Monday, March 24, 2008

Exorcising Our Demons

by Melvin Bray

This is a
Home-Training essay...

If properly understood, Senator Barak Obama's remarks last week at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA, constitute one of the most significant and honest public addresses ever made on America's 400-year struggle with race. Had we heeded DuBois' 1903 prophetic warning, The Souls of Black Folks, it would have found voice in the 20th century. There is a conversation America has, literally in some cases, been dying to have. That conversation is not in favor of any particular presidential candidate. Please don't relegate and dismiss it on those grounds. However, it is unlikely that we would be so inescapably confronted with such issues outside of a person of color experiencing some measure of success in a bid for the highest elected office in the land.

In her God's Politics post, "Putting Rev. Wright's Preaching in Perspective," Diana Butler Bass implored us to listen better to one another. Now let me suggest something to listen for. The thought is simple, but the lesson is not: Not everyone has experienced America in the same way. And we must lay down the self-absorption that makes us think this doesn't matter, if we are ever to begin to appreciate each other.

Permit a timely example. If you are not Black, you may not know that the Black church is the theatre in which Blacks have historically exorcised their demons—with the pastor as both theologue and thespian embodying the collective process of redemption for his/her people every week. Initially, church was the one place we could go that we weren't under massa's whip, which is why we relish it. Eventually, it became the center and sustainer of our community. So most of us understand Rev. Jeremiah Wright in a way that may escape others.

Church equaled life for us. Where else could we go to exorcise the demons of injustice and intransigence? Where else could we go to exorcise the marginalization and invalidation, the defeat and depression, the struggle and scorn? Where else could we go when our children asked—as my daughter did while coloring just the other day—if Jesus were brown or white? My answer was that he was born to Jewish parents, people of color, whom we usually refer to as olive-skinned. And her heartrending response at 5-years-old was: Why can't he be white? In all the pictures, he's white! Where else could we give cathartic voice to our inner demons in hopes of being transformed like the phoenix into "the better angels of our nature?"

Continue reading on God's Politics blog>>> Part 1 & Part 2


  1. In the spirit of Proverbs 15:1 (A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare), I think what has been lost in all of this is the following:

    "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." ~Galatians 3:28

    And according to the Rev. Wright, if white people are truly the enemy (as in his comments regarding black-on-black violence), then the Reverend should remember:

    "You have heard the law that says, 'Love your neighbor' and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that." ~Matthew 5:43-47

    In closing,

    Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. ~Ephesians 4:31

    "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." ~John 13:35

  2. Bishops, priests, pastors, reverends, dominees or whatever are not called to preach gentle answers.

    armed2win we may not agree with the Reverend Wright, however your words and your choice of biblical texts were on the lips of the leaders of apartheid South Africa - the place of the 'these meddlesome priests' was not to be in the in the political arena. Such views constantly appeared in the columns of the Nationalist party press; preach love!

    Many whites came to view men such as Archbishop Tutu, Father Trevor Huddleston and Alex Borain as a troublemakers who should stay out of politics. This is a complete travesty of what the religion of the great prophets was all about. Let us never forget that they too had the words of the ancient book of Proverbs close at hand - nevertheless they chose to speak out.

    And Jesus, the greatest political activist of all time never kept his mouth closed when it came to challenging those adroit politicians the saducees - and those shadowy figures the Pharisees - who would later (66 AD or thereabouts) revert once again to political machinations such as they were capable of during the Hasmonean period.

    Do we need to seek refuge in the soppy sentimentalism of that type of christianity which finds a clarion call in the words 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild'? Let the prophets of our world roar like lions, and let their unwelcome words ring out, however much we may disagree with the message they bear.

  3. Gordon, so you believe that the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to keep peoples of color down?

    You honestly believe that black-on-black violence is morally wrong because it is, in the words of Rev. Wright, "fighting the wrong enemy" (as in rich white people)?

    You mention the abhorrent deplorable conditions of apartheid in South Africa. Where is your same anger regarding injustice for white farmers in South Africa or Zimbabwe?

    Do you truly believe rich white people are the enemy?

    Do you think it's OK for people to denigrate Condeleeza Rice because she isn't black enough?

    Do you really believe that the USA is the USAKKK?

    Is that not full of hate and vitriol? Does that not go against the tenets of what Christ died for? Are we not to "forgive as we have been forgiven"?

