Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: antiracism

I Like Listening to James Cone

I just began reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone and I am instantly amazed by the comprehensive description of the pervasive and pernicious power of the lynching tree in American History. I love Cone’s lyricism, and his love for the blues as a means of painting that terrible picture — how did it feel to be Black in the Jim Crow South with the very real threat of torture and death swaying over your head at all times? How did it feel (does it feel elsewhere and now?) I also love Cone’s affinity for Richard Wright, the Harlem Renaissance author who I read and loved in college. The prose in Black Boy and Native Son is absolutely gorgeous. Wright’s description of becoming a writer and his attraction to the joy of well placed words has often inspired me as a writer. This is a total tangent but I must put this quote here:

“I would write:
“The soft melting hunk of butter trickled in gold down the stringy grooves of the split yam.”
Or:
“The child’s clumsy fingers fumbled in sleep, feeling vainly for the wish of its dream.”
“The old man huddled in the dark doorway, his bony face lit by the burning yellow in the windows of distant skycrapers.”
My purpose was to capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression, an accomplishment which seemed supremely worth struggling for. If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative.”

Quoting Richard Wright in Black Boy, James Cone draws out the power of the lynching tree on every Black person living under its influence “I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.” (Cone, 15)

In his first chapter, Cone quotes a whole bunch of spirituals and blues songs and artists. He really communicates his love for the medium. Cone wrote a whole other book about the blues, The Spirituals and the Blues, 1992, by the way. I can feel the investment in the brief summary found at the beginning of The Cross and the Lynching Tree. 

Cone writes:

The Blues expressed a feeling, an existential affirmation of joy in the midst of suffering,  especially the ever-present threat of death by lynching. B.B. King, who saw  a lynching as a child in Mississippi, gave a powerful interview on the meaning of the Blues:

“If you live under that system for so long, then it don’t bother you openly, but mentally, way back in your mind, it bugs you… Later on you sometimes will think about this and you wonder why, so that’s where your blues come in, you really bluesy then, y’see, because you hurt deep down, believe me, I lived through it, I know, I’m still trying to say what the Blues mean to me. So I sing about it.” (Cone, 17-18)

I cannot know how that feels not having experienced it myself which is why I am so grateful for Cone’s evocative, if difficult to read, description.  I’m sitting with it.

And this was not a long time ago (the Jim Crow South).

And this is not a long time ago (Washington DC, yesterday, January 6).

One of several nooses used by demonstrators at the “Save America” Rally in Washington DC that resulted in insurrectionists storming the Capitol building on January 6, 2020

I keep confessing how shocked I am by this sort of appallingly blatant hatred. This symbol of a lynching rope is impossible to separate from this legacy described so well by Cone. My surprise is surprising me. How often do I just look away? I can totally look away from this. I am a white man who can forget about this stuff. I don’t have the conditioning Wright describes– it doesn’t bug me way back in my mind all the time like B.B. King. I recognize that drastic difference and I mourn it. I and we need to keep turning toward it because this is not “back then” this is right now. The legacy would be real even if it weren’t erected on the national mall on Epiphany, January 6, 2021.

Another wonderful writer, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, led his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, to create The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. According to eji.org , “[It] is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” I’m convicted that I need to go to Montgomery to see it.

Cone goes on in the book to demonstrate that just as we are not separated from the lynching tree by time or location, the lynching tree is not separated from the cross. I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but I might write about it again when I’m done. I just had to put this appreciation out there now to whomever is reading this today, in the wake of what happened yesterday in Washington DC. This is what I am gleaning from Dr. Cone: the signs of the times and the signs of Cone’s writings are matching up. May we keep listening to him in his writing (may he rest in peace), and to those who take up his challenge to create a liberation theology that is “black and Christian — at the same time and in one voice” (Cone, xvii). When American Christians who are white look away from the cross and the lynching tree for too long, as I am confessing I could conceivably do, they lose their way and come up with terrible news for everyone instead of the Good News that Jesus offers us all.

How Will We Love Through the Election?

