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Kelly Ryan: Baptism as sacramentally, essentially anti-racist

When my son was in first grade, he joined the chorus at his public magnet school for performing and visual arts. He was a reluctant singer, not a fan of being the center of attention, so I beamed and teared up when he and dozens of other children joyfully belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “(Something Inside) So Strong” and “It’s a New Day.”

I was proud of me, too.

Every day, I drove past the mostly white neighborhood elementary to drop off my white son at a school with as many Black and brown children as white children. I privately sneered at other white parents I knew who opted for much less diverse private or charter schools while my white son was singing songs, coached by three extraordinary Black female teachers, that demanded liberation, decried oppression and celebrated the election of President Barack Obama.

This scene could have been plucked from the New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents,” which traces the outsize influence of white parents on one school building in Brooklyn, I.S. 293.

Like some of the white parents featured in the podcast, I thought during my son’s early elementary years that mixing a diverse group of students in one school was the goal. If I could just be a nice white parent who said the right things and endeavored to raise a nice white son who valued all people, I was doing enough for diversity and equality. I clearly remember gazing at those beautiful children onstage and thinking, in a self-satisfied way, “This is what the kingdom of God looks like.”

But is it?

Does God prize a tidy vision of unity over justice? A pretty picture of reconciliation over liberation for all of God’s people from oppressive systems? A community whose primary demand on me is showing up to take pictures from the front row over one that asks me to acknowledge my privilege and use my power to love all those children as much as my own?

As “Nice White Parents” host Chana Joffe-Walt reports, Brooklyn school administrators are trying to help white parents see something I also needed to see those years ago: “Their mere presence in the school does not make it integrated. They have to work at making this place fair.”

Sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman, who studies how white children learn about race and racism, sounds the same message when she notes that many white parents focus on how to talk about race and manage individual children’s behaviors without questioning structures that benefit them.

Talking isn’t bad; it’s just wildly insufficient to address the socially constructed system of racialized oppression that privileges whiteness. Instead, she writes in San Antonio Review, white parents committed to anti-racism must focus on aligning their actions with their values and “make different decisions that prioritize the common good.” And doing that, becoming more than not racist, requires a regular, honest and humble reckoning with our identity, our history, our relationships and our world.

The church has a path for such reorientation, alignment and decision making. It begins with baptism.

In “Desiring the Kingdom,” James K.A. Smith writes that baptism creates a new “social and political reality,” a “baptismal city” where privilege of all kinds is erased, family is reconstituted to include all of God’s children, and all evil, injustice and oppression is actively resisted: “Our baptism signals that we are new creatures, with new desires, a new passion for a very different kingdom; thus we renounce (and keep renouncing) our former desires.”

Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong process, Smith writes, to learn to love what God loves and actively and intentionally join in the collaborative project to build a community animated by justice, peace and dignity for all.

But for many churches, our approach to baptism is insufficient to inaugurate such a radical reordering of our hearts, minds and lives. What would it take for white Christians to participate in founding a baptismal city?

We could start by “troubling the waters,” renewing the ancient ritual of baptism, the Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton writes in the “T&T Clark Handbook of African American Theology.” Baptism must engage our present reality, he says, acknowledging our culture’s violence and sickness and economic inequity and oppression of Black bodies.

How different would our practice of baptism be if, as Braxton suggests, it focused more on Jesus’ gruesome death that we join as we sink under the water? How different would our practice of baptism be if we focused less on the “cleansing of our souls from sin” and more on the “marking of our bodies for struggle”? How different would our practice of baptism be if the liturgy affirmed that Black lives matter by naming such martyrs as the Birmingham Four and the nine murdered at Mother Emanuel?

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, Braxton writes, has such a justice focus. In Matthew 3:13-17, Jesus agrees to be baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness” (NRSV). That purpose is both personal and political, Braxton says, demonstrating Jesus’ participation in God’s mission to fight oppression.

Baptismal services that maintain a fidelity to Jesus’ baptism must, then, be much less polite and much more political, Braxton says: “Baptism is vacuous if it morphs into a genteel moment to acknowledge godparents, provide a gilt-edged baptism certificate with filigree font, and share an after-church baptism brunch for family and friends at an upscale restaurant.”

That sentence takes my breath away. As well it should.

In baptism, we die. In baptism, we are invited to renounce and resist the evils of the world, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to respect the dignity of every human being. In baptism, we give our bodies and all that we do to God’s struggle for justice and peace for all people.

Depending on our context, such action could look like reflection and education on racism, white supremacy, and implicit bias; donating money; marching; writing government officials; voting; challenging family and friends who make racist remarks; advocating for those whose voices are typically ignored; and constructing our daily lives to listen to and learn from people of color. Seeking and serving Christ in all people like this requires ongoing formation, repentance and returning to God.

