Harriet Tubman and the White Man’s God

What does it mean when Egypt puts Moses on its currency?

Harriet Tubman“The white man’s dollar is his god.” So wrote Ida B. Wells in 1892 in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. She writes this in a section about what “the Afro-American can do for himself” in the face of lynching, but her words reminded me of the conflict I felt over the news that Harriet Tubman’s likeness will soon be added to the twenty-dollar bill. As social media friends reminded me, the inclusion of an African-American woman on the country’s currency begins to address the lack of representation on something so ubiquitous and, supposedly, democratic.

But because I think Wells is right, it’s hard to share this optimism. Because American money is the white man’s god, its symbolism should be viewed from the perspective of those who regulate this sacred object. In her day, Tubman was viewed not as a symbol of the nation’s ideals but as the embodied threat to those ideals. Those in power didn’t follow her lead but understood their role in opposing her and her fellow revolutionaries by passing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

There will be many ways that Tubman’s likeness on the currency can be interpreted and I, for one, will be glad to see her face rather than the bill’s current occupant. But there are fewer ways that we can interpret the decision to include her. Either the nation has changed to the extent that it recognizes Tubman’s ideals of freedom and full humanity for all of its citizens, or, as we’ve seen with so many other Black abolitionists and civil rights leaders, we are watching the blunting of this woman’s particular prophetic edge. By placing one of its fiercest critics on its most sacred symbol, the nation intends for us to believe that it has finally come to embrace all this woman represents. It’s a lie that can only be believed by those who choose not to see the continual oppression dealt by the state to its Black and Brown citizens.

For leading exoduses of enslaved people to freedom, Harriet Tubman became known to friends and enemies alike as Moses. So now the face of Moses will grace Egypt’s currency but it’s still Egypt’s prejudiced ideologies and unholy ends that will be served by the white man’s god.

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Postscript: I write all of the above as someone who sees my white male self everywhere I look. And while it’s impossible for me to genuinely know anything else, I can imagine how, despite some internal conflict, finally seeing a personal representation on something so visible and valuable would be worthy of great celebration.

Segregation, Poverty, and White Amnesia

Racial segregation devastates Black communities. Who’s responsible?

The forgetful quality of whiteness is evident in the way that people who live far enough from Chicago’s violence feel no responsibility for the men and women who are killed here every day. 2016 has thus far been the most violent year in Chicago “for at least 16 years,” but because the victims and their neighborhoods are Black and Brown, white people think and feel very little about these lost lives. We feel no shame. For all kinds of reasons – moral, historical, and sociological – this lack of responsibility and accountability is completely wrong.

Recent studies by the Chicago Urban League and American University show the extent to which Chicago remains a segregated city. Though the dramatic white flight of previous generations is now rare, the American University study demonstrates some of the subtler ways that segregation is perpetuated by white people. For example,

The mechanism that creates gradual racial succession, we believe, is whites’ avoidance of neighborhoods with more than a few minorities. Whites’ tolerance of integration that occurs when minorities move to their neighborhoods does not extend to a desire for integrated neighborhoods. Whites know less about and are resistant to considering neighborhoods with more than a token number of minorities.

The segregation that is created by white people’s intolerance has destructive implications far beyond the demographic makeup of a particular neighborhood. As a 2011 article in The Chicago Reader stated:

Because of historical—and some continuing—discrimination, blacks are more likely to be poor. When this is combined with segregation, it means blacks are far more likely than any other group to live in concentrated poverty. It’s hard to be poor; it’s much harder to be poor and surrounded by poverty and all the harmful cultural norms and behavior, such as crime, that accompany it. It’s a kind of poverty whites rarely experience, and one tough to escape.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this concentrated poverty – fostered by what the Urban League calls “racial residential segregation” – undermines the quality of life among the residents of those neighborhoods. Compared to children in higher socioeconomic neighborhoods, the children who reside in segregated neighborhoods are more likely to have poorer math and literacy achievement, lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and lower graduation rates. These children will also struggle more with mental health, have higher rates of acting out in school, are more likely to be unemployed, and have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Adults are also impacted, with higher reported cases of obesity and diabetes, more cases of mental illness, less food security, and higher rates of unemployment.

