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.