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De-centering Whiteness

Drew Hart (from his blog at Christian Century)

Another post today based on an older blog post from Drew Hart. As I’ve said before, Drew’s voice has been formative for me in processing issues of race. As a fellow MennoNerd, I’ve valued his ability to aid me in connecting issues of race with the Jesus centered faith at the heart of our shared Anabaptist influence. Since I come out of an almost entirely white Evangelical upbringing, and came into Anabaptism primarily through white influences, the voices of people of color were absent from my experience. In a post from early September Drew points speaks directly to people like me (though his post has a much broader target, God used it to speak to where I am). Here is a taste of the part that I identified with, and which drew me in to the point of his post:

The idea that telling white people that they have privilege as the solution to fix our racial woes was short sighted and bound to fall short of the radical creative transformation that Christians articulate when we speak of God’s reign breaking into our world. I actually don’t blame white people for messing up. If I were white, and someone told me I had “white privilege”, I don’t think I would necessarily know what to do with that. For some people, they find themselves in a perpetual state of guilt and shame, but never finding a new mode of being. They are mentally stuck within a state of awareness of their white privilege, without a new path forward.

When I first became aware of the systemic advantages of my skin color (and gender, etc.), I felt guilty and had trouble figuring out how to move forward. I didn’t want to take advantage of my privilege for personal gain, but also had trouble finding ways to use the advantage to move advance people of color. For me, of course, my perspective is that of a white man. What Drew turns to in his post was an eye-opening realization. The true way forward is to get past the white-privilege model to one that de-centers the white experience altogether.

Another critique I’ve heard made by many people is that models like “white privilege” merely re-centralize white people as the focus, and those that have been marginalized, remain so. White feelings, white action, white guilt, white confession, etc., all become the center of discourse and concern. The attention within this model is squarely on white people. Now, just so I am upfront, I think a lot of attention needs to be placed on the social construct of whiteness and how it operates within society, but that is different than centralizing white people in the struggle for racial justice as the central instruments needed for the creation of a new humanity. Whatever the new model is, it must not centralize white people, nor expect them to take the reigns, controlling where we go next.

He then offers three suggestions, which I will quote from very briefly here:

  1. Since Jesus refused to lord over others, but chose to be a servant to all, the Church must follow that lead. White Christians must renounce any desires to dominate and control everything.
  2. Since Jesus’ Kingdom centralized those who have been marginalized and oppressed, the Church must follow that lead. Christians from dominant culture can no longer follow the lead of mainstream and popular Christianity. Instead, they must find Jesus among the least of these, and follow after him. Dominant culture’s portrayal of Jesus will always be domesticated.
  3. Since Jesus was the liberator of the oppressed, the Church must be liberated itself, so that it can be free to love our neighbors through liberative action and nonviolent struggle that reflects the life-giving impulse of God’s people. This liberated community cannot be achieved through our own productivity and hard work. Liberation and Shalom are divine interventions that come through yieldedness to the Spirit, and through the risk of participating in God’s reign.

This has been helpful for me. While I do want to use my privileged place to speak up for the least of these, I don’t want to use my voice to speak over or instead of those on the margins. This is, in fact, part of my purpose behind posts like these is to not try to restate what someone else from the margins of our culture which was built on white supremacy (and still shows so many of the signs of this history) has already said. Here, I am pointing you to Drew’s post, highlighting some of it, and suggesting you go hear his voice. I am simply offering you a humble statement that I have once again found his post helpful, and suggest you might as well! Go read it!

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Having to Prioritize: Activism or Education?

Drew Hart (from his blog at Christian Century)

On the heels of yesterday’s post about the culture-clash struggle of the poor at our institutions of higher education, I thought I’d point out another instance of this type of struggle. My friend and fellow MennoNerd Drew Hart posted about the internal struggle for those pursuing higher degrees while feeling the pull to be more intimately involved in on-the-ground activism than their educational commitments allow. Here is a taste of Drew’s reflections on the tension. In the full piece he includes a quote from Dr. James Cone revealing that Dr. Cone struggled with the same decision.

