Day 5: Jesus and Racism

This is the final post in a 5-day guest series on racism + the church. It has been an awesome journey and I would love to keep this category open. Maybe the discussion will continue in the future with more amazing authors! Amber Lowe will be closing us in prayer.


There are two things about racism that should be clear by now—what it is and what it is not. Critical race theorist Alan Freeman defines racism as an intentional, albeit irrational, deviation by a conscious wrongdoer from otherwise neutral, rational, and just ways of distributing jobs, power, prestige and wealth. This unjust distribution of power is based on the premise that one race is superior to all others, and that alleged superiority must be maintained by any means necessary. Therefore, racism is not simply a biased, preconceived opinion about a race of people. That’s prejudice. Prejudice can indeed fuel racism. But racism is more systematic as it infiltrates and influences systems and structures controlled by the powerful.

So, what is the Christian Church’s business with racism? How should the church respond to an evil ideology that has been present—particularly in American society—since the “founding” of this country? Maybe the better question is why should the church respond to racism? Of course racism has been violently and discreetly claiming the lives and daily wellbeing of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics in this country for years, decades, and centuries. Of course racism is a threat to justice. And of course a basic belief in numerous religions is to love thy neighbor. But what other reasons compel the Christian Church to respond?

The answer to this question became apparent to me during my tenure as a seminary student, and its implications run much deeper than quoting Ephesians 4:3 and the Golden Rule. During the first semester of my final year in seminary, as I sat in Social Worlds of the New Testament, I listened as one of my classmates discussed her final paper topic. As an international student from St. Lucia, she was interested in Jesus’ encounters with foreign women—particularly the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 whose daughter was tormented by a demon. After “exegeting the text,” the St. Lucian student arrived at the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t perfect and without blemish or error as Christians so often believe. And the reason why Jesus wasn’t perfect is because Jesus referred to the Canaanite woman as a dog.

I sat straight up in my seat when the St. Lucian student said this. I wasn’t at all shocked at the claim that Jesus wasn’t perfect. I mean, he was human. What shocked me was the fact that I never paid much attention to this particular biblical passage. “So, you’re saying Jesus referred to the woman as the b-word?” I asked. “No,” the student responded. The student pointed to her research, which revealed that the Greek term for “dogs” as used in the text—kynaria— really means “puppies” or “household of dogs.” More specifically, the designation was not a Jewish term for Gentiles; it was a standard insult as also evidenced in Euripides, Aristotle, Quintillian, and others.

“Jesus used a racial slur to identify this woman. Jesus was a racist,” the student claimed. Jesus? A racist? Really? As the thought raced through my mind, I reminded myself of what a racist is and what a racist isn’t. For Jesus to be a racist, he has to be in a position of power and deny this woman of another ethnicity something that she needs, and this denial has to be based on her ethnicity. Otherwise, Jesus would be simply exhibiting a prejudicial sentiment Jews had long possessed toward Canaanites.

My silent mental line of inquiry about the claims this student made about this alleged racist nature of Jesus suddenly intersected with the topic of my own final research paper—the socio-political context of demon possession and exorcism in first century Palestine. Based on research inclusive of decades of social scientific and anthropological studies on the topic, I found that anthropological studies show a close relationship between demonic possession and social tension, such as class antagonisms rooted in economic exploitation, conflicts between traditions where revered traditions eroded, colonial domination and revolution. Therefore, demon possession is defined as an ancient form of mental illness, and the situation in Roman controlled Palestine allowed for frequent demonic possession.

Based on these findings, New Testament scholars and I concluded that the Canaanite woman’s daughter—for example—could be experiencing mental illness as a response to abject poverty caused by colonial domination. And because of this illness,  the Canaanite woman is in search of something or someone that could aid in healing her daughter. For the Canaanite woman, that something or someone was Jesus. The Canaanite woman who found herself at the intersection of poverty and her status as a  female widow begs for favor from Jesus.

