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.

White America: Delivered into our iniquity

The Lincoln memorial celebrates the president who "saved the Union" - and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation - but racism didn't end with slavery.

The Lincoln memorial celebrates the president who “saved the Union” – and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation – but racism didn’t end with slavery.

More than 100 days ago now, a recent high school graduate, Michael Brown, was confronted by a police officer for jaywalking – who soon thereafter shot him several times. Brown’s body was left lying on the ground for more than 4 hours. Everyone agrees that he was unarmed.

In our country, stories like this one are unexceptional. Several unarmed young Black men – even a boy as young as 12 – have been killed by police officers in the 3+ months since the events that we have come in this country to designate simply with the name of the town: “Ferguson.” But for a variety of reasons (not limited to, but certainly including the combative reaction of the police to the protestors after the shooting, and the nationwide (even international!) community of activists fostered by Twitter), this one death became the catalyst for a conversation that had been on the back-burner for a couple of generations: Black men and women are still held in suspicion, and disproportionately subjected to violence, imprisonment, and other more subtle daily degradations on the basis of their “race.”

Yesterday, at my church (and at churches throughout the U.S. and Canada), the reading from Isaiah included these words: “you [God] have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Which, if you are a White person living in the United States, was a particularly timely word. And one which was not likely expounded upon from the pulpit in your church, if you attend one.

So allow me.

My White sisters and brothers, our iniquity is ongoing. We don’t get let off the hook by saying, “I wasn’t even alive when slavery existed.” We continue to benefit from racism today. We are the beneficiaries of both conscious and unconscious racism, systemic racism, economic racism; if nothing else, we benefit simply by not being subject to the wearying daily assault of individual racist micro-aggressions. But we are not let off the hook even for slavery, because we ourselves have been taught the Race Code by the children of the children of the children of slaveholders and slave dealers (in case any non-Southern readers thought they might be getting a bye) – we have been brought up, by and large, to serve the false idols of “getting ahead.” and “having more than my parents did,” and we have shrugged off the warning of Exodus 20:5 – “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.”

We have not exactly been lacking opportunities to repent. But we haven’t been willing to admit that we have a problem – much less to examine what our problem consists of. Now with these protests that are rising up all over the country, we are once again given a choice. Will we harden our hearts? Will we rise up our voices in a self-serving counter-protest – uttering cowardly words, like: “Not all white people…” and “You’re exaggerating to make a point!” and “What about black on black crime?”

Or will we start to ask, “How am I a part of this problem, and how can I take responsibility as a White person in a society dominated by White people?”

One of my favorite Advent hymns (predictably, for a Methodist) is Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, by Charles Wesley. Every year, Methodists (and others) around the globe sing, “From our fears and sins release us…”

Our fear has too long held us captive, preventing White men and women from seeing their Black brothers and sisters lovingly. Our fear has blinded us to our sin. And in case you are not feeling particularly racist yourself, may I remind you of these words from the Book of Common Prayer, Morning Daily Prayer, Rite II: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

I can say for myself, I have left far too much undone, when it comes to working for justice in this country. It wasn’t so long ago that I was failing to even remember daily that this country has a race problem.

God of all people, give us courage. Plant in us the desire to see the world as you see it, even if it pains us to do so. Grant us the gift of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Even as we wait for you to make all things new, show each one of us how you would have us help build your coming kingdom, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Asking the wrong questions

Last week, a young woman was slashed in the throat in Queens. Apparently, she had offended her male attacker, by ignoring him when he tried to initiate a conversation.

“But why did she ignore him?” I am hoping you are not asking yourself. But I don’t know why I am bothering to hope that. We live in a nation where the burden of proof is on a woman when a man violently attacks her – she is guilty of her attack until proven innocent (which she couldn’t possibly be – otherwise he wouldn’t have attacked her.) In much the same way that any black man shot in by a white man in this country is guilty of his own death. We don’t blame *all* victims, just certain ones – just women who are victims of men, black men who are victims of white men, civilians who are victims of police officers… power confers immunity to blame, powerlessness confers moral suspicion.

But just in case the question is still bothering you, and just in case you didn’t know, women get to ignore men if they feel like it. Women are people, as much as any man, and have agency, and the right to choose who to speak to and when. Being alone is not the same as being available to and bound to recognize every man in the vicinity who exhibits an interest. Theoretically, anyway.

In practice, a woman is guilty from the moment she steps out the door. If she looks sexy, she is an offense; if she is not dressed for the male gaze, she is an offense. If she is young she is an offense, if she is old she is an offense. Her hair, the shape of her body, the color of her skin – no matter what it is, it is a provocation. And when a male speaks, from a seemingly innocuous, “Hello,” to a catcall of lewd appraisal, she has a choice – will she be guilty of responding, or guilty of not responding? Either can be dangerous. To speak can be viewed as having “encouraged” him, to not speak as “insulting” him (no matter how insulting his speech or gaze may have been.) Insult or encouragement: either is an invitation to sex, to violence, to both. And however the story ends, any injury to herself is only what she had coming to her.

But turning from our every woman to the particular child of God who was critically injured in Queens last week: why did she ignore him? Because she had the right to do so? Because she was afraid to respond – afraid to “encourage” him?

If she hadn’t ignored him, isn’t it possible, even likely that her attacker would have ended up cutting her anyway, that we would now be asking, “Why did she speak to him?” And even if not, do we want to be living in a world where we accept that ignoring a man is reason enough for him to land you in the hospital?

We have been asking the wrong questions for too long. Instead we should be asking, “Why did he think that her ignoring him entitled him to slash her with a blade?” We should wonder, “Why are so many men so emotionally fragile that even a perceived rejection from a woman he doesn’t even know is an invitation to violence?”

I was with my not yet 8 year old daughter when she received her first catcall, just a few weeks ago. A man drove by slowly, and called out, “Nice dress, sweetheart!” in a creepily appraising tone. She was confused, “Did we know him?” No. No we didn’t.

“Why did he call out to me then?” I thought quickly – I didn’t want to prejudice her against men. I’m sure parents of black children would prefer not to have to prejudice their children against police officers, either – but realistically, aren’t we obliged to have “the talk” with our children – to be honest with them about what people most endanger them? I sighed. I knew what I had to do.

“Some men think that they have the right to comment on the appearance or clothing of any girl or woman, whether they know each other or not.” I love the shocked look that comes on my daughter’s face when she encounters such rank injustice. “But! Mommy! That’s not right!” I smiled sadly, “No Bunny, it is not right. It is not right at all. That man needs to keep his opinions to himself. You wore that dress for yourself, not for him.”

Heaven help me. It was only the beginning of a long conversation about how her gender places her in our country and in the world – only the start of me saying to her, “Some men think that they have the right…”

Hat tip to Dr. Anthea Butler, who tweeted the link to this news story this morning.