My second year in seminary a group of us took a trip called a “Sankofa Journey”. Wikipedia defines “sankofa”:
Sankofa can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and get it” (san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to look, to seek and take) or the Asante Adinkra symbols of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or of a stylised heart shape. It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
The purpose of such a journey is to look back so we can move forward. Most would find this idea preposterous…but in reality, we understand ourselves better when we first know where we have come from. I particularly like the definition “go back and get it”, the idea of going back and “getting” what our history as a country says about how we have been shaped into our various ethnicities, races, etc, so we can more accurately determine a better way forward. I am of the firm conviction that I need to know where I’ve been so I know where I’m going…I believe we all do…
Our journey was a tour of locations that were significant to the Civil Rights Movement. We began in Memphis, travelled to Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and ended in Atlanta. We were paired up with another person from a different ethnic background, and walked through the journey together, sharing our different reactions and feelings as we faced our collective history. It was a life-changing experience in many ways.
The most significant part of the journey for me was in Memphis, where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum was built as an extension of sorts to the Lorraine Hotel, the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. The exhibit took you from chattel slavery all the way to the day Dr. King was shot – the final stop being the room where he stayed the night before he died, and a window looking onto the balcony where he stood when the fatal shot was fired. At the time, we were not allowed to walk onto the balcony, but just being there, looking at that quiet balcony where a man was brutally gunned down was enough to jar the senses. At least for me.
After the museum tour, we walked across the street to the building where James Earl Ray fired the shot, looking out of the window where he rested his rifle and pulled the trigger, viewing the weapon used. It was an eerie feeling to be in that room.
I could write pages and pages about that journey and the myriad feelings I experienced through each step – from standing in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls died, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where marchers were greeted with riot police and Billy clubs as they sought to march to the state capitol to draw attention to voting rights.
There are those who would say all this happened ages ago and should be forgotten; but it was not so long ago that battles raged. Many who fought the battle still live among us and bear the scares in their souls and bodies. Race is still a dirty word that raises the volume of many discussions, sometimes rendering them useless in seeking solutions. We see it in our politics, our neighborhoods, our churches…if we believe we live in a post-racial, or even post-racist society, we are wrong. Our country’s identity was forged through the defining of people groups into those who would enjoy the benefits of democracy and those who would not. Race was paradigm through which these decisions were made. Race has shaped who we are as people, to the point that I would even argue we wouldn’t understand ourselves as Americans if we took it away. It is part of who we are, for good or for ill.
I am most concerned with how this has shaped the church in America, I have written and spoken before about my own struggles with race and identity, and how, even in the church I find no true remedy for those struggles. In Christ, my identity is assured; but as I walk through this life, it can be hard to reconcile the truth of my position in Christ with my lived reality. That is a post for another day; quite frankly, it exhausts me to think about it. But perhaps in the near future I will revisit it again…
I chose today to write about this because 45 years ago today, Dr. King stood on that balcony. Forty-five years ago today, the shot was fired that took his life. This man, who dreamt of a day when something as arbitrary as skin color would not determine the fate of his children, or any other child. What is interesting about Dr. King is that he believed in the founding documents of this nation; he loved the vision they cast. And he saw that our country was living far short of that vision. His passion was to see that vision come to pass, for us to live up to our stated purpose as a nation. I am a realist; I realize that we will never reach perfection; that does not mean, however, that we should not seek to do our part in moving us a little closer…
Yesterday was the start of Black History Month. The start of our celebration of this month began in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson designated the second week of February as “Negro History Week”. In 1976 it was extended to a month by the US government (see this article for a longer treatment of the history).
