Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A "Bitter" Activism

On Tuesday morning, Dave Ramsey, financial guru and evangelical Christian, provided the world with a definition he coined: “Activist: Bitterness that desperately needs a hobby.”

It’s difficult to know to which activists Ramsey is referring, but his all-encompassing definition of the word gives me pause. Was not Jesus an activist? Did he not dare to defy political and religious authority to feed the hungry, heal the sick, honor the marginalized and restore honor to women? Is not the very work of Jesus on the cross the greatest form of activism and advocacy which Christians celebrate? Isn’t Jesus the One who was willing to be bruised, beaten, and crucified – an activist on behalf of all humanity, even for those who reject him? And was not the Apostle Paul an activist, perhaps the greatest missionary of Christendom?

It reveals a deep historical amnesia to call activists “bitter.” Those who worked tirelessly to bring us child labor laws or voting rights or a minimum wage were all activists whose lives and efforts have changed our world for the good. Surely a Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day or Eleanor Roosevelt or Thurgood Marshall were activists whose social and political agitation changed the course of human history?

But, of course, I don’t believe that Ramsey was referring to these types of activists, the ones which so many Christian evangelicals love to quote – the “good” activists. In his definition, “activist” is a dirty word – bitter folks in need of a hobby. Does he mean the activists of Ferguson or Baltimore or Cleveland? Does he mean the activists who launched #BlackLivesMatter or those fighting on behalf of their civil rights? Does he mean the activists who are rallying against police violence or the activists who are protesting the cradle-to-prison pipeline? Does he mean the activists who are routinely disrupting traffic, shutting down public buildings, and rallying in the streets? You know, the activists that are making life inconvenient for the privileged – those activists you want to ignore and dismiss as “outside agitators?”

And here is where so many evangelical Christians display their willful ignorance. The men and women who are even at this very moment are protesting police brutality are doing so in a longstanding tradition that connects with the biblical witness. If you serve a Jesus that disrupted the powerful and shifted paradigms, then you must bear witness to the men and women who today are speaking truth to power, making the comfortable uncomfortable, and turning the world upside down. When black women activists went topless and blocked Market Street in the Financial District of San Francisco to draw attention to black women and girls killed by police, they stood in a long line of biblical wailing women who tore their garments as a sign of mourning and protest. If you are a Christian and you have a problem with activists, you may need to discard the very scripture upon which your faith is built.

It is far too easy to dismiss the activism for basic human rights as “bitterness” when your privilege takes those basic human rights for granted. Too many of the privileged cannot imagine a world in which one has to become an activist, a protestor, and a dissenter in order to demand rights that only some have been automatically given. It is the height of privilege and arrogance to think that the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are activists because they are bored and in need of a hobby. Activism is a matter of life or death for those whose lives seem not to matter in this country; for those whose deaths cannot even be grieved.

It is far too easy to shame activists with words like “bitter,” instead of acknowledging that their activism is fueled by protests against inequity, racism, and systemic injustice. It is far too easy to call an activist “bitter” instead of acknowledging your culpability in unjust systems. I pray that the activists from Ferguson to San Francisco keep exposing the bitter truth of America’s broken and unjust systems – and from these bitter truths may we repent and restore.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What Christianity Can Be

The headlines concerning the latest numbers of the changing American religious landscape are sensationalist: apparently Christianity in America is facing a decline and America is "notably" less Christian. The idea of Christianity's decline in America has been a recurrent theme for at least the past 50 years and the headlines reflect the fear that many in the Christian community have for "dwindling" numbers. But the headlines are wrong on at least two counts: this is not and has never been a Christian nation; and the religious landscape has always been more diverse than the numbers have suggested.

When we claim the United States as a Christian nation, we ignore the fact that its laws, policies, history, and origins have always stood contrary to the values of love. A nation founded on deliberate genocide and enslavement is not a nation that has Christian love as its bedrock. The greatest command - to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself - was never the foundation of this nation's ethos. 

Our claim of America as a "Christian nation" ignores the richness of indigenous spirituality and cosmologies that were thriving before the arrival of Europeans to the shores of North America. The many nations of people who inhabited these shores had were religious people with faith practices - North America was not merely a blank slate onto which Christianity could write itself.

And finally, our claim of the United States as a Christian nation ignores the spiritual and religious diversity that also arrived with European colonization and slavery. As early as the 17th century, practicing Jews and Muslims were living, creating communities, and establishing houses of worship in North America. Simply because the dominant voice of Christianity steered the national discourse does not mean that these communities did not exist and thrive as early as early as the founding of this nation.

