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.

exodus-2.jpg
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.

1*tdJy5CZozfZHuAsvLGm4ow.jpeg

 

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.

1*xiGpwgQo1MQP2MMuFMdaLg.jpeg

 

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.

1*PvV22g604XJ5w_A3jt0lWA.jpeg

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?

beads-blur-close-up-1141833.jpg

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 We Absolutely Must Keep Talking About Racism

Some people are worried about the health of our democracy. They have good reason. 

When the president has made himself an enemy of the free press, uses his influence to meddle with the policies of sports leagues, boasts that he's willing to use executive power to pardon himself for his crimes, and praises authoritarian strongmen around the world, we should be concerned. Those actions are anti-democratic.

And in this historic moment, it's easy to think of racism as some tangental to all of that--important, but we have bigger problems to discuss than race. Right?

Wrong.

klan-rally3.png

A friend of the president recently summarized the operating principle of the Trump administration saying "There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F*ck Obama’ Doctrine. We’re the ‘F*ck Obama’ Doctrine.”

The fact that this regime and its allies can summarize itself by an epithet and a black man's name tells you that our historic moment is decidedly racial.

One could argue that this administration's obsession with undoing the legacy of America's first black president has nothing to do with race--maybe Obama was just a bad president. Maybe. But that wouldn't explain why after Trump equivocated on the Charlottesville riots, called historically black nations "shit holes," consistently denigrates migrants as "bad hombres" and "animals," virulently opposes black protests, and built his platform on a slogan used by the Ku Klux Klan ("America First!"), his approval rating is going up.

America's history often shows the type of pattern we're seeing now, racist progress following racial progress: slavery followed by reconstruction followed by Jim Crow, followed by Civil Rights reform followed by a reversal of those reforms under Nixon. Obama's election was hailed as the advent of a post-racial society, only to be followed by a man who excites the likes of David Duke and emboldens the rank and file of America's overt racists.

So this moment of racist progress is not unique. After a season where it seems like ground is gained toward racial justice, there is also a groundswell of racial resentment, seeking to undo those gains. This cycle shows that events like Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement constitute unwelcome disruptions to the status quo. America always clamors for "order" after such events--and American order is racial hierarchy. 

A profound understanding of our context must concede that racism made Donald Trump president. Social research has  confirmed that Trump voters were motivated by racial resentment and anxiety about losing social status more than anything else.

All arguments about this moment in history must begin on that foundation of truth: that America has gambled with its standing in the global community, risked the threat of nuclear war, and put herself at the whim of an unqualified, despotic narcissist all for the chance to be white again.

35198179_2128944044011943_3043919115963072512_n.jpg

Those who say they're concerned that our democracy is sick, should be interested in a clear diagnosis of the problem. Well, the problem goes all the way to the inception of this country: it's racism. Racism has been this nation's sickness, undermining our great democratic creeds with anti-democratic practices, for centuries. 

The most consistent threat to democracy in this country is not coming from outside of our borders, but from within. America has been making land grabs for centuries, breaking of up families since the slave trade, calling non-white people "animals" and "criminals" since before the inception of this country, brutalizing black people since before the Civil War. Racism has long been at the root of America's deep tradition of anti-democratic practices, and has always seemed to be the grounds to justify America's capricious relationship to her own values.

That is why we must keep talking about racism: because racism is essential to understanding this historic moment. And if what we're seeing doesn't make clear how serious our condition is, I don't know what will.

The question is, do we even want to be made well?

***

Further Reading:

NBC News: 'Research proves that when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.'

The Atlantic: Research proves whites supported Trump because of racial anxiety

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.

180507070934-childish-gambino-music-video-1-exlarge-169-900x350.jpg

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?

Why It’s Not Surprising That 2 Black Men Were Arrested for Nothing at Starbucks

Note: A version of this article first appeared on the website for RELEVANT magazine.

getty_947784930_200012872000928098_360975.jpg

All black American men are born suspects.

That’s why it’s not shocking that two black men were recently arrested for having the audacity to sit down at a Starbucks for conversation. An employee apparently found them suspicious because they hadn’t bought anything (they were waiting for a friend to join them), so she called the police.

Funny. An eyewitness to the arrest told ABC “that another person in the restaurant at the time of the incident ‘announced that she had been sitting at Starbucks for the past couple of hours without buying anything.’”And yet, only those two black men in the coffeeshop were found so suspicious and threatening that she needed to call 911.

This sounds familiar.

George Zimmerman hunted Trayvon Martin because he found the young man suspicious.

Minnesota officer Jeronimo Yanez stopped Philando Castile, before shooting him in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter because he said Castile’s “wideset nose”—a sketch general enough to fit anyone from my younger brother to Jay-Z —fit the description of a robbery suspect.

From a bird’s eye view, the Tulsa officers who hovered above Terrance Crutcherdiscerned that the man was a “bad dude” before officers on the ground shot a hole in him.

