Racial Reconciliation is for the ENTIRE body of Christ so I’m Redefining What It Means

12 08 2015

I’m in a place of psychological shift. The way I think is being altered, and I’m happy for it. I hope that as I get older, I get wiser and I learn how to constructively question things I have believed in order to enter into new and truer forms of belief. I don’t want to believe blindly, but I want to build belief based on how I build and live my life.

For me, I believe in racial reconciliation in the church. It is something that entered my mind ten years ago and has never left. It is something that has entered my mission six years ago and has revealed itself as a true demonstration of church.

But I may be a rare being. I am a black woman highly aware of racial, gender, sexual and class dynamics. I spent a portion of my childhood, teens and early twenties in black churches (which I am sure holds its own degrees and rankings of how “black church” I am). But that has been my experience. Have I always fit into said black churches? I would argue that I never have. As a Nigerian, it is hard not to remain an outlier or to become the link back to Africa so many are desperate for they don’t realize they’re limiting what my connection with them could be because of it. So I have always been either outsider or a means to the inside, back to Africa. Neither way have I been particularly useful to or connected to the history of the black church in the United States.

But my story took an odd turn in my mid-twenties. I joined a white church in hopes to be part of the nearly impossible mission of the church to be reconciled to one another. And the area I am most interested in doing so is through race and ethnicity.

Ephesians 2:12-16 is a key text in reconciling work, but many miss its great power. It demonstrates the power of God to bend time – many overlook this and skip to Jew-Gentile relations (we’ll leave that conversation for another post). This movement is too quick if it overlooks what time is doing and meaning for the church.

Eph. 2 talks about the reconciling work that Christ has already done that we are living into in the present – though it has already been done. We are currently trying to live into the past and future in the present. We are thus trying to figure out how to live into the reality Christ has already set before us – we are trying to make what has been will be. Reconciliation is about transcending time, moving beyond the past while requiring it, living into the future all the while not knowing it that well. We need a more complex understanding of racial reconciliation – at the bare minimum to honor how time is working in our conceptualizing of it. But we stick with our simple strategies of what some (mainly white) people have guessed it should be. The emphasis on what time means to reconciliation should place our attention of what the “we” means as well.

We (majority and minority churches alike) often fail to understand how we’ve constrained racial reconciliation to moments of white solution-creating if we think (or buy into the notion, yes, even through rejecting it, that) racial reconciliation means minorities entering into white church spaces. It seems a bit offensive to reduce Christ’s redemptive work to the project of white churches assuaging its guilt of having no intention of not remaining white churches.

So this brings me to my question: If racial reconciliation is not neo-missions or neo-colonial in it being created by, conducted within and made for white churches, what is it? If all churches minority and majority became involved in constructing the articulation of its being (as it constitutes what being church even means), can racial reconciliation look different than what white churches have believed it to be which has forced many minority churches to avoid it? What if racial reconciliation is not based on a relationality of “white to everyone” else, but of “everyone else to everyone else” (Gentile to Gentile)?

Shouldn’t racial reconciliation then be steeped in the social, religious and political? If we follow a religious Lord whose purpose was to exist in a political world and overcome it and a social Lord whose purpose was to exist in a religious world and overcome it and a political Lord whose purpose was to exist in a social world and overcome it – how should we be?

Redefining Racial Reconciliation

Shouldn’t racial reconciliation, in its true form, in its only form declare, “Black Lives Matter”? Shouldn’t racial reconciliation in churches make living wage and economic equality its top agenda? Shouldn’t racial reconciliation in churches have at its forefront the issues of its women – as we are all one body? Shouldn’t racial reconciliation in churches take into account that political, social life and religious institutions can create balance or imbalance between races and ethnicities (in its denominationalism, polities, and practices) – and move to dismantle the oppressive mechanics of this? Racial reconciliation in church should influence voting, social causes, our relationship to wealth and security. Shouldn’t it challenge all of us to our cores? Shouldn’t it be a means of discipleship?

