Plundered Bodies

Ida B. Wells and the Incarnation as Theological Exemplar and Rationale for Racial Justice

The following is a paper I wrote for a recent theology class. The themes in the paper are resonant to much of what I post about here, so it’s possible a few readers may be interested in what I explored in these pages. I welcome your feedback and suggestions; these are themes I expect to return to regularly.

At 2:30 A.M. On March 9, 1892, three Black men were dragged from their jail cells in Memphis, Tennessee by “seventy five men wearing Black masks.”[i] Tommie Moss, Will Steward, and Calvin McDowell, targeted for their resistance to mob violence against Moss’ grocery store, struggled against the vigilantes as they were led to the railroad. Along they way they were shot and mutilated before arriving at the scene of their lynching, an event that one newspaper described as having been “done decently and in order… with due regard to the fact people were asleep.”[ii]

Ida B. Wells was the publisher of Free Speech, a Memphis newspaper that focused on Black life in the city. She was away when her friend Tommie Moss was lynched. After an initial response in her paper in which she urged her peers to “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property,[iii] she followed up with an even more direct editorial on May 24th.  “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern White men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”[iv] Wells was correct that public sentiment toward the lynching of Black bodies would eventually shift, though at this point she couldn’t have imagined how long it would take or what a pivotal role she would play. She also didn’t foresee that this editorial, with her indictment of White fear, would provoke serious enough threats in Memphis that she would need to flee for the relative safety of Chicago where she would commence her anti-lynching campaign in earnest.

Any reckoning of Wells’ life and impact must consider many things: her gender and race; her move from Memphis to Chicago at a time when many African Americans were doing the same; her varied and influential roles as a publisher, editor, writer, and activist; and her relationships – sometimes friendly, often not – with influential leaders in the civil rights and suffragist movements. But Wells was also a self-consciously Christian person and it is this aspect of her life in which this paper is most interested. Despite regular, sometimes life-threatening, opposition exacerbated by her race and gender, Wells was singularly focused on raising the public’s awareness about the tragic injustice of lynching. What role did her Christian faith play in her courageous activism? Continue reading “Plundered Bodies”

“In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation”

Whether exacerbated by gangs or guns, though, Chicago’s killings are happening on familiar turf: Its poor, extremely segregated neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. And many say that is Chicago’s real violence issue.

“Where do gangs come from? They tend to take root in the very same neighborhoods that drive these other problems,” said Robert J. Sampson, a professor at Harvard and the author of “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.” “You can’t divorce the gang problem from the problem of deep concentrations of poverty.”

“What predicts violent crime rates is concentrated poverty and neighborhood disadvantage, and what determines concentrated poverty is high levels of black segregation combined with high levels of black poverty,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University.

In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation. While many areas have few or no killings, the South and West Sides are on par with the world’s most dangerous countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, and have been for many years.

The linkage of segregation, poverty and crime exists in New York City as well. Homicides occur at higher rates in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem, and many other neighborhoods are virtually free of killings.

But segregation in New York is nothing like in Chicago: The perfectly isolated neighborhood – where every man, woman and child is the same race – is rare in New York. Less than one percent of the population lives in such areas, and most of them are white. In Chicago, 12 percent of the black population is in a census block group that is 100 percent black.

Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”

“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”

– From a recent Times article, “Chicago’s Murder Problem.” 

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.

—–

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.

A Sermon: Take Up Your Lynching Tree and Follow Me.

A lightly edited version of yesterday’s sermon from Mark 8:27-9:1 at New Community.

Our passage begins: “Jesus & his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” This geographical context is important. Mark wants us to remember that Jesus is first recognized as Messiah near Caesarea Philippi, that he Jesus first predicts his execution near Caesarea Philippi, and that Jesus first explains the costly nature discipleship near Caesarea Philippi. To understand why the location of these first-time events matters, consider this photo of Pastor Michelle from this winter. Without the context, you see someone praying publicly, but not much more. But when you know that she’s at Chicago Police Department headquarters less than a week after the video footage was released of Laquan McDonald’s murder by an office footage… well, then you see much more in this photo. Caesarea Philippi is the context that let’s us see the snapshots in our passage with greater clarity.

