The Other Lie (by Lisa Sharon Harper)

Believe it or not, this week marks one month since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event which sparked protests across the country and ignited some important conversations about race in America. To help us reflect on what has happened since that day—and what still needs to happen in response—I’ve invited my friend Lisa Sharon Harper to share about her experience in Missouri and to pose some tough questions about the past and future. 

Lisa is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith–which releases this month. She has written extensively on tax reform, comprehensive immigration reform, health care reform, poverty, racial and gender justice,  and transformational civic engagement. Those familiar with Lisa's work know that she’s an all-around woman of valor—smart, compassionate, bold, and kind. May those with ears, hear....

***

He stood. Nervous; he shifted his weight from left to right, then leaned left again, as if asking the wall to hold him up. He looked at me, unsure.

I nodded as if to say: “It’s okay to say it.”

The tall, dirty-blonde, clean-cut, forty-something ministry leader stood before about 20 Evangelical pastors and ministry leaders from across St. Louis, MO. They were squeezed around two long tables in a slightly raised and sectioned-off area of the dining room. The general public sat on ground level within ear-shot of our “private” conversation. 

This dialogue at Three Kings Public House, a Washington University area bar and grill,  was convened to help St. Louis’ evangelical clergy begin to process their responses to the explosive conflict taking place only 20 minutes away in Ferguson, MO. 

Moments before the 40-something stood, I had shared about the biblical concept of shalom. White, black, and Asian-American leaders of evangelical churches, networks, and ministries considered the implications of three spiritual truths:

1)   Every human being on the face of the earth—every person in this restaurant, every person on the street, and every single person in Ferguson—is made in the image of God. 

2)   That means, all things being equal, every single person on earth was created with the command and the capacity to exercise Genesis 1:26-27 dominion, which means to steward or in modern terms, to exercise agency or lead. 

3)   To diminish the ability of humans to exercise dominion, is to diminish the image of God in them—and to diminish God’s image on earth. And the fastest and surest way to diminish the ability of humans to exercise agency, to —to lead is through poverty or oppression.

The pastors reflected on how it made them feel (in their gut) to imagine being led by the residents of Ferguson. For Isaiah 61 says, our society’s healing will come from their leadership.
The 40-something leaned against the wall, then stood straight, looked at the group and spoke the words: 

“As a white man,” he said, “I have been taught that I was created to lead everyone else.”

Another St. Louis faith leader stood and confessed: “It never even occurred to me that I would be led by the people of Ferguson. It never entered my mind as a possibility.” 

Last week, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today called The Lie. That article shined light on a core spiritual lie at work in Ferguson and across our nation. 

“Here it is,” I wrote, “plain and simple: Black people are not fully human. In most crass terms—they are animals.”

Today, one month after the shooting death of Michael Brown, I turn the coin to find another spiritual lie on the flip side.

Here it is—plain and simple: White people alone are fully human. In most crass terms—they were created to exercise dominion over everyone else.

Over the top?  No.

Look full in the face at American political history…and current reality:  

Twenty-five years before the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Franklin argued that whiteness is superior and dubbed the English to be the only truly white people.

White dominion.

Fourteen years after the Declaration that declared “all men are created equal” our founding fathers passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared only white men could be naturalized into American citizenship. The Act barred both free and enslaved blacks from the rights of citizenship, laid the foundation for the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, and triggered more than a century of Supreme Court cases like Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922), where Ozawa argued that as a Japanese man, he was white. 

White dominion.

Flip forward. Blacks secured civil rights, but survey the economic landscape 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as Nicholas Kristof did in a recent New York Times column, "When Whites Just Don’t Get It." The economic disparity between blacks and whites is worse now than it was before the Civil Rights Movement, Kristof warned. In fact, it is actually worse in the U.S. right now than it was in Apartheid South Africa. Let that sink in for a minute.

White dominion.

Now consider the five unarmed black men killed by police in the last month: Michael Brown, and Ezell Ford, and Eric Garner, and John Crawford III, and Dante Parker. According to a recent study these men and boys were the tip of the ice berg: 313 black men were killed by cops, security guards or vigilantes in 2012—that’s one death every 28 hours. An Aljazeera America report identified the common denominator between most of these deaths saying: “people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands and that the police initiate violence, despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.”

