Theology

How to Tell If It's Time to Drag An Insanely Heavy Boulder Around Los Angeles (Or Whatever City You're Living In)

Before that morning, I’d never seen a real person bleed to death.

But on July 6, 2016, America watched Philando Castile breathe his last in front of his 4-year-old daughter and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds.

My turn to see it had come. I knew it.

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Castile’s death on Facebook live followed a viral video of the police-involved death of Alton Sterling just one day before. So when I heard about another video of another tragic death circulating the internet, I refused to Google it.

“I’ve seen too much death this year,” I told myself. “It’s not healthy for people to see so much death.” But it began to feel irresponsible to continue to look away, fooling myself to think that avoiding the gruesome image was even possible. It wasn’t. Whenever I engaged the world again in any form, online, with my neighbor, in the news—he would surely be there. Moaning. His white shirt sopping wet with blood.

The cop that pulled Castile over said the young man fit the description of a robbery suspect. Castile had a “wide-set nose,” said the officer, a description as broad as the African diaspora. We all know that lots of black men have wide noses.

This was not about specific descriptions, obviously. Castile fit the general description of ‘criminal’: black, male, dreadlocks. Perhaps that is partly why I took his death so personally.

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Learning Greek Does Not Make One Bulletproof.

I was in the final course of my seminary career when Castile’s death went viral: Beginning Greek. In the weeks that followed his murder, I remember sitting in that class thinking “Who the hell cares how to conjugate (or “decline” in academic jargon) a Greek verb?” Will the ability to translate a passage of Matthew from its original language to English protect me when my dreadlocks, or my wide-set nose, gets me into trouble? Not likely.

There were more salient subjects to study, like the prison industrial complex, of which police brutality is a symptom. I started a reading group on racial justice and social change via Facebook. We started with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. As we read, I learned in detail that the problem of racism was much more than simple, personal bias.

Reading didn’t convince me that racism was real. I already knew that. I grew up in a small town in Georgia, next door to a member of the Ku Klux Klan and pastored the church at the top of the road. That man held my brother at gunpoint one day for walking our dog through the neighborhood. So I’ve never had any illusions that racism was extinct. But studying helped me put my more subtle experiences of the world in context.

For instance, I was once looking for an apartment in Harlem, New York in 2008. My potential landlord was enthusiastic to hear a well-spoken, gainfully employed, gentleman (me) on the phone inquiring about his studio for rent. He broke a social taboo telling me that he doesn’t meet “decent people” like me very often. He even offered to be my friend. I also remember seeing his face sink in disappointment when he finally saw me. Even though I was clean cut at the time, in a button down and cardigan sweater, I was still black. He refused to rent the apartment to me.

In 2008, I just thought “How crazy is that!?” I knew, in an intuitive way, that I had experienced racism that day from that landlord. But in 2016, I learned that it wasn’t just a random, rare occurrence. I was learning things like, when non-white people are looking for housing, they are shown fewer housing options than white people. Studying helped me understand that racism doesn’t always glare down the barrel of a gun at you. That’s what allows it to be so resilient and pervasive.

Before then, I knew that black people were treated differently by police, via anecdote. But now I knew by research that black men were 5 times more likely to be brutalized than white men. I knew that black men were 7 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated on any given day. And I had a deep, growing sense that no matter how much Greek I knew, I could become a statistic or a hashtag for nothing more than my broad nose. And for the first time in my life, I felt existentially unsafe.

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But I’m a Sane, Intelligent Person.

I had pretty much lost my appetite in the weeks that followed Castile’s death. But on July 25, I sat down and forced myself to eat. Just as I began to lift fork to mouth, I had a…daydream?

In the dream, I was walking next to a park in downtown Pasadena. From inside the park, I heard a street preacher. And though I’m not fond of street preachers, I was curious. So I went into the park to check it out.

I looked to where the voice was coming from and was surprised. The street preacher was me. I was standing next to a large boulder that had been painted white. Words like “mass incarceration,” and “police brutality,” were written on it. It was sitting on top of a kind of wagon.

Then I came back to myself, sitting over my plate of leftovers, and began to weep. I cried because I felt like the vision was an instruction and I did not want to do this thing.

“I’m a sane, intelligent person!” I thought to myself, “I am not dragging a stone around Los Angeles!”

But the next day, I was causing a commotion at the door of my Beginning Greek class as I tried to roll a wheeled platform across the threshhold with the largest boulder I could manage in tow.

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"You Need to Check Yourself!”

For months, that rock went everywhere I did: work, dinners, job interviews, class, church, you name it. I walked around with that stone, singing as I went. I would fire up Facebook live as often as I had thoughts to share, which was almost daily.

I thought that people would be convinced when I told them my personal experiences of racism and shared my knowledge of the larger social context into which my stories fit. I was naiive and wrong.