What the Pew data does tell us is that declining numbers of Americans self-identify as Christians. Fewer people know or understand themselves as Christians or want to be known by such a label. As a Christian myself, I greet this news with open arms. I am not worried, threatened, or at all concerned about this pattern of fewer and fewer people identifying themselves as Christians. Instead, I see this is an important opportunity, perhaps even a kairos moment.

As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will have a deeper understanding of their faith. They will embrace the fullness of being a Christian and not just adopt the term as a convenient cultural marker

As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will take the word “Christian” more seriously and not equate it with simply being an “American.”

As the numbers decline…maybe the numbers of Christian need to decline so that a more robust and genuine faith can evolve without Christianity itself.

Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more followers of Christ.

Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more lovers of justice, mercy, and righteousness.

Perhaps we need much less civil religion, often couched in American patriotism, and far more theologically sound doctrine focused on the lost and the "least of these.”

I am convinced that Christianity needs more disciples, not members. We need more lovers of God, not pew sitters. We need more agents of mercy, not church boards.

As the numbers of self-identified Christians decline, perhaps what will emerge will be an actual reflection of the kingdom of God: those committed in both word and in deed to walk humbly, act justly, and love mercy. As the numbers decline, perhaps those who identify as Christians in the United States will be shaken from their comfort and slumber and rise up to tend to the business at hand: loving God and loving all people.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bloody Sunday: The Work of Remembrance

There is no one singular way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event known as “Bloody Sunday.”  How should we remember the life of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the African American Baptist deacon whose death during a peaceful protest, at the hands of an Alabama state trooper, spurred the events of Bloody Sunday? How should we recognize the hundreds of marchers in Selma on March 7, 1965, who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and instead encountered troopers and police officers who shot them with teargas and beat them with billy clubs? How should we honor a civil rights activist like James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston and Princeton Theological Seminary alumnus, who had come to Selma to march and who was beaten and killed for his support of civil rights? How should we commemorate the unnamed and unknown, the foot soldiers of a movement whose sacrifices history does not recall, those who marched, rallied, prayed, and petitioned for rights they would not even live long enough to experience?

We must approach this work of remembering, recognizing, honoring and commemorating an event like Bloody Sunday unencumbered by nostalgia and with both hope and sorrow at our present and future moments. We need to remember the fullness of the story and the complicated and messy context of any struggle for human rights. Plaques and monuments are not enough to interrogate the history and legacy of racial injustice in this country. As a Christian community, the memory of events like Bloody Sunday need to abide within the inner recesses of our souls.

Remember… organizing for the Selma to Montgomery March took place at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, led in part by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and with the leadership of both clergy and laity. But we cannot suffer under the illusion that all churches, or even many churches supported the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Many Christians, black and white, Northern and Southern, felt that the struggle for equality, desegregation, and voting rights was too political, too radical of a cause for the Christian church. Many churches and pastors remained silent; some voiced their support for continuing segregation, Jim and Jane Crow, and policies of “separate but equal.” And yet, other churches and pastors dared to speak courageously and risk pulpits, positions, and lives for justice and righteousness. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to think about whether our faith is bold enough and strong enough to affirm that all are made in God’s image and are equally precious in God’s sight.

Remember… Bloody Sunday wasn’t an isolated event, even during the 1960’s. While most civil rights protestors and activists embraced a practice of non-violence, they faced horrific bodily violence from police dogs, water hoses, tear gas, billy clubs, church bombings, lynchings, beatings, and mass arrests. The violence faced by the Selma to Montgomery marchers was televised; accounts and photographs appeared in almost every major newspaper immediately after the events. The country had documentary evidence of the brutality endured by peaceful protestors. And while this particular footage and other iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement propelled the cause forward, the work for justice continued even when the cameras were not rolling and the photographers were not shooting. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to believe and honor the stories of those at the margins, those living on the underside of history whose suffering often goes unrecognized and invalidated.

Remember… Bloody Sunday is not an aberration in this country’s racial history. Barely two days before the 50th Anniversary March in Selma, the Department of Justice released a report detailing civil rights abuses experience by African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri. The report gave a glimpse into the unchecked institutional racism in this small community, still reeling from the August 9, 2014 shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. The juxtaposition of these two events should startle us: the nation commemorated 50 years since Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while simultaneously receiving a report of systemic racism and Civil Rights violations being faced in 2015, at the hands of state officials. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to think about how much work we still need to do in order to heal the wounds of segregation and racism.

