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.

Born and raised in the Briar Patch

I am beginning to understand that worship planning is my briar patch.

I wonder how many of you remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit – a trickster figure in the stories of African Americans in the southern United States, Br’er Rabbit stories are rooted in the storytelling traditions both of the Creek (Native American) and African peoples.  In one of the most famous stories, Br’er Rabbit is captured by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, who are tired of his trickster ways.  Br’er Rabbit begs them, “Whatever you do, PLEASE don’t throw me in the briar patch.”  Naturally, that is just what the two larger animals do, and Br’er Rabbit squeals so loudly that they are sure they have killed him – until they realize that he is not squealing in pain from the thick tangle of thorns, nor from fear at being lost in the darkness under a dense maze of branches – instead he is squealing from laughter!  Br’er Rabbit finally manages to gasp, “I was born and raised in the briar patch!”

Like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, worship planning seems to have little (but necessity) to recommend it to many pastors.  The task can seem overwhelming!  Simply writing a sermon that stays on message, bears some obvious connection to the selected scripture passage, and fits in the allotted time can be daunting.  Now let’s see if we can keep that sermon free from heretical error, avoid unintentionally snarky references to parish business, and avoid embarrassing our spouses or children with a story that is too personal.  While we are at it, it would be great if we could preach something that is easily digested by  a newcomer, without being boring for a long-timer.  Now we just have to select the hymns, write the call to worship, select or write a few prayers… Oh no!  The children’s sermon!  We forgot the children’s sermon.  And a baby threw up on our alb last week and we forgot to take it to the cleaners.

Phew!  Now all we have to do is go up and lead this thing for an hour without any mistakes, or at least to make our mistakes gracefully. Don’t get shaken up when that kid on the sixth row screams during the sermon, waking the guy in the pew in front of him.  Can we locate the encouraging faces of the few smiling nodding parishioners? Great!  As for the rest, let’s find that point just over the tops of the heads of the majority who will be frowning in hopefully deep thought.  Uh-oh, we looked one if them in the eye.  Are they angry?  Maybe they are just misunderstanding.  And now we are just rambling from the pulpit until that one person finally nodded and released us – thank you Jesus!  And now we are running late again.  The organist will want us to cut a verse from the last hymn.  It doesn’t save more than a minute or two, but it makes a big psychological difference – it helps the congregation understand that we do notice that they are disapprovingly aware of the time.

But above all, we must be open to the movement of the Spirit!  If we can somehow dial back the volume on those other 30 concerns that are swirling through our heads.  Such as forgetting to announce whatever that very important announcement was that was told to us just before we walked down the aisle.

Worship planning!  Sermon writing!  Sunday mornings in the pulpit!!! The dread!  The horror!

So why is it I squealed with delight when I opened up the lectionary in order to list all of the Psalms that didn’t make it in, in order to find ways to include them at other parts of the year?  Picking hymns – and finding a way to lift phrases and themes from each hymn in order to more clearly tie them to my sermon – that weekly activity was like play!  And children’s sermons?  Don’t get me started!  I loved doing those so much that I even did them at a church that had no children!

I was born and raised in that briar patch.  My Dad, a United Methodist pastor, brought worship to the Sunday dinner table, asking us to think through how it had gone:  what was the sermon about?  What did we like?  What didn’t we understand?  How were the hymns related – or not? How were the scriptures related – or not?  Worship criticism (in the style of literary criticism) formed the main part of our conversation after church on Sundays.

Dad and I would go to other worship services together from time to time, and then would dissect them together afterwards, figuring out what made them tick.  Starting when I was about six.  And earlier than that, Dad would consult me when he was working on his sermons:  he would read me a bit of scripture or lay out a theological problem and ask me what I thought.   As I grew older and began to play piano, Dad would ask me to play the melody of a hymn he was unfamiliar with when he was planning worship – so that he could decide if he could pick it up easily enough to lead the congregation, or if it he would go find another hymn with words he liked slightly less well.  He would already have checked to see if it could be switched to a more familiar tune with the same meter – which is part of why I knew about the hymnal’s metrical index in elementary school.  Its existence was clearly a revelation to many of my seminary classmates, when it was pointed out by our worship professor.

I want to apologize for my incredulity in that moment.  And also for the time when I responded to a student pastor who was asking “when do pastors get their Sabbath?” with the insensitive remark that leading worship was not work, but the culmination of our work, in which we too were worshipping God.  Yeah, not so much for her.  I was wrong to judge.  I also owe an apology to those students that I implied were unprofessional in wanting to use pre-written prayers, instead of writing their own collects for each service.  I didn’t understand how – unusual I am.

Most pastors were not born and raised in the briar patch.  It is pretty uncomfortable to be thrown into a dark and tangled thicket filled with blood-drawing thorns when it is not your natural habitat.  I take my hat off to you pastors who wrestle each week with your worship preparation in spite of all the fear one or more elements of it inspire in you.  You are martyrs in the best sense of the word: you witness to your conviction that God loves you and your congregation and all the world – and that this love is so great that your very legitimate misgivings about worship preparation (this is, after all, very serious stuff!) are not worth comparing to your deep need to share this love.  Thank you for continuing to toil in the briar patch.

Learning to forgive – and to be forgiven

In Tales of Wonder, Huston Smith offers this definition of Christianity:

What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you may consider yourself a Christian.

I have immense respect for Huston Smith – he is a man who has sought after God with great passion, and in chronicling his search he blazed trails in post-modernism and in religious studies. Nevertheless, I believe that his definition of Christianity has a couple of problems with it. I will focus here on one: “… and you do not harm others consciously…” with special attention to the word “consciously.”

There is a great variation amongst consciences. Some give little thought to others, and so are unconsciously hurting others constantly in ways that most persons would consider obvious. One of the aims of Christianity is to broaden the consciousness of Christians: we learn to see ourselves more deeply, as well as to see a broader number of people more deeply than we have before – until we grow into an embodiment of God’s love for all people. So for some Christians, it becomes very hard to hurt another person without consciousness of it – because consciousness becomes so deep and broad.

When I turn on a light switch, I am conscious of hurting my sisters and brothers in West Virginia whose streams are choked with debris from mountaintop removal mining. When I get into my car and drive it, I am conscious of the Pacific Islanders already being impacted by rising sea levels, conscious of the animals whose habitats have been chopped into tiny parcels by asphalt roads, conscious of the benefits of the once good autoworking jobs disappearing. And so on. In the 21st century, we are so globally connected that there is little I can do without being tied to another in some way. And as a member of the ever dwindling American middle class, I am often tied to others in a way that benefits me to their detriment.

I am trying to lessen the instances in which I am consciously harming others. But at the same time, I am continuing to broaden and deepen in consciousness – and so more continues to be demanded of me in order to meet the standard of not harming others consciously. Christianity by Huston Smith’s definition is for me a moving target – if he is correct then I have never been a Christian, and can never hope to be one.

Instead, I take refuge in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “… forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” We are ever in debt to God – and to many others. In teaching me to pray for forgiveness, Jesus teaches me that he expects I will continue to stand in need of forgiveness – and that it is always available to me. In teaching me that God’s forgiveness for me is linked to my forgiveness of others, Jesus teaches me that my judgment is what stands most in the way of my own healing. How readily do I model forgiveness when others fail me? When I fail myself?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.