But Jesus called her a dog in response to her request, as the St. Lucian student stated. And not only did he call her a dog, but the Canaanite woman is also initially rejected by Jesus who is in a position of authority. He’s the one that many in his community have referred to as the messiah. He’s the one who has gained a huge following among poor, destitute Palestinian Jews. And he’s the one who allegedly has the power to heal the woman’s daughter. But he irrationally and intentionally denies healthcare to this woman’s daughter based on her ethnicity, based on the preconceived notion that Jews are superior to Canaanites.

However, as the St. Lucian student later pointed out, the Canaanite woman helped Jesus to see something about himself that had been embedded in his Jewish psyche long before he found himself in human flesh in first century Palestine. She helped him to see that he allowed his prejudices to keep a child from receiving healthcare. She helped Jesus to see that he could not continue to limit his message of justice, liberation, deliverance, reconciliation, and healing to the house of Israel. It was as though the Canaanite woman handed Jesus a mirror that not only reflected himself singularly but reflected himself as the summation of his historical racial bias. The St. Lucian student arrived at the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t perfect, but through listening to the voices of the marginalized, he did learn from his mistakes.

And it wasn’t just the St. Lucian student who had arrived at this same conclusion about Jesus’ once racist nature. The following semester, I cross-registered at another seminary to take a Politics of Jesus course. The issue of harsh Jewish treatment of foreigners according to the biblical text arose once again. While the instructor and other students cited Old Testament examples, I cited Matthew 15:21-28 in which Jesus was the perpetrator. This response didn’t sit too well with a few students. I had succeeded in “messing up their Jesus.” But a white female student approached me during the lunch break an expressed her gratefulness for me citing Jesus as an example. “I brought that up a few years ago in a bible study on that text. Jesus called that woman a dog. He racially slurred her, and that’s like calling a black person the n-word. We gotta deal with that.”

Why should the Christian Church concern itself with the business of racism? Because the leader of our movement who although, according to Luke 4:18, proclaimed in a synagogue that the purpose of his ministry was to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recover the sight of the blind, and let the oppressed go free, was once himself a proponent of the systematic superiority of one race at the expense of another.

But where do we go from here? Although it may not be accepted by many, what do we do with this information and revelation about Jesus the Christ? Revisiting Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail provides insight and direction to a solution for this question. From his jail cell in Birmingham, King expresses his frustration with members of the white Church as he writes on a roll of toilet paper “I felt that white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

Like King, I too have recognized the silence and complacency among members of the white Church, many of whom I know as friends. Ironically, I’ve found more support from my white friends who are atheist. Either my white Christian friends divert attention away from the issue of racism by stating “all lives matter” and “I don’t see race,” they proclaim the cliché that “Jesus paid it all” which doesn’t really say much, or they are silent altogether. But King lets us know that it is not enough for the black church to be the sole opponent of racism. To exorcise the corporate demon of racism and begin the healing process, there must be a collaborative response and action.

Just as Jesus listened to the cries of the Canaanite woman and her ill daughter, members of the white Christian Church must recognize its role in the maintenance of white supremacy and institutionalized racism by listening to the battle cry “black lives matter.” And the white Christian church must then move to listening to now acting, responding, standing in solidarity, and fighting.

Like Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28, the white Church must move beyond the ideology of choosiness and embrace the ideology of Christian universalism which helps groups persevere despite persecution. After all, this is how the early Christian Church survived oppression and persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. And like Jesus, the white Church must learn from its mistakes. Learning is vital to survival. And lives are at stake if you choose not to learn.

References

Crenshaw, Kimberle, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. “Introduction.” In Critical Race Theory: the Key Writings That Formed the Movement, 1. New York: The New Press, 1996.

Hendricks, Obery. “Call the Demon by Name.” In The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. Reprint ed, 1. New York: Three Leaves, 2007.

Newsom, Carol A., Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. “Commentary on Matthew.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. 3rd ed, 1. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Wogaman, J. Philip, and Douglas M. Strong, eds. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In Readings in Christian Ethics: a Historical Sourcebook, 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.


