The last few days have seen a media furore over the murder, in an historic Charleston church, of nine Black parishioners in attendance at a Bible study by a young White man who allegedly claimed race as his motive.
Concurrently, I have been working on my PhD dissertation, and this week specifically, reading and writing about how the United States became the epitome of ‘White Christian Civilisation’ – a designation built upon invented assumptions about inherited, immutable, ‘racial’ characteristics that made the genocide of America’s indigenous peoples and the subjugation of African peoples appear both justifiable and in their own ultimate good.
Some of the justifications were religious, based on scriptural exegesis by both Muslim and Christian scholars. Despite their religious differences, Christians readily absorbed Islamic racialist views vis-à-vis African people which had developed in the course of the brutal trans-Saharan slave trade. Some of the justifications were cultural, rooted in long-standing associations of blackness with evil and sin. Some were scientific, based on supposedly objective observation and interpretation of different people. All of them came together to support the assumption that the peoples of Africa were inferior, degraded beings, and unworthy of consideration or respect as fellow humans.
Over the last weeks and months, I have read and engaged with political conservatives and watched as many struggle to reconcile the mythology of American exceptionalism and racial progress with the realities of persistent ongoing White supremacy. Who raise issues of how the ‘Black community’ is responsible to deal with Black intra-racial violence, high crime rates, and paternal absence when police brutality is raised as an issue, but who insist on distancing themselves from the actions of ‘lone shooter’ White men. White people are always individuals.
When news of the shooting broke, I thought of my father pastoring a not-so-significant-nor-historic Black Pentecostal church and what it would be like to have an unexpected visitor show up at Bible study, sit through, and then open fire on him. I thought of my other family members – safe for now, yes, but are they ever really safe? Will the next shooting be at my Dad’s church? My brother’s? My uncle’s? Will the next killing by police of an innocent Black man be my cousin? My nephew? My gut tightened to think of it.
I thought of President Obama raising the issue of guns, even though gun control was initially a tool in the hands of White supremacists to keep Blacks unarmed and vulnerable.
I thought of the inability of our national leaders to ever honestly face the reality of the United States as a settler colonial state, founded on genocide and theft, all the while proclaiming itself as the beacon of freedom for the world.
I thought of my ancestors, bound and shackled, naked and humiliated whilst undergoing inspection like cattle – their bodies not their own, the basics of human decency denied them. Men and women alike used for the sexual pleasure of men who called those they abused animals.
I thought of my now deceased grandmother who, on the sole occasion I asked about life in ‘those days’, simply said, “White people were mean. They were so mean”, and added nothing else to it – her silence speaking volumes that words could not express.
I thought of the South – the place of my nativity – which has long been the scapegoat for American racial politics, the whipping boy of American White guilt. I thought of how such scapegoating allowed and allows the rest of the country to rest easily – look at how wicked and racists those Southerners are! – all the while taking secret solace in the South doing actively what the rest of the nation passively endorsed.
Here in Africa, the place from which some people would suggest I should be glad my ancestors were ‘rescued from’, we’ve had power outages. We’ve had flooding due to incompetent and inattentive leaders. We’ve got all kinds of problems. More than the 99 problems of the now famous song. But this isn’t one of them.
Today is the day of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I reflect on this day from the comfort of the guest room in my sister and brother-in-law’s home in California after a nice time at church followed by a nice time of fellowship over a delicious meal.
I am busy preparing a presentation for friends and supporters of the ministry.
I scroll through photos of our time in Ghana, trying to think of what to say, how to share our lives and ministry with them.
I run across the videos of Reese, our beloved daughter.
I see her laughter, her smiles..
The tears come without invitation. I miss my baby girl. My time with her was too short and she should be here with us.
And the words too come unbidden to my ears and my heart…
The last enemy is death.
