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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Protest in Ferguson, MO exposes assumptions regarding black leadership

Photograph courtesy of WCNC TV

A few years back, I wrote a column about the gulf between the black church on the mountaintop and those stuck in the valley.  I argued for a place somewhere in the middle. 

We need to find that place fast.

The conversations related to the shooting of Michael Brown remind us of the deep division within the black community.  Saying that is, in part, a celebration of the diversity of ideas within black public space.  Not all black people think the same.  It is also true that black people represent a diverse set of cultural experiences which impact the construction of those views.

Yes, all of that is a celebration.  We don’t act the same, think the same, look the same or experience life the same way.  This all leads to variances regarding assumptions of leadership.  For those peeking into black public space from a position of privilege, there are clear expectations related to the function and assignment of black leadership.

Those assumptions exasperate the emotions of people lingering in the valley.  They watch as the press, the Church, politicians and the masses request affirming words from those they christen as the official voice of the people.  They do so based on the traditional model for the sanctioning of black leadership – they seek the voice of the Church.

As meaningful and significant as it may be to seek leadership from the black pulpit, it must be understood that the certification of community leadership is attached to one’s position and allegiance prior to the uproar of a movement.  One’s association with the Church does not credential a person as a community leader.  That can be assumed when the Church is engaged in the community in a way that makes them a part of the work in the valley.

The happenings in Ferguson, Missouri are an example of how leadership is both perceived and assumed within black public space.  There are two separate responses to the death of Brown. As the press and privileged seek leadership from the pulpit, those in the valley have indorsed their own leaders.  They have found, within the crowd of hurting people, those who speak with clarity regarding the nature of their pain.

As those from the mountaintop of privilege gather to discuss ways to minimize the hurt, those in the valley take matters into their own hands.  They speak with the form of protest that those on the mountain deem uncivilized, and a reflection of an unproductive strategy.  Those on the mountaintop meet, talk, pray, hold press conferences and formulate messages intended to abate the aggression in the valley.

Those on the mountain assume they are listening.  Those in the valley wonder why they speak, given their failure to be present before the madness became a part of national debate. 

Those in the valley meet and plan.  They engage in a way that reflects the culture of the valley.  Those on the mountaintop also meet.  They formulate strategies based on the culture of their institutional assumptions of power and privilege.  They bring a level of sophistication and common sense that can be embraced by the press and public. 

People watch and wonder about the division. Why are there two meetings held at the same time?  Why can’t we work together to impact change?

It’s because of the distance between the mountaintop and valley.  Those on the mountaintop have welcomed people in the valley to the mountain.  They are asked to come if willing to embrace the terms of those on the mountaintop.  Those in the valley watch those on the mountaintop from a distance.  They, those on the mountaintop, rarely come to the valley.  They find comfort in having escaped the valley.  It’s not safe in the valley – they say. 

The mountain is the sanctioning of the American Dream.  Those in the valley lack the advantages that come with mountain dwelling.  It is assumed that the leaders live on the mountain. 

Leaders emerge in the valley.  They know the language of the valley. They listen as the press refuses to listen.  They watch as people speak for them.  They know they haven’t been to the valley.  They know they remain comfortable in their churches while making assumptions about the reasons behind their failure to take the journey to the mountain.

There has to be a place between the mountaintop and valley.  Finding that place demands attention before things fall apart.  You can’t speak for people you have never met.  Titles, education and acceptance on the mountain aren’t enough to credential one as a leader among those in the valley.  You have to walk those streets before you can speak for them.

Keep listening.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The return of "Burn, baby! Burn"

Rioters in Watts shouted “Burn, Baby! Burn!” during uprisings that began on August 11, 1965.  The riots within the South Central Los Angeles area resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage.

"Burn, Baby! Burn!" was the trademark of Magnificent Montague, a popular R&B disc Jockey on KGFK in Los Angeles.  Montague would howl “burn” when a song moved him.  Listeners responded by calling the DJ and shouting “Burn” on the air.
They yelled “Burn, Baby! Burn!” to articulate frustration after word spread that Marquette Frye and Rena Price were roughed up by police.  It wasn’t the first time.  It was a common practice – police brutality, not only in Watts, but in black communities across the country.

