social justice

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – White Jesus, Colorblind Savior

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Toxic Concept: Jesus’ cultural context doesn’t matter.
(read: Jesus didn’t have a color)
(read most often as: Jesus was White)

“The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

Last week, I saw the Fences movie for the second time. It was my favorite play when I studied Theater and I cannot overstate how amazing Denzel Washington & Viola Davis were in that film. However, one thing that I could not miss came through the set design. Just above the sink where Rose (played by Davis) would peel potatoes and wash dishes was a rendering of White Jesus.

Yo…

This was such an interesting set choice because in my lived experience (and you might be able to argue that in the experience of many Black Americans), White Jesus is a part of the walls of many of our elders’ homes. Not all. But enough to have been chosen as a part of the set design for Fences.

In my own upbringing, White renderings of Jesus moved like a ghost in the subtext of my religious heritage.

Now, to be clear, my parents are committed to our cultural heritage. In other words…

tumblr_mhjvndyanq1ryasw2o2_500

They told me about where Jesus was born, pointed to it on a map. They made it clear that given his sociocultural context… Jesus was not White. My parents aren’t theologians.

Neither am I.

However, most of my friends are theologians. They say the most brilliant things I’ve heard and that is not debatable. 🙂 On one such occasion, I reposted a thought from Dr. Ashon Crawley which directly discussed the social impacts of imagining Jesus as White.

In a manner of min…seconds, someone piped in with a case for White Jesus, Colorblind Savior. My first (internal) response? “Chile… my ancestors did not die for this”. *Rolls eyes and rubs temples

b55a6dce5774dd3d001d90576860c55c

I’ve known, deeply and intimately, the ramifications that primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior has. When I got to college, I attempted involvement with campus ministries. Campus ministry at a predominantly White institution often means… welll… predominantly White theological understandings. I don’t want to mince words here: it was, overall, a demoralizing experience.

When Jesus wasn’t being rendered as White, He was off – busy telling me… through them… that my own culture & ethnicity did not matter – under a gross misinterpretation of the Galatians 3:38 text. 

It wasn’t until years later, when I read Howard Thurman’s 1948 text “Jesus and the Disinherited”, that I realized just how much Jesus’ own sociohistorical and cultural contexts made a difference. Or that I realized just how harmful and dishonest rendering Jesus as primarily White is.

To render Jesus as White is to say that the various times He was referred to as Jesus “of Nazareth” can be erased right out of the text… right out of what his lived experience was… It means missing out on how hard they TRRIIIIIEEED ITTTTT in the book of John 1 (verses 45 & 46):

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (NSRV)

tamar-braxton-you-tried-it-o
And you don’t get the “try” if you don’t get that Nazareth held its own social location. As did Jesus.

The toxicity of the White Jesus concept is that it allows Jesus’ personhood to be invoked right along efforts of American conquest & the subjugation of people of color – the purposes for which the social construct of Whiteness was built upon in the first place. Putting a construct of Whiteness onto Jesus is certainly convenient when you’re trying to justify a notion that the Divine affirms the genocide, stolen land / resources, and enslavement of people of color. Pft.

Put in other terms by Dr. Crawley:

“i sometimes forget and ask myself what would white evangelicals do if they finally realized, in earnest, that jesus was not a white man. but then i remember: white evangelical christianity has already rejected the biblical jesus. they do not believe he was a palestinian jewish man, they believe he was white with sometimes blond hair. and such a rejection of his personhood – he certainly would be a POC in modern parlance, though it’s an anachronism of sorts – but such a rejection, the continued need for him to be white, goes hand in hand with the continued need for him to be capitalist, sexist, homo- and transphobic. white evangelical christianity remade jesus into an image that would allow for conspicuous consumption, for manifest destiny, for the genocide of indigenous peoples, for the enslavement of black peoples.
what we’re noticing now with folks like paula white and vicki yohe are simply the extension of a quiet displeasure, a sorta disdain and contempt with difference itself. it ain’t new. but folks are gonna have to choose if they’re gonna sing with them still (like travis) or make a different kind of stand”

In my own life, I’ve found the concept to be toxic because in addition to all of this… the notion of primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior is demoralizing. It denotes a ghastly racialized lack of imagination: that the imago Dei – the image of God – can be found in people of color. It denies that the Divine exists, yes, even outside of the construction of Whiteness. When it is suggested that Jesus had no color at all, it is a gross erasure of his humanity AND the humanity of those who come from his sociocultural context.

