The Fear and Faith of being both Black and Christian

black-lives-matter

Dear Reader,

“Confession is good for the soul,” they say. Well, allow me to unburden my soul to you in hopes of a assuaging the great anxiety I have felt of late.

I am angry. Very angry. I’ve been very angry for a long time now. It’s a low-level, chronic anger that peaks sometimes in greater degrees than others, but it’s always there. The last time I shared my black anger in a public setting it was made abundantly clear to me that our larger society is still not a safe place for the expression of black anger. Instead, like patient, long-suffering, God-fearing black people celebrated by society, I am just supposed to grin and bear the oppression I have been handed awaiting some distant hope of justice from some God who appears to be hold-up in some distant land ignoring the plaintive cries of thousands of thousands, millions, of people. Powerful people wring their hands in denial of any responsibility. Powerless people rend their garments in agony and turmoil.

There is a lot that I’ve been angry about, the criminalization of blackness, the assault on black women, the silence of the majority of Americans, but one of gravest sins for which I must repent is the way in which I have allowed my fear to silence my voice. I am angry that when I was told by an Episcopal priest who was interviewing me for a position in his parish that “we have enough pieces of diversity in this process, so we will not be pursuing your candidacy further,” I never said anything to my bishop or confided in my mentors (or at the very least called his racism out right then and there). I am angry that when I witness what seems to be the regular killing of black and brown women and men, I have been taught to look away, to pretend as if it doesn’t exist, to maintain some alternative reality where I am safe. I am angry that when I was told “the pulpit isn’t the place for you to be angry” I never countered with “and the pulpit is not the place for lies.” I am angry that I allowed others to convince me that their comfort mattered more than my sanity. I am angry that I purchased my ticket into a world very much alien to my own with the price of my own connection to myself, to my roots. I am angry that somewhere along the way I lost myself.

I was too young to remember the Rodney King beating and I was shielded from the empire-empowered, state-sanctioned assaults on black and brown bodies existed through the 90s and 2000s. My first face-to-face encounter with the visceral evisceration of black and brown bodies was when Trayvon Martin encountered a community watchman named George Zimmerman. I remember hearing the story, feeling that there was some unspoken and hidden narrative being exposed, and yet I remember feeling that maybe, just maybe, America had changed and walking-while-black was not suspicious or criminal. I remembering believing deeply that the jury would convict George Zimmerman.  I am angry that I was wrong. I remember hearing the verdict and leaving my mother’s house in small-town North Carolina, needing space to grieve and yet, for the first time, feeling very unsafe walking streets I had grown up on. I remember walking down the streets of our little suburb in the dark of night with tears streaming down my face, unable to utter words, but feeling a very visceral pain. I dared someone, anyone to question why I was there. I was angry that my sanctuary was broken, that the safe place that I had created for myself, or that was imposed upon me by parents and grandparents who wanted to protect me from the American assault on my personhood, was shattered.

I have been angry ever since the day George Zimmerman walked out of the courtroom exonerated and empowered and Trayvon Martin had lost the trail of his life.

Ever since that day Trayvon Martin was found guilty of walking-while-black I have looked at the world around me with the abiding awareness that at any moment, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I could “lose my body” and that no level of education, status of ordination, membership in the middle class, or fit of my tailored suits would protect me. Nothing could save me “from the mark of plunder and the gravity of [my] particular world.”[1]

I am angry that it feels like God likes this kind of shit. I mean it took YHWH four-hundred years, four-centuries, to hear the cries of the Hebrews who were being crushed under the weight of Egyptian economic imperialism and exploitation. Then, at least it seems, YHWH gave the same people who were freed from slavery license to murder whole nations in his name, because the worship of his name is more important than the individual lives of people – men, women, children, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. I am angry that too much American Christianity has uncritically purchased this narrative of Christian victory at all cost – even at the cost of countless human bodies.

A few months ago when I first came across Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “Letter to my Son” (I didn’t know at the time that it was an article adapted from his then-forthcoming book Between the World and Me), I pushed him away. He was one of those “angry black men” I was trying hard not to be. Never mind that his anger was righteous. Never mind that his experience mirrored my own (even though I was raised in the suburbs and he in the inner-city). Never mind that I had about reached my end of being silent under the lash of what he refers to as “The Dream.” I pushed him away because he threatened my guest visa into another world. His anger allowed me to distance myself from him, to describe him as one of those “angry (unsafe) black people” and to hold myself up as the non-angry (safe) alternative. He became the last in a string of black voices I silenced in the wake of Ferguson, and New York, and Ohio, and… and… and… I am angry that I allowed fear to disconnect me from my body. My body remained black, but my mind and soul had gone off into some Dream world.

To be clear, I attended a liberal arts institution and received a history degree before entering seminary. I know never to incorporate anything anyone has to say wholesale and uncritically. I know that the only person that I am going to agree with 100% of the time is me (on a good day). I know what it is to unpack previously held notions, to question presuppositions, to challenge the status quo. I know the “danger of a single story” (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes it). It’s not that I am angry that I agreed or disagreed with Coates. I am angry that I pushed him away. I am angry that I silenced his voice. I am angry that I did to him what so many had done to me.