I have often been unsure about my decision to pursue a PhD in theology. Are there more practical on the ground paths that I should be taking? And things only got more complicated rather than less this summer when I was studying for my comps. I practically lived under a rock with my books, prepping for my four exams. Meanwhile, protests against the executions of unarmed black men were at an acutely raised level, especially in light of the ridiculous white supremacist responses seen in Ferguson. Where was Drew, at some coffee shop reading and taking notes. Never did I feel as torn about my current obligations as I did then. Am I using my gifts and my body in a faithful manner, given my abilities?

I, for one, have appreciated Drew’s voice and cheer on his academic pursuits, while feeling his tension as well. His work has been so helpful for me as I work to educate myself and work toward a theology that centers those on the margins (more on that in another post). I have found others to connect me to the on the ground protests, but appreciate the voice of Drew (and many others like Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, and Rod Thomas) who can combine  the ability to speak with an academic voice into the issues that underlie the many “isolated” instances with racial undertones in our country with a call to connect the dots behind the scenes which point out the wider systemic issues. Sadly, as a white, male, financially stable, Christian, it is too easy to be blind to the systemic issues. I need to hear from voices who have been on the other side of the systemic issues to which I have been blind for far too long.

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The Struggle of the Poor College Student

Image from Original Article (Credit: Joanna Neborsky)

This is the first in a series of posts hoping to clear out a bunch of interesting articles that I’ve read lately but haven’t had time to blog about here. Today’s post is based on a September article by Vicki Madden in the NY Times about poor students. For me, it came at a good time: the first month of the semester. Still, this piece is a good reminder in the busyness of the middle of the semester as well. Here at Messiah College, we are about to think about Spring semester registration, and issues of retention are always front and center. The post from the NY Times talks about the culture clash that exists for our poor students. They are capable of surviving the academic rigor of college, and even graduate school in some cases, but to do this is in some ways to turn their back on the culture or their home and family. While the piece is not directly about race, the correlation between race and poverty in America certainly makes that an underlying part of the whole discussion of socio-economic status in the United States. Here is a taste of the piece (but you should check out the whole think at the link above):

Urban students face different slights but ones with a more dangerous edge. One former student was told by multiple people in his small Pennsylvania college town not to wear a hoodie at night, because it made him look “sketchy.” Standing out like that — being himself — could put him at risk.

To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from. The transition is not just about getting a degree and making more money. If that was all socioeconomics signified, it would not be such a strong predictor of everything from SAT scores and parenting practices to health and longevity.

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

As the income gap widens and hardens, changing class means a bigger difference between where you came from and where you are going. Teachers like me can help prepare students academically for college work. College counselors can help with the choices, the federal financial aid application and all the bureaucratic details. But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

I take this as a serious challenge as a faculty member at a small, private, Christian liberal-arts college. We are mostly white, and surrounded by an even more white, middle-class dominated area. We are about 10 miles from the city of Harrisburg, but the Susquehanna River which separates the “West Shore” suburbs from the city on the “East Shore” insulates us from the connection to the communities in which poor students from Urban contexts might feel more at home. Poor white students can feel the isolation from their middle-class and above white classmates given the difference in access to style and technology, just to name two obvious examples. Poor students of color face an even more obvious disconnect from the majority of the student body. If they also face family and friends at home accusing them of turning their back on their heritage and roots, life gets so much harder.

How can we help? There are no easy answers. Certainly, those of us working in this world need to be aware of the situation. While we cannot ask students about their background and income, etc., we can be aware of our students. We need to be looking for those who look disconnected from their classmates. Those who seem reticent to talk to other students are likely to be wary about approaching us as well. We must be proactive and reach out to such students to bridge the gap and support them. We must also ensure that we don’t make the problem worse by the way we speak. Offering encouraging words of support in their struggle can help, but not if done in ways that reinforce the separation they already feel so acutely.

Otherwise, I admit that I need help. While my immediate family was never very wealthy (my dad is a pastor), we were educated. Both of my parents have college degrees, and I have an aunt with a PhD. College was always expected, and I never felt any of this pull from my own family of origin. This leaves me in need of advice and in a position to learn from those like Ms. Madden who have felt this pull and can shed light on this for me. I need to come to this with humility and admit how little I know. I cannot come in and deny the experience of the poor students in my classes, or act as if I am going to “save” them from this struggle by my intervention. Still, I can listen, learn, and support them.

Do you have any experience personally, or with friends or students that you’d like to share? Feel free to comment below!