“Unreliable Allies”

Karl Barth, a German Theologian who helped organize the Confessing Church in opposition to the Nazi regime, once said that the church ought to be an “unreliable ally” to any and every political system. That is to say that our primary allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom will often come into tension with our subordinate allegiances to political parties, ideologies, movements and organizations. In Nazi Germany, non-cooperation with the political system seems a matter of course; are we in such a moment now? The comparisons are commonly made. Many smart people are legitimately concerned that this November’s presidential election is just like Germany in 1934. Interestingly, I have seen comparisons that liken both the “radical left” and the “far right” to the Nazis. That’s the moment we live in. What a mess! I’m not sure the consequences are as dire as the most alarmed alarmists fear, but Donald Trump is undeniably an unprecedented person in U.S. history. His presidency is drawing the worst out of the American people. We are in bad shape. What kind of ally  can the church be right now?

“Ally” is a term that has taken on new meaning in recent decades. I think it started with LGBTQ+ folks looking for solidarity, but historians reading this can correct me. Not too long ago the idea was born that straight folks could be an “ally” to gay folks who were having trouble finding a place in the world (and dying by suicide and hate crimes in droves for the lack of anywhere safe). This ally language was incredibly successful in changing public opinion. A Gallup Poll about support of same-sex marriage, for example, showed that support went from 27% in 1996 to 67% in 2020. I’m not sure that every one in that 67% would consider themselves an “ally”, but we can see the trend.

The term “ally” is also used to describe white people who want to dismantle white supremacy. They are allies to the people of color in their lives, co-laborers in a groundswell of social change that is sweeping the country (and receiving significant reaction), specifically in support of black lives. Michelle Ferrigno Warren of Christian Community Development Association (an organization with which Circle of Hope has long standing ties) recently described herself as a “long standing white ally” in a piece published at ccda.org this June, To My People, the White Ones” (a very succinct and difficult list of suggestions for white folks).

But I have had conversation with folks in Circle of Hope who do not want to accept this language. They are concerned that this is actually a Karl Barth moment when allying with “the Black Lives Matter movement” ought not to be a matter of course. They are suggesting that our church is too reliably allied with this political system, and  is losing the thread of our primary allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom. Some will quickly say, “That’s racism!” Others will quietly wonder if there isn’t some merit to some friendly critique. But friendly critique does not seem possible right now, especially coming from white men like me. I understand this.

Staying at the Table

Reading Michelle Ferrigno Warren’s post, I am convicted by her suggestions, as painful as they appear. My favorite suggestion is this one, “Sit in the back of the proverbial bus, on the floor – this is NOT your Rosa Parks moment.” She can turn a phrase, can’t she?  I’m trying to push through the discomfort of this myself. Kind of like I’m actually sitting on the floor with my legs in a pretzel and my feet are falling asleep, I feel how difficult this is, but I am calling us to persevere. Another thing Michelle Ferrigno Warren suggests is to stay at the table. “At the table you are going to hear new things that hurt your feelings, don’t leave. At the table you are going to have to work alongside people you might not agree with, don’t leave. At the table you are going to be asked to use your voice to help white people understand – do it. At the table you are going to be asked to give up your power by leveraging it, resolve to do that work no matter what it costs.”

I would add more reasons to stay at the table: this is your opportunity to love, to be a minister of reconciliation, to be of one mind and heart despite disagreement, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly. There is so much opportunity for growth in this moment. Being the church is not ignoring our differences, so everyone can feel safe;being the church is seeing our differences and loving each other long enough to make real peace so that everyone can actually BE safe. The difficulty of this task requires all of the gifts we were naturally given and all of the spiritual gifts  the Holy Spirit is supplying for right now. This is how Christ can be all and in all, because the project of being the church at any time, but especially when it is hard, will transform us in every way. We who are part of the church have decided to follow Jesus with our everything. That’s what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” Staying at the table requires us to love long and hard enough to be the new creation in Christ.  And Jesus will be with us, equipping us the whole time. “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philppians 1:6 CEB)

But what then do we do with the friendly critique? What to make of the sneaking suspicion that the church is too reliably allied with a political movement that is not entirely just and pure and good? Well, first I would remind that no political movement is entirely just or good or pure. Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” Second, I would gently wonder aloud if the discomfort with the black lives matter movement is not indeed connected to the discomfort of the demands the movement is making of white people. Third (and I have been doing a lot of this), I would listen. The current trajectory of social change is not unimpeachable. Of course there are problems. Of course our Kingdom of God project is bigger than Black Lives Matter, but I would argue that it is not oppositional as some of my conversation partners have. Staying at the table is in general an even more difficult task for Black people in our church.  Let us not forget that being at the table uncomfortably is not an option for a Black person in the United States like it is for most White people. White people can leave the table — that’s part of why this is so hard — white people have a very different experience than everyone else. And it is not just.