I am advocating that the notion of racial reconciliation be stripped from white churches as their project and be claimed by all churches as church mission and make up. Racial reconciliation should look more like the Civil Rights Movement (which the earliest black advocates and creators of the focus of Racial Reconciliation in churches were pushing for) rather than “Unity Day” at church. Racial reconciliation in church is precisely that force of good that lives primarily outside of liturgy and spills into the street, into the education system, into court rooms, into businesses and political offices. It engages any and everything that affects race – and friends, everything affects race. Thus, I want to submit my own definition of racial reconciliation.

Racial reconciliation is a movement of justice, love and community generated within but not limited to the Christian church seeking to really live into the redemptive work of Christ on social, political, economic, gendered, sexual and ethnic and racial levels (as racial includes notions of marginality). It aims to live into the new creation on earth that the work of Christ has already established, by attending to these areas that need catching up, in tangible ways towards equal and loving relationship with each other. Some could designate it as movement towards the reality of living into the Kingdom of God. In its most basic form, it is the work of beholding others in awe and majesty as the Lord does us.

Thus, to be clear: all churches should be engaging in racial reconciliation or reconciliation in general as it is discipleship. This means that some already are; but they are not the church bodies who claim it in their words. They claim it in their living. May white churches let go of their desire to have the power to name and may the entire body of Christ open its eyes to the parts of its body who have spent their lives learning how to master the art of life abundantly.

If we all don’t have a hand in what racial reconciliation means in the church, we are not the church.





(There is No Longer) Male and Female: PCOS and the Theological Aesthetics of Femininity, Part I

2 11 2013

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
Galatians 3:28

I know that this scripture is considered out of context, but I am okay with that – just bear with me as I do some reflecting.

I am a prime candidate for make-up. I have black marks and what my father told me, in his fatherly duty to reassure his thirteen-year-old daughter that she was not becoming or was not at her root, a man. Lying to me – calling them “heat bumps” – so that I could survive the space that was middle school and petrifying to an overweight, African, and frankly, marked and scar-faced young girl going through puberty was the best thing to do.

I am a prime candidate for make-up because I have hair growing on my face. I have hair elsewhere whose growth I cannot control, but the aesthetic space that any girl can make her own personal canvas is her face. And when puberty happens and her body begins to tell her who she is for the rest of her life; that is scary. But what is scariest is that the time when she begins to find out how her face will look for the remainder of life contains a mustache and a beard. It contains hair that only men should have.

But she’s a woman. She is female. She is anatomically female, not a bit of this and that, but she is one thing.

But her body is confusing this message.

If it is s set in stone, then why is she dealing with what her male peers are?

Why is her chin scarring? Why does she have a faint trace of a mustache? Why does the hair on top of her barely grow and shed in chunks? Why? It is because she has this annoying hormonal imbalance called PCOS (more on this in a future blog post).

I wrote a post a few years ago about why I don’t give in to make-up. To make a long story short, I am not interested in the work and function of make-up. I think the idea of the face as a canvas is a fascinating one, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand make-up as a corrective (or “enhancer” as some like to name it). I want people to see my scars, because when they see my scars, they see me in my entirety – blemishes and all. They also can Jesus more clearly (but more on this later).

I have more thoughts on this that will make themselves known in due time, but right now I am in a place of confession and I confess the obvious – I know my face is a strange, unexplainable, and even masculine thing to experience (And I’ll call it what it is – if it is not readily identifiable as female, it becomes a thing). I cannot help it. And I also choose not to hide it. Because it is part of me and part of my story. It contains secrets to my understanding what kind of woman I hope and claim to be.

But further, I am seeing and hoping to hear more about how it is helping me understand the God I serve and worship.

PCOS is, like a said, annoying, but it can teach me so much about what it means to be a woman and a creature of God. Please journey with me as I reflect.





On Love and Hate: A Continuation of “Still Black, Still in the South, and Still a Woman”, A Review of “The Help” film

1 09 2011

The night I watched “The Help”, I wrote these intial thoughts, but definitely have more thoughts to flesh out.

In the movie portrayal of Katheryn Stockett’s “The Help”, one thing puzzled me that I did not have the tongue to articulate until now. The love/hate relationship with Africa.

The main antagonist, Hilly, a white upper-middle class staunch advocate for segregation, articulates in her being this troubling dynamic.

