Why Reconciliation Isn’t Working: Ramblings on the Church’s Unwillingness to Leave the Jim Crow Era

22 07 2015

 

Black Live Matter

Amuse my wonderings.

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We are in a dangerous place if one of the first questions in our theological process isn’t: What is this for? Variations of this question are acceptable: Who is this for? What am I doing this for? Towards what am I believing?

These questions are important to consider because oftentimes theory and praxis in the church are more distant than many of us want to admit. Our churches are behind – not necessarily the progress of the world (I’ll try to locate the article I read some time ago naming how churches were decades behind “the world.”), but the progress of communities in particular time periods.

The church is not behind the world. Today, the world is quite murderous and muting towards minorities, people of color, and women (class is interwoven here too). The church isn’t too far off from this. Thus, my concerns for the church’s anachronistic existence. The church of today seems more like a newly postcolonial entity (not in terms of progressivism, but in terms of existing directly after the “end” of colonialism). A colonial mentality is quite affirming, once we think about it:

“I’m here to show you how to do Christianity like me!” –  Read: I can bring my entire self into your religious world, and fully exist there, something I will not allow you to do if you choose to enter into my own.

“Of course you are allowed to keep your traditions! They are so culturally rich and beautiful!” – Read: Your traditions, your cultural and literal languages will be tolerated for how I perceive how beautiful and unique they are. Never mind that your first language will have to be English and mainline or evangelical churchisms. Your music, your church language, your church mannerisms will be tolerated but cannot be your primary language in my religious space, my religious space that you are laying down a lot to be a part of in order to fully be present in my space that refuses such silliness.

But what happens when a church does not reject an oppressive postcolonial existence is…nothing. Or rather, progressive nothing. Majority churches today are too afraid to name that they might still be Jim Crow-ish. Integration was never minority initiated. Many minority churches are its offspring. Many majority churches are its mother.

For a (hoping to be) postcolonial and non-racist society and its church, this is terrifying. No one wants their church to be of the Jim Crow era. But this is precisely what syphoning how much attention, if any, to attend to the scary reality of being black or a person of color today means consistently and constantly (Shout out to those who will also get physically ill when they see a police cruiser!).

I guess the question for me is, which is stronger? Being more scared of being labeled as currently living into a racist legacy or being terrified that your Christianity tiptoes the line of progressivist idolatry? Are you scared that your faith might get a bad rap or that it might not be faith at all?

For me reconciliation asks and wonders communally: What does it mean to bring your full self to church, to be your full self in church? How is that facilitated? Who should facilitate such a lofty miracle? To be scared of these questions of the persons asking these questions is to worship the terror of being wrong. Jesus wanted liberation. For all. Who gets to determine what our liberations look like?

Bradley Wright’s study on church welcomeness based on race was eye-opening for me. His work brought up questions for me around a question that I am not sure churches doing racial reconciliation are willing to ask or even aware to ask: Is our church interested in being fully integrated?

This is a difficult question to hold because it seems terribly antiquated: it is a question of the Civil Rights era, and no church today wants their purpose, mission and practice to ask fifty year old questions. But they should be, because they are tending to a problem that has lived much longer than that. The church is stuck in a pre-Civil Rights era; this is a problematic ontology, because it illumines how non-church the church is, how the church is in fact not being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

What is racial reconciliation then? And further, if Christ has done the reconciling work, what are churches actually doing? I wrote a paper last year that argued that from an evangelical standpoint racial reconciliation is more a spiritual mandate than tangible desire (Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith was helpful). It is practiced for spiritual well-being instead of true love-work. In this then, minorities become the platform on which the majority can perform their fantasies and secure their salvation.

I wonder what the anti-integration character of churches aiming to do reconciliation means today. In many ways our faith is for us, for our salvation, monuments to support our good beliefs, this is the complex truth. But if faith does not explore how much it should be for us, it remains about us. Can something that we enter into with our well-being in mind turn our hearts, eyes, ears, minds, words and actions towards others? Only time will tell. Until then, I challenge you (yes, you who is reading) to ask if your church has left the Jim Crow era. Is it fully integrated? If not, why? If you are in a church of the majority and this is the case, wonder aloud and often, is this the Gospel? (Please, let me know if you have a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote for this line of questioning…)

If churches trying to do reconciling work of the racial sort are afraid of their vocal minorities and the heart-wrenching questions and challenges that the Gospel they (minorities) know encourages and brings to the forefront, I’m not sure if they know the Gospel. If churches not doing it but interested in it are afraid of Latin@ prophets and American native truth-tellers, black accountability, and Asian calls to repentance – do it anyway. Do it afraid, do it terrified, do it hurt, pained, pushed, and ultimately allow yourself to be changed. Do the Gospel anyway.

