There is a postscript to the myth that at the crossroads where blues-legend Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil, it is this: Robert all ready possessed the sound that caused the strings on his guitar to vibrate, hum, and sing with a sound dark and haunting blue…those beautiful, soulful chords and notes. The devil took advantage of something that was all ready happening and deceived Robert in the bargain. I think during our journey through Black History month together, we have wrestled with history and our desires and the question of the Kingdom of God: how do we nurture reconciliation and justice in the here-and-now of the now-and-not-yet? Are we again at a crossroads yet in possession of something stirring deep in our collective souls that we need to trust to emerge with our intention and God’s grace rather than striking a deal with the devil?
When President Obama was elected in 2008, some of the initial talk moved toward saying that America was ‘post-racial’ and that race didn’t matter. Of course, as one Op-Ed from the New York Times pleads: “Race is like weather, we only talk about it when it’s extreme, but it’s always there.” Also, more recently, Ferguson and Staten Island remind us that #blacklivesmatter therefore it does indeed matter!
So, given this, how do we approach racism and nurture reconciliation in the 21st century? For myself, I’m always trying to ask the deeper question beyond the question or at least a clarifying question, so what do we mean by ‘racism’?
In their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith present the case that racial categories are socially constructed and thus, the social construct built to preference one race and discriminate against another allocates different economic, social, political and psychological rewards along racial lines. They say, “a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities and social relationships.”
If racial categories are socially constructed, can’t we just de-construct and move on? Like our friend from the NYTimes Op-Ed piece, I don’t think so. This is an important undercurrent in America, and I believe the devil is busy doing business at the current cultural, ethnic, and racial crossroads. But let’s not take the devil’s deal that takes advantage of us and the issue. Let’s embrace the road toward a cruciform-shaped authenticity and nurture reconciliation as our point of divergence. Race does matter, and it matters profoundly. But what if it matters differently than we suppose? ‘What-if’, we aren’t supposed to be color-blind? ‘What-if’ the messy and complex in-breaking of God’s alternate reality embraces race and ethnicity beyond our ways of dealing towards a lowest-common-denominator?
[Anyone an old comic book collector in their youth like me? Remember the ‘What-If’ series from Marvel Comics? “The stories in this initial, 47-issue series (Feb. 1977 – Oct. 1984) utilized the alien Uatu the Watcher as narrator. The observer of events transpiring on Earth from his base on the moon, Uatu, a member of an immortal race of Watchers, is also able to observe what transpires in alternate realities. The ‘What If’ stories usually began with Uatu briefly recapping a notable event in the mainstream Marvel Universe. He then indicated a particular point of divergence in that event, and demonstrated what would have happened if events had taken a different course from then.]
In an engaging way, Vineyard church-planter James Chuong wrestles with our ‘what-if’ point of divergence in light of the touchstone of scripture:
There is a great statue in Washington, DC that I often stop in the shade of and reflect on what it says. Chiseled at eye level is the phrase: What is Past is Prologue.
Can we listen together and search for the signs for the way forward at the crossroads of the 21st century America? The Jesus-move doesn’t ‘dumb-down’ our engagement and reconciliation, but rather ‘raises-up’ our engagement and asks that in owning our past, we wade into the messiness of our differences and all the misunderstandings and aching, because there is unbelievable beauty to be had in each other, so that we can sing the blues together as we travel – in the words of Samuel Hines – reconciliation as a way of life.
Hmmm….what do you think?:
What would it look like to own the past (which is prologue) while at the same time look for a way forward?
How can we “reconciliation a way of life”?
How does race matter in your life?
About the Author:
Steven Hamilton Spiritual Director, community organizer and subversive catalyst for the Kingdom of God. Steven Hamilton seeks the Justice of the Kingdom as a disciple of Jesus. Embracing a holisitic ministry of justice, he has helped liberate and restore victims and survivors of human trafficking for over a decade.
He has worked in both public and private endeavours in this area, in various roles with the Department of Homeland Security, as Chair for Public Awareness for the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force and as a leader with Safe House of Hope. Steven is the founding leader of the Vineyard Urban Mission/Baltimore.