Monday, December 8, 2014

If Advent Is Real...

It is during the Advent season when we pause in the Christian calendar to celebrate the birth of the soon-coming Savior. I love this moment in the liturgical cycle, because our hearts and thoughts are with Mary, the unwed, teenage girl chosen to give birth to the Christ child. I cannot understand Advent apart from Mary’s story: did she experience joyous expectation at the news of her pregnancy?  Did she fear the social ostracism connected to her unwed and pregnant state?  Did she lie awake at night and wonder about the path her child would walk? How did Mary deal with the daily dance between an all-consuming love for her child and an all-consuming fear of the world into which her child would be born?

This Advent, I am thinking about the mother of Tamir Rice, Samaria Rice. My thoughts keep recalling her 12 year old son, killed by a police officer less than two seconds after encounter; her frantic 14 year old daughter, handcuffed and placed in the back of the police car as she wails over her brother’s body; and Samaria Rice, as she herself is threatened with arrest when she arrives at the scene of her child’s killing. And I wonder, what would it mean for Christians to take the Advent story seriously?

If Advent is real to us, then the unwed teenage mother or the homeless veteran or the crack addict or the prostitute or the otherwise “undesirable person” in our society is often the one chosen as the bearer of God’s grace and mercy.

If Advent is real to us, then prophets like John the Baptist are being born, to declare that a new day approaches. But we ignore them because we don't believe that prophets can arise from a Ferguson or a Cleveland. We don't expect that our prophets will wear sagging pants and be armed with cell phone cameras.

If Advent is real to us, then we must acknowledge Mary as a mother who knew that the birth of her son came along with a warrant for his death. And so we grieve with all the mothers of black and brown children, who must give their children lessons about death before they even have a chance to live.

If Advent is real to us, then we celebrate the miracle of the season: the miracle that something good came out of Nazareth; that a Savior was born among the least and the lowly; that the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known came from the most humble of origins. And it should give us pause to think about who Tamir Rice or Aiyana Jones or Mike Brown or Renisha McBride may have been if they had simply been allowed to live.

If Advent is real to us, our hearts would break in grief at the image of Samaria Rice, or any parent anywhere, cradling the lifeless body of his or her child on a cold street; grieving a death at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve. Perhaps every time we send a Christmas card, with an image of Mary’s protective and loving embrace of the Christ child, we will be reminded that Tamir Rice was also someone’s beloved child.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Litany For Those Who Aren't Ready For Healing

Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.

Let us not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.

Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.

Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.

Let us not rush past the loss of this mother's child, this father's child...someone's beloved son.

Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.

Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.

Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.

Let us not offer clich├ęs to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.


Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.

Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.

Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.

Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.

Let us be silent when we don't know what to say.

Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.

Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.

Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.

God, in your mercy…

Show me my own complicity in injustice.

Convict me for my indifference.

Forgive me when I have remained silent.

Equip me with a zeal for righteousness.

Never let me grow accustomed or acclimated to unrighteousness.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

When and Where I Grieve

The tears started while I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly - expecting the flow to cease. But it would not. Tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I wept while folding the laundry and while trying to decide what to cook for dinner. There is a moment when you grieve that you can no longer make tears - instead, your silent cries are felt in the pit of your stomach or in the wordless moans that escape your mouth.

It is difficult to put into words what triggered this particular moment of grief. All I can explain is that the weight of being black in a world that hates black existence came rushing forward and I could no longer contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I could no longer form the right words to describe how it feels to wake up in a world where a police officer can brutally assault and rape black women, violate the terms of his bail, and yet again be released from jail a second time since the courts have determined that he poses "no significant threat" while he awaits trial. I no longer had the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of a murdered teen uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worse of the American tradition for lynching. I did not have the right language to express my horror at the multiple deaths of black women whose only "crime" had been to say no to sexual advances. I had no language in response to the horrors of racism and misogyny that greeted me each morning.

Our culture privileges words and texts. If you want to be taken seriously and considered intelligent and rational, you are asked to respond to horrific events with sustained textual or oral analysis. I had been doing my best...writing, when I was asked to write, and speaking and preaching, when asked to do so. I've lectured and written on the historical, theological, racial, and societal implications of several recent events. But while sitting in Barnes and Nobles, my words failed because my words were no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul...and my soul wept. The horrors had simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write and so my tears took up where my pen left off.

On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of "There is Room at the Cross," playing on my headphones. I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But on that particular morning, the cross represented a place where I was encouraged to grieve. Whatever the cross means in a person's own theology, we know that the family of Jesus and his disciples grieved the death of one whom they loved. We know that tears were shed at the death of a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader whose entire existence confounded Roman authority. The cross is a place where there is always more room for the grieving.

