Around 320 students, predominantly white, but also of various backgrounds and ethnicities, gathered this past Thursday in order to discuss the “Black Lives Matter” movement at Azusa Pacific University (APU), a Wesleyan Christian college located in Azusa, California. The central message of the evening was unequivocal: black lives do indeed matter. The speakers consistently posited that this proposition, which is both a political slogan and an invocation of a shameful history in this country that has yet to become memory, must gain ample force in both dialogue and action until the social relationships that precipitate the very need of its utterance are negated.
“To repent means to turn around and head in the opposite direction,” Rev. Jacquelyn E. Winston, Ph.D., the first speaker of the evening and the chair of the APU Theology Department said while speaking on why the topic of racism so doggedly recurs in national discourse. “And we have