Thursday, 11 February 2016

Racism and Christianity: I'm waking up still and again

 So - I began this post and it was finished and it disappeared. I wonder what that means?

Starting over. A shorter version.

I've been asked (and ask myself) a valid question: Why do I keep trying to make sense of our family history? I have to. And Black History  Month is a good time to continue.

My great-great grandmother Susan Jane Smith (Smith being a slave name) was born in about 1832, a slave. That's because there is no record of slave births. We only know her approximate age because records were kept for purposes of emancipation and the compensation owners received for them from the British government.

It's not so far off. Jim's and my Gram is the great-great grandmother of Sandi and Jim's grandchildren. Emancipation in Bermuda and the rest of the British Empire came into effect August 1, 1834. Like emancipation in the US in 1865, it did not bring true freedom. Understatement. Susan Jane's owner was paid £14 for giving her freedom. A tiny girl. That would be a lot of money now.

Gram emigrated from Bermuda at age 12, Auntie Jenny was 10. If they had stayed in Bermuda, they would not have continued to get a good education, nor would they have found meaningful work. Schools were segregated until at least the 1960's.  The reason they sat in the 'white' section at St. Peter's Church in St. George's - they were invited to share the Virtue family pew. Mr. Virtue was a very well-respected white man whose pew had come down through his family, but his wife was a fair-skinned woman of colour. (Story told in another post.)

Gram was fair as well and once they left Bermuda, they passed for white. Advantages to passing for white meant a better education and better job opportunities. The costs? Shame and fear of being found out?  Family secrets with no opportunity for us to know and discuss aspects of our history.

St. peter's Church - the Virtues' pew that my family shared
and a section of the slave gallery in the upper background. (Photo mine)

I recently spent a week at the convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto for retreat, relaxation, and time to continue discerning my future re retirement. I was reading One Drop (see earlier post) and... that was not relaxing. Then to get from the Guest House to the refectory and/or chapel one has to walk down what I call Temptation Alley - shelves of oodles of books for sale. I bought two.

Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith by Heidi B. Neumark is the story of an American woman raised Lutheran who discovered after her father's death that her ancestors were German Jews and that her paternal grandfather had died in a concentration camp. Her father never talked about it - not a hint. The lie was he had died of a heart attack. She travelled to Germany several times and discovered that the church had been heavily implicated in the horrors - growing in part out of some of the teaching of Martin Luther that were anti-Semitic. Lest we get self-righteous, Canada severely limited the numbers of Jews who could enter Canada, effectively condemning many to death. Still, she was shocked, as am I, about Luther.

Then I've just finished - and am beginning to re-read The Cross and the Lynching Tree - the recently published book by James H. Cone. It is shocking. Sickening. Eye-opening. It's waking me up again and still. How is it that we think we've begun to be awake and suddenly discover we are still very much asleep? It's human. I'm not alone.  

It would be easy for Canadians to dismiss this because we didn't lynch people. We did have slaves. And residential schools and cultural genocide of First Nations. And white churches that have turned into black churches as the numbers of blacks increased and "white flight" occurred. Racism is "alive and well" north of the border as it is to our south. I see this as an opportunity to question what it means for all of us - to step into the shoes of our black sisters and brothers - trying to understand their history and their present experiences. That we may truly become one.

The people who lynched over 5,000 men and women between 1880 and 1940 were Christians. Neither state legislatures nor the federal government would speak out against lynching (much less make it illegal) until I think the 1960's. The Ku Klux Klan continues its ugly, evil activities. They are Christians. A man recently walked into a black church and massacred its members. Christians burn black churches still. Police north and south of the border kill blacks largely with impunity. They stop people for "driving while black." Staff in stores follow people of colour to make sure they don't steal. The percentages of people of colour and First Nations in our prison systems are incomprehensible. It's wonderful that we're welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada. What about Somalian and other African refugees? A valid and important question to which we know the answer if we're honest.

(BTW I'm not using a capital for black here because James Cone doesn't for some reason.)

I guess I'll leave it - and let Dr. Cone speak. It makes me think of the children's song "Going on a bear hunt" - "We can't go over it. We can't go under it. We can't go around it. We have to go through it." Sort of like grief. 

Quotes from the introduction and first chapter of The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

"The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America, though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus' death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is a challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.

In the heyday, the lynching of black Americans was no secret. It was a public spectacle, often announced in newspapers and over radios, attracting crowds of up to twenty thousand people. An unspeakable crime, it is a memory that most white Americans would prefer to forget. For African Americans the memory of disfigured black bodies "swinging in the southern breeze" is so painful that they, too, try to keep these horrors buried deep down in their consciousness, until, like a dormant volcano, they erupt uncontrollably, causing profound agony and p ain.... to forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation.... 

... (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are) ... two figures whose influence had combined implicitly to shape the theme and style of black liberation theology ... most people rejected one and embraced the other -- seeing Martin and Malcolm as rivals, nemeses, representing oppositional categories of Christian and black, integration and separation, non-violence and violence, love and hate. I embraced them both because I saw them advocating different methods that corrected and complemented each other, as they worked for the same goal -- the liberation of black people from white supremacy. 

... I do not write this book as the last word about the cross and the lynching tree. I write it in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted on us. The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive... 

... Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol (the cross) of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings -- those whom Ignacio Ellacuria, the Salvadoran martyr, called "the crucified peoples of history." The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. ... until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a "recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy...   

... "The paradox of a crucified savior lies at the heart of the Christian story. That paradox was particularly evident in the first century when crucifixion was recognized as the particular form of execution reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels. it was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame -- one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings... The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world's value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.

That God could "make a way out of no way" in Jesus' cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross.. Christ crucified manifested God's loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life ... There was no place for the proud and mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God's critique of power -- white power --- with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat... 

... The sufferings of black people during slavery are too deep for words. That suffering did not end with emancipation. The violence and oppression of white supremacy took different forms and employed different means to achieve the same end: the subjugation of black people. And Christian theology, for African Americans, maintained the same great challenge: to explain from the perspective of history and faith how life could be made meaningful in the face of death, how hope could remain alive in the world of Jim Crow segregation...

... At no time was the struggle to keep such hope more difficult than during the lynching era (1880 - 1940). The lynching tree is the most potent symbol of the trouble nobody knows that blacks have seen but do not talk about because the pain of remembering - visions of black bodies dangling from southern trees, surrounded by jeering white mobs -- is almost too excruciating to recall."

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