This is the 2nd assignment in my self-imposed course: Readings in Surviving Empire. Obviously, it’s a tad belated, but the instructor (me) was kind enough to grant the student (me) an extended extension. That’s just the kind of grace there is in a self-imposed, self-assessed syllabus.
Last summer, I got to be a part of a weeklong writing workshop. One of the requirements was to share a piece of work with the group, which meant we’d all read one other’s writing before meeting anyone. Once we arrived and began putting words with faces, the conversation turned toward depth pretty fast.
I submitted a piece I’d written about a beloved church member’s funeral. He had been a Civil War re-enactor in our historic-battlefield town for years. During the last months of his long illness, he planned – down to the last detail – his own Confederate military funeral. There was a horse-drawn caisson, a musket salute and dozens of mourners in period dress. It was one of the most bizarre and beautiful things I’ve been a part of, so I wrote about it. And then I shared it with these fellow writers.
On the first day of our time together, several of us were walking down a dirt road by the retreat center, trying to connect each flesh-and-blood person with the writing we’d been spending time with over the last few weeks. “Oh,” said my new friend Josina, “you wrote the Civil War piece! I have so many questions for you!” “Really?” I asked, assuming she, too, found the humor in the funeral and maybe wanted to know more about the caisson or the eulogy from Robert E. Lee.
“Yes,” she said. “Are there any black people in your church?”
Manassas has been a place keen on its history for 200 years. Two big-time Civil War battles happened there, including the first major battle of the war. Southern pride – that collective consciousness of rebellion, defeat, and entitlement – runs deep, even though the town now sits squarely within the confines of Northern Virginia: the richest, best educated, most powerful metropolitan area in the country.
Two hundred years ago, families in Manassas fought for the state’s ability to self-rule, for its economic prosperity, and to maintain the right to own other people as property. These days, some people are still fighting: for the state’s ability to refuse hospitality, for its economic stratification, and to maintain the right to air out their atrociously racist opinions.
The City of Manassas is one of 78 American localities that have had a dramatic demographic switch in the last thirteen years: in just over a decade, these places have seen the former racial majority become a minority. In 2000, Manassas’ residents were 67% non-Hispanic white. In 2013, only 45% were. That’s a lot of change. Just down the road, the city of Manassas Park is set to become the first place in Virginia where people who select “Hispanic” as their race on demographic forms will outnumber those who choose “White.”
This change has not been a peaceful one. People are talking about these demographic shifts, arguing about “best uses of public funds” and the sudden influx of Spanish-language businesses, the “commotion” caused by those quinceneras happening in parks and fellowship halls every weekend. Last year, when a private residential center for troubled youth in town began accepting and caring for some of the thousands of unaccompanied, undocumented children crossing the U.S. border, the place spiraled into a tizzy over crime, gangs, money and, believe it or not, genocide:
“Any act or nonaction by the federal government to bring about such large influxes of non-Southern peoples is genocide and is viewed as [that] by native Southerners…is, in effect, an act of war upon our people.”
In the Civil War, Brethren refused to fight altogether. The Manassas congregation wasn’t founded until 1885, but it was family members of John Kline, the famous Brethren preacher and doctor, that did so. Kline, decidedly anti-slavery and decidedly anti-secession, spent years riding across battle lines to preach and teach and minister to Brethren on either side. It got him killed.
These days, in a vibrant, prosperous, loving congregation in the midst of D.C. madness, one made up of people from across the political, social and economic spectrum, being decidedly anything is very, very hard.
Were there any black people in my church? Yes, but not many. We were a mostly non-Hispanic white congregation, a group of people experiencing the swift change from demographic majority – descendants of generations of land-owning farm families – to demographic minority, and doing our best to avoid that change completely.
I’ve been reading Willie James Jennings’ book The Christian Imagination for months, now. The book’s subtitle is “Theology and the Origins of Race,” and while I assumed it would talk about intersections of race and theology, or the ways theology has ignored or exacerbated racial strife, I did not expect to be so clearly and powerfully indicted, as a Christian and as a theologian, in the very beginnings of our own destructive form of Western racism.
That’s what Jennings does: lays out, clearly and calmly through biography and history and primary sources the ways that Christian theology itself laid the ground for the depth of racism that stalks our everyday existence in America today. In colonialism, missionary efforts, empire’s reach, slave boats and the Church’s migration into the “new” world, Christian thought and practice was not only complicit in but actually actively helped to create the wrenching sin of racism that still rips apart our society today.
So. That’s something.
Christian theology, Jennings says, still imagines the world from “commanding heights.” We operate under the assumption that we are the ones in charge, here, and anyone else we happen to encounter can choose to fall in or choose to fall out. Whiteness became the signifier of all things good and literally holy as Christ’s white people moved across the world and demanded subservience from all the “evil heathens” they came across. “It is as though,” Jennings says, “Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the space it entered, and demanded native peoples enter its cultural logic.”
In this new colonial world, place no longer functioned as the thing that shaped peoples’ identity; bodies and skin color did. Identity couldn’t be folded into a thick reality of geologic features and generational communities and ancient practices. In this new, mobile world assumed by the white Christian colonists, identity had to be portable, worn on one’s flesh, shallow and easily readable. This is a deep, deep loss, one of “a life-giving collaboration of identity between place and bodies, people and animals. The loss here is also of the possibility of new identities bound up with entering new spaces,” (63).