Seeing my departed daughter’s beautiful face and smiles and laughter brings home to me the stark reality that she really is gone. She is dead. And the reality of her death causes me to see through the thin veneer of American affluence to the haunting face of that last enemy we try so hard to avoid facing — that last enemy, death, who deals his hand without recourse to one’s wealth or poverty or sex or social status or nationality. Our cosmetic enhancements, healthy eating, comfortable cars, air conditioned homes, technologically advanced medical centers — none of them do anything other than delay the inevitable date with death our last and greatest enemy. He is the one against whom no army has ever emerged victorious and from whose clutches no one has ever escaped…
“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
For the last almost three years, I’ve been a White person. A strange kind of White person, a White person with a funny accent, a White person who doesn’t ‘get’ all the inside cultural jokes, but a White person nonetheless.
When I shop, when I go the filling station, when I am stopped by the police, when I do anything and everything, I am White.
I became a White person when we moved here. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one day I realised – “OH! This is what it must be like to be White.” To be greeted every day by media that looks like you. To travel the streets and see police that look like you. To see politicians, teachers, engineers, doctors, accountants, street cleaners, homeless people, thieves – all of whom look like you. To go into a store and not have to look for the “black” section to buy products for my hair and skin.
Because my hair is normal. My lips are normal. My eyes are normal. My butt is normal. Heck, even the people smiling back at me from the toothpaste tube are normal – they look like me. For the first time in life I was the norm, my colour neither a barrier, nor a benefit – just an incident.
No one assumes anything about me positively or negatively because of the colour of my skin.
Since I’ve become White, I’ve never had to think about these things. It doesn’t even come to mind. Being White is nice – I can see why people wouldn’t want to give up the privilege. Because since I’ve been here and enjoyed some White privilege, my wife doesn’t get the same privilege.
She is the one to whom is attributed all the suspicion of her ethnicity regardless of the fact that she’s not at all like them. She is the one who is more likely to be pulled over because of the colour of her skin, or to be overcharged, or to hear a racial slur – or simply to be ignored and disrespected. My wife isn’t White.
We will be traveling back to the states in two-weeks for a long visit after almost 3 years living abroad. We will be returning to a “post-Ferguson” America. Of course America was post-Ferguson before Ferguson for many of us, so I’m not so sure what difference that makes.
It does make a difference though and I am admittedly apprehensive. Not because I expect to become the latest in a string of “unarmed Black man shot dead by police”. No, I don’t expect that. I am apprehensive because going home will be both a breath of fresh air – of returning to the familiar, of returning to abundance, and to the efficiency of life in the good ole’ USA – and also a breath of noxious air – of returning to a place where the first and defining characteristic for almost all who see me will be the colour of my skin.
I won’t be White anymore.
Recently I received a link about all the things living overseas that no one tells you about, written by a missionary. I read it, laughed at some things, shrugged at others, but mostly contemplated how little any of it applies to me. It is like that with most things I read that are written by missionaries living overseas. Most of them don’t seem to resonate much with me or my experiences. And much of the dissonance has to do with this notion of home.
We’re planning a visit to the US in March and yesternight I was discussing it with my wife. I was commenting to her how strange it feels to think of going to the US as going “home”.
I mean, it is home. I lived in the US all my life until almost 3 years ago when I came to live in Ghana. The sights, sounds, mood of the American South are deep in my consciousness and blood. My family is there. My church is there. Everything is there.
But it still feels strange, just like all those cutesy things about missions feel somewhat ‘off’ as it relates to my own experience. I think I know why.
I think it is because of something a missions Pastor said in an off the cuff remark that I did not fully appreciate at the time. He is himself an ex-patriate – a South African living in the United States. So I asked him if he missed home and he replied, “Home is where my family is.”
Well my family is in the US and so is my wife’s. And we are very much embedded in the whole extended family thing. When I say “family” I automatically include my aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, and in-laws, not to mention those friends of the family that are like family anyway, or my brother’s ex-wife who has now been divorced from him about as long as they were married but who I still consider my sister, and her sister, and her sister’s children who call me uncle… it gets complicated but you get the picture. When I say “family” the list gets pretty long. And why wife’s case is worse since her family is spread out over 3 continents and 5 different countries (at least those I can think of off head).
