Monthly Archives: June 2015

“Your Faith Has Made You Well”: #BreeNewsome and Bleeding Out

breenewsome-reuters

Some weeks the sermon thesis and text come fairly easily and early in the week. Sometimes they take a bit longer. Sometimes you think you’ll preach on one thing, then something happens (like the massacre of 9 people in a church) that makes you crumple up what you had and start anew. Then there are some sermons that literally do not come until Saturday, mere hours before you have to preach it. Yesterday’s was such a sermon.

My soul was waiting for Bree Newsome, though I didn’t know it.

If you didn’t catch wind of the news, Bree is now famous for using a harness to scale the 30-foot pole from which a confederate flag flies over the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. As she scaled the pole, touched the flag’s hem, and snatched it from its connectors, she could be heard echoing David’s words to Goliath, saying to those below waiting to apprehend her, “You come against me with hatred, oppression and violence, but I come against you in the name of the Lord!”

Like many preachers, I use a lectionary — the Revised Common Lectionary, to be exact. I once balked at the idea of being beholden to a set of readings every week, but I later found using a lectionary to be a powerful discipline. Also, I’ve seen week in and week out God’s providence in that the scheduled readings always seem to have some temporal truth to speak to power. The thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B was no exception, and darned if the unnamed woman with a hemorrhage didn’t give us what we needed to unpack Sister Newsome’s prophetic protest.

Her reaching for that piece of cloth, for me, invoked the image of not just the physical gesture of the woman in this week’s pericope, but her longing as well. Like that woman, black folks are bleeding out. Our blood is being spilled in churches and on the streets by police bullets. Our communities are hemorrhaging as men, women, and youths are funneled into prisons that make money off of them. We feel that bleeding. Bree felt that bleeding and thought if she just reached out with a small gesture, God would meet her and her community at its place of need. And I imagine that she, like the woman with the hemorrhage, was surprised by the power drawn out by such a seemingly small gesture.

In Mark 5:34, Jesus reassured this woman, who was now panicking because did something she socially had no business doing — she was “out of order” — that her “faith” made her well. The Greek word for “faith” in this text is πίστις (pistis), which can also be translated as “faithfulness.” We’re not just talking about a passive belief that one privately holds unbeknownst to anyone else, but an active movement toward what one believes to be so. “Pistis” in the sense of “faithfulness” means that your money is where your mouth is. It means you’ll do something, you’ll work for something you believe in, and you’ll do it consistently, tirelessly — faithfully. What we saw in the civil rights movement of the middle of last century was pistis. What we saw in Bree’s tiring climb up that pole is pistis. It’s belief alongside action and dogged determination. May we all embody that same relentless pistis in the work that is still before us.

Black churches are being burned left and right after the massacre in Charleston. Shamefully wide disparities in wealth between Blacks and White persist. Black women are three times more likely and Black men are six times more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts. We will undoubtedly hear of yet another unarmed Black body perishing with impunity for her or his killer too soon from now. But somehow in Bree’s reaching, in her pistis, we felt in our body that we were healed — if only for a moment.

The Subversion of Forgiveness

Holding Hands
Holding Hands

“You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

That’s what Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said to her mother’s killer at his bond hearing. One-by-one, family members of the people Dylann Roof ruthlessly killed during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church addressed him. And one-by-one, they expressed forgiveness.

The radical forgiveness modeled by these bereaved souls has had a number of people singing their praises. They’ve been admired for their Christ-likeness. Many have found their posture aspirational .

“I don’t think I could have done that.”

“They’re better Christians than I am.”

“That’s that ‘next level’ Christianity!”

They’ve been held up as shining examples of what it means to forgive as Christ commanded.

Then there’s the unintentional consequence of such radical forgiveness: guilt. The guilt of a rape victim who, even years later, still can’t bring herself to forgive her attacker. The guilt of a grown man who can’t seem to forgive his abusive mother. The guilt of being unable to shake off those feelings of anguish, anger and resentment toward people who hurt you — even if they’ve apologized for it.

Let me provide whatever pastoral care I can to those who are struggling with that guilt right now: it’s alright. You’re alright. Really, you are. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Forgiveness is a process, and not a linear process at that. Some crappy days will often follow some good ones. One day you’ll feel incredibly light and unaffected, and the next day you’ll wrestle with your own rage and have to talk yourself out of strangling someone (hopefully you’ll be successful in that). Such is the case for all us, even those of us who read our Bibles every day, pray constantly, and never once miss a Sunday at church. Your capacity to forgive is not related to your godliness. Even those of us who understand the importance of forgiveness will be challenged by its arduous process, including the friends and family members of Roof’s victims.