The Gospel is revolutionary, radical, and averse to power. Lay down your obsession with power, your loyalty to comfort, your fear of addressing white fragility, your tears that shut down minority questioning and opposition, your “but” arguments, your “I’m tired of this” mentality and join in. The weary work of wellness is upon you. In fear, exhaustion and pain – embrace it.

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Shooting en Sanctum

20 07 2015

EmanuelAME

I am convinced that death haunts spaces of retreat (click to see more of my piece at Mudroom).

Unfortunately too many people know that respite is a fleeting thing. Bullet holes serve as reminders of this.

In 2012 a hole was torn into my heart. And again in 2014. And again and again. The racial violence permeating national news was too much to handle; so my heart bled, wounded, hardly consolable and never fully given enough time to heal before the next black death. This summer, for my sake and everyone around me, I needed to take a break. I thought it best to do the two things that would move my heart towards healing: writing and retreating – together.

So I did. But day two into this healing adventure, I discovered anew that hearts with holes cannot not bleed, as death forced its way back in front me reiterating its permanent and painful presence. The horrific massacre at Emanuel AME reminds me that suffering will never stop speaking. She will advocate for her voice to be heard – and so I must listen and join in her wailing and telling, lamenting and speaking, supporting her and thus being thrust into the world of ecclesial, political, communal, familial and personal accountability.

Our hearts reminds us that its bleeding is that which keeps the church feeling, in tune with suffering – living. A bleeding heart is a heart attuned to life’s beauty and ills. No one wants it. It hurts too much, but it opens the church’s eyes to pain and the aching realities of its fractured body, its spilt blood.

The deaths of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance sparked a necessary interruption in the church’s compliance and silence practices and will prayerfully be part of the legacy of racism’s defeat, especially within the church.

Their deaths are our interruption. We should never take them lightly; in fact, we must let them interrupt us daily. Let us continue to hear them speak. I’d love your thoughts and opinions of death’s haunting nature at the Mudroom blog.





Theological Mammyism: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of a Tired Black Female Christian Scholar

19 07 2015

Another post I decided to bring back as it explains my voice and my experience

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Theological mammyism[1]

Noun, verb, ontological stance

Definition:

  1. An illness of benevolent oppression or practice. Feigned righteousness. Symptoms include a desire to do the right thing, to be involved in social justice in pre-prescribed ways, the majority’s power of choice in deciding to involve parts (of their choosing) of their life into the lives and realities of others when they find it most convenient and most opportune.
  2. An act of theft. Behaviors, acts, actions and processes by which majority persons’ theological points, positions or standpoints are expected to be made to feel cared for, attended to and affirmed by black persons as original or new – particularly points that originated from black persons that they may or may not acknowledge.
  3. An act of assumed subservience and service. The aura and attitude of those in a position of power expecting black people to present their black theological in a manner that is acceptable to and digestible for them. It may not exceed these persons of power’s comfort levels, but must maintain a quality of service to their egos and fantastic image of themselves as justice-oriented, not exercising power and privilege, or down with minority’s causes. Simply put where being a person in power, a person who is the majority is expected to be theologically catered to, unruffled, affirmed as thoughtful of others while it is primarily aimed to preserved a certain sense of righteous self.

I am mad, no I am angry. Because theological mammyism has not been called out by those in power amongst their own in real, tangible, uncomfortable, willing-to-be-disowned by family and friends ways. Jesus said kinships will not be the same. Why isn’t this taken seriously? Why are kinships of power and influence still intact, often untouched? Where is the kingdom in that?

Power provides itself a safety net, and it’s called their own. When power has the choice to involved itself in minority life but return to its haven of power, of its own people, it is still power, but now it is power thinking it is dressed in robes of righteousness. The risk is calculated.