I can recall celebrations of Black History Month during my school days, and it was so interesting that this was the only month that Black history was even mentioned. I found that to be odd…and still do. When I landed on the campus of the University of Illinois in the Fall of 1990, I was absorbed into a world of immense Black pride and frustration. If the Black Panther party had still around, I would have joined. I learned so many things about my history as a Black person that I never heard as a child, and it made me angry. Why was this information withheld from me for so long? And why was “my” history not a part of US History in general? Why did I only hear about it one month out of the year, and why only a select few things related to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement? To say I was militant was an understatement…
I have since shed that militancy and anger, by the grace of God. But I have to be honest, the practice of a “Black History Month” still puzzles me. And ours is not the only month out there. We now have Asian American History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Greek-American Heritage Month, Irish-American Heritage Month, Asian Pacific…It is hard to keep track of them all (and if I missed one, my apologies).
Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that all these special months can have an unintended consequence of keeping us separate, not bringing us together. It would seem more productive to rethink how we write American history in general to include a richer, more accurate portrait of how America came to be America. This would require deep, painful soul searching on the part of all Americans – and I don’t think we are ready to go through that. Thus, a month to represent each ethnic group that makes up the fabric of American life.
Today I read two blog posts that really resonated with me. The first, by Trillia Newbill, is especially powerful to me. The question: How should Christians approach the celebration of Black History? Her argument is that is should be more than just a month, that moving beyond the designation of a month would provide opportunity to build greater understanding within the church. I would agree, and say that all ethnicities should be included in that argument.
Another was a bit more intriguing to me and leads me to my reasons for blogging today. This article landed in my tweet feed today, and I loved it. The author is explaining why he will no raise his children to be “color blind”. And I have to say I resonated deeply with what he was saying. This quote encapsulates his argument:
“I want my my daughter to see race, to understand race, and to value her own race and seek understanding in the racial experiences of others.”
There’s a lot to unpack there – and I would tweak my own expression of this thought – but I agree with his basic premise and desire. I’ll try not to go too long, but I will attempt to explain it and circle it back to how I feel we should think about “race” as Christians.
My first thought is that we need to understand that race is not a biological reality, but a social construct. Scripture makes clear that “from one man he [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 18:26 NIV 1984). Our common heritage is that we are all from Adam. That is the starting point. As Christians, we can take this a step further and say that we are all “in Christ” – our common heritage is our adoption into the family of God through Christ. Regardless of “racial” identity, we are one in Christ. That identity should inform all other identities we have.
But notice what I did not say – it informs but does not obliterate differences. The fact that race is merely a social construct does not make it any less real in our lived experiences as Americans. To admit that and acknowledge it, even in our churches, does not have to divide us. To ignore it can.
This is what I mean – I have been told by many that “when I see you I don’t see race. I just see you.” I know what they are saying, and I know that it is good. But in reality, you cannot really “see” me unless you see my race. Part of the reality of who I am is my race. It is not something we should shrink back from or ignore; it is part of what makes me a unique individual within the body of Christ. That uniqueness – that diversity – can be celebrated without being cause for division. When that happens, true unity can happen.
The problem is this: In America, race has a sordid painful history. Race was used to separate people and determine who could enjoy all the riches of our democratic society and who would be excluded. There is pain and ugliness involved in discussing race, and we don’t like facing that. But facing it can actually heal us and remove the barriers that exist among us. When we take on the realities of our brothers and sisters and make them our own by virtue of our unity in Christ, we can then work to change that reality within our communities. The pain and injustices of one brother or sister become our own, and we can unite to make a real difference in the lives of all believers. This is true reconciliation.
I have so much more to say, but this post is getting too long. More to come…
I promise you this is not happening because I am being lazy, but because these words fit what I’m trying to say. They did, after all, come from my own mind. This just demonstrates that I am consistent – at least about this topic.
As I’ve thought about this topic afresh lately, I can’t say that I’ve moved from the basic position represented in these posts. I also can’t say I have made as much headway in moving past some of the things that cause the deep “soul ache” I will allude to below. It’s still there…
That said, here is my final (at least for now) post on this topic. I can only talk about this is small bits at a time. I may revisit it again at some point. This was originally posted on my old blog in August of 2008:
I have talked about this many times before, and most of the time I would rather not. But it is a point of contention in my heart – it is a deep soul ache that I cannot seem to soothe away easily. And so, I must engage this topic yet again. Pray for me.