Yesterday was the 49th anniversary of Watts.  People are still asking why did people burn and loot in Watts?

Why are people rioting in Ferguson, Missouri?
It’s a question we shouldn’t have to ask.  The question reflects a deep divide between the pain of rioters, and the assumptions of those who believe these types of matters should be left to the system to unravel.  Those who ask the question miss the point of the rage.

The system is the problem.
How do you respond when yet another black youth is killed for no reason?  How do you keep that rage contained when confronted with too many examples were justice fails to prevail? 

How do you watch Michael Brown’s mother cry without feeling compelled to respond in a way that reflects your sorrow? How to you respond to those who refuse to listen?  What do you say to those who discount the dignity of the life taken, and use excuses to justify the death of another black man?
What do you say to a nation that blames victims for crossing the line? What do you do when authorities refuse to listen to the witness who watched a police officer kill his friend?

“I saw the barrel of the gun pointed at my friend,” Dorian Johnson, 22, told Trymaine Lee of MSNBC. “Then I saw the fire come out of the barrel.”
Johnson told MSNBC the incident began as an order by a police officer to ‘get the f— onto the sidewalk’ and quickly escalated into a physical altercation and then, gunfire.

“I could see so vividly what was going on because I was so close,” said Johnson, who was within arm’s reach of both Brown and the officer when the first of several shots was fired.
Johnson said they continued walking after telling the officer they were close to their destination.  He says the officer then slammed on his breaks, backed up, nearly hitting them.

They heard him say something to the effect of, “what’d you say?” At the same time, Johnson says the officer slammed the door into Brown, and, with his left hand, grabbed Brown by the neck.
“I could see the muscles in his forearm,” Johnson said. “Mike was trying to get away from being choked.”

 “They’re not wrestling so much as his arm went from his throat to now clenched on his shirt,” Johnson said. “It’s like tug of war. He’s trying to pull him in. He’s pulling away, that’s when I heard, ‘I’m gonna shoot you.’”
 Johnson said he looked at the officer to see if he was pulling a stun gun or a real gun. That’s when he saw the muzzle of the officer’s gun.

 “I seen the barrel of the gun pointed at my friend,” he said. “He had it pointed at him and said ‘I’ll shoot,’ one more time.”
Johnson said he heard the first shot go off.

 “I seen the fire come out of the barrel,” he said. “I could see so vividly what was going on because I was so close.”
 Johnson says he looked over at Brown and saw blood through his shirt on the right side of the body.

 “The whole time [the officer] was holding my friend until the gun went off,” Johnson said.
 Johnson said he and Brown took off running together. There were three cars lined up along the side of the street. Johnson says he ducked behind the first car, whose two passengers were screaming. Crouching down a bit, he watched Brown run past.

 “Keep running, bro!,” he said Brown yelled. Then Brown yelled it a second time. Those would be Brown’s last words.
 Brown made it past the third car. Then, “blam!” the officer took his second shot, striking Brown in the back. At that point, Johnson says Brown stopped, turned with his hands up and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”

 By that point, Johnson says the officer and Brown were face-to-face. The officer then fired several more shots. Johnson told MSNBC he watched Brown go from standing with his hands up to crumbling to the ground and curling into a fetal position.
“After seeing my friend get gunned down, my body just ran,” Johnson said. He ran to his apartment nearby. Out of breath, shocked and afraid, Johnson says he went into the bathroom and vomited. Then he checked to make sure that he hadn’t also been shot.

Five minutes later, Johnson emerged from his apartment to see his dead and in the middle of the street.
What do you say and do after hearing a story like that? Freeman Bosley, Johnson’s attorney, said police have declined an opportunity to speak with Johnson.

What do you think after Trayvon Martin?  What do you do after Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York City?  Do you wait?  Do you hope for justice?  Do you maintain trust in the system?
Do you accept the notion that we are experiencing a post-racial America, and that time will prove the police did nothing wrong? Should we indict rioters for overreacting, or is something deeper taking place to reshape the conscious of black America.

