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May 2019

The Talk – Part 2 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Poem)

The Talk – Part 2 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Poem) 3000 2000 Corey Leak

We had driven out of the neighborhood, and my mind was working hard to try and answer my daughter’s questions. I knew that she was asking a simple question that had deep philosophical handles. She wasn’t merely asking about this particular neighborhood. She was asking a universal question about race. She was asking about justice.

A few weeks before our visit to the gated community, our daughter came home from a dance and told my wife and me that she was feeling some tension. We asked why, and she went on to explain that she noticed how all of her friends had had at least one boy be interested in them this year. She hadn’t had any. She’s in middle school!!! I’m a dad who hates boys because I have three daughters. (no offense to any boys or parents of sons reading this) So, I was unapologetically glad to hear that I wouldn’t have to go all Bad boys 2 on a middle school boy.

But, I also understood that my daughter was beginning to feel the stinging truth of my dads words. She was feeling unseen, and that feeling was confusing and uncomfortable. She wondered if it was her dark skin that kept boys from expressing interest in her.

She is a beautiful young woman like her two older sisters and her mama. I think she knows she’s pretty, but what teenage girl wants to be the only one in their friend group the boys don’t like? Our daughter wants to know that black beauty, creativity, and work are rewarded. I believe that’s what was lying beneath the questions she asked me while we were driving through that neighborhood.

As a parent, I didn’t want to share truth with my 13-year-old that would leave her feeling hopeless or sad, but I also wanted to be honest. I began by telling her that there aren’t as many black people in America as there are white. I told her that if there are 100 Americans in a room, only 13 of those would be black Americans, and only 2 to 3 of the 100 would be “rich.” That alone makes it tough. How likely is it that one of the 13 blacks would be one of the 2 or 3 rich folks in the room? I honestly can’t tell you why I started there. Maybe it was because I didn’t want her to be bitter or because I didn’t want to blame whiteness right away. Perhaps I wanted to give myself a moment to calibrate emotionally before I told my daughter the rest of the story. For whatever reason, I chose to ease into the talk.

After explaining the math, I shared a brief overview of American history. She had heard it before, but I guess she hadn’t understood what that history had to do with that neighborhood. We talked about slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day racism. She was visibly bothered by it. Her heart is so tender to the world, and she asked me how people could treat other people with such cruelty for no reason at all. I had no answer.

I told her human beings had mistreated other people for stupid reasons since the dawn of time. Still wanting her not to grow up believing white people are evil, I felt like I needed to mention that human beings have all done bad stuff – not just white people. I want her to see the race issue wholistically without giving in to fear and anger. I don’t want her to hate. I don’t want her to be a victim. I also want her to see the world as it is because that’s the only way she will ever have the courage and resolve to work to change it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37eTvNjcaSY

My daughter has wrestled with similar tensions around the flag, anthem, and the pledge.

Seeing the world as it truly is gives us the inspiration to imagine a new one – a better one. I want my children to see the world’s cruelty and beauty. I want them to hear about things like the above stories. I want them to know these things are happening to people who look like them.

I have never given my dad’s speech to my daughters, but life has. School, church, and social media scream loud and clear: “remember, you still a nigga.”

I’m grateful that God has blessed my wife and me with kids who can accept that the world treats them as other, but still hope and dream of a just society. Almost a month before my youngest and I had our talk, she wrote the following poem. It’s the hope of a teenage girl who is fighting to imagine a new world.

“I Wish on the World”

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that people of color don’t get the stares

The loudness that we portray that they can’t bear  

That people of color can be treated equally

And cross the border legally

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that all immigrants can be able to come home

In American streets they can roam

That little kids won’t be taken away from their mothers

And live a life filled with color

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that world hunger would disappear

That the word without turns to fear

As people are sitting by the stores waiting for more

A chance to live life just before

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that self love was a priority

For putting themselves first as an authority

For women to think they are beautiful

And just like men are suitable

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that we as a people would treat the world with kindness,

And clear the blindness

The world that needs love

And that we need to take care of

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that hate could just dissolve

And for us to install

Acceptance as we evolve

I wish I wish I wish

I know our world has beautiful features,

I know our world has magnificent creatures

But what I ask you is,

What do you wish?  

