Friday, September 19, 2014

Confronting corporal punishment in the black community

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It’s been hard for me to listen to the lunatics who justify the way Adrian Peterson disciplines his children.  It’s a point of contention that has always troubled me.  Spanking children is so engrained within the fabric of black culture that to do otherwise is considered evidence of bad parenting.

The late Bernie Mac joked about beating children to the white meat.  Most people in those rooms have stories about running from a switch, having to get their own switch, hiding from a switch or being beat so hard that it took time to recover.

The truth is most of that is abuse.  As painful as it may be to admit that, what’s behind how black people feel about corporal punishment?

The Bible encourages it

The Bible is used to promote corporal punishment.  My friend Eric Michael Dyson, professor at George Washington University, challenged the literalist interpretation of the Bible in his New York Times op-ed Punishment or Child Abuse?

“Like many biblical literalists, lots of black believers are fond of quoting Scriptures to justify corporal punishment, particularly the verse in Proverbs 13:24 that says, ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him’,” Dyson writes. “But in Hebrew, the word translated as “rod” is the same word used in Psalms 23:4, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used to guide the sheep, not to beat them.”

The reading of the Bible from its historical/cultural context, while taking into account the nuances of Hebrew versus other translations, makes it clear that the Bible isn’t justifying corporal punishment of children. Beyond the uncovering of the meaning of the text, one must ponder the ethics of corporal punishment.

This is the point where the WWJD movement becomes a vital instrument.  Can you image Jesus spanking a child, and if so, what would be the context behind him doing so?

It’s a part of black culture

Fifteen years ago, in a column written in the Durham Herald-Sun, I argued that corporal punishment replicates the punishment of slavery.  Michael Eric Dyson offered the same during a recent interview on MSNBC.

“Black people were beat and hit in slavery,” Dyson said. “Some slave parents, especially women, had to beat their kids in front of the slave master to prove that they could go along with the slave master’s intention and keep them from being rebellious spirits. …As a result of that, we began to absorb that practice, collectively speaking, and we’ve reproduced it.”

Embedded in black parenting is the notion of protecting children, especially boys, from the dangers of society.  Beatings are used to teach boundaries.  Boys are reared within a culture of fear, which is, according to Dyson, the reproduction of the pathology of slavery.

I endured it, and I turned out okay

Personal testimony is used to validate the practice.  Education and other measures of success are used to justify the benefits of corporal punishment.  There’s a significant problem with the argument.  The mental health conditions of those offering the testimony suggest a different conclusion.

Is there a correlation between the excessive use of corporal punishment and cases of domestic violence?  How about substance abuse and the massive dysfunction that plagues relationships among black people?  As much as we want to suggest that we turned out alright, the truth is we, black people, are more damaged than we are willing to admit.

I use the pronoun we to claim my own journey to counter a myriad of mental health related issues.  That’s not to suggest it’s all a consequence of corporal punishment, but is stated to accept not being alright after enduring my share of walks to pick out my own switch.

That’s how white people think

This is the part that is most difficult to address.  We carry loads of disdain related to the things lost due to integration.  As much as we celebrate the vast improvements following the Civil Rights movement, there is the suggestion that we lost more than we gained.

A big part of that regards the culture of the community.  It is true that many of us born in the 60’s and 70’s were nurtured by a large village.  We were loved and spanked by community grandparents, aunts and uncles who were granted permission by our parents to whip that ass. We take pride in being loved by our village families. 

Yes, we take great pride in being loved like that.  Those spankings reflect a culture of care.  It’s like that eagle that stirs the next – big mama has an eye on the babies.  This is what it meant to be black before we became rooted into the culture of white privilege. We lost something meaningful when the objective was in replicating the life and ways of white people.

It’s part of the nostalgia of black life before the suburbs and integrated schools.  It’s what makes us different.  Spankings are something we share, and it’s hard to let it go.

Black life in the context of postmodern inclusion

All of this suggests a need for a new model related to parenting.  It requires critical engagement with the Biblical text, deeper reflection involving the pathology of slave culture within our contemporary context, an evaluation of the mental health conditions of black people, and ways to embrace memories that create space for the release of all the pain.