There is much about Coates’ book that I agree with, and some that I disagree with. Most of I wrestle with. Like Jacob and his angelic/divine/internal opponent, I am clear I have stumbled across something holy. Dear reader, I would commend Between the World and Me to your reading. Among the actual differences that exist between Coates and myself is way in which religion or non-religion gives each of a language to interpret our experience. Coates describes himself as “godless,” saying, “I have no God to hold me up…”[2] On the other hand, I do have a God who holds me up, and I have to believe that to be the case regardless of what my life looks like. It doesn’t make my experience better than his; it simply makes our frameworks different. Surprisingly we get to the same outcome employing different frameworks. We disagree on the existence of God, but we both agree that justice does not roll in on the tide of inevitability. We must struggle. We must work while it is day, for when night comes no one can work. We agree that race is a construct; racism sucks; being born with darker skin, fuller lips, a wider nose, and kinkier hair is both a gift and a curse; and we (humanity) have more power to address this wickedness than we give ourselves credit for.

What joins me in my anger is the reality that I am in line with a long lineage of prophets who looked at the brokenness of humans – our proclivity to plunder and take what doesn’t belong to us, our temptation to name stories and experiences that are not our own, our penchant for denying the goodness and value of ourselves – and wept, or got angry, or cussed, or threw things. Angry prophets changed things and called the faithful to true repentance, repairing what is broken – walls and temples, people, relationships.

It’s also clear that among the characteristics of Jesus’ ministry was the denouncing of disembodiment. He was literally God incarnated (embodied), according to catholic doctrine both fully human and fully divine. If this isn’t a divine assault on disembodiment, I don’t know what is. By simply being born, it seems that Jesus’ first sermon was “get it together.” Literally, “ground yourself in your experience and speak from that space.” It is eternally important that the Word of God was incarnated, not as a Roman aristocrat or even a member of the Jewish temple power structure, but as the bastard child of a poor, Jewish girl from the ghettos of Palestine. It is eternally important that Jesus’ very ministry was an assault on the assumptions of power, both religious and temporal. It is eternally important the Jesus, in his anger, marched into the heart of Jewish religious power and overturned tables. It is eternally important the Jesus was executed (on the receiving end of disproportionate and oppressive imperial power) by means of a Roman cross, a style of execution reserved for sedition, inciting revolution against the Roman state. He was an angry Jew denouncing the “Dream” of Romans built on the backs of the poor and dispossessed. He got exactly what was coming to him, and he instructs his followers to “pick your cross and follow.” In other words, “if you follow me, you’re going to get what’s coming to you too. Fear not, for I have already overthrown empire.”

But there is “a rapture that comes only when you can longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream.”[3] Jesus lived his life in this fearlessness, hoping against hope, that the “Dream” wasn’t all there was to life, that there was a reality greater than the Dream. He called this reality the “Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God was a reality in which the proud are scattered (smothered, covered, and capped), where the mighty are dethroned and the lowly lifted, where the hungry and filled and rich sent away wanting. The “Kingdom of God” was a reality where the deeply-held assumptions of our world were turned in their heads.

Jesus died for this Kingdom. And God responded to his death by inserting a comma where Rome had placed a period. Eternity, not empire, has the final word.

I am angry that I allowed that Gospel to be diluted. Lord, I confess that I have sinned against you, in thought, word, deed…

There are a couple of responses to anger: 1) choke it down and soldier on, 2) contort your body and dislocate your brain to accommodate that which makes you angry, 3) eviscerate that which makes you angry in the first place. It seems that most people opt for 1 or 2. I used to. I now opt for option 3. In the words attributed to black revolutionary and feminist writer Angela Davis, “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change… I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

I am speaking from the space where I live, a black man in America, a person in the lineage of ancestors whose bodies were plundered by a country who used black value to purchase white freedom. I have inherited the varied traditions and DNA of Igbo, Yoruba, Akan, and Twi people stolen from their land and told they were black and therefore destined by God to serve those who would tell themselves they white. I live in a city divided by a street named Troost and years of hurt, woundedness, and distrust, and although I live on the side of the city previously closed to me, I understand fully that at any moment I could turn the corner and end up on the receiving end of disproportionate and oppressive imperial power and somehow it would be my fault, and that awareness adds a sting to my baritone voice.

I am an angry black man standing firmly in a prophetic tradition of righteous anger because Jesus has told me “take up my cross and follow.” When summoned out of deadly disembodiment by such powerful, empire-destroying, life-affirming love, what else can do one do but obey?


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me (New York: Random House Book, 2015), 81.

[2] Ibid., 113.

[3] Ibid., 116.

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One thought on “The Fear and Faith of being both Black and Christian

  1. Marcus,
    I sit here moved to tears. I am a 57 year old black woman. I remember the Rodney King beating. I remember tamping down that anger and trying to distance myself from it when the anger of people in Los Angeles overflowed into violence. Thank you so much for expressing what I have been struggling with for the past several years.

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