Archives For Racism
For Episode 53 we have another installment of Fridays with Fleming (Rutledge). I invited my friend and new member of the Cracker and Grape Juice Posse, Taylor Mertins, and Fleming’s #2 Fan, Kenneth Tanner, to be a part of our conversation.
We recorded this several weeks ago, talking with Fleming Rutledge about a variety of subjects including preaching preparation, Black Lives Matter, difficult sermons, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Be on the lookout for future episodes with next week with Becca Stevens, Brian McLaren, and Father James Martin.
The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this June in L.A.. There’s only 15 tix left so if you’d like to be a part of it, check it out here.
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According to Tom’s measure, my good friend Brian Stolarz is one of the best Jesus people this side of the first dozen. Brian showed up for me in ways I can’t begin to convey when I learned I had this cancer, and, before me, Brian showed up Alfred Dewayne Brown, an inmate on Texas Death Row.
My oncologists kept my heart beating and my lungs breathing, but Brian is one of the people who kept me alive when I expected to die. Brian is also the one who showed up when Dewayne was scheduled to die for a crime hardly anyone even bothers anymore to argue he committed.
Brian tells the story of Dewayne’s unjust conviction and his own laborious journey to D’s exoneration in his forthcoming book, Grace and Justice on Death Row: The Race against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man.
I love Brian like a brother, and I’ve spent a weird amount of intimate time with Dewayne Brown. They’re both honest, and honest about their experience working together and then working towards a reversal of Dwayne’s connection.
Below is an excerpt from Brian’s book.
If you’d like to hear him speak, check him out this Thursday at the African American Hall of Fame Project.
I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him. He was a 25-year-old, soft-spoken gentle giant with a 69 IQ living in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Livingston, Texas, north of Houston. Polunsky is where Texas houses people before it kills them. In 2005 he had been sentenced to die for the murder of a police officer, and he had been living on death row pretty much ever since. I was working for K&L Gates, a high-powered mega-firm in Washington DC, longing for a case I could be passionate about. I had worked for a couple of years as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York. It was a steady parade of fallible, devious, and occasionally innocent people, most of whom were short on money and shorter on luck. I felt something at Legal Aid—passion for my work.
In and out of the precinct houses, holding cells and courtrooms I developed a more than functional “bullshit meter” about people accused of breaking the law. I can usually spot a lie or a liar better than a polygraph operator. I don’t mean to brag, but just this one time I’ll quote the late Muhammad Ali who said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” I’m not bragging, I’m just saying after one look, I had absolutely no doubt—none—that Alfred Dewayne Brown had not committed the heinous crime for which he had been convicted and for which Texas was going to kill him.
When I left the Polunsky Unit an hour later, I promised Dewayne I would do my best to get him out of there. I also tried to both fight back tears and to keep from being sick to my stomach. I was grateful for the chance to save his life but scared it might be too late. The gravity of the situation set in instantly. I did not go to graduate school to save lives—that is what doctors do. But now I was given the opportunity to save one, and I was determined to do it. In fact, it became my legal, personal, and religious mission to do so.
But, I could not ward off the thought that I might one day travel to Texas, stand behind a glass window, and watch a group of my fellow citizens carry out a medical procedure to end his life against his will. I was sick thinking I might have to watch. I vowed to my wife that if I watched him die I would hang up the law license forever and go start a pizza parlor. I am from New Jersey, after all.
I had a lot of work to do. At the Houston airport a few hours later, I was waiting for my flight, lost in thought about just how much work it would be, when I was accosted by a friendly, toothpick-wielding woman offering free samples of her cuisine around the food court. Unable to resist, I ordered and devoured some of her best General Tso’s chicken. I cracked open my fortune cookie. “You love challenge,” it said. I laughed and looked up to a ceiling painted with fake clouds. Was this some kind of divine but sick joke? I put the fortune in my wallet, where it remains to this day next to a picture of my three kids.
I know your initial reaction to all of this is to say, “Yeah, sure, all the people in prison say they are innocent.” Hell, even members of my own family didn’t believe me when I came home from Texas and said he was innocent. Believe me, I would be the first one to tell you if he were guilty. Many of my current and former clients were, in fact, guilty of what they were charged with. But, in that one moment, that first time I met him, something rocketed through to the deepest part of me; he didn’t commit this crime. I understand your hesitation. Maybe you have your own BS meter. Come along with me on this ride and you too will see what I saw and felt, what I feel. This man is what I believed him to be from the very second I saw him—innocent. And he would have died if there was no one to stand up for him.