In our churches, we gather periodically at the communion table to remember the work of Christ: his life, his death, his resurrection, and his promises to us. The sacrament that is at the heart of our faith is to remember the pain of the crucifixion even as we rest in the blessed hope of Christ’s return. This “memory” work provides a model for how we can commemorate events like Bloody Sunday: excavating the details of the past, so that we know the fullness of the story; lamenting and mourning the pain endured and the sacrifices made; and praying, hoping, and working for a more just present and future. When we remember, we literally make the past present again; we give life and flesh to our history with implications for our future. In remembering Bloody Sunday, we honor James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Amelia Boynton and John Lewis and Diane Nash and countless others - but we don’t rest upon their labors. There is too much work yet to be done.

© Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Valentine for the Black Church

Dear Black Church,

Your arms were the first to hold me after my parents, and your sanctuary was the first outing allowed after my birth. I still live with the memories of babies being passed from church mother to church mother, knowing that there were loved in the place that was a second home.

You nurtured me during my childhood, in Sunday school, during youth retreats, and tarry services. Somehow, while I was not even aware, the songs, traditions, liturgies, testimonies and stories of your presence became entrenched within me.  To this day, there are hymns that I can sing, scripture I can quote, pieces of sermons that I can remember implanted deep into my memory - all before I could even read or write.

You baptized me and taught me the way of holiness. You helped me to understand the seriousness of my faith and my commitment to love God and my neighbor. Your words both disciplined me, but also discipled me. I knew the fear and trembling that accompanies the righteous and fervent prayer of the saints.

In the arms of two Black churches in Brooklyn, one Baptist and one COGIC, I was loved by an extended family, and raised to seek after God’s heart. Images of people who looked just like me adorned the walls. As a child, I knew a Black Jesus, who was well acquainted with sorrow and suffering. Each Sunday, I was surrounded by the black and white portraits of church founders and church mothers, stern-looking deacons and smiling pastors’ wives. I saw me, my very own self, from the pulpit and in the pews. Even the smiling family on the church fan donated by the local funeral home stared back at me, reflecting back my brown face.

I am the proud daughter of the Black church and its traditions and foundations shaped me. The Black church sent me to college and graduate school; stayed with me through my first years of teaching and is even now with me as I navigate life as a tenured professor. When I am traveling or lecturing or somehow cannot be in a service on Sunday morning, I still feel incomplete, knowing that I need a chance, at least once a week, to sit in the presence with the saints.

I am the proud daughter of the Black church, whose fiery sermons, songs of lament, sacraments, and rituals have provided me with both comfort and catharsis. The Black church encouraged me to pursue my own vocational calling, because it had equipped me to hear the voice of God, to know when God was speaking into my life. The Black church helped me to know God for myself, and the God I serve today belongs not to my mother or father, but is my very own.

I, dear Black church, am your beloved daughter. But because I love you, I reserve the right, as James Baldwin reminds us, to relentlessly critique that which I so love.

I cannot love the way you wound your daughters and sons, silencing and shaming those who exist at the margins of an already marginalized community. I cannot love the predatory pastors, morally bankrupt theology, and hypocrisy which pervade both the storefronts and the megachurches. I cannot love the patriarchy and the hierarchy which negates God’s insistence that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.  I cannot love the version of prosperity gospel that leaves the pastor wealthy and its membership struggling to eat. I cannot love the version of biblical interpretation which only concerns itself with personal sin while structural oppression is killing us. I cannot love the church which tells young men to pull up their pants and young girls to lengthen their skirts while simultaneously ignoring the hell they are catching merely trying to survive. I cannot love the church which fails to challenge injustice out of deference to the white gaze. I cannot love the church which is more invested in being a social club than serving the least and the lost. I cannot love a church which has forgotten the very history of resistance upon which it was founded and built.

And so my challenge, in this love letter, is to sit in the tension of a tradition that I love and continues to give me so much, even as I refuse to support the ways in which that very same tradition wounds and destroys.

I love the sights, sounds, praise, and worship of the Black church. I love the comfort, sanctuary, and joy she gives.  I love the preachers whose rhetorical skills, biblical exegesis, and delivery are unrivaled anywhere. I love the rock solid foundation upon which you were built. I love your social justice activism and your defiance of white supremacy. I love all the ways that you have sustained Black people, all over the world. But in my love, I can reject that which does harm simply because the most important lesson that the Black Church taught me was how to love myself.

I am your daughter, with eyes wide open…

Yolanda Pierce

© Yolanda Pierce