Amber

Reverend Amber Lowe is a 2012 English graduate from the University of Mississippi. She is also  an ordained travelling deacon in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and serves on the ministerial staff at the historic West Mitchell CME Church in Atlanta, GA. Amber is a recent graduate of Phillips School of Theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center. From there, she received her Master of Divinity with a concentration in Ethics, graduating Summa Cum Laude.

Amber is currently in the application process as she plans to obtain a PhD in religion/ethics/public policy. She plans to begin coursework Fall 2016. In the future, Rev. Lowe also plans on pastoring, teaching seminary and university courses on social theory and the intersections of public policy and religion. In addition to her commitment as a minister of the Gospel, Amber enjoys writing poetry, reading, and Zumba.

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Day 4: Racism Defies “the Greatest Commandment”

This post is part of a 5-day guest series on racism + the church.  Today’s post is brought to you by Dr. Eric Thomas Weber (on Twitter @EricTWeber)


wpid-church-publicdomainphoto-1.jpgPreface: I am grateful to Adebanke (Buki) Alabi for calling me to comment on race and Christianity for the readers of her blog, The Second Breakdown: My Thoughts on Jesus and His Church.

Mississippi is still home to obstinate racism, even while in 2014 Gallup found it to be the most religious state in the United States. The vast majority of the 44 failing school districts’ enrollments in the state are majority- to almost totally made up of African American students. Some districts have been accused of  not having desegregated. We have seen  symbolic racism at the University of Mississippi, as well as troubling direct confrontations. Some young people planned and executed a  racially motivated murder a few years ago in Jackson, MS.

wpid-kkk-jesus-77098771295-1.jpegDespite all of these disturbing cases of racism in Mississippi, many citizens and public officials continue to resist change even to symbols of racism. I have argued that falsely romanticizing heritage does us harm  and that symbols, like the Confederate Battle Flag featured in the canton of MS’s state flag, contribute to the perpetuation of racism and injustice. What has gotten very little attention is the tragic inconsistency between the religious beliefs people say that they hold dear and the contradictory behaviors that we see here in Mississippi.


wpid-socrates_louvre.jpgIn a passage from the Republic, Plato’s Socrates tells us that leaders must convince their people that we are all born of the earth, children of the same parent – a mother, according to the story. When threats to security arise, if people do not care sufficiently about their neighbors, they will fail to act in others’ defense. Kinship motivates us to take care of our children and our brothers and sisters. People thinking of each other as kin is one of the most important needs for a society’s safety and unity, he argues. He thought the story was a lie, but a necessary one. Christians today do not think it is a lie, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory confirms humanity’s common kinship.  

Plato lived about 400 years before Christ. When we look to the Christian religion, we see a related social aim to the kinship that Socrates called for. A basic Christian belief is that human beings are all children of the same parent – in this case, a Father. One might think that the belief that we are all brothers and sisters would motivate Christians to treat others accordingly.

People are very good at finding ways around what they ought to do, however. Some people divide humanity into categories of those who are fallen and those who are elect or saved. If there are children of God in one community, what do we call people from another community or belief system? Galatians 3:26 explains that people are all children of God in their shared faith in Christ. If that is true, does that mean that nonbelievers or those who profess different faiths are not children of God? That is not logically necessary: “All things red have color” doesn’t imply that other things don’t also have color.

segregated water fountainsMany Christians treat others in ways that are not neighborly, even in deeply religious places. The tragedy of this fact is that people in Mississippi share many religious beliefs – that we are all children of the same Father. In their faith in Christ, Scripture says, they should all see each other as children of God.

For many, the core of the Christian religion can be distilled, as Jesus is said to have done in Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-28, into the Greatest Commandment, which has two parts. In addition to loving God, the first element, which people proclaim in word so commonly, Jesus calls for loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. This second element is far less often extolled in word, and evidence in deeds illustrates blatant defiance of the commandment.

wpid-msflag.jpgIt is time to call people out on this gross contradiction. How in a place like Mississippi people can resist symbolic change, let alone progress in deeds, even with respect to a symbol of the state’s defense of slavery, while claiming to be Christians, is deeply distressing. Some public figures recognize this and have courageously called for progress. It is time others who profess their faith own up to what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  


wpid-dsc_0832big.jpgDr. Eric Thomas Weber is associate professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and author of four books, including Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South (forthcoming in September 2015). He is representing only his own point of view. Visit him online at EricThomasWeber.org and follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @erictweber.

