Unfortunately, this week's tragic evil in Charlottesville is not surprising, nor has the outpouring of anger, grief and despair that has followed. I have seen pockets of hope, as this time around, in this moment, more people from both sides of the political and religious aisle seem to speaking out to condemn the hatred we witnessed. Despite this small glimmer, I know all too well that this cycle will too be forgotten, left behind, and will continue across this country and world. Most people who are openly and actively condemning this hate will be once more turning a blind eye to it once the next news cycle turns over to some other tragedy, crisis or tweet.
What if we acted differently this time? What would that have to look like? What would it take to stay focused on this tragedy until we root out what it should really motivate us to do? For all the condemnation I see, what always seems to be missing in our 30-second responses and quick-click post "shares" is an effort to become truly more educated about the nature, history and reality of this ongoing problem of systematic racism, white supremacy, nationalism and hate. It cannot, nor will it ever be enough to simply condemn it, isolate it, and pretend that it has nothing to do with us or the system we live in, vote for, and support in ways we don't realize. If we truly want to make a difference, it starts with our own personal reflection and education about these trying issues.
So let me give you a primer. I had a black classmate in Seminary last year and I asked him what he could share with me that I could take back to my own communities. He said that there was nothing he could say, and that I shouldn't be talking to the black community about what they can do about white racism. I should be talking to the white community about what we should be doing about racism. If you really want to make a difference, consider reading any or all of these books as a way to begin your education. After that, let's begin to talk in our own communities.
"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michele Alexander
When you hear political candidates talk about the drug war, getting thugs off the streets, and tough words like "Law and Order", do you ever think about why our system works the way it does? In this incredible book, Michelle Alexander skillfully shares the history and causes of institutional and systematic racism and how our system of government has manipulated and formed avenues of oppression in each new generation. Slavery did not end in the 1860's, nor did the weaponization of fear and white supremacy over minorities. If you read any book to get you started, this is the one that opens your eyes the most to every American's complicity in criminalizing and dehumanizing black bodies in this country.
"Reclaiming the Spirit in the Black Faith Tradition" by Derek Hicks
Whenever I see the phrase “Black Lives Matter” responded to by the phrase “All Lives Matter”, I think of this book. Too many people today, out of simple, basic ignorance, neglect the realities of the generational debasement campaign against blacks throughout this country’s history. When I think about the still existent and still very real “white fears about black bodies”, I see how, while the language of oppression has changed, the spirit of it has not in the world today. This books goes through the true histories, told by black perspectives, of the realities of our nation’s hate.
I constantly see people expressing their position as non-racist because they don’t have negative feelings towards black people. But at the same time, they do nothing to show care, nothing to acknowledge oppression, and their votes and ideology are the very kind that create and sustain systems of injustice and oppression. Dr. Hicks “bad body/good body” duality is in play often as I view dialogues with the community and through social networks. Working towards amendment should become the call of all churches, even those isolated, who feel like they can’t be a part of understanding and appreciating black faith traditions.
"Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God" by Kelly Brown Douglas
The picture of exceptionalism and both the social and psychological development of racial superiority by white culture is profoundly defined and detailed in the first half of this book. Kelly Douglas provides an incredible historical account of the very one-sided war against black humanity that permeates this nation’s history. She has provided a picture of both the overt and behind the scenes methods of propaganda, law interpretations and development, and personal sentiments shared and taught to the people here about the roles of each race within the nation. From the ancient development of “romanticism and blood origins” to the immigration fight over culture and identity, to the work of churches, political groups and economic forces in creating false images of blacks in the country, her detailed history shows the ugliness people want to ignore and pretend never happened (or still happens today).
I was especially heartbroken about the idea and ideal of the black body as “chattel”, a theme that was detailed in tragic ways throughout. What we as society today cannot ignore is how each time black people in the country have worked their way towards progress and acceptance, there is and has always been the reaction by white powers that be to quell those actions and reclaim their illusion of divine power within the world. This existed during reconstruction, and it still exists today in the opposition to everything black leaders stand for.
I no longer see how we as a nation can believe in our manifest “chosen-ness” if that does not include fixing the sin of racial injustice. I love the quote that “The exodus story tells us that God’s choice of the Israelites was not about blood, but about freedom” as well as “On the cross, Jesus fully divests himself of all pretensions to power, privilege, and exceptionalism, even as the incarnate revelation of God.”
"Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community" by Leah Gunning Francis
We live in society today where the media, social media and political pundits have a stocked and loaded set of knee-jerk reactions to any and all situations that occur. The predictability of the responses is sad and it indicts our society as one unable and unwilling to truly do the hard work necessary to actually make inroads towards justice and understanding. So when a black man gets killed by police, we can all know exactly how one side of the argument will interpret and respond, as well as the other side. When a white male rapes a woman, we know how one side will respond as well as the other. When a church gets burned to the ground or a mass murder takes place, we all look to see the name and affiliation of the church and the color, culture and religion of the victims of murder before we offer simple thoughts and prayers for this particular news cycle.
Because of this disappointing cycle of apathy and ignorance, the book “Ferguson and Faith” is a message all the more powerful in the world today. This book gave me a completely different look at the many layers of activity that happened on the ground during the fight for justice in Ferguson. It was even more powerful because it was not clipped and edited for short media clips or social media re-shares by people with a confirmation bias already established and looking for affirmation of their strongly held beliefs. The book gives a picture of pastoral leadership, the true work of the Holy Spirit in the world, and the problems we still face when we don’t look beyond talking points and bumper sticker ideologies in order to understand the realities on the ground for people living lives at-risk due to systematic oppression in this country and beyond.
"The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement." by William Barber III
Reading the frustrating stories and history of Rev. Barber’s work against the political machine in North Carolina is harrowing in many ways. But it was also painful to see how organized and efficient the powers that be are when they gain control and fight behind the scenes in so many ways to keep control. As I read the middle section of the book, I was left with the realization that over the past 8-10 years (and certainly much longer), the extremists trying to work the system to their favor, at the expense of others, have been the ones working behind scenes, being ignored while they gain power. They have built and continuously rebuild their grassroots system designed to oppress. Their causes are universal and outcomes connected, while others who would work for justice against those are more scattered, focused on their own individual causes and don’t have the organization, money, or ideological purity to fight against it in their smaller numbers.
What this book then gave me hope for was that there are pockets in society succeeding, however slowly, however difficult, against these forces. We can’t sit back idly when our communities are a breeding ground that supports a toxic way of life leading to continued war and oppression. Working towards a new nation requires individual victories on individual hearts and minds. But those victories don’t come the way we often think they do. Barber’s insights into better strategies for advocacy show that one of the ways to lose the battle is to fight the wrong one the wrong way. This is what makes the variety of voices less powerful than if we can find unity in our voices. There is a common ground and there are silent people in our community who would mobilize and organize if they felt they could trust the leadership they were working with.
"Reality, Grief and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks" by Walter Brueggemann
In “Reality, Grief and Hope”, Walter Brueggeman gives what I would call an ‘apologetic’ for why humanity should embrace the call of Christ in very real and just ways in the world. His prophetic statements against the virtues of exceptionalism are framed as a frightening message against the future of our society should we not become truly repentant in ways that change the entire direction of society going forward. I heard it once said that Israel was not just meant to be blessed by God, but Israel was meant to be a blessing to the world through God. Unfortunately, this truth of the larger scripture narrative gets lost on most, who want to bask in the blessings of culture without realizing the need to give back and care for the world at a greater measure than we demand for ourselves.
His approach in the book of comparing the words of the prophets to the realities of the present are eerily scary, but woefully necessary. I found myself wanting to shout out loud quote after quote from the book onto my Facebook page in light of the ridiculousness of the political environment more focused on issues of e-mails controversies and offensive twitter posts. Brueggeman takes the role of a modern prophet, once again “anticipating, rather than predicting” what the fallout from our systems will be. The reality is that most of society, even those still in the church and leading the church, have “completely eliminated God as a player” in the modern world as people simply use religion, ideology and propaganda to further gains for their sub group or culture.
In the US, the exceptionalism has become the idol worship of too many, who justify true evil for the sake of holding onto false realities. I see too often social media posts where people are calling for the heads of someone who’s burned an American flag in protest. What breaks my heart is how often I see those same posters burn the truer symbol of what the flag stands for when they cause harm through their words and violence in society. To me the greater sin is the hatred of a brother or sister and the hatred of the real stewardship we’re called to, rather than trying to cast judgment over a person without really looking at why they wail.
What will be the breaking point that leaves us looking backward in despair? The heroism of the US (that helped build its nature of exceptionalism) masked the reality of the “temple breaking” moment of European nationalism before World War II. What will our temple breaking moment be? I don’t think 9/11 was that moment. I fear it is still to come, and will be even more awful and more terrible than we can imagine. Still though, through it all Brueggeman tries to instill biblical hope.
It is my hope that you will pick up the mantle and begin to seek a greater understanding. Start book studies, conversations, and healthy yet hearty debates. Get involved, listen to the cries in your own and other communities. But most of all know that condemnation is not enough. We must take further steps, because the next news cycles is right around the corner, and it is when we lose our focus that the forces of evil accomplish their best work.
What other resources would you share that I need to read?