“You should check yourself!” one person randomly wrote to me. It was the beginning of an avalanche of pushback, from old colleagues, friends, even extended family. But my biggest opposition would come from—to my surprise—pastors.

I was told that I was a troublemaker, a heretic, a race baiter, a radical, a liberal, hateful—that I’d “forsaken the second commandment to love thy neighbor,” that God did not care about racism, that the gospel does not include racial justice, that Christians shouldn’t be concerned with “political issues,” that racism was not actually a problem, and that God doesn’t save people from their earthly troubles.

One of the most often repeated objections was “What you’re doing is not helping!”

They were especially wrong about that last comment.

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Bearing Witness to Justice

It’s true that I ticked a lot of people off by what I did and said, and the stone was just the beginning.

There isn’t room here to tell you about the days that followed, where I dressed for a funeral everyday to mourn the victims of state violence, with their names written on my suit. There isn’t room here to tell you about how my friends and I spent a year at the doors of the Pasadena Police Station in prayer to protest the police-involved death of one of my neighbors. Another time.

But I can confidently say that I know that some people’s minds have been changed because I said yes to an unusual idea—an idea that I hesitantly say may have come from God. I know this because I have received messages and comments online to that affect. I’ve had people come up to me after speaking at some art show or performance or after a presentation in their classroom. I’ve preached and seen people walk down to the altar to repent of their complicity in our country’s systemic racial oppression. I’m as confounded as I am honored to have been witness to these things, and to have participated in them.

I still have that stone. It’s sitting in the backseat of my car with a new wagon in front of it. It’s still cumbersome: compromising my gas mileage and limiting my ability to participate in a carpool—still an appropriate, symbolic inconvenience to me. I don’t drag it out of the car every single day anymore, but I am ready to whenever the occasion may arise.

How do I know when it’s time? When the unaffected are comfortable while the affected grieve. When people settle into their post-racial illusions because they haven’t seen “Unarmed Black Man Dies In Police Custody” lately. When people forget that I can’t actually leave my burden in the car, it is time to remind them that racism hasn’t gone anywhere and I can feel it almost everywhere.

I’ve seen a glimpse of what can happen when we refuse to let the news cycle tell us when to care—what happens when we say “I must involve my actual body in the fight against oppression” I’ve seen what happens when someone gets the desire to bear witness to justice. And I am never going back to my life as it was before.

Exodus (pt. 3): Terrified Terrorists

Need to Catch Up? Read Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

“[The king of Egypt] said to his people, ‘The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land’”(Exodus 1:9–10).
 White nationalists surround a Charlottesville church near University of Virginia

White nationalists surround a Charlottesville church near University of Virginia

In the late summer of 2017, hundreds of tiki torch-wielding white nationalists marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia to resist the removal of a Confederate monument. In direct imitation of the famous Civil Rights era Siege of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, these men surrounded a Charlottesville church forcing those gathered there to fear for their safety and escape through the rear entrance. “Jews will not replace us!” they chanted, along with other rallying cries.

It was a scene pulled directly from a long tradition of American racial intimidation. It was also a violent show of fear: an irrational anxiety about white dispossession and white genocide.

There seems to be a pervasive idea that non-white people are interested in a race war. Where this idea came from? I’m not sure. (I never heard anything about it at any of the Universal Negro Council meetings we hold in Aspen every month.*) But it isn’t just the Jared Taylors and Matthew Heimbachs that believe such a war is coming.

I was once accused of trying to start a race war (or at least wanting to) by a southern Assemblies of God pastor, for saying that people riot when they feel like their laments are being ignored. Another former colleague wrote to me on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was pushing for the U.S. government to pass legislation that would forcibly seize land from white citizens and give it to black people (I’ve still yet to see a bill, draft of a bill, or law to that affect).

What reason do these white people have to think that black people have some hidden desire to massacre them after literal centuries of not doing so? The same reason the Egyptians in this story had cause to fear the Hebrews with no history of conflict: None.

The fear that some group of “others” — be they the “savages”, Jews, “blacks”, “the gays”, the whatevers — are a threat to “us” is powerful. That fear can galvanize a people to do evil things en masse, or at least to accept the destruction of their neighbors as necessary. That type of fear wins elections. That is the fear the king of Egypt accessed to win the people’s loyalty and leveraged against the children of the ghetto: the fear of being dispossessed by "the other."

"You are in danger," the king said to the people, essentially "but I can save you." There was no problem in this story before the king framed Hebrew presence in Egypt as a threat. But that is pattern behavior for the powerful and corrupt: create a crisis, then swoop in and play the hero.

We've seen this scenario in our own lifetime. The research shows that white anxiety about being dispossessed motivated much of white America to give Donald Trump the presidency. And he's been singing Pharaoh's song: that our country is threatened by "bad hombres" and "animals" from "shithole countries," and "I'm the only one who can fix our problems." Oppression is the logical end of such terrifying language.

