Moving Mountains

Roots of Freedom

From the 2016 Roots
From the 2016 Roots

THE NATION'S FIRST blockbuster television miniseries, Roots, shocked the nation when it started airing on Jan. 23, 1977. Based on Alex Haley’s research on his own family’s story and adapted for television from Haley’s novel, Roots offered the world its first cinematic depiction of Africa and Africans unfiltered through the conduit of Hollywood’s racialized imagination. White Tarzan and Jane were nowhere to be found in Juffure, Gambia. Kunta Kinte was the leading man. Fanta was his ingénue—black ... and beautiful.

For eight nights the Kinte family unfolded from generation to generation, focused on individual family members’ struggles against generations of evil white slave masters.

But the 2016 “reimagined” version of Roots places the snatched descendants of Omoro and Binta Kinte squarely within the unyielding machine of the international slave trade—an economic system that, fundamentally, sought the well-being of European nations at the expense of the rest of the world.

In 380 B.C.E., Plato articulated a grand idea in his treatise The Republic. There is this thing called “race,” he posited. Race is determined by the kind of metal a person is made of, he said: silver, gold, iron, or copper. A person’s race determines how that person serves society.

The transatlantic slave trade took Plato’s notion and expanded the “republic” to encompass the world. Guided by Western philosophers’ notions of human hierarchy, Western popes and monarchs declared the right of Europeans to enslave “uncivilized” peoples for the benefit of the crown. It didn’t take long for Plato’s copper and gold to morph into Virginia judicial law that delineated between slaves and servants based on skin color. Colonial “races” became white, black, and red.

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Meet the Palestinians Who Went Off the Grid to Keep Their Homes

Igor Rozhkov / Shutterstock
The city of Bethlehem.

THE ROAD WAS bumpy—full of deep holes and harrowing possibilities for slippage down a roadside slope. My heart raced as I considered the possible headline back home: Bus tumbles down Israeli slope—50 Americans killed by Palestinians. Yes, that would likely be the headline, but it wouldn’t tell the story.

As our bus rolled through this stretch southwest of Bethlehem, my heart raced as Amal Nassar explained that the area had been declared property of the Israeli state decades ago. Since then, Israel built smooth roads, but we weren’t allowed on them. To the right of our bouncing bus was an adjacent highway reserved for Israelis—Palestinians are restricted from driving on these Israeli highways, relegated to the old dirt roads.

Our bus wound around sharp corners, up a hill until it came to a stop. There didn’t seem to be any building structures in sight so I wondered why we’d stopped. Nassar explained that the Israeli government had set large boulders in the middle of the road to block traffic from reaching her family’s farm, so we would have to hike the rest of the way.

We stepped off the bus and onto a dirt road strewn with rocks and trash—old tires, plastic bags, plastic bottles. When the Israeli government claimed the land, it ceased basic services such as trash pick-up, electricity, and running water to Palestinians in the area. It was an effort to make life so difficult that the Palestinians would choose to leave—in modern human rights terms, the world calls this ethnic cleansing. Nassar explained that many families have chosen to leave. Once they are gone for three years, the Israeli government claims that their property has been abandoned and that the state then has legal grounds to claim the power of eminent domain over the land.

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Preaching While Female

4Max / Shutterstock
4Max / Shutterstock

A MILLION YEARS ago, when I was 23 years old, I sat in a lecture hall, flanked by college students who tutored at the youth program where I worked. They had invited me to their campus ministry’s worship service. An Asian-American woman named Susan Cho—young (about my age), tall, straight-backed, clear-voiced, and refreshingly funny—stepped to the podium and began preaching.

I sat transfixed. She dove into the scripture and it came alive! She explained what was going on in the world of the biblical characters in a way that made it feel as if they were living today. I felt like I knew them—I understood them. And then she brought home the meaning of the text for our lives in Los Angeles, months after the 1992 riots. This woman gave one of the most dynamic and biblically accurate sermons I had ever heard.

But then a familiar thought came into my head: “This is heresy,” it whispered.

You see, in college I was part of an evangelical ministry in which women could lead behind the scenes and share their testimony during worship services, but we could not preach or, for that matter, teach the scripture—especially to men. Ideas of male dominance were never taught outright, but they were observed like tenets of the faith.