Day 3: White Privilege and the Eye of the Needle Through Which White Christians Must Pass to Enter Heaven

This post is part of a 5-day guest series on racism + the church.  Today’s post is brought to you by Anne Babson.


I write this, Beloved, as a white female Christian writer (Google me, if you like) in the United States, considering for this blog the spiritual problem of racism.  Let us anchor this discussion, Apple of God’s Eye, in scripture:

“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?  And he said unto him…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments…Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?  Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.  But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” – Mathew 19: 16-25

Most of us are familiar with this story of the rich young ruler.   He starts out well enough, doesn’t he?  He comes to Jesus.  Jesus tells him not to murder, fornicate, steal or bear false witness, to honor his parents, and to love his neighbor.  When the young man tells Jesus he has done this since his youth, Jesus doesn’t call him a liar.  The young man must have loved others, honored others, avoided breaking the law.  But the young man balks at the idea of dispossessing himself of all he has to store up treasures in Heaven.  Jesus tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel [laden with goods – for that is how camels entered the city] to enter the eye of the needle, a narrow, angular passage right before the city gate entrance that required tight turns in a narrow space, than it is for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.  If one imagines a camel carrying many things on his back and on his sides, strapped to him, it would have taken a merchant a careful leading, losing some of the things on the camel, no doubt, for the camel to get in the city with all that was attached to him.  Jesus is communicating that some of the wealth attached to us is potentially toxic to us if we do not find a way to put it behind us, make it so that it does not encumber us.

Beloved, you have doubtless heard sermons on the idea that the love of money is the root of all evil, and I do not mean in citing this passage here, while talking about race, to disagree with this reading of Matthew 19.  Of course, Jesus is talking about money.  But let us consider the rich young ruler and imagine him for a moment translated into our time.

The young rich man was not a self-made Internet mogul, surely.  He did not create and sell off Snap Chat to become prosperous as he was.  His wealth, given the economy of his day, and given his youth, was inherited money, a family fortune.  A person did not make a fortune overnight or over five year in the Roman occupation of the Middle East.  It took a generation or more to acquire wealth, as the economy, while colonial in nature, was not a practice of capitalism as we know it today.  So his money came from his parents.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just money the young man would have given up if he had done as Jesus told him to do.  He would have given up status.  As it is today, to be penniless will not make one popular.  It will not get one any influence in one’s society.  A poor person loses his country club membership.  He loses the right to get past the velvet rope in the exclusive club. People treat him differently.  Police officers look at him with suspicion they do not usually have of the very wealthy, who, after all, are unlikely to shop lift a loaf of bread.  A person who gives up all his material possessions gives up clout and the first place on the VIP list.

A wealthy person who comes from old money, as this young man did, rarely meditates on the ways people treat him differently than poorer people.  He thinks people smile and welcome him because they are hospitable.  He thinks life is pleasant because he has people ready to help him and thank him at every turn.  The second he looks at a door, it opens.  Everybody wants him to join them, and he assumes he has earned their invitation by the virtue of his character.

Let us take the young man at his word, the way Jesus did.  This young man loved his neighbor as himself.  He didn’t murder or mess with other men’s women. He did not steal things. He did not tell lies about other people.  He really wasn’t a bad guy at all.  But people didn’t give him opportunities, leave him out of trouble, and think the best of him generally just because he was a good person.  The trappings of his wealth made him the head of any line, suspected of no wrong, offered niceties and opportunities.  He lived a life of privilege, and he refused to give up his money – as you have already heard from the pulpit.  In doing so, he refused to give up the privilege as well.