*to my knowledge, there is no monthly Universal Negro Council in Aspen. That was a joke.


Further Exploring:

  1. On Why White People Voted for Donald Trump: Trump Voters Feared Losing Status (NY Times)
  2. On the fear of White Dispossession: Dinner with a White Nationalist
  3. On the fear of White Genocide: Tim Wise Debates with Matthew Heimbach and Jared Taylor

CLICK HERE FOR THE NEXT ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES

Exodus (pt. 1): Introducing the God of the Ghetto

Note: A version of this 16-part series first appeared on Medium in 2017. I'm returning to this series in honor of Juneteenth and releasing three previously unreleased released entries, culminating on Independence Day 2018.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

 Photographer Devin Allen’s photo from the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore on April 25, 2015

Photographer Devin Allen’s photo from the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore on April 25, 2015

For the past few years, white Christians — many of them evangelical pastors — have been trying to explain to me that Jesus does not care about me.

Actually, it isn’t personal. It isn’t just me that Jesus doesn’t care about, these Christians say, it’s all black people.

You might be tempted to think I’ve spent the past year cold calling the Richard Spencers and David Dukes of the evangelical world. That must be why these white pastors were saying something so clearly insensitive (to put it sensitively). But these were well-meaning, good natured, Jesus-loving ministers that have “plenty of black friends” and can’t recall ever doing, saying, or thinking anything overtly racist.

They were just concerned that I was taking the following idea a little too far: Jesus saves.

I thought that idea also applied to being saved from threats like police brutality, mass incarceration, and other forms of social pain that disproportionately affect black people.

I was right about the Jesus saves part, say my white evangelical brothers and sisters, but not about the immediate threats to my body and human rights part. According to them, Jesus is more concerned about saving my soul for eternal happiness with God in heaven. So I’d better not get my hopes up about God intervening in the event that I’m in any type of corporeal danger.

I’ll never forget: a pastor in Minnesota wrote to me on Facebook saying that the gospel (good news) is that one day we will be with Jesus forever, not that Jesus will end all forms of social suffering. Another explained to me that salvation must be about saving the soul for an afterlife of heavenly bliss with God forever, not saving the weak from being dominated by the powerful. And another, the most infuriating of all, being on a video call with a colleague from Bible college, now a pastor in small-town Florida, who told me that “Racism is not a priority to God.” 

But if any of that is true--if God is indifferent to the pain that black people go through--then how can we say that God loves black people?

 

Bad Good News

I’ve tried to explain to these good people that such a gospel is pretty bad “good news”, because that means that God’s only solution for pain, suffering, and injustice is dying and going to heaven. Death is not good news. In fact, death is the very thing that the earliest Jesus-followers thought to have been vanquished when their Rabbi was nailed to a cross.

The fact that so many pastors subscribe to a Christianity that divides the body from the soul, making them compete for God’s attention is a problem. It desensitizes people to the constant cracking bones and bleeding bodies of the vulnerable that fill our Facebook feeds: their bodies didn’t matter to begin with, and now God has their souls.

The gospel of death is also a problem. It excuses us from being — like God — zealous patrons and guardians of life. In a faith that undervalues the body, regards the world as doomed, and looks forward to death, how can any lives truly matter?

 

The God of the Ghetto

The story of the Exodus subverts the gospel of death. It shows us a picture of the God of the ghetto, who cares about the bodies of those who live in the margins of Egyptian society— is livid that the bodies of Hebrew babies are being thrown into the Nile, that elderly Hebrew bodies are forced to work as slaves for Pharaoh.

The God we see in the Exodus story defines salvation as moving bodies from one geographic place to another, and in doing so also moves them from one social status to another. In this story, God saves Hebrew bodies from the brickyards of Egypt, from the violently oppressive politics of Pharaoh, and from the physical injustice of slavery.

I’m concerned that these pastors, and others like them, have not met the God of the ghetto that appears in the Exodus story; and because they have failed to see God’s commitment to the ghetto, their imaginations have been truncated.

I’m concerned that these ministers have not taken this story seriously enough. I fear they have not fully appreciated the vast implications of a God that takes on the ancient institution of slavery.

“God had to free them so that Jesus could be born in Bethlehem,” one pastor explained to me. That is a typical conclusion of those committed to the gospel of death.

The gospel of death needs for the consequence of the Exodus — that is, free Hebrew bodies on the other side of the Red Sea — to be nothing more than a byproduct of some “larger plan.” They can’t imagine that God may have freed the Hebrews because God hears the cries of the children of the ghetto — and responds. That God loves them. That God sees their suffering. That God is willing to wage war on their behalf for their freedom. But that is exactly what this story is trying to tell us.

It may have been a part of some larger plan, but God could have chosen any children: so, why choose the children in Egypt’s Hebrew ghetto? Because God always chooses the last, the least, and the lowly (1 Corinthians 1:26–27).

