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Jesus and the displaced

Joe Morrow

Guest commentary by Joseph L. Morrow

The ever-insightful theologian Willie Jennings in his book, “The Christian Imagination,” offers a sobering and astounding account of the impact of race on church history. In addressing how the concept of race has poisoned and corrupted Christian identity, Jennings notes a disturbing historical pattern. In almost every generation – for purposes of greed, rivalry or fear – some Christians have sought to deny peoples they encounter any claim to their own bodies, culture or the very land they inhabit. As a result, these disembodied and displaced peoples are dehumanized. They become disposable objects in the hands of corrupted Christians.

It’s ugly, but it rings true. Consider the condition of Jews during the post Constantine Church or Africans and Native Americans during the European Age of Discovery.

Two narratives have emerged from this summer’s headlines, highlighting the alarming rate at which young African-American men and women have been struck down both at the hands of law enforcement and their own neighbors. The first is an ongoing story of violence toward bodies, with a trail of blood running from Trayvon Martin in Florida to police officers in Dallas and recently to Sylville Smith in Milwaukee. The second is an ongoing story about violence toward places, particularly in neighborhoods that trend black and brown, poor and under-resourced. Such a wave is currently sweeping my hometown of Chicago with devastating results. While we may think of these as separate and even competing storylines, I am struck by how Jennings’ salient insights about Christianity and race point to their connection. Like their counterparts in generations before, the people and places in these stories have in large part been dehumanized. Through alienation and isolation they have been deprived of their dignity.

Consider, for example, how the murders that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement reveal the ways victims were made to feel alienated from the places they called home and to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Trayvon Martin, a black teen living in a suburban subdivision, isn’t allowed to dress as himself or walk like he belongs. Eric Garner, part of the local economy in a public space, isn’t allowed to breathe in it. Sandra Bland, traversing state highways, is bullied into being a stranger in a state where she is still a citizen. In other words, so many of these cases invite us to see how difficult our society makes it for black lives to belong.

Consider journalist Natalie Moore’s recent autobiographical and ethnographic account of Chicago’s Southside, a place I also call home. As I read her book, I was struck by how the themes of alienation also surface in black and brown neighborhoods. Moore recounts the ways in which hyper-segregation by race and class have created communities in which individuals (especially youth) feel estranged from the other parts of their town, as if they are exiled to another universe. Further, an endless cycle of violence steals the promise of these youth from their very bodies. Moore is quick to note that the violence in these communities is not the result of some innate pathology of blackness, but rather from cultural and economic factors that brew in a toxic mix of isolation and inequality of resources. This reality is caused in no small part by a racialized system that abandons any measure of justice or care for these beleaguered communities, mentally affixing the “there be dragons” label to them on the city map.

Many of us have thought that the integration movements of the mid-20th century solved these problems, but the truth is they persist largely because, as Martin Luther King Jr. feared, we have been integrated into a burning house where the embers of racism, inequity and antagonism are allowed to enflame and imperil our common home. Instead of huddling around the fire of community, we are blinded by the smoke of fear. So one generation removed from the Civil Rights Movement, I still fear that my 2-year-old daughter’s brown skin and bicultural identity will have her dignity scorched and her belonging questioned.

So what then can the church – especially the PC(USA) – do to restore to African-Americans, in the midst of a violent time, dignity of personhood and security of place?

To begin, we must reaffirm God’s intention that human beings not be alone, alienated or otherwise cut off from the means to flourish. In God’s beloved community, people are clothed in the dignity of their bodies and rooted in unoppressive ways to people, land and culture. While we know alienation and isolation are certainly not uncommon to the Christian life (see Luke 9:58), we must acknowledge that what has been experienced by people of color is not cross-bearing so much as crucifixion, dealt by a racialized mindset and encouraged by a dehumanizing form of Christianity.

So how do we begin to reverse this?

I’m a Presbyterian pastor who works at the intersection of the interfaith movement and higher education. Sometimes interfaith work is mistaken for campy optimism far removed from the threats of racism and violence. Yet, consulting with colleges and universities on interfaith cooperation, I’ve found that this too is an arena where we must battle against alienation and isolation. On campus, forging relationships across religious divisions requires us to dignify, not dismiss, each person’s unique identity and perspective. Also, in a place where many students leave the comfort zone of home, it is the common ground of shared values and obligations that can forge togetherness out of isolation.

So with this interfaith perspective in mind, let me offer two suggestions for where the church could begin our struggle against alienation and isolation.

  1. Build relationships that allow your congregation to celebrate the dignity of black life. When Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, the Spirit of God descended on him and said, “You bring me great joy” (Mark 1:11). That pride in who Jesus was came before anything he did. How has your congregation shown young black lives that you simply rejoice in who God made them? Consider the ways you can lead your community to learn about the beauty and complexity of black life and create physical and social spaces that welcome the presence and expression of black people.
  2. Seek the wellbeing of your place. Learn to see real estate markets, school systems and zoning meetings as places of Christian witness against the pernicious effects of isolation and inequality. Begin by asking how your community reaches out to black people or neighborhoods; how are you practicing distance or closeness, equality or hierarchy? Avoid a posture of abandonment or invasion of underresourced places. Instead, reflect on how the church can reposition its human and financial resources to let people and places that have been neglected flourish.

With God’s help, might the church be a people through whom all peoples, especially black and brown peoples, feel at home in their bodies and at home in the world God has made?

joe morrowJOSEPH L. MORROW is a teaching elder in the Presbytery of Chicago and campus engagement manager for Interfaith Youth Core.