Excerpt from Chapter Called “Family, Faith and Growth”
And we went to church. A lot. I basically lived at my grandparents’ church, Blessed Sacrament in Paterson, New Jersey. If I sat through mass with my grandmother and behaved myself and said all the responsorial psalms correctly, I got one dollar. My grandparents’ house had religious artifacts all over the place, with a huge Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, and a large poster of Jesus over their bed. We went to bingo nights, tricky trays, fish frys, community service projects, and many special events at the church. I was too young to fully realize it, but that parish formed my religious foundation.
Once during the decade-long effort to exonerate Dewayne Brown, I left the prison where he was being held. A church group was passing out bibles to the public and fish platters to the prison staff. The prison staff was “Doing God’s Work,” proclaimed a banner draped over a table.
I asked if I could have a fish platter. They asked me if I was a prison guard. I said I was a defense attorney for one of the men on death row. They looked at me like I was Satan himself and pushed the fish platters back away from my hand. Instead of a platter, they handed me a bible. One woman recommended I read it to my client before he went to the Lord.
I didn’t want to say what I was thinking: that a benevolent and just God would probably not be cool with the execution of an innocent man, or anyone for that matter. I wished I had the right biblical passage I could throw back at her but I didn’t. I wish I had said that an eye for an eye makes everyone blind and that I believed in the Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek and love each other and seek redemption and forgiveness, and in Saint Francis who taught me that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. I just took the bible and said thank you. That night I read some Psalms and some New Testament passages in my hotel room, and I went to sleep thinking about Dewayne (as I often do) and (as I also often do) my religious upbringing.
I loved growing up in the Catholic Church, first at my grandparents’ church and then my family’s church, St. Mary’s, a Franciscan parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. At St. Mary’s, I met the men who shaped my spiritual life, Father Michael Carnevale and Father Kevin Downey. They taught me about life, love, tolerance, and how to serve others. When I got married many years later, Father Mike came to Dallas to officiate my wedding. He delivered a thoughtful sermon about love and perseverance, saying that “love is the fruit of the struggle,” and then, because he was a wiseass like me, he turned to the crowd and said, “I now present Mr. and Mrs. Anna Stolarz.”
Growing up in a Franciscan parish had a huge impact on who I became and what I value in life. The parish took the foundation I had from my grandparents’ church and formed my Christian spirit. I felt alive every time I was on the grounds of my church.
Saint Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint for his dedication to serving the poor. We have a sign in our home that is an excerpt from the Prayer of Saint Francis that says, simply, “for it is in giving that we receive.” And I make sure my kids try to live their lives that way in their daily actions and in church service projects.
Before we had kids, Anna and I went to Italy for two weeks and made sure that we stopped in Assisi just to see and feel the holy ground where he lived. And, of course, it is very cool that Pope Francis chose his name after Saint Francis. I was fortunate to get a ticket to the Papal Mass at Catholic University in September 2015, and I was five feet away from him when he processed in.
My time at Catholic University Law School in Washington DC in the 1990s clarified and solidified my desire to continue my religious mission to serve others while using my skills as a lawyer. It was why I became a public defender in Brooklyn, why I always did pro bono work when I was in private practice at the law firm of K&L Gates, and why I do pro bono work today. And I will always do it.
I received an award in 2007 for taking the most pro bono cases for indigent people from the Catholic Charities Legal Network, a division of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington that places cases for needy individuals with volunteer lawyers. In 2014 I received the Caritas award from Catholic Charities, the highest service award the organization gives in service to the poor. And I am very fortunate to have Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington as a trusted client. Father John Enzler is the CEO, and he is one of those unique, wonderful shepherds who is focused on service to the poor and needy and says that when it comes to service: “say yes every time you can and no only when you have to.”
But I didn’t, and don’t, do pro bono work for awards or recognition. I just think it is a duty of any lawyer to give their talents back to those who can’t afford a lawyer. It’s that simple to me. It is the perfect confluence of my legal training and my religious upbringing. And it makes me feel alive inside every time I do it. Pope Francis said that “we all have the duty to do good,” and my duty was to Dewayne. That duty was why I stayed with his case until I hugged him in 2015, why I love him like a member of my own family today, and why I thank God every chance I get that he is out of prison.