If what I’m saying is a bit unclear right now, don’t worry. I will explain to you what I mean by saying there was a ghetto in the Egypt of the Exodus story. I will explain to you how the Hebrews that eventually became Israelites were first ghetto children.

God’s love for the ghetto does not necessarily preclude divine love to the suburbs or even the palace, but what you need to know first is that the Exodus tells us — because otherwise, many of us wouldn’t believe it — that Jesus loves His ghetto children, all the ghetto children of the world. Red or yellow, black or white, they’re all precious in His sight. Yes. Jesus loves the ghetto children of the world.

The story of the Exodus is the story of how God broke the children of Israel out of the ghetto and adopted them.

I intend to introduce this God to those who are willing, by walking through the Exodus story. Come with me.

Exodus (pt.2): The N*gger Prince of Egypt.

(Warning: I use the N-word in this article — for good reason, I think.)

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15. Part 16.

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Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph
— Exodus 1:8
What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.
— James Baldwin

Joseph’s Little Secret

A Pharaoh that didn’t know Joseph would have been like a president that had never heard of John F. Kennedy. Joseph was a former governor that saved Egypt from economic collapse and bridged social divides. His legacy would not have been easily forgotten.

Some Bible scholars suggest that this passage conveys outright contempt rather than benign ignorance. That explains why some translations render the phrase “did not know Joseph” as “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (CEB). It’s more likely that Joseph’s legacy was intentionally erased from Egypt’s political memory once enough powerful people found out about his secret: that Joseph was not a true Egyptian, but a Hebrew.

Some scholars suggest that “Hebrew” was not originally an ethnic marker. “Hebrew” was a catch-all term for the margin-dwellers of the ancient Near East. It was something like a class distinction that pointed to the junk drawer of that ancient society. The nomads, vagrants, farmers, migrants, shepherds, crooks, refugees, rebels, mercenaries — they were “Hebrew.”

Egypt on the other hand was the epitome of high society. The name alone was synonymous with prosperity, influence, might, and learning. Egypt was the place that other nations sent their young elite to be groomed for promising careers in international diplomacy.

The Egyptians were anything but Hebrew, and they wanted to keep it that way. To even associate with Hebrews was taboo (Genesis 46:33). Hebrews were the ‘niggers’ of Egyptian society.

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A Hebrew’s Hebrew

Joseph was the youngest son of nomadic Canaanite shepherds, brought to Egypt as a slave (sold by his own family), then falsely imprisoned on rape charges. He was a Hebrew’s hebrew. Yet, by the favor of God, he miraculously rose to the top of Egyptian society, becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh.

Years later, a famine hit the land of Canaan that brought Joseph’s family down to Egypt for relief. He spoke with the ruling Pharaoh, who allowed his family to move to a little slice of Egypt called Goshen. He predicted his family would be sent there. Hebrews were apparently sent there often.

Goshen was like a refugee camp, where Hebrews could escape the hardships of their homeland, but also remain in their place: that is, the margins of society. It was the Bible’s first ghetto.

Up to that time, Joseph had been putting on a convincing performance as an Egyptian (even fooling his family when they eventually saw him again). Now that his family was in town, people in the capital were finding out about his Hebrew roots.

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An Unprecedented Time

Learning that Joseph was a Hebrew seems to have challenged the prejudices that existed among the Egyptian elite during his time. Pharaoh offered government jobs to any of Joseph’s brothers that were capable. Pharaoh bowed before Joseph’s father Jacob to receive a Hebrew blessing. When Jacob died, the Egyptians mourned for him and embalmed him. Egyptian officials accompanied Joseph back to Canaan to bury his father in the land that was home to his great-grandfather Abraham.

It was a beautiful, unprecedented period of Egyptian-Hebrew relations, all because of Joseph; but it was not enough to turn that ancient kingdom into a post-caste-society. Joseph may have been an exceptional Hebrew, but that was not enough to keep his family out of the ghetto. 

His legacy couldn’t have easily been forgotten, but with the passage of time, his ties to the Hebrews became more important than his contributions to Egyptian society.

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Just Another N*gger

There arose a king in Egypt that longed for the glory days when Hebrews knew their place, and he had a plan to remind them of it, but that plan could never be successful so long as people knew the story of the Hebrew prince of Egypt.

To keep a people oppressed, it is helpful to convince the wider population that such people don’t contribute much to society. One way to accomplish that is to erase the history of the oppressed: their great leaders, their contributions to society, and especially any history where they lived in harmony with those who are now more privileged. The people must believe (must be trained to believe) that the margin dwellers are worthless, beneath ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are), and that things have always been this way.

It is more likely that the history of shepherds blessing Pharaohs, and Hebrews being embalmed like Egyptian kings, and a Hebrew that saved Egypt from poverty was suppressed. There was a new king on the throne, and to him, Joseph was just another ‘nigger’ from a ‘nigger’ family.

