How Do the Faithful Oppressed Pray?

            As many people, Black and white, but especially Black, are watching the trial of ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, it is safe to say that many are waiting with bated breath. The instances of white officers getting away with shooting and killing Black people have been too many; even in cases where videos have captured the actions of the accused officers, making many believe that the justice system would have no choice but to arrest, indict, and convict the accused, they have been acquitted or exonerated before even having to go to trial.

            It is not a sure thing that Chauvin will be convicted. If he is not, I was asked, what will happen?

            I don’t know, but I do know that internalized pain eventually erupts; one can only take so many hits to his or her concept of and need for justice before the pus that forms from the untreated wound caused by injustice pushes its way out.

            What, then, or how …do the faithful oppressed pray? What types of prayers are pastors of Black congregations offering to and sharing with their members? Or are they praying about it at all? Are they avoiding the elephant in the room because, frankly, they do not know what to say or how to say it?

            There has been a frustration that many Black pastors, theologians and scholars have grappled with for generations. William R. Jones wrote, Is God a White Racist? James Cone tackled the problem of a God whom the Bible says is no respecter of persons, but who has not interceded and stopped white supremacy – which supports the dehumanization and criminalization of Black people. Cone’s answer was the development of Black Liberation Theology. Black people  have wondered where God is and why, if and since God shows no favoritism, hasn’t God stopped the insanity called white supremacy?

            The frustration with God by leaders of oppressed people shows up in the Bible. Moses, pegged by Yahweh to lead the Israelites from Egyptian captivity to freedom, expresses the frustration in Exodus 5:22-23, saying, “Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people. (italics mine.) 

            Many Black faith leaders feel Moses’ frustration. God has, in fact, been manipulated to act as a protector and supporter of white supremacy. Throughout American history, white Christians – in both the North and the South – believed and preached that God was in favor of segregation and against the mixing of the races in any fashion, including education and burial, thus, they preached the rightness not only of segregation but of lynching as well. Many white Christian hailed their God as one who supported and ordained their cultural leanings.

            God looked the other way, it seems, during the violence carried out by whites against Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. In history, God has certainly either looked the other way or refused to see – and stop – the violent desecration and ruination of entire black communities perpetrated by white people who believed Black people did not and should not have the right to vote. “Good Christian” white people resonated with the words of one Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, who said, as he riled up white people to violent insurrection against black people and the government in Wilmington, North Carolina because the whites resented the power of the Black voting bloc and their considerable presence in state government, “Here in the most quiet and conservative of the original 13 states…we are reduced to the pitiful necessity of choosing whether we will live under the domination of Negroes…” (David Zucchino, The Wilmington Lie, p. 147) Whites in Wilmington did, in fact, succeed in murdering hundreds of Black people in that 1898 insurrection, destroyed Black homes, churches, and communities, and were successful in driving Black people out of office – and keeping them out until the early 1970s.

            As the Black residents of Wilmington saw what was going on, the religious leaders urged them to pray, assuring them that God would hear their prayer and stop the murderous rage of their white brothers, but to no avail. The riot and insurrection went on as planned – and in the end, the whites revised the story to read that it was Black people who had instigated the riot and that they had only retaliated to save their lives and the lives of their families.

            There are many accounts of Black people praying against those who oppressed them, but in spite of the prayers, the attacks and the oppression that is a part of an Empire run by white supremacists have continued.

            What, then, do the oppressed pray? How do the faithful oppressed have conversations with God and what is the desired outcome?

            It spite of the prayers of Black and other oppressed people, white supremacy has not disappeared and is not in danger of doing so. Do we pray for the ability to hold on? Do we pray for new vision and new tactics? Do we pray for new leaders? We have done all of that; we have held on and the nonviolent direct action taught by the Rev. James Lawson and practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is probably the reason more Black people have not been killed by white supremacists with guns.

            But at the end of the day, what should be the corporate prayer of the faithful oppressed? What should we be praying now, in light of the quest for justice for George Floyd and unprecedented voter suppression laws being created? ? How do faith leaders train their people to handle their hurt, frustration, disappointment and anger over racial oppression that never ceases?

            Surely, there must be an answer and some specific words that can be codified and shared with us all as we wait, with bated breath, to see if a murderous police officer will be punished for what he has done.

Black Faith: A “Pythian Madness”

            James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, quotes AME Bishop Bishop Daniel Payne who wrote in 1839,

“Sometimes, it seems as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life blood. Then I began to question the existence of God and to say, “If he does exist, is he just? If so, why does he suffer one race to oppress the enslave another, to rob them by unrighteous enactments of rights, which they hold most dear and sacred?…Is there no God?”

            Cone writes that W.E.B. DuBois “called black faith a “pythian madness” and “a demonic possession.” In a country where Black people are marginalized and cast aside, many white evangelicals call on their God, which seems quite different from the God on whom Black people have had to call and lean on in order to survive the poisonous fangs of white supremacy.