There’s hard work to be done.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Adrian Peterson child abuse case exposes things that should be kept private

“My client, on behalf of herself and their son, wishes to express her extreme outrage at the invasion of their privacy that has occurred through the publication of highly confidential and private data obtained regarding them by the press without their permission or consent,” the statement issued by attorney Kelly C. Dohn stated.  “My client is hurt and outraged that the press would publish throughout the world pictures of their minor son and publish statements allegedly made as part of the private and confidential criminal investigative file.”

The pictures of her 4-year-old son stirred the rage of a mother.  His small body tarnished by a beating should have remained private.  Those pictures became public because of the man accused of child abuse. 

Adrian Peterson, the superhero like running back of the NFL Minnesota Vikings, has been charged with causing injury to a child under the age of 14. Peterson is accused of hitting his son with a wooden spoon.  Numerous media outlets decided to release the photos of the alleged injuries, and the Minnesota Vikings responded, albeit late, by deactivating Peterson while the matter is resolved.

The public outcry, and the response from the NFL and Minnesota Vikings, follows the repercussion of arguably the greatest sports bungle of all-time – the handling of Ray Rice. The NFL’s leniency with Rice was followed by the release of a video that forced the league to alter its position.  The long list of player misconduct has the NFL grappling to repair its reputation as a league sculpted with abusers.

The outcry of the 4-year-old allegedly abused by Peterson reminds us of the ethics that shape the way we report on these types of cases.  Our thirst for more information, and pictures to verify our suppositions, should always be met with hesitancy when the information becomes a violation of privacy. A mother’s plea for silence should never be minimized by the public thirst for more.

A mother has the right to request that pictures of her battered child not be made public.  Raising a child is complicated enough. Doing so when the identity and nature of injuries are made public muddles the work of parenting even more. A child shouldn’t have to witness his pictures circulating through social media.  Parents shouldn’t have to protect a child from viewing their picture on the news.

The nature of abuse should be hidden from public view.  These are private matters that require discretion on the part of those challenged to report the news. 

There are times when ethics forces us to use caution. The common sense call demands that someone in the newsroom yell, “that’s no one’s damn business!”

Be it the video of Janay Rice being slugged in an elevator, or the pictures of a 4-year-olds bruised body, some things should be left for those impacted most to ponder. Both cases present implications beyond the individuals involved, yet both present the victims in ways that make it more difficult for them to overcome.  No woman should be forced to encounter the public clamor related to those images.  No mother and child should be forced to face the pictures of a minor thrust on the scene of public exhibition.

It’s none of your business.

It magnifies the abuse of those abused.

It places a private conversation within the context of public debate.

It makes a private matter about more than the consequences of those involved.  It feeds our urge to conjure societal evils. 

So, as much as we relish connecting the collective dots – the story is not limited to the NFL.  This is a story about the alleged abuse of a 4-year-old who has a mother seeking to protect her child from further abuse.

So, back off.

Let  mama do what mothers do best.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rev. Jerry Young elected president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. despite oppossition to women in ministry

The National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. has morphed into the Southern Baptist Convention.  Sadly, few have noticed.  Even more disheartening is no one seems to care.

When Rev. Jerry Young was elected as president of the National Baptist Convention, no one stopped to question his position on women in ministry.  Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was elected during the 134th annual session of the convention last week in New Orleans.

Young received 3,195 of the 6,400 votes cast. He won on a platform that promises to modify the organizations infrastructure.  Masses of women voted for Young despite his opposition to women in ministry. Men who serve with women on staff voted for young. 

No one seems to care.

Young’s promise for infrastructure modifications was enough to entice members to place the needs of women on the backburner.  Women voted against their own interest, and men made a statement regarding the power and privilege of men within the National Baptist Convention.

The national press failed to cover Young’s election. With more than 7.5 million members, the National Baptist Convention is the largest black denomination in America. At one time, half of America’s black population was a member of the convention.  The lack of national coverage reflects the groups dwindling influence, and the election of Young speaks to the group’s lack of sensitivity related to women in ministry.