This part of the Exodus story is a reminder of the importance of memory, not the royal memory of the state, but people's history. The royal memory will always or downplay the atrocities of the state and the glory of the oppressed. Americans are provoked to fear migrants trying to cross their southern border, but do they remember how what used to be Mexico became Texas? Many Americans chastise black Americans for 'living in the past' when we talk about the legacy of slavery, but do they remember the systems of racial oppression that have evolved from 1865 to date? No. They feel no obligation to remember that which we can never forget.

***

 

The next entry in this series will go live Wednesday, June 22, 2018


Further Reading:

  1. On the etymology of the word “Hebrew”: See, Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. “Epigraphy and Archaeology.” A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 37, 113–17.
  2. On the organized suppression/distortion of American history: How Dixie’s History Got White Washed
  3. On the history of the Black American Ghetto: Historian Says ‘Don’t Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos

 

 

Why the Resistance Needs People Who Know How to Pray

What if when we offered our "thoughts and prayers" we actually did some serious critical thinking and praying?

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When a tragic news story goes viral, it's customary to decorate the Internet with thoughts and prayers. They come in many forms: memes, profile filters, status updates. Sometimes that is the best we can do. Many times we can do more.

The challenge we face is that we're not always sure of what more can be done. So, in the face of incessant bad news, we often feel helpless. So we offer people comforting but empty sentiments: thoughts and prayers.

But the fact that we have so little show for all of thoughts and prayers makes me suspect that not much serious thought or prayer happens once the memes are posted.

For all of those quickly offered, heartfelt “thoughts,”it’s rare to hear the product of those thoughts—balm for the wounds or preventative medicines against future injury. Where are the thoughts that conjure up change?

And for all of those awkwardly offered “prayers,” where are the answers that people are receiving from a God who cares? Where are the helpful insights that only the Holy Spirit could reveal? Where are the creative solutions? 

How is it that we have so little to show for all of this thinking and praying we've done over the years?

outsourcing angels

Reasons vary, I'm sure. But I think that one explanation is that people pray as though they are giving the problems we see entirely to God. The problems we're facing--violence, poverty, racism, war, climate change, and so on--are all so overwhelming. It's easier to think we'll outsource the work to heaven.

Also, many of those problems don't feel as immediate to us as the challenges of our personal, daily lives. Sure, it's terrible that immigrant children are being separated from their parents at our southern border, but I'm having tooth pain and my check engine light is on again. 

The dirty truth--and most of us won't admit it--is that at the end of the day, we only care so much about that which doesn't seem to directly affect us. And "I'll pray for you," can be a brilliant way of saying "This overwhelms me and I don't want to be burdened with other people's problems," while also appearing to be compassionate.

But prayer is not a way to pass the buck on to God for all the shit that goes on in the world. Prayer is also not how we keep the pain of our neighbors at arm's length. Prayer is a way that humans participate in what God wants to do in the world.

Can I Hide This From Abraham?

There is a tiny little passage in Genesis that arrests my attention when I think about this idea. 

In the story, God has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because these cities were famously opulent, unjust, and arrogant (Ezekiel 16:49). But before raining down judgment, God has a conversation with Godself: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Genesis 18:17).

God asks this question for two reasons. First, Abraham is God's friend (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Second, Abraham's nephew is living in Sodom at the time, and that would be super awkward for God to do his friend's nephew like that. So God tells Abraham about God's intentions.

Abraham is understandably taken aback: "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike," he says to God, "Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Together, Abraham and God decide that if ten righteous people can be found, the cities will be spared.

Early the next morning, Abraham springs out of bed and hurries to the hillside where he'd argued with God the day before, checking the horizon to see what had happened to the cities. There's smoke rising coming from Sodom, but his nephew is safe.

When I consider this story, I think about how God invited Abraham into that space to discuss what was going on in those cities and what should be done about it. And I can't help but notice Abraham's commitment to the outcome: he's so entangled in the trouble approaching his nephew that it's the first thing he checks on the next morning.

That's what prayer does: invites us to participate, to some degree, in what God is doing in the world and involves us, entangles us, in the troubles our neighbors are facing. The church veterans call that kind of prayer "intercession."

A Handful of Razors

I’m no exemplar of intercession, but I do have one personal experience that stands out to me. When I was high school, I started a gospel ensemble with a few friends. Eventually, our group was invited to perform at an event where we sang a couple of my original songs.

Shortly after the concert, I got a letter from a girl we’ll call Nekeisha. She was a younger sibling of one of the choir members and had come out to hear her sister sing a solo. She’d been impressed with the music and was hoping to connect.

