the temple unopposed. Asaph describes the Babylonians hacking with hammers and axes, smashing and burning the temple and everything in it to the ground. The God of cloud and pillar, fire and smoke, quaking ground and swallowing earth didn’t so much as rumble. No fire fell from heaven, no stones thrown from above. No miracles. No magic. No resistance. No deliverance. No salvation.

The book of Lamentations describes the assault and its aftermath: people desperate for food, elders succumbing to starvation, screaming babies and crying children begging for food, women eating their young, unburied bodies of young and old piled up because no one has the strength to bury them, the bodies of executed rulers impaled and hung on display and the systematic rape of women and girls and a hint of a similar fate for boys. The psalmist Asaph appealed to the Sovereign God who works salvation in the earth and asked why. Why God? Why?

Lamentations and the major theological voice in the scriptures, the Deuteronomistic school, provides a answer. We religious folk seek to make God-sense out of the world’s brokenness and our own. But the theology of Lamentations is painfully inadequate: It says God, not the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The text will go on to blame Judah and Jerusalem for their own destruction. It is a theology of sin and retribution. The kind of Iron Age theology we still hear, blaming people for hurricanes, floods, outbreaks of disease and personal tragedies.

The Gospel buys in to this theology to some degree: The wicked tenants are the people of Israel who reject the messengers of God and even God’s beloved child. This is the kind of text that lends itself to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and at times perverted what should be a holy week of reflection into a macabre reenactment of the Babylonian violence against Jerusalem.

What then can we learn from these texts in spite of their Iron Age theology?

What is eternal about Lamentations is the lament itself, raising your voice to God about God. No matter how limited our understanding or theology, we have the right and responsibility to cry out to God. In the psalm Asaph models this for us: Why, God? Why? And the Gospel promises that no matter how depraved, how murderous, how violent humanity becomes, God will not abandon us to our own devices. God has entered into our world, into our very flesh, despite our history, theology and rhetoric. The Church has failed in the past to stand up to white supremacist and fascist rhetoric. Lamentably we have another opportunity to confront this evil that is entrenched in the church as well as in the wider world.

In the gospel God sent wave after wave of messengers and servants to do the work that must be done to reform and transform the world. In one reading we are those servants. The work is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The world would rather kill us than hear our Gospel. In a world in which we have to insist that #BlackLivesMatter this is not an exaggeration.

If we do not purify the Church of its white supremacy, anti-Judaism, hetero-patriarchy and transphobia we may find that we are stone that the builder rejects and God will do her work in the world without us.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week, we lament the faults and failings of the church as we lament the brokenness of the world. We bring our laments and those of the people for we care to this holy place, and every place where God meets her people that together we may rise and build in their memory a world that will be worthy of those for whom Jesus lived and died. Amen.

Prayers of the People, for the Nation and for Elections (BCP)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Holy and Righteous God our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.

Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.

For yours is all governance, Sovereign God, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

We continue to pray for the world saying Holy One: Save us, heal us.

For peace among nations we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

For an end to violence as a political tool we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That we not surrender to fear or terror we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That we might wage peace  as furiously as others wage war we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That our prayers for reconciliation would be word and deed we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us. Amen.


Christ Our Mother

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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.


Protest Prayer

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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.


Turning Tables Teach-In Christian Responses to Racialized Violence

Updated!

J. K. Gayle’s response to my address interweaving my (much) earlier work on translation theory as it pertains to the scriptures from a black feminist perspective.

Live recording from 22 Sept 2014 including my talk: Turning Tables and Snatching Wigs: A Biblical Response to Ferguson and Forney


The Racist Soil of Ferguson MO

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(Photo: Reuters)

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 aberrationtweet

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.