Two Wings: Race, America, and the Church
America has reached a point where the subliminal veil of pervasive injustice has been categorically removed and a bright light is now shining on its powerful and suppressive essence. The erroneous thought of living in a post-racial America is truly a façade. This reality, though intellectually denied and refuted through a lens of privilege, is now forcing all of humanity, at least those who elect to be privy to and abreast of National and International events of racial trauma, to make choices, espouse a position, or retreat behind the Eurocentric hegemonic walls of superiority, colorblindness, supremacy, imperialism, and racism.
Those of the African Diaspora in America see racial injustice as a collective stream, package, trend, pattern, and system of oppression, while a healthy chunk of white America views such incidents as the killings of Oscar Grant, Travon Martin, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and my brother in-law Derrick DD Jones, as dismissive isolated incidents. This difference of tragic interpretation and schematic processing is at the core of a formulaic American racial divide. Though seldomly acknowledged by the American white power structure, this divide impacts every stitch or Americas complex fabric, including the church.
While preparing to write this narrative, I randomly pulled a CD from the side of by bed, given to me on my birthday 11 months ago entitled, “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” I had never read this letter, but I engaged the dramatized narration and was immediately struck and amazed at its crisp relevance, especially in conjunction to the protests, demonstrations, and die-ins, as community and national actions in response to the grand jury verdicts in the deaths – at the hands of police – of Michael Brown Jr. (Ferguson Missouri) and Eric Garner (New York).
Although the prophetic words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were rendered in 1963, they remain profoundly true from national and church perspectives, seamlessly speaking to our current 21st century context and current racial crisis. Stated 52 years ago, but applying perfectly to our current postmodern epoch, Dr. King said about national conditions that support institutional systems of oppression and the outgrowth need for critical analysis, problem exposure, and a need for assertive response, mindful protest, and action:
“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured”
(http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html — All Letter from a Birmingham Jail quotes were retrieved from an online source: African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania).
The problematic ills that inflict and afflict our nation and globe, by way of white supremacy and its byproducts of white privilege, pigmentocracy, colorism, physiognomy, phrenology, racism, and institutional racism, must be strategically and intelligently exposed. Until the visible and invisible dominance of a white superiority structure is appropriately recognized, stamped-as-such, diagnosed, and healed, our nation will continue to simmer, boil, and ultimately explode. As Dr. King stated, discussions of the truth and actions of reform are not responsible for unrest, tension, or visible injustice – they simply uncover the substratum of brutality, greed, and coloniality that has existed at the core of America since its colonized inception. Remaining silent about the malady does not equal malady resolved.
Do not be deceived, although attention is easily focused on various police departments and the concept of policing in America, the real problem is the spirit structure of white supremacy, of which current and historic vitriol between African American and communities of color, toward the officers of the law who serve them are a mere symptom of the larger problem. Thus made intensely manifest through police killings of unarmed Black males in 2014, the stage is set for the work of 2015 – and beyond – to continually be a time for problem exposure, protest, deep, transparent, and vulnerable dialogue, and policy and legal transformation. In the words of Dr. King over five decades ago, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
Clearly we have made tremendous strides in America, but what remains emphatically identifiable, alive and thriving is the structure of white superiority, which automatically puts Black worth at risk, both consciously and unconsciously, making it even more insidious and dangerous. Because it exists as an invisible structure, it is couched within a context that allows people to deny its overt existence. Thus, if one attempts to dialectically, and with critical consciousness, address the monstrous presence of supremacy and oppression – people, organizations, and groups are then labeled race baiters, agitators, playing the race-card, trouble makers, militant, anti-police, anti-America, and racist. Yet, such a reaction is evidence of the existence of the structure because speaking against it always comes with a price in all its multiple formations, as will be discussed later about New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio.