While today there are distinct class differences, we live in a more democratic society than the rich young man did, and the richer and the poorer people in America likely mingle a bit more than Jerusalem’s richer and poorer residents did two thousand years ago.  However, we remain segregated by race.  Beloved, if you are white and a good Christian in that you love people, avoid crime, gossip and lust, you are still the beneficiary of a whole class of privileges, however poor you are, that you may not even notice.

I am a white lady.  When cops stop me, which they rarely do, they are inevitably respectful.  If I go to a jewelry store, a smiling sales clerk asks how she can help.  She doesn’t think for a moment I might be casing the joint. People assume I am articulate before I open my mouth. But this is not the experience of people of color who may have the same education, manners, and dress as I do.  Store clerks follow them around in case they might steal something.  Cops are potentially brutal and almost always ruder to them, and they interact more with police officers as a rule. Nobody assumes they are educated until they have proven it. Nobody assumes they are able to handle complex tasks the way they assume this with me right away.  And from what they tell me, for little things – going to the doctor and getting a copy of medical records, getting a document notarized, registering to vote, standing in line – all these things are harder, less welcoming, and they are looked upon with greater distrust simply by virtue of the color of their skin.  My white skin is a privilege-obtainer in this society, one about which I am usually unconscious unless I see the difference with which a person of color I know is treated when he or she attempts to do what I have done.

The rich young ruler probably never treated people as inferiors because of his wealth.  Let us assume, with Jesus, that he was a lovely young man in many ways.  Today, such a man wouldn’t be a racist, not consciously.  I am not a racist, not consciously, and I hope not at all, as I have attempted to pay very careful attention to the daily politics surrounding my life.  However, in the total absence of malice in my heart, I am nevertheless enmeshed in a system that privileges me over others, and while this may not be my fault as an individual, I am nevertheless laden with social opportunities and unmerited favor that I cannot take off like a camel’s owner can take off a sack of gold from his saddle pack.

So what must we do, we white folks who are given unfair advantages?  We have a moral responsibility to acknowledge this reality to the best of our ability, and where we see difference in treatment, we must, in order to follow Jesus, share our wealth of privilege by insisting that wherever discrimination and injustice occur, we will not stand for it.  We must raise this topic in conversation with other white people, even if it makes them uncomfortable, because we OUGHT to be uncomfortable that we are given unfair advantages.  And we need to work to make God’s will on Earth be done as it is in Heaven.  To enter the Kingdom of God, we have to make Earth resemble Heaven, which is a place of justice and equity.  This means when we see the state committing acts of brutality against people of color, we ought to join them in the street holding a sign in protest.  Where a store clearly caters to one race better than another, we need to talk to the manager about it.  Where we encounter a colleague being ignored because the assumption is that a person of that race is less capable of responding to a question at hand, we need to cede place for that person’s voice to be heard.  We need to encourage our white brothers and sisters in Christ to examine their lives carefully for things we take for granted and to share the wealth of our privilege as best we can with those who do not have racial privilege in our society.

Lastly, we need to integrate our lives. Heaven will be integrated.  We need to truly befriend people whose heritage and cultural habits are unlike our own.  We need to make attempts to participate in these cultures, at least as respectful outsiders.  We need to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We should not attend churches where everybody looks the same.  If a church we attend is wonderful but all white today, we need to go evangelize in black and Asian and Latino communities.  We need to act like the rich young ruler didn’t act.  We need to store up the treasure in Heaven of real peace, engendered by real justice, and we need to enrich our lives right now on Earth with the wisdom and brilliance that each culture possesses in diverse ways by including more people who don’t look like us into our hours on Earth.  We should do this because the Kingdom of God is at Hand.