No one seems to care that Young has publicly denounced women in ministry.  No one seems to care about the lingering message sent to the more than 10,000 women ordained by churches within the National Baptist Convention. 

How do you preach to women after voting for a man who fails to affirm a woman’s  role in ministry?  What justice is left for the women who endured going to divinity school, and paying the price to serve in leadership, only to be told there is no room at the table for them?  How do you justify voting for a person who refuses to embrace women?  How do you convince women to continue to trust their calling when the president of the convention is on record in opposition to their service?

Where is the justice for women in ministry? Why no outcry?  Why aren’t women fighting?  Has the patriarchy silenced their resistance? Have they been sold a theological perspective that legitimizes their demoralization?

Have they been told it doesn’t matter?  Has the autonomy of the local church been used to rationalize the promotion of a man who opposes women in leadership?  If this is true, why worry about national leadership?  If the president of the National Baptist Convention isn’t elected to promote the common values of local churches, why worry?

What meaning is there beyond the preferment of a national agenda? Shouldn’t the national president present an agenda that reflects the direction of churches across the country?  Wouldn’t it help if the convention presses congregations to affirm women in leadership? What about other issues that impact public space? If not, what’s the role of the National Baptist Convention beyond it being a fellowship designed to promote the personal agendas of the pastors who attend?

There was no mention of Young’s position on women in ministry.  The national press missed it.  No one seems to care. The silence reflects the sad truth about the National Baptist Convention.  Its purpose is in promoting its own agenda.  It has limited voice beyond the purview of the internal matters of the convention.  For many, there is comfort in the limits of the convention.  Others wonder what could be if the convention moved beyond the walls of the institution.

Woman helped it happen.  Men are content with maintaining the status quo.  Lost in the silence is the prophetic voice of the Church.  As the world shifts in the direction of change, the church refuses to engage in real dialogue related to the implications of change. 

The worst part is no one noticed.

When you’re deep into subjugation, you simply take the mistreatment thrust your way.

Let the women of the Church say amen.

1.The National Baptist is NOT the larges AA denomination. The COGIC now has that distinction
2. Women did speak out. I went on twitter and I know Carolyn Knight was on Facebook as were other women.
3. Lorena Parrish, a member of the Women of Color in Ministry Council also blogged about this

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Political cartoon in the Columbia Daily Tribune is an example of lazy journalism

I wasn’t surprised when the Columbia Daily Tribune, my hometown newspaper, printed a political cartoon that many deem cruel and racist. It simply reflects the news culture in Columbia, Missouri, a town only 117 miles from Ferguson, Missouri.

The cartoon portrays protestors in Ferguson holding signs that read “Burn Ferguson”, “No 60” Plasma TV, No Peace”, and “Steal to Honor Michael Brown.” The cartoon appeared during the peak of tension between protestors and law enforcement.  During those stressful days in Ferguson, some looted, and officials reported witnessing protestors throw Molotov cocktails.

The news cycle was replete with tails of violence among protestors, and numerous news sources focused on this aspect of the story. Many wondered why reporters failed to dig deeper into the root causes of rage among protestors, and inquired into why law enforcement employed military tactics to control peaceful protest.

The Columbia Daily Tribunes decision to stress the looting and burning angle represents the type of lazy journalism that has obstructed the reporting of this story.  The cartoon communicates what is felt by many readers – that the protests in Ferguson made looting the primary agenda. This slant is imbedded in the perception of readers already guided by stereotyping that makes it difficult to concede the concerns of those protesting in Ferguson.

This story is, at the core, a reminder of how race and perceptions related to racism can significantly impact judgment.  The editors at the Tribune failed their readers by poking fun at a minor slice within an extraordinarily complex story. The reporting on Ferguson, as with all stories, should be placed within both a historical and contemporary context.  Newspapers are responsible in getting the story right when those witnessing from the outside become engrossed by their assumptions.

I call this form of reporting lazy due to its readiness in declaring the message of the status quo.  Lazy journalism follows the line of what others report.  The national news media was quick to endorse the stance of law enforcement in reporting related to looting and the launching of Molotov cocktails.  Many among the protestors have reported a different story – that water bottles were thrown, that many of the attacks were initiated by law enforcement, and that looters were outsiders who came under attack by peaceful protestors. 