According to a congressman in North Carolina black protestors there in the South- in the South (in case you missed the emphasis: in the South) hate white people because white people are successful. That’s the real reason they’re angry. He’s since offered the boilerplate politico mea culpa that in the moment he said something he didn’t really mean, but we all know that it’s exactly in those moments, guard down and heart out, when we’re most likely to say what’s really on our mind.
According to police Keith Scott was carrying a gun and thus his shooting was justified because (dot, dot, dot) we all know a black man with a gun warrants suspicion.
According to social media, Terence Crutcher had his hands up and had his back to police to put his hands on his car when he was
manslaughtered murdered so, Facebook friends testify, the officer involved must be a racist.
And then the many memes:
The Donald is a fraud. Hillary is a liar. Obama is a Manchurian President. Michelle hates America. Immigrants are rapists and Republicans are racist.
A third of us want to keep all Muslims out.
Another third want to flee to Canada if that third get their way, thinking about that third how the other third think about 3/3 of Muslims.
We’re everywhere projecting motives onto other people. Drawing lines. Culling into tribes. Rallying the righteous to our side. Pretending to know, by virtue of soundbites and campaign slogans and ticker tape summations and hot am air, who is good and who is evil.
The Christian reading of Genesis 1 is that original sin is occasioned by the tempter’s inducement for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.”
Christian interpretation typically fixes original sin onto the first clause in that last sentence: “You will be like God.” We fell then because of our desire to ascend. To be like God. To take God’s place. In essence, to not have God over us to whom we’re accountable.
But, lately, I wonder.
As any good writer knows, if you can work it, the main point should always fall last in your sentences (“knowing good evil”). And as any preacher knows, the emphasis should always be on the verbs (“knowing”).
So I wonder.
I wonder if original sin, the sin into which we’re all born, the sin which binds us in captivity and from which Jesus means to save once and for all, is our desire to appraise one another, to know good and evil, to be like God in Christ, separating who we take to be the goats from the sheep. That is, is our base sin our desire to know, like God, who is good and who is evil? Are the “All Lives Matter” memes, the “Blue Lives Matter” tweets, and “colorblind” FB rants just an updated form of picking the fruit from the tree?
I wonder because this morning my good friend Teer Hardy and I interviewed Ian McFarland, author of From Nothing, for our podcast. In it, Ian explained how the Christian belief in creation from nothing is shorthand for the confession that everything in existence owes its existence at every moment of its existence to God.
Everything. Always. Everywhere. At every moment.
Is from God.
Though he didn’t put it into original sin terms as I just did, Ian argued that creatio ex nihilo requires Christians to refrain from regarding anything in creation as nothing or no good or evil. It’s all from God. It’s all sacrament and none of it- no one– is slop or scrap.
If I’m right, then America still has a race problem and a problematic politics, but they’re no longer problems so much as they’re manifestations of original sin. And that’s good news because we (i.e. the Church) have an antidote to that disease: Jesus Christ.
He is the One by whom Adam and Eve and each of us and all that is- all that is- were created.
And through cross and resurrection all of us, good
or and evil, are in him. To separate sheep from goats on social media like is to perpetuate a problem for which God has already provided a solution.
I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”
I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.
Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.
During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.
Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.
A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:
“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”
Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”
It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.
Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:
“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”
You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.
Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”
In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.
It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.
I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.
It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.
My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.
In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.
Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.
When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.
According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.
And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.
Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.
If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.
In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.
So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.
Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.
That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.
It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor. So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.
Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.
No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.
And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.
Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.
My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.
This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.
Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.
All were sinners because all are sinners.
Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.
Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week, I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”
Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.
One of the fortuitous charisms of a blog such as this is the community of friends I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to ‘meet.’ It’s the peculiar nature of a blog that I’ve never actually ‘met’ Bobby Ray Hurd in the flesh. Indeed apart from this blog I count it unlikely I would be friends with someone named ‘Bobby Ray Hurd’ from Missouri.
It’s true that ours is an incarnational faith for which virtual things like social media pose a real risk; however, it’s also true that things like blogs make it possible for me to know another’s thoughts and theology better than many of the people I know in the flesh.
He’s smart as a whip, passionate, speaks the hard, uncomfortable truth and has called this disciple to deeper faithfulness.
Bobby Ray has studied theology at George Fox, he currently works at Touchpoint Autism Services and lives in the Ferguson, Missouri neighborhood.
For all the above reasons I asked him if he’d write a post about Michael Brown’s murder and the consequent violence.
