Over the past few months, there have been a few things that have captured a large amount of my attention, the #Rhizo15 cMOOC, the Love Bade Me Welcome poetry workshop at Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and the discussions about race, from Rachel Dolezal to the shooting in Charleston.
How do these fit together? I’m not sure, but perhaps the wanderings of my mind can help bring a little focus. I started off this evening, looking at online theological education online. One of my first stops was The Top 20 Online Theology Master’s Degree Programs. There is a lot more out there than I thought there was. So, I started looking for theological MOOCs, but I didn’t find so much there. The little bit that I did find was more on the level of Introduction to the New Testament. From there, I started looking for philosophy MOOCs and other esoteric MOOCs. Anyone up for a Lacan MOOC?
This led me back to the #RHIZO15 group. Even though the MOOC is officially over, the community lives on and recently, one of the posts was to a Google Doc, Charleston Syllabus (by and for Philosophers). It looks like some interesting material. One link was to Why is my curriculum white? In this video there was lots of talk about colonialism and empire.
This reminded me of a book someone had mentioned on Facebook, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance
It brought me full circle me thoughts about theological education. To what extent is theology education today white? Or, if not white, Laodicean?
As I, a bedraggled looking old white man
ran my errands
in a predominantly black part of town.
I saw two people,
an older black man in a nice suit
and a plainly dressed black woman
standing next to
the tract rack that read
“What the Bible Really Says”.
I thought of my friend,
a black minister
putting on her shirt and collar,
the belt of truth
and the breastplate of righteousness
and pausing to think
of the martyrs
past and present.
“What the Bible Really Says”
I thought about how God loves me
more than I can understand
How God loves this couple
more than I can understand.
I thought of the commandment
Love your neighbor as yourself,
no matter what their skin color
no matter how different they are from you.
So I looked around
to make sure there wasn’t a pickup truck
with a Confederate flag
and I walked over to them,
shook their hands,
thanked them for bearing witness,
and told them what they already knew.
God loves them, loves all of us,
more than we can understand.
It is late in the evening, and I am bone tired. This has been my third evening out late. Last night, while I was at Church for prayer and a vestry meeting, nine of my brothers and sisters were killed in a church in South Carolina. When I learned about the shooting, I wept and prayed.
It was a busy day for me at work today, as the health center I worked at held its tenth annual Weitzman Symposium. During brief breaks, I found moments to glance and the news and offer up more prayers.
In the evening, I went to the commencement of the 2015 class of Health Leadership Fellows from the CT Health Foundation. This is a program aimed at address racial and ethnic health disparities. Some of my closest friends from the fellowship were not there and I wondered if they were at prayer vigils.
Now, I’m finally home, and trying to wrap my head around what has happened. I read stories about people trying to avoid talking about racism in the shooting by a white supremacist of nine brothers and sisters at a church. They prefer to call it an attack on Christianity. They are half right. The White Supremacist movement is an attack on Christianity.
I’ve been struck by the reactions to Rachel Dolezal I’m coming across online. Just a few of them include things like
I think she is a narcissistic asshole.
She is a liar, a fraud.
She is raising important issues about the definition of race.
She is racing important issues about identity
She is the result of a messed up childhood.
I remember years ago when I worked for a large international bank. I hired a management consultant to help navigate the tricky waters. In one meeting, she suggested being aware of how people react to you, is, at least in part, a result of who they are, instead of who I am.
“Imagine yourself surrounded by a big silver ball”, she suggested. “What is coming at you is often a reflection of the others. Just let it reflect back.”
So, I thought about Rachel Dolezal. Is she a giant Rorschach test? Are the people calling her a “narcissistic asshole” really making a comment about themselves? What about those calling her a liar or fraud?
To me, I like exploring issues around identity or the definition of race and I see that aspect of her. I don’t tend to think of my childhood as being as messed up as it seems hers was, but I ran into my share of dysfunction during my childhood.
As I try to make sense of all of this, let me offer this poem:
“You’re not really black.
Your biological father was white.
You haven’t suffered like black people have.”
She put down her copy
of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen’s
“Black Power Statement”
“My Father is Black”, she replied
“His Son suffered more than any of us can imagine
so that we could be brothers and sisters.”
For the past few days, I’ve been very focused on the story of Rachel Dolezal, the woman in Washington who has passed for a black woman for many years. You can see this in my recent blog posts. Why are we, as a country, so interested in this? Some suggest that it is because she lied. However, politicians lie all the time. So much so that there is the old joke:
How do you know if a politician is lying?
His lips are moving.
So, I don’t buy that it is because she is lying. Some of this may be because it is manufactured by conservative bloggers, who seem to dislike anyone who works for civil rights. Conservative blogs appear to be really enjoying this. Some of this may be because of issues of cultural appropriation. Although, when you look at it, it appears as if her she has appropriated much less and is much more friendly to the culture she is adopting from than so much cultural appropriation we see today.
For me, perhaps the biggest issue is one of identity. How do we identify ourselves? Black? White? Male? Female? Straight? Gay? There are many labels we can use on ourselves. There are many labels we can use on others and others can use on us. Yet these labels may not always feel right. We may feel that our real gender is different than our biological gender. We may feel that our sexual orientation is different from what is dominant in the culture. Perhaps, we may feel that our race or ethnicity is different from the race or ethnicity we were born into.
As an aside, it is curious to think about how social media is feeding this. As I write this, my youngest daughter says, “Can you guess what decade I belong in?” She had just completed one of those many quizzes that suggest our identity might be different from how we were born. Social media is telling us about the fluidity of identity.
Add to this, advertising. If we want an identity that will be accepted by others, all we have to do is buy the right products to look darker, lighter, have straighter or curlier hair, wear the right clothes, etc.
Recently, I’ve had some experiences that have gotten me thinking about my identity. Who am I, really? What do I desire? How does this relate to how people see me? How does this relate to how God sees me? How does what I desire relate to what God desires for me?
In one book I’m currently reading, “The Wounding and Healing of Desire” has a great line, “It is the wisdom of Christianity to understand that we are so wounded we do not know who we are.”
Now some people will suggest that at least we know who someone’s parents are. To go back to Rachel Dolezal, her biological parents are both white and say she is white. Yet this comes back to another idea from Christianity.
In Mark 3:33-35 Jesus says, ""Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.""
I would imagine that for her, and for many of us, doing the will of God means, at least in part, fighting for civil rights. Who is Rachel's father? Whoever fights for civil rights. Yes, Rachel perhaps has many black fathers.
Here, I will go to another verse. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, “To the weak I became weak in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some of them.”
So, by becoming black, Rachel is standing in the tradition of the Apostle Paul.
Then, there is the artist angle. Rachel received her Masters of Fine Arts from Howard University as a white woman married to a black man. One aspect of art is to get people to look at the world around them in a different way. As a piece of performance art, intentional or unintentional, Rachel has excelled in this, propelling the discussion about the social construction of race into the limelight. This is an area I’m especially hopeful about. By getting more people to think about racial identity, she may do more than all the handwringing Facebook posts about police brutality.
This gets to why what she has done is so radical. It joins with a great Christian and artistic tradition of challenging the way we see the world, in the way we understand our identity, and ultimately, in the way we live.