When you’re a young and zealous Christian (and we both were), there is something inspiring about meeting other young and zealous Christians. She included her email in her letter, and we became electronic pen pals. We would write each other often, always talking about God, faith, the Bible...Christian stuff. NeKeisha became like my own little sister. I eventually left town for an out-of-state college, but we kept in touch.

One day, NeKeisha confided in me that she'd been cutting. I was deeply concerned for her, but I had no idea how to be there for her. But I knew that I could pray. And I did: every afternoon. Sometimes I'd even skip lunch so that I could talk with God about NeKeisha. I'd told her she could call me when she felt compelled to cut, maybe talking could get her mind off of it for a while. She did sometimes.

Eventually, I returned to my hometown to preach and invited NeKeisha to come out. I was thrilled to see her in the audience. Afterward, she and I met up outside the church. We talked for a bit, caught up on life. Then she handed me a small bag full of razors. I got rid of them for her.

If you’re asking if NeKeisha ever cut herself again after that moment, you may be missing the point. This experience didn’t teach me that prayer “works,” or that intercession gets results.  I learned that I had no business praying anything that I wasn't at least willing to be part of the answer to. I learned through that experience that prayer pulls us deeper into relationship with one others, and into each other’s struggles. I learned that choosing to intercede for someone is disruptive, because we become invested in the story of their healing and liberation. We find ourselves springing out of bed to check for smoke on the horizon. We find ourselves with a handful of their razors.

If the resistance will include thoughts and prayers, and I think it must, then those thoughts and prayers must be meaningful. They must call us into deeper relationship of human trafficking victims, domestic violence survivors, persecuted migrants, survivors of gun violence, abused people of color and LGBTQ people, and all those who experience oppression. Our thoughts and prayers cannot simply be a way of shoving their pain into the heavens. 

Are we willing to wrestle with God to see that "what is right" is done for our neighbors? Are we willing to be present to our neighbors' stories? Are we willing to be a part of the answers to the prayers we pray? Because that is the kind of prayer the resistance can use.

Why Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ Is a Prophetic Message We Can’t Ignore

Note: A version of this first appeared on RELEVANT Magazine's website.

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In the visual for “This Is America” Childish Gambino glides through scenes of mayhem and joy. It sits at the epicenter of a deluge of controversy and think pieces like this one. It has been praised by some as a work of genius, warranting multiple viewings and detailed exegesis. It has been critiqued for its gratuitous violence, as normalizing black death. But hopefully all can agree that the music video is reactive, offensive and important.

I want to go further and say that the visual for ‘This is America” is prophetic. But before I explain what I mean by that, I’ll explain what it doesn’t mean.

PROPHETS AREN’T PERFECT

To say that ‘This is America” is prophetic is not necessarily praise. Prophets are not perfect and prophecy is not necessarily special. The Christian Scriptures make this clear.

Caiaphas, the high priest, who played a key role in the plot to lynch Jesus prophesied (John 11:51). The mad king Saul, who obsessed about killing his son’s best friend, David, also prophesied (1 Samuel 11:10). And just to prove a point about who can prophesy, God sent the Holy Spirit on a crowd of 72 Israelite leaders who remain unnamed, causing them to prophesy (Numbers 11:29). So to act as a prophet from time to time is not the exclusive prerogative of a few holy men and women. As far the Christian Scriptures are concerned, any [donkey] can prophecy (Numbers 22:21-39).

Prophets are often imperfect vessels. They have their moments of inspiration, but the rest of the time, they’re as fallible as anyone else. So to say that “This is America” is prophetic is not the same as saying “Everything Childish Gambino does and says is immaculate.” It also doesn’t mean that Donald Glover is a Christian.

But it means that this piece of art recalls a tradition of frustrated messengers, grabbing a society by the collars and trying to shake it awake by any means necessary. Dr. Christopher B. Hays, associate professor of ancient Near Eastern studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, recalls a story to demonstrate the extreme lengths to which ancient prophets would go. A prophet from the ancient civilization of Mari, he relays, is said to have stood at a city gate and demanded a lamb which he devoured alive once it arrived. Shocking performances like that, commonly known as “sign-acts” are the stuff of the prophetic tradition: reactive, dramatic, offensive and important.

The prophets of ancient Israel also employ dramatic, offensive, creative acts to raise awareness about the injustices of their society and the consequences of those injustices. The prophet Isaiah literally sings a litany of social ills for which the judgment of God is coming upon his countrymen and women:

Woe to you who add house to house

and join field to field

till no space is left

and you live alone in the land …

to those who call evil good

and good evil …

who acquit the guilty for a bribe,

but deny justice to the innocent (Isaiah 5:8, 20, 23).

Each “woe” in Isaiah’s prophetic song, explains Dr. Hays, is a Hebrew particle (hôy), a commonly used ancient Israelite “funerary cry, [usually] used to mourn people afterthey’re already dead.”