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Things Fall Apart

jadimages / Shutterstock
jadimages / Shutterstock

If Facebook feeds are any measure of anxiety levels, then we’re reaching a new high. Friends’ posts share news of overt hatred and violence, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades:

  • A seemingly unending onslaught of police killings of unarmed black people.
  • White supremacists shooting people as they pray, setting fire to churches, and shooting into crowds of multiethnic protesters.
  • More than 1,000 mass shootings in the U.S. since the 2012 massacre of children at Sandy Hook.
  • Millions of Syrian and African refugees flowing into Europe—the greatest movement of people across Europe since the Holocaust.
  • The so-called Islamic State ushering in what looks to be a new world war.
  • Oh, and the climate is changing at an alarming rate.

It feels like the world is unraveling.

But what if it is? What if we are, in fact, witnessing the end of the world as we know it? Would that be so bad?

Think about it. The world order, as we know it, rests on deep foundations built by worldwide colonization, imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, exploitation, and ecological consumption. Most of the violence listed above traces back to economic and social systems of dominance—one group over another or humanity’s domination of the rest of creation. White supremacists feel threatened because people of color are finally rising up and saying “No more!”

While 16 mass shootings occurred between 1995 and 2005, there were 38 from 2005 to 2015, according to a recent report by Mother Jones. In recent years, people have pushed against the gun lobby with all their might, but the NRA seemed invincible.

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Death Does Not Reign

nobeastsofierce / Shutterstock
nobeastsofierce / Shutterstock

POPE FRANCIS called our country to honor the sacredness of all human life. He called on Congress to embrace a consistent ethic of life—to abolish the death penalty. The state killed no one while Francis walked among us. But three days after his departure, blood flowed.

Six people in five states were scheduled to be executed in the U.S. within one week of each other in the beginning of October:

Wednesday, Sept. 30. Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for the orchestration of the 1997 murder of her husband, converted to Christianity while on death row in Georgia. Gissendaner, a respected student of theology, was put to death after three failed Supreme Court appeals.

Wednesday, Sept. 30. Richard Glossip, who is widely believed to be innocent of the 1997 murder-for-hire for which he was convicted, was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma, but Gov. Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution. Fallin offered the stay not because she believed that Glossip was innocent, but rather because of questions over whether the state possessed the legal drug protocol to put him to death.

Thursday, Oct. 1. Alfredo Prieto was executed in Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman and her boyfriend in 1988. Prieto was believed to be a serial murderer with an IQ below 70, according to Amnesty International. Prieto had an appeal pending when the state killed him.

Friday, Oct. 2. Kimber Edwards was convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife in 2000, but another man recently confessed to having acted alone. Edwards, who has autism, originally confessed to the crime, but at his trial and ever since he has said he was innocent. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

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Called to Lead, Bank Accounts Be Damned

 

SHE WAS MAD—fuming.

Thirteen black evangelical leaders rolled across Southern states on a speaking tour of historic black colleges and universities. On a mission to call forth the next generation of black leaders, we traversed the land where our ancestors had worked fingers to bone, drank from separate fountains, and cut loved ones down from trees like dead fruit.

But this is not what made Vera mad.

For the last hour a crowd of black leaders sat, stood, and leaned in as we shared our stories of barriers to advancement within white evangelical organizations. It wasn’t a mean-spirited conversation. It was a needed one—a healing one. Our stories were strikingly similar, even though none of us had worked in the same organization.

Within well-meaning white evangelical missions agencies, we had all been told that confirmation of our call to leadership would be discerned in part by our ability to raise money for the organization. Mind you, most of us had taken on debt to accept the low salaries offered by the white agencies. And most of us suffered economic isolation as we watched our white peers accept the same salaries but somehow take vacations and buy homes while we scrimped to pay rent.

Now, as our chartered bus eased its way through the narrow, tree-lined lanes at Dillard University in New Orleans, Vera said: “I’m mad at this conversation.”

Vera (we’ll call her that) was new to our traveling village, so I didn’t know how to read her anger. Did she feel our gripes were unjustified?