The foot of the cross is a place where I can grieve for all the deaths and for all the people that are "ungrievable." And so I grieve for the women whose claims of rape aren't taken seriously because they are sex workers. I grieve for those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. I grieve for the mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. I grieve for women who stay home rather than face street harassment. I grieve for those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. I grieve for parents who have to teach racial life lessons while their children are still toddlers. I grieve for black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening's news. And I grieve for those who do not have a community to support them while they grieve.

At the foot of the cross, or at the site of any of these lynchings, state executions, murders, or injustices, there must be a place to allow the tears to flow and the moans to escape. There must be a place - beyond words or sermons or essays - which allows the body to grieve. Before we can heal the land, repair the breach, or right the wrongs, our souls are crying for a moment to mourn. The grief is both personal and collective as we grieve for our own losses and for the losses of others.  But when and where I grieve, my heart, body, and soul insist that this space, this moment, and this loss must be acknowledged. I grieve because it matters. I grieve because even when my voice is silenced, my tears will tell their own story.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Theological Bankruptcy

In his groundbreaking work, God of the Oppressed, theologian James Cone describes moving to Detroit in the midst of a series of insurrections.  He noted the silence and indifference of white Christians to what was happening in urban centers across America in the late 1960's.  He writes that their lack of response to what was happening in their own nation "was not only humiliating but wrong. It revealed an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy."  Cone's words have never been more prophetic than they are today when faced with the deafening silence of American Christianity in the face of racialized violence.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when unarmed black people are murdered by the state and their killers shielded from punishment.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black grandmothers are beaten unconscious by law enforcement officers as they seek shelter across a busy highway.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black teenagers are gunned down like animals, but rushes to promote campaigns against "indecent" music.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about black pain and suffering, but wants to rally to boycott a fictional television show.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when pregnant black women are placed in chokeholds by police, but campaigns outside of abortion clinics to "protect" life.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent in the face of urban violence, poverty, and joblessness, but wants to figure out how to plant an urban church from a suburban bubble.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racial disparities, but keeps singing hymns in which one has to be washed "white as snow."

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy, but wants to have conferences about doing "multicultural" ministry.

What will your liturgy on Sunday morning say about Renisha McBride?  What sermon will be preached that speaks out for Mike Brown?  What benediction will be pronounced that considers Marlene Pinnock?  Can you "pass the peace" if you only mean peace for your own neighborhood or community?  I believe our theological bankruptcy, our hypocrisy, our lukewarmness, and our indifference is an affront to God.  We are the richest nation in the world with a deeply impoverished theology. How can we claim to love God, whom we have not seen, but fail to love those we have seen: Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Aiyana Jones, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Johnathan Ferrell, Miriam Carey, Tyisha Miller...and the list goes on.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Black Jesus

Before I could even view the trailer of Adult Swim's upcoming television series, Black Jesus, I read articles condemning it and protests against it...despite the fact that one full episode had yet to air.  Like many people, I've long awaited Aaron McGruder's return as a producer and was surprised to hear that an entire series would center around the life of a religious figure.  The protest from various Christian groups center on the "blasphemous" depiction of Jesus in the show - a drinking, weed-smoking, black man from Compton who spends his days hanging out on street corners with his boys, involved in all manner of nefarious activities.  Charges of heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege dominate the critique being leveled at the show.  Groups are calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that its level of satire is unacceptable and a mockery to the Christian faith.

But part of me wonders what the protest is really about...is it really about the level of satire that the show displays or is it about a level of woeful ignorance that Christians have about the Bible and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth?  Frankly, the fact that the targeted demographic of the show (18-40 year olds) is also the group most likely to not attend church makes me want to applaud the show's courage for taking on the topic at all.  As a minister, I would rather 18-40 year olds have something to say about Jesus, even if prompted by a television show, than to completely ignoring the topic. Perhaps the people protesting the loudest are those whose pews are empty, Sunday after Sunday, for failing to find a way to connect the life of the historical Jesus with a younger demographic.

I think part of the protest has to do with the depiction of Jesus as African-American.  Even in satire, there is no room in our culture for anything but a white-washed depiction of Jesus.  Whether on stained glass windows or in the current slew of so-called Christian movies, we are only comfortable when Jesus is white, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and sports six-pack abs.  Our culture is still uncomfortable with the facts about the historical Jesus: a first-century Semitic man; living in the region we now know as Palestine; likely very short in stature; with wooly hair and feet the color of brass; and with no remarkable or attractive features.  We still demand a white Jesus even in our satire...

