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April 2019

Why We Must Abandon Whiteness

Why We Must Abandon Whiteness 700 467 Corey Leak

To my white friends out there reading this – You weren’t born white. You learned whiteness.

If you’ve never heard that before, I can imagine you’re feeling any number of emotions right now. You might be angry, confused, offended (which is probably a combo of angry and confused), or maybe you don’t feel anything at all or think I’m out of my mind. Either way, whiteness is a problem we will need to leave behind if we are ever going to move into a future where all humans flourish in the world.

Have you ever noticed how in America the only people groups we classify by their color are “blacks” and “whites”?  We don’t use color to describe Mexican, Chinese, Indian, or Japanese American’s. Some folks use “African American” instead of black, which technically leaves whites as the only people group in America without the hyphen.  We don’t typically hear white people referred to as Scandinavian-Americans, Swedish-Americans, or Dutch-Americans. Why don’t we call all people born in this country simply “American”? I have a theory.

Whiteness is the default culture of America and the culture at the center of American DNA. What we consider exceptional, average, abstract, or acceptable is primarily determined by how it resonates with white culture. Many of my black friends can attest to the low key surprise reactions we get from white people when we speak “articulately.” Intelligence not born out of whiteness is mysterious in a country that centers its dominant culture.

I want to say that whiteness has brought unintended consequences of racial division on our society, but the reality is those consequences were absolutely intentional. I’m not going to deep dive into that long tattered history in this blog. You can do that work if you’d like. All you need to know to read this post is that whiteness is a construct, not a race or ethnicity. 

Whiteness was created to divide America into slave and free, up and down, in and out. The construct helped slave owners bypass the psychological barrier that should’ve prevented them from treating other humans worse than animals. It was a way of picking teams so to speak, Europeans coming into the new land determined that “white” was the team that would win. By default, the “black” team would lose, but probably even more sinister than ensuring blacks would lose; they forced blacks to help build the game that whites would go on to win for centuries.Image result for American Slaves picking cotton

To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” We have racism because we have whiteness. We didn’t come to America black and white. We came to America as people who descended from Europe and Africa – albeit some of us in chains. When slave owners separated us into teams racism was the natural outcome. I’m not black because that’s how God made me. I’m black because whiteness exists. The founding fathers created a system where because there is white there must also be black.

Even after the end of slavery and the Jim Crow laws of the South, whiteness has continued to inform the police, bankers, politicians, judges, teachers, pastors, coaches, and even marketing algorithms who has privilege and who doesn’t. America built all the institutions mentioned above on the concept that white people are superior to all other humans. As long as we have “white” as a category, we will inherently have segregation, injustice, implicit bias, and racism in America. As whiteness is maintained and nurtured, we inextricably continue to strip blacks of the dignity found in our rich history and culture along the way.

Can black as a designation for my ethnicity communicate the fascinating history of my African heritage, culture, and history?  Black is mostly useful to define me as “other” in the United States and cause other Americans to fear me or see me as less than them. It’d be great to abandon blackness, but it’s impossible as long as there is whiteness.

Now, lest there be any confusion, I want to be very clear about what I’m NOT saying.

We should all abandon our ethnicity.

When I talk about the concept of blacks and whites being a human-made construct, I can see how it would be easy to conclude that I’m advocating for abandoning cultural identity. I think it’s a leap, but I can understand why someone one would make that jump. I’m not suggesting that we should forsake cultural identity. I am proposing that whiteness doesn’t enable whites or blacks to carry the dignity and fantastic history of the people from which we derive.

We should call all “black people” African Americans. 

I know that it can be confusing to know what to call a POC. I know some prefer to be called black, others Afro-American, and still others African-American. I don’t speak for all POC. I’m not even sure at this point in history how I want people to describe my ethnicity. I do know that throughout history dark-skinned people in America have redeemed the labels meant to demean us, and used them as terms of brother and sisterhood in our culture. Maybe that’s why many of us have accepted black to describe us even after we’re made aware of the history of that moniker.

It takes a new imagination to move into an unknown future. The work that’s ahead of us is to imagine what a world without our tainted constructs and labels might look like. We have to be willing to see walking away from our toxic history as gain and not a loss. It’s frustrating, scary, and complicated to frame new constructs within a country that has had 200 plus years of entrenched ideas that can sometimes even pose as values. But, if you and I are going to live in a world of dignity and peace, that’s the work we have to be willing to do.

 

What would America look like if we had never had “whiteness” introduced to our ethos? 

 

 

 

 

 

The Emperor’s Clothes

The Emperor’s Clothes 800 533 Corey Leak

I grew up believing that I shouldn’t give money to homeless people. At a young age, someone told me that homeless people were a bad investment. “They’ll go by drugs or booze with the money,” they said. I carried that posture into adulthood until the last few years when my attitude towards the marginalized changed. I began feeling like I based distrusting the poor on a capitalistic belief that poor people are lazy or immoral.