White dominion.

Finally, consider the militarization of our society’s response to recent racialized conflict: From tear-gassed protesters and check points on Ferguson thruways to calls for a militarized response to immigrant children fleeing oppression in neighboring countries. 

White dominion.

Recounting our nation’s recurrent history of white militarized backlash after periods of ethnic progress, Dr. Carol Anderson, Associate Professor of African American History at Emory University, surmised in a recent Washington Post commentary that Ferguson was not about black rage against cops, but rather about white rage against progress. I put it in theological terms: Ferguson was about the death of white dominion and the ruling set of our nation fighting to hold onto a lie.

Within 29 years, whites will be an ethnic minority in the U.S. That demographic shift poses a grave threat to white racialized political, social, and economic dominance. Always the steely-mouthed sounding board of her party,  Ann Coulter characterized the demographic shift as feeling like rape.

Ann Coulter’s feeling of violation reveals fear rooted in a core spiritual lie: She either fears 1) that something is fundamentally wrong with a world where whites don’t rule, or 2) that non-white people are incapable of leading. As a result, in 29 years our nation will falter. In either case, the root of the fear is a theological lie that whites should rule over everyone else and, by implication, whites alone are fully human. 

Now here’s the kicker about core spiritual lies. Lest you think that Ann Coulter stands alone, core spiritual lies are “core” because they infiltrate the basic belief system and structures of a society. Most people live their daily lives in obedience to and guided by the lie. 

In the United States, a ruling class has being established; along with it an assumed underclass. We see it clearly when we observe disparities in schools, healthcare, housing, food access, and justice. This is sin. Images of God are being diminished across our land.

In Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, my coauthors and I offer Nehemiah as an example of one who confronted the lies of his time. He entered into lament, understood the impact of the lies, and confessed the ways he and his people contributed to his nation’s devastation. 

Now, imagine this: What would it look like for the people of God to cultivate the image of God in every corner of our nation? 

And what if we did this through just investing, through disciplined consumption, and by legislating toward a world where governance affirms the truth (not the lie) - that all humanity is created in God’s image and therefore, has capacity to lead? 

There is no supreme humanity. There is only humanity.

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“God and the Gay Christian”: An Invitation

Later this week (or maybe next week), I’ll be sharing a post I’ve been working on for months now entitled, “Why I Changed My Mind About Same-Sex Relationships.”  

The post has been a long time coming, but as I’ve been in conversation with my gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends (both those who support same-sex relationships and those who hold the more traditional view), as well as those Christian brothers and sisters with whom I respectfully disagree, I’ve come to believe it’s important to not only be upfront about where I stand but also to explain how I got there.

Certainly there are many other Christians struggling to make sense of what Scripture says about gender and sexuality and who long to do the right thing on behalf of the LGBT people in the Church and in the world. Contrary to popular belief, those journeys are rarely easy or straightforward. Like so many other people, I didn’t arrive at my own conclusions easily or carelessly, but only after many sleepless nights, hours of study, and lots and lots of listening. 

I also believe it is possible to discuss same-sex relationships, as well as other issues related to gender and sexuality, with respect, kindness, passion, and grace, and I hope to model that as best as I can here on the blog, in conversation with you. 

Truth: Matthew's one of the smartest, kindest guys you'll ever meet. Also, his energy and idealism are contagious. I inform him regularly that he's messing with my cynicism. It's delightfully annoying. :-) 

Truth: Matthew's one of the smartest, kindest guys you'll ever meet. Also, his energy and idealism are contagious. I inform him regularly that he's messing with my cynicism. It's delightfully annoying. :-) 

As part of this conversation, I’d like to invite you to participate in a special discussion group here on the blog around Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. He’s also a friend. [Check out this video where Matthew presents much of the content found in God and the Gay Christian.]*

During the course of the discussion, we will also take a brief look at the response to Matthew’s book released by the Southern Baptist Convention.

I plan to host discussions on Wednesdays, following this schedule: 

Wed, September 17: Intro, Chapters 1-2
Wed, September 24: Chapter 3
Wed, October 1: Chapters 4-5
Wed, October 8: Chapters 6-7
Thurs, Oct 9: Chapters 8-10 

In the interest of keeping the discussion civil and diverse, we’ll have a few ground rules: 

1.    The comment section after each post will be carefully monitored and discussions will only last for 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. (I reserve the right to shut down the thread earlier if the conversation gets out of hand.) 

