If You Add to Scripture, How Do you Stop?

Here’s what Jesus said:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

Here’s how you update Jesus for contemporary America:

Woe to you, racists and racial moderates, hypocrites! For you hold events to commemorate Civil Rights activists and read books about the martyrs of anti-racism, saying “if we had lived during the Civil Rights movement we would not have taken part with the racists in shedding the blood of the protesters.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons and daughters of those who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. Fill up then the measure of your slave holding and segregationist fathers and mothers. You racists and racial moderates, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you social justice warriors and community organizers and activists, some of whom you will put in jail and some you will call Marxist in your churches and troll on social media so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth from the blood of the righteous Medgar Evers to the blood of Emmett Till who you lynched in Mississippi. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon Millennial and GenZ generations.

What if non-Christians wanted (trigger warning) to appropriate Jesus?

Woe to you, black and white Christians and Americans, hypocrites! For you don’t even hold events to commemorate Black Muslims or Black Panthers, and you refuse to read books about black nationalism, saying “if we had lived during the 1960s Rights movement we would not have taken part with the criminal justice system that sent Huey Newton and Angela Davis to jail.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons and daughters of those who murdered Malcolm X. Fill up then the measure of your nationalist and Christian fathers and mothers. You black and white Christians and Americans, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, some of whom you will mock and some you will call anti-American in your churches and troll on social media so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth from the righteous Fred Hampton to John Africa whom you burned in Philadelphia. I say to you, all these things will come upon Baby Boomer and Millennial generations.

Or is the idea that only Christians get to add to Scripture?

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I Would Like to Know What It’s Like to Write for the New York Times

We hear a lot these days about how poorly certain Americans understand their neighbors, especially when it comes to racial differences.

But if I can’t understand the experience of a person of color, am I any better equipped to understand a great grandchild of Irish immigrants who worked as domestic help in Boston?

And why not reverse the direction? Can people of color understand mmmmeeeEEEEE? Do they know what it felt like to put on a wool uniform with the junior high marching band to perform in the July 4th parade, to receive a B+ on a paper for Reformation history at Temple, to be rejected for a Luce post-doctoral fellowship, to experience the retirement of Mike Schmidt? Some might say that these experiences are insignificant compared to those of other people? That is a fair point. But it also raises a question about whether we only care about the experiences of others when they die. Which is another fair point. Death does put a point on experience. But how often do memorial services capture the entire experience of a deceased’s life. We remember the person as a great guy or gal and stay quiet about the blemishes.

When it comes to black men who get pulled over by police and die, should Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown and op-ed writer for the Times, be able to say that his experience is akin to that of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile? I have a hard time understanding how a man with Dyson’s experience can think that his is similar to men who live in very different circumstances. According to Dyson:

At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.

Perhaps Mr. Dyson did not receive his privilege (elite university professor and writer for the nation’s premier newspaper) at birth, but that status surely puts him at several removes from Castile and Sterling and many other African-American men who live in our nation’s cities. It is also several removes from white Americans, even those with advanced degrees and who teach for a living.

The problem with framing race relations along the lines of what each of us experience, and that some can never know the experience of another, is that it leaves no hope or way out. Mr. Dyson will never know my experience and I will never know his.

But if you want to talk about law enforcement policies that lead to the mass incarceration of blacks, municipal governments’ failure to recruit and train people who will be good cops, or the lack of independent oversight of law enforcement officials (like even Jim Comey), that’s a conversation we can have. But one that always informs me how I cannot know what you’ve experienced is going to be a conversation stopper.

Advancing the Conversation?

It was not so long ago, after Michael Brown’s death, that lots of people in Reformed circles were calling for a conversation about race. After almost two years and after listening to some of the chatter, I am not so hopeful. Anyone who wants a version of how that conversation is going among people without faith — in this case a journalist and an Ivy League student newspaper editor — give a listen and embrace the suck.

But in the interest of avoiding a bad ending for the PCA, where the conversation has escalated more than anywhere else in NAPARC circles, I offer the latest musings on blackness from Michael Eric Dyson:

There is the symbolic blackness that the president perfectly embodies. By this I mean the representative sort, in which his blackness is the blackness of the masses; his lean body carries the weight of the race, and the words of James Baldwin meet those of pioneering scholar Anna Julia Cooper: To paraphrase Cooper, when and where a black figure like Obama enters, black folk automatically enter with him, as he bears what Baldwin termed the “burden of representation.” Like other symbolic blacks before him, Obama has no choice in the matter—one fittingly symbolized in nonnegotiable terms of existence that are nearly Cartesian: he is, therefore we are.

There is, too, substitute blackness, in which luminaries like Michelle Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder supply the blackness—the resonant cultural tropes, the signifying gestures, the explicit mention of race in context—that a figure like Obama, bound on all sides by demands and constraints, can barely acknowledge, much less embrace. Historical contingency and political necessity meld to determine Obama’s role, versus that of substitute blacks, when it comes to speaking about race: he can’t, but they can.

Then there is surplus blackness, which is too much blackness for many outside the race, and some inside it. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are some noted examples, figures whose blackness is never in question, even if the use and force of it depends on the situation at hand or the need of the group at the moment. If substitute blackness is a conditional stand-in for blackness, surplus blackness is the display of blackness—in fact, blackness as display. The nearly exclusive imperative of surplus blackness is to stand up for black folk in public, whether after a police killing of an innocent black or a neighbor-to-neighbor murder or a cry for racial justice in the courts. Obama’s symbolic blackness also sometimes takes up the cause of black folk, but more often judges them. When it comes to defending black people: he won’t, but they will.

Finally, there is subversive blackness, glimpsed most recently in the activism of Black Lives Matter, where the meanings of blackness compete and collide, where blackness is at once self-subverting and self-regenerating. Subversive blackness glances sideways at symbolic, substitute and surplus blackness, preferring, instead, to grasp what’s been left out of the official narratives of blackness and to fill in the blanks. It is perhaps summed up in Kanye West’s credo, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” which nicely captures the irreverence that Obama spurns but subversive blackness embraces: he isn’t, but they are.

I assume Michelle Higgins wants subversive blackness. But is that what Ligon Duncan, Jemar Tisby, and Sean Lucas were bargaining for?