Tag Archives: Christena Cleveland

Race, Inclusion, and Unity in Christ #DisunityBook

This post is my contribution to the #DisunityBook club over at the Theology of Ferguson, a personal & theological reflection on Christena Cleveland‘s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, specifically, CHAPTERS 9 AND 10.

I dedicate this essay to Lizandra, Daisha, and Christian

It was early December. Tamir Rice, a twelve year old child who had not even gone through puberty had his life taken away. Why? because like any other boy usually, he was just playing with his toy guns. The only difference was: his skin was of a different hue. This, I mind you, was following the tumultuous summer of anti-black violence by police forces, nonviolent protestors being labelled as “rioters” and “trouble-makers” by the White Supremacist media. Having participated in protests and vigils, I was tired. Having had made sure to keep up with #Ferguson as a hashtag educational movement and news outlet, my mind was exhausted. I was in dire need of a spiritual Sabbath. I longed for a worship service where we as a congregation could celebrate Christ’s victory over the Enemy, oppression, and death. Apart from one awesome sermon at church, I did not get to hear God’s Word for the church located in a post- Mike Brown world.

Finally, an opportunity arrived. The local seminary and my alma mater invited the community to join the faculty and students for an “Advent of Justice Event,” a memorial for victims of racial profiling and police murders. I was pumped, I needed a renewed energy and to be in God’s presence. I even invited my good friend Ryan who is a local community organizer, activist and I must say, a really good blogger that Christians should listen to. We decided to go along with a few teen-aged members of Ryan’s at-risk youth non-profit organization. There we were, Ryan who is White, myself Black, a Mexican-American teen, a Jamaican American, and a bi-racial high schooler walking into a white walled chapel, picking up our black and white glossy bulletins and (used, yes used) white candles. We were asked to come to the front in a nearly empty chapel, and so we sat in the front pews, stuffed, not really able to move around, limited to clapping really. And then it happened. The (White, male, progressive) school president took the stand and began to pray that this service would remind whites like himself of THEIR PRIVILEGE. On one hand, it was nice to see this president there, showing a sign of empathy with Black victims of racial violence. On the other hand, this was the same school president who called my friends and I Nazis for our protests and petition for a more diverse curriculum. Had this president had a change of heart? Or was it more of the same?

What was supposed to be a service that memorialized the suffering of the marginated in fact became (with about a few notable exceptions), a ceremony that placed Whiteness and White Privilege at the forefront. “Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse” (Cleveland, 184). Dr. Cleveland goes on to observe that calls for unity can oftentimes be confused cries for more hegemony by the dominant culture,

“Similarly I’ve witnessed plenty of so-called unity events in the body of Christ that are so heavily influenced by white culture that any other collaborating cultures are rendered invisible. This typically happens when the majority culture takes an “our way or the highway” approach and requires minority culture to assimilate to the majority culture. This can be unintentional but it has grave consequence, not only because it is oppressive but also because it leaves no room for much-needed diverse cultural expression” (Cleveland, 170).

This “Advent of Justice” event was exactly what Cleveland had described: a progressive pep rally for unity rather than a liberating shout for solidarity and justice. It all began with a member of the dominant culture (with a problematic history of opposing diversity initiatives) making the service service about his feelings, his experience, his place in the world rather than those who are outcasts. The worship style throughout the service was mainline Protestant, Euro-centric and exclusive. The urban youth who had accompanied Ryan and I were made to feel uncomfortable. The liturgy was unwelcoming not because of any words that were spoken, but the invisible forces that went unseen and unspoken of. As a Progressive seminary, my alma mater prides itself on being ecumenical, and even to some extent multicultural with Black Church Studies, Jewish Studies, Latin@ Church Studies, and Asian (Korean) Church studies programs. Yet it is only willing to accept diversity if it is on White Mainline liberal terms. Thus the decline of the presence of People of Color on campus (their visible absence) has much to do with the invisible structures of institutional racism. A reality check is needed: anyone who works in the school district knows that in less than a decade, Fort Worth will be a majority-minority population; populations neither of the local seminaries (conservative or liberal) have any long term investment in.