2.    I will be very engaged in the comments following each post, facilitating and monitoring the conversation throughout the day. Matthew will also join in when he can. I want this to feel as much like a real book club discussion as possible. 

3.    It is important to me that the comment section be a safe place for those who hold a variety of views on this subject, including those who disagree with me. No one will be turned away simply because of their ideas, experiences, or convictions. However, I will promptly delete any comment that is hateful, reactive, misleading, or off-topic in order to create a safe environment for those who really want to talk. 

Lord willing, we’ll begin the conversation next Wednesday.  In the meantime, check out God and The Gay Christian as well as The Reformation Project, which seeks to equip LGBT Christians and allies to reform church teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity (and which has a conference coming up in November). 

*Note: Though I was provided with a complimentary copy of God and the Gay Christian from the publisher, I was not compensated to review or discuss the book (or any others) on the blog. 

Questions? Ideas? 

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"Too Heavy a Yoke": An interview with Chanequa Walker-Barnes about the StrongBlackWoman

Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and psychologist whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for healing, justice, and reconciliation in the Christian church and beyond. 

I first learned about Dr. Walker-Barnes when Christena Cleveland wrote a stirring response to her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the impact that the icon of the StrongBlackWoman has upon the health and well-being of African American women. I was so intrigued I read the book myself and was challenged, encouraged, and moved by it. The chapter on the Trinity profoundly changed the way I think about self-sacrifice and interdependence, particularly as a woman, so I knew the moment I finished the book I had to have the author on the blog. 

Dr. Walker-Barnes has earned degrees from Emory University, the University of Miami, and Duke University.  A candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church, she is licensed to practice psychology in Georgia and North Carolina. She is currently Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling in the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.  Born and raised in Atlanta, Dr. Walker-Barnes is married to Delwin Barnes, a mechanical engineer. They are the proud and very happy parents of one son, Micah. Check out her Web site here. 

***


RHE: I recently finished Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, and one sentence in particular jumped out at me. In the wry voice of the story’s protagonist, Ifemelu, Adichie writes:  “In describing black women you admire, always use the word ‘STRONG’ because that is what black women are supposed to be in America.” That sentence took my breath away because it held so much truth, and yet it was a truth I’d never identified before. In Too Heavy a Yoke, you unpack this idea, identifying the StrongBlackWoman as “a legendary figure, typified by extraordinary capacities for caregiving and for suffering without complaint. She is a cultural myth that defines—and confines—ways of being in the world for women of African descent.” Where do we see this archetype/ideology in popular culture and in day-to-day life? Where might we recognize her?

CWB: It actually might be more appropriate to ask, Where don't we recognize her? Lifetime just premiered a new reality series called Girlfriend Intervention. The show's premise is that "trapped inside every White girl is a strong Black woman ready to bust out." It features four Black women who are "taught to always have it together and tell you like it is." They give makeovers and life advice to White women. The show seems to do a pretty accurate job of capturing the caricature of the StrongBlackWoman. Unfortunately, like most people, it fails to interrogate what that stereotype really entails. Instead, it celebrates it.

But that's not the only example. The StrongBlackWoman is ubiquitous in popular culture and in day-to-day life. It's hard to find a film or television character portrayed by a Black actress that does not personify the StrongBlackWoman in some way. You see her as Miranda Bailey in Grey's Anatomy, as Olivia Pope in Scandal, and as a key figure in every Tyler Perry film. Madea is the StrongBlackWoman on steroids! 

Unfortunately, examples of the StrongBlackWoman are not limited to film. You also see her in the African American women whom you encounter on a daily basis. One of the most striking experiences that I've had in writing this book is the fact that when I describe what a StrongBlackWoman is, nearly everyone I talk to, regardless of their own race and gender, can identify some woman in their life who lives into the role – a family member, friend, co-worker, or congregation member who constantly sacrifices herself on behalf of others, who carries an inordinately heavy load of responsibility, and who rarely asks for help. 