Anne Babson

Anne Babson’s first collection, forthcoming this year from Vox Press, The White Trash Pantheon, won the Colby H. Kullman prize. Her poetry has been nominated four times for the Pushcart. She has won awards from Columbia, Atlanta Review, Grasslands Review, and other reviews.  Her work has been published in the US, in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey.  She was included in a British anthology of the best working American poets today entitled Seeds of Fire (Smokestack Books, 2008) and is another British Anthology related to the current riots in England entitled Emergency Verse (Caparison Books, 2011).  She has four chapbooks, over a hundred journal publications, including work recently featured in in Iowa Review, Barrow Street, Atlanta Review, and many others.  She is featured on a compilation hip-hop CD– The Cornerstone (New Lew Music, 2007).  She has read her work for national radio programs and has appeared on television in the United States and in Taiwan.   Catch her blog about her North-South culture shock at www.carpetbaggersjournal.com.

Day 2: A Sacred Conversation

This post is part of a 5-part guest series on racism and the church. Today’s writing is brought to you by Chet Bush.


My opportunity to share scholarly dialog about race relations on live TV skidded to a screeching halt with a single question:

“I was curious, from your perspective as a clergyman… how do you think the Jewish-ness of Mr. Schwerner and Mr. Goodman informed their civil rights activity?”

The book I authored and had just presented at the Southern Festival Of Books before CSPAN cameras offered a Christian perspective, not a Jewish one. I sat silent, staring blankly at the moderator. I felt I had been set up. His query hung in the air.

Why would I feel threatened by this question?

As a student preparing for Christian ministry I thoroughly enjoyed studying the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament. While learning Hebrew in seminary I obtained permission from a local rabbi to attend a Kansas City synagogue to better understand the language and culture of the Hebraic tradition. During my ministry I have read, attended lectures, and quoted contemporary Jewish teachers from a Christian pulpit. I hold deep appreciation and high regard for the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. Yet, during a conversation on race and religion I suddenly felt my back against the wall.

Leading up to the festival I had shared brief correspondence with the moderator, but it seemed he held his cards close and this evoked caution in me. As a local professor he enjoyed attending and moderating at the festival each year. I had never been to The Southern Festival of Books. This was a new arena for me. While the subject of our panel covered Race Relations in the South, my book covered both race and the south, but also leaned heavily on the religious perspective of my protagonist, Charles Johnson, a Christian, African American pastor from Meridian, MS and a personal friend of mine.

Back in the early 60’s Johnson actively promoted voter registration in the black community. He worked alongside some students who were subsequently murdered by the Klan for their work in Mississippi. When the Federal Justice Department finally prosecuted the long line of Klan-affiliated defendants three years after the murders, Charles Johnson was called as a witness for his association with one of the activists, Michael Schwerner.

Schwerner was a white, Jewish man from New York. He was young, zealous, and believed things could be different in Mississippi. Continually seeking mediation, the last words he spoke to his killers were, “I understand how you feel…” He is regarded as a martyr for the cause, and his work with fellow activists Andrew Goodman and James Chaney (also murdered for their activism) is lauded as the event that most impacted the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As the moderator turned his attention toward me, I felt my defenses rise. I had tried several times to lure information from him by email and also prior to the start of the session when we met in the library lobby. But my friend had left me ambiguous as to the nature of the session, the kind of questions, or his take on the content of my book. Now during our session his question seemed to suggest I had under-emphasized the faith of Michael Schwerner and he was naming it before the nation.

“…from your perspective as a clergyman… how do you think the Jewish-ness of Mr. Schwerner and Mr. Goodman informed their civil rights activity?”

The room waited for my response. I wish I could say I answered without affectation. Finally I quipped, “I understand you’re a director of Jewish studies, you might be able to answer that better than I can…” The small group in attendance chuckled.

But I was wrong on two accounts. First, I was inaccurate because my moderator was a professor of Jewish studies but not a director of the department, and so he corrected me on this. Second, I wrongfully returned an attitude I felt I had been offered. Whether he intended it or not, I perceived a pretense and responded in fashion. And this… this is the opposite of what it means to share a table of open dialog. Posturing prevents understanding.

There is a necessary spirit when joining one another at a table of dialog on something as important as race. In the Christian faith we recognize our need for God’s Holy Spirit. Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber talks about God being “in between” persons, uniting them in holy space. The subject of race is a sacred conversation and so deserves the respect and deference someone would offer, say… a blazing bush that burns endlessly. These sacred conversations have the potential to produce revelation, lead to liberation, and establish a new and common identity.