From a jail cell and in the timeless words of Dr. King, through his fight against segregation or terror systemically and institutionally enforced upon African Americans he said, “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Our current climate in America, with various forms of seething unrest, with communities and police on guard, the church is not exempt or immune from the problems. The church is comprised of people, thus assuming a stale, neutral, and passive disposition, is a total disempowerment of the gospel message. Predominately African American churches, churches of color, diverse churches, and predominantly white churches must be assertively in dialogue with each other, developing strategic approaches to address national and international forms of injustice and oppression. However, we have a full plate of ministry domestically (sometimes right outside our church building doors and especially in our homes and families), before seeking to resolve issues overseas. I am a Church of Christ preacher, so of course my focus is on the behavior of the church, but the same principle of resolute action is to be applied for every synagogue, temple, or mosque in America. The Word and kingdom of God is not passive. Remember the words of Christ “…The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). This passage is not advocating violence, it validates and forewarns that the struggle and fight against injustice and unrighteousness is necessary and unavoidable.
What is the position of your church when assessing the conditions of all peoples in America? In terms of Blackness, are incidents viewed as individualistic and through a lens of victim-blame, or are some elements viewed as systemic, pervasive, and/or institutional? Paul the apostle said, “…There should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26). Does the white church collectively have regard and concern for forms of African American oppression, or is it viewed as an existential reality, beyond the reach of church intervention? Does your church have any form of a mission program on African soil? If it does, what is its mission towards urban America?
Some of all races in the church have adopted a dangerously colorblind approach within the spiritual walls of the ekklesia. Some of us do so by postulating scriptures such as Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The passage is divine and true, but it does not mean the aforementioned groups are free from struggle and oppression, simply because they are in the church. It actually emphasizes the opposite. It is acknowledgment of the destructive schism that inherently exists within the groups and operates as a motif and deep plea to shatter that reality in the church. However, without intentional admission of our racialized problem in America, inside and outside the church, solution is humanly impossible. Galatians 3:28 is the creative mission and expectation we are to radically reach terrestrially, but we are currently off the mark, especially via behaviors of silence. The passage explains God’s pure look at all of humanity, but it is not how humanity looks at self. Whether articulated or not, and as controversial a statement as it is, a spirit of white supremacy still governs and influences the church.
As I started this literary project, I had no intent of including excerpts from Dr. King, but after engaging his letter from the Birmingham jail, the pointedness and relevance was astounding. Additionally, post assassination, America loves Dr. King and embraces him as a martyr, leader, voice-of-reason, hero, and iconoclastic revolutionary. He is often referenced in our current climate as a model of response and appropriate action and one of the greatest Americans ever to have lived. However, in reflection of his true work and ideals, does America really believe in the premise, purpose, and American critique of Dr. King? Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, Independents, and Tea Party members all speak well of him when it fits their agenda. Yet fifty-two years ago King was critical of the church and white response to struggle and said, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions.”
How much change have we really made at the internal core of American structural dominance and how courageous are white members of the church in the face of addressing struggle? King went on to say about the position of the white church, “Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” In addition, similar to today, he revealed the fact that some in the church were encouraged to keep the law because it was law, and not because full freedom was morally right. This was all embedded in a notion that the mindset for the African American was to be systems-patient, maintaining a desire for change, but not pushing for it too swiftly. Dr. King said about the white church mentality, “I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.”
Part of our American struggle toward a universal deployment of love, fairness, and righteousness toward all people, and especially those who were placated and brutalized under slavery, manifest destiny, and genocide of the natives, is our inability to speak in truth terminology about our American past and American present. Through it all the holistic concept of violence gets affixed to the violent and misguided protestors who in reaction commit acts violence. Yet, America must come to terms with its imbedded nature of violence, launched against the oppressed of the nation. Despite the horrific deaths, lynching, rape, family separating, and whippings of the African American maafa, Dr. King said from a Birmingham jail cell, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case.” Violence at the hand of our white power structure is just as American as baseball and apple pie and to assume there would be no trickle-down results is absurd. Because of that we must also continue to understand the connective tissue of Black-on-Black violence and homicide to our American legacy of violence and utter disregard for life and Black Worth.
