I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”
That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.
While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific.
“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” -Psalm 68:31
The Bible is a multicultural book. This statement may sound controversial but archeology, history, and the text prove it to be true. In 2013 this controversy played out in the media when viewers of The Bible miniseries were upset that Samson was played by a black man. A second controversy occurred when a Fox News broadcaster confidently declared that Santa Claus and Jesus were white, yet when people researched original depictions of Saint Nicolas, they found pictures of a dark brown man. It appears that our faith has been distorted. As we celebrate Black History Month and prepare for Lent, how can uncovering the black presence in the Bible aid us in mourning against the sin of racism? One of the effects of racism is the whitewashing of history and sadly this has taken place even in our biblical studies.
The Roman Catacombs show biblical scenes painted by first- and second-century persecuted Christians, and their paintings clearly show people of color. What would Roman Christians gain from painting these characters black? What did these early Christians know and accept that seems unbelievable today?
"I bet if I were white then I'd be better off … Isn’t that true?” - Idris
A 9-year-old African-American boy lay on the couch, rubbing his head, and told his dad that if he just went to another school, life would be better. If he were just white, life would be better. He clarified, “I’m not saying I want to … but isn’t that right? That’s what everyone else is saying.”
When a 9-year-old boy can see the sad reality of white privilege and understand that the color of your skin is what defines you in our society, we have a serious problem. We can talk about the progress we have made to move civil rights forward over the past 50 years, and many in my generation are grateful for this movement, but we have a long, long way to go.
According to the Black Boys Report, the high school graduation rate for black males is at 52 percent, while white students graduate at a rate of 78 percent. As a nation, we are proud of our success and power, yet our education statistics do not predict the kind of achievement that we expect for the future of our society. In the midst of a major demographics shift, our nation can no longer afford to accept the growing education gap that has become normative in recent years.
American Promise is a documentary following the lives of two African-American boys from kindergarten through high school. The boys attend Dalton, a private school in the upper east side of Manhattan. As Idris and Seun make their way through years of schooling, the film chronicles the truths of our education system and the lack of social and emotional support offered to students of color in America’s schools. The filmmakers, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, are the parents of Idris. Through their son’s journey, the hardships of being an African-American boy growing up in today’s society are documented, and struggles of parenting are examined through an entirely new lens.
The problem is the systemic injustice inherent in Stand Your Ground laws: just feeling like you are being threatened can justify your response in “self-defense.” Under Florida self-defense laws now, someone can use even lethal force if they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to defend their lives or avoid great harm. How does a jury decide what a “reasonable person” would do under all the circumstances? Even if Dunn really believed there was a gun in the black teenagers’ car and there wasn’t one, he could still be justified in shooting into the car according to Stand Your Ground. The New York Times quoted Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami saying, “This trial is indicative of how much of a problem Stand Your Ground laws really do create … By the time you have an incident like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s fear.” And unfortunately, the law creates an opportunity for racial factors — whether they’re conscious or not — to trump facts when even one juror who is sympathetic to a defendant’s “reasonable” fear can prevent prosecution.
I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by three men with hoodies in church yesterday. My shoulders tensed for a few moments. Growing up in New York City, I’ve been groomed in paranoia and 20/20 peripheral eyesight. Yet after taking a second look, I smiled as I admired the theater props: Three hooded figures containing the faces of Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Trayvon Martin, with a caption reading, “We are Trayvon Martin.”
Metro Hope Church meets weekly at Harlem’s National Black Theater, so our church gatherings can often be a dance in improvisation as we’re frequently welcomed by new sets. One summer we were greeted by a gigantic “tree” protruding from center stage. It made this preacher’s imagination run vivid with all sorts of sermon possibilities.
But the hooded figures that greeted me last Sunday were a tribute to Trayvon Martin called, Facing our Truth: 10 Minute Plays on Race and Privilege. This month also happens to be the month that Trayvon Martin was born, and a month for celebration of Black History. These convergences do not escape me, nor does the distinct mission of our church in Harlem.
No stranger to dialogue on race and privilege, our church will often reflect on Dr. King who once lamented, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America … 11:00 on Sunday morning …we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
The nation will mark the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday with speeches, prayers, and volunteer service.
But for decades, retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White has marked the holiday in a more personal way: He writes a “birthday letter” to the civil rights leader who was killed in 1968.
“It was a way to get kind of a year’s assessment on what the nation was accomplishing and not accomplishing in the area of race,” said White, a bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for the last decade.
“I did it because, frankly, I needed to have perspective. I needed to not get discouraged, and I needed it to be affirming of progress in race which had taken place over the course of a year.”
In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s statement that “Jesus was a white man,” critics have quickly and unanimously responded that Jesus was not a white man. Here at Sojourners, Rev. Laura Barkley has debunked Kelly’s statements, noting that Jesus “was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth.”
In his article over at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt argues that Jesus is not only not a white man, but that scripture is mostly quiet about Jesus’ racial makeup. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” Merritt agrees with historian Edward Blum, who draws from King’s statement that “Jesus transcends race.” Ultimately, Merritt points to the universality of Jesus, focusing on Christ’s availability to all, to individuals from “every tribe, nation, people and language.”
