Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
Our town is sizable, but whiter than snow. The history behind our makeup is, not surprisingly, filled with racial violence and white supremacy. My employer has had one black janitor in my 3 years there. I have had one other black co-worker at any job I’ve ever held–Andrew, who loaded trucks next to me in the wee hours at a FedEx warehouse. The only regular interaction I have with black skin is with strangers on the basketball court and at church, where a diverse blend of adopted children are always running around. That’s my real life. Online, I’ve been blessed with routine interactions with black peers and authorities.
You might not have realized that Ferguson was about me. In retrospect, I managed to make it so for most of the tripMuch of my life is about validation. A lot of my subconscious is devoted to convincing others that I’m cool, or that I “get it.” This is especially true with black folks. I want to digest, critique, and appreciate black authors and artists without getting the side-eye. It’s only on my more honest days when I will acknowledge this, and it’s not something I pursue, but it’s there. I run a podcast about hip hop. I hawk over Thabiti Anyabwile’s Twitter stream when I publish anything about race to see if he retweets it. When a black brother calls me “fam,” I get butterflies. Et cetera.
I’m worried, however, that my motivation is more about being recognized as a True Friend of the Black Community than it is about honoring the struggles and values of said community. Why do I feel this way? Because I genuinely love the wealth of art and thought that has come from the black community. Because some of the sweetest experiences I’ve ever had have been when white Christians and black Christians have joined in ministry and (especially) fellowship. Because some of the most beautiful promises in Scripture, to this soul, present a picture of joy and peace springing from ethnic harmony. Because Jesus was more black than white. Those reasons are at the forefront of my mind, but I know there’s got to be more. Am I ashamed of what my white ancestors have done to our black neighbors? Do I take pride in exceeding my white friends’ capacity to admire and understand others? Probably so.
This all turned upside down for me in Ferguson, MO. My pastor and I, upset by the militarized response to demonstrations there, took a trip to the town three hours north of us. We felt somewhat out of place on the streets of Ferguson; our grief felt inadequate at the site of Michael Brown’s shooting, our understated mood out of place at the rowdy QuickTrip scene. But we were welcomed and grew more comfortable in expressing our support for the community’s response, tinged with anger, frustration, and hope.
You might not have realized that Ferguson was about me. In retrospect, I managed to make it so for most of the trip. The capstone of my validation that day came at a forum hosted by Thi’sl, a St. Louis-based Christian rapper. We were welcomed into a church along with maybe seven or eight other white faces that speckled the otherwise black crowd. The forum was open to the public, set in a church, and we found ourselves next to the church folks.
When Irene, a middle-aged black member of the church, found out that two white boys from the country had spent time in Ferguson, a day removed from one of the more intense standoffs between black citizens and white policemen in decades, she gave us what I thought was the side-eye. Oh no, I trembled, she knows we’re frauds. She thinks we’re fools. She knows we don’t belong. More paranoia flooded my brain in the half-second it took her to raise her fist up for a pound. For dap. She wasn’t side-eyeing; she was squinting at us in appreciation. Validation. Had the opportunity arisen, I might have taken a bow and drove home. My work here is done, whispered my heart.
The first few audience questions and responses from local artists and pastors on the panel occupied familiar headspace. Encouragement to seek God in the midst of suffering, a gospel-centered explanation of oppression and struggle founded on the innocent, suffering servant. I nodded. I knew what it was.
Then something else entirely broke through. A single mother of two black boys took the mic, and fought tears back while proclaiming that she had no hope for her sons. None. “No matter how pure we try to be, they’ll chew us up,” she lamented. “Even if my boys stay out of trouble, they go to a worse school than the white kids; they’ll always be behind.” Thi’sl thanked her for her honesty, promised her that there was hope, and encouraged the other people in the crowd not to hold back.
They didn’t. For the rest of the night, the open mic was dominated by impassioned speeches meant for the audience, not the panel. The panel yielded, rarely responding. Mothers, mentors, nurses, teachers, police officers, playwrights, and youth spoke. They all agreed: the black community isn’t given equal opportunities or resources, and aren’t granted fair treatment under the law. I was blind to it before, but the room was full of trauma.