We are still dealing with American violence today, but clearly it is connected to the legacy of our national past. King said in response to the Birmingham police, “I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys…”
From a spiritually cosmic and theological perspective, it must be understood that the true source and influence of violence is demonic, and that influence dictates through hidden, unseen, and hierarchical powers. The Bible records in Ephesians 6:12, “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (NLT). Also through apocalyptic imagery Revelation 6:3-4 prophesies, concerning a spirit of global violence, “And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. 4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”
Under the theological context of Revelation, the spirit of violence is beyond a human trajectory of blame, it is the essence of evil, and that evil can swell up in anyone at any given time. The problem is, when such evil operates under a hegemon, it fosters greater levels of destruction amongst the oppressed. Because of that, the entire condition and platform must be assessed. With unbalanced and benign approaches it is easy to fixate upon Black-on-Black homicide, crime, and dehumanization in urban American, but that is simply the scapegoat approach. Degenerate forms of American violence does not have its genesis with Black America, it started with our indigenous Native American and Mexican brothers and sisters (the brutality launched against them), along with kidnappings and European operated slave dungeons on the coast of Ghana West Africa. Though complex and multilayered, our American sickness of racial injustice, educational and prison disproportionality, and poverty is motivated and held firmly in place through the structure of white supremacy.
The book of Revelation provides the solution as rooted in the exclamation, embrace, and living of the gospel message. This divine remedy is about ultimate solution and empowerment for living in a world of evil and darkness, but it does not recluse one from the fight for social justice. I know some will disconnect from this literary discourse because of the inclusion of biblical writ and connotations, but whether Christian, religious, unreligious, atheist, or undecided, white supremacy is a systemic issue that has the power to lock out marginalized groups from constitutionally American customs/rights, whether they be economical, educational, emotional legal, or geographical. For those purposes alone, it is imperative that every American, regardless of political party or race be a moral agent in the anti-racist fight for justice, equality, and equity. It is also essential and critical to understand that a white supremacy structure does not mean a white person is racist, it simply gives credence to an American system that subliminally and at times overtly, gives way to a phenotypically and culturally white-is-right unspoken code.
Outside the earthly solution of a social justice approach, the spiritual solution commissioned globally and to be advanced by the church is the gospel. As depicted in Revelation 14:6-7 the Bible states, “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, 7 Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.”
Symbolically, all will need their two wings to rise above the societal oppressions, so while one is fighting for justice, he or she is not overcome by the pressures and traumas of injustice. The struggle is real and the demonic force of attack will remain consistent as depicted in Revelation 12:14-17:
“And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. 15 And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. 16 And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. 17 And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
The establishment and enforcement of white supremacy not only impacts people outside the white power structure, it also adversely impacts the culture of white. Paulo Freire said in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed “Through critical discovery, both the oppressed and the oppressor manifest behaviors of dehumanization” (p. 33). The essence of white supremacy creates a false and unhealthy sense of superiority for white people (in general), and a detrimental sense of inferiority and dehumanization in African Americans. In the midst of grappling with all these elements, the two wings are necessary to emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically rise above.
Just like some might disengage from this necessary project because of its overlay with biblical connections, others might disengage because of the mere mentioning of white supremacy. However, it is important to note that white supremacy is not the essence of things such as the Ku Klux Klan, swastikas, skinheads, or a white supremacist that spews racial hate, I am addressing the structure of white superiority. As a result a person does not have to be racist to benefit from or be privileged by a white supremacy system. How comfortable is America in admitting this national and historical truth? The continued press for racial harmony and power balance is of necessity and in the words of Dr. King, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” King went on to say “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Despite the Birmingham letter being fifty-two years old it is as relevant and timely as anything being written or discussed today.