Here it is:
Racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
In the wake of the events that have happened (and continue to happen) because of the shooting death of Michael Brown (and the social unrest in Ferguson, MO), I have become disillusioned from our pluralistic society’s attempts to give a truthful account.
I am disillusioned from the false hope promised by the latest abstract social theories (that is, anthropology without theology) or the latest development in identity politics (that is, politics without theological anthropology).
Such disbelief is the reason why I am disillusioned by the ecclesial left and right’s attempts to reduce the dilemma exposed in Ferguson to the solutions of abstract empiricism typical of what happens when church politics are collapsed into worldly politics.
I am disillusioned because all such abstract accounts I have come to see as vanity and impotency.
They are vain because we are looking for a hero to save society in general rather than the church turning to the particularities of the Gospel that cannot be reduced to a savior of society in general but only to the double grace (justification and sanctification) received as a gift in union with Christ.
Thus, it is only through an embodied way of holy living in union with Christ we may be granted the possibility of prophesying against the unbelief of pluralistic philosophical accounts in a way that can tell the truth.
They are impotent not only because they cannot possibly tell the truth but because all such abstract attempts dismiss having the sort of faith it might require to tell the truth.
This is precisely why I say racism is a demonic possession. It is not because I lack a better word and must now rely on my religion to comfort the meek and angry who cannot explain what has happened (because, if you live where I live, the black community already knows). It is not so I may “fill in the gaps” of what my rationality and enlightenment cannot yet explain.
It is because I believe that a leap of faith is precisely the sort of foolishness we might need to begin assessing the problem with clarity.
This is because racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
It has left the black community re-traumatized, old wounds gaping, a perpetrator (Darren Wilson) who cannot make complete sense of what happened to him, and a victim (and their advocates) who are once again presented with the possibility that they might not be able to prove the demonic force of racism is indeed why another young black man has been executed under the guise of public service and protection.
Racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
As a demon is well aware, the claim of a demonic possession cannot possibly meet the requirements of empirical evidence necessary to have justice in our world of evidence-based everything. As a demon would be well aware, the modernist abstract disciplines can certainly get into the very important issues of pathology, psychology, and cognitive dissonance.
But as the history of America continues to demonstrate, you cannot prove the occasion of a demon in the moments they prey.
It is a matter of faith.
After all, you can hardly “prove” something that is invisible; and yet, if I am correct, it is precisely this sort of move that might explain what has happened time and time again.
Because racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
We have learned, as part of a Liberal society, you can legislate in the best ways we can against racism with civil rights, special interest groups, and political correctness, but when the particularities of our theology begin their descent into being collapsed into the next abstract social theory with a savior complex, we have then resorted to merely throwing rocks at Goliath from the spiritually anorexic space of our unbelieving world (at worst) or the spiritually bulimic space of the modernist church (at best). But then the demons come to prey again and we are left scrambling for the next impotent explanation. How much longer must the church repeat this failure (I would expect it from the world)?
Because racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
On the other end of the issue, if we learned anything from the puritans it was that we may not be witch hunters and stand for justice either. For while demons are indeed real, they deceive us all.
For it is the craft of a demon to create a culture of fear where we blame each other but cannot explain why with any true conclusivity.
This is why racism is a demonic possession above all empirical, rationalistic accounts of it. It is an invisible deceiver that cannot be mastered by the tools of mere materialism and empiricism. It is an embodied orientation of deniable evil; a place the human matters of legislation and social theory cannot possibly reach.
Like the nature of all demonic possessions, we know the effects of demonic activity (deception, wrath, fear-mongering) but we are ultimately left numb with no good answers equitable to the lives lost and history marred by it.
We are ultimately left without justice; at least in the holiest sense of it (shalom).
Because racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it
I now turn to what Acts demonstrates as the reality of the world; that is, our idolatrous, pluralistic, pantheist world that has, since the fall, been in a spiritual conflict against Satan and his demons.
Thus, contrary to our modernist sentimentalities, what we encounter in Acts is not myth or metaphor but it is realism in every sense.