These “racially concentrated area[s] of poverty,” as the Urban League report calls Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods, are the result of many historic and systemic realities. Any hope of holistically addressing segregation will take these complicated factors seriously. But the entrenched and complex nature of segregation should never distract from its simplest cause: White people choose not to live near Black people.

Because segregation disproportionately impacts poor, urban, African American communities, it’s easy for white people to remain ignorant. The Reader article pointed this out: “For most whites, concentrated poverty and its many ills are an abstraction—something they read about but rarely see, since it exists in parts of town they don’t live in or work in or visit.” This ignorance is yet another of segregation’s bitter fruits: Those who bear the greatest responsibility for segregation are the least likely to know that such places even exist.

There is a lot of work to be done to address the evils of segregation and its devastations. But before action comes repentance. And before repentance comes remembering. And this, for white people, might be the hardest work of all.

Header photo: Brandon Harvey.

In Defense of Christian Un-Love

Why loving Donald Trump’s supporters might be too much to ask of this particular Christian.

The following is a guest post by Edith Cardenas-Michmerhuizen, a founding member of our church and one of the more thoughtful people I know. Here she reflects on her experience of Donald Trump’s ascendancy and destructive rhetoric.

I have watched the Republican primaries with concern. The man who I was convinced would go away by September, the man whose campaign I was certain would implode, is winning. Worse yet, he is winning by big margins. For the record, I am an immigrant and I am Mexican. Please forgive me if I take Trump’s words a little too personally but his presidential bid announcement speech set a displeasing tone for me:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

While I am used to disagreeing with most conservative Christians in regards to politics, I sincerely thought that we could agree on this one. We could at least band together against Trump’s awful rhetoric. Perhaps because beyond my ethnicity, immigration status, and political persuasion, I am a Christian; I lived under the impression that the concept of being “brothers and sisters in Christ” meant something. I have been naïve. I know, “not all conservative Christians…” yet the truth remains that Donald Trump has carried states considered bastions of Christian conservatism. I have to wonder, when it comes to those Christians, am I really their sister? Have I been disowned? Am I so different from them that they have stopped recognizing me as their own?

We are to love one another. My head gets it, but my heart doesn’t. When a close family member tells me that Trump, “just speaks truth as he sees it and isn’t worried about being politically correct,” I am hurt. I want to say, “do you see me?” When my six-year-old child comes crying in the middle of the night because of a nightmare, a nightmare in which all Latinos in Chicago are rounded up and bombed, I hurt. Do you see me? Am I so frightening? When a mostly Latino basketball team is taunted by their opponents with chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and a homeless Latino man is brutally assaulted by avowed Trump supporters, I can’t find any love in my heart. This is not a simple political disagreement. This is not simple hateful rhetoric. Trump’s hate found its way into words and his words have found way into harmful actions.

We are to love one another. My head gets it, but my heart doesn’t. The Mexicans. The Muslims. The refugees. We have faces. We are people. We have stories. We are not an abstraction.

I cannot find any love in my heart for Trump’s supporters. This is too personal and it hurts. I won’t say that I should not love them. I will just say that right now, I can’t.


IMG_0631Edith Cardenas-Michmerhuizen is a paralegal specialized in immigration law, a follower of Jesus, and and a mother of two living in Chicago. She loves sharing her passion for Mexican culture, Spanish language and social justice with her two young sons.

“So there is much to repent for.”

JET: What role do white Christians play in justice for African Americans?