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Are You Fully Pro-Life?

Benjamin L. Corey

Many anti-abortion Christians call themselves “Pro-Life”. I myself have used that moniker. I now see the short-coming in this view. A couple of weeks ago a friend and fellow MennoNerd named Benjamin Corey posted over at Formerly Fundie a piece entitled What “I Value The Sanctity of All Human Life” Usually Doesn’t Mean (but should). This reminded me of my own journey from being Anti-abortion to being truly Pro-life. You should definitely read his post, but here are a few of the things that I have come to believe are part of truly being “Pro-life”.

  • Unborn children are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected.
  • Orphans are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should work to support those who work in child welfare, foster-care, and adoption.
  • Women who have unwanted pregnancies and contemplate, or have, an abortion are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should minister to them without condemnation, since we serve a God who tells us that he can save and redeem anyone, even me!
  • Doctors who perform abortions because they disagree with my premise above are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should minister to them without condemnation, since we serve a God who tells us that he can save and redeem anyone, even me!
  • Death row inmates, who according to our culture deserve death for their crimes, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should minister to them without condemnation, since we serve a God who tells us that he can save and redeem anyone, even me! If God could save Paul, use David and so many others, who is to say that he cannot redeem and change the lives of those we think are beyond hope.
  • The poor, in the US and abroad, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. This means that we must be grieved that many of God’s children do not have enough nourishing food to eat while I sit with too much food and have to make the conscious decision not to eat too much and become overweight. We must move to figure out how to solve the distribution problems that make food abundant in some areas and lacking in others. We also need to work to make good food more affordable in our country, and provide alternatives to the cheap, nutrient deficient foods that so many of the poor rely on because that is all that they can afford. This also should impact how we view resources and the often underpaid workers overseas who work long hours to make the goods we purchase.
  • Immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. Whatever our (US) government says about these people, we as Christians identify as citizens first of a heavenly Kingdom which calls us to love all. This implies that we must offer hospitality and care, both for adults and children. This is especially true for children and those fleeing persecution/danger in their countries of origin.
  • Black and brown bodies are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. When we see media portray our brothers and sisters as in some way deserving the discrimination and police (and civilian) brutality that folks like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and so many others have been the victim of. Being Pro-life should mean that we fight against the media portrayal of black and brown bodies as inherently threatening. If we make excuses for the killing (often a modern incarnation of lynching) of our black and brown brothers and sisters, rather than immediately grieving their loss and working to change the culture that devalues their lives.
  • Our enemies, those with whom the US is at war, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. I cannot allow the government to force me to think of my enemies in ways that are inconsistent with Christ’s command to love our enemies.
  • Terrorists are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. I’ve heard some describe the apostle Paul as a terrorist, given his desire to persecute (and kill) the early Christians in Jerusalem and beyond. If Christ could reset Paul’s worldview and use him to advance the Kingdom, who am I to say that God can’t work in the same way through someone who is currently using terror and intimidation tactics? Besides, it seems to me that the West has contributed quite a bit to the creation of Middle Eastern terrorist cells by the way we’ve treated our enemies.
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Austin Channing Brown on Reconciliation and Justice

Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown: A Voice We Need to Hear

It is the Jewish New Year, and I’m going to use this as a good reason to restart my blog. Yes, it has been a while. Life has gotten busy, of course, and a move closer to Messiah College’s campus, where I teach statistics, didn’t help. Still, it is time to begin to use this venue again to use my voice, and point to voices I think we all should be listening to.
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Today’s post falls into this latter category. I’ve been tracking the various cases of African-American men shot, and often killed, by police officers with no discernible need. This is heartbreaking. To see the reaction has been troubling as well. There seems to be no hope or promise of remorse and apology, let alone truth and justice prevailing. I’ve been at a loss for words about what to say, and how to explain this to my children, two of whom have already been confronted with the reality that their skin color will lead to them being devalued and treated differently because their skin is a beautiful shade of light brown. Still, I’ve felt like I must say something. Thankfully, as I was processing the latest video of John Crawford being shot inside a Walmart while carrying an air rifle/BB gun in an “Open Carry” state, I came across a post by Austin Channing Brown. Channing Brown’s voice is one I’ve come to respect and I make sure I read whatever she writes. (You might want to subscribe via email, like I do.)