She advocates for missionary funds to be donated to “Africa”, but refuses to let her African-American maid, a descendant of Africa, use her toilet or loan money to her next African-American employee because she did not want to set a precedent of merely giving people what they could and should earn themselves (ironically contrary to her charity towards Africa).

This made me question, why create the opposing dynamics of demonstrating charity towards Africa and hostility towards African-Americans? This dual-mindset does not mesh. At least on the surface it does not. So I thought deeper.

Two factors that I have been mulling over in my mind can help me begin to think through and address this dilemma: 1) Mission-work/The church and 2) American values. Both missionary work/the church and American values play a factor with how the African and African-American are seen or not seen (in the case of Africa).

I’ll explore “Mission-work/The church” in this blog post.

Mission-work/The Church

The church seems to be the connecting factor between Africa and White Middle-Class
America. The church seems to be the connection between African-Americans and White Middle-Class America.

Hilly’s character is so important because she subtly and overtly gives commentary on the poor state of the White church in 1960s America. Hilly’s character gives us a glimpse inside the ecclesial reality (alongside the familial reality, which I argue is an ecclesial reality as well) that has shaped her view and understanding of darker bodies.

In other words, Hilly is not “just a racist”, but Hilly is primarily a Christian.

This is an important point that her character advertises throughout the entire film. Hilly is not inherently evil because her belief in Jim Crow, but she appears evil precisely (to borrow the emphatic word of Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter) because she is trying to be pure, to be a good Christian.

Her church, her ecclesial history, background and reality have shaped her social outlook as well, not only her spiritual life. Her faith has broken from the boundaries of being a personal journey that includes others, into a public demonstration that includes (i.e., excludes) others.

Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her toilet initiative. Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her mistreatment of her two housemaids. Her strange demeanor fluctuating with mean, sweet and sweetly-mean (or “condescendingly-helpful”) reflect the attitude of the white church towards the un-white.

This is most evident in her treatment with her maids and Aibileen, the maid who “is not hers” (oh, the language of possession). It is not seen but it is seen in her relationship with Africa.

Few people may have noticed, but Africa is absent totally from the film except when Hilly “speaks it into existence”. Africa created on the tongue of Hilly (perhaps alluding to a new understanding of “speaking in tongues” … perhaps 🙂 )

Outside of African-Americans, the only portrayal the viewer receives of Africans comes from the mind and mouth of a middle-class white woman hell-bent on saving it. But from what?

The viewer does not know what Africa is being saved from. Except itself. And maybe, albeit with great subtlety, that is what Hilly wants society to understand since this is how she has been taught Africa. Maybe that is how Hilly “knows” Africa and wants everyone else to know Africa. Since no one truly knows Africa, Hilly and co. have to create an Africa worth knowing, an Africa that is poor, destitute, dirty, in need of money and white help. Hilly creates in her tongue and actions, an Africa that needs saving. And she has no problem with herself and her society being the savior. She has no problem saving from a distance.

Hilly’s faith has everything to do with maintenance, maintaining her social and moral status among her peers. She maintains the status quo all-the-while helping the poor. She maintains the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping save a life. From a distance.

Oddly enough, Hilly serves a god of distance and discrimination, not disturbance and
disruption (of the social norms).

Hilly loves the idea of Africa her faith has helped create. Hilly loves the idea of helping African-Americans by employing them as long as they remain in her place (i.e., as long as they do not threaten her place as a Southern Christian socialite).

But Hilly also hates. She faithfully hates disturbing what church tradition has taught her social consciousness. She hates it when African-Americans step out of their place. She hates her authority and expertise in naming the other being questioned, or even worse, proved wrong. Hilly loves and at the same time, hates, Africa.

More thoughts to come on American values!





White Rappers and Theology: Racial Reconciliation?

19 10 2010

Top 10 Rappers of the 21st Century

 

White Rappers

Or rather, white rapper.

BET (Black Entertainment Television) just released its list of the top 10 rappers of the 21st century. Excited to see if rappers like Andre 3000, Nas, and Jay-Z were on the list, I was disappointed when I did not them on the list to even be considered for the honor. The newcomer, Drake and even decent rappers like Jadakiss made the list, but the greats who had been rapping since the 1980s and 1990s and well into the 2000s did not.