I’m wishing you joy

(Yes, that’s a Whitney Houston reference)

Lastly, I think the best thing we can collectively offer this moment is joy. Miroslav Volf said on the most recent episode of his podcast, For the Life of the World, “Modernity is perfectionism… and perfectionists have no joy.” Unfortunately or not, our difficulties are not unhinged from the country we live in or its rancorous dialogue. So right here, in the messy middle of a pivotal time in our country and subsequently in our church,  we CAN have joy. Because we are freed from the graceless demand of perfectionism, because our project is not solely the “progress” of modernity, we can “laugh though we have considered all the facts” as Wendell Berry says in a poem I love. We can wish joy in the face of despair. We can love one another well despite the assailing rancor, and pray for more grace that we think is possible — more grace than we can rightly bear.  Let us offer joy to the opportunity to have God again knit us together in love. Let us offer joy to the opportunity for justice to flow where it has never flown before. Let us offer joy to the difficulty of starting again when we fail because we are convinced than nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

Tear/Tear, Seem/Seam, Knew/New

On shrinking cloth

The heat of a warm water washing or heated tumble dry or, in the image of today’s poem, a flap out on the sunny line, the stretched out fibers of an unshrunken cloth relax. The individual patch of cloth becomes stronger. The individual fibers become relaxed in the heat. That sounds nice — constitutive, formational, good — but of course there is a cost to this new birth. Which one among you is not stitched to a cloth from which you are tearing away? I know I am not blessed with such a condition.  And I am learning to live with that reality and suffer through the seam ripper’s hook.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the racism to which I find myself stitched, but there are many thing from which we must be cut. The goodness of becoming new and shrunk and strong,  does not feel good. Jesus’ is saying something new to me today. Take it for yourself it seems to fit. The new thought is this: His little parables about wineskins and cloth are not cautionary tales. They go beyond categorization of different types of people, cloths and skins. the parables are descriptive and prophetic: You will tear. you will burst.

Seth Martin wrote a beautiful line in a beautiful song that we like to sing in Circle of Hope. (Rob , Jess and friends sang it a couple of weeks ago for #worshipwednesday). “We wear this seamless cloth of joy and loss/Severed roots and limbs/Time to start again/Start with I am Thine.” Yeah, that’s how it feels — sweet joy and bitter sorrow, becoming new and crying as we do. Even though we go where we are led hungrily.

A Poem for the Seamless Cloth of Joy and Loss

Mark 2:21

I’m feeling seamed edges pull,
Unshrunken, out to dry,
The warmth is pleasant with eyes closed —
Face up to the sky.

The tightness of a tear-wet cheek
Will also come to mind,
As heat from distant star allows
My quiet eyes to find

A new expression of the truth
I knew from deep inside,
That cannot help but stretch until
The very last is cried.

More composed myself, binded, bound
To windy dancing sheet,
Conviction tight and resolute,
But union incomplete.

I tear from that to which I’m stitched
Even as I come to life,
The only way to love me seems
To be a sharpened knife.

 

You can listen to me read it here.

 

Image and Poem by Ben White

Don’t Forget, Jesus is the Lord of History

Is the Church Just Following Culture?

Try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from the influences that have shaped us personally and the greater forces that have shaped our context. Our ongoing, and longstanding dialogue about antiracism in Circle of Hope has been dialed up in recent months in the wake of police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When we wrote a map that was decidedly antiracist some folks wondered if we weren’t just following the tide of the culture.  Is it just popular to be antiracist now and that is why we are doing this? Are we caving to philosophy that is not from Jesus?