Many of us don’t have the choice to throw caution to the wind when we step into another’s life. We are totally bare, totally exposed, waiting for those in power to do the same.

I am so tired of it.

It is everywhere. Especially in those who swear they do not exercise it.

I should not write when I am angry or tired, but oftentimes this state of being is when ideas flow out in their actuality and thoughts take on their truest form.

I am tired.

I am tired of colleagues and friends in power expect me to walk around with a satchel of cookies waiting for me to congratulate and applaud them when they do something good towards those deemed the other, good that should not be considered and is not extraordinary, good that should be done by Christians anyway.

I am tired of being a Girl Scout.

Theological mammyism is present in every person of power presenting the powerless’ ideas back to them as if they came up with it. It can be a theological version of “Columbusing.”

But it is something so much more insidious and sneakier and smaller yet powerful than that. It is making the powerless feel uncomfortable, as if they’ve gone too far when they express themselves in full truth, full anger, full rage. It is a mechanism of shutting another down. It likes black feminism/womanism/any expression of black female theological positioning when it is useful for a paper, but it is afraid of black feminism/womanism/any expression of black female theological positioning when it asks to be taken seriously in real life. It is theological power uninhibited that affirms and evangelizes the liberation theology that it can understand, but firmly rejects the facets of it that it cannot fathom because it is hitting a bit too close to them, to their “only sometimes” racist friends, to their bigoted parents and beloved ignorant grandparents who “know no better.”

Theological mammyism needs black persons to let people in power know that their family is excluded from reform – that they get a pass because of the generation they grew up in, the neighborhoods, they were raised in, the fact that they were poor and lived amongst blacks or Latinos so their off-handed comments are okay.

Theological mammyism doesn’t like the black theology that is angry and has a right to be so. It likes the thought-provoking ideas of it, just not its manifestation in real life, in real practice. That is too hard. Theological clashing with real life is too painful for those in power. Never mind many others live in states of perpetual pain.

Theological mammyism is the desire for those in power to be coddled by black persons, to be told that they are right, that they are in, that they “get it,” that they are “cool with us.” It is the ontology and practice of those who seek affirmation with no sign of reformation or no desire for repentance that will actually cost them position, friends, family. It is a position that costs them nothing while it costs the powerless everything. When did theological practice cost nothing or even little?

The sad thing is, no person in power is exempt from it. Everyone in power is implicated within it. Especially, especially, especially those who think, even for a moment, that this post is not for or about them.

The test for a theological mammyist is whether they will run to or run away from a conversation such as this. Only time will tell.

More later when I gather my heart and head and of course, hear your thoughts.

[1] Term coined by Tomi Oredein. It is constantly evolving and being made richer by conversation with colleagues, but remains an original idea still in formation.





Racial Reconciliation Power Check

16 07 2015

So, I also deleted this post for fear of being too controversial. Glad I’m over that…

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Racial Reconciliation Power Check photo

Those invested or involved in racial reconciliation in the church, consider if you recognize the following in yourself. In trying to do reconciliation those in power need to be aware of the following:

1) Excuse-ing: where those in power ex-cuse themselves out of a situation they perceive as too hard, uncomfortable or difficult. Excuses become the language one speaks as permission to leave these situations. But they fail to consider the whole church; they fail to imagine how it is for those with less or no power.

2) Wall-retreating: emotional oppression where the angered, upset, critical, observant minority is perceived as too emotional or mean and thus unhearable and/or one to run away from. The person in power hits a wall, but instead of deciding to pick up a sledgehammer and join their minority brother and sister to knock down that wall, they retreat from it, giving up, or worse yet, decorating the wall while vehemently denying that it is a wall. They instead call it a foundation – a foundation they are proud of because ironically, and horrifically, they helped build it.

3) Selective solidarity: identifying with an oppressed group on some level, but denying their truths on another level, or, bypassing oppressed groups in front of them completely in order to join with others they have fantasized helping full ignorant to the fact that this solidarity operates in a mode of exchange: I, the person in power find myself or secure my morality in helping poor (insert minority here), where (insert minority here) have minimal desire to enter into this contract but see the potential to have some of their needs met, so reluctantly and strategically agree. Survival becomes evident on both ends, the question becomes surviving what?