I was confused.

What actually confused me most was not just the list, but the number one rapper of the 21st century: Eminem. I was shocked because, like so many other Caucasians, his being white gave him that spot.

Now before I get a bunch of hateful responses, let me qualify my reasoning. It is pretty obvious that Eminem is lyrically one of the best rappers today. He is clever, poignant, and even utters some of the violently honest lyrics we’d love to hurl at our bosses, enemies, significant others etc. He is definitely a voice for the people. Record sales can tell you that.

But what record sales can also tell you is that his support is mainly from the white community. In fact, all the rappers of the lists’ support are mainly from the white community. It’s been a trend for a while now: Caucasian people love and therefore are the main consumers of black rap and hip-hop music.

Eminem’s sales, though, are much more precisely because he is Caucasian. Who wouldn’t get excited to see “one of their own” making amazing strides in an industry where their race is hardly represented? That sounds pretty familiar for the black community.

Caucasians aren’t supposed to be dominating rap and hip hop but Eminem clearly is. He is the best; and the best denotes prestige, power and control in that area of entertainment, sports, business or whatever.

The black community cannot get upset at the overwhelming Caucasian support because we do it too. We cheer on Omarosa on The Apprentice, the Williams sisters in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf (or at least some of us used to). We cheer on the black person in that unconventional vocation where they stick out like a sore thumb because we want to be (or at least our token representatives to be) the best at something that we are not supposed to be good at.

But what if being the best minority isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be. What if being the best also denotes communal ownership of that token, that representative. Something evil even, since possession of a title, reinforces superior ability over and against another.

What if minority tokenism violates something sacred, like the space to be individual and unique and not have to rely on a “chosen one” to defeat the forces of the majority?

What if?

Theology

I wonder about our competitive nature and need to have a representative in order to make a splash or be the best. It’s as if we can’t be happy if another group is doing better than “us.” This silent competition redraws the “us”/”them” binary. It recreates division where the unity is supposed to be in the craft. In a strange way it creates race dynamics. It hurts feelings when a white person is dominating a black enterprise. It turns heads. Despite whether he deserves the title or not (and I understand that both sides can be argued), Eminem is a white man at the top of an industry that is culturally a black one.

It begs the question of ownership. And worship.

What do we worship? What we own? What believe is ours? What we know belongs to us?

Honestly, when I pose this question I’m asking myself. I’m asking myself can hardship’s transformation into rap lyrics belong solely to black people. Do the streets just belong to one demographic? Is transfiguring one’s pain into a catalyst for success a black thing? Not necessarily.

Sure I have named potential sins: tokenism, domination, competition, but perhaps the biggest sin of all is this false right of ownership. Maybe Eminem is legitimate. Maybe he’s the best not because he raps about material things all the time but about the painfully true abjections in life. Maybe he’s the best because of white consumerism, but maybe he’s the best because lyrically he does something that a lot of us are afraid to do: he speaks the truth about himself and others. He doesn’t focus on “hating” but hates himself and others when they do wrong and loves himself and other when they are wronged. He loves enough to be angry.

Sitting on this list after a few days shows me that I have racialized rap. I rejected the list solely because Eminem is white. I have fallen prey to the same practices that spurned hate the mess that we’re still wading through today.

I have sinned because I rejected Eminem’s act of confession. I don’t know everything about him. He may be very disturbed or he may not be, but that doesn’t change the fact that his message is in the music and in his skin.

Petty lying doesn’t quite work for Eminem. He has to speak straight from the heart even if it’s too violent or disturbing for some of us. Maybe he’s alerting us to the fact that we lie to feel safe in a disturbing world. Maybe he’s at the top of the list because of the social commentary laced within his lyrics. Or maybe not.

All I know is that Jesus hated petty lying. He hated falsity for the sake of keeping something the same and untouched. No, he wanted the truth to be the norm. His words touched not only ears but hearts. Jesus made people angry and changed the social situation, or at least how people thought about it. And it worked.

Let’s be clear: I’m not calling Eminem, Jesus. He is a figure of sorts, not a salvific one, but a figure nonetheless.

