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Archive for July, 2011

I thought that the sermon/discussion last Sunday went quite well. Here’s the link to the audio (sermon starts around 29 minutes):

http://www.emmausway.net/media.php?pageID=9&itemID=47

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In ‘Jesus Christ in Texas,’ DuBois shows how we do not recognize Jesus because we fail to ask the one question that really matters as we encounter him: “Who are you?” None of the white characters in the story ever think to ask this question of the peculiar character that walks amongst them. Instead, the question that is asked of the stranger is “how might you fit into our world?” The hostess at the Colonel’s house is concerned with how interesting this stranger will be as a guest at her dinner party (that is, until she discovers the color of his flesh—then the question become “how can I get rid of this stranger?”). The rector asks how it is that the stranger seems so familiar. The wife of the farmer answers here own question of how could she possible give bread to a negro when Jesus’ voice reassures her as that of a white man. All of these characters are operating under the assumption that if Jesus was to visit them, surely he would fit into their world without causing any disturbance; surely Jesus would look, speak, and act like one of us! Surely Jesus would be a good evangelical! Surely Jesus would be against what we are against and fight for our causes! These assumptions always and everywhere keep Christ in the shadows, not allowing him to step out and reveal himself for who he really is. These assumption are what give us the false and poisonous ‘assurance of the voice of a white man.” These assumptions leaves us blind to the fact that Jesus will not be classified under or assimilated into any human program so as to remain in our control. Jesus will speak for himself.

It is only in the question “Who are you?” that we allow Jesus to speak for himself. This as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, is the question of “dethroned reason.” It is the question that turns our world upside down and moves us to live as the new creation inaugurated by Christ. The “who” question is the question that confesses that we have nothing to give to Jesus but our broken selves. This is the question that relinquishes any claim to knowing what the world ought to look like and gives ourselves over to the surprising and disruptive work of God’s presence in the world. The “who” question allows us to meet Jesus in the face of the other, in the body of the abject who has been ground up beneath the forces of whiteness and other universal systems of ordering the world. The “who” question is the question of prayer, it is the posture of worship.

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In ‘Jesus Christ in Texas,’ DuBois shows us that at the heart of Christianity’s complicity and production of the racialized world—where black and other non-white folks are always already put to the question as to whether they are “really one of us”—is mistaking the identity of Jesus for someone who looks, thinks, and acts just as we want him to. This is not to say that we white folks are consciously crafting Jesus into own images, purposely interpreting his life and words for our own satisfaction. Rather, we allow ourselves to become so blinded to the cultural power that whiteness affords that we have lost the very ability to imagine Jesus as anything other than “one of us.” Though we love to spout words to the contrary, the borders and checkpoints of race, class, nationality, religion, and culture remain fixed in a world where these signifiers still overwhelmingly determine who is allowed in and who is out. DuBois shows us how “good Christian folks” have been at the center of perpetuating the excluding power of “belonging.” As the women responds (after being “reassured at the voice of a white man” and insistent that “there are none I hate; no, none at all”) to the visibly hidden mulatto Jesus’ question about whether she loves her neighbor as herself, DuBois describes:

“I Try—” she began and then looked the way he was looking; down under the hill where lay a little, half-ruined cabin.

 “They are niggers,” she said briefly.

He looked at her. Suddenly a confusion came over her and she insisted, she knew not why.

“But they are niggers!”

With a sudden impulse she arose and hurriedly lighted the lamp that stood just within the door, and held it above her head. She saw his dark face and curly hair. She shrieked in angry terror and rushed down the path, and just as she rushed down, the black convict came running up with hands outstretched. They met in midpath and before he could stop he had run against her and she fell heavily to earth and lay white and still. Here husband came rushing around the house with a cry and an oath.

 

Before this conversation, Jesus had met on a country road an escaped black convict that confesses to Jesus the surprising and gladdening words “why, you are a nigger, too” when Jesus reveals himself as mulatto. The convict has recognized Jesus as he really exists: as the one who has taken the form of a slave, as the one who breaks the chains of oppression and fear and opens our arms to the embrace of God’s reconciling work. The convict, who after talking to Jesus has been working for an exploitative farmer who’s wife is having the conversation with Jesus, sees Jesus talking to the women and runs to embrace him, only to be met in collision with the women fleeing Jesus as she realizes that he is not white. As the two find themselves on the ground, the convict is taken up and lynched by the angry white mob that has been hunting him down. This powerfully captures the grim reality of how a world of whiteness, a world that cannot bear the Jewish flesh that marks Jesus as Other, stands as the false and violent mediator between the world and those for whom Jesus has come to set free. The woman flees from Jesus because she cannot recognize him. She cannot recognize him because he does not fit the mold of who she thinks Jesus ought to be. She cannot recognize Jesus because she does not know how to let him speak for himself, just as she cannot let those in the half-ruined cabin speak for themselves. Everyone—including Jesus—is interpreted through a lens of whiteness that judges identity in terms of white and not white. Because Jesus is assumed to be white (“one of us”), he cannot be recognized for who he really is. In the wake of such misrecognition, those that have been caught on the underside of a white world are met with the force of a whiteness whose reflex in the face of Otherness is either to eliminate it or forcefully manipulate it into its own service.

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I was asked by my pastor to lead the sermon/discussion for this Sunday’s service. We are currently in a “Fiction” series, so I have chosen to focus on W.E.B. DuBois short story “Jesus Christ in Texas.” In preparation, I’m writing out my thoughts as I think through how our congregation might have a fruitful discussion about race, religion, and the identity of Jesus Christ. For all of you faithful readers out there, I would love to hear what you think.

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One of the preeminent social critics and civil rights activists of the early 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois was a black intellectual writing in America at a time when the failure of post civil war reconstruction had transitioned into the segregated and systemically racist reality of the Jim Crow south. In his most well known book, The Souls of Black Folks, DuBois asks the question that had come to define the experience of black folks in the social hierarchy of racialized America: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Writing from the perspective of those that had been cast as outsiders to the inside of white privilege, in our short story for this evening ‘Jesus Christ in Texas,’ DuBois shows us that one of the major engines driving such a racist and segregated social imagination was (and is) a religious one: a Christianity that had become part and parcel of white superiority and the social ordering of society that determined all non-white flesh as suspect and a threat to the orders of social power. DuBois gives us a peek inside what it looks like to do the work of searching for God from the vantage of having been deemed an outsider, from the shadowy corners of black existence in a white world that has put a hedge around the work of Christ so that white, “authentically Christian” culture is not disturbed and is sustained in its position of social power.  DuBois shows us how such white claims on Christianity have created a world where Jesus’ presence as he who has come to set the captives of the world’s prison of social hierarchy free–as the one who “took the form of a slave”–is domesticated into an affirmation and justification  of the order of things. Rather than tearing down the borders that have determined the world as segregated and racially ordered, Christianity becomes a border producing cultural site of a white status quo.

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