If America rewards hard work, discipline, and ingenuity, then how could a person who is homeless not be getting what they deserve? I hope that sentence disturbed you. It does me. Now when I give to people in need, I do so because the act of helping someone in need is virtuous. It fills the world with good to help another human being that’s facing dire living conditions. The act alone is its own reward. If a person is faking homelessness or desperation, that’s on them. I would rather err on the side of being taken advantage of by a con artist willing to brave the cold or burning sun than to walk past someone who is in legitimate need. However, if I gave a person money to buy food only to find out an hour later that they did buy Jack Daniels with the money, that would create an issue for me.

All of us care about how people and organizations use charitable donations. Whether it’s the homeless person whose cup we drop a five dollar bill in or the offering bucket we drop offerings into, we care. That’s why no one can stop talking about the Instagram account that has pastors hiding sneakers in their closets and friends debating the ethics of non-profit spending. Preachers in Sneakers has started a National conversation, and I’m thrilled we’re having it.

Last week one of my kids asked me if I’d seen Drake’s video of him showing off his MILLION DOLLAR outfit. I hadn’t. When I watched the video of him telling a room full of people and the camera what he was wearing and how much it costs, I became a hater. I’ll admit it. I was. I wasn’t a hater because I don’t think people should have nice things or because I don’t believe Drake works hard. I was a hater because for an instant I thought “I contribute to that”.

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I buy Drake’s music, and I’m a fan. I’ve often found myself conflicted when I listen to rappers brag about their cars, houses, “ice,” and money when most of their audience will never have the extravagance they do. It feels gross to me when I think about that fact. I’ve been bothered when I saw kids living in severe poverty quoting rap lyrics about a lifestyle so far removed from theirs it’s likely they will never attain it. Something in me hates to see Emperors strutting around while the poor suffer.

I’ve been reluctant to write about my beliefs when it comes to celebrity pastors featured on the Preachers in Sneakers Instagram account because I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of what bothered me. This morning it dawned on me. It’s not about the sneakers or the extravagant lifestyle. It’s about faith leaders looking like emperors among the poor.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem in what was described by the gospel writers as a kingly processional, he was riding a donkey instead of a horse. Emperors rode into cities on horses in glorious processionals designed to announce their greatness and divinity. They were dressed in the finest materials, riding the most beautiful horses, surrounded by decadence and glamour. Jesus did the opposite. He entered a town of which he was, in fact, king with the style and flare of…

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The writers of Jesus story go out of their way to show their readers that Jesus was not like the emperor.

The reason this conversation about preacher’s extravagant possessions is so polarizing is that we don’t have a precedent for such lifestyles in the writings pastors are supposed to be experts at teaching. We have no indication from scriptures that Jesus, Paul, Peter, James or John were living extravagantly. They also didn’t live in America in 2019. Today a pastor can sell books, appear on tv, and get into any number of wealth building endeavors that can reward their work with stacks of cash in addition to their duties as clergy.

The founders of the early Christian communities nor the people in them never had opportunities to get rich from their faith. They were outcasts in society. Paul wasn’t getting rich off the letters he wrote to churches. Peter didn’t receive honorariums for speaking. Today the Christian faith community is different. We deeply value great communicators, and those who have perfected their craft can leverage that into all kinds of wealth building opportunities both in and outside of the church. That’s a far cry from how things were when the Christian faith began, but that’s not the only way things are different now.

The early followers of Jesus had “no poor among them” because they shared everything and lived communally. That’s not how we live today. We are all participating in the American dream – trying to get all we can while we can, and sharing some of what we get. The ethical conversation about what is excessive spending for a faith leader doesn’t have much doctrinal basis on which to start the discussion for most of us. The examples in the Bible of religious life are of poor and oppressed people huddled up together for survival, while we are all pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to make something of ourselves individually.

In essence, the conversation about the morality of fancy shoes and clothes on a preacher boils down to which version of Christianity you subscribe to. The one whose doctrine says living righteously means enjoying blessings beyond your wildest dreams or the one that says following Jesus is a gruesome road of sacrifice and suffering. Maybe you’re somewhere in between with what you believe, but those are the far extremes that drive the conversation.

I don’t believe it’s unethical for clergy to have nice things, go on vacations, or enjoy a nice meal from time to time. Nor do I think it’s sinful for a pastor to have a nice pair of sneakers on when they preach. I do feel tension when I see pastors dressed and behaving like emperors. When their chariots cost 200k, their garments cost thousands of dollars, their feet are shod with 5 and 6 thousand dollar Yeezys, and they still pass offering buckets around their churches that poor people, widows, and orphans drop dollars in, we have reached a moral dilemma that is worthy of us pausing and discussing.

Far be it from me to tell another human being what to do with their cash. I know my brothers and sisters of the cloth work very hard, and dedicate their lives to serving people. I’m also sure that they give a ton of money and resources away. I’m not anyone’s judge. We all have a role to play in the world.  I only hope that we are always helping the people, and not inviting the people to help us live like emperors.