This reality is not only true for the secular, it is true for the church and every member therein. For the church to be relevant it must be radical and unafraid to stand for righteousness and national transformation. In reference to this relevance King said, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” He also stated that some ministers have postulated that in terms of the focus of the struggle and fight for holistic justice in America, “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” Eerily, some still present with this same belief and rationale today.
Only you know where you are in your walk with God, commitment to the church, or your secular work for change, but Dr. King made this most profound observation that consistently rings true today: “Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.” The change that America needs will be generated by the church within the church and the America within America that will maintain the radical gumption for action, even when overwhelmed with fear and hopelessness. It will be the powerful unction of love that will keep us pressing, because love in action overcomes fear. Is Black Worth, worthy of your struggle? Will you relinquish some of your comfort to become uncomfortable in the fight for justice for Black men and boys, Black women and girls, the Black family, and the Black community? Fight through the discomfort and fear because “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
As was the case during the civil rights movement, a fight to end American terror on African Americans, a term deodorized as de-segregation, people are again marching, protesting, demonstrating, and some rioting, looting, and burning. All in response to the grand jury verdicts in the police killings of Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner, followed by the unbelievably quick shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice, while he played in the park with a BB gun. Although these individuals are real people and represent real families, their fatal tragedies are now symbolic images, again exposing American racist structures. Exposing or addressing the brutal historicity of America is not the essence of hate or a lack of American Patriotism, it is a sublime act of vulnerable love, the deepest form of love imaginable. The true essence of radical love provides what is needed, opposed to and want is wanted.
Through our times racially in America, one can get caught in the realm of looking myopically at rudimentary accuracies, failing to understand the symbolic nature of conceptions such as, “I Can’t Breathe”, “Hands Up Don’t, Shoot”, or “Black Lives Matter.” In the cases of Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner some were sidetracked with the evidentiary mechanics of hands actually being in the air, whether or not Eric Garner could breathe, or if a chokehold was used. For example, in November of 2014, Fox News lambasted the St. Louis Rams wide receivers for exiting their stadium tunnel, running onto the playing field before thousands with their hands up as a show of support and a response to the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. What is missed is the fact that, despite those accuracies, the slogans and gestures now represent national movements and mindsets that white supremacy and their outgrowths must come to a swift end. In another symbolic gesture, the following week some St. Louis Rams fans burned the jerseys of those players. What was their crime? It was non-verbally speaking against the white power structure.
In response to the “I Can’t Breath” slogan, the New York Police Department (NYPD) developed the slogan, “I Can Breathe.” I also saw another controversial shirt and image (uncertain of the source) that depicted “United States Police Officer” as a badge in the center, with “Breathe Easy – Don’t Break Laws” across the front. Historically American police have always been viewed as an extension and enforcement hand of white supremacy. As an example of the power and white supremacy structure, notice the dynamic between the New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio and NYPD. Mayor de Blasio was deemed anti-police, after making comments on December 3, 2014, after the Grand Jury verdict cleared the NYPD officer(s) from being indicted in the killing of Eric Garner. In response to the verdict and press conference, Mayor de Blasio said in regards to his biracial son Dante, “We’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with police officers who are there to protect him.”
The statement of Mayor de Blasio was viewed as anti-police and the NYPD members felt thrown under the bus and un-supported. After the heartbreaking and tragic slayings of two NYPD Officers in Brooklyn (Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu) on December 20, 2014, the perceived comments of de Blasio were deemed contributory by NYPD. Additionally and as a show of disgust, at the funeral for Rafael Ramos, hundreds of officers turned their backs as the Mayor approached the podium and microphone. This was not the first time backs were turned on de Blasio for his comments about his son, but this was the grandest stage.