You write about how the pressure to live up to the StrongBlackWoman ideal affected your own health, self-esteem, and emotional and relational well-being. How does the pressure to be perpetually strong hurt Black women?  How is it "an ill-fitting suit of armor"? 

About ten years ago, I found myself in the midst of a stress-induced health crisis. I realized that my personal and emotional suffering came from trying to be all things to all people and taking care of everyone except myself—in other words, trying to be a StrongBlackWoman.

Over time, I began to realize just how widespread a problem this is among Black women and how it's impacting our health. First I noticed it among my therapy clients, many of whom were professional Black women on the verge of physical and emotional breakdown from trying to be strong. Then I noticed it in the church. And when I started looking into health statistics, I realized that there is a major health epidemic among Black women in this country that is hidden under the veneer of strength. For many indicators of physical and emotional health, Black women do more poorly than Black men and women of other races. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS—all these occur at higher rates among Black women. And Black women often have the highest mortality rates from many major causes of death.

On the outside, it may look like we have it all together. But inside, we're suffering, even to the point of death.

You say that often “the church reinforces the mythology of the StrongBlackWoman by silencing, ignoring, and even romanticizing the suffering of Black women.” Can you give us some common examples of how that happens?

I see this happen a lot in the church when Black women suffer tragedies such as financial struggle, a terminal or fatal illness, and the death of a child or spouse. Those women are encouraged to be strong, that is, to hide any signs of distress and to pretend as if everything is okay. Recently, an ordained African American woman posted on Facebook, "Pretending to be happy when you are going through a difficult time in life is just an example of how strong a person you really are." I decided not to respond, but it was really frustrating to observe as several other Black women co-signed that message. In the church broadly, there remains this view that suffering is women's lot in life. Of course, that comes from a distortion of Genesis 3. That view becomes even further complicated when it's layered with race. In the church, it seems to me that Black women - more than any other racial/gender group - are taught that strain and suffering are indicative of holiness. We are taught to put on a good face in the midst of our struggle, rather than to ask for help. That's pretty convenient for the church, because as long as they praise us for being strong in the midst of suffering, they're excused from having to do anything about our suffering.

I think a lot of Christian women, myself included, tend to internalize Christian teachings about self-sacrifice in ways that are unhealthy. You argue that a better understanding of the Trinity can help women see mutual self-giving, rather than self-denial and self-sacrifice, as the paradigm for Christian love. How is that?

Christian tradition has long held that humanity's primary sin is pride. So we are constantly being admonished to relinquish our pride and to empty ourselves on behalf of others. "No cross, no crown" is the way we often hear it. But for many—perhaps most—women, our fundamental problem is not that we have too high a view of ourselves; it's that we have too low a view. We do not view and love ourselves as fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the Divine. Our issue is not that we need to empty ourselves of pride and learn to deny ourselves. Most women – regardless of race – master that pretty early in life. Our problem tends to be giving of ourselves to the point where there is no self left, to the point that we don't even realize who we are and who we are called to be. 

The beauty of the Trinity, though, is that it gives us a different model of relating to one another. In the Trinity, we have three beings who fully contain and are fully contained by each other without being diminished by one another. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and yet they are also unique. It's a mystery that we may never fully understand, but it points us to the idea that being in relationship with one another is not about sacrificing ourselves to the point of losing our identities. It's about being interdependent in a way that our identities are supported and reinforced by our relationships.

It’s rare to find a book that so seamlessly combines the academic and the pastoral, but Too Heavy a Yoke does this beautifully. Who do you especially hope will read it and why? 

I am continually struck by the fact that there is little public discourse – in the church or anywhere – about the health epidemic facing Black women and it's connection to the myth of the StrongBlackWoman. I wanted to write a book that would raise the awareness of spiritual care professionals, to help them to see the realities of Black women's lives so that they could better minister to them. I want this book to be read by pastors, pastoral counselors, chaplains, and leaders of lay ministries. I hope, too, that it will extend beyond the church to health care professionals. And I even hope that it will find its way into the hands of Black women who are weighed down by the burden of strength.

At the same time, I didn't want this to be pop psychology. I am a professor, after all, so I wanted the book to be academically rigorous. My aim was to write the main body of the text so that it could be read by a wide array of people, sort of in the manner of bell hooks. I tried to keep the professional jargon to the footnotes. 

***

Be sure to check out Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

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