Complacency, Complicity, and Confrontation

I’m looking forward to participating in this event on Thursday October 8th at 12 EST, and am grateful for the reminder the event hosts in its title: CONFRONTING white complicity in racial injustice

As I confront my own role in racial injustice, I think about the false narratives embedded in white supremacy. False narratives that say my body will be protected if I remain silent on issues that matter, a false narrative which coddles and comforts white people. Upon these lies, countless systems of oppression have been built, systems which white people benefit from and knowingly or unknowingly participate in. 

So what I am learning is that this work requires a daily, moment to moment confrontation of myself and my complacency in issues of injustice which is often bound up in my comfort. And that complacency is precisely what leads to my complicity.  

One of the most significant ways we are failing Beloved Community, as white people, is that we are failing to go deep. We are using “Black Lives Matter” as another form of tokenism, a performative platform,  while still being coddled by oppressive systems built upon injustice. And until we truly step into the daily and moment-to-moment discomfort, this will exist.

And, as we know, the depth begins with us–it begins with the individual work that must seep out into all areas of our life. The individual work which leads to collective work.

The work isn’t comfortable, but the only other option is complicity.

I hope you’ll join us for this conversation so we can all continue to learn and grow, together.

“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”

bell hooks

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Mysticism is a Riot

Mysticism is alive.

It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.

Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.

Mysticism is a riot.

In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.

The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.

Mysticism breeds revolution. 

Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”

Mysticism is a protest.   

Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement. 

The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.

Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves:  Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”

Mysticism is on the streets.

So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”

Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”

For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”

Mysticism is now.

If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.

Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.

 

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Killing White Lies: Abraham Lincoln

I grew up nearby a street named Lincoln Way. This transcontinental highway runs all the way from Lincoln Park in California to Times Square in New York. And, it ran through the town I grew up in, giving me a kind of landmark for directions, much like I was taught to treat the street’s namesake when it came to history.  I grew up being told to admire Abraham Lincoln––the 16th president of the United States, a man of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), one who fought for the Union and to end slavery… or did he? 

While it’s not surprising, our history books lied to us and Lincoln got it wrong.

Recently, I’ve been reading a number of books by theologian James H. Cone including Black Theology & Black Power, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, and God of the Oppressed. Struck by his words and my growing understanding of truth as clearly laid out before me, I couldn’t help but fumble around when I read about this “great” president. I’ve come to realize that when we see the history we’ve been told is a lie, it’s not only our responsibility to listen, learn it, and apologize; It’s our responsibility to not look away. This writing is my apology. This writing is my refusal to look away.

“There is no place in this war of liberation,” Cone writes in 1969, “for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.”

While reading Black Theology & Black Power, I came across Cone’s notes on Abraham Lincoln and the frequent lies told about him as a man who longed for the freedom of slaves. Cone writes, “Whatever may have been the motives of Abraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching the war, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln was clear on this:

“My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” (Abraham Lincoln)

Cone goes on, “If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is another one which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughts about black people:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races––that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and interior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Abraham Lincoln)

With a whitewashed history, what does the future hold? Years from now, will the 45th president be portrayed with the light of racism and white supremacy under which he stands? Or will we––yes, we––continue to add layers and layers to the facts and perpetuate a world of hatred and injustice, a world comfortable enough for the nice white person who wants (and thinks under these severe circumstances that there is) progress without any conflict or discomfort?

“A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” ––James H. Cone

If the truth no longer propels us to care, what will? If we can look upon the suffering of our fellow human and remain neutral because we are comfortable, we have lost our humanity. There is no time for neutrality when humans are suffering. Or as Cone says, “There is no time for talk when men are suffering.”

Cone’s words in Black Theology & Black Power were written 50 years ago this year. His preface contains his own newfound truths including a recognition and apology for the sexism within the book (both in his gendered language and leaving out the leadership notes and significance of black women) as well as a new clarity that “we need to develop a struggle for freedom that moves beyond race to include all oppressed peoples of the world,” in accordance with some of the lessons he heeded from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Some may say, “The history books didn’t lie, they only didn’t share the whole truth.” Some may say, “Often times our imperfections are used for ultimate good and slaves were freed, weren’t they?” I, for one, refuse to bow my body or tip my cap to a man whose blatant racism was left out of history so that he might be elevated as some kind of white savior. Lincoln did not free slaves, he did not believe in the equality of our black brothers and sisters. To “free” a human from the labor and life of a slave in language yet to continue to treat them as less-than in any way is to keep slavery alive.

I am not a history expert. I claim no in-depth knowledge about slavery or presidential history. That being said, I do know my history books got it wrong. I do know there is a sitting president who is an undisguised racist and I do not want my nephews reading anything less than the truth in their history books. I do know that I am sorry for my ignorance. I do know we have a long, long, long way to go and we must bind ourselves together so that we can all stand on equal ground or we will continue to fall deeper alone.

And, some may say “How can the Republican party go from the 16th president of the United States to the blatant racism of the 45th president of the United States?” Relearning history makes it not only obvious but abundantly clear. Patterns are being repeated. History covers up racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia––by rewriting history through erasure, by perpetuating lies and therefore perpetuating hatred.

Next time I visit my hometown, I will remember the truth about the namesake of the street which runs through my town. The inevitable thought will make me consider just how many daily reminders we have of unabashed racism. The result will be a reminder to be louder against hatred, bolder against falsities, and clearer about the truth. Because I want my fellow human’s value in this world to be clear, known, and not just a pretty phrase. Because we can’t keep lying about our history. Because I want my nephews reading truth. Because I’m done being another nice neutral white face in the crowd.

“The liberal, then, is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience and demanding ‘Freedom Now,’ he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy all the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.’ He wants change without risk, victory without blood.” ––James H. Cone

References:
Text from: Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone, 1969.
Cone’s references for Lincoln quotes:
First quote by Lincoln: “Reply to Horace Greeley,” 1862, in The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1; revised, S. Bradley, R.C. Beatty, and E.H. Long, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 1567.
Second quote by Lincoln: Quoted in Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 92-93.
(***Image from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” 1978.)

 

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