    As a person of mixed racial background, how should I feel? I am of Native American ancestry, yet my skin color would be considered white. My ancestors were here before any pilgrims OR slaves, but where is my bully pulpit?

    Who is keeping me down?

    The problem with Wright and those that espouse his thinking is that very question, "Who is keeping me down?" The question should be, "Who is lifting me up?"

    It seems to me that Reverend Wright has gone against the greatest civil rights leader and speech of all time by judging people by the color of their skin as opposed to the content of their character. If that is truly the belief espoused, then the GREAT DR. KINGS work was in vain!

    But I chose to believe differently, and I am thankful that Barack Obama chose the higher path. One that espouses reconciliation, not perpetual hatred, vitriol and anger. And I respect him all the more for it.

    In closing, Gordon, just because people have misused valuable, pertinent and timely scriptures does not negate their validity or power.

  4. "armed2win,"

    having read my article, you know i agree with your last 2 paragraphs. however, you also know that my path to agreement is very different than the line of reasoning you lay out. i would never invalidate the road that has brought you to a hope for "reconciliation, not perpetual hatred, vitriol and anger." i would only ask that you not do so to others.

    it is only in mutual validation that two people can work through differences. however, it is quite invalidating for one party to say to the other, "i'm ready to put our past behind us and since you are not, you're in the wrong." it's invalidating and it's disingenuous, particularly if the one who is "ready" has always had the upper hand in the relationship and has made no effort toward relinquishing that power. believe it or not, such interaction is colonization all over again. everyone deserves the right to get to the place you and i are, on their own terms. as i shared in the article, rev. wright and black nationalism was and integral part of my journey and not something I got "here" in spite of.

    now although we may share a common appreciation for the hope and language of reconciliation, i'm not certain that our sense of what reconciliation entails is the same. for me it's a post-racial/post-modern/post-colonial space and time. so as one who sees colonization and racism as evils, as one who sees the things done and the systems established in the name of colonization and racism as unjust and in need of redress, my answers to the rhetorical questions you posed to gordon are very different than your own:

    "Where is your same anger regarding injustice for white farmers in South Africa or Zimbabwe?" There is no injustice in righting a crime. White farmers in South Africa or Zimbabwe (more accurately, their ancestors) stole that land and continued into the present time to claim all its wealth for their own. It is only just that it be reclaimed in as peaceful a manner as possible and the wealth redistributed to include all.

    "Do you truly believe rich white people are the enemy?" as an identity group, no. but have those who have promoted modern political and economic policies of inequity and injustice and have defended positions of power to maintain those agendas globally been more than predominately rich and white? yes. does that make them the enemy? for many, perhaps. does that excuse us from relating to each other in love? no. open, honest conversation about these things is one such act of love.

    "Is that not full of hate and vitriol?" no... not even the KKK thing. there's plenty of history to justify giving voice to that kind of frustration.

    "Does that not go against the tenets of what Christ died for?" no (although i'm not sure i would say that jesus died for any particular "tenets").

    what would go against the way of jesus, however, is if we were to let our frustrations have the final word. or if we were to demand that the OTHER agree with our telling of their story or agree with our rendition of "history" or agree with our articulation of what the "real concerns" are, before we become willing to "do justly, love mercy and walk humbly" in friendship with one another.

    i'm glad you are here participating in this conversation, and perhaps, as we journey with one another, we'll begin to see the world from each other's eyes and be the better for it.

  5. Melvin, I appreciate your candor and response. Though we may have to "agree to disagree", I choose to respect your views, and thanks for understanding me!

    In my own defense, I have never felt I had the upper hand in anything. I have had to struggle and fight for where I am in life, meager as it may be. I am in no way a man of means, regardless of my skin color, though comparatively, you and I are kings compared to how others live in this world.

    I still stand by Dr. King's dream of judging by character and not skin color. To me, it is disconcerting to see that philosophy, that ideology, that God inspired "color-blindness" absent in Wright's comments and in other like-minded leaders. And as Obama put it, it is indeed heart wrenching to see that the most segregated hour is at church.

    Alarmingly, it is by choice.

  6. Melvin, you have addressed an issue which I really did not want to write about.

    I lived in Africa for 57 years and was subject to the same type of logic in the South African apartheid government school history curriculum - which I studied for ten years - part of that time was spent in an Afrikaans school. The land not only belonged to the whites in their apartheid ideology - the 'blacks' never had a right to it anyway. We all condemn the way the land has been taken back in Zimbabwe, but we cannot deny the return of land which was taken through the force of gunpowder, unfair treaties etc.