Hays says that Isaiah’s mode of social critique could be read as mocking at times, and wonders aloud if perhaps this mocking pronouncement of a dead society—his society—may convey the prophet’s attitude toward his people. Had Isaiah given up on Israel?

CHILDISH GAMBINO’S RAW LAMB

I first suspected that Donald Glover, Gambino’s alter-ego, was among the prophets while reading his interview earlier this year with The New Yorker. “I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen,” Glover told the magazine. “My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work—but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left … It’d be nice to feel less lonely.”

There is so much greater context to that interview, and I relay those words not assuming I grasp their full meaning but sharing how they fell on my ears. I heard an echo of Jeremiah who wondered if he should even bother prophesying anymore (Jeremiah 20:9), and Elijah who felt very much alone (1 Kings 19), and Isaiah who may have thought his people were too far gone (Isaiah 53:6), but all these messengers still felt compelled to deliver the truth.

Glover warned us in that interview that he had something he felt compelled to say. It sounded like the message was something like a burden, something he had reason to believe people would resist. To be honest, I hadn’t suspected that weeks later the man who gave us Redbone would, in his own way, devour the proverbial lamb to get his point across.

The Shortest Analysis of “This Is America” on the Internet

At the start of “This is America” the gleeful singing of children is interrupted by a homicide. A black man with a bag over his head is seated where a guitar player had just been plucking out bright South African rhythms on a nylon guitar.

Enter a shirtless, writhing Childish Gambino, who slinks over to the man’s backside, carefully pulls out a gun and assumes the position of an infamous Jim Crow poster and shoots the faceless victim in the back of the head. “This is America,” Gambino announces as a child runs in from stage right to carefully retrieve the weapon, wrapping it in some kind of cloth for protection. The video could have stopped there.

Already, the rapper has dramatized an uncomfortable truth about black life in America: what some refer to as black “fungibility.” A fungible item is one that can be easily replaced by another identical item: like a dollar. Every dollar has a serial number that nobody cares about, because dollars are interchangeable, replaceable, fungible. A comparison may be useful to see how this applies to black life.

Consider Brock Turner, a young white man who was let off the hook after raping a young woman because the judge did not want to “ruin his future.”

Consider the attention given to Brock Turner’s specific humanity that saved his life. Now compare that to the death of Philando Castile, a black man stopped and killed by a local Minnesota police officer because his “wide-set nose,” a description vague enough to apply to millions of black people, allegedly fit the description of a robbery suspect. You could have literally swapped out just about any black man for Castile to fit that description. This is America, indeed. Where Brock Turners are one-of-a-kind people with specific worths and futures that need protecting. But Philando Castiles are easily replaceable.

Who is the man that Gambino shoots in the back of the head? Is it the guitar player? Is it someone else? The bag over the man’s head makes it impossible to tell. And ultimately, in America, this detail often doesn’t matter.

But Glover gives his audience no time to reflect on the murder they’ve just witnessed. Seconds later he’s body rolling away from the crime scene, smiling, rapping and doing the Gwara Gwara (a popular South African dance) with schoolchildren—all of this while police chase civilians with their batons drawn, people rummage through vehicles as though possibly looting, and one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse goes galloping by in the background. Yes. This is America, where the world is on fire, but people are too distracted by pop culture to notice.

And Gambino, in “This is America,” is both a black agent of violence and instigator of joyous distraction, both living vestige of Jim Crow and woke messenger. The visual resists pristine, systematic interpretations. And these conflicting roles that overlap cause one to wonder if Glover meant to juxtapose the realities of black-on-black crime (the murder of the “faceless” black man), black people who participate in anti-blackness (the Jim Crow poses), and the terrors systemic racism (the officers chasing civilians and the police car following the apocalyptic horseman), all at once.

When asked, he demurs. “I just wanted to make a good song,” he told E! News on the red carpet of the 2018 Met Gala. “Something people can play on the Fourth of July.” 

THE COST OF CONFRONTING NATIONALISM

Glover’s refusal to pontificate makes it fair to guess that he would not appreciate being called a prophet—although he does so with a smirk, suggesting that he knows exactly what he’s done. Prophets are often reluctant to wear the mantle. Moses asks God to find someone else (Exodus 4:13). Jeremiah says he’s too young (Jeremiah 1:6). Jonah runs as far away as possible (Jonah 1:3).

It makes sense. People generally don’t like or listen to what prophets have to say. The archetypal prophet, Cassandra of Greek mythology, was given her gift by the god Apollo. But when she curved the sun god’s romantic advances, he cursed her, ensuring that nobody would ever believe her completely accurate warnings. That’s the prophetic gig.

The messages the prophets mean to deliver ask a lot of their audiences. When Isaiah sang that funeral song about ancient Israelite society—“This is Jerusalem!”—it was jarring and offensive to his neighbors. Israel was, according to their history, God’s special possession (Exodus 19:5). God had promised that they’d dwell in their land under divine protection (Deuteronomy 28:1-7). And God promises to be an enemy to their enemies (Genesis 12:1-3).

