Until Lynching Became Personal

This morning I received the following reflection from one of the founding members of our church. Ramelia Williams is a seminary student and one of our finest preachers. She’s a friend whose wisdom I highly value. Please read her words carefully.

Photo via Creative Commons.

Photo via Creative Commons.

Why Ferguson?

News reports proclaim that Michael Brown’s parents have stated, “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.” The President of the United States quoted those words in a plea for non-violent demonstrations. These weak statements reek of puppeteering and throw grease on the fire. These voices are akin to the false prophets in Jerusalem. “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush (Jere6:14-15, NRSV).” The parents of Michael Brown (or the attorneys who wrote the statement) do not seem to understand the historical continuity of this murder. This perpetuation of disrespect for black bodies and black lives makes blood boil and anger roar. It is a righteous anger that will not rest in peace until we can answer the question, “Cain, where is your brother Abel? …Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

A Crime Against All People Of Color In This Nation

When people of color were enslaved in this country that was full of Eurocentric descended peoples, it was the first time that a slavery system could identify its chattel merely by physical appearance. Jews had to wear stars on their clothing to be identified as the targets of genocide. But African slaves could lay naked in the road or hang dead from a tree, with no question about their slave status. Thus, from our landing in this country until 2014, we have been unified by skin color, whether we like it or not. A crime against Michael Brown is a crime against every person of color in this nation. Furthermore, by nature, African descended peoples are not individual entities but families, tribes and villages. The moment Michael Brown was gunned down it was a crime against the community of black folks across this nation and not a crime only against the Brown family. In fact, it was a crime against the larger Brown and Black families, all people of color in this nation.

The appeal for the avenging of Michael Brown’s blood is an appeal that every mother and father of a son of color in this country is making for their own child. This is not an appeal that can be self-contained by the Brown family. Rev. Martin Luther King prophesied, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This grand-jury approved murder of Michael Brown is a sanction for white power, white rule and white privilege. It makes a statement about the true power brokers in this country. I dare say, it is a message to the very president of the United States of America; hear ye, hear ye…this, Mr. President, is what we think of your people and your kind. It is from a very public, international stage that white folks have reminded people of color where they stand in this country. Our population may increase, but today, we are reminded that political powers give dominant culture the ability to continue to rule over the livelihood, lives, bodies and welfare of minorities.

Until Lynching Became Personal

Many social media commenters are hailing their disgust with “rioting” in Ferguson. Some have alluded to the fact that Michael Brown was a thief. To these commenters, I share the words of Ida B Wells, a Northerner, commenting on lynching in the South. “Like many other persons who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved justice and the mob was justified in taking his life…” These were her thoughts until lynching became personal when three of her dear friends were lynched. She then described Memphis as, “a town, which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons…” It is rioting when it is happening in someone else’s town, over someone else’s anger, in regard to someone else’s child. But I wonder how the tables might turn when this senseless killing of black bodies becomes personal to you? The story of Michael Brown allegedly shoplifting cigars is “meant to convey” to the subconscious that he deserved what he got in the end. This rendition of cops and robbers, cowboys and indians must end with a sunset and the victory of the good guys. To the person with even a miniscule quantity of humanity, 6-8 bullet wounds in the body with fatal consequence in exchange for $8-$10 worth of shoplifted merchandise means the scales of justice are grossly imbalanced. Even the Levitical Law only required “an eye for an eye!”

Why Ferguson? Because we are tired of the cheaply priced toe tag that hangs from the life of black bodies…

The Day After An Election

Photo credit: Vox Efx

Photo credit: Vox Efx

A couple of thoughts after the election yesterday.

The Kingdom of God is far more creative than our two-party, big-money political process. The best commentary yesterday evening pointed out the cycles common to electoral politics. Yet we’re meant to act surprised at how these things turn out. We’re also supposed to pretend that the system isn’t rigged, that every citizen has access to the same representation, that money’s role is neutral. In the end, for all the ways I’m grateful for our democracy, I have to admit to its fundamental lack of creativity and kindness. Held up to such predictability, the Kingdom of God as described and modeled by Jesus is almost unbelievable for its imaginative ethic. Here the last are first, the poor are rich, and those with the most power and influence are barely a footnote.

Also, communities of Christians will continue pursuing Jesus’ cause together the day after any and every election. Most of us will choose to vote thoughtfully, but our solidarity comes not primarily from the satisfaction of voting but from our common identity and cause with God’s people. For us the action is after election day, regardless of who was or wasn’t elected. We are concerned with the big picture, but most of us will give our best attention to the smaller places where mercy and justice can be pursued with and for those who share our zip code.