I recently listened to a message that was first introduced to me about a year ago. It is a message that Thabiti Anyabwile gave at a T4G conference. I won’t go into the reasons I searched out this message again; but I will walk through some of my thoughts, some of the things that this new hearing of the message has caused me to ponder.
Anyabwile’s primary thesis is this: the foundation of our worldview in terms of how we see ourselves and other people is deeply flawed and inadequate. Specifically speaking, the idea of race as biological difference does not in reality exist. Please hear clearly what he is not saying: he is not saying that the differences do not exist, but that our explanation of those differences doesn’t exist. And, most importantly for Christians, this foundation is built on an unbiblical set of assumptions that undermine the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, and could very well undermine the Gospel itself. For these reasons, we need to completely remove this rubric of race from our thinking and replace it with a more biblical set of assumptions about identity. The rubric he embraces is ethnicity, which includes such things as “language, nationality, citizenship, culture and perhaps religion”. As I said the first time I talked about this message, I highly commend it to you – there is so much to this message I would be hard pressed to do it justice in this entry.
In his message, he expounds on the truth that our biological identity is rooted in Adam – we all share biological solidarity with Adam and Eve, our first parents. This reality is not rooted in the Fall, but in the creation of man, male and female, in the image of God. This is the foundation upon which our identity must be grounded. Because, although there are indeed difference across ethnicities, our shared identity as human beings made in the image of God is our unifying truth. For the Christian, this is more deeply expressed in our union in Christ, where God has created a new man, breaking down the wall between Jew and Gentile (of which all non-Jewish ethnicities belong by the way) and becoming our peace. The cultural identity of this new man is one of holiness and righteousness in Christ, as God works to conform us to the image of His Son. This is the basis of our unity, and our identity, and should determine and inform how we view our earthly identities of ethnicity/race.
I explain this at length because this message has had a profound effect on the way I think about race – and how much I desire to remove this distinction from my vocabulary and the way I see myself and others. As Anyabwile puts it, the “trajectory of race” does not lead to unity, because it exalts our differences instead of focusing on our common humanity. Race as biology is deeply personal, and any discussion or racial distinctions can be heard as an ad hominem attack on the person, leading to division.
I would have to say that I am a living example about how physical difference cannot be used to determine racial identity. Those who know me know that I am very fair-skinned. It’s not always evident what “race” I belong to just by looking at me. My biological makeup would include a host of difference “races”, although I am forced to identify with only one. What determines which is dominant? Cultural forces demand that I identify myself as Black, and I would never back away from that identity (and not for biological reasons, but cultural ones; I will discuss that in a later post). But is it a “racial” distinction? Is marking my identity in this very narrow view of race really helpful?
The bottom line? This idea of race as we understand it is distinctly American. It is completely foreign to biblical thought, and woefully inadequate in engaging all the different cultures and ethnicities that are represented in America today. Historically, race has been about Black and White – but more and more the ethnic makeup of America makes these categories way too constricting. Not to mention they leave no room to engage people of Native American, Hispanic or Asian descent, except to assign them their own “color” – Brown, Red, or Yellow and so forth. Trying to fit people in neat categories of racial distinction denies the richness of ethnic identity. I need to be clear here that I am not an advocate of “multiculturalism” as it is so popularly espoused on many liberal university campuses today. What I am trying to demonstrate is that this rubric of race is woefully inadequate in explaining the differences that are real across, and even within, ”races” as we commonly understand them – and it serves more as dividing lines than a point of unity.