Credible journalism struggles with assumptions, and seeks to get at the why behind the what.  The Columbia Tribune missed the mark by failing to report on the ground.  The paper’s error isn’t as much about printing the cartoon – something papers in other states may have done – but relates more to failing to take the story seriously by having their own reporters present.

As a paper located in Missouri, The Columbia Tribune owns responsibility in reporting on the Ferguson story.  The paper owes the community reporting that places the story within a communal context.  The lazy approach is to pull news from the wire service, seek a few local angles, and feed readers a localized version of what is being reported by national news outlets.

I expect more from my hometown paper.  Sadly, the Columbia Tribune isn’t positioned to engage in a high level of reporting related to questions involving race.  Pondering the implications of race and racism are low on the Columbia Tribune’s agenda, which reflects Missouri’s culture of running and hiding from stories about race.

Jim Robertson, managing editor, and the staff at the Columbia Tribune, had no intention in communicating a racist agenda.  Their lack of sensitivity is not a variable of a mean intended attack on black people.  It does speak to how assumptions of privilege show up when race fails to become a priority in how we report the news.  You can’t blame Robertson for not knowing the cartoon would be read as offensive.  You can blame Robertson, and the Columbia Daily Tribune, for failing to employ people with keen insight into that culture. 

This is what happens when black people are absent.  It’s what happened in Ferguson, Missouri.  Sadly, it’s happening in Columbia, Missouri. We fail to see it due to the way matters related to race is addressed in Missouri. 

You don’t talk about it until it’s too late.

And, that’s just being lazy.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Finding the grace of God in Ferguson, Missouri

Harmon Smith, emeritus professor of theological ethics at Duke University, once told me to seek the grace of God in all things. That simple directive has gone a long way in shaping the way I approach theodicy – the presence of evil in this broken world.

It’s safe to say that few have inspired me more than Smith.  His love for me, coupled with his passion for the Church, have significantly impacted the way I think about God beyond the madness that I write about, and attempt to eradicate through my teaching and preaching.

It has been difficult to locate grace lately.  The misfortune that launched Ferguson, Missouri into the national spotlight reminds me of the massive layers of dysfunction that challenges us in communicating a consistent message.  Smith’s teaching compels me to articulate in a way that leaves those who listen with a pronounced awareness of the function of the Church within the chaos.

My personal skirmish is partially related to the glaring illogicality that smears both the image and message of the Church.  The call for peace is mired by the presence of extreme evil that is grounded in tons of historical dung.  The doctrine of the Church calls for nonviolent resistance. 

Our call for peace must be juxtaposed within the context of enduring pain.  How do we defy the broken not to fight back?  What are the implications related to measuring their defiance as counter intuitive to the teaching of our faith?  What are the conclusions elevated from our assumptions, and how do these claims impact the spirituality of those devoid of a place to be heard?

Central to my theology is the notion that resistance is an ethical decision.  This presupposition allows broader space for the terming of valid resistance.  It is assumed that resistance is a justifiable action when nations are confronted with evil opposition.  It’s deemed ethical to go to war against the enemy of our national agenda. 

Our theology and ethics compels us to measure our views from the context of patriotism. We should be careful not to merge a national agenda with a Christian ethic.  With that being said, conversations involving domestic resistance should be measured from the milieu of our assumptions related to national resistance.

The argument opposing black rage, as a justifiable ethical decision, controverts the assumption of national privilege.  This is not a new argument, but one that has impacted black resistance dating back to slavery.  When is it appropriate for a segment of American citizenry to battle systems that enforce their subjugation? 

What terns do we use to translate meaning of the rage that leads to resistance?  Is it ethical to demean and dismiss the integrity of those willing to die to end such tyranny?  Should we assume that all forms of resistance are fixed within the context of deviant thinking that demands force to restrain?

This is how Smith simple message helps me.  Where is the grace of God in all of this?

We can begin by questioning the ethics related to our judgment of resistance.  Rather than questioning the morality of this form of resistance, the ethics that molds our faith demands that we consider the pain that stirs the rage.