I’ve seen how conceiving Jesus as primarily White allows us to continue building up  and excusing away Christian conferences that are the antithetical to intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1995). It allows us to ignore how our current political landscape has employed White Evangelical Jesus & White Evangelical Christianity towards further subjugation: the stripping of reproductive rights for women, the taking of sacred lands via pipelines, and as Kieryn Darkwater so eloquently describes… all under the guise of  “Taking Back The Country For Christ” .

So let’s all be clear:

“Jesus was an actual person.
That means he had an ethnicity, nationality, and cultural background. Because all people who walk the earth do”

And this sociocultural location was as a Palestinian Jew.

The quoted text above were words I literally had to say to someone. Just a few days ago. In 2017. And so, this notion bears repeating.

For more on this topic, see John Pavlovitz’s post, “Dear Jesus, You’re Fired From American Evangelical Christianity” (2017) and read you some Howard Thurman (like literally everything… anything).

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

What the [Cuss] to Say While Suffering?

“When did you begin experiencing Writer’s Block”?
“After the election…”
“How does that feel”?

I get it. The point of therapy is to talk about our thoughts and feelings – the ones that threaten to undo us subtly, bit by bit. Breaking our resolve in increments. Or the ones that come flooding into our minds and hearts before we can even catch them. Knocking us on our asses. Forcing us to see them.

But I did not want to talk about this.

“It sucks. Like, it literally just sucks. You can make up all kinds of philosophy about why Trump’s election sucks. Sure, we are reckoning with the practices of White supremacy in new ways due to his impending office / administration. We’re also reckoning with the fact that he doesn’t seem to know what he is doing – in a literal sense, he doesn’t seem to know what a “President” does. But no matter how many angles I take to look at this – the bottom line is that it sucks. How do I feel? I feel that it sucks… on a deep, subconscious level”. 

I always imagine my favorite writers sitting at their desks with a steaming hot cup of tea or coffee. I imagine their well formed thoughts – sounding immediately beautiful all the page. I also know this vision is oft-times, a scam.

And I thought about my friends who must address people after “the Tower” has crashed: after all of our constructions about the world we live in have been violently toppled. I thought about the friends who write and preach – who create art and engage in direct action. And I thought, “So, what the (expletive) does one say…”

Especially now that the one thing I don’t want to say is even the name of the newest President-to-be. I figured if his presence could be absent from my written world, perhaps I could deal with it a bit more in the material world. I also know that vision is a scam.

I found my words this evening, as I reflected on a Dharma talk by Buddhist monk Ajahn Achalo (Peace Beyond Suffering). In “Waking up to Deeper Peace”, he explains that the monks begin the morning chant that goes a bit like this:

“Birth is suffering”

Acknowledging this, he asserts, is a step toward less suffering. (I’ll be reflecting on this for a GOOD while).

As a note of review, I was raised in a nondenominational Christian tradition. While we had some view of suffering (especially the suffering of Jesus), there were also implications that “if we lived right” there was also a chance of circumventing this type of thing. Another popular theory in that space is our experiences of suffering were due to cosmic battles between Light & Dark. Thus, it flowed that all suffering – from cranky coworkers to cars that ran out of gas – were game to be included in the endless “tricks of the enemy (the Devil)”.

