Surrounded by Steadfast Love

Sarah:

I’m giving the “photo-a-day” challenge another try this Lent. As many of us get underway with whatever Lenten discipline(s) we’ve chosen, I wanted to revisit this post from 2013, in which I ask, “Am I observing Lent for God, or for my public image within my community?”

Originally posted on Jerusalem to Jericho:

Surround - All Eyes on Jesus Surround – All Eyes on Jesus

On Saturday, March 16, Rethink Church’s suggested word for the Lenten “Photo of the Day” was surround. That evening, I saw my daughter setting up the nativity set that my Aunt Marie gave to me the Christmas before Hannah was born. The set she now thinks of as hers could not be more different from the set I played with as a child, an unpainted cast of dozens carved from olive wood in the West Bank circa 1970; but my six year old self had the same instincts as my daughter when it came to the arrangement – everyone crowding around the baby Jesus, surrounding him. After all, he is the main attraction! He is the one everyone is there to see.

SNAP! Once she saw I was taking photos, Hannah started arranging the characters differently, everyone facing out as if they were…

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URGENT!

I have unsubscribed from more than 30 mailing lists over the past 24 hours. Some of them were from people trying to sell me things – daily “flash sales” and “exclusive offers” were flooding my box, increasing my sense of urgency. That’s no surprise – they are designed to do that! These “24 hours only!!” emails are supposed to make my heart rate increase, and my anxiety go up a notch – to send the message “click here and start shopping, or you will foolishly miss out!!” When the products hold no interest for me, these emails are merely annoying – making it harder to find the messages I actually want to read. When the products are instead the very sort of thing that I covet, it actually takes time out of my day – a minute or two of struggling with my conscience, which is reminding me that I don’t actually need what the email is insistent that I “BUY NOW!!!”

Retailers aren’t the only ones sending these daily urgent messages. I unsubscribed from environmental lists, labor movement lists, feminist lists, and all manner of other social justice lists too. It is much harder for me to purge content that I actually care about and believe in! But even though I agree that there is lots that needs improving in our world, I simply do not have the time – much less the emotional energy! – to engage in 10 or more disparate “URGENT!” actions in a day.

Each of us has a “to do” list, whether we write it out or not. I was allowing more than 30 people to add items to that to do list on a near daily basis.

I had an Aunt who collected music boxes. When I was a kid, my sister, brother, cousin, and I would try to get them all going at the same time – it made quite a noise! One by one, the music boxes would wind down and their music would stop. When we got tired of running around and restarting them, then the noise would get less and less, until there was one single song slowly playing, and then silence.

But email marketing just keeps going and going – it doesn’t wind down like a music box. In order to have less noise in my life, I had to take action. Already, peeking into my inbox has become a lot less stressful.

I know that God wants us to care for the world, and to live in it – but if I am going to listen for God’s voice, I am going to need to quiet all of the other voices – at least once in awhile.

Slavery, sin, and death

Dr. J. Kameron Carter often referred to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in his Theology lectures, but it took me almost 4 years to make the time to start reading the book. Jacobs led a relatively privileged life, for a slave in North Carolina. She could read, she lived with her parents in the early part of her life, she was in one town for the length of her imprisonment, she didn’t work in the fields. But none of that “makes up for” being owned by another person. Sexual and emotional degradation and manipulation, and coercion and abuse of every kind was integral to the system of slavery. Holding an entire people in bondage for generations was only possible within a society based on fear, on the threat of violence and loss of liberty — and the Civil War did not dismantle this social order. This is who we are as a nation, and we cannot understand ourselves until we acknowledge what slavery was and how it continues to impact us. I pray for the day when this book becomes required reading in every high school throughout the country.

I grew up as a White person in the South, so I heard a lot about how it wasn’t as bad for folks under slavery as it was afterwards for sharecroppers. Which even if it had been true (which it pretty clearly could not be), was no recommendation for slavery. Seriously, if the only thing you can say in defense of something is that it wasn’t the absolute worst thing that ever happened to a group of people…? Which again, was a stretch. Sharecropping was an extension of the slavery mentality, and like slavery it was White people who structured this bad way of life, and who chose to use their power to continue the oppression of their Black neighbors.

But my imagination had failed to fill out the contours of the torture that was life as a slave. That required data. In order to really understand how bad slavery was, I had to stop and listen to a woman who had been a slave. Go figure.

Perhaps your “education” about the realities of slavery was similarly slipshod. If so, Jacobs’ book is a good starting place as you turn over a new leaf in your understanding of race and racism in this country.

In order to love someone, we need to begin by listening to them. We cannot love someone we do not know, and we cannot know someone we do not listen to.

After Michael Brown was shot, someone in my feed – I wish I remembered who, so I could attribute this sentiment properly, and so that I could thank her – said that the most important thing that white people could do to help was to count how many people they were following altogether, calculate 10% of that number, and add that number of Black women and men to our Twitter feeds. For me, this has been the most transformative thing in thinking about race in the U.S. since picking up Jacob’s book. I’m not imagining what Black people might think about this or that event, and I’m not pedantically extrapolating what they must think. I’m not relying on one “Black friend” to represent the “Black point of view.” Instead, I’m listening to dozens of Black individuals: people of many different ages and genders and religions and ages, activists and journalists and professors and politicians and novelists and musicians and pastors, each bringing their own experiences and insights to the table.

But there is a common thread there – the thread of living as an oppressed group, living as suspect on the grounds of ancestry and physical appearance, in a country that claims “liberty and justice for all,” but has never even attempted to live up to that promise.

About 100 days ago, thinking about my Whiteness became an everyday thing, thanks to my Twitter feed. I’m 41 years old. If I were Black in this country, thinking about my Blackness would have been an every day thing starting around when I entered elementary school, if not before. But I’m White, so I didn’t have to think about it. Here in the U.S., we White people have too long been like the folk that God describes in Isaiah 6:9 – we “keep listening but do not comprehend, keep looking but do not understand.”

Repentance – turning away from our fear and self-interest and towards our Black sisters and brothers – is long overdue. We cannot say we are sorry for something that we do not understand, much less for something that we still have not stopped doing.

God, like a potter you formed our ears: prod us to listen, not for affirmation of what we want to hear, but to comprehend something new; You formed our eyes: correct our vision that we may look, not to see what we have always seen, but to understand someone else’s experience. Lord, we cannot hope to find justice without truly seeking it – kindle the desire for justice in those of us White women and men who fear that we have the most to lose. Loosen our grip on all that we have wrongfully taken, in order that we may be seized by the love that would bind us all into one family. We pray this in the name of your Son, who by the Holy Spirit made his home and ministry with a subjugated people, in defiance of the earthly power that put him to death. Amen.