Racial reconciliation is amazing and nearly impossible because it leaves absolutely no room for bull, no space for lies, and no time for theological mannequins.

Either you do it or you don’t. And to be clear, “doing it” implies actually entering the throes of knowledge alerting you to the fact that everything you thought and much of what you think is reconciliation actually is not.

Racial reconciliation thrusts those in power towards having different teachers, teachers that they cannot pick and teachers who care less about how truth hurts feelings and more about how hurt feelings perpetuate injustice.

Reconciliation is not for the faint of heart. It is for all Christians, though – many, unfortunately, who are faint-hearted.

Where might help come from? Jesus, of course. But let’s not also forget that the body of Christ is present in the church – therefore, I encourage those in power to explore the body they are part of. Perhaps they might realize that they are a fingernail instead of eye, a knee cap instead of a arm, an eyelash instead of a torso.

What wonders would body exploration bring? But of course, we must recognize that even “exploration” is such a loaded concept in itself.

 





I Hate Reconciliation

13 07 2015

I hate reconciliation.

 

I have come to the conclusion that at worst reconciliation (on earth) is not real, and at best, a cruel joke. I have only been in the reconciliation game for a little over half a decade and I must confess – it is terrible. It exceeds the terrible that everyone expects, writes and blogs about. It is work that eats at the soul, that if you’re a person of color, guarantees sleepless nights, headaches, and a general sense of downtroddenness. For people in power, if considering it seriously, it is a constant reminder of sin, failure, and how easy it is to live into it (without a second thought) if one wants to do church sans reconciliation in its true form.

 

It is unbearable. It is terrible. It is miserable for everyone – and for some reason, it is the manifestation of Jesus’ life and death towards reuniting us with God. It makes no sense. If it were hard sometimes and pleasant sometimes or hard sometimes and pleasant most of the time, then it would make sense for me. But reconciliation is terrible and terrifying. Nothing good comes from it. Because death doesn’t feel good. And it requires dying and/or being killed all the time.

 

Who would want this? When Jesus said to follow him or to go without possessions or comfort or what seems familiar to us, he was serious. But we don’t think he is! It is miserable not being comfortable. It is painful to always be correcting and to always be corrected. It is energy-draining, lousy, difficult work. And it is work! Especially for people of color. People of color, unless you are called to it, stay away from racial reconciliation. People in power, unless you are willing to be reduced to nothing and built up into something else, stay away from reconciliation – you do more harm than good promoting your power-laden version of it.

 

Reconciliation is miserable for everyone. And somehow to get to what Jesus already did, we as a church, are called to live into it in the now. No wonder the majority of churches don’t give it a second of their time. It is unknown in that Jesus’ work is hard to emulate since, you know, we’re not Jesus. I think it’s important to put this out there and name this fact: white-washed reconciliation isn’t it. Sorry. It is hard precisely because it is unknown. It is unbalanced in its desire to return us to the same level of being seekers of God with people obsessed with power in its earthly form. It is crazy – people desire to share but instead end up taking, hurting, yielding too much of the wrong thing and too little of the necessary things. It is beyond our comprehension – yet many of us decide that we want it. So we fail our way towards it. And some of us leave because it is too hard – for our egos, for our white power, for our powerlessness, for our confusion, for our discomfort, for our histories, for our immigrant parents’ dreams… And some of us stay because we feel trapped into our calling – God will help us figure it out, right? It’ll smooth over, right? No. It won’t. That’s the point. It will never not be hard all the time. It will always be difficult and easier to quit or frankly never get in to.

 

Reconciliation is painful and death-dealing. The best that we as the church can do is make sure those always turned towards death socially, economically, racially, ethnically, sexually don’t fully enter into it. Thus, we have to hold and have each others’ deaths.

 

I have no reconciling way to end this post. Reconciliation sucks. It offers the church a picture of the church at its weakest and worst and somehow names this work important towards virgin births, miracles, crosses and tombs. See! There I go again, trying to wrap this up poetically and neatly! Reconciliation doesn’t give space for clean, neat, nice, or fun. It is tomb work. It takes us to the pain of Holy Saturday and leaves us there. So, come church. To this misery, we are called. We are called to tomb existence and tomb efforts of being in relationship.

The cost of discipleship, indeed.








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