 

 

Game of Thrones and The Bible

Game of Thrones and The Bible 1020 574 Corey Leak

The Game of Thrones premiere airs Sunday!!! The anticipation in the air is palpable. GOT fans have waited two years for this moment, and boy is it exciting!

I recently told a friend that Game of Thrones and the Bible have a lot in common. They asked me how, and I explained. But, before I tell you what I said, here’s a little background on how I began watching the show.

A few years ago I was watching a behind the scenes story about GOT. I hadn’t watched a single episode of the show, but after watching that behind the scenes commentary I was hooked. I was drawn in by how they described the story arc, how the characters developed, and of course the dragons. THE FREAKING DRAGONS!!!

The idea that the dragons grew from babies to fully developed as the show progressed enthralled me. It seemed like a metaphor for the essence of the whole story, and I thought that was super cool. The story had drawn me in, the visuals intrigued me, and the characters left me desperate to know what would happen next. I so badly wanted to start watching the show! Then I remembered – I’m a Christian, and Christians don’t watch GOT.

In the couple of years that followed I would find myself frequently telling people: ” I would love to watch the show, but I’ve heard it’s way too graphic.”. People made suggestions for how I could get past my reluctance. “Read the book.” or “Just watch it on VidAngel.”

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Neither of those sounded even remotely appealing. I would see commercials advertising the newest season, and see how big the dragons had gotten. Every time I would wonder what I was missing. Then one day a Christian friend and colleague told me they watched the show and put me up on “The Red Wedding.”  I was all the more intrigued, but still not feeling like my conscious would allow me to watch the show. Until one day, it did.

My wife and I started watching a little over a year ago. We streamed it from HBO Go, not VidAngel. We talked about the boundaries we needed to have for the extreme visuals, and I asked lots of questions to make sure my wife was comfortable with us watching a show that was renowned for its depravity. We agreed to give it a shot, and after four weeks or so we had finished all seven seasons.  After about three months, we watched them all again. We both loved the show. The story is remarkable, the visual effects are impeccable, and the character development is fantastic. However, none of that is the core reason why we enjoy it. It’s not the core reason why most Christians who watch it enjoy it. I asked a few of them. The reason any of us, Christian or Athiest, watch Game of Thrones is because of something much more profound. George R.R. Martin says it best:

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.

That’s why I told my friend GOT and the Bible have a lot in common. I told them that the depiction of genuinely evil people contrasted with morally conflicted and virtuous people is potent in this fantasy world. The characters, grappling for power and justice struggle to know the difference between the two. You hope for the wicked to eventually get what they deserve and the righteous to rise to power and save the world. We watch the oppressed long for a savior and hope that savior is on the way. Sound familiar?

There are several scenes where I watched people in chains, cages, or under the power of an oppressor, and couldn’t help but think about the audience to whom the Bible writers wrote. I thought about how powerful it must have been for first Century Christians awaiting certain death in the Roman Collusiems to read about a Savior who had prepared a place for them where there was no more pain, oppression, or suffering.

Then there is the elephant in the room where Game of Thrones is concerned. You can’t have a conversation about the show without talking about it.

I won’t pretend that the sex scenes aren’t explicit, and at times far more graphic than necessary to tell the story. But, sex is an essential part of this story. Sex throughout history is used to gain or exert power. In GOT we see both uses, just as in the Bible. I believe every person of Faith who watches the show should be introspective about the possible adverse effects of taking in the graphic sex scenes of the early seasons.

One of the other ways Game of Thrones parallels the Bible is in the way good characters living in an unjust world struggle to define justice. We watch characters rise to power and ask themselves how they can be better than the oppressive rulers they just succeeded. The bible is laced with that same theme. Jewish people were rising and falling from power based on the way they lived out the answer to that question. The Jewish people would face exile over and over again because they failed to be better than oppressors around them.

Game of Thrones gives those of us who watch it a fantasy outlet for our tensions about virtue and evil. We hate the characters we hate because they are deplorably vile human beings and love other characters because we understand the pressures they face even if they don’t always take a straight line to good works.

I’m not recommending that all Christians or anyone else for that matter should watch Game of Thrones. They don’t pay me for that. Some people who are triggered by graphic images or violence should perhaps be cautious about watching it. I know some people who can’t watch Lord of the Rings without having nightmares.

If you’re a person who doesn’t get into it because you find graphic storytelling offensive, I legitimately wonder how you’ve stomached the majority of the Bible’s Old Testament. There are stories like the heroic tales of David who cuts off the head of a giant and walks around flaunting the severed head to show off what he’d done. Later in David’s story, he watches a woman bathing and brings her into his bed before having her husband killed to cover it up. There’s also that one time David collected ONE THOUSAND FORESKINS from the bodies of Philistine soldiers.

How would we view these stories if they weren’t in the Bible? Would we avoid them or learn from them despite the graphic nature of the tales? I’d guess, like the original readers of the Bible stories, we would see the value in what the stories mean. And we would see the graphic nature of the tales as a means of telling better stories.