            This struggle with understanding God’s role and place in helping marginalized people is not new; indeed, Moses questioned God in the same way, challenging God in Exodus 5:22-23:

Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

In spite of that complaint and the pain he was as he wrestled with the “whereness of God,” Moses continued his assignment of leading the Israelites out of captivity, but it was a journey fraught with questions that could not be answered. His faith was, as WEB DuBois would say generations later, a “pythian madness and a demonic possession.”

            Many of us try to pretend that everything is all right when so often, it is not. We cannot see. We cannot hear or even feel “the way” from chaos to peace, from confusion to clarity, from pain to peace. Some of us wail and call out the name of God, but others of us temper our crying to God so that it is a faint whisper. We know the testimonies of others; we have heard them say that when they have looked back, they have seen that God was with them, and so they sip on the memory that brings brief moments of numbing from the pain of not feeling God in their here and now.

            Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who broke from the ranks of the Republican Party to vote for the conviction of the former president, got a letter from his family that said that because he had spoken and acted like he did, he had disappointed his family …and God. The sentence stopped me cold. The God of his family was a God who apparently was all right with the uprising at the Capitol, yes, but was also all right with the white supremacist mind-set and beliefs that were the foundation of that uprising. The God of Kinzinger’s family is, apparently, a God is is not only all right with white supremacy but perhaps created it. 

            It is because of the practice of a religion by some that having faith in this country has a peculiar quality. How can we believe in one who has done “nothing,” as Moses said, “to deliver” the marginalized people in this country? What has been done has been done under pressure and duress, and many who follow the God of Kinzinger’s family would probably say that it would be OK to take away what gains marginalized people have made.

            Cone says that “black people’s struggle with God in white America …left a deep and lasting wound.” Black people have had to “trust and cultivate their own theological imagination,” he says, because the God of the majority of culture did not seem to have the desire to reach out to the marginalized, although God had created them as well.

            Tomorrow begins the season of Lent, a time where we have an opportunity to examine ourselves, including our souls, to see what we must work to get rid of – not just for 40 days but for the rest of our lives – in order to get closer to God. For some of us, that with which we will have to struggle is a troubled faith that is tinged with anger and anxiety because of the toxicity of white supremacy which is ever before us, and which is ever saturating everything that happens in this country.

            We would do well to be honest with God during these 40 days, laying before Her our faith in a way that exposes its tears and shredded seams. We will have to hold onto our faith, in spite of our questions and complaints against it, as did our ancestors, because our faith is the only thing that has kept and will keep us together as we will in a country that refuses to love us, as Doc Rivers said, God notwithstanding.

            Amen and amen.

When What Is Broken Cannot Be Fixed

Sometimes, something is so broken that it cannot be fixed; it must be replaced.

Not long ago, I got into my car and tried to start it up. Nothing happened. So, I figured my battery was dead – puzzling to me because it was fairly new – but that’s the only reason I could figure out why it would not start. I called AAA and the tech tested the battery and said it was fine. Something else was wrong.

He tinkered around a bit and finally figured out that the gear shift wasn’t completely locked in the “Park” position. He was able to move it to “Neutral” and the car started. He said something was wrong but that as long as when I was driving it I kept it in “neutral,” even when I parked it, it would be OK.

I was comforted, because I had a lot to do, and one of the things I was doing at that time was driving Uber. I had lost a couple of clients because of the car, but once I found out what was wrong, I was on my way. I picked up a group of college kids on their way to Central America. We talked and laughed and when we got to the airport, I did what I always did: I put the car in “Park.”

As soon as I did it I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t move it to “neutral.” Whatever that AAA tech had done (he had finagled something) I could not do. And so I was there, stuck in the airport. I called AAA and they couldn’t do whatever they had done before. I had to have the car towed.  I had been sitting in that space for two hours waiting for the tow truck, only to be told they could do nothing.

I took the car to a mechanic recommended to me by a friend. I had purchased a new gear shift component since that’s what the first AAA person had said was defective. But when the new part was put into the car, it was still impossible to put the car into gear.

The mechanic was puzzled, and so he asked me to give him some time to explore and see what was going on. Several hours later, he called and said, “The gear shift parts are being held together by zip ties,” he said, “and it looks like one of them got loose.”

Zip ties? This was a 2006 car. I had never had any problems, so this was major, but zip ties? The mechanic said that this problem had probably occurred before and it was decided to “fix” it with zip ties.

The part was not fixable, he said. He replaced the old zip ties with new ones and said I should be OK, but I was rattled. The idea that something so vital for the life and operation of the car was being held together with zip ties was scary. The part was not fixable, and a new part was more expensive than the car was worth, and so I had to get a new car.