What I am saying is that after harshly judging Eminem on this list, I believe he deserves to be on this list precisely because he is a different rapper with a slightly different message. Sure socially conscious rappers are out there and have been out there for a number of years. But in the 21st century Eminem is arguable doing a pretty good job of being a white male talking about the social issues that we don’t even want to talk about too in-depth (like domestic violence for example).

So I retract the hate behind the first part of this blog entry. I still do believe that whiteness has propelled his record sales. Like I said earlier, white people buy hip-hop and rap albums. His race definitely has played a role in his sales.

But, I can say that Eminem is deserving of being in the list of the top ten rappers of the 21st century. His message/lyrics alone say something. He is speaking out honestly and it’s not always about his women, cars, and house or people who want his women, cars, and house. He is speaking for some people who didn’t really have a voice until he came on the scene and started confessing for them, their issues to the world.  He speaks for a white lower-class and white middle class (even the white upper-class) concerning their social and cultural issues. He speaks through lyrical confession.

Confession is healing. I wonder if Eminem is bridge-building. I wonder if his presence is saying “Hey black world, white people exist and hurt too. And here’s how we react to it or want to do better about how we react towards it.” And I wonder if black people can and will respond to that knowing, or just become jealous or upset (like I was at first).

Or will we continue to fight to reclaim the top spot, always imagining rap and hip-hop as a game to be won and conquered instead of an expressive social movement with hopes of invoking healing for many.

Eminem is making some issues of his race, class and culture known. I wonder if black people will listen and listen well and engage this whole community thing where we love each other not because of race but because of our journeys in life. Maybe Eminem is (drum roll please) doing racial reconciliation is a subtle way by taking step one and honestly informing others about himself and many like him so that responses can be made.  

He could be or I could be giving him way more credit than necessary, but I know for sure that I’ll be paying more attention to his lyrics and hopefully his life and the lives of many others.





Deconstructing the Masks of Racial Reconciliation

7 10 2010

Disclaimer: I am no expert on racial reconciliation, nor do I claim to be one; I write solely from my observations and experiences, but I write with the intention to identify the obvious and unspoken, the uncomfortable results of the racial reconciliation movement that we who have decided that church cannot be church without reconciling, repentant, loving, inclusive action and being have a duty to name and hopefully address honestly, not simply with reprimanding in mind, but repentant and faithful living. (and yes, that was a run-on sentence!)

Racial reconciliation should transcend the boundaries of actions that are close to but don’t purport the notion of community through sacrifice: sacrificing all that is familiar for the unfamiliar, sacrificing personal preference in order to embrace the preference of another, and especially sacrificing pre-meditated understandings of peoples and places and believing the people of those places who tell you differently. Racial reconciliation is not racial welcoming, racial tolerance, nor racial observation. It is more personal than we think. It affects more people than we think. It affects the body of Christ entirely, not just a congregation here or there. It runs deep into Jesus’ body, not as a fad, but as the life-giving connection between His blood and our worship, His veins and our stylistic preferences, His arteries and our cultures.

What it is not is un-sacrificial. It is not a runner-up to what Jesus meant when He sat, ate with and was joined by sinners. It is not achieved in the welcoming level, tolerance level, or observatory level.  

Racial welcoming comes close to what people think to be racial reconciliation, but lacks the effort and commitment to adopt a theology of discomfort from both parties covenanting to be with one another. It welcomes as long as it is not transformed into something unrecognizable, for unrecognizability resists the “predominantly” label so many churches are accustomed to having and being.

Racial tolerance is even further from the target than racial welcoming as it signals one group at the center of the Christian universe, whether they’re African, African-American, Asian, Latino, White etc and allows other to be, to a certain extent, only in light of their being. One group sets the standards and others are “appreciated” in light of how much they are not like the standard, for diversity must be celebrated, right? Celebrated but not integrated, racial tolerance gives permission for Christians outside of their majority to exist within the confines of what the majority deems Christian existence.

Racial observation rests even further on the outskirts of racial tolerance for it is simply a ministry of on-looking. It witnesses difference from afar, and witnesses from afar alone. Nothing is done to see if racial difference and cultural distinction can mean more, it is simply observed and in that observation a false sense of education is exercised, pejorative reading of the Christian church is made precisely in that inactive “education,” and the division between groups remains glaring and distinct.  