But still… the mission pastor had a point. My immediate family – me, wife and children – are all here. And more importantly, about half of our family life has been formed in this context. Which means that most of our memories as a family are associated with this place and not that place.
Here is where my eldest son had his first birthday.
Here is where my second son was born.
Here is where we first went for a beach vacation as a family.
Here is where we had our most difficult arguments and our greatest make-ups.
Here is where our little girl was conceived, born, lived and died.
Here is where virtually everything about our marriage and family life has been formed.
Here feels very much like home.
I received news via Facebook very early this morning that my paternal grandmother, Big Mama, died. She was 86 years old.
As far as I know, Big Mama did not die of anything in particular, nor is it really necessary that she should have died of something in particular. At 86 years I think a person has a right to die without anything being ‘wrong’ with them at all; you are old and you have died, that is all.
She used to say that she promised the Lord that if he let her keep her mind, she would serve him all her days and that if you ever saw her not serving the Lord we should pray for her mind. Well over the last few years, my grandmother did experience mental decline but she keep serving him anyway.
When I received the news I told my wife that I had expected my grandmother to die this year and was in fact hoping that it would happen when I travel back to the US this year during the holiday break. I do not mean to say that I was looking forward and hoping for my grandmother’s death as that is by no means the case. I mean only that I had hoped to be there when she died so that I could mourn and celebrate with the family. And in any case some years back she told me that she wanted me to preach her funeral. I am not sure that is now possible, but we will see.
This request of hers, that I preach her funeral, leads me on to further reflection as I consider her life and her death. One of my cousins mentioned that she was the matriarch of the family. Truer words have hardly been spoken. How can one remember, mourn, and celebrate the loss of someone who fully fits that description? It feels as if the queen of a minor monarchy has died and I am one of its princes. (Too bad we don’t have any princely money.)
She was in fact a true matriarch, the woman around whom a tremendous constellation of family and friends of the family revolved whether they knew her personally or not. Her matriarchy was not built on the basis of a large family: she had only 4 children, and 12 grandchildren – not especially huge numbers as such things go. And the family was not, in the strictest sense of the word, the center of her matriarchal power. Sure, years ago we would gather at her place during Christmas to eat and all that, but it has been a quite a long while since that tradition died (to be honest it was not at all one especially enjoyed by our ‘branch’ of the family tree, that is my father’s children; we were not really upset when that tradition ended but that’s another story). No the matriarchy of my grandmother was built on something quite different and is something to which I am, in a very real sense of the word, an heir. It was built on the church.
You see my grandmother was the founder of the church in which I grew up. Family sat at the center but many others came, seeking their soul salvation, looking for the truth, desperate for deliverance from sin, from death, from the challenges of life. They came and became connected to us, to the family that sat at the core of things. They came as friends of the family, sisters and brothers-in-law, wives and husbands turned ex-wives and ex-husbands who stayed even though they were no longer married into the family but were still part of the church and thus part of the family, the Lord added to their numbers those who would be saved. They came and they were drawn in not just to the church but into the family so that everybody seemed to be related even though only a few of us actually were. The church was the family and the family was the church and we who were in both could scarcely tell where one ended and the other began. So my grandmother was matriarch beyond the natural family — she was mama, and big mama, and pastor all at the same time to a great many people.
She was my grandmother and my pastor and she reigned as pastor of the church for more than 35 years until she abdicated the throne to my father, her eldest son and chief heir to her ministerial and pastoral legacy. I use the term ‘reigned’ intentionally for that is how it felt to us, or to me at least since all our lives we, the children of her eldest son, grew up as I imagine royal heirs grow up except in this case we were being groomed for ministry.