Sometimes, things that are broken are not fixable. As this nation grapples with the explosion of rage and anger and hurt and grief that is spilling onto our streets and around the world, I keep hearing people say, “we need to heal.”

Yes, we do, but we cannot heal with the toxic, broken system that is the legacy of America still in place. We have been applying zip ties to issues of human rights and human decency since the inception of this country. The zip ties re-worn; we cannot shift ourselves back into “normalcy.” Our foundation needs to be replaced, and only then when the possibility of the same poisonous, degrading, oppressive behaviors and practices never being thrust before us again can we begin to talk about healing. The wounds doled out by the oppressive system have taken all the band-aids, all of the “zip ties” they can handle, and now the oozing of pain will not stop. The system needs to be “done over” so that the glorious words of freedom and justice and liberty for all can be realized.

Nobody ever wants to start over. It is cheaper to “fix” than it is to “replace,” but when replacement is due, it is due. Fixing will no longer work.

Perhaps someone will understand that this nation and its people are at a crisis point that is going to demand more than conversations and task forces and the changing of offensive African American images on syrup bottles and boxes of rice to images that do not remind everyone of the knee that white supremacist practices have had on the necks of all of us – white as well as black – since the Founders put together the Constitution.

The Rev. Dr. James Forbes said, in a recent interview with Bill Moyers, that white people do not even realize all they are missing by refusing to be in community with African Americans, but he said the question must be asked of them, “Haven’t you had enough? Isn’t 400 years of you sucking the lifeblood out of us enough?”

Hopefully, the answer is yes. Hopefully, we can take the zip ties out of the gut of our nation and work to become a nation where all people are valued.

A candid observation …

(c) Susan K Smith

The Tragedy of Being White, Wealthy, and Privileged

As I have watched and listened to people talk about how it is okay if some people die in order to save the economy, I have literally shuddered. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) said in essence that allowing some people to die in order that the economy might be saved was the “lesser of two evils.” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/14/politics/trey-hollingsworth-coronavirus/index.html)

Specifically, he said “…” it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life, of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”

He has not been the only GOP lawmaker to have expressed such sentiments. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said that lots of grandparents would be willing to die of the virus in order to save the economy. He also expressed his belief that American adults ought to be “willing” to sacrifice their lives for the economy. (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/dan-patrick-seniors-are-willing-to-die-to-save-economy.html)

The blatant disregard for human life in order to realize political goals has been mind-blowing. Some Americans – mostly, it seems, white, wealthy, and privileged – seem to be totally out of sync with what is going on in the lives of the masses of Americans. Not only are they doggedly determined to maintain their wealth and power, but they are also determined to stack the courts locally and federally who will assure their political points of view and values are instituted and saved. The footage of the GOP lawmaker in Wisconsin, covered from head to foot in protective gear to protect himself from the coronavirus as he assured voters and the media that the people standing in line to vote – not likewise protected – that they were safe, is a haunting image. (https://www.businessinsider.com/wisconsin-gop-leader-says-voting-safe-dressed-ppe-gear-2020-4). People were forced to participate in in-person voting in the middle of a global pandemic because the GOP wanted a Republican to win a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  People risked their lives and went to the polls and were able to keep that candidate from winning, but at what cost? How many Wisconsinians are going to come up sick with the virus because of the lack of care and empathy of the GOP?

Yet another lawmaker, Attorney General William Barr, said that it’s necessary for people to get back to work and to stop running home and “hiding under their beds.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/attorney-general-william-barr-fox-news-coronavirus/2020/04/09/dfda1f94-7a12-11ea-a130-df573469f094_story.html)

What these statements reveal is the complete lack of ability of the wealthy, white, privileged Americans to understand anything other than wealth and privilege. In their remarks can be heard the disparaging criticism of the shelter-in-place orders, and a glaring lack of compassion and empathy for the people who are dropping like flies because of this virus.

I have heard little compassion from any people in this group for the health care workers, for the transit and grocery store workers. Neither have I heard much concern about the fact that so many people are dying alone, leaving their loved ones without the opportunity to say goodbye, nor have I heard concern about the people who will inevitably get sick and possibly die because they cannot afford to stay at home.

It is mind-boggling. The only thing I really hear is a concern about the economy – which is important, surely, but not more important than the lives of the people whose labor has provided the work needed to create the wealth and the privilege of those who seem not to care one iota about what they are going through.

As I have listened to the comments from the president about how the number of ventilators being requested by governors is too high, and have heard reports about how there have been so few ventilators that sometimes one ventilator has had to be used for two patients, I have found myself wondering what he or any of the privileged wealthy would react if they were being treated that way. When I looked at pictures of health care workers wearing garbage bags to protect themselves, and I heard and read about how many of them have had to use the same mask for several days, I again wondered what the privileged would say had they been exposed to that kind of scenario.