The Black Jesus of the Adult Swim television show lives in the urban "ghetto," drinks, smokes weed, curses, hangs out with criminals and thugs, freeloads off his friends, engages in illegal activity, all while performing a miracle or two.  It's easy to think that McGruder is simply making a mockery out of the masses of unemployed black men living throughout various urban centers in our country.  But if we are more careful thinkers and if we know our scriptural context well, we know that there are quite a few resemblances between the premise of the show and the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

The Jesus of Nazareth was essentially homeless; he had no where to lay his head.  He, and his disciples, wandered from village to village, dependent upon the kindness of fellow believers to feed, clothe, and shelter them.  The Jesus of Nazareth befriended and consorted with criminals, preferring their company and companionship over the educated elite of his time.  The Jesus of Nazareth dared to defy various laws of his day: refusing to stone a woman; overturning tables at the temple; breaking the rules of the Sabbath; and defying Roman authority.  The Jesus of Nazareth was tried, found guilty, and executed as a criminal.  And interspersed throughout his life, the Jesus of Nazareth fed some folks, healed some folks, told some stories, and performed a few miracles.  With his motley crew of both male and female followers, the Jesus of Nazareth spent far more of his time hanging out on proverbial street corners than he ever did in a religious sanctuary.  The Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, though (for Christians), no less divine because of that humanity.

I have no clue where McGruder's television series will take the character of Black Jesus.  But as a Christian, I am not afraid of varying portraits and depictions of Jesus, even satirical ones.  A genuine belief and relationship with the Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim as Christ and Savior, cannot be shaken by any mere human efforts.  Perhaps the show will actually challenge how we contextualize race, gender, and socio-economic status in our religious conversations.  But maybe the show won't do anything but make some people laugh or other people uncomfortable.  I'm okay with that.  I think I'm much like Flannery O'Connor in my beliefs.  She writes: "a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all."  I'd rather have the conversation about Black Jesus, fictional and satirical though it may be, than to shut down a dialogue that may include some new voices - voices that haven't found a place of sanctuary in our churches and houses of worship.

(You can listen to my NPR interview about Black Jesus for "All Things Considered" at: http://www.npr.org/programs/all-things-considered/)

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Seeking Sanctuary

I've been writing, speaking, and tweeting about Renisha McBride since her death and I woke up this morning with her on my mind, as the trial of her killer continues this week. I've been thinking about how hard it is for black women to find a safe space just to "be" in this world; how hard it is to find a safe place just to be our genuine selves. Home, church, and work can be toxic environments – perhaps even more toxic than the larger society. Where is that space where one can feel loved, affirmed, cherished, protected? Where is that space where one can lay down her defenses and burdens? Where is the place that black women can find sanctuary?

Domestic violence and street harassment against black women are routinely ignored and barely prosecuted. Predators in the pulpit and the streets continue to prey on black women's bodies and psyches.  In the workforce, black women continue to be at the bottom economic rung, despite higher rates of education and training.  Over the course of just one week, I've listened to a black pastor mock the black women in his congregation for their hairstyles; I've heard various celebrities argue that black women bring violence upon themselves; I've experienced the hostility of an institution that does not understand or value the contributions made by black women; and I've mourned as yet another black woman faces state-sanctioned brutality.

When the church you call home mocks you; when the community you live in blames you; when your workplace doesn't value you; when the police won't protect you; and when all forms of public media degrade you...where do you turn for sanctuary?  There are far too many days when I feel that I'm stumbling, drunkenly, through the car wreck that is American culture, seeking a place of shelter...hoping just to find my way home.  My education, profession, status, income, and background do not matter when all the world sees is an angry or threatening or criminal or trespassing black woman.  

Renisha McBride's killer didn't know if she were drunk or sober; if she was an excellent student or a dropout; if she was a criminal or a saint; if she was loved and cherished or the bane of her family's existence.  Her killer, who first claims that he shot her by accident and then later changes his claim to one of self defense, didn't know anything about her, except what his eyes could tell him: a black woman was knocking at his door at 4am.  A black woman, whom the attorney for this murderer argues, "could have been up to no good."  Where is there refuge in the world if before you can utter a single word, you have been judged to be "up to no good?"

I don't have any answers to my questions; I really don't know how to find sanctuary in this troubled world.  I'm grateful for those profound moments of peace and refuge I've experienced in conversations with friends; during meals at my kitchen table; or in the shared laughter and tears of likeminded folks. But far too soon, those moments of refuge are gone and I'm left seeking sanctuary and protection for my weary soul.  Renisha McBride never found that safe space on the last night of her life. I feel called to work on creating those sanctuaries for myself and for all the Renisha McBrides of this world.

© Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Can I Do?

The crisis continues as nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped from their dorm rooms, remain in the violent hands of a terrorist organization.  While it has been nearly a month, only now is the world grappling with the complexities of these young girls' fate and how to respond.  Our own country is finally asking, "how can we help bring these students safely home?"  But the answer to that question is extremely complex.  Many are calling for American military intervention...but we are also deeply aware of how problematic and imperialistic an armed military response may be.  Some are insisting the Nigerian government do more...but we do so without an awareness of how deeply entrenched this terrorist cell is within Nigeria and how difficult it will be to flush them out.

There are the lone rangers; people insisting that if you gave them a gun and ten minutes, they would free all the girls...despite their lack of knowledge of the geography or terrain or the climate.  There are the diplomats; folks who insist that they could negotiate or talk their way into getting terrorists to release these girls...as if one can reason with unhinged armed terrorists.  And as we continue, as a nation, to consider and discard ways that we can truly help to free these schoolchildren, ordinary folks are simply asking: "what can I do?"

I'm one of those people.  I have no allusions of being able to personally engage in a gun battle and I'm skeptical any time America sends troops into another country.  I recognize and respect Nigeria as a sovereign nation that must handle its own affairs, even as I know their government and military are broken.  So what can I, an American citizen thousands of miles from this conflict, do to help these girls?  How can I help end the violation of human rights in another country, without imposing my own narrow viewpoint?  How can I support my Nigerian brothers and sisters, without silencing their voices and agency?  As I've sat with these questions, I decided that there are things we can all do:

1) Work to create a culture of respect for black girls in America.  There is little value assigned to the lives of black girls in America, as well as globally.  We don't celebrate their beauty and accomplishments; we don't affirm their capacities and abilities.  In our patriarchal and white supremacist society, black girls are often the least and the last.  As a nation, we export our dominant standards of beauty and normativity; we uplift those groups and people that we value and we make them the face of a nation. The world knows that a nation protects and cherishes and defends that which it loves. When we insist on creating a culture of love and respect for black girls in America, we can export that respect throughout the world: we can take a stand and proclaim "black girls matter" everywhere when we make sure that black girls matter in our own backyards.

2) Work to create a safe environment for black girls in America to grow into adulthood.  When we engage in conversations about crime or the prison industrial complex or education, our conversations are driven by what is happening to boys.  And yet, black girls face unprecedented violence, harassment, disproportionate imprisonment rates, abuse, and neglect - much of which is not part of the grand narrative we tell about racism and inequity in this country.  What are we doing to make the lives of black girls safe in America?  What are we doing to make sure that they can safely reach adulthood? While we are grateful that black girls are not being stolen from their dorm rooms in the United States, we cannot remain silent when they are being shot in their living rooms or on front porches.

3) Work to expand resources for black girls in America to thrive and compete in a global market.  Nigeria has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. The schoolchildren kidnapped from their dorms were there to take final exams; most of them had sat for a physics exam prior to their abduction. The socio-economic and racial reality of life in America is that the vast majority of black girls in this country will not attend schools that prepare them for physics or engineering.  And while black girls and women are graduating from high school and college at very high rates, they are still earning far less than white men and white women for the same work.  Black girls are systematically discouraged from pursuing STEM fields; they often don't have mentors or advisors who support their educational dreams; they must contend with the forces of both racism and sexism in their pursuit of an education. When we work to expand education and technological resources for black girls in this country, whole communities are transformed and thrive because of it.

4) Donate time, energy, financial resources to local and global organizations that understand the rights of women and children are human rights.  When girls are subjected to sexual slavery, forced marriage, child marriage, unregulated labor, and denied an education, they are experiencing abuses of their fundamental human rights and they are being stripped of human dignity.  Access to a quality education, reproductive rights, and marriage rights are as crucial to girls thriving as are fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. We must support those organizations, both in this country and globally, working to ensure that girls have freedom to make choices about their futures.

I believe in a God who loves and cares for the "least of these," a God who is always on the side of the oppressed, a God who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a God who hears the prayers of the broken...so I will continue to pray.  And while I pray, I will work for the safety and protection of the most vulnerable among us.  What can I do?  I can value, love, protect, nurture, advocate for, fight on behalf of all the black girls in my life and in this country - knowing that their lives matter both here and abroad.  If we want black girls to matter in Nigeria, we have to make sure that black girls matter right here in America.

© Yolanda Pierce