“I’m mad that this is exactly what I have been experiencing inside my own organization,” she continued. “I’ve tried to explain it to our leaders, but no one has heard me.”

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A History of (Non)Violence

I WALKED THROUGH the halls of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala.—slowly. Original documents lined the walls of the nation’s central memorial to the local actions that helped trigger the national mass movement for civil rights. To skim would have been a sacrilege. Each document was evidence. Evidence of struggle. Evidence that America’s apartheid happened. Evidence of a miracle.

The museum is like a labyrinth. Each room builds on the last, adding color and depth to a reality most of the nation has only experienced in the two-dimensional contours of sepia-toned documentary footage and pictures.

I entered the room with the kitchen table where Martin Luther King Jr. dropped to his knees and prayed, weeping, scared, and still holding onto the last vestiges of his personal dream for a middle-class preacher’s life. For my tour group, the room was about that table, but the documents lining the walls like wallpaper caught my eye.

One stood out. It was a full-page newspaper ad with a letter from the White Citizens’ Council of Montgomery to the blacks of Montgomery. The letter pleaded with the black citizens to “stop their violent attack on their city.”

The first time I read “Stop this violence,” I was befuddled. What violence?

I scanned my memory for any trace of violence in the Montgomery bus boycott by the blacks who engaged in economic protest, refusing a public service that proclaimed and enforced a spiritual lie: Blacks are less than human. They had dropped one too many coins into the slot only to have to give up their seat to a white person if the bus was too full. The blacks of Montgomery refused to comply any longer with their society’s sin. They couldn’t continue taking up the public shovel to heap another pile of dirt on the carcass of their deadened dignity. So they walked.

And weeks into walking, the White Citizens’ Council called their protest “violent.”

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An Education in Implicit Bias

2014 WAS NOTHING if not the year when implicit bias was exposed in law enforcement, the justice system, and media reporting. As the nation sorted out reporting on the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., police treatment of protesters, and the accuracy of the reporting itself, the words “implicit bias” or “unconscious bias” jumped to the fore again and again.

According to the Kirwan Institute report “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014,” “Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”

My question is this: If 2014 opened the eyes of the general public to the presence of implicit biases embedded in our systems, could 2015 be the year when we begin to take a closer look at the impacts of implicit bias in our public systems and structures—and the way we talk about them?

For example, take this tit-for-tat about the education system: On Oct. 11, in his third column in a series called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” Nick Kristof wrote in The New York Times, “Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks and that gives public schools serving disadvantaged children many fewer resources than those serving affluent children. We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

On Oct. 23, Norman Leahy and Paul Goldman posted their own op-ed in The Washington Post titled, “When ‘whites’ don’t get it—a rebuttal.”

Their direct “rebuttal” didn’t address Kristof’s point at all. Instead, they expressed deep offense that Kristof would paint all whites with the same big brush; they then proceeded to highlight one case of corruption by black legislators in one Southern town. If that’s not painting with a big brush, then what is?

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The Valley of Lament

WE HAVE AMPLE reason to weep of late: war in Gaza, crisis in Syria, ISIS in Iraq, the slaying of five unarmed black men in one month at the hands of U.S. police officers, and the demise of congressional immigration reform.

Scripture calls us to cross over into the valley of lament at times such as these. Yet most of us are more comfortable on the plateau of rage or the plain of apathy.

I once led a training on lament and racial reconciliation. Twenty college students sat in the living room of a ministry house as I recited a lament from Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet”: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).

I spoke of the impact of racial injustice in our nation and on our campuses. I recounted slave narratives to the students—stories that had brought me to tears privately. Yet, when the last word was read, the students sat silent with glazed eyes staring back at me.

I didn’t get it. The whippings of human beings, the children separated from their mothers and fathers, the hands, feet, and lives lost in the midst of America’s darkest hours—these things happened. How could we not lament?

My new book, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, Mae Cannon, and Troy Jackson, opens with teachings on the value, purpose, and practice of lament and confession (see excerpt, page 46). “The church tends to view itself as the world’s problem solver,” we suggest. “This belief ... results in a diminishing of, or a blindness to, lament and the necessary confession that is inherent within it.”

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