The Talk – Part 1 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Question)

The Talk – Part 1 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Question) 3000 2000 Corey Leak

I remember my dad giving me the talk as a thirteen-year-old boy. It wasn’t a sit-down. It wasn’t an awkward, choppy speech delivered in an uncomfortable tone, and it wasn’t the last time we had the conversation. We were riding home from school one day when my dad looked over at me and said: “Remember, you still a nigga.”

Over the next few years, those words would be a repeated theme from my dad as he taught us how he believed the world would always see us. My dad didn’t want us to be shocked when we would inevitably have a racist encounter with someone in the world. He knew that we were just as likely to experience racism at school, work, church, or at a routine traffic stop. We were young black men, and we needed to be prepared to enter a world that would remind us of our blackness whether we liked it or not.

I used to hate that my dad would say that. As most teenagers do, I thought my dad was out of touch with a changing world. I didn’t want to grow up limited by the belief that racism would be an obstacle for me. I went to Christian schools my whole life with mostly white students, where the Biblical base of our education held explicit racism at bay. I had a lot of white friends that all treated me just fine. I didn’t notice my teachers ever treating me like I was any different than any other student, but my dad was skeptical. He believed that me and my brothers we singled out at school because we were the only black kids in our classes.

In hindsight, I can’t say he was wrong. I wasn’t much of a trouble maker, but I can remember spending a lot of time writing Bible verses on the chalkboard after school and mopping the floors of the classroom in detention. I remember getting in a fight with one of my teacher’s sons. We both threw hands, and only one of us got in trouble for it. You can probably guess who that was.

I can look back on several other experiences like the time Amy, the white girl I had a crush on in elementary school poured her apple juice on the ground and said “there you go” after I asked her for a drink. Or there was the one time in high-school when a white student looked me in my face and called me a “stupid black person.” I laugh at that one because he was racist enough to call me stupid, but not brave enough to call me a nigger. These are the things my dad wanted me to be prepared for.

My dad was trying to communicate with my brothers and me that the world we were growing up in was one where we would be treated as “other.” He grew up during the Jim Crow era. He was a 31-year-old black preacher when Dr. King was killed, and he knew that even though that era had ended, his sons would still have to endure the trauma of not being white in a society that demonized blackness. All the black families in our town would have the same talk about what our blackness means in society. All us black sons and daughters would get the message. We would have to work twice as hard, be twice as educated, speak twice as articulate to make up for the deficit of being considered half as human.

Black families across America have this in common. We have all had to endure the sting of racism at some point or another, and with each new generation, we hope that we won’t have to have the same talk with our kids that our parents had with us. Perhaps someday black parents won’t have to have “the talk,” but as of today, we still do.

Three days ago, I was with my youngest daughter. She’s thirteen. We were attending her end of the year volleyball party inside a gated community here in the Bay Area. As you can imagine, the houses in this neighborhood are breath-taking.

Image result for multi-million dollar gated community

We drove past one multi-million dollar house after another. She and I would point out any particularly gorgeous homes we saw, and she asked me how much I thought each house was worth. I thought she would have been dreaming of one day living in a neighborhood like this, but when I asked her if she’d want to live there, her answer surprised me.

She told me she would be bored living in a gated community. She said it seemed stuffy. (no offense to any of you who live in gated communities) But, what I think she was really feeling came out in the form of a question she asked me after that. She looked over at me and asked: “Dad, how many black families do you think live here?” I said I’m sure there aren’t that many, but this neighborhood is mostly white. Of course, she wanted to know why, and it was at that moment that I knew I too was about to have “the talk” with my daughter.

To be continued…

 

 

It’s Complicated (Abortion and Choice)

It’s Complicated (Abortion and Choice) 660 352 Corey Leak

We have a moral conundrum in front of us. I’m sure the title gives away that I’m writing about abortion, so some of you may take issue with me using the phrase “moral conundrum,” but that’s what we are wrestling with right now in America. The ethics of abortion are far more complicated than politicians, media, some people of faith, and internet memes would lead us to believe.