Philip, one of Herod the Great’s sons, was allowed to rule this region by the Roman Caesar and so he built the city of Caesarea Philippi in honor of the Caesar. Unlike Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from, this region was home to many Gentiles and was symbolic of Rome’s occupying power. In fact, the entire region was dedicated to Caesar’s lordship.

With this in mind, we begin to see why Jesus chose this region for these first-time events. With the huge expectations for the coming Jewish Messiah, it made sense for Jesus to elicit Peter’s confession away from the hype and tensions. Similarly, with the prediction of his death it was better to be out of their earshot when Jesus told his disciples about the religious leaders’ complicity in his eventual suffering and execution. Caesarea Philippi served practical purposes for these first-time events, but when it came to his teaching on costly discipleship, the region provided a symbolic backdrop for his disciples and, if we’re paying attention, for us.

The disciples who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi were mostly young Jewish men from Galilee. These men shared at least two relevant things in common. First, there were perceived as a threat by the occupying Romans. Insurrectionists and rebels came from Galilee and the region’s strong accent made it hard to blend in. These disciples had likely been stereotyped and harassed by the authorities since their teenage years. Second, these young men had experienced very real and deadly oppression. The most grotesque example of this came in 6 AD when 2,000 Galileans were crucified by the Romans four miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. Jesus and these other young men would have grown up with this and other examples of what would happen to them if they stepped out of line.

Being a young, Jewish man from Galilee meant much more than being perceived as a threat & experiencing oppression, but it didn’t mean less than these things. It is these young men who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus then says to them: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Their families have been taxed into poverty by the Romans. Their friends have been murdered violently by the Romans. They themselves have been harassed by the Romans… and Jesus brought them to the center of regional Roman power to tell them that following Jesus meant carrying a Roman cross. These were men who knew that their accents and zip codes make them targets for state-sanctioned prejudice… and Jesus brought them to symbolic center of that state tell them that following Jesus meant taking up a cross.

Do you see how hard and confusing this would be for disciples to hear? But it’s even deeper! When Jesus talked about taking up a cross, he wasn’t speaking abstractly. The cross didn’t hold any spiritual significance for the disciples. Jesus had just told he’d be executed, but hasn’t said anything about crucifixion. For the disciples, a cross was just a cross: a crude, Roman method of execution, something that had been used to murder their friends and family members.

But the cross was more than an execution method, it was an intentional form of terrorism. When Romans hung a young Galilean Jew from a cross their first goal wasn’t execution- there were faster ways to kill a rebellious Jew. No, the goal of hanging a suffering, dying, humiliated peasant from a tree was to terrorize everyone who knew him or her. New Testament scholar Paula Fredrickson writes, “The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”

With the cross, the Romans’ goal was to remind the occupied Jews of their subservient status. Their goal was to protect the privileged status of Romans. Their goal was to keep the Galileans from even trying to resist or rebel. A cross was an obscene political gesture, an unmistakable reminder of whose lives did and didn’t matter. When Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up their cross, they would have heard: take up your instrument of state-sanctioned terror and follow me. What would you have thought if you were one of Jesus’ disciples in that moment? What would you have felt?

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877-1950, 3,959 black people were lynched. EJI calls these “racial terror lynchings” because, like crucifixion, the goal was to terrorize. During slavery, women and men of African descent experienced unimaginable cruelty, but generally they were not killed by their so-called owners. They were simply too valuable. Slavery represented a 3.5-billion-dollar economy, more than all manufacturing & railroads combined. Our nation’s prosperity was literally being built on their backs. It was only after emancipation was declared that the lynching of black bodies began in earnest. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes,

White supremacists felt insulted by the suggestion that whites and blacks might work together as equals. Whether in churches, colleges, universities, or in the political and social life of the nation, southern whites, who were not going to allow their ex-slaves to associate with them as equals, felt that if lynching were the only way to keep ex-slaves subservient, then it was necessary.

If we ever think about lynching, we probably imagine white mobs surrounding black bodies. But in fact, anyone who didn’t conform to the standard of whiteness was vulnerable: About 600 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched in the southwest during this same time period for a variety of reasons, including speaking Spanish too loudly and, in the case of women victims, refusing sexual advances of white men. In October, 1871, 18 Chinese men and boys were lynched by a mob of 500 white Los Angeles residents.