Cleveland argues that the creation of “positive cross-cultural interactions” starts with the debunking of our biases that objectify others. In chapter 3, Cleveland points to Orientalism (seeing all Asians as the same, for example page 53) and anti-Black racism (viewing all black males as inherently violent, for example) as part of the cultural biases of being a part of Western Society. White Supremacy is a very divisive system; that is why Andy Smith argues that orientalism/war, genocide/colonialism, and anti-Black racism/slavery the Three Pillar of White Supremacy. The quest of liberation and reconciliation go hand and in; along with persons like Miroslav Volf, as well as black theologians such as J. Deotis Roberts, contrary to populist NeoAnaBaptist opinion, the emancipation of the oppressed IS NOT opposed to Church unity; on the contrary, it is part and parcel to it.  As followers of Jesus, if Christ’s promise is to be with us and to keep teaching us in the midst of the homeless, the hungry, and the prisoner, the least of these (Matthew 25), then our notions of church unity cannot be separated from solidarity with the oppressed. The Church cannot exist without Christ, and therefore the Church finds its very being right in the middle of those who society scorns.

One of the other solutions that Cleveland suggests is for those of us who want to work for reconciliation is for us to use the inclusive language of “we.” I think that this was part of my thinking when I talked about Inclusive Language as part of Jesus’ “Going the Second Mile” Ethic.  I not only learned this from my engagement with pacifist theologians like [ TW ]  John Howard Yoder, but also my first mentor, Womanist ethicist Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas.  I remember distinctly in my classes at seminary that some of my classmates were afraid of taking her classes.  Were they afraid of having their White Supremacist narratives challenged by “the Angry Black Woman?” Did they have this fret that they were going to be excluded and silenced in the class discussions? Interestingly, much like Cleveland emphasized using “we” to be inclusive and affirming of others’ subjectivity and humanity, so did Floyd-Thomas in our classroom assignments, and in her book Mining The Motherlode: Methods In Womanist Ethics:

“Essential to naming the moral dilemma is the researcher specifically articulating her context and the community, (We,  as_______ ) as a community of which she is a part which is both responsible for the perpetuation of the problem and accountable for resolving the crisis.”

Indeed, the advantages of using “we/us” terminology has its advantages, and I do find this part of Cleveland’s work to be the most challenging. There is an advantage to the inclusiveness of Womanist valuing of traditional communalism (inclusiveness).  However, there needs to be caution taken for there are those, as my friend Sarah Moon has pointed out, who abuse the language of “we”, the practice of forced teaming in order to stifle real differences and legitimate dissent.  What balances out this universalism is a politics of difference where the radical subjectivity of the false notions of objectivity and essentialism are replaced with an ethic of responsibility.

What should unity look like? Christena Cleveland rightly points us to Jesus the Liberator, who in his life taught us how to engage others nonviolently and cross-culturally. I would go further than Cleveland however when she suggests that we embrace dual identities with our identity in Christ as a primary identity. In the Epistles, the apostle Paul can be a Pharisee, a Jewish Christian, a Roman citizen, and the apostle to the Gentiles. As for myself, I can be a Christian, a Black Christian, a Black Critical Race Theorist, an avid Chicago White Sox fan, the firstborn son and grandson for one side of my family, and  a DC Comics fan (Green Arrow, YEAH!) I would argue that we have multiple identities since we are held accountable to multiple communities  and that while our identity in Christ de-stablizes all of these identities, the Holy Trinity works in us by conforming us to be like Christ to each of those communities by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just In The Mail: Disunity In Christ By Christena Cleveland @CSCleve

The good folks at Intervarsity Press sent me a review copy of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity In Christ: Uncovering the Invisible Forces That Keep Us Apart. I didn’t even have to request one! Awesome! What a Blessing! Can’t wait to read.

 

 

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Difference, Diversity, and Reading Choices: Blog Lists & Popularity Contests

I have written about my issues with blogging lists before so this isn’t a new topic. Running a popular blog means writing is relevant, chasing after hits and going after the latest controversy. As a blogger this means we have to keep our eyes on the 24 hour news cycle, or try to keep up with who said what publicly.

Part of the reason I chose to blog six or seven years ago, or if you want to go back to my Myspace and Facebook and Xanga notes I wrote during class in seminary, was because I wanted to express myself. I had no desire (at the time) to be a writer. But that has changed, but my approach is still the same. I know that recently I have hurt people’s feelings with my posts on here and on Tumblr and facebook, and I do not apologize for that. If you take something I have written personally, the fault may be your own especially since I have only gone after systemic forms of oppression. I know this approach does not win me any more followers, but I don’t write for the majority. What I do is write for myself, and for those who dream of justice. I realize that the words I type can give life to others, and they let me know, and that’s a reason to keep writing. For Resurrection.

