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.


Jesus Blesses the Children (detail of a photo by Walters Art Museum, posted here under Creative Commons license 2.0)

Jesus Blesses the Children (detail of a photo by Walters Art Museum, posted here under Creative Commons license 2.0)

Today, on Twitter, Whitney Simpson quoted St. Augustine: “You aspire to great things? Begin with little ones.”

Glancing through my feed, I thought to myself, “I have always believed that! I didn’t know Augustine had such a high view of children.” Because of my bias towards children, I had understood Augustine to mean that anyone who would do great things should spend time with children. Which is not, upon re-reading, the meaning of this quote at all, but if it is a misreading, at least it is a Biblical misreading! Jesus said that grown ups need to become more like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, and furthermore that if we lead little ones astray, it would have been better for us if we had been drowned in the sea.

The time I spend with children is time that I spend learning. From my daughter’s questions, I learn how the world is in the grip of sin, and from my answers to those questions I learn what I believe. When teaching a children’s knitting class last spring, I learned anew how different we all are: how different we are in what we understand and what we notice and whose opinion of us matters, and how that determines difference in how we learn and what motivates us. But I was also reminded that most of us are the same, too, in having someone that we desire to impress, in needing another’s patience when we are frustrated, and in delighting in mastering a new skill. From a Daisy troop, I finally started to get a handle on group dynamics by observing the shifts in group functioning when different combinations of girls showed up.

But the time I spend with children is also time that I spend shaping the persons that they will become – giving the knitting students a sense of competence, as well as a stress relieving life skill, for instance; or giving the Daisies another instance of an adult who is not their parents who cares about them, and who cares about how they treat one another…

Do I aspire to a kinder, more equitable world? Then I need to invest in the little ones.

When I was in college, I used to say that the most revolutionary thing a person could do was to raise a child with intention, and my daughter is certainly on the receiving end of a great deal of intentional parenting! My husband and I are shaping who she will become, not just from our direct influence, but also through choosing other people to be in her life (and through the mistakes we make, as well.) Who she is and how she interacts with the world is influenced (though not completely determined) by who we are and how we have raised her. What had not occurred to me when I was nineteen was how much she would shape us, too – how much all the children I have known were shaping me all along. I could spend many hours thinking and writing about it!

Right now, however, I might need to take St. Augustine at his intended word. I am aspiring to PhD work. I have been so long out of school, that I first need to take some new classes, so that I can get “fresher” recommendations. Which means that if I aspire to a PhD, I need to begin with the (relatively) little task of my 200 word essay for my application as a special student. There are no skipping the little steps on the way to our greater goals. So no matter how inspirational it may be at times, I had better log off Twitter and get to work – before my partner in revolution gets home from school.

“Together we Serve”

In the United Methodist hymn supplement The Faith We Sing, Hymn 2175 is “Together We Serve” by Daniel Charles Damon:

Together we serve, united by love,
inviting God’s world to the glorious feast.
We work and we pray through sorrow and joy,
extending your love to the last and the least.

We seek to become a beacon of hope,
a lamp for the heart and a light for the feet.
We learn, year by year, to let love shine through
until we see Christ in each person we meet.

We welcome the scarred, the wealthy the poor,
the busy, the lonely, and all who need care.
We offer a home to those who will come,
our hands quick to help, our hearts ready to dare.

Together, by grace, we witness and work,
remembering Jesus, in whom we grow strong.
Together we serve in Spirit and truth,
remembering love is the strength of our song.

Just yesterday, in a cranky mood, I told my husband that I needed to stop spending any time on Facebook or Twitter.  It just seemed like I received a barrage of one thing wrong with the world after the other – things that I was powerless to change.  It was not a lot different from watching television news, and I have given up on the news — the very goal of television news seems to be to desensitize me and overwhelm me at the same time, because it is impossible to process the magnitude of any one news story when there is no pause between one injustice and the next and the next and the next – for 24 hours now, if you watch cable.  (I think this is why I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – because they are not news anchors, they can express their emotions about a piece – genuinely or ironically – before moving on to the next piece.  For me, that moment of reacting to the news item is cathartic.  Also, they tend to report on stuff that is off the “approved television news topics” list.)

But today, I am noticing the difference between the Twitter barrage and the nightly news barrage: community.  A story develops in the reactions that people have to a story, so that the different angles of the story are examined, and articles and other pieces of evidence are proffered, until a thesis in 140 character chunks is laid out.  It was on my Twitter feed that I discovered that I was not alone in being offended by the proposed “Fitch the Homeless” campaign, which was reassuring.  (And probably excessively re-tweeted related stories – apologies to all who follow my feed.) As I followed the story on Twitter, I learned something new, too:  that there is an excess of cast-off clothing in this country – that textile waste is a growing problem.

I started to think about the recent death of more than a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh. Interesting that people seemed to be getting much more worked up over a CEO saying sociopathic things about what body types could belong to “cool kids” than over a number of CEOs sociopathically profiting from unsafe overseas labor.  Why were we singling out one person as a jerk instead of getting angry at the whole system of textile manufacturing: from pesticide runoff and waterway habitat destruction resulting from cotton farming, to the toxic manufacture of synthetic fibers, to the closing of U.S. factories and destruction of local economies, to the opening of factories in countries with little environmental or labor (or building and fire safety!) oversight, to child labor, to the high environmental cost of trans-Pacific shipping, to union busting… how could anyone simply hand an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt to an impoverished person and feel like they had done their part?

And as I was thinking about all of that, I found an editorial by Stephen Thomgate on the Christian Century blog talking about the Bangladeshi factory disaster (again via Twitter!!), in which he draws on an idea of Justo Gonzalez about powerlessness.  Thomgate writes:

…the key element is naming not our relative power—the instinctual move for us western liberals—but our relative lack of it. The world’s evil is not something we could stop if only we cared enough to; we are captive to it—and the path from impotent guilt to true solidarity requires naming this powerlessness we have in common with those who have far less power still.

He goes on to write about the need for collective action, because we are indeed powerless on our own.  We can choose to shop in thrift stores, for example, but that does not necessarily change very much about the global economic system.

We do not like feeling powerless.  So we get depressed, or we tune out the world’s problems.  Or we pray, which is much more functional than hiding in our blanket cave – because as we pray, we are acting out of the reality that we are powerless – each one of us alone is, to a greater or lesser extent, powerless.  No wonder the larger, thorny issue of the global economy (particularly as it relates to our clothing) was not getting attention – it is so big, we feel powerless to comprehend its scope, much less do anything about it.

If we think in terms of being members of the Body of Christ, we remember that rather than being called to be functional on our own, we function as parts of a Body in concert with one another.  As thankful as I am for Twitter tonight, I am even more thankful for Church – for the Body of believers that, in their best and truest moments, acts out of love instead of out of fear.  “Together we serve… our hands quick to help, our hands ready to dare.”

So friends – what will you dare to do as a small part of the solution to a very big problem – the global textiles industry?  In solidarity with all the others powerless before this big big problem – from cotton farmers to Bangladeshi garment workers to the displaced former textile factory workers who have left North Carolina trying to find work elsewhere… to the countless Americans, yourself included, who are considered important only as buying units – as “consumers” – what collective action shall we take?

Even as my weight fluctuates, I am going to attempt to buy no newly manufactured clothes for a year.  Second-hand clothes only between now and May 15, 2014.  Will you join me?  And if not, what action will you take? Working together in opposing injustice, we strengthen one another. “Remembering love is the strength of our song.”