Instead of encountering new places and new peoples with an openness to being transformed, the colonists entered new worlds assuming that their identity, worn so obviously on their skin, was permanent, correct, immutable and holy.
This is a posture built on hubris, and a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ’s call to humility and hospitality. It is a betrayal of Jesus’ incarnate presence, an inability to become vulnerable and enter into intimacy with others who seem to be unlike us. “The theological imagination that deploys divine presence without concomitant real presence and real relationship may be enacting a form of Gentile hubris that believes we have the right to claim the very reality that was only announced over us by a gracious act of the Holy Spirit in the presence of Jewish believers,” (167).
I’ve been reading and re-reading this book for months, reading while the world and the church have started talking, again, about how racism is ripping us apart. Reading the book has functioned as a spiritual practice, and forced me to ask and answer questions – like Josina’s – that I do not want to ask or to answer. The question that made me stop, put down the book and close my eyes, though, was this one: “The problem is in imagining whom we theologians belong to as we write, as we think, as we pray,” (202). To whom do I belong?
To whom do I belong?
That question rocks me a little, these days. I’m a single, unemployed lady pastor without a family or a congregation or a place, yet, to put down roots. I have a lot of people, plenty of possibility, and a generous friend who’s invited me into her home for as long as I need. But last Sunday was Love Feast, and I didn’t have anywhere to go, no one to wash my feet.
In Manassas, I belonged to the people of the Manassas Church of the Brethren. That was good, and that was bad. There were plenty of people to wash my feet. There was always a potluck or a dinner or a luncheon to join. There was consistently good work to be done, gospel to be preached, teenagers to be led, and coffee to be consumed. I belonged. There was a place for me, and a role to step into each and every day.
I was also constantly on the move, traveling for my other work, to retreats and conferences and congregations across the country. I belonged to the Church of the Brethren, and all those places held some familiarity and some sense of ease in them. I was busy. Very busy. And I had very little doubt about my status: I belonged.
But being so scheduled and co-opted, so certain of my belonging and my importance left me very little time to ask the question: Who do I actually belong to, here?
I didn’t pay attention to the shifting demographics in town, even though my afternoon office hours at Panera were consistently filled with the sound of at least five different languages and a regular cycle of new employees who were also clearly new immigrants. I didn’t make friends with my neighbors, even though the smell of their tamales on the grill made my mouth water every weekend. I didn’t get involved with my neighbors at the Free Clinic across the county or the food pantry right across the road, even though the youth and I heard disturbing statistics every time we went to volunteer for an hour or two – that over 800 families in our own small city needed free food each month, that there were not enough beds to house homeless children.
I assumed that I belonged to the people of my congregation, people who looked like me, worshipped like me, ate beef and bread and sop like me; people who, like me, belonged in this place. I assumed that their reality – my reality – was the one that mattered.
I never said hateful things about my neighbors, and I certainly didn’t stand up at city council meetings and claim that these new citizens’ presence in town was tantamount to genocide. In the three and a half years I lived there, I had one or two well-intentioned, anti-racist thoughts. Once or twice, I might have even preached something that looked like the Gospel and alluded to hospitality. But I never once dwelt for any significant amount of time on the question: To whom do I belong in this place?
The question scares me. It assumes my assumptions might be wrong. It assumes that I might NOT belong in the ways I thought I did. And the answers…well, the answers are even more terrifying.
What if I belonged to Joe, the chronically homeless and excessively cologned man who wouldn’t let our congregation forget him? What if I actually belonged to my downstairs neighbors and had to hear their stories of why new young men came to live with them every few months, why they all had permanent coughs from the concrete they worked with and couldn’t seem to get to a doctor, why their little girl would look at me curiously but simply refuse to speak a word. What if I belonged to those 800 families who didn’t have enough to eat, or the kids who were staying next door to the church building with their grandma while their mom was serving time? What if I belonged to those kids up at Youth For Tomorrow, kids whose lives before now were so dangerous or so bad that their parents would send them off alone to cross international borders and figure out ways to fend for themselves in hope that THAT would be better than what was? What if I actually belonged more to those people who were, in the minds of some of my congregants, dirty, lazy, greedy, assaults on our own identity, our own sense of belonging?
And, even scarier, what if I didn’t belong to them? What if I didn’t belong to anyone?
I’ll start a new job, soon, in a new place. I’ll belong, again, to a congregation: a group of people who will offer to wash my feet and feed me casseroles and invite me into their lives. I’m grateful, incredibly grateful, for that grace of how the Church creates and sustains belonging in community.
But it won’t be enough anymore. I think I’ll always be asking myself if I’ve asked myself enough: to whom do I belong, here? What identity am I assuming? Who am I refusing to encounter? What intimacy am I sacrificing for the sake of a shallow sense of security?
Jennings ends his book with a beautiful hope for intimacy beyond the mangled racial spaces we’ve created, an image of bodies touching, of the divine present in spaces of deep and dangerous belonging. This is what we were created for, the place to which we ultimately and decidedly belong: “a Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction,” (248).
Amen, Brother Jennings.