It was only natural. My two uncles were both younger than my father and were not really the church-going type. The youngest one, though now in ministry himself, came late to it after many years of wandering as a prodigal. My aunt, older than my father, was consistently inconsistent and besides she smoked and played the numbers, two giant no-no’s for anyone aspiring to leadership in Pentecostal Holiness circles. So it fell to my father as the one called to ministry early, and consequently to us his children. So we learned about all the workings of ministry and the dynamics of leadership not so much as children of the church but as dynastic heirs to a priestly inheritance.
So it was that she reigned in the church and ruled in the family, combining in herself the sacred and the familial role in such a way that the two dimensions of power are inextricably linked for me. It is nearly impossible to separate my remembrance of her as my grandmother from my remembrance of her as my 1st pastor.
I still remember her preaching in such a way that it seemed hell itself would open up and swallow you where you stood for the sins you’d committed that week.
I remember her leaning on the pulpit looking with the serious face on those who were tarrying there for Holy Ghost power because it wasn’t the Holy Ghost until she said it was, no matter how much you cried or screamed or rolled on the floor.
I remember her running, when she still could run, and dancing before the Lord with joy even when she couldn’t really anymore.
I remember when I shared with her my sense of calling to the ministry… how she looked at me but seemed to be looking through me. (I think if more people had to sit in my grandmother’s living room to talk about their calling to ministry while she looked through them too quite a few of them might change their mind and decide they weren’t called after all.)
For the other branches of the family (the children of my father’s 3 siblings) the mourning and remembrance will be different… of course it would be. Her relationship with them was different than it was with us. For them I think (though I can’t be certain) they experienced her as Big Mama or Mama first and pastor second whilst for us it was perhaps the other way ’round.
She was my grandmother though and not just my pastor. And she loved us and we loved her not just as a pastor but as a grandmother. If it wasn’t for her none of us would be here. I will miss her, indeed I already do.
In Part I, I briefly detailed the history of American Evangelicalism, tracing its roots to the 2nd Great Awakening and the contemporary emergence of a post-Christian society.
Before delving further into our exploration of how Evangelicals might move forward in this post-Christian world, it is important to acknowledge their triumphs in the previous one. I mentioned earlier that the Evangelical movement was a movement for reform of society and of the men in it. It aimed for a transformation of impious, irreligious nominalism into a devout, serious minded faith. It aimed further for the culture itself to be ‘renewed’; for reform in labour laws, for the abolition of slavery, for a deep change in the understanding of marriage, for the raw mercantile capitalism of the day to be tamed, and on and on.
Well the good news is that it largely worked. Gradually, locally and then more systematically, the reforms of manners and customs that evangelicals championed were enacted. Within the US context for example, abolition of slavery was preceded by a change in the terms of argument employed by opponents of abolition; it had now to be justified as being more beneficial and humanitarian than the alternatives, whereas previously it was justified simply by its profitability. In hindsight it is an utterly unconvincing argument, but the fact that it was even put forth as an argument at all shows the power of the society wide change that was taking place under evangelical Christian influence. Eventually of course, slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Labour rights were secured. Public drunkenness, rampant gambling and other ‘vices’ became taboo in polite society. And finally, in what might eventually be seen as the last great flourish of the evangelically inspired reformist movement, legalised racial oppression was struck down.
Now some of these reforms were backed by liberals and others by conservatives and some were opposed by them, but they were all products of the Evangelical Revival and each were making their case on the terms of Christian commitment to a ‘Christian’ society that shared, at least theoretically, those same commitments.
What is all the more striking is that the soteriological framework of Evangelical thought, complete with its focus on crisis, awareness of guilt for sin, recognition of the need for external aid, emotional & spiritual responsiveness, etc., has become the framework by which Americans generally understand social or personal change. This obtains whether they are Christian or not, and indeed even if they are intentionally aggressively anti-Christian. The so-called new atheists (who are generally much less interesting than the old ones) describe their embrace of atheism in ways that would not be out of place in an old time fundamentalist revival meeting. The same is true for gays as well, with ‘coming out’ absorbing the abandoned space of testimony of salvation, except in this case it is usually a testimony of deliverance from the false life of lying to oneself and ones family before finally surrendering to the higher truth of their identity and finding hope and acceptance within a new LGBT community.