For most white people during this period, lynching was necessary tool to maintain order. Cole Blease was a senator and governor from South Carolina who wrote that lynching was a “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of a jury.” Newspapers printed announcements about upcoming lynchings; up to 20,000 spectators would show up for these terrorist events. Postcards were made: white men standing proudly next to the corpse; white mothers prodding their children into the photo.

Considering similarities between crucifixion and the lynching tree helps us feel some of the horror the disciples must have felt as Jesus’ call to follow him by taking up their crosses. Cone writes,

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists- the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

To be clear: I’m not using the lynching tree as a sermon illustration. I’m not using it as an object lesson to help us mentally grasp the horrors of the cross. The lynching tree is the cross. I’m saying that being lynched was the equivalent of being crucified. I’m saying that if Jesus was talking to a group of American disciples in the 1920’s, he very well may have said to them: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their lynching tree and follow me.”

This is an incredibly hard word – a seemingly impossible word – and we can’t water it down by spiritualizing what was, in fact, an act of dehumanizing terror. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe. And though we’ve been focusing on the young Galileans who personally experienced Roman terror, we must see that following Jesus is demanding for everyone.

In 8:34 Mark tell us that just before his teaching on costly discipleship, Jesus “called the crowd to him along with his disciples…” The crowd in Caesarea Philippi included representatives of Rome, those whose ethnicity and privilege allowed them to benefit from the Galileans’ oppression. Jesus does not choose a different discipleship metaphor for them. There is not one way of discipleship for the oppressed and another for the oppressor. The cross is also for the powerful and the privileged. The women and men who profited from Rome’s campaigns of terror are now called to take up that very symbol of terror.

To these privileged women and men, citizens of an empire that had conquered the world, Jesus asks a rhetorical question: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” [8:36-37] The word Jesus uses for soul can also be translated as life. Jesus is implying that those who’ve succeeded because of another’s oppression have in fact lost comprehensively; their lives are bankrupt and they have no trustworthy hope. Their power and privilege have blinded them and they are in a desperate situation. They have satisfied themselves with the fruit of others’ oppression; they have become accustomed to cruelty and blind to their prejudice. They cannot even see their sin because everything around them normalizes their injustice and idolatry.

Jesus’ costly call to discipleship includes these men and women. The land owner, the business person, the government official, and the tax collector is each called to take up this symbol of terror. No longer can they claim ignorance. No longer can they keep a respectable distance. No longer can they explain their privilege aside from those they have oppressed. No longer can they let themselves off the hook with the hollow claim: “But I haven’t personally crucified anyone.”

No. If they desire the salvation Jesus offers they must swim against every expectation the Empire has for its favorite citizens. They must offer themselves to the cross. They must offer themselves to the lynching tree. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe.

In 8:29 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” The disciples still had a very small vision for what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The same is often true for us. They had a specific political agenda for Jesus, we have specific spiritual agendas for him. They limited him to specific political and religious agendas. We limit what we expect from Jesus to our hearts and our hopes.

But our agendas are too small because Jesus came to save the world from all that terrorizes it. Which means that those who follow Jesus must follow him to the cross, to the lynching tree, and into the contemporary terrors of today. He calls us to take up the sources of our oppression, to take up the tools we’ve used to oppressed others. Reflecting on his opposition to the Vietnam War, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. It is not something that you merely put your hands on. It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”

Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe, but if Jesus is in fact the Son of God who rescues the world, than following Jesus will also be far better than we’ve come to expect.

Once we grasp the great cost of following Jesus, it can be hard to see how such discipleship can be good. To understand why these same horrified disciples came to embrace the cross and called others to do the same, we must consider the one who issued such a costly call. Because the life of faith to which we’re called isn’t a call to an ideology, a political theory, or to a particular theology. We are called to and by a person. We are called to and by Jesus.

We are called to and by the one who held the power of the universe gave it up, the one with the privilege of deity who gave it up. He took on humanity’s flesh, but not a generic, color-blind flesh. He took on terrorized flesh. He took on oppressed flesh. He took on occupied flesh. He took on accented flesh. He took on abandoned flesh. He took on ridiculed flesh. He took on ethnically invisible flesh.