These three models of racial reconciliation I believe are more often than not, falsely practiced in place of true and Holy Spirit led racial reconciliation. They provide the foils against which true racial reconciliation can be recognized, but are utilized often because they are disguised as “we’re getting there” and “this is a messy vocation that takes time” language. These three types of models mirror the three categories of personality types present within many churches who find themselves a part of the racial reconciliation conversation. They enter into a conversation without calculating what it would cost them and thus mete out what they are willing to sacrifice, giving rigidly, contemplating giving, or convincing themselves that their interest is gift enough.

The Racially Welcoming Christian (RWC) exhibits 1 Corinthians 11 behavior (vv. 17-33). They are most than happy to sit at the table with everyone, but do not change their eating habits. They feast the same, not cognizant that even their being at the table (implying communion) has to be received differently. They commune not only for themselves with Christ, but with and for others in Christ. They love that difference exists in their midst. They embrace their brother or sister as important, imperative to their understanding God’s kingdom, valuable to and in the body of Christ. What they fail to do is change as a result of another person’s permanent place in their life. Their church body may change, but their personal theology doesn’t change much at all. They listen to the theological background of another, but do not add it to theirs since addition of another’s means subtraction of their own theological beliefs. They operate the same, but appreciate and recognize the difference in everyone. They are touched, but only changed on the surface. Nothing changes in their life, except information about other people. The information does not penetrate deeper than their intellectual capacity; it may touch their heart, but it rarely reconfigures it.  

The Racially Tolerating Christian (RTC) models the Galatians 3 confusion assuming that people are entering their world and thus need to adhere to their way of existing. The Gentile is welcomed in, but the confusion surrounds what the Gentile is entering into. It is a Jewish existence for sure, but what they misunderstand is this notion of being the “original church body” in the first place. Both groups are Gentilic, entering into a completely new existence. Chosenness rests in Jesus’ body that both, the majority and minority church body, are equally invited into. Both are bringing aspects of themselves into community together that looks messy, feels incomplete, and hurts a lot of the time, but leaves without a shadow of a doubt absolutely no room for selfish ambition to parade around as if it is God’s will. It takes both groups out of their traditions of comfort and asks them to be together uniquely and collectively. It leaves no room for human effort, but encourages desire and participation; the Holy Spirit does the rest. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, faith that His words, and body and practices did something to old ways of doing and thinking and constructed something completely new, un-like what we would deem comfortable or perfect and yet is perfect.

The Racially Observant Christian (ROC) parallels the rich, young ruler in Luke 18 (vv. 18-23). They have resources, they have culture, and they have influence and power and do not find it necessary to lose them in order to be with other people. They face Jesus and honestly think that they have done their Christian duty but cannot handle a re-drawing of the boundaries of their commitment and love. They fear that the loss of their resources will affect how others view their culture and influence although that is precisely the story of others’ lives. Their understanding of faith is contingent upon comfort. They believe themselves to be educated on the crux of a life that follows after Christ and models His ways, but are unaware of the depth of this pledge. So they choose to remain afar and give up absolutely nothing. But no doubt, continue “keeping” the commandments.

These responses and ways of being in the racial reconciliation conversation are produced from a desire to do something righteous and right, but after the cost is counted, kill and hinder true racial reconciliation’s attempt to spring forth. The messages sent forth in their failure to break out of the selfish grips of church tradition, racial and cultural purity and generational war deter us from truly seeing the form of racial reconciliation. It is an ugly one at that, a hunched over, injured, and imperfect figure that Christ calls us to. It may not have the stage for P&W (Praise & Worship), the hymnal, the fiery preacher, the contemplative chants, the whatever. Or it may have all of those together mashed together as the same thing; those interested in being reconciled must understand that racial reconciliation happens when people of those different cultures are reconciled, brought together, asked to and taught to live together.

What the racial reconciliation conversation should continue to emphasize is the “person” aspect of Christian life. The church preferences belong to the people, they come from the people. The people who swear up and down that God loves to hear Christian Contemporary Music, and guitar solos, and see young adults in small groups and mission trips are people!