As many African American families, Mayor de Blasio confessed that he has coached his biracial African American son to take necessary precautions when contacted by police. However, due to the fact that he voiced this concern and reality on a national and international stage, a direct remark that targeted and indicted the spirit and structure of white supremacy, he was shunned and asked to apologize for his perceived, incendiary comments. The power of structural white supremacy in America is so strong, even when those privileged by the system acknowledge its flaws, it comes with a price. This is the same power structure that prevents some officials, athletes, and celebrities from taking a public stand against injustice, fearing career, financial, and brand reprisal, while others elect to safely verbally over-identify with its systemness. Regardless of the race of a police officer, simply by way of representation, law enforcement agencies have always been viewed as an arm of white supremacy, because of the historical connection, starting with slave patrols.
The words of Mayor de Blasio were not designed to eradicate the daily sacrifice and countless good deeds of police across the nation; he simply entered emotional space and spoke from the heart about what he has to do in his own home, to ensure the greatest chance of survival for his son. Despite NYPD outrage towards his comments, they remain true. Black males are simply more at risk and Black male children and teenagers are more at risk of being viewed as older and more dangerous than their white peers. This was the exact case with Tamir Rice. He was not viewed as a child, he was viewed as a dangerous Black man. This type of viewing of Black boys as older, more lethal, and prone to criminality happens daily in our urban communities and educational school systems across America.
In a research study entitled The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children (2014), it was concluded that in comparison to other races, Black boys are perceived more culpable for their actions, less innocent (criminal justice context), and considered to be older than their actual age, according to the research, a result of implicit dehumanization. In terms of the research results “These findings demonstrate that dehumanization of Blacks not only predicts racially disparate perceptions of Black boys but also predicts racially disparate police violence toward Black children in real-world settings.” Additionally as stated in the research, “for middle-class White males, the period of time when boys are not held fully responsible for their actions can extend well into their late 20s. In contrast, the present research suggests that Black children may be viewed as adults as soon as 13, with average age overestimations of Black children exceeding four and a half years in some cases.” Regretfully, yet appreciative of the empirical data, “…Although most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood, Black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious” (Retrieved from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online Feb. 24, 2014; pages 540-541 – http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0035663.pdf).
Empirically speaking, Mayor de Blasio shared 34 words of his emotional truth, as did President Obama at the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin, but under a white supremacy structure, if the truth depicts American and Eurocentric hegemony in a negative or oppressive realm, it will be fought against with great vigor. This is where we are in America and the struggle for righteous, just, and fair treatment for all must continue, with a specific focus on those in America of the African diaspora. If the premise and or preference is to remain silent because of the offensive and painful nature of the conversation, it yet again demonstrates the power of white supremacy. If the condition cannot be discussed – the assumption must be that the humanity and humanness of the African American is less important than the mere struggle of white introspection and action for change.
White supremacy is initially invisible as a structure, but when it acts, its evil brutality, greed, and dehumanization toward its opponents, is readily seen, felt, and experienced. In Ephesians 2:2 the Bible describes the essence of a demonic evil as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.” Thus, just as the evil of the devil acts under a mask of invisibility, when it strikes, the brutality and effects are experienced across the globe.
In your unique way and through your sphere of influence, there is no greater time to act. While Dr. King sat in a Birmingham jail for his acts of righteousness, he first felt offended at being labeled an extremist by some within the white power structure, but he soon changed his disposition about the negative overtone of the label. He said “…Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Dr. King concluded the above portion of his letter with a challenge that is presented to us all, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”
In your work toward making America, the church, community, policy, law, judicial systems, education, democracy, family, and the complexities within them better, moving away from the comforts of privilege and silence, what kind of extremist will you be in the holistic struggle for Social Justice and an anti-racist America?
Supporting Sermonic Discourse:
Two Wings: The Bible, Ferguson, NY, Cleveland, & America (Part I)
Two Wings: Race, America, & the Church (Part II)
Dr. Ammar Saheli,
Minister, West Oakland Church of Christ
Director, Student Support Services (SLZUSD)
CEO, Saheli7 Educational Consulting