In the eyes of the Romans, Jesus was no different than his Galilean disciples. In their eyes he was a statistic and a suspect; a coward and a criminal. At best he was a backward peasant who needed to be kept in his place; at worst he was a thug who would only respond to the empire’s violence. He is the one who calls his disciples to the cross; to the lynching tree. And though they don’t yet see it, he called them to this terrorizing symbol aware that he must go there first.

What does it mean that Jesus willingly allowed Rome’s apparatus of terror to crush him? It means that the Father allowed the evil that had long terrorized humanity to crush his son instead. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” On the cross, Jesus absorbed our sin & our suffering; our prejudice & our pain; our complicity and our devastation by this world’s terror. As Cone writes, “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned the cross into a sign of liberation and new life. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.”

The only reason that taking up our cross can be good is because Jesus took up the cross first, and in doing so he robbed it of its power to terrorize his followers. This is why Jesus can call us to simultaneously take up our cross and follow him. It should be impossible to go anywhere with a cross. You don’t take up a lynching tree and move ahead! The cross, the lynching tree, and every other form of terrorizing evil are meant to destroy us and instill fear in others. Coming into contact with the cross is supposed to kill you. Coming into contact with the lynching tree is meant to terrify you and everyone you love. And yet because Jesus has already allowed evil to exhaust itself on his body, these evils have lost their ultimate power over us. Like Paul proclaims in Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In other words, because Jesus was crucified, the cross has no power to terrorize his followers. Because he was hung from a tree, the lynching tree has no power to terrorize his followers. This doesn’t mean this world’s powers and authorities aren’t up to their old tricks, it just means that Jesus has already exposed their impotence.

Jesus has picked up the cross. Jesus has hung from the lynching tree. Jesus has been stopped and frisked. Jesus has been locked up and forgotten. Jesus has experienced educational malpractice by an underfunded school system. Jesus has known the terror of drone warfare. Jesus has felt the fear of a vulnerable body. Jesus has been demonized because of his accented English and immigrant roots.

By calling his disciples to pick up the cross, Jesus has placed himself within every terrorizing tactic this world and its evil prince will ever use against you. And though he was crushed, he rose; though he was pierced, he rose; though he was battered and bruised, still he rose. And because our faith is in this Jesus, because we follow this Jesus, we too will face this world’s terrors and live.

“…white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy…”

To people of color like me, the movement toward a more level playing field is occurring at a painfully glacial pace. But to many white men, the change is happening so fast and it all seems so painful!  Sociologists Henderson and Herring note that when white men begin to feel the effects of equality (e.g., they realize that they no longer receive preferential treatment or have power over others), it feels like discrimination to them. Being treated like everyone else is not discrimination (in fact, it is the textbook definition of equality). But when you’ve lived atop the racial hierarchy for your entire life and grown accustomed to preferential treatment and disproportionate amounts of power, it’s emotionally painful and destabilizing when they’re taken away. For this reason, many white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy, even if they profess democratic ideals that suggest otherwise.

Trump, the White Man’s last gasp, and the Resurrection by Christena Cleveland. I wrote, less intelligently than Cleveland, about this perception by some (many?) white men that we’re being discriminated against back in 2011 after Newsweek had a cover story about “The Beached White Male.”

“…a cog in the machine of a racist hierarchy.”

In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy.

These two sentences, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a moving article about Nina Simone, perfectly summarizes why neutrality isn’t an option when it comes to racial injustice. The options are few: we resist or we collude.

Waking from the Dream

A panel discussion about race and reconciliation.

I love our church for many, many reasons, but this panel discussion about race and reconciliation highlights a few that are especially close to my heart. First: I was away this particular Sunday and, as you’ll hear, the church didn’t miss a beat. Second: I love our commitment to balance theological reflection with courageous action. Two weeks prior to this panel I did my best to make the biblical case for racial reconciliation and then this panel helped the church imagine how that theology actually plays out. Third: We have amazing people! Pastor Michelle Dodson was a phenomenal moderator and the panelists were brilliant. Every time we do something like this I learn so much.

You can listen to all our sermons including the panel discussion via our podcast or just the panel discussion below.