May God grant wisdom to our elected public servants. May God grant his church courage and faithfulness; may our skepticism and hope be rightly placed.

Dear White People

Dear White PeopleI was surprised when Dear White People was made, more surprised when it won an award at Sundance, and borderline shocked when Justin Simien’s directorial debut got a distribution deal. I’ve been following Simien’s long-shot attempt for a few years since he first released a trailer that showed what he wanted to do with the college-comedy genre. From the beginning I was intrigued, as were plenty of others who joined a crowd funding campaign to pay for production costs, and yesterday I finally got to see the film.

A movie that explores race, identity, and class is bound to solicit commentary and Dear White People certainly has. I’m not qualified to offer much in the way of expert opinion but after waiting so long for this film there were a few things that stood out.

The film takes place exclusively on a fictitious ivy league university campus which seems like more than a genre decision for Simien. By placing his African American characters at what many consider the epicenter of tolerance and so-called multiculturalism, Simien makes the point that race prejudice is alive and well among those for whom the charge of racism would be a cultural death. Within these supposedly enlightened environs there will be the occasional acts of overt racism. The film builds to such a moment – a “release your inner negro” party hosted by some of university’s rich, white students – and it would seem overly dramatic except for the similar parties that happen every year on college campuses. You know, in real life. But, and this is significant, Dear White People also shows some of the countless micro-aggressions faced by people of color within majority culture environments. Quick asides, questions, and assumptions by many of the white students show how the African American students are regularly stereotyped, fetishized, or manipulated. Their individual identities are neither seen nor valued.

Simien has said that his film is mostly about identity and the lead character, Samantha White, embodies this.  Samantha is biracial and becomes the president of the African American house and the face of the resistance against discriminatory housing policies. She also hosts a campus radio show, Dear White People (“Dear white people, Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” “Dear white people, Stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”) Most of the lead characters struggle with identity which makes sense in a film about college life. Well, the white kids don’t struggle with identity, not, at least, like the black kids are forced to. And no one struggles more than Samantha. There were moments here that felt a bit over-the-top, but I’ve had enough conversations with folks to know that this struggle is real. The visceral pressure to lean toward blackness or whiteness is strong and it’s a reality that white people will simply never experience. Dear White People does a great job of using a genre-comedy to examine this age-old American theme in a time when individuals are supposed to be totally free to choose the identity that best suits their experiences and desires. The films makes the case that we’ve not arrived at that point and it remains ambiguous on whether this is our best goal.

So there is much I appreciated. On the flip side, it felt like about a third of the film was great and two thirds was just OK. The main characters are meant to stand in for different types which doesn’t allow for much nuance; they often feel flat. More significantly, whiteness exerts a lot of influence in a film about black identity. Maybe this is an unavoidable truth about identity in America. Still, the most interesting moment of the film for me was when Samantha ends her Dear White People broadcast, “Dear white people… never mind.” If I read the scene correctly, she’s done with the responsibility of educating white people. Her identity and place on campus has a logic and value that doesn’t need the foil of whiteness for legitimacy. I’d have liked more of this in Dear White People, but with a title like that and a cultural reality like ours that may have been too much to expect.

“…to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous.”

I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they passed through the world were not great enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand of ones faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.

I have struggled with this my whole life.

This is Rev John Ames in a letter to Lila, the title character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Early in the book Lila says to Ames, “I just been wondering lately why thing happen the way they do.” She’s looking for some kind of help and the pastor struggles to answer. But here, when he finally does, is one of the better replies I’ve heard to this unanswerable question.

“I assume that experience is the experience of God.”

Q: Some Christians talk about experiencing God. Do you experience God in some way?

A: I assume that experience is the experience of God. If you think of experience as what is given to you—I mean day to day, the weather of your existence—that, I take it, is intelligible, and has purpose of a certain kind. One of the things I like about John Calvin is that he always talks about people as being presented to us, or even given to us. What he means is that any encounter with another human being is like God posing a question. The answer is what God wants, assuming that God loves and is loyal to the person he has presented to you, which is a very profound ethical question. This might seem over-intellectualized, but to me it’s much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It’s not a place of refuge, it’s a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.

Interview: Marilynne Robinson on the language of faith in writing.

I picked up Robinson’s new book, Lila, at our local bookstore the other day without knowing when I’ll have time to get to it. Now it’s sitting on my desk tempting me away from other reading assignments.