    There is one political reality which awaits resolution - a fairer distribution of land in South Africa. Alongside our farm in Natal we had 'black spots' (the apartheid name for black areas) in 1948, when the Nationalist party came to power. Those 'black spots' were often small farms. For generations blacks had lived there - their ancestors had lived and been buried there. Unless the land issue is settled quickly, and very substantially, there will be a repetition of the situation in Zimbabwe.

    From this side of the big pond there is much anger and disgust at the American/British invasion of Iraq and the one-sided approach to the Palestinian situation.

    Regarding the Reverned Wright - certainly we may not agree with all he has said. I am no admirer of Wright. However that is not my point. Let's not use the argument of Ephesians 4:31 to stop the mouth of those who speak out against injustice perpetrated both globally and locally. There is still a place for the prophet - however uncomfortable his message may be. I would hardly describe the main thrust of his message as being false to the Biblical message of the prophets.

  7. Gordon - you certainly have seen a lot of pain and suffering, and I can never fully comprehend what your experience has been, just like I can't fully comprehend Melvin's experience - we can just try to understand each other as Melvin rightly intimated.

    Please understand that I have never justified or supported Apartheid, nor do I support the forced taking of land from Afrikaners or farmers in Zimbabwe as a justification of past wrongs. If we were to espouse that belief system, as stated by Melvin, then it was/is perfectly OK for the Jews to retake all of Israel, which is historically theirs (if you believe in the OT and history). If you espouse that kind of thinking, then technically, my Cherokee ancestors have a right to claim all land not owned by Native Americans as their own, just as do the Cree, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chippewa. And Mexico then has a historical right to take back California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

    Where does it end? Should we all move back to our countries of origin? What about those of us who are a product of the great melting pot?

    Admitting to and correcting past wrongs is a legitimate act of Christian confession and forgiveness, especially when one has sinned against his/her brother/sister, but after sleeping with some of Melvin's comments in my head, I wonder were the confession-forgiveness-redressing becomes "now its time for pay-back".

    And thats why I have a problem with Wright's comments - it's nowhere close to what Jesus taught to do when we have been wronged.

  8. I neglected to mention that the 'black spots' next to our farm in Natal were brutally removed by the apartheid government. The former owners were given a pittance, while whites were able to buy the land for a very reasonable price.

    I also have much personal experience regarding the ownership of land in Zimbabwe. I travelled every two months from Nyamapanda to Harare to Karoi to the Chirundu valley and then back to Bulawayo, past Norton back to Harare and on down to Masvingo and so on. To put it plainly, the unfair distribution of land was unbelievable - it was simply a status quo from colonial and post colonial days. I blame both the British, the Americans and Mugabe for not having resolved this matter long ago. (Remember it was Henry Kissinger who stronly cautioned against paying out the white farmers at the time of independence).

  9. "armed2win," i must apologize. i realized only after i commented that it could be construed that i was numbering you among those being disingenuous. i'm not in a position to make that determination. in fairness, i must allow you to tell your own story of how you reckon with your mixed heritage, even as i've asked you to hear mine. i'm sorry i was not more clear.

  10. this is where the conversation gets interesting :-)! justice is never easy, and i agree with "armed2win" that the most difficult part may be discerning when enough is enough. but isn't that one of the beauties of our faith that it challenges us to grapple with such things, assuring us that there is a "more excellent way?"

    we're finally talking with one another and imagining the possibilities of a more beautiful world. let's not shy away from it. let's hash it out together and hone our skill at imagining:

    -how far back is far enough when it comes to redressing wrongs? is this a useful question or might we have to reframe it?

    -does justice ask us to "turn the tables" or does it challenge us to make room for each other?

    -does a post-colonial perspective demand that the former colonist has to go or does it mean that the former colonist and the formerly colonized work together to redistribute power and wealth?

    -what might a more equitable way look like?

    we often defeat ourselves by telling ourselves that the only possibilities are the ones that already exist. if we can catch a glimpse of a better way, history tells us that we are likely to figure out the logistics of how to get there.

    come on. give me some feedback. how would you answer these questions, add to them or reframe them to be more useful?