In 16:16-24, Paul becomes “annoyed” (Greek: diaponeomai) by a slave girl’s antics who was evidently possessed by a demon. However, the deeper meaning of “annoyed” is not “annoyed” in the sense of “slightly peeved” or “minor inconvenience” but “annoyed” as in “deeply moved” or “grieved.” A similar emotion is found in John 11:33 when Jesus is with the recently deceased Lazarus. Scripture notes that Jesus was “deeply moved” (indignant) at the sight of his death. Thus, Paul is more than a little irritated in this episode with the manic slave girl. It is evident that he is aware of a presence of deniable evil and death; and it has stirred him significantly. Nevertheless, Paul’s emotion of grieving annoyance is ultimately not directed toward the slave girl who is being taken advantage of by greedy pimps but toward the deniable evil called “spirit” as he responds: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”
And so, the truth is clear:
when presented with the evidence of deniable evil, indignant confrontation is in order.
Racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
Bonhoeffer once wrote in his letters from prison that it is imperative that:
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
When we see the world as Bonhoeffer would have us see it, we begin to see the truth:
both Darren Wilson and Michael Brown are in fact victims.
Darren Wilson a victim of enslavement to the deniable evil of racism.
Michael Brown the tragic recipient of its scorn.
Thus, victims create more victims; hurt people hurt people.
And so, how can there be an account for justice given for Michael Brown? How can Christians be a part of giving such an account?
We carry forward knowing that Darren Wilson is merely a tool. He is a tool because those who have known the demon of racism know that this is what it is; demonic possession.
Wilson is a police officer caught in the middle of the politics of this world that are under the control of Satan and his demons (Lk. 4:5-7, 1 John 5:19).
Darren Wilson is the product of my idolatrous, mammon-worshipping, segregated city ripe for demon possession such as the one that cost Michael Brown his life.
Thus, we carry forward not aiming our scorn for Darren Wilson. Such a thing could be retribution at best. Thus, we carry forward with the confidence that the rite of exorcising this demon comes with the ministry of the double grace of union with Christ and the “one new humanity” that is promised because of it.
This does not mean we excuse Darren Wilson. Far from it! If he is indeed a murderer, he is a murderer that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But as a good Calvinist, I can only believe this to be “mediocre good” at best.
Taking the holy ground will mean taking the leap of faith necessary (despite our modernist unbelief) to confront our demons with the sort of righteous indignation that casts out demons in the name of Jesus Christ.
Because racism is a demonic possession.
I have no other way to explain it.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, draw your strength and might from God. Put on the full armor of God to protect yourselves from the devil and his evil schemes. We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places. And this is why you need to be head-to-toe in the full armor of God: so you can resist during these evil days and be fully prepared to hold your ground. Yes, stand—truth banded around your waist, righteousness as your chest plate, and feet protected in preparation to proclaim the good news of peace” (Ephesians 6:10-15 VOICE).
I’m assuming (ie, hoping you’ve been paying attention) to the story of Renisha Marie McBride, a 19 year old black girl who knocked on the front door of a white family to ask for help.
They assumed she wanted to rob them.
They shot her in the face with a shotgun.
And despite any other causal sequence of logic in those preceding sentences, we’re to believe race played no part.
Recalling the Trayvon Martin case almost a year ago, this story from Detroit provokes questions not only about America’s continued idolatry of guns but also its inability to deal frankly with its racial past and the present problems presented by that past.
I’ve got to confess I’m not nearly as sensitive or self-aware on these issues as I’d like to think I am, but I do at least realize and respect that those who are not in my position (white, well-off, men) have a different and compelling perspective on these issues.
I asked a friend of mine, Adrian Hill, to reflect theologically on the Renisha McBride story. I hope you will receive it with the sincerity in which it was written:
I admit I first struggled when Jason asked me to write this because I didn’t really “see God” when I first heard of this situation.
I saw anger and frustration, and leftover issues from Trayvon Martin. Another Black human, deemed a threat even though unarmed, was shot dead.
And like Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player who was shot to death by police while seeking help after escaping a car crash.
Like Jordan Davis, a young kid who was shot to death after he and a man disagreed over the volume level of his music at a gas station.
Like Darius Simmons, shot to death by his elderly neighbor over a theft accusation.
All Black, all perceived to be threats, all unarmed… and all dead.
Now, those who shot all of the aforementioned people are White.
But, statistically, people are more likely to be killed by people of their own race. Blacks mostly kill Blacks. Whites mostly kill Whites, and so on. So a narrative that one race is killing another at an alarming rate is false.
This feels like an epidemic to the Black community.
Why does it feel like we are threats? Why are we not given the benefit of the doubt BEFORE we are shot? It doesn’t feel like, in 2013, any Black person should die under these types of circumstances. And we can’t help but feel there is something more to this than isolated incidents or accidents.