That is what we promise we will do in our baptism. But is it what we practice? Or are we instead becoming and raising nice white Christians?

 

Sometimes, being shot in the back is just another day of living while Black. The case of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is only one example, its visibility heightened through protests, politics and, most recently, professional athletes who stepped away to redirect our focus.

Some strive to see isolated incidents, but in fact they are part of a long, long line of real-life stories revealing anti-Blackness, in our country and in American Christianity. As a Christian minister, I must name this truth. I must also name another truth of the gospel: The incarnation of Jesus shows us a different vision for human life, in which God embraces Black bodies, all bodies, all flesh, so that being for God means being against anti-Black violence.

The torturous terror against Black bodies has roots in the history of this nation through the brutal and inhumane colonial practices of enslavement, humans transported in the belly of slave ships on a bloody trail from Africa to the Americas known as the middle passage. Cargo enrobed in Black flesh bled, moaned and groaned through a ritual of oppression and death.

Upon arrival in the “land of the free,” these Africans were deemed property, not humanity. As Allen Dwight Callahan has noted, “American slavery unleashed an all-out assault on the black body.” Assaulted Black bodies were deemed nobodies, nonbeings and chattel to be sold at auction blocks. They were dehumanized and dishonored. The enslaved were possessions that at the liturgy of the auction block were just bodies. Their humanity erased, their bodies were wounded, broken and even murdered by such heinous acts as lynching. Today, we see that this story of Black torture is not just past history but present reality.

The horrific heritage of slavery, dehumanization and corporeal devaluation is interwoven with religious practice, particularly Christianity. Christian slave masters prioritized the soul over the body, and the Black body was especially purported to signify evil and the demonic, worthless for the life of faith, valued only for what it could perform; thus, anything could be done to it.

Neoplatonic philosophy has influenced Christianity for centuries with its emphasis on the immortal, spiritual realm and discount of the material, bodily realm as “less than” and not a part of the spiritual life. The goal becomes to escape bodily reality as a path to a deeper spirituality. Historically, this disembodied Christian legacy has viewed the body as threatening and dangerous if not controlled — a perspective that opened the door for nations to torture, exploit, shoot and murder bodies, particularly dark bodies, because they were deemed irrelevant to faith.

Yet despite the hurtful legacy of Christianity that denigrates the body’s potential, at the heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation of the divine into a human physical body, signifying the divine embrace of the human body.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in “An Altar in the World,” explores the incarnation’s claim “that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth,” revealing that if one wants to become more spiritual, one should become more embodied as a human and person of faith. Religious faith is a material one, not just a spiritual or a virtual one on Twitter. It takes place in and through bodies. Thus, bodies are vital to the practice of faith, and how we treat Black bodies, and every body, matters.

Whether wounded or whole, the incarnation of Jesus is the affirmation and embrace of all bodies, all flesh, all Blacks. Our bodies have been graced with the presence of God; indeed, human beings are created in the image of God.

This is the power in symbolic actions by athletes, especially Black athletes. By interrupting the entertainment provided by sports, they are using their hearts and minds to make the point that Black bodies are valuable beyond their labor. In their way, the athletes are reminding us that Black bodies are image bearers of God.

As a Christian, I recognize that Jesus was flogged, crowned with thorns and struck in the face. He carried the cross by himself, was crucified and was pierced in his side with a spear, blood and water flowing out. The Gospel writings reveal that his body was tortured on crucified lockdown and that he died gangsta style, like all the crucified peoples of the world.

In many ways, the heart of the Christian faith is a tortured, bruised and wounded body of God, which is an aspect of theological memory that interweaves with Black cultural memory, such that theologian James Cone calls the tortured Christ a lynched Black body. A tortured Black body ignites the cultural spiritual song — “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Were you there in Kenosha? Were you there in Minneapolis?

The death and torture of the Christ is neither a glorification of violence and torture against bodies nor a promotion of it. It is an indictment against the way we live, the way we promote violence, even state-sanctioned violence, and the way we perpetuate death. Jesus’ death is supposed to put an end to death altogether, representing the death of death and the end of violence ultimately. Modern-day police brutality is a modern-day form of crucifixion, and it says that nobody matters, which is antithetical to the life of faith.

Every time we enact violence against another human being — like Jacob Blake — we destroy the beautiful image of God found in the human collective body, and we reveal a distorted, immature and anorexic spirituality. Any move toward the destruction of a body is a gesture in the direction of the destruction of God; to embrace a human body is to embrace an enfleshed God.