Bringing this into the context of the body of Christ, what shall be our governing principle in defining who we are? I argue that our identity in Christ should trump our ethnic identity. Notice I did not say it should remove it – but it should govern how we view it. The way that race is defined creates a barrier for that. Because race is so rooted in personhood, the idea of asking a person to subordinate their racial identity to their identity in Christ can sound or feel like an attack on the individual, a swallowing or taking away of personhood instead of a liberating invitation into the new reality of who we are in Christ. How do we move past that?
I will not pretend to hold the keys to this aspect of the kingdom if you will, but I constantly wrestle with these thoughts, and they needed an outlet…so, here we go again…
More to come…maybe on this topic, maybe something else. Who knows but the Lord…(sly grin)…
Grace and peace…
A few years back, I read a very interesting article about the reality of segregation in American churches today. This sparked much thought in me, and I wrote a few blog entries about it. After reading that article, I revisited a sermon I listened to from Thabiti Anyabwile about this very topic. As I listened to it again, I began to hear his message afresh, and realized just how revolutionary it is. Dude is a revolutionary! No joke!
I want to start here in my discussion of race and identity, because, quite frankly, Pastor T says much of what is my heartbeat as it relates to this subject. Below is an excerpt from that blog post, back in August of 2008:
I will not outline his entire sermon on this blog. I really encourage you to listen for yourself – and listen more than once. It is linked in yesterday’s entry. Give yourself time between each hearing to absorb and process…it’s that deep! I will just touch on a few key points that are framing how I view this CNN article.
He starts by saying something quite provocative – the concept of “race” as we understand it does not in reality exist. It is not a biological or theological fact. Because of that, we have built our lives and identities on an unbiblical set of assumptions. Now, it is important to note that he is not saying that differences do not exist, or that they do not matter even. But they do not matter in the way that we have come to understand and order our lives. The better term to explain our differences would be ethnicity, which is a more fluid concept, and includes things like language, nationality, citizenship, etc. It is not rooted in biology – it is rooted more in cultural constructions and understanding.
Now, after he explains this, he goes on to drop the big bomb, the atom bomb of the entire message: Since race in truth does not exist, we must abandon our use of race as a foundational aspect of our identity. Broadly speaking all people are united by our common ancestry – we are all descendents of Adam. Adam and Eve are our parents, regardless of people group. Speaking more directly to believers, we are all united in Christ – our ultimate identity lies in our union in Christ as His body. God’s people come from every tribe, tongue and nation (notice that race is not a category that is used), and our common bond is faith in Christ. We are one body in Christ.
So, how does this relate to the article in CNN? The article highlights an important, and I feel deadly flaw in our understanding of how to “integrate” churches. We begin with the premise of race, and the assumption of beginning there is that race is a reality. By doing this, we focus on how we accommodate for all of our differences instead of focusing on those things that unite us as one people in Christ. If what Thabiti is proposing is indeed true, then we are doomed from the start if this is our beginning point. For the record, I happen to agree with him, although the implications of that agreement scare the daylights out of me.
This is truly a revolutionary idea. How else do I identify myself if I don’t have race as a category? The idea of racial identity not being a category leaves me feeling quite disoriented as I seek to explain myself to myself and others. And it leaves me with one foundation upon which to stake my identity – that of my union with Christ. Which is where the starting point should be in the first place. Racial identity will never unite us…the “trajectory of race”, to use his term, leads us to racism, not racial unity. So, when I read something like the CNN article, I should not be surprised by it.
How do I put all this together in my head? That is the question. Quite frankly, I’m not even close to forming those thoughts, so that will be another entry for another day. A swarm of questions flurry about – race may not be a biological reality, but it is indeed a social one. How do we navigate that? How do we deal with injustices that have been perpetuated against particular people groups on the basis of “race”? How does this change how we view “racial reconciliation” in the church?
All I can say is the Lord is shaking me up on two identities that are foundational to my self-understanding, my race and my gender. And even as I write that, I realize that I must abandon the use of the term “race” in that understanding, which is so very difficult for me. Lord help me as I walk this terrain.
Grace and peace…