Saturday, September 26, 2015

Our Neighbor's Faith

Traffic notwithstanding, it has been fascinating to live in the area where Pope Francis is visiting. There is a palpable excitement about this particular pope and the simple, but timely, message he brings wherever he travels: love and serve the “least of these.” The love and respect for Pope Francis emanates not just from Catholics and Protestants, but from those of many other faith traditions. Even those who disagree with him have been blessed by his humility and adherence to his understanding of the gospel.

Like many others, I had my “wish list” of things I wanted to hear from Pope Francis during his visit to the United States. I long for more discussion about the ordination of women; I wanted to hear his affirmation that “black lives matter.” I wanted to hear an explicit repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by its name. Everyone, it seems, wants to hear something in particular from Pope Francis. But I think that most of us stand in solidarity with our Catholic brothers and sisters, delighted by a pope who so profoundly connects with people across generations, abilities, ethnicities, races, and every other difference.

For those of us who are Christians, this papal visit should cause us to reflect on the tremendous privilege we have as the dominant voice in this country. For days, we've had nonstop cover of the Christian faith. There have been discussions of Jesus and Christian theology on every major news network and it is being covered with seriousness and respect. Since Pope Francis has been in the United States, his papal masses have been televised live. If you have turned on a television, opened an internet browser, or read a newspaper during this past week, Pope Francis has been the major story. And you don’t have to turn to a particular religious channel to see this coverage - Christianity is being discussed from CNN to MTV.

But it leads me to wonder if we, the dominant religious voice, are willing to extend this same courtesy to our neighbors of other faith traditions? Or to those who are not believers? Would we televise the entirety of Friday night prayers from an American mosque on CBS?  Would CNN cover the worship practices of Santería with the same respect and seriousness it has given to Catholicism?

And while Pope Francis’ visit has dominated the news cycle, 769 pilgrims died in a stampede during Hajj outside the city of Mecca this week, along with 934 others who were wounded. The death toll may continue to rise as the situation evolves. The Hajj is the largest religious gathering in the world and an obligation for all Muslims who are able.

Will we grieve with the Muslim community for this tragedy as deeply as we celebrate with the Catholic world the visit of Pope Francis to the United States? Will our hearts break for the thousands of our Muslim brothers and sisters mourning the deaths of those fulfilling one of their highest and most sacred of religious obligations? Will we seek to respect and understand the "Stoning of the Devil" ritual that takes place in the city of Mina during the Hajj, with the same care we give to the intricacies of various Christian worship practices when they are being discussed in the media?

At the core of the Christian faith Pope Francis embraces is the command to love one's neighbor as oneself...not just the neighbor who looks, acts, or worships like us. And our neighbors are every human being on this planet, theists and non-theists alike. We are called to care, love, and honor the humanity of all people. So loving our neighbors means that we can rejoice during the papal visit, but we must also make time to mourn when our other neighbors are experiencing such great loss. 

To my fellow Christians, perhaps we need to learn to lower the volume of our dominant voices so that the stories of our neighbors can be heard.

©Yolanda Pierce

Monday, September 14, 2015

Natasha McKenna: Forsaken

The question asked by Jesus during the horrific process of his crucifixion is not one that Christians should gloss over in their quest to easy resolution. “My God, why have you forsaken me” is a cry that should haunt our faith journey. It is a cry of abandonment, of separation, of longing, and of pain. If we believe in the power of the cross and in the saving grace of crucifixion, we must also confront the reality of asking the most difficult of questions to God, even when those questions confront the possibility of God’s silence and absence.

I need to wrap my mind around the question of “forsakenness” because that is the only way I can begin to process the death of Natasha McKenna, the African American woman who was killed while being detained at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in Virginia. McKenna, who suffered from mental illness, was stunned four times and subdued by six officers until she eventually lost consciousness and subsequently dies in a hospital days later. Her final words, caught on a 48-minute video of her detention and death: you promised me you wouldn't kill me.”

The final days of Natasha McKenna’s life were an unending cycle of pain and torture. She was suffering from devastating mental episodes, exacerbated by the fact that she was being detained in a jail and not undergoing much needed treatment in a mental health treatment facility. She was handcuffed, tasered, restrained, and called “demonically possessed.” She was naked and vulnerable while being restrained. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was in a coma and covered in bruises, marks, and cuts. Her eyes were swollen shut.  McKenna leaves behind one young daughter.

You promised me you wouldn't kill me.”  These are the words of a woman who knew that her life was coming to an end. She knew that she was on the verge of death; a death that was absolutely and completely preventable. But more than that, McKenna’s final words are the cry of the forsaken, the abandoned, the forgotten, and the discarded. In jails and prisons throughout America, the mentally ill are held captive with little or no access to the treatment they so desperately need. In detention centers and street corners across the nation, those in need of help are called “demons” and mocked in their nakedness and vulnerability.