Daniel HillPastor Daniel: That’s a question that I regularly ask my African American friends, co-workers and mentors. And it’s a question that we as white Christians should pay close attention to when answers are proposed. One thing I do feel clearly convicted of is the need for white Christians to actively and collectively repent for our complicity in the creation of our racist landscape. While I’m grateful for the exceptions that have stood in solidarity with the oppressed, the overwhelming history of our country reveals a picture of white Christians standing on the wrong side of justice, and often serving as the ones to perpetuate injustice. So there is much to repent for.

Daniel Hill is a friend and pastor here in Chicago. He participated in the prayer vigil on Monday and his prayer of repentance on behalf of white people caught the attention of CNN and Jet magazine. If you read the entire interview you’ll know why Daniel has become a good friend and trusted guide in matters of reconciliation and the multi-ethnic church. I’m sad for the ugly response by some to his honesty but I’m incredibly grateful that so many are benefitting from his witness.

The View From Here

After the release of the video documenting Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago police officer, some clergy friends and I worked to pull together a prayer vigil at police headquarters. It was amazing to see hundreds of faith leaders and community members come out on a rainy night to pray for justice. The top photo is my friend Pastor Chris Harris and below is Michelle Dodson, our church’s associate pastor who prayed a powerful lament over our city.

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More photos can be found online, as can some local media coverage. My friend Michael is reflecting more thoughtfully on this event that I currently have time for.

Keep us in prayer; there’s a lot more to be done.

Paris. Again.

I remember the days following September 11, 2001 more vividly than I do the infamous day itself. Or that’s how it seems to me now, a couple of days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I read the columns and the memories and emotions of that other fall day come rushing back. I hear President François call the attacks an act of war, I hear him promise a merciless fight, and I can hear my own president then describing the attacks in Manhattan with similarly confident adjectives.

Photo credit: The Apex Archive
Photo credit: The Apex Archive

Tonight, waiting to board my flight just 48 hours after the Paris attacks, I read the first reports of the French warplanes that are now bombing Syrian villages. I remember watching the televised reports about my country’s similar retaliation in Afghanistan and wondering what I was supposed to feel as this ravaged country became the target of our collective wrath. I’m sitting on this plane, flying east over darkness broken regularly by small midwestern towns and I’m thinking about those warplanes, raining down fire on a similarly darkened landscape.

Right now. It’s happening right now.

In Lebanon families and friends are grieving their murdered loved ones, victims of a massive suicide attack the day before the attacks in Paris. There were not, as far as I can tell, any American skyscrapers or public monuments lit up in the colors of Lebanon’s flag in the days following the attack. Yet the French red, white, and blue were everywhere, a global response appropriate to our president’s assessment that the tragedy in Paris was an attack on the civilized world.  Lebanon, it would seem, is not civilized enough to warrant our sympathetic outpouring. Or, more likely, we don’t see the Lebanese women and men who now grieve as being like us; we believe them to be different enough that our emotional response is categorically different. We ignore them.

This too feels eerily familiar. Almost 15 years ago we began preparing for two wars -wars that have never really ceased – because the victims of the September attacks warranted an unequivocal and ruthless response. We may not have initially known it, but it became clear as time passed that we were willing for tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis to die. For what? This has never been adequately explained to me.

Today, as in 2011, there are loud, powerful voices who demand vengeance. We are told that the only appropriate and honorable response is to make our enemies suffer. But can this be right? I’ve been to some funerals lately for young men in our city who were gunned down. At these funerals there are calls for justice and for peace, but there is something else too. There is grief, mourning, even wailing. There is lament and repentance for whatever role our own selfish apathy played in these horrible deaths.

A funeral deserve a dirge but it would appear that, once again, we’re opting for the drumbeat of war.

Jesus and Black Lives Matter

Last week I had the privilege of joining Dr. Kenya Grooms and Rev. Demetrius Davis on a panel at Progressive Baptist Church. Our topic was “Jesus and Black Lives Matter” and we begin the discussion at 17:50 in the video below. My thanks to Pastor Charlie Dates for making this happen.

Black Lives Matter