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.

Extraordinary Love

For more than a decade, the “treasure in clay jars” passage has been one of my favorites. (See the quote in the sidebar on the righthand side of your screen.) But I haven’t made a clear connection between this passage and the theme of my blog (“blessed by the kindness of my fellow travelers.”)

As I was reading through some earlier articles of mine, I came across this Bible study that I wrote for the Virginia Advocate on the passage assigned by the International Lesson Series for March 29, 2009: Ezekiel 36:22-32. Since I know not all of you are going to click through on the scripture link 😉 here are verses 22-24 to give you an idea of how this passage relates to the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.

The paragraphs below appear by permission, printed just as they were published in the March 2009 issue of the Virginia Advocate. They recount an experience from when I served as one of several teaching assistants to Dr. J. Kameron Carter. Among other duties, we each led at least one section of students in an hour long seminar to complement Dr. Carter’s lectures in Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School.

In class one day, one of the students was unable to contain himself. “I don’t think that we take suffering seriously at all. We are too busy. We always want to move on too quickly, and get on with the ‘more important’ things.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Other people’s suffering makes us uncomfortable, and often seems like an interruption. As Christians we are called to be present with others in their suffering. Unfortunately we have a lot of ground to cover today,” and then, with an ironic smile, I added, “So – moving on…”

The class burst into laughter and we did indeed move on. But the student’s anguished plea stayed with me in the days that followed. If I wasn’t willing to dwell with the pain of the students in the learning process, then I was failing to adequately proclaim the gospel in my teaching. Then it came to me – I had often asserted that every theological question we ask is at bottom a pastoral question – here was an opportunity to demonstrate that as a way of attending to my students’ needs.

When the day came for us to meet together as a class again, I was so excited! I was looking forward to what our time together might hold. And then the thought came to me: “Now everyone will see what a wonderful teacher I am.”

Right away I had to laugh at myself. What a sad little clay jar I was, wanting to make it all about me. But, as Paul reminds us, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord… this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor, 4:4, NRSV)

The lesson in the end was not a demonstration of my (imagined) extraordinary power, but of God’s: God who inspired the student to care enough to interrupt the lesson, God who kept the student’s complaint ever before me in the days that followed, and God who opened the hearts of all the students to participate in the exercises I prepared with trust and hopefulness. Above all, the lesson focused on the extraordinary power of God’s love for us.

Sometimes the exhilaration of bringing the good news to others can tempt us to forget that the good news is not about us and how wonderful we are – it is about God’s wonderful love for all people.

I am grateful to have been a witness to God at work in and through ordinary events and broken individuals of mixed motives – demonstrations of a tireless love that are not for any one person’s sake, nor even for the sake of any one faith or nation, but for every living creature.  How wonderful!  How extraordinary!

Jesus Land, again

Since having read Jesus Land and posted about it – twice – there have been a couple of interesting developments.  The professor who asked me to read and comment on the book, Dr. Amy Laura Hall, forwarded on my entries to two other professors that I also have great respect for – Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter.  And I read Dr. Carter’s own blog entry on the subject.  And my family’s adoption profile went live at the agency we have been working with.

The last development might not seem particularly relevant, unless you have read the book – which is, in addition to all of the other things I wrote about, a story about cross-racial adoption.

Oh, did I neglect to mention race in my first two entries?  Yep, I did.

Puzzling out that one – why I had focused on the fundamentalism thread, and not even touched on the race thread – had been troubling me ever since reading Carter’s own insightful essay on the book.  Of course, there is lots that I didn’t comment on in the book, and that I still won’t touch on in this third post – I would have to write eight or ten or more entries! – but race was such a big part of the book that failing to mention it is almost like writing a review of Huck Finn and not mentioning that Jim was a runaway slave.  Scheeres, in writing the book, was carrying on a project of her brother David’s – which was explicitly an account of growing up black in a family of white fundamentalists.

As I drew nearer to the time when birthfamilies might be contacting me and my husband to discern if we were a good match, it became more clear to me what was going on.  I couldn’t talk about it because it was hitting too close to home.  Reading about a family that singled out their adopted children – their adopted children of another race – for stricter punishment – for physical abuse – was horrifying to me.  About a month after having discussed with the social worker how offensive we had found the very question of whether we could love an adopted child as much as our biological child, here I was reading about parents that could feel self-righteous, even downright martyrly – for having adopted an African American child, even as they beat that child, then washed their hands of him when he ended up in reform school.  Some of the saddest parts of the book for me were when the teenaged David looked forward eagerly to reuniting with his parents, as his sister hid from him their parents’ ugly feelings – they didn’t consider him part of the family any more.  How could they?! Adoption is forever!  You don’t tell a child you are their mother and then take it back!  It made me ill.

Julia later remembered that her parents had desired to adopt a particular white child – and when she was not available but a young African American boy was, they took him because of Christian guilt – they would be bad Christians to say no.  What of myself and my husband?  Were we open to children of other races only because we felt there was only one right answer – only one Christian thing to do?  Were we worried about how Christian (or not) we would appear to our friends if we showed up at church with a white baby?  Were we using the life of a flesh and blood child to make a point about ourselves to the world around?

But when I thought back on the many late night conversations with my husband, I was reassured – there was one right answer for us because of our upbringing in desegregated schools, and because of our personal convictions, our own ideas about humanity and God’s grace and the cultural construction of race, about giving space for any child we have – biological or adopted – to be different from ourselves (and are! and they will be!), and about love driving us to learn about whatever we need to learn about to care for the child God gives us.

I am not blind to the realities of the world around us.  Okay, I am.  Yes, I am.  But my husband and I believe that that which we do not ourselves experience still exists – in this case different treatment for people who look differently from ourselves.  And we will do our best to prepare our next child to face the world that will not embrace them as we ourselves embrace them.  We are doing the same already for our white daughter – the world has myriad nefarious ways for undermining a person’s belief in God’s love for them – they may not be old enough or young enough or pretty enough or the right gender or stoic enough or expressive enough or smart enough – or have the right color skin, the right texture of hair, the right shaped eyes.  And all of these things have very real consequences.  We must raise children who can exist in the world – but at the same time own that they are not of it.

So no matter who the baby ends up looking like (looking at the statistics at our agency, even with our openness to adopting a child of any heritage, we have about a 50% chance of ending up with a child whose birthparents both self-identify as white) we will definitely be reading the Bible, going to church, and… watching Dinosaur Train.  “…we’re all creatures!  All dinosaurs have different features!”