Yet in pointing to the universality of Jesus, it is easy to pass over his particularity to a certain time and place.
Conservative talk show host Megyn Kelly claimed on her Fox News show last week that “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white ... just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too ... that’s a verifiable fact, I just want kids to know that.”
This statement was in response to a Slate piece by Aisha Harris, “Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore,” which notes her confusion between seeing a black Santa figurine in her home while white Santas were popularized elsewhere at the mall and her school. Because the real history of St. Nicholas is so far removed from his present iteration as Santa Claus, she argues that it would be easier and less culturally problematic to change him into a penguin. This avoids questions of race and culture and makes him accessible to all. While I see her point about wanting to avoid cultural problems, it might be a good idea to confront the underlying issue of racism in America rather than continue to ignore it.
Business leaders, law enforcement officials, and evangelical Christians—key constituencies that are typically part of the Republican base—have been at the forefront of immigration reform. Given the obvious benefits of, and broad public support for, immigration reform, why are many arch-conservatives in the House of Representatives refusing to address the issue in a serious way? The answer may point to an issue that we still hesitate to talk about directly: race.
Fixing our broken immigration system would grow our economy and reduce the deficit. It would establish a workable visa system that ensures enough workers with “status” to meet employers’ demands. It would end the painful practice of tearing families and communities apart through deportations and bring parents and children out of the shadows of danger and exploitation. And it would allow undocumented immigrants—some of whom even have children serving in the U.S. military—to have not “amnesty,” but a rigorous pathway toward earned citizenship that starts at the end of the line of applicants. Again, why is there such strident opposition when the vast majority of the country is now in favor of reform?
When I asked a Republican senator this question, he was surprisingly honest: “Fear,” he said. Fear of an American future that looks different from the present.
The president of Southern Baptist retailer LifeWay Christian Resources has apologized for publishing Vacation Bible School material nearly 10 years ago that “used racial stereotypes that offended many in the Asian American community.”
Thom Rainer, who became president and CEO in 2006, said Wednesday in a video message at the Mosaix conference in Long Beach, Calif., that the “Rickshaw Rally” curriculum is “still a point of hurt for some.”
“I am sincerely sorry stereotypes were used in our materials, and I apologize for the pain they caused,” Rainer said.
American Promise spans 13 years as Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, middle-class African-American parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., turn their cameras on their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, who make their way through one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation at Manhattan’s Dalton School, the documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class, and opportunity. American Promise is an Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here’s the sentence:
"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."
The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago titled “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism.”
An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out, and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup — a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery — into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.
In her New York Times review, “ The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people — for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.
When we consider the typical church worship service in the United States, we discover certain trends. Lament and stories of suffering are conspicuously absent. In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton notes that laments constitute 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, laments make up 13 percent, the Presbyterian hymnal 19 percent, and the Baptist hymnal 13 percent.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches for the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are employed by local churches, and its list of the top 100 worship songs as of August 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would qualify as a lament. Most of the songs reflect themes of celebratory praise: “Here I Am to Worship,” “Happy Day,” “Indescribable,” “Friend of God,” “Glorious Day,” “Marvelous Light,” and “Victory in Jesus.”
How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.
Are we waiting for another Dr. King? As I collect my thoughts to write these words, I’m mindful that I don’t honestly know what discrimination is. I have never (consciously) experienced discrimination because of my race, the color of my skin, or where I come from. I have never had to say, like Solomon Northup, “I don’t want to hear any more noise.” In the film, 12 Years a Slave, Solomon refers to the cry of those being beaten and separated from their children. I speak here with a profound sense of respect and fear. Who am I, or maybe even you who read, to speak about a tragedy and a pain that we have never experienced? I only speak out of a sense of duty and a calling from God.
Dr. King wrote, “So many of our forebears used to sing about freedom. And they dreamed of the day that they would be able to get out of the bosom of slavery, the long night of injustice … but so many died without having the dream fulfilled.” (A Knock at Midnight, p.194)
To this day, millions of African Americans in our country still dream about getting out of the bosom of slavery. Slavery today is masked behind the social, financial, political, and even religious systems that deny the dignity and full integration into these systems to people of color. Solomon Northup cries out in the film saying, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” The struggle of African Americans is a struggle to live. So far, they have only survived.
Crickets chirping, a branch creaks, and a black body swings on a tree whose roots grow deep into a shared story of our American past. These are images that are floating in my mind, after watching a pre-screening of12 Years a Slave. This film was a terribly beautiful depiction of the antebellum south and the atrocity known as slavery. Its honesty was riveting, as the film portrays characters in ways never captured before on the big screen. They were characters such as Mistress Shaw (played by Alfre Woodard), the black wife of a slave master who is adored by her husband and treated as a white woman. In a panel discussion, Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners asked Woodard, about this character. And she responded that in the South, there were all kinds of arrangements between whites and blacks. Her character Mistress Shaw learned how to survive. I was so refreshed that 12 Years a Slave, was a new depiction of slavery instead of a rehashing of Roots orAmistad.
The panel also consisted of a plethora well-informed faith leaders. One of the panelists, Jim Wallis, while discussing the aspects of faith profoundly said, “Enslaved Africans saved Christ from the Christians.” I was immediately struck by his words as they reminded me of how I became a Christian.