In other ways too Evangelicalism won. We take for granted the calm that stalks our city streets, the absence of widespread and open bribery of public officials, the assumptions of trustworthiness that lubricates our business and social interactions, the fact that children are not openly abused or sold into servitude. Yet none of these could have been taken for granted in the rough and tumble, money obsessed days just prior to the Great Awakening. Britain for example was awash in cheap gin, with the concomitant social problems that entailed. The American South, where slavery was common, was a veritable wasteland of irreligion and impiety with most people concerned about little more than profit taking and the enjoyment of life at whatever cost. New Englanders, steeped in a hypocrisy that belied their Puritan heritage, mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of trafficked slaves from whom they derived the vast profits that drove their mercantile enterprises. In other words, virtually all the ‘normalcy’ of American life that we now enjoy is light years away from what was normal at the nation’s founding and is largely the result of the long shadow of the evangelical movement.
The Evangelicals in some ways won much of the culture, but because they were a movement birthed in revolt against the institutional structures of ‘Christendom’, they tended to disregard the need to control or substantively reform the structures of society, seeing this as superfluous and perhaps even harmful to their project of societal transformation. What mattered was the heart and the Christendom model, wherein the institutional structures of society were under the control of the church, had mostly failed in their estimation to bring about real social and personal reform. Consequently the institutional structures of society, such as the arts, media, universities, and government among other things, which for a long time maintained their ‘Christian’ character as a hold-over of the Christendom ideal, eventually were taken captive by antichristian forces.
Over time Evangelicals, both of the liberal and conservative stripe, mostly ignored these institutions. The liberals did not generally see them as a threat and even applauded at times as they were subverted, seeing in their evolution away from ‘Christendom’ something to be celebrated; a further liberation from the old prejudices and inadequacies of the past. The conservatives mostly saw them as irredeemably corrupt and thus avoid entering them altogether, while occasionally using their declining social influence to rail against this or that excess. The commanding heights of the culture were thus secured by the non-Christian and anti-Christian heirs of the Enlightenment; it was only a matter of time before the rest of society would fall.
Modesty. For many Christians, especially in the US, the word conjures up unwelcome images of unfashionable and uncomfortable clothing choices imposed and monitored by strict and legalistic preachers. For others, it is seen as a way of controlling womens’ sexuality and of enforcing the ‘Madonna – whore’ dichotomy that someone (probably in a ‘studies’ programme) decided is a patriarchal meme that validates the suppression / oppression of women. There are ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ and ‘good girls’ don’t dress like that. Such a bifurcated view of female sexuality is rejected by sex-positive feminists as being inherently oppressive of women.
Now to be honest, I am not too familiar with the various shades of meanings attached to these terms. I was fortunately spared having to go through any ‘studies’ programme at university and am consequently delightfully ignorant of a great many things. I first read the ‘Madonna-whore’ dichotomy mentioned in the comments section of some article I read (which I cannot now find), but which basically was railing against something called ‘purity culture’. An article by Sarah Bessey and a sympathetic response by Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today were part of the discussion. Then there was this article that dealt specifically with the question of modesty and the Christian woman..
Taken all together with a number of other recent articles, books, and blogposts, a picture begins to emerge of Christian women revolting against certain assumed norms of behaviour that seem to be part and parcel of the evangelical sub-culture and the double-standard that obtains for men and women.
What to make of all this? Well, I cannot really answer all the questions surrounding purity cultures and virgin-whore dichotomies, but I can say that, all protestations to the contrary – your skirt is probably too short. Let me explain.
Working on college campuses, I’ve watched as women have embraced fashion trends that make simply walking through campus akin to perusing soft-core porn. I’ve seen women embrace styles and trends that were formerly seen only on prostitutes. I’ve read men describe church services as the ‘Sunday morning night-club’ because of what women wear there. I’ve counselled Christian men who dread the coming of warm weather because of the barrage of temptation with which they will inevitably be faced, and the guilt and shame heaped on them for not ‘guarding their eyes’ or for somehow ‘making women responsible for their lust’. And I’ve scratched my head in wonder that I have to advise Christian women going for short-term mission that skin tight jeans and skirts half-way up their thighs are not appropriate dress.