An interesting conversation developed on Twitter and other blogs today. First, it started with the publishing of Christian Piatt’s 25 Christian blogs You Should Read. One of the problems was that only one person of color’s blog was posted on the list, Christena Cleveland. Cleveland responded with a list of her own making, and I suggest you check it out: People Of Color blog Too: 25 Christian Blogs You Should Be Reading. I am fortunately mentioned on the list. If you know of any other Christian blogs by POC mentioned, comment on that post or on this one, and I will submit it for Christena.

However, the trouble began when (mostly) white Christians started to criticize Christena for adding Thabiti Anyabwile, who stirred up things with his post on same sex marriage and the gag reflex. As I have noted many times, I was the first person really to criticize Thabiti, both in his blog post comment thread and in a separate blog post. Thabiti’s inclusion is problematic because his post disregarded the Imago Dei in persons who identify as LGBTQIA persons. However, I think is inclusion was probably needed for theological diversity and because he is very influential as a writer. I will go on to say a few things: Yes, I was angry this afternoon that the criticism (which I figured was coming)that a conversation on race had been once again derailed by issues of sexuality and same sex marriage. The reason I did so was because Pat Robertson prophelied an all out race war last week, and no white emergent Christian said a word. Robertson’s white supremacist rhethoric is just as harmful as Thabiti’s words.

Secondly, as Sarah N Moon pointed out on Twitter, none of the white emergents took issue with Tony Jones, among others, being on Christian Piatt’s list. This is because it is far too easy for blacks to be seen as having a culture of backwardness, that’s misogynist (people always bringing up hip hop on my facebook) and homophobic (let’s ignore all of Russia’s policies, but whitesplain progress to Africa!). This is just yet another example of white supremacist double standards at play.

While theologically I am in primarily disagreement with Anyabwile, I think it’s important to note why Cleveland added him in the first place:

Thank you for asking about this. I am so sorry that Thabiti’s comments have caused you pain. As someone who has been negatively affected by hurtful language, I think I understand, in part, how unbearably painful blog posts like Thabiti’s recent one can be.

I think of the body of Christ as a family of imperfect people who are irrevocably interconnected. Each of us is an unfinished work-in-progress with great capacity to love others and also great capacity to hurt others. Despite the risk and inevitable pain that this type of relationship brings, I believe that followers of Christ (of all persuasions) are called to be in interdependent relationship with each other, humbly informing each other’s perspectives.

To this end, I listen to and maintain relationships with many people with whom I do not always agree. It is in this same spirit that I continue to listen to and dialogue with various voices within the body of Christ who have said and done racist/sexist things. We all have blind spots (myself included) that lead us to oppress and it’s in the context of relationship and interpersonal dialogue that blind spots and oppression are exposed.
This list represents a wide variety of theological, social and political viewpoints – and not one viewpoint is perfectly complete. As iron sharpens iron, we gain better perspective in relationship with diverse others.”

From the comment section

Bruce Reyes-Chow’s post today also rang with me, as I thought about this discussion:

“Simply put, I refuse to give up on the idea that being community across lines of difference is holy and I remain committed to the idea that we will only get there if more if us embrace the transformational power of extending our spirit, hands and words of graciousness and not rhetorical or physical violence. Words or actions of graciousness are not weak or soft, in fact, they are powerful and strong and find a way to confront injustice without denying the humanity or stripping the dignity of the one who needs to be held accountable.

So no matter how often I am mistaken for that other Asian Presbyterian or told to go back to where I came from, or hear my ancestral language mocked, read racist blogs or feel unsafe, marginalized or excluded because of what I look like . . . I choose the power of graciousness. It may feel better to strike back hard, but that is a choice I must force myself NOT to make at every turn, every day.

A difficult choice for sure, but one I hope more of us make.”

Bruce Reyes Chow, How I Survive Everyday Racism

I would say that existing alongside difference is a very difficult choice to make, as Reyes Chow put it, but it is the right one. It is the more peaceful and just one.