Are we experiencing the return of “Burn, baby! Burn!”
Listen to the rage.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reflections on James Brown and his violence against women

Yes, I’m a James Brown fan.  Saying that is a bit disturbing given the Godfather of Soul’s numerous arrests for assault and domestic violence. Loving the music is one thing.  Lifting Brown as a role model is hard to concede.  His life and message leaves one conflicted at best.

Yes, I say again for undeniable emphasis, I love me some Funk music.  I’m a child of the P-Funk, and there wouldn’t have been such a thing without James Brown. From taking the beat from the top, showcasing moves that would be imitated by Prince, Michael Jackson and a bunch of others who credited Michael for the moves, to making the Funk about the band (bow down to the truth George Clinton) – everybody has been touched by the Godfather’s music.

Yes, again I say yes, James Brown deserves all due respect for introducing the Funk.  The link between Brown and George Clinton proves the point.  The list of band members who quit, or were kicked out of Brown’s band to join Clinton, resembles a messy divorce.  Bootsy and Catfish Collins took the Funk to Parliament/Funkadelic after forming House Guest.  Somebody sing I’d Rather Be With You. Excuse me as I reminisce.

Like I said, Get on Up unpacks an important part of black music history.  It exposes the sensitive, but real, connection between black gospel and R&B.  It tugs at how race denies Little Richard’s contribution in transforming American music as the real King of Rock & Roll.  Yes, again and again yes, step aside Elvis.  We could go on for days about how all American music has roots in black culture.  A critical analysis would tell the truth about the African connection to Blue Grass music. Help me out with that one Carolina Chocolate Drops.

There are layers like an onion related to the impact of cultural appropriation, and how the genius of James Brown is embedded within the context of black expression.  We could talk about how Brown got there.  What was brewing within the social milieu of black people that fashioned the groove, the movement and lyrics of Brown’s music?

This brings me to a layer beyond the beat of Brown’s music.  As powerful and meaningful as Brown’s music is in constructing the crusade of black counter-culture, how can we separate the message from the antics of the messenger?

How do we close eyes to Brown’s violence against women? Can we dismiss it all as a variable of his social conditioning, while pointing at the actions of two pitiful parents who offered him nothing in becoming a man?  Can we blame it on the pathetic consequences of extreme poverty?  Or, should we censure Brown for his abuse against women and refuse to play his music because of his pugnacious ways?

Should we dismiss Brown and his music like we did Chris Brown after he attacked Rihanna?  What have we learned in the space between these two Brown’s, and how do we celebrate both given their issues with women?

I left the theater thinking about something Bill Clinton said to Oprah after the scandal with “that woman”. 

“It’s not an excuse, but it’s an explanation,” Clinton said.

I can’t excuse what Brown did, but his childhood serves as a powerful explanation.  Who wouldn’t be angry at women given what his mother did?  How do you learn to control your anger after having to endure all of that?

I felt so bad for him.  All I could think was “stop the movie and let us pray!”

But, none of that matters in the court of law and public opinion.  It doesn’t undo the rage felt by women who have felt the force of a man’s hand on her face.  It doesn’t absolve the hate and pain felt by those who endure the sting of a man’s fury.

No, you get no pass.  It’s an explanation, but there is no excuse.

I understand the context and social conditioning that fueled that rage.  I get the demoralizing enculturation packed in the souls of black men devoid of emotional strength to overcome the lies thrust against their identity.  I recognize the pitfalls and insufficiency associated with attempting to get to a place with no one to lead the way. I get being hurt, trapped and angry. But!

There is no justification for putting hands on a woman.  There is no excuse.  And maybe, no damn it, forget the maybe, we need to demand accountability from those who crossed that line.

That means you Mr. Brown.  That applies to you Miles Davis and others we celebrate for their undeniable contribution.

As for you Chris Brown, sit in a corner and get your act together before it’s too late. You have no explanation.