We aren’t the first society to grapple with unwanted pregnancies, women’s rights, and the question of when life begins. Does life begin at conception? Is that the moment a woman has a “person” in her womb? Many Christians use words written by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah to answer those questions:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

With that as the starting block for their belief about life, it’s easy for a Christian to start running with the idea that life beginning at conception is a no-brainer. According to the text from Jeremiah, an argument can be made that life begins before conception, so, for most Christians, it’s incomprehensible to imagine that a child isn’t a person at the moment of conception. The word before is relative. It has a broad reach that can lead us to any number of conclusions when reading that scripture.

What were you doing before reading this blog? Don’t think too hard about that. The answer is EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER DONE. Depending on how you interpret “before,” we could argue that every virile male carries lives around with them, and if that’s the case, should we consider the use of condoms abortion? What about male masturbation – is that terminating life? That’s part of the complication that comes from the how we read the words of Jeremiah, but there are more equally complex ideas we can find when we look deeper into the beliefs about life found in the Hebrew scriptures.

There is an ancient law given by Moses to the Jewish people after their liberation from Egyptian slavery. It’s found in Exodus, and Biblical interpreters struggled to understand what it means.

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

The phrase “serious injury” is an attempt at translating a word from our earliest translations of Exodus. That word is “mishap,” and people were pretty stumped by what that word meant in the context of these verses. Ancient translators of these texts all had a slightly different take. Some interpreters believed that mishap had to do with what stage of pregnancy the woman was in, and others thought it was about whether harm comes to the woman. In the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, interpreters believed that mishap had to do with whether the baby was “fully formed.”

“If two mean are fighting, and a pregnant women is struck in her belly, and her child comes out not fully formed he shall pay a fine… But if it is fully formed  he shall give a soul for a soul…”

The people responsible for translating sacred text into other languages thought that there was a point in which a fetus was fully formed and therefore a living human being and a point where the fetus was not. For one scenario involving miscarriage, the penalty was a fine, but for the other, the sentence was death – a soul for a soul.  What were the criteria for “fully formed”? Your guess is as good as mine. The point is, even within the history of the Bible, there has been some complication around this issue, and not just in the Old Testament.

There are instructions given to women in the NT about being a wife to an “unbelieving husband.” The direction is to live with him righteously, and not to leave him. On the surface, of course, this verse has nothing to do with abortion, but if we examine the culture surrounding the instructions, we find that abortion would have indeed been a complex moral issue for women.

During the times the NT writers were writing women had almost no rights at all. In fact, throughout most of the world, women were slaves. Often masters would sleep with their female slaves, and if the slave girl got pregnant, he would command her to put the baby outside the city gates where the babies would die. She had no choice.  Men treated their wives in similar ways, and they too would have no say if the husband wanted to get rid of the baby.

Now imagine a pregnant woman who has come to faith in Jesus at Christian gathering going home to a pagan husband or master who has already decided he didn’t want the baby. She’d have to be feeling like God would want her to keep her baby, but the only legal way to do so would be to flee illegally. Maybe she’s considering leaving to save her baby, and then she reads (or hears read) a letter from Paul, the leader of the Christian faith at the time, telling her not to leave her husband. This woman has no choice. Regardless of her condition morally, mentally, or emotionally, she has to give up her baby. Even if she wants to choose life for her child, she can’t. Society had stripped her of her right to choose before the baby was ever conceived.

Pro-life people aren’t all close-minded, evil, oppressive patriarchs. They feel like their stance protects innocent lives, and we all have a moral obligation to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. We should preserve all life against violence and harm, and protect a woman’s right to choose. These two issues are not mutually exclusive.

We shouldn’t demonize the people who deem themselves speaking up for the voiceless babies in the womb for their moral passion. Likewise, women and men who are passionate about women maintaining agency over their bodies are not spawns of satan. We need to stop dishonoring people on the other side of our arguments using caricatures of their beliefs to make our points look better.