You promised me you wouldn't kill me.”  These are the cries of victims of police violence everywhere, as they face those sworn to uphold the peace but who instead terrorize and brutalize. McKenna’s slight 5’3” and 130 lb. body was stripped, shackled, masked, wrestled to the ground, her panic worsened by the sight of 6 men standing above her in gas masks and biohazard suits. These men and their lethal weapons may have been McKenna’s last sight before slipping into a coma. Maybe someone promised her that she wasn’t going to be hurt if she cooperated; maybe someone promised her that she would survive this encounter if she didn’t resist. But in the end, McKenna dies knowing that her life was being taken violently away from her against her will.

You promised me you wouldn't kill me.” Slowly and painfully, black American women are being killed by agents of the state. We are dying mysteriously in jails and prisons. We are dying after encounters with law enforcement. We are dying of because of lack of health care or unequal access to health care. Our babies are facing infant mortality rates that rival many developing nations. In a nation that prides itself on offering all its citizens a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, black women are being killed. And it feels like no one cares.

Natasha McKenna bore the weight of her mental illness and the stigma that accompanies it. She also bore the weight of this nation’s racist and sexist history; her humanity was stripped from her while her body was treated as some unbreakable object of violence. At the time of her greatest need, she was forsaken by those who promised not to kill her. And in the recent decision which found the men who tasered and battered her not responsible for her death, McKenna has been forsaken by the scales of justice.

Theologians have weighed in for centuries in response to Jesus’ question of being forsaken. I often remind my own students that his question provides us with a precedent for asking God the tough questions of life. I am left with nothing but tough questions about Natasha McKenna’s death: questions about our legal system; questions about incarceration procedures; questions about our nation’s history of killing the black body. But I also know that it is okay for me to ask the toughest question of all: do the lives of black women matter to God? Before we rush to the “yes” of affirmation, before we hurry to insist that every person in precious in God’s sight, perhaps we can sit with the weight of the slow and painful death of a woman whose last words were an echo of broken promises. Before we rush to God’s “yes,” maybe we need to repent of all the ways we consistently demonstrate that some lives truly don’t matter.

© Yolanda Pierce

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Counting Blessings, Naming Pains

I grew up and continue to worship in church communities where the phrase “count your blessings” is said in response to a wide variety of circumstances. When the storms of life are troubling you, you are reminded to “count your blessings” and know that the blessings always outweigh the problems. In worship, you are urged to “count your blessings,” helping you to realize that you could never count all the many blessings God has bestowed upon you: each breath; each day of life; each need met. Because of God’s grace, our blessings are as numerous as the stars and so with triumphant voices, we often sing: 

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

None can deny that counting your blessings cultivates a spirit of gratitude, a spirit of appreciation for a God who has numbered the very hairs of your head. Whether in song, or in sermons, or in bible study, I received the message that part of the task of being a good and faithful Christian is counting the blessings of a compassionate and loving God. But in this season of my life, I have often wondered: can we make room to name the pain, even as we count our blessings?

I was in need of a place to lament, a space where I could name my pain. I needed a safe place to admit that God has not supplied all my needs. I needed a place to say that God has not done increasingly and abundantly above all that I could ask or think. I needed a sanctuary to offer my lament before God, to confess that I felt forgotten and abandoned. I did not find that place at church on that Sunday morning: every musical selection ended on the high note of praise; each scripture reading chosen was joyful; and the sermon ended on “early Sunday morning” and the joy of resurrection. My heart was not in a resurrection moment, but rather, I sat in the silence of a Holy Saturday season – that period of time when the disciples of Christ had to contend with their doubts and fears and grief. I made myself vulnerable to a sister I knew, who could tell from my body language that something was wrong. I admitted that I was struggling, that joy eluded me. She listened patiently, and then told me that what I needed to do was to feel better was simply to “count my blessings.”

I recognize that we barely know how to sit with our own pain, let alone someone else’s pain. We resort to clichés because we feel we must say something, even if it does more harm than good. At church that Sunday morning, I felt the tension: the admonishment to “count my blessings” was this sister’s way of reminding me that God has come through before and God will come through again. But in my suffering, what I heard was: “there is only room to speak joy, to celebrate, to praise.” I have a theology that makes room for us to name our pains, even as we count our blessings. It is a theology that both allows and insists we ask the tough questions before God. It is not an easy season for me to be in; a season where the questions and the doubts seem to outweigh the answers and the blessings. But if God knows my innermost parts, God already knows that I am struggling.

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote: “if you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I think of the scores of other black women I know who, like me, are afraid to name our pain. We are choosing to be silent. And our superficial theologies are silencing us. And so we are dying. We’re dying from the unrealistic expectations of being “strong black women.” We are dying of loneliness and lack of pleasure. We are dying of being “too much” for some and “not enough” for others. We are dying as we press down and ignore the pain and indignities of life. We wear the mask and loudly count our blessings so that others won’t know our vulnerabilities and sorrows.

Yes, count your blessings and name them one by one. But if there are days when all you can do is name your pains instead, know that this is also holy unto God. God longs for and hears the cries of the brokenhearted and not just the praise of the blessed.

 © Yolanda Pierce