  11. I think it is about practicalities and the immediacy of the problem. The pain in Africa is still raw, and fresh - and with their own eyes they can see people living off the fat of the land - when only 30 or so years ago (Zimbabwe) they fought a war over that very land. I hardly imagine we could suggest to South Africans and Zimbabweans that they continue to watch that kind of scene continue.

    Israel? As an Israeli friend once said to me: "there is absolutely no solution there" - and that is a sabra speaking. Sad . . .

  12. the network Amahoro Africa is one of the ways a friend of mine, Claude Nikondeha, is creating space for his countrymen and -women to dream their way forward.

  13. here's the story of Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad,
    Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, who together are creating new possibilities for the holy lands.

  14. Specifically for Africa, something definitely needs to be done, and now it has - by President Bush. He has given more aid to Africa than any other U.S. President. Yes, even more than Bill Clinton. His specific goal has been to fight the raging AIDS virus, and this has endeared him to many there, as evidenced by his recent and very successful trip. He has given and pledged more money than any other nation. Say what you will about the guy - he seems to want a solution there.

  15. As I have watched this 'African game' unravel in Zimbabwe, it has reminded me of what transpired when Mandela was released from prison in South Africa. As I had written in early 1990 the decision by de Klerk would signall the end of an era to some countries in the southern region. Hastings Banda's dictatorial regime in Malawi came to an end - and was followed shortly after by Kenneth Kaunda's loss of power in Zambia. And yet McMillan's 'Winds of Change' address to the South African parliament in 1960 is only partially fulfilled.

    If Tsvangirai comes to power - or the Zimbabwean situation is resolved through negotiation amongst the power brokers, it may well trigger deep heartsearching amongst the black people of South Africa. They will be faced with an extraordinary situation in Zimbabwe - their neighbours have repossessed their land - where do we now stand at this point in our history? The call for the redistribution of land in South Africa will become an ever more urgent and insistent issue as Zimbabwe settles back into normality. It is possible that the final war against colonialism will have reached the borders of South Africa. What has been achieved in South Africa may well be considered as limited when compared to the unresolved land issue in that country - something intensely close to the hearts of African men and women.

    Morgan Tsvangirai? I doubt very much that he is going to hand back land to whites - if he comes to power. I also doubt that Whitehall is about to suggest that to him either. I do not think he would last another day if he wrested farms out of the hands of blacks. Will the just redistribution of land amongst blacks take place? It all depends how much political clout Tsvangirai will have available.

    Ultimately Mugabe will be remembered for taking the land back - not for the destruction he has wrought on black Zimbabweans - that is the way of Africa. Like all Zimbabwean freedom fighters of repute, he will one day be buried with full honours at Heroes acre in Harare.

  16. Melvin,

    Charles here, formerly known only as "Armed2Win". You wanted some ideas, so here goes. I think if we are to ever truly move forward, to create this better, "more beautiful world", we must get beyond the need to equate justice with getting revenge for historical wrongs. I think that is the first step. Why? Too many, with progressive leanings, tend to think that the only way to rectify the racial divide is through the "sharing of wealth and power". It seems to be the common denominator in all of these discussions. Money and power, power and money. As if power and money are sufficient to rectify the slave trade. How much is one person worth, let alone millions? That's why I think reparations goes against the integrity of the Civil Rights movement. Honestly, how does one really go about that without abusing such wealth and power, as is now and has been evidenced in South Africa and Zimbabwe?

    Folks mention the radical teachings by the "prophets of old" when referring to the Rev. Wright, but whenever scripturally principled people refer to some teaching or law from the "prophets of old" (take Exodus and Leviticus and apply certain sexual codes of conduct/misconduct), these same people cry, "Intolerance!" There is a not so subtle hypocrisy to that line of logic.

    The irony is this. Jesus taught people to "turn the cheek". He told his followers to "carry the Roman pack an extra mile." He told those to "do good to them that spitefully use you" - and slavery was definitely despitefull use. Jim Crow was definitely despitefull use. Apartheid was despitefull use. The Cherokee Trail of Tears was despitefull use. Until we can actually look back and forgive (note I didn't say forget), we will never be able to move forward and live beyond bitterness. Why? Because it will always boil down to an us vs. them debate, and "how can I inflict my pain on them?" Call that soppy sentimentalism if you will. If so, then Jesus was soppy and sentimental idealist.

    So, Melvin, I think the first step is forgiveness. Forgiveness goes both ways too. We need to forgive others and ourselves.