So, where is the grace of God in all of this?

It shows up in two ways. The first involves the construction of a radial street ethic. The pain in the streets has resulted in the unification of forces once in opposition.  Street gangs have decided to work together.  They have stood together in protest.  They now fight against their common enemy – the police. Their act of deviance can be used to begin conversations about restoring what has been lost.

During their resistance, the tension elevated so high that many were willing to die for their cause.  This is the second place where the grace of God shows up.  It shows up in the reconstruction of sacred space.

“I might as well fight back, since you gonna kill us anyway,” onlookers heard someone yell as tear gas filled the air.

They were willing to die.  It’s an important subtext that gets lost in the moralizing related to the form of resistance.  As gang members fought back, they stood beside those wearing the colors of competitive gangs.  They embrace a new battle.  No longer was the enemy a Blood or Crip, but those fighting against a perceived common enemy.

Then it happened.  In the crowd were others watching the escalation of rage.  They heard the cries for death. Then it happened.

The others formed a wall to protect them from their wish.  They - ministers, residents, men and women  tired of watching young men cry - formed a wall to save them from death.

This is the grace within the chaos.  This is the message of hope.  It’s found in the pain of those unwilling to live another day.  The grace is in what we hear.  When we listen to them give up on life, we show up.  When they no longer care about the hope in the coming of a new day, we build a wall to protect them.

This is the grace of God. This is where a new community emergence from the valley of dried bones.

We hear you.  We got you in this.  Get behind us now.  We’ve seen enough of your pain.

This is the grace of God.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"The Bible says black people are cursed": a minister said in Ferguson, MO

“The Bible tells us black people are cursed,” a minister said while surrounded by a group that looked like they had been transported from another era.

I paused to look at them.  Then I looked around to see if anyone else heard what he said.  A black man in his late twenties was placing a banner on the building next to where the group had pitched their tent.  His quick gaze in their direction said enough.

I took a few steps closer.

“Did you hear that,” I asked.

“Yeah,” he nodded. There was nothing else to say.

There was nothing else to be done.  I took a few pictures to document the moment.  Then I went back to the McDonalds in the parking lot next to the congregation praying, preaching and singing about black people.

“Lord, remove the devil from this place,” the preacher hummed like a black Pentecostal.

Maybe it was too hot to care.  Maybe the residents of Ferguson, Missouri were too tired to fight back.  Maybe it was too early after a long night of fighting the fear of tear gas and rubber bullets.

“I’m limping because I had to run from the police on multiple occassions,”Osagyefo Sekou told me after we appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. “I’ve been hit with tear gas twice.

Sekou graduated from Soldan High in St. Louis years ago.  He still holds the school record for the mile.  Sekou has children in St. Louis.  He’s been gone for a long time, preaching and teaching justice as the Pastor for Formation and Justice at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA.  He is spending the summer as a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute at Stanford University.

We talked a lot about social justice work while sitting at the McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri.  I reflected on the two journalist arrested by the police while working there.  I watched as police vehicles cruised the streets as if searching for a reason to fight.

“This is a police state man,” Sekou said.  “Churches are supporting it.”

We talked about the limits of the Church, and the disbursement of false information.

“I’ve been here. I’ve seen it first hand,” Sekou said. “We have been peaceful in our protest.  Senior citizens and children have been a part of the protest.  How can you justify tear gas in a crowd like that?”

Our conversation was deflected by the presence of the congregation holding service less than 100 feet away.  There, under a tent, they prayed and preached hate.  They walked into a community besieged after the death of an 18-year old black man, and moralized about the evil of the black people living in Ferguson.

I seemed fixated in another time.  Images of Bull Conner’s message of hate, barking dogs, water hoses, and senior citizens and children marching to make a point, visited me like Jesus on top of a mountain.  I watched as a congregation clapped hands and preached damnation on the black people living in Ferguson.

I begged God to take it away.  All of it.  Take away the misery in the streets.  Take away the pain of Michael Brown’s death.  Take away the rage related to racism, and the hate that compelled that congregation to sing.