I moved away from these theories long ago, in my teenage years, but that doesn’t mean they have left my subconscious. So, I battled with my thoughts: What in the literal and figurative heavens were the Deities DOING? I heard many theories on that question in the weeks that followed. Some were okay. Some, I understood and believed (’cause no one can tell me that White supremacy isn’t demonic). Others were… well…

There is immense pressure to explain away why things happen the way they do. On both a spiritual / cosmic level. And on a material level. To a large degree, I appreciate this. Let’s be clear: I spent a good amount of time constructing a theory of my own work that is based on Critical Race Theory and sociological concepts. In that respect, I can tell you precisely why this happened – this upswing of fuckery…

Yet, as I reflected on the dharma talk I realized that right now, the message (for me) is to first acknowledge the suffering and the potential to suffer due to circumstances BOTH inside and outside of our control. Internally facing the fuckery that is to come is… It’s brave. It readies us. It steadies us. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight against it. But as someone who does a lot of “addressing”, I’m feeling rather done with the empty platitudes of “It’s going to be okay” and “The Deities are in control”. Perhaps, they are. But that does not provide me with any “today” comfort.

Right now, my synopsis and synthesis is…
This sucks. 

This present moment. Sucks.
And at the same time, I’m still here. As my good friend, *Jae says, “I’m still. the fawk. here”( say it aloud until you get it 🙂 ).

My amazing friend Alicia just got back from Standing Rock, in solidarity with the Water Protectors. From the trip, she found this beautiful mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, in Oklahoma City, OK:
credit-tatyana-fazlalizadeh-wheat-pasted-oklahoma-city-ok

So, the inhale on which I acknowledge “This sucks”, becomes the exhale that “We’re here”. And because of this, our intentions and commitments for moving forward are important. I believe this deeply.

So, I’ve spent some time lamenting, some time doing some deep facing-of-fears, and some time making my commitments a bit more clear. I can’t say that this will help you, reader, as much as it does me – but that is my sincere hope. Join me in these commitments, if you can, and let’s see what we can do together:

And neither are you.

On Charleston & the Twisted “Luxuries” of Ignorance

I’ve been avoiding my inbox for an entire week after hearing news of the hate crime that took place in Charleston, SC. White supremacist, Dylan Roof, walked into Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church and killed 9 Black people who were gathered to worship and study the Bible. A full recap of the events has already been done by others. As I think about the brothers and sisters lost to this violence, I can feel my body tensing up, my breathing becoming more shallow… at the realization that yet & still, Black people in America are targeted with hate, vitriol, and lethal violence in our places of worship.

On the morning that I heard the news, I was on my way into the Black church to celebrate the life of someone very close to me who had passed away. When I returned from services, my inbox was inundated with requests to process what happened in Charleston. I’ve avoided them for a week.

There was no time to grieve or to make sense of the deep tragedy and horror of it.

There was no time to wrap my mind around the fact that the shooter, Dylan Roof, chose the church because he intentionally wanted to kill Black people and intentionally wanted to start a race war. There was no time to wrap my mind around the fact that the Black church has been a place of solidarity and being known for me and for so many others – a sacred space.

I had not yet had time to consider the 5 year old girl, who played dead, in order to live… when the inbox messages started pouring in…Very few of them were from people of color and most of them read to the tunes of, “I don’t understand… what’s going on”,  “Can you explain to me how…” and “But, I don’t see color”.

What they communicated said a lot about of one of the twisted luxuries of privilege: ignorance.

There are a few kinds of ignorance that I’m referring to here (please note this is NOT a comprehensive list): 1) Ignorance about what happened in Charleston, 2) Ignorance about its historical roots and significance, 3) Ignorance about its implications.

1) In regards to ignorance on what happened in Charleston:

Expecting Black America to solely carry the burdens of ignorance on racial & social justice is unfair and tiring. But expecting Black Americans to explain and recount a hate crime against Black Americans in Charleston, SC… falls a bit farther on the ridiculous – and – crass side. It is a thinly veiled communication that even the simple act of searching for information was too inconvenient or too much of a task… even when the very lives of 9 Black people were taken by a White supremacist, during their weekly Bible study gathering.

Conversely, Black people in America absolutely MUST understand the ways in which White supremacy works THEN HOW TO COMBAT IT… in order to survive. I’m not talking about survival in a philosophical sense; I’m talking about our very lives. What Mamie Till expressed upon learning of the brutal murder of her son Emmitt Till still speaks truth: “…that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all”. This is something that many in Black America know. This is something that has been interwoven into our anecdotes for as long as I can remember.