Once the people recognize that it’s more than sitting beside, allowing people to sit beside and thinking about but in the end choosing not to sit beside another, but rather that it’s sitting with that person entailing changing perspectives, open dialogue, holy disagreements, and holier shifts in what one’s “particular” culture is, then racial reconciliation can truly be the strange, weird, ugly, and holy love movement Christ’s body has affectionately called “community.”





The White Tennis Aesthetic

10 09 2010

                        

 As an avid tennis fan, I’ve learned that everything in life relates to tennis.

As a fan of theology inherited from such greats as Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter, I’ve learned that there are tons of things that speak theology that we simply have to train our ears to hear.

Everything relates to tennis, everything relates to theology.

Even tennis outfits.

At first my reaction to Venus William’s dress was one of embarrassment (see left-hand picture above). I asked aloud: what is she wearing? What is she trying to prove?

But as the matched wore on and the majority of the comments issued were that her dress  made her miss that volley or affected that backhand, I noticed something. The commentators were being unfair and in her outfit alone, making excuses to criticize and take cheap shots at her game (she won the match by the way). Outside of the matches where she wore two similar outfits which received passing comments of its shortness came courtesy of the Huffington Post, it’s flair from Lifestyle, its unconventionality from CBS News, all culminating with the slide show of Venus’ most controversial and interesting outfits from Bleacher report – all attempts to draw negative attention to her outfit, which somehow either directly “paralleled her talent” or “spoke of her flimsy judgment”.  

After processing her outfit, I came to a realization: I was being just as unfair as the commentators were for doing what many black people automatically turn to out of fear of judgment: secretly hope that her outfit was not received by Caucasians as misrepresenting the entire black race. I didn’t want people in the “classy” sport of tennis to have a bad perception of black people based on this one outfit.

I’ve repented since then.

I repented because I realized that her outfit had nothing to do with me, with us, with the black race, but it has everything to do with her and what we – commentators, true fans, enemies, and fans simply because she’s a black tennis player – place on her as prerequisites to be a black tennis player: a tight mold that only gives her the freedom and space to act and dress like a typical tennis player, a white (European) woman. I re-placed her into a mold she’s probably been trying to break out of, escape and deal with since she came stood out in the professional tennis scene in 1997.

I realized that her fashion was not about shame falling on an entire race, but it is about the fact that shameful fear can cause me to turn on someone who is advocating through her body and how she presents her body that different is okay. She doesn’t have to cater to a certain way of being and looking on a European surface; this exposes the expectations wrapped up in and bound to white women’s bodies that, I was afraid to point out, Venus (and Serena) cannot fit!  The mold is too small, too white, too one-dimensional.

I do have to give credit where credit is due. Some have begun to see that something about tennis fashion speaks to tennis culture. The only commentators who had something fairly concrete and positive to say about Venus Williams (Serena Williams) and tennis fashion came from two men. Commentators, Chris Muther (a white gentleman) and Bomani Jones (a black gentlemen) on ESPN commentary somehow got it! They, in an innovative and honest way, gave truthful (not judgmental) commentary about Venus’ other controversial outfit from the 2010 French Open. Muther said that she was willing to express herself, she was willing to be herself and “take a racquet to” the normal white way of dress.

Venus and Serena Williams are doing and saying something with their unique outfits and disregard for the backlash that we, especially theologians would do well to pay attention to. They are being themselves. They are showing people that molds are made to be broken, especially when they do not cater to your body and being.

As Dr. Jennings would say, they have entered into something only to break it open from the inside. They have a mission to destroy the norm and live out something radical and more holy, more honest, more honorable to themselves and to who God made them to be. Dr. Carter would include that their outfits and bodies push against the norms of whiteness and white performance in a game that they have been present in for a decade, but are only currently being noticed (through negative press).

Venus and Serena Williams are portraits of a God who is diverse and an artistic Creator. They are arguable the face of tennis because they are unique living into, not just with, their bodies, the color of their skin, the color of their flesh toned spanks, the fit of their tennis outfits, the curves of their arms and the texture of their hair. They are talked about so much because the tennis world has not quite figured out what to do with them. After winning numerous titles, comments must come from somewhere and unfortunately it’s centered around the way they dress their bodies.