Their lack of awareness or concern about the health care workers and their patients again caused me to pause. Because they remain isolated from “the rest of us,” they are too frequently divorced from what the masses go through. They have convinced themselves that crime is relegated almost exclusively to the poor, discounting the white-collar crime that has helped make many of them wealthy or that crimes of sexual deviance and assault are as common within the wealthy privileged set as it is with the poor. They live in a world within “the” world, seeing what’s “out there” as being impossible to ever stain their lives.

But of course, it does.

Wealth, with its attendant privilege, has created a class of spoiled human beings, narcissistic, self- serving humans who seem incapable of caring or even thinking about those less fortunate, instead blaming them for their financial fragility. While not all wealthy people deserve this description, enough of them do. In the case of this pandemic, just as was the case during the Ebola crisis, they seem not to understand that germs and illnesses do not care about one’s wealth, race, or political affiliation. They also do not seem to understand that if the poorest of us are not healthy or free, none of us are. The virus that begins in the slums eventually makes its way to the suburbs. The virus doesn’t care.

It’s strange that they don’t get it. If the president reopens the government on May 1, and people on Navy ships and in senior citizens’ homes, and in prisons, in the grocery stores and pharmacies and on the subway are still getting the virus, the very wealthy are going to get it, too.

Their lack of empathy and concern for others will cause damage to and the deaths of so many humans that this country could have avoided.

But their wealth blinds them to that truth, and because of that, many more people – including them and their families – are going to suffer.

A candid observation.

 

Tuesday Meditation: Doing the Work of Justice When You are Enraged

Note: I don’t normally share my Tuesday meditations on this blog but the emotion and pain that the president’s insensitive statement comparing what is happening to him to a lynching prompted me to share this meditation today.

Abraham Heschel wrote that “prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”) (italics mine)

Our reading of the prophets suggests that God rages a lot. The lack of the capacity of the children created by Her to align themselves with Her and with Her will takes holy breath out of God. God doesn’t agonize over academic ideals; God agonizes over the depravity of the human spirit, a depravity that causes those whom God created to treat each other poorly. Though men and women are rebellious, Heschel notes, God’s love and compassion for them never wavers. But neither does the divine rage at what God is seeing.

Those who work for justice are prophets; they carry the word and the will of God into their daily attempts to get God’s people to align themselves with what they believe is right, but there are times when their own rage is so powerful, rising within them like water which has bubbled and boiled so much that it is about to spill over. What is it that should be done at times like that?

There have been moments within the past week and including today that have caused that type of rage. A person from the religious right said that God caused Rep. Elijah Cummings to die because Cummings had dared take on the president, and today, the president compared the quest to reveal his abuses of power – and more – to a lynching.

The rage bubbles.

The late James Cone concluded, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that the lynching tree was America’s cross. Black people survived the lynching terror because of faith in God and a determination to keep pushing against the system which saw no issue, no problem, in lynching them at will, with no fear of retribution or accountability. Lynching reminded black people to stay in their place, to shut up and go along to get along. There was no angst about what the lynching did to families or to the very spirits of black people who lived under constant cognizance that they or someone they loved could be “next.”

To be honest, lynching is still something that black people, brown and Native American people, and Muslims fight against to this day. The very humanity and dignity of these groups of people, and more, are spat upon every day, and still, we move, we work, we pray, we push for justice. We work in spite of the deep pain we carry, as well as the realization that the lynching tree takes different forms, like mass incarceration, economic injustice, climate change, sexism and racism, gender and sexuality issues, and so much more.

This man who claims that what he is going through is like a lynching, then, is stepping – again – on the very souls of people who live with the threat of lynching every day. Contrary to what he is going through, people who are lynched rarely have the money to seek justice; they are accused and imprisoned or killed without much of a stir. This president is crying because there is an active attempt to expose his crimes and abuses of power. There is justice in that process that people who are lynched have rarely received.

What, though, does one do? The rage bubbles; the audacity of one to use a term that has so much history and pain is beyond the capacity of many to understand. Being put on a lynching tree and yet not being totally exterminated as a people supports Cone’s belief that the cross/lynching tree is for black people a symbol of power; we resurrect, though this system has sought to bury us. That same lynching tree for people like the president continues Cone, is and has been an instrument of terror. Those who have used lynching as a tool of domestic terror do not now get to claim it as now being accessory to their suffering.

One then must exhale and inhale the spirits of the ancestors who endured the lynching tree and yet stayed on earth long enough to pass on the need for us to pray and not faint. One must inhale the power that yet sprinkles down from our ancestors, a power that reminds us to “be still and know” that God is here. Attacking ignorance with raw anger will not help us; like those before us who learned to incline their ears toward heaven so as to stay alive and continue the work, we must do the same – in spite of the bubbling rage.

Amen and amen.