Quite a number of scholars have talked about this concept, this luxury, and this type of ignorance. Dr. Francis E. Kendall (2002) explains:

“While people of color understand the necessity of being able to read the white system, those of us who are white are able to live out our lives knowing very little of the experiences of people of color. Understanding racism or whiteness is often an intellectual exercise for us, something we can work at for a period of time and then move on, rather than its being central to our survival. Further, we have the luxury of not having to have the tools to deal with racial situations without looking incompetent…”

So when people rely solely on their friends / colleagues of color to recount the (Googleable) events of the hate crime in Charleston, there is the subtle implication: you were not willing to put forth an extra effort to discern what happened for yourself. You were not willing to “make it your business, as well”.

[Note: The Post and Courier published a highly detailed piece on the shooting of the 9 beautiful souls at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. You can find that here]

2) In regards to ignorance on historical roots and significance:

As we grieve what happened at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. the minimal amount of commitment to social justice and reconciliation demands that we search, read, and understand what happened. At the very least, we should work to understand what is going on and why Roof’s actions were motivated and spurred on by White supremacy. If you, white allies and the like, are committed to understanding the plight AND walking with Black Americans at this moment you can read this information from sources that promote justice & equity for Black people in America. You can read articles from people of color that are already written on this subject. And while you’re reading, you can also ask the questions: a) Where is this article posted & what is the significance of this forum / site / format? b) Who wrote this article? What is their lens & expertise? c) When was this article written and how is it relevant to current events? d) What is the main argument of this article? and e) With all of these things in mind, will this reading help me to understand and unpack the lethal, psychological, emotional, and physical implications that White supremacist notions /practices have on Black lives?

Write down further questions that you may have. Go down to the sources cited, refer to the many works in the Charleston syllabus (curated via Dr. Chad Williams) for texts that unpack the history of Black lives in America, click on the hyperlinked texts, see if they answer some of your questions, and do not put the burden solely on people of color to do this work for you.

In regards to ignorance on the implications of this act:

An implication, as defined by dictionary.com, can mean: “the act of implicating or indicating that one or more persons may be involved, as in a crime”. We understand that Dylan Roof was the one who showed up in the church to kill 9 Black lives… but we also need to understand that the systemic killing of Black people has been displayed throughout history. “One or more persons have been involved…” explicitly and implicitly in the brutal murdering of Black lives in America, throughout history, based on racism and White supremacy.

And so… thinking about what happened in Charleston as an isolated incident WITHOUT also thinking about the tangled web of White supremacy that was weaved in America is a lazy and futile thought process. It is not enough to chalk it up to “one bad person who did a very bad thing”. As our nation erupts with hate crime after hate crime, our due diligence and reasonable service is to consider, “How did people LEARN such hate? Where did they learn it? How was this hate affirmed?

As you complete some of the readings on historical roots and significance, much of this will be unpacked [as you will find, violence against Black people in their churches by White supremacists has happened many times before, but that is just the tip of the deep, deep, injustices].

Yet there is also another step to combating the ignorance that hinders systemic change: asking and answering the questions, “Is there ANYWHERE in the system that I have entered and engage in (i.e. healthcare system, justice system, sacred institutions, institutions of higher learning, etc) where I have not challenged or considered where these ideas might have been fostered (in our legacy) and might still BE festering (in our praxis)”?

As we consider how to respond to the hate crime in Charleston, there are some very concrete things we can do. For some, it is continuing to grieve, engage in self care, and strengthening ourselves to call out injustices where and when we find them. For some, it is deliberately choosing to put down the twisted luxuries of ignorance – for ignorance often gives way to apathy. It is choosing to understand, publicly denounce (and by publicly, I mean, not via inboxes or whispered words), and organize against the perniciousness of White supremacy. Our lives, Black lives, are at stake.

Image Credit: commons.wikimedia.org