But Isaiah sang to them that because of the social injustices that persisted in the land, God was going to allow them to be deported by an invading international power (Isaiah 5:26-30). Jeremiah’s message was similar, as was Amos’, as was Ezekiel’s (Jeremiah 7; Amos 7:1-17; Ezekiel 23). And for this reason, people regarded these messengers as traitors (Amos 7:10; Jeremiah 38). People listened to them and basically said: “How dare you talk about our country that way! How dare you blaspheme God’s temple by calling the priests corrupt! How dare you say that God would judge us!”

In his book, The Prophets, Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

From the beginnings of Israelite religion the belief that God had chosen this particular people to carry out His mission has been both a cornerstone of Hebrew faith and a refuge in moments of distress. And yet, the prophets felt that to many of their contemporaries this cornerstone was a stumbling block; this refuge, an escape. They had to remind the people that chosenness must not be mistaken as divine favoritism or immunity from chastisement, but, on the contrary, that it meant being more seriously exposed to divine judgment and chastisement.

And like the lamb-swallowing prophets of Mari, the ancient Hebrew prophets resorted to dramatic sign-acts. Jeremiah bursts into a royal meeting with an ox yoke on his back to symbolize the coming “yoke” of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 27-28). Hosea marries a cultic prostitute to illustrate Israel’s unfaithfulness (Hosea 1-3). Isaiah walks around naked for three years to show the coming shame of God’s judgment (Isaiah 20).

They are a bit over the top. You can imagine their neighbors saying, “Sure. I get that Isaiah wants to make a point but why does he have to take his clothes off to do it?” These were offensive performances in their day. And the critiques they offer are the ancient equivalents of undermining America’s gun culture, racism, police brutality, materialism and distracting pop culture, like Glover does in the “This is America” video.

“[The prophets] all do these socially bizarre things,” says Dr. Hays. “I think that Glover’s work is in line with that. Glover has offended both of the ‘true’ tenets of so-called American Christianity which is nationalism—white nationalism really—and racism. Nineteen percent of white U.S. evangelicals didn’t vote for Trump but nonetheless 81 percent of white evangelicals did.”

“[The video suggests] that the U.S. is not some special project of God” Hays continues. “There are things that we do well that are worth pointing to and praising, but on the other hand the idea that we are above critique is a problem of American Christianity.”

Years after the prophets are gone, they are often regarded as heroic exemplars of courage for taking a stand for something they believed in. But it’s important to note that the consequences for confronting nationalism can be dire.

According to tradition, many of the ancient Hebrew prophets died as martyrs, because of the offense of their work: Amos is said to have been tortured; Jeremiah is said to have been stoned to death; Isaiah is said to have been sawed in half; and Zechariah is said to have been killed on the temple grounds. 

It’s often suggested by New Testament scholars that the reason Jesus, whom Glover told the New Yorker he identifies with, went about commanding people He’d healed not to say anything, and often demurred to directly identify Himself as Messiah was because He was well acquainted with the risks of the prophetic life (Mark 1:41-42; Mark 8:30-38).

If their message didn’t cost their lives, it still carried a kind of social tax. Prophets were often labeled as crazy (in fact, the Akkadian word for prophet, muhu, means “crazy person”), demonized, drunkards, if not dangerous, subversive radicals. All of these reactions—labeling, ignoring, attacking, dismissing—are ways the people have been trying to avoid the prophets for centuries.

With the risks and challenges considered, it’s understandable that many prophets don’t want to be prophets. Reluctance may be the key indicator that we’ve spotted one.

“This is America” is prophetic work because it tells the dirty truth about a violent, distracted society. But it’s better for Glover if millions of people discuss among themselves how “This Is America” is speaking to them than for him to climb on a soapbox and start preaching. The headlines would start being about the artist—“Is Donald Glover a radical?”—rather than the art. 

SEEING THE CYCLE IN REAL TIME

Although, in some ways, the prophetic endeavor seems to be doomed from the beginning, the prophets must deliver the truth with which they’ve been burdened. They must do this at the risk of being misunderstood, rejected, labeled and, in some cases, killed. 

In hindsight, however, we often find that the prophets were right. The Hebrew prophets were right about the coming exile. Jesus was right about the fall of Jerusalem. That pattern of prophetic offense and public rejection, however, is harder to see in real-time. As the saying goes, our society hates the prophets but loves a martyr.

But perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way.

Perhaps, we can recognize the reactive, dramatic, offensive and important performances among us as an invitation to reckon with the type of society that we have.

Perhaps a hard look into some type of societal mirror can be the beginning of imagining a better society. Perhaps in the offense of the prophetic artists, preachers, activists, and leaders among us, God is speaking. “This is America” invites us to at least do the former. The question is, will we listen?