These few incidents are merely chapters in a long history, showing that Americans associate blackness with danger.

Tell Them I Make My Own Bruschetta

I know that fact in a personal way because I have been told by well-meaning white friends that I am “not really black,” as a careless way of saying that I’m “not threatening.”

Black men, many imagine, grow up in single-parent apartments in rough neighborhoods where we are forced to punch our way to manhood: Say the wrong thing and we might knock your teeth out. Those are the stories of black men, the deeds of black men, they imagine.

On the other hand, I’m well-spoken, read C.S. Lewis and make my own bruschetta. Nothing is less threatening than a man who cooks homemade Italian and can quote The Weight of Glory.

But people who don’t know of my culinary prowess can treat me very differently. Presumably a plate of homemade bruschetta in my hands would keep me from being watched closely—and sometimes followed—by security guards in Whole Foods.

I have been threatened with arrest for standing on a street corner in midtown Manhattan.

I have been accused of carrying a weapon though I’ve actually touched a gun only once at a shooting range for my friend’s bachelor party. (On that occasion, after only murdering a sheet of paper, I vowed to never touch a gun again, it felt so wrong in my hand.)

But, again, none of these people who have been threatened by the simple presence of a black body—my black body—know that I make my own antipasto.

This Is A Pattern

My personal experiences are part of a larger tapestry of other stories of black life in the United States that dates back centuries.

After the Civil War, there was widespread fear that the result of freeing black people would result in societal disorder, aka “crime.” Therefore, there needed to be some way to maintain order. That is, to both defend white people from us dangerous blacks, to protect the interests of whites and to preserve the racial hierarchy upon which U.S. society was built.

Up to that point, slave patrols were the mechanism to do the job above: making sure black people did not congregate among themselves, returning fugitive slaves to their plantations, detaining and interrogating black people they caught roaming about without an official pass from a plantation owner. Patrolmen were armed with whips, and in some cases guns, and were given the discretion to beat and even kill black people—even compliant ones (it was not illegal at the time to kill a black person since they were deemed non-human). And they did.

The slave patrols evolved into police departments.

“During the Civil War, the military became the primary form of law enforcement in the South,” reports Olivia B. Waxman for TIME magazine. “But during Reconstruction [the period after the war], many local sheriffs functioned in a way analogous to the earlier slave patrols, enforcing segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves.”

And many crime historians agree:

The literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.

So then, it isn’t surprising that the two men in Starbucks the other day were found suspicious. Such has been the case for non-white people for centuries in America. And it’s not surprising that police would arrest the two gentlemen and hold them until 1 a.m., because police departments were created to operate in accordance with those racial biases. This is all American tradition. In a society where we were never intended to be citizens, it is not surprising that we are often regarded as trespassers.

Starbucks has since apologized for the incident and announced that it plans to close all 8,000 of it’s U.S. stores for implicit racial bias training, which is both appropriate and proves that this is about something much larger than one isolated incident: this is about the ubiquitous, cultural fear of black people.

It’s been well-documented that black men are more likely to be searched for illegal drugs than white men, even though white men have been found to carry illegal drugs at a much higher rate. Black men are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for minor drug offenses, even though white men use those same drugs at almost exactly the same rate. And when black men are convicted of those minor drug offenses, their sentences tend to be much longer and harsher than those assigned to white men guilty of the same crimes. Nearly half of the American prison population—the largest prison population in the world—is comprised of black men, not because black men are inherently more criminal, but because black people are regarded with fear and contempt in American society.

I really don’t know what to tell these people who are so afraid of us for no reason. But we aren’t going to produce some kind of hall pass to justify why we’re just walking about the world freely—drinking coffee (or not!) and such. Walking about freely without the fear of harassment, persecution or death is a basic human right. The fact that black people still have to contend for such a right is a symptom of racism.

But It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way …

Non-black people can confront their prejudices about black people by learning about “anti-blackness.”

There is a surfeit of material—books, articles, videos, thought leaders and courses—all helping people understand how people unconsciously participate and perpetuate anti-blackness. They are worth exploring.

We can change the way that our society treats black people. In fact, I’d argue that Christians have an obligation to do so, but we can’t without honestly naming the problem and educating ourselves on it.

Bravo to Starbucks for making a move to confront the problem in a systemic way (If only more police departments, businesses, and other organizations would do the same!). If both institutions and individuals commit to this work of self-education and repentance, we’ll actually see American society change.

Here are some places to start:

White Awake: An Honest Look At What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria by Dr. Beverly Tatum

Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In An Age of Colorblindness

Terms, pt. 6: They'd Better Get It Together

I want to speak to these terms and conditions from an angle that I don't think we hear enough: the fact that even if it were true that "black-on-black" crime were special, it still wouldn't automatically mean that black people have to fix it before we can resist all of the other ways that we experience racial injustice in America.

Read More