Channing Brown’s post speaks to our rush to reach reconciliation without making sure true justice is done. Here is a taste:

Heres what many think reconciliation looks like:

1. Having friends of color
2. Having diverse congregations
3. Serving in justice ministries
4. Hiring a person of color

I know this is going to be a little disheartening, so I am just going to say it. None of these things fall under the umbrella of reconciliation without one very large precondition: Justice.

Wow. I know I’ve been guilty of rushing to these. I’ve pushed friends and pastors to be looking for 2. and 4. recently. But I’ve never really mentioned Justice. Ouch. I cannot hope to express as eloquently and bluntly as Channing Brown does the implications of this jump over justice, so I will just beg you to go read her post. We, especially those of us who are white, must listen and learn from this wise woman.

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Living Liberation through Family: Orphan Care

Goose14_WebAd1_300x600If you’ve been tracking with my blog for long, you know that orphan care through foster care and adoption are near and dear to my heart. My family includes two adopted kids. We have felt from very early in our marriage that we were being prepared to adopt, and specifically to adopt across racial boundaries. Has this always been easy? No. What is our motivation? This is near and dear to the heart of God, so it must be near and dear to the hearts of His children and His Church. Here are a few verses that have informed our theology of adoption:

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8.14-16 NET, emphasis added)

23And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.  24And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.  25And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.  26And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. (Revelation 21.23-26 NET, emphasis added)

16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim releaseto the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind,to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lords favor. 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.” (Luke 4.16-21 NET, emphasis in the original)

27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1.27 NET, emphasis added)

34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ (Matthew 25.34-40 NET, emphasis added)

These passages have been formative for us in our marriage, and therefore we’ve stressed them to our kids. We constantly talk about the picture of all of us being adopted by God. We stress that there is no primacy of our biological kids over our adopted kids, or vice versa. We are a family. Our family takes this seriously. After adopting in September of 2009, we have continued to talk about this with our kids. We’ve been involved in post-adoption groups. We’ve supported others in their adoptions through using our financial resources. We’ve donated goods to organizations that support the poor in our own communities, and discussed plans for increasing our personal involvement as our kids get older. While we discuss this theoretically, we also pray regularly for the biological mom (and dad) whose kids are now ours. This isn’t always popular with people that we talk about this. In some sense, it makes no sense to have feelings of love and sympathy for this woman who in many ways messed up our kids lives. We still deal daily with the effects of the neglect from their first year(s) of life and whatever drugs that their mom might have been on while she was pregnant. At various times, our three oldest have all expressed interest in someday adopting themselves. They’ve seen the vision. Of course, they know it isn’t easy. They know that all too well from their side. However, they also realize what it means to go from where they were to being adopted. I learn from them constantly about what it means to be adopted into God’s family, and what a messy blessing that is!

A couple of years ago we had a surprise blessing of an unexpected pregnancy. All three of our older kids were stoked. They have loved having a new little brother. Recently, though, they have begun to ask when we can adopt again. They want to open up our home to another little boy or girl who needs to be set free (liberated!) from a dysfunctional family situation and encouraged to really develop and feel the favor of the God who created him or her in His own image. We are prayerfully considering how God may yet be moving in our lives to prepare us for what He has next. This much we know: our family is called to be involved in spreading His liberation. Yes, we as individuals have a call and a role to play in this, but God has not only called individuals. Jesus left His body, the Church, here to work together. In our families, and in the Family of God, we need to be working together as a community to care for the least of these in every way possible.

How is your family called to care for the least, especially the orphans?


 

This blog is part of a blog tour in the build up to the Wild Goose Festival, 26-29 June in Hot Springs, NC (near Asheville). Please feel free to check them out, as they look to be set to have a great discussion about Living Liberation this summer through 10 tracks ranging from religion to sexuality. This post is emphasizing the Living Liberation as Family track, though I could easily have focused a similar discussion on the Living Liberation in Community or Practices for Liberation tracks, as well as a couple of others.

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The Beauty that Palin Misses

Photo from the Red Letter Christians piece referenced in this post.