I’ll never forget hearing a woman I respect sincerely tell me that if she were ever raped, that she’d seriously consider abortion. Ever since then, I decided that my opinion on the matter is far less significant than the views of women who could have to choose between two awful realities. I have yet to hear, meet, or see on television, a pro-abortion woman. Sane people don’t celebrate the deaths of the innocent.

I know that the President has forever tainted the phrase, but in this case, it’s true. There are good people on both sides. It’s just complicated.

For anyone wondering, I’m a thousand percent in favor of women making moral choices about whether or not they want to give birth to a child. A woman, her doctor, and an involved, loving partner should inform the decision about what to do with a pregnancy. Society shouldn’t make that choice for her before she ever gets pregnant.

 

 

 

Petulant God (How S8 E5 of GOT Was The Most Biblical Yet)

Petulant God (How S8 E5 of GOT Was The Most Biblical Yet) 3733 2100 Corey Leak

SPOILERS FORTHCOMING!!!

This week I was once again glued to my television screen as the latest episode of Game of Thrones unfolded. It was riveting television. It had great action, some long-awaited revenge, and it even had a celebrity cameo.

Image result for aaron rodgers game of thrones

I know there have been grumblings about the character arcs for some of our favorite heroes and villains, but I thought the storytelling was excellent.

The show has consistently posed the age-old existential question human beings have wrestled with since our earliest recorded writings. What happens when human beings strive for and ultimately achieve absolute power? So, it should come as no surprise that another character we loved took a hard turn toward evil. We witnessed what can happen when even the most virtuous of human beings ascend to power.

However, that’s not why I chose to write a second piece about GOT. Although there are plenty of ethical tensions and social commentary to pull from within the show every week, I’d like to focus on how much last night’s episode reminded me of the portion of the Bible most commonly referred to as the Old Testament.

Perhaps you watched in horror as Danny rode her dragon into Kings Landing and slaughtered innocent women, children, and animals. It was hard to watch a hero turn into a villain in front of our eyes. For the last seven years (less if you’ve binged watched recently), we’ve all rooted for Daenerys Targaryen. She seemed to be the most fitting to sit on the iron throne and rule Westeros. Sure she’s shown flashes of rage and has pretty regularly been restrained by her trusty advisors against her worst instincts, but she’s been portrayed as a liberator. She is after all the “breaker of chains.” This liberator with supernatural powers and a benevolent disposition toward humanity turned heel and destroyed an entire city? How could she?

I guess she’s not who we thought she was because there is NO WAY a righteous ruler could ever act the way she did. If she were indeed an advocate of justice and peace, she would never give in to vengeance and petulance. Only tyrants and dictators destroy their enemies in a literal blaze of firey rage – only tyrants, dictators and God.

Image result for god of the old testament

If you have ever read any of the Old Testament prophets, chances are you’ve come across some moments where the Hebrew God, in his fury, destroyed or commanded the destruction of entire civilizations. He took credit for the annihilation of Sodom and Gamorrah, Jericho, and several other tribes of men that didn’t bend the knee to him. Men, women, and children were burned, stoned, and drowned as God’s justice was making its way across the world.

According to the writer of Exodus, God killed every firstborn son of the Egyptian people because one man refused to let his people go, but somehow that story is told in a relatively positive light. I’ve never seen anyone talk about God’s actions in Egypt with even the slightest sense of angst about how God acted in that story.

I suppose most people who believe in God believe that God is incapable of committing evil. So, if God acts in a certain way – even if it seems like that action is evil, it can’t be because God can only act righteously. Many people believe that in times past God commanded armies to kill innocent people, but those same people would be horrified if someone claimed that the God they worship made the same command today. I hope we would all be horrified. That feeling of horror is the same feeling we had watching Danny burn down Kings Landing. It was the horror of contrasting ideas. How can justice and merciless vengeance ride on the back of the same dragon? Judgment without mercy and compassion is not justice.

Danny acted like the God of Exodus. She wiped out an entire city because Cersei refused to let her people (Missandei) go. After losing her dragon and her closest friend, she lost it. She was filled with righteous indignation toward people whose only crime was being ruled by an evil ruler. If that’s not Biblical storytelling, I don’t’ know what is.