They have infiltrated tennis with no warning and have changed the excitement around the game forever. And it was a violent infiltration, but an atypically violent one. Venus and Serena are not colonizers, they are settlers. They do not aim to force their aesthetic on others, but simply wish to have their own and it be respected and live in tennis harmony with the rest of their majority European surroundings.

Venus Williams, in commenting on her flesh-colored spanks under her 2010 French Open outfit said something so captivating that I’m still processing its exquisiteness. She said her outfit was expressive and that the flesh-color made it more beautiful.

The flesh color is beautiful. I think Jesus would agree. Refusing to submit to a certain aesthetic even in one’s undergarments is certainly making a statement about the appreciation of flesh and its skin tone.

Venus and Serena Williams (and even the style of play of Jamaican newcomer Dustin Brown who had the commentators at a loss for words with traces of condescension and disdain in the comments they did offer), I salute your mere presence and efforts to be you in the tennis world, no matter how controversial that is. Maybe we who are taken aback by unique fashion and clothing should be taken aback by our surprise. Maybe we should be surprised that we’ve been so calibrated to operate in a white tennis aesthetic that we cringe at any deviation from that norm.

Maybe we shouldn’t cringe at the black wave of candor and distinctiveness, but applaud it. Perhaps the idea of love and acceptance will take over and we’d worry less about who’s wearing what and come to grips with the notion that tennis culture is being pressured to step outside of a European standard and live atypically.

Tennis has been changed because of the Williams sisters; it looks like that trend will continue.





The Make-Up Confession

7 08 2010

I’ll be frank. I don’t wear make-up for two reasons:

First, I don’t like other people telling me what will make me important, beautiful and loved; and, second, I think we (society, even the world) wear make-up so that our flesh (and others’ flesh) can be pleased, so that our flesh can feel like we have control over something in our lives. We feel that if we control our looks we can control our love.

But I truly don’t understand this. People are made to feel bad if they don’t mask their true selves. God didn’t make me with make up so what is it saying that I make myself into the way “I want to be so others can desire me”? What is it saying about where my heart is?

It doesn’t make sense to me. I thought God loved us as we are. And we aren’t made with make up on. Nor are we made with minds that value the root of what make-up represents: dissatisfaction and disappointment with how God made us.

Make-up is learned. It’s a verb full of colors. It’s a strange attempt to recover something that we cannot, unconditional love and acceptance, by putting colors on our faces to cover up our blemishes.

Honestly, when it gets down to it, God sees our blemishes.

To me, make-up is the half-hearted sacrifice to God. It looks good; we think we’re doing something pleasing, but we’re covering up our sin and greed and mistakes by buying into the falsity that our natural beauty isn’t good enough; we must make ourselves look better.

How God made us wasn’t enough. We have to improve it. No one can see our blemishes, only God can, even if we don’t want Him to either.

Tomi. Whoa. You’re doing too much. I only wear make-up because it’s something nice. It enhances my features. I’m not hiding from anything.

Maybe not, but maybe so.

Sometimes we hide without knowing we’re hiding or sometimes we’re taught that hiding is normal and those who don’t hide, who sit with their faces: their pimples, skin blotches, creases and wrinkles exposed are the posers, are the losers, are ugly because they won’t hide too.

But what is ugly? Exposing all flaws so that nothing is out of sight, nothing is hidden; nothing is giving an untruthful impression? Or does it trick people into a perception of perfect, and cause people to love, lust over, be attracted to what really isn’t?

It’s risky, not wearing make-up, but it can be a spiritual act of confession.

The natural face confesses flaws up front and doesn’t desire to be masked. It doesn’t put a band-aid on a scar but allows the scar to show.

Jesus had scars that He gladly showed to prove one thing: He was real. (John 20:24-30)

Maybe not wearing make-up can do something similar. It can prove our humanity, imperfection and remind us and others that we don’t have it together even if make-up or clothes say so.

Maybe make-up confesses our frailty and our peace with the fact that we are really human, just as Jesus was.

Marks, blemishes, and scars, imperfections say so.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing but a faith thing.

We acknowledge our limitations and rejoice that Jesus is perfect even when we aren’t.

And that His perfection came with skin blemishes too. Divine scars.








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