Take away the pain in my soul after hearing them call me cursed.  Take away the massive division between those who confess disgust due to their standing on different sides of history.  Take away the anger fueled by rejection, and the tears that swarm because of people to mean to understand.

It was difficult to comprehend the reasons.  Another black boy is dead, and a church decides to preach a message of hate.

I’m closing my eyes and praying that it’s all a dream. A terrible dream.

It’s not a dream.  It’s an unending nightmare.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The death of Michael Brown stirs rage among black men

(Students and residents of Columbia, MO gather for a vigil to protest the death of Michael Brown on the campus of the University of Missouri)

I am a black man.  I’m proud of that fact.  I wouldn’t change that for anything.

I celebrate sharing the hue of my skin with former African kings.  I’m proud of the creative legacy of men like Miles, Coltrane, Baldwin and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  I take pride in carrying the torch of leadership, creativity and social consciousness that opens eyes and inspires many to do the same.

Like I said, wouldn’t change a thing.  That doesn’t dismiss the pain that comes with walking in these shoes.  It’s a point I’m forced to make whenever another black man is gunned down, unarmed, by police. When that happens, and sadly it happens too often, I find myself taking deep breaths, wiping tears and fighting the urge to swing in the air.

It happened after the Trayvon Martin verdict when I wrote about America’s lack of love for black men.  I was disappointed when people fired back with claims that I was pulling the race card, had cast all white people in the same bucket and needed to consider the facts of the case versus being angry at the outcome.

Those responses forced me into deep isolation.  The attack of my vulnerable moment reminded me of why I feel so disconnected from America.  Don’t take that the wrong way. I love America.  I’m not willing, yet, to give up on my country and head to another more affirming place.  I simply need to be heard.  All black men need that.


Because we are being hunted down like rats on the street.  Because it feels like our lives are worth less than the T-shirts we purchase to protest the execution of another black man.  Because of how it feels to walk within a village with eyes glued on us as if waiting for us to make a mistake.  Because of the assumptions and distance created to keep us silent when our hearts ache too much to share how we really feel.

It hurts being a black man.  That angst is rooted in our ongoing need to prove we deserve our place within the broader American social stream.  Our movement is blocked by the condition of our race and manhood, and it hurts.  It hurts too much to share, and I’m tired of the pain.

That's the root of what I said during a vigil on the campus of the University of Missouri to protest Michael Brown’s death.  I talked about being born in Columbia, Missouri, walking the streets of the city, reading Kierkegaard for the first time in the university library, graduating with a degree in journalism from Mizzou, only to feel like an intruder.

I simply don’t feel like any of it belongs to me.  I feel out of place when I walk the streets.  I’m constantly reminded of the distance between myself and the others who share common space.  I don’t feel affirmed or appreciated.  I grapple with the vast gap between the opportunities afforded me versus those who are white.  I notice the disparity in my field.  Where are the black reporters? Where are the black people?

No, I don’t belong here.  Everything is set up to sustain a system of white privilege.  I’m not supposed to say that.  I’m not supposed to feel that.  I’m told to preach personal accountability by pulling yourself up from those bootstraps.  I’m rewarded for drawing attention to the failures of those unable to make it in a given system.  I’m told to use scriptures to warn people of the consequences related to not playing by the rules. 

None of that feels right when pondered within the context of my black manhood.  When another one of us is shot and killed, I’m reminded of the ache that keeps my feet glued in fields of pain.  I don’t belong here. They want me dead.  It doesn’t matter how hard I work to transcend it all – none of it matters when I’m judged by the stuff they can’t see.
So, I’ll try this again for those who missed it the last time.  I’m a black man.  I’m hurting because of all of this.  I’m taking it personal because I have been stopped by the police for walking in my own neighborhood.  I have been stopped for driving home late at night.  I’ve experienced enough to know how it feels to be judged for no other reason than the fact that I am a black man.

I’m not asking people to understand any of that.  I simply need a space to scream, because, once again, a part of me died last week in Ferguson, MO. My faith will pull me back, but, in the meantime, give me some space to breathe.

Black man walking.