At the same time, I’ve listened to and read how many countless times of the need for Christian women to not ‘cause their brother’s to stumble’ by their dress. I’ve also read of the frustration many women feel about this, as they (rightfully) point to the responsibilities men have to manage their own sexuality and take responsibility for their own choices.
In all of this, the discussion has almost always revolved around the male response to female sexuality. I have rarely seen anything about what I believe lies closer to the heart of issues of modesty in dress – vanity.
In almost every case wide numbers of women have embraced these styles of clothing because of the fact that it appeals to their sinful nature and their vanity.
(Cue howls of protest from the gallery)
Yes, yes I know I know. I’m a misogynist patriarchal sexist who wants to utilise religion to subvert and suppress women.
So what do I mean? Well simply put women generally like to dress in ways that enhance their visual / sexual appeal. Women want to be seen as desirable and attractive to men (that is to men they like and/or deem to be an attractive catch. Other men not so much). Women like to look pretty, and it usually makes them feel good to look good. And as far as I can tell this is a universal trait, equally apparent among ‘decadent westerners’ and ‘conservative Muslims’ (if you doubt it then you’ve never really observed Muslim women, covered nearly from head to toe in swaths of fabric manage to somehow rock a runway-worthy fashion sense while not showing a stitch of skin beyond their hands and face.)
I don’t have any problem with this and I think it is a good thing; a God given thing even. Women like to look good and be appealing. Wonderful.
Like all good things however this one has been warped and twisted by the Fall. So what was a good gift has become a nightmare. The result is women caught in a never-ending vanity arms (and legs, and thighs, and mid-drift…) race with other women, mostly falsely projected images of idealised women, that they can never meet and that leaves them dissatisfied and perpetually unhappy and looking for someone to blame.
The advert comes out, the skirts on the rack are shorter this year and vanity kicks in. One doesn’t want to be unappealing and wearing a longer skirt would be unappealing and to be appealing is to be ‘sexy’ and to show more and more skin and well everyone else is wearing it and it really can’t be so bad if that is what everyone else is wearing and who wants to look like an old woman (because old women aren’t sexy whatever else they might be) and it’s the sexist patriarchy that is responsible for all this and, and and…
Annnd you know what? It isn’t men or the ‘patriarchy’ that drives the immodest clothing arms race. Its other women. The women that women compare themselves to in the media, among their network of friends, and the woman in their heads that tell them that to be appealing or beautiful or desirable is to do this to wear that.
And the church comes in with teaching that generally is more harmful than helpful by deflecting the issue into one of women being responsible somehow for men’s sins – a stance which simultaneously infantilises and dehumanises men by making them little more than walking gonads AND avoids dealing substantively with women’s sins and sexual power. It fails to address the fact that yes, women who are seen to be ‘sexy’ have power; power that is used to extract unearned privileges that men and unattractive or older women do not have. It neglects the fact that women have and do often use sex, sexiness and the male attention it generates for their own advantage. It forgets that women are sinners and that the admonition to modest dress in the Bible is made without any reference at all to men, but is made in reference to holiness and prayerfulness, watchfulness and submission.
So yes, when you pour yourself into that pair of skin-tight jeans don’t deluded yourself into thinking it’s because they are comfortable. They aren’t and besides, – there are plenty of comfortable clothes that don’t allow me to trace every part of your figure so closely that I can see the outline of the birthmark on your upper left thigh. And when you put on that super short skirt, please don’t pretend that it’s because it’s hot since the men all around you are equally hot and they don’t wear things like that and the only men who do so are gay men and they’re wearing them for the same reason you really are. Admit the truth of how it appeals to your vanity and your carnal nature. Admit it and repent.