 

 

Still Hovering

Still Hovering 1500 900 Corey Leak

By now it’s no secret that I believe institutional racism is a thing. I’ve lost friends over my beliefs that whiteness is the root cause of that racism, and I’m honestly unbothered by the loss. All of the people I admire most throughout history lost friends, followers, and associates over their convictions. I will never have the impact of Jesus, Paul, or Dr. King, but I feel allied with them whenever another person decides that my beliefs about a racially just society are too far gone for them to continue to journey with me.

Like many of my friends who write, organize, create art, or speak out about racial equality and justice, I started out believing my voice was moderate. I never thought anything I was saying was radical or polarizing. Everyone I know using their influence to bring about change in the area of race is stating the truth about their own experiences and the facts about America’s history of racism. That’s why people’s reactions to the truth are often puzzling to me. Mostly I’m taken aback because very frequently the dissenters, detractors, and critics of racial justice work are Christians.

I’m not the only one disturbed by that. People have asked me on a few different occasions about how I can keep a faith associated with chaos like…

  • Slave owners removing pages from the Bible to ensure that their black slaves wouldn’t get any ideas about how God feels about liberation.
  • American Nationalism leading to phrases like

“I kneel for the cross, but I stand for the flag”   

  • White Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, Paula White, and Jon MacArthur making it demonstratively clear that racism is not an issue that Christians should concern themselves with. It’s a distraction from the real issues that Christians should be concerned about like abortion and human sexuality.

There is no sugar coating that the above list is ugly. There is also no denying that people believing themselves to be agents of God have been behind some of the most egregious human rights abuses throughout history. Evil has dressed up as good. Racism has hidden behind a cross draped in an American flag. Christianity has come dangerously close to being the religion of white men – white men who build their churches to pander to white women and leave a few pews open for POC so that no one can claim their churches aren’t diverse.

I still believe in the God of the Bible. In large part because of one of the opening lines of the most famous poem ever written.

After the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery, they would need to establish their own identity which in antiquity meant telling the story of how the world and man came to be. Ancient tribes told stories of how the world was made. They would share these stories around campfires and teach them to their children. Origin stories were popular. In some ways, it helped tribes define their identity and define the character of whatever god (s) they worshiped. The Hebrew creation story is not so much about the exact details of how God made the world, but about how ancient Hebrews viewed God and human beings relationship to that God.

Scholars believe that the authors of the book we call Genesis (aka B’resheet) wrote it after God rescued the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression. The poem explaining “the beginning” in Genesis 1 2, and 3 is primarily influenced by what they experienced during their liberation from slavery. It’s no wonder Genesis 2 describes a Divine Being hovering over a chaotic mess from the start of the story. The Hebrew people introduce their God alongside chaos, and that God is not chased off by it. The Hebrew Deity speaks into it.

Perhaps it’s that image of God that keeps me believing despite the messiness of the Christian faith over the years. A story inspired by 400 years of slavery gave us our first glimpse of God. Black people in America should all be able to shout a resounding amen to a story like that!

I believe God is always working, always speaking, and still hovering near chaos. I no longer expect that God eliminates all of life’s messiness. I think Divinity and chaos are found together throughout human history. That’s probably what the liberated, no longer enslaved, Hebrew people saw, understood, and experienced. Throughout their writings of history, poetry, and law they were in and out of exile – always facing turmoil and pain. Many times they blamed God in their books and many times they wrote that God blamed them, but through it all, they continued to believe in the God they saw present next to and inside all of the chaos. I choose to believe in the same God.

America is a strange place for black people. Often church can be even more bizarre. My faith doesn’t rest in America becoming more racially just. I do hope, pray, and work alongside many great activists and leaders for it to be. I don’t believe white evangelical pastors across America will all in unison turn from all forms of white supremacy and racism. I hope and pray that I’m wrong. Even if I’m not, I find myself able to smile at the beauty of a God hovering near the chaos getting ready to speak. Somehow that brings me great comfort and helps me look past the ugliness to trust God’s plan.