It didn’t take long before I felt like an alien. I could not begin to relate to the communal pain, to the centuries of suffering that seemed to weigh on everyone’s shoulders. When a hurting speaker invoked their ancestors, I gave up trying. This went much beyond white privilege, and “getting it” that white people have it different than black people. You could drop any white person in that room that wouldn’t acknowledge the invisible thrust of white privilege, and they would acknowledge something at work.
The things voiced at the forum were beyond what I ever would have imagined as hypothetical reactions. I cannot imagine being so routinely pummeled with bad news and experiences directly or indirectly tied to my skin color, that I would conceive of police brutality as a massive conspiracy against my very flesh, or second the notion that my government was using my town as a military training ground. I can’t imagine being so fed up with the church’s insistence to respond peacefully and to patiently trust in God’s ultimate judgment that I would scream “Don’t talk about it, be about it! Faith without works is DEAD!” in a call to forcefully resist the local police presence. “I’m a Christian,” began another unimaginable line, “but if they touch my son, I will burn everything. And I will ask God for forgiveness.”
I can’t fathom testifying to the grace and power of God, as some of the panelists did, in bringing triumph to my life against the odds, only to be dismissed as an outlier or a myth by my hearers. Or to be unseen by my neighbors, whose sights are clouded by many more individuals without testimonies of victory or redemption.
The trip quickly ceased to be about me. I’m used to sticking out because I am pale, but now I felt my otherness on a spiritual level. At one point in his closing comments, Thi’sl said, “We need white folks that love us, that can hear us and say to their friends, ‘They’re not just angry black people!'” I felt like I needed a shower, because that’s the kind of warped neededness I had always craved, but which I was finally recognizing for what it was.
Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.
By accident, I had arrived outside the camp. In previous years of ministry, I took this verse to heart, hoping it would shape our efforts in reaching the outcasts of our local community: the poor kids, the promiscuous, the delinquents, the abused. Truth be told, I’ve spent plenty of time outside the camp. I’ve broken bread with the kinds of dirty rotten sinners that don’t bother putting on a spiritual facade. I’ve played streetball with dropouts, prayed with the homeless, and ran Vacation Bible School next to people missing teeth from years of drug addiction.
But this has always been on my terms, always in a church setting or program tethered to my insider status with the church. I’ve never, ever, been cut off from the camp. In addition to my very real middle-class safety net, I’ve had a spiritual and communal safety net since high school, when I was baptized and my home church swallowed me up into the family.
I’ve always tried to reach outsiders; I’ve never allowed myself to become one. This realization shattered my perception of the Christian walk. I could have told you ten years ago that despite real, existing distinctions like “holy” (God) and “unholy” (us sinners)–much more formidable than differences in race, class, or income–God had visited the outsiders, alone in his righteousness. But I never understood it. Too often, I have arrived as an arm of the holiness camp, inviting the unholy to make the return trip back with me.
As we drove home from St. Louis late that evening, it began to rain. I surmised that rain would be good for another mellow evening, that Ferguson residents would by and large sleep easier that night, just a day removed from the most peaceful night of demonstrations and police presence. Earlier in the afternoon, I had seen Captain Ron Johnson, a black Highway Patrolman, dialogue with a group of young, irritated black men, doing his best to assuage their ongoing concerns about the mostly white police force. It appeared to be a breakthrough of solidarity to us and media members eavesdropping in the parking lot of the now infamous Ferguson liquor store.
I woke the next morning and checked up on things, horrified to learn that the violence had returned full scale. Of course I was being naive. This thing goes much deeper than I can wrap my head around. I still want to be someone who “gets it,” someone who can advocate, serve, and be served by my black brothers and sisters sincerely and without ignorance. But part of this particular brand of empathy needs to be an acknowledgment that I can never fully get it, that I can’t pretend my way into becoming an insider.
I can’t call my experience an epiphany, as much as I’d like it to be so neat. I do know that once I was shaken out of place from the familiarity and comfort of the church pew, I heard my neighbor’s voice with a clarity I couldn’t before. I couldn’t feel their hurt, but I could recognize how unbearable the hurt was for them. As I seek to venture outside the camp, I won’t be able to lift anyone’s reproach. But I trust that the Savior, who bore the reproach that belongs to me and to those I am cut off from, can be found there.
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