They have courageously committed themselves to forgiving Roof. But they, too, will have rough days ahead. They are not exempt from the process or its emotional roller coaster. Praying and having their community around them will definitely shore them up in these coming days, but it won’t lift the process off their shoulders. The process of forgiveness is God-created, and we’re no more rooted in our faith by skipping it. So I hesitate to look at these loving individuals as exceptions to the rule or excused from the effects of trauma. There seems to be something else going on here.

This, to me, does not look like a failure on their part to honor the necessary process of forgiveness. This does not appear to be a compulsion to embody a religious doctrine. This is likely an act of subversion toward the person who killed their loved ones and, ostensibly, the system that created him. Their actions are in the same spirit that has for centuries emboldened Black folks to find morsels of joy and magnify them in the faces of their oppressors.  This is not just an act of radical forgiveness, but of radical resistance. This is them heaping their hot coals — a holy practice akin to flipping the bird to the system.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think these folks care anything about being our examples. I think they care more that they’re not like Roof. They know that they will be forever changed, but they refuse to be changed into him. If that’s the case, then I understand and honor that. But what I don’t want is for anyone else to feel compelled to take that on for themselves, especially if they aren’t ready.

Black folks have had to assume this very posture for generations. It is quite understandable if you’re tired of it. I’m tired of it. I want to exist in a world where pastors preach process from the pulpit. I want to hear that God calls us to forgiveness, but that it’s also okay if it’s taking us a while to get there. We can arrive at forgiveness rather quickly, but we shouldn’t be expected to — especially not at times like these when existing wounds are opened anew.

For a good perspective on the process of forgiveness and how to faithfully model it, I commend to your reading How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, by Dr. Janis A. Spring. Free yourselves, family; we and ours have experienced enough bondage already. Shalom.

“Allies,” the Time For Your Silence Has Expired

A vintage photo of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, from their website.
A vintage photo of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, from their website.

As we reel from the horrific news out of Charleston, SC, in which nine people were killed and others wounded after a gunman opened fire during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church, the details we’re gathering in the aftermath all suggest that this was a hate crime. According to eye-witnesses, the shooter was lobbing accusations and generalizations about Black people and declared that what he was about to do (i.e. kill innocent worshipers) was necessary.

And Black people remain numb.

I wish I could help non-Black folks understand what it’s like to be inundated with stories and experiences like this. It scars the psyche. You go from anger and indignation to depression and dejection and back and forth and back again until you’re inevitably numb. When news of Kalief Browder’s suicide broke, many of my White friends expressed their anger about it and the system that facilitated it. I told them they could be angry all they wanted. As for me, I’m exhausted.

I remember when the news out of Ferguson, MO first came to us. I heard White friends and colleagues encourage each other to sit in a posture of listening. I honor that listening. I honor the desire to be in solidarity through understanding. I honor that they wanted to avoid any semblance of saviorism.

White allies, I thank you for your thoughtfulness in this regard. Now allow me to be your stopwatch; Time’s up.

A colleague of mine summed it up perfectly on Facebook today:

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At this point, I’m not interested in your listening. I think the danger in this listening posture is, while it seems like the mindful and conscientious thing to do, it can also be far too convenient. It’s a great way of doing nothing. For the sake of finding the right action, you take no action instead. We have had the benefit of years — centuries, literally — of thought, narrative, scholarship, literature, film, fiction, non-fiction, and discussion to help us all understand these issues. We’re the most connected and information-overloaded that human beings have ever been. We can transmit entire books to our hand-held devices. Class has been in session. The school bell as now rung.

Many of you have been on it for some time now, working in solidarity with people of color. You have been in the trenches from the beginning (or your beginning). I don’t discount you, but I also caution you to not be self-congratulatory. You’ve left some folks behind, folks who call themselves “allies.”

I have a love-hate relationship with that word, ally. I find too often it’s a self-appellation, and one that is often unearned. We should apply the same rule to it as we do to nicknames. You can’t give yourself a nickname; other people give it to you. To give it to yourself comes off as pretentious. It’s the same with self-proclaimed “allies.” I know you mean well, but what about your life demonstrates that you walk in solidarity with others who experience life differently from you because of their skin color, legal status, or sexual orientation? Please don’t call yourself my ally if your uncle’s racist jokes go unchecked in your presence. Please don’t call yourself my ally if you say something insensitive, I call you on it, and all you can do is brush it off and say, “Girl, but you know I love my Black people!” Don’t do it.

I love my colleague Laura Cheifetz’ vineyard laborer analogy on Ecclesio today. Whether you got in the game early or late, it’s important to simply get in the game at all. But, if I may use an idiom that we often say in reference to the product of the vine, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Some of us are long overdue for our break, while others have yet to clock in.

Your shift is upon you. Kindly report to work.