So when I was asked to think theologically about this, the one thing that popped into my mind was Galatians 3:28 –
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This is a wonderful passage that speaks to equality in the Kingdom of God. In a country with a history of gross inequality towards natives, minorities, immigrants, and women, this verse has proved to be liberating in the face of social ills like slavery and segregation. It is a powerful passage.
However, there has also been a sort of, unintended consequence, of this general kind of thinking. The consequence of assuming we have all truly reached equality. Us recognizing that human beings still have different experiences disappears. In our hope for equality, sometimes we assume we have already reached Dr. King’s dreamland and eschew the difficult task that still lies ahead – the task of ensuring that, in America, a reality that “all of you are one” in this great nation.
Sometimes the experiences of inequality experienced by others are dismissed because we really really want to finally all be equal. But ultimately, we are not yet there
It is absurd to think that there is no difference between a Black man and White woman. Or between a gay White man and a Hispanic female. It is silly to deny the glass ceiling women STILL face in the workplace. Or the difference in the quality of public education in neighborhoods across the country.
We all have our different experiences.
We are NOT all the same And if we are concerned with this Kingdom of God, where there is neither Jew, Greek, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, and so, we still have work to do.
That work involves being honest about our differences and our experiences.
I believe Renisha’s story is evidence that the work remains.
There still remains a climate where we all perceive anyone deemed “other” as a threat. Renisha was deemed an “other.” It is hard for me as a Black man, to not believe her skin color played a role in her designation as “other.“
As I have listed the other names of unarmed, innocent Blacks who were unfairly targeted as threats, it makes me question why deadly force was used so quickly. Or why the shooters were so hostile to their presence. Is it something about Black faces that strike fear into others? Why? What can we – Black people and non-Blacks alike – do about this? Can we have a dialogue where we recognize our differences and not just default to “everyone is equal now?”
I think this is vital for Christians today to speak to the continued notion of the “other.”
In Biblical times, if a stranger came to your home, you were obligated to do all you could to take care of the stranger.
Times have changed, but America could benefit from recovering some common sense notion of that practice.
How can we protect ourselves AND still be helpful to our fellow humans? We don’t have to let everyone inside our homes or even let our guard down, but we can figure out a way that deadly force isn’t the default initial reaction.
In Christ, there may be no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; but in America?
Unfortunately, there still is.
As you likely know, Paula Deen’s saturated empire is crumbling like a stack of empty calories after reports of her having used racial epithets in the past and practiced business with equally troubling ante-bellum nostalgia.
It’s gone underreported but just as insidious is the fact that Paula Deen’s first crime was the culinary kind. How Paula Deen amassed the aforementioned empire peddling deep-fried, cafeteria slop is just as unlikely as her sudden fall.
Apparently, Paula Deen’s similarities to Cracker Barrel extend beyond her style of food.
Of course, the shock over Deen’s racism and her hasty dismissal by Food Network conveniently brush aside the truth that Paula is hardly the only person in the South (or America) quietly harboring racist assumptions.
In fact I can’t help but wonder if some of the dismay expressed towards her owes to a larger cultural loss of what Christians mean by ‘original sin;’ namely, that the world’s sin is something we’re all born into and participate in whether we know it or not.
Don’t believe me? Don’t think you’re anything like Paula Deen?
Try this quick test from Project Implicit at Harvard and see to what extent you can put the cracker in the barrel.
This morning over oatmeal I listened to a great NPR story on the 50th Anniversary of the first black student bravely reporting to class at Ole Miss, escorted by the National Guard while hundreds of segregationists shouted their rage.
What was true 50 years ago remains true today: racism is (only) made possible by the absence of relationship. It’s only by treating the other as other, as invisible, that prejudice is allowed to grow or fester.
This is how novelist Michael Chabon puts it in an essay, in which he reflects on the many friendships he had with African Americans as a child and teenager compared with how few he had as a college graduate:
To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race.
All you have to do…is feel completely disconnected from them. All you have to do is look at those people in a kind of almost scientific surprise, as I looked at the African-Americans I passed in the streets of L.A. in the days after the Simpson verdict, and realize you have been passing them by in just this way, for months, for years at a time. They were here all along, thinking what they think now, believing what they now believe, and somehow you failed to notice.
The quote is from this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine in which Chabon unpacks the inspiration for his new novel, Telegraph Avenue. The novel is wonderful and the best prose I’ve read in a long, long time.