In the last few days I’ve seen multiple reactions to the recent comments by Sarah Palin in which she stated: “Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” I won’t link to the whole 12 minute diatribe, because I think it is likely a waste of time to give much attention to her. If you are interested in some good reflections on Palin’s comments, I point you to fellow MennoNerds Tyler Tully at The Jesus Event who responds to Palin and The Gospel Coalition‘s Joe Carter, and Eddie Gonzalez at Schleitheim with a more visceral reaction. Both are worth your time. In the comments on Tully’s piece, I commented:

I’m interested in the similarity between this speech and the reformers “re-baptizing” the Anabaptists by drowning them in the river. Sounds like torture of the infidels by bad baptism analogies isn’t all that new. Somehow I see Christ identifying with the tortured, not with Palin, the NRA, or the like.

As I said here, I really do see Jesus identifying with the oppressed, even if the oppressed are terrorists who hate everything that they think Christ stands for. I see no evidence that Jesus ever looks at the oppressed and thinks, “well, they did have it coming” or anything like that. As such, I think that Christians should be standing with the oppressed here.

While these conversations about Palin’s comments and condemnation of her views are needed, there has been a development that I’d like to spend more time on: a discussion of the beauty of baptism. Responding to Palin’s offensive comparison of baptism to torture1 is a necessary first step (and Tully and Gonzalez are helpful here), we then need to move to highlighting the beauty in baptism that she misses. I suspect that Palin’s view ties baptism to personal salvation, rather than communal covenant. Since baptism is, in this view, about saving the baptized from hell, we might reasonably jump to the conclusion that if waterboarding can convince a terrorist of the error of their ways, they might be saved in some similar sort of fashion. Of course, this jumps past the saving power of Christ. Baptism is only a sign, and a communal one at that, of the power of Christ to bring the one outside the faith into the community of faith. It isn’t baptism that saves, and thus any “saving” nature in torture bears no resemblance to the inner work of the Spirit that we testify to in baptism.

At Red Letter Christians, Jarrod McKenna testifies to the beauty of baptism with an example from his own community. The Sunday after Easter, their community gathered to baptize two new members of their community. One of them then offered a beautiful reflection on baptism while welcoming the community to the communion table, and what baptism and communion meant in light of Easter and the Australian holiday to honor men and women who served in the military (ANZAC day). This was an interesting confluence, to be sure. Here are some of her thoughts:

So, how do we look at ANZAC Day with Easter eyes? How do I take seriously that Jesus has turned the other cheek to us on the cross and in baptism empowers us to do likewise? Last weekend we celebrated our Lord’s triumph over the horror of violence on the cross, exposing all the ugliness and brokenness that is us, and all the grace, love and forgiveness that is our God. This weekend, lest we forget the horrors of war. Unfortunately, many instead will forget the horrors so many experienced in war and instead celebrate nationalism. What does war bring us? What does war expose in us? Christ gave us an alternative to war – love. God gave us love. And in that, God gave us strength. God did not command us to be doormats but to be peacemakers – to turn the other cheek in total defiance of systems than exploit and oppress, allowing us to overcome this exploitation and oppression not with violence but with love. In baptism, like Elisha, I have laid down my whole life. But this side of Easter, we can see that the God we surrender to conquers not with the sword of war but with the towel of service. So this ANZAC weekend, now as someone seeking to live out my baptism, not only do I pray for those whose lives have been and are being devastated by war, but I pray for those who are at war and who support wars, that they may see that God has shown us the most excellent way, through the love and compassion and grace shown at Calvary. I pray that this will indeed open our eyes to the brokenness and ugliness that we perpetrate when we are violent towards one another.

In this meal Jesus shows us what the apostle Paul calls the most excellent way. On the night that he was betrayed Jesus took the bread saying, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup saying, “this is the blood of the new covenant in my blood, do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

I need your help church, to let this baptism, and this meal, be the way I live in the world. The way I love in the world. As we together witness to the grace that means no more blood needs to be shed.

God, thank you for your body given for us, as we take may we be filled with your love to live that love for others. Amen

This is the beauty of baptism. May we all live into this blessed community that follows the example of Christ as our head.

 


1 Let’s be clear, waterboarding is torture. There is no doubt that it violates the Geneva Convention. No one can make a reasonable claim that it should be considered a viable option for treatment of prisoners, even terrorists. The fact that Palin supports it at all is horrific. Using baptism as an analogy is beyond ridiculous.

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