Or, talks on race can become more divisive. They can produce the opposite of freedom in solidarity. We can enter an exchange that resorts to the posturing of signs and symbols. Staffs are turned to snakes. Water is turned to blood. Synagogues and churches are turned to ash.

While symbols communicate powerful declarations of faith, they can also be both abused and abusive. One raises a staff to part a way. Another raises a flag to part ways. No, we have to talk. Sacred conversation requires a holy spirit where participants regard one another with reverence and respect.

As the session continued that day the festival attendees were invited to a challenging but important dialog on the relationship between race and religion in the south. I eventually offered a better answer to the moderator’s question, one that took him seriously and celebrated a common mission among a diverse group of activists in 1964. Afterward he and I walked together to the TN State Capitol portico where my co-panelist and I shared another table for a planned book-signing. On our walk we discussed the nature of his first query, and I conceded it was an important one. I wish I had embraced the question from the start rather than feared it. Strolling up the Nashville city sidewalk we shared a rather enjoyable discussion.

Though no mutual exchange ensued that day the three activists were killed in 1964, Michael Schwerner’s final words may serve as an appropriate guide as we enter sacred conversation today. Perhaps we should begin: “I want to understand how you feel…”


image

Chet Bush is the author of Called to the Fire; A Witness for God in Mississippi – The Story of Dr Charles Johnson (Abingdon Press, 2012). He is an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene and has served as Pastor to congregations in southeast Texas, middle Tennessee, and north Mississippi. Bush currently lives in Oxford, MS where he is a student of religious history in the south and an Instructor for the Foundation for Academic Success Track at the University of Mississippi.

Day 1: Racism + The Church

The world spins. It always has and it just continues today. Things have been the same since they started: the people are unjust and murder their brethren. The prophets cry out for repentance. The people ignore or even kill the prophets up until their sins carry them off in bitter war.

Like God and Cain, like Jeremiah and Israel…

But the prophets keep on singing because every Jeremiah has his Daniel.

I wrote this song yesterday. The past few weeks have been marked with pain for me starting with the Charleston Massacre all the way down to Sandra Bland. Music is the way I cry for the world.

A few lines into the song, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay homage to Jon Foreman’s, “The cure for pain.” Foreman is one of my favorite song-writers/philosophers and the lead singer of the band, Switchfoot. Jon co-wrote a song called, “The Sound” which tackled racism in America and praised the work of John M. Perkins, singing an echo of his mantra:

“Love is the final fight”

That song is another reason I respect Foreman’s Christianity.

Loving your neighbor is being a white man that sings about the black struggle as if it were his own. That is part of what I hope to bring to light with this blog series. More white voices joining in a song about the black struggle in America.

Over the next 4 days, I’m inviting some friends into the conversation, white and black, to sing to us about Jesus’ call to the church at a time like this. But first, let us rend our hearts in prayer because today, 2 millennia after the death of Jesus Christ, many of us still gather to worship the God of all people in a homogeneous space. It should not be so.

Sing with me:

  

 

Lyrics:

Slowly watching the trees sway

Watching the lizard run away

Watching the sun kidnap the day

Willing my bones to move

My heart to make a sound

Watching the people go insane

Watching the land from far away

  

Have you ever cried for the whole world?

And wondered why it won’t stop spinning

Watching all the people burn in the embers of a really cruel city

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

I’m sitting on a rooftop singing

“Why must history repeat

While we’re all too blind to see?”

 

I’m not sure why it always goes downhill

Why broken cisterns never could stay filled

  

I’m just another singer like the psalmists were

Another preacher like the prophets were

Saying, “Repent! The day has come.

Your brother’s blood is spilled on the floor.”

Crying, “Justice for the poor!

Redemption for the victims of war!”

We’ll be crying forevermore

Till Kingdom come

  

Heaven knows..

The water keeps on falling from my eyes…