No! We were here first. Circle of Hope has had antiracism written into our DNA since we began. How would we do our original goal to “bring hope to 20th century urban life” without addressing the evil powers of racism in the Philadelphia region? Our antiracist map does not make Circle of Hope cool, or ahead of our time. it doesn’t give us points for being into the right thing before everyone else was. No, this is not about our own righteousness, individually or communally. This is about chipping away for decades and often feeling like we are making no progress at all. But we refuse to give up, and I am grateful that the cultural tide is giving us a boost for once.  I do wish we had galvanized a mass movement without so many black people being killed. That’s for sure. Lord, have mercy.

Times Are Tough and So Is Time

But let’s face it, it’s hard to stay in touch with reality. It’s hard to keep our fingers and hearts together enough to catch the slippery sands of time. Western culture dishes up an individualism that might divorce you from any connection to anything, especially not those backward ancestors that didn’t know everything like we do. Dislocation, disorientation, disassociation, these are all the underside of our culture catered diet of self-awareness, self-definition, self-help.  We all woke up fully formed this morning with no dependence on anything or anyone. Only our choices today matter. It sounds terrible but you kinda want it, right?

It’s fun to see my kid learn to relate to time. By fun I mean it’s also terrible sometimes, but you have to laugh. Not too long ago he asked me how long he would have to wait for something. I said “Twenty minutes.” He responded, shrieking in horror, “Twenty minutes?! That’s like 100 hours!!!” No bud, in fact that is finally one thing I can say is undeniably false. He only recently stopped saying “A long time ago,” or “When I was a baby” as blanket descriptors of anything that happened in the past, including something that happened last week.

The Past is Not Just in the Past

Every honest adult, however, understands my six year old’s dilemma.  Time may not be  relative (except in some cosmic equation I don’t totally understand), but our experience of time is very relative. My favorite elucidator of this is the “return trip effect.” Scientists have studied the phenomenon of perceived duration of time when coming back on the same route from an unfamiliar destination. You know this, going there always feels like it takes longer than coming back. Yes, our experience of time is very relative, so much so that it might seem like time is subject to our perception only and thus eligible for exclusion in our analyses, but let us not pretend that our lives began only when we were born. The past is not in just in the past. The past is right here with us in the present.

But Jesus and His People Are the Past Too

Good or bad, the past makes us who we are in many ways. I want to highlight one good thing I see coming out of this that helps us when we’re wondering about the tide of culture and our push for antiracism in Circle of Hope. The culture might try to erase God from it’s narrative but the Western/European thoughtscape was and is highly influenced by Jesus. There is no escaping the moral influence of the Church on all of our thinking. But especially when it comes to racial justice. The Church planted the seeds of transformation that grew into a vine. It was Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the least of these that empowered so many to stand up and demand justice. The list is too long to even begin. Even if some of their activist descendents are not so interested in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. If only in the path they walk which is so clearly paved by the legacy of those faithful women and men who stood up for freedom in Jesus’ name. They might try to pretend that the project is distinct from Jesus, but they can’t escape the past. The tide of culture is not so distinct from Jesus because the Church has been shaping the Western project from its beginnings.

But It’s a Mess Back There… Sounds Familiar

One final note: a big reason an activist today might want to separate themselves from the Christian legacy of their ancestors, or the whole Jesus soaked Western project is that accepting the influence of the past is not just a hero story. With the past comes many legitimate reasons to be disgusted with Jesus followers and their thinking. It’s a big mess, but it’s part of our mess now. I’m not surprised by the mess. I don’t think we need a hero other than Jesus, but we have many to choose from if we are willing to accept their human frailty as another measure of their heroism. We will not, however, find a whole group of people who were unimpeachable, or completely above reproach, or even right, let alone righteous. We will find reasons to hope, practical examples of bravery and perseverance, and creative expressions of Jesus’ love in public, but we will also find  reasons for despair right next to them.

Pray with me?

Jesus, you will have to give us eyes to see. Thank you for the good of the past, help us to receive it and sort it. This is not an easy task. But you are with us in it.
You are the Lord of History. You are reliable. Your promises can be trusted. Bring history to its rightful ends.
Shape it now through your church and otherwise, help us to see you at work, even in unexpected places.
May your glory be made known through miracles large and small, and may your light be found where the darkness seems to make that impossible.
We pray for all those who are suffering. We know you are with them. Help us see how we can be with y’all. And help us to stay.