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.

6 Incredible Reads For Everyone Who Doesn't Want to Live Under a Dictatorship

 
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Before you lock down that summer reading list, I've got a few titles that will convince you that we have the power to change the world. At least that's what these have done for me. I started a massive reading project (by my own standards) a few years ago to read everything about how society's change and how social movements work that I can get my hands on. So far, one thing has become abundantly clear: we are far more powerful than we think we are.

The news in the United States is disturbing as more of the nation is waking up to the long history of anti-democratic practices of our country. Many feel helpless. To quote Rebecca Solnit: "Your opponents would love you to believe that it's hopeless, that you have no power, that there's no reason to act, that you can't win." Nothing could be further from the truth. If you're anxious about the news then know this: it doesn't have to be this way.

Things can change, but the people will have to bring that change about. The cavalry is not coming from someplace else. It has to be us. It has to be you.

There's another quote that inspires me daily from Wes Niker: "If you don't like the news...go make some of your own." It's about time we started making our own news. We'll have to be wise. We'll have to be creative. We'll have to be strategic. And we'll need to be informed.

So, here are some titles to get you started.

 

This Is An Uprising, Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Because you need to know (or be reminded) that ordinary people have changed their societies from the bottom up before, through nonviolent resistance, and can do it again.

 
 

Building a Movement for Ending the New Jim Crow, Daniel Hunter

This pdf is like 80 pages long and cost one dollar! If you can't start here, I'm not sure you're down to begin with. So many of the human rights abuses of our country are tied to the fact that we are a carceral state. If we're going to become a more humane society, we're going to have to rethink incarceration.

 

The Impossible Will Take a Little While, Paul Rogat Loeb

Because you need hope to sustain you as you pursue a better world.

 

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp

Because you need to know how to face a dictator realistically from a dude who literally wrote the book that has led to the toppling of many oppressive regimes. 

 

Beautiful Trouble, Andrew Boyd (Editor)

Because you need to be familiar with the tools for resistance. And, if you fancy, you can also check out Gene Sharp's 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.

 

Please feel free to disseminate this widely.

If you feel like this list is lacking, feel free to create one of your own and I'll gladly share it, or I can update this post. I'm just trying to do my part.

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.