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.

The beam in my eye

Every parent has their own discipline strategies. When I was growing up, my father’s approach was to quote scripture. Let me assure you, when you hear “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God has given you,” coming out of the mouth of your own Dad, it sounds more like a threat than a promise!
Dad had a scripture for almost every occasion (that I could not hate my brother or sister and love God was particularly unnerving), though he was not above using Dr. Seuss when an appropriate Biblical text could not be found. His real go-to passage was the Sermon on the Mount. I remember many times being told that I wasn’t adding an inch to my height by worrying, or (when I was gloating over my good behavior) that I shouldn’t let my right hand know what the left was doing. The one that really stuck with me, though, and became foundational for my spiritual growth, was the ready proof text against tattling – the admonition to first take the beam out of my own eye before taking the mote out of my sister or brother’s eye. (“What’s a mote, Dad?” “Don’t talk back! Honor your father…” Yikes!)
While I have not been using scripture in this way with my own daughter, there is something to be said for growing up hearing these verses every day:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-5, RSV)

The result for myself – and I think for my sister and brother as well, has been to live lives of introspection – so that, when we find ourselves judging another, we are conditioned to stop and instead take stock of ourselves. No matter how long we have walked with God, Teresa of Avila asserted, we can always find fresh insights in the first room of the Interior Castle – the room of self-examination.
So, after years of doing my inadequate best to live by the rule of Matthew 7:1-5, it has been a great surprise to discover a way to read the passage anew. For this I have to thank Dr. J. Kameron Carter of Duke Divinity School, who recently blogged about Haiti and the theodicy question. I encourage you to read it yourselves! As I read it, and considered his suggestion that we often frame the question of “Why does God let suffering occur?,” as a way of avoiding our own culpability, it occurred to me that Carter was providing us with a reread of Matthew. In these instances, when we judge God, we are plucking a supposed speck out of God’s eye, blinded by the log that is in our own. Which takes the defense of God from an abstract “who can see well enough to judge God?,” instead concretizing the question to one of self-examination – “Have I lived in such a way to enable my faith community to embody Christ in the world well? How have we failed to embody Christ for others?” It is not piety to turn our eyes to God in order to take the attention off our own destructive behavior. In fact, it is downright unscriptural.