To embrace and love a Black body is to embrace and love God. To be human is to have a body, and to be a person of faith is to affirm the body as vital to the spiritual life. Thus, to be anti-Black body is to be anti-human and anti-God, because within the Christian tradition at least, God became a human body to redeem and heal bodies and claim them as vital for life in the Spirit.

You can’t be pro humanitate, pro-human, and be for anti-Black violence. You can’t be for God and be for anti-Black violence, regardless of the source of the brutal violence, because all human bodies are temples of the Spirit, and what we do with them and to them should matter for people of faith. Every body matters, and any body is a somebody to God.

What does having a financially sustainable ministry mean? The one-size-fits-all answer is simple. The revenue coming in is consistently more than the expenses going out. But this simple answer obscures the gap between those benefiting from generations of building wealth and those in Black and brown America who have had wealth stolen across the years. Calculating sustainability needs to account for this gap.

I hope that the current pandemic, economic recession and renewed attention to racial inequity is teaching those in the dominant culture that one size does not fit all. When “we” talk about money, the field is never level.

African Americans were treated as property for generations while white Americans were acquiring land and accumulating money. The starting places for families in these communities today is not equal. Whenever we discuss financial sustainability, we have to examine the conditions that create, or that make it difficult to create, wealth.

Sustainability is a sought-after goal in new-program development. In financial terms, it refers to developing revenue sources that provide funding to keep the program going. Sometimes it is as simple as one funder asking the program to find other donors. Sometimes it means adding fees to the service or getting somebody else’s budget to pay the cost. Often it includes reducing the cost of the service to match the expected revenue.

As a white leader in a dominant-culture organization, I hear the talk about making adjustments and raising more money — and it all seems doable. The pandemic has thrown up a roadblock, so reaching sustainability will likely take more time, but “we” believe that “we” can be back to normal in six months or a year. A few think that “we” are in for a decade of economic difficulty.

The use of “we” covers up the different experiences in different communities. When listening to colleagues in organizations founded by and rooted in African American and Latino/a communities, I recognize that they hear talk of sustainability differently. They have learned to say what funders want to hear, but they translate the words into a different set of actions.

For example, I have encountered a handful of organizations in these communities that recently had applied for but did not receive a $1 million grant to serve pastors. Most of these organizations moved forward to develop and deliver as much as they could of the proposed program without the money. How? Mostly through unpaid labor. People affiliated with these organizations took on a second (and sometimes third or fourth) job to serve pastors. In economic terms, these organizations were investing sweat in place of money in order to do what was both most important and possible.

In financial terms, it looks as if these programs are doing great. In fact, they don’t seem to need the grant money. But when we listen to their stories, it is clear that valuable ministry is being performed by exhausted leaders.

The white-culture organizations where I have worked talk about priorities. These organizations have the privilege of deciding how to serve according to the financial resources available. But I have observed many organizations that are part of African American and Latino/a communities prioritize according to the needs of their communities and the world. The leaders of these organizations do what is needed regardless of the money.

How can I learn from this dedication and not participate in taking advantage of it? One element of privilege is not recognizing the impact of categories like sustainability on those without privilege.

This realization has made me more careful when planning a collaborative project with organizations from different cultural, racial and ethnic communities. For example, I now ask partners about pay equity across the project for the same work. I don’t assume that because employees at my white, dominant-culture organization are paid a fair wage, all the collaborating organizations are able to do the same. How do we plan the project so that people are paid equitably?

In fact, the concern starts in the planning phase. What creates the conditions so that all the organizations involved in planning a project have the resources to do the planning? Those with wealth have the option of choosing to shift their efforts to a new project. Those with no resources have to double up on their work to do something new.

If a project is underway, what would it be like to count the labor of these leaders as part of sustainability? What would it be like for donors to see that they are matching a contribution of labor and recognize that effort as part of sustainability?

What would happen if donors recognized the vast disparity between the assets accumulated by white-dominant organizations and white families when compared with African American and immigrant institutions and families? What if the funding levels were calibrated to address these disparities? What would happen if organizations in these communities had significantly longer to develop sustainability plans for donors?

In the midst of economic challenges, more complex and nuanced definitions of sustainability need to be used. All who donate and benefit from donations can learn to pay attention to the needs in communities, as well as who can be supported to address these needs. Moving too quickly to asking a program to “pay for itself” can continue a cycle that takes resources away from long-disadvantaged people.

As a white leader, I must learn more about the challenges faced by my colleagues in different racial, ethnic and cultural communities and advocate for adjustments that provide a path to more equity. I must not leave all the weight for making this case on these leaders.

I was taught never to question God. In my faith tradition, questioning God was akin to heresy and blasphemy, but there was no one else I could ask these questions.

Why? Why Pinckney and all of these innocent people? My God! Mrs. Susie? Why Mrs. Susie, Lord? She would not hurt a living soul. Why? Why any of these people? None of them deserved to die like this.

I grappled with the senseless murder of the dear friend and brother I referred to simply as Pinckney — the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church — and eight other faithful souls on that life-altering Wednesday evening: DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson.

I could not comprehend how such a thing could happen, during a period of prayer and Bible study, in such a sacred place. Such hatred, such unprovoked violence, such evil had penetrated the holiest of places.

My soul felt empty but at the same time flooded with bewilderment, anger, loneliness, anxiety, loss. There was no real space to process any of it, because I had to remain strong for Pinckney’s widow, Jennifer, and their daughters. I had to maintain hopeful optimism as a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a leader in the community. I was expected to help bring people together — to be a leader in the process of healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Such weight. I was drowning in sorrow and my own unprocessed grief. I was caring for the community at large and not doing the work of caring for myself. I couldn’t. I didn’t feel it was appropriate, at the time.

And then at Pinckney’s funeral, after sharing my reflections and stepping away from the stage, I looked up to see a grief-stricken, broken president of the United States of America.

I knew he would be there, because I had assisted Jennifer in planning the funeral. His presence was not a surprise, but when President Barack Obama started singing “Amazing Grace,” something within my soul was revived.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years / Bright shining as the sun / We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / Than when we’d first begun.”

That last stanza felt like a communal call to action. I have seen amazing grace in action in Charleston since the horrific murders at Mother Emanuel. After the funerals, such grace has remained on display through activism and intentional efforts to create ongoing forums for dialogue about race, bigotry, hatred and ignorance in ways that had not been successful before, even as much work remains.

As a Black man who grew up in Charleston, I recognized that I should not allow the emotion of that moment to blur the reality of the persistent, corroding nature of racism. I could not allow this to be a superficial show of unity and harmony and fail to seize it as an opportunity to push my white brothers and sisters to acknowledge racism so that they might become partners, in solidarity, to confront it.

Engaging in the work of race relations, racial healing, reconciliation and transformation is hard. Racism is predictable. The fail-safe default of white privilege allows white folks who become uncomfortable in this work to check out at any time. So I decided to allow myself to be vulnerable, to take a risk and join with the church next door, a predominantly white congregation, in this work of confronting racism.

If the congregation’s priest, with whom I co-convene a weekly book study, had not been willing to acknowledge racism and commit herself to confronting it at all costs, I would never have entered this sacred, God-ordained journey with her. Every week is painful. It requires all participants to agree to listen to and hear the truths of others. It is no one’s job or position to convince anyone or persuade anyone; it is the job of all of us simply to tell our own truth.

Since the horrible tragedy that took my beloved friend and brother away, each Tuesday at 5 p.m. we assemble to have hard conversations through a book study of titles and subject matter steeped in racial and systemic injustice and the institutional assault on Black people that reaches back to slavery. It is grueling. Every week, I vow to myself never to return, but for nearly five years, I have been present and “open” to have that same conversation week after week.

In one gathering, a member of the group announced that she finally realized she was a racist. We unpacked that in an academic way, as we always do. The conversations are mostly cerebral, and they always leave me longing to do something more to move the needle of justice publicly, so that we can be leaders in eradicating the stubborn systems of injustice that we see in our city today.

Needless to say, we fall short in going the next step. I guess my frustration, disappointment and dismay became so evident one day that the same group member asked me how these conversations make me feel. From a place that I have never spoken, my truth emerged. Every week, for one solid hour, I feel as if I am being waterboarded. I feel as though I am being suffocated. I feel like I am drowning.

When I heard the words of George Floyd, finally I found words to articulate my historical, cultural perspective in America, particularly in Charleston, as a Black man: “I can’t breathe!” The persistent, pernicious systems of injustice and oppression continue to impede the progress, uplift and freedom of Black people.

“I can’t breathe!”

The protests and demonstrations being held in Charleston in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s brutal murder are rooted in the exhaustion among all people that stems from the generational injustices and atrocities perpetrated against Black people since we arrived at our city’s Old Slave Mart.

On June 19, 2018, the city of Charleston narrowly passed a resolution to formally apologize for its role in the slave trade, but that’s not enough. The city needs other resolutions, ordinances and policies to provide uplift and mobilization for the Black community — addressing access to and equity of education, housing and job development, the reversal of gentrification, and other opportunities.

Five years ago, it was that familiar hymn, sung by our president at the darkest hour of many of our lives, that called us to action. The call is even clearer to me today. We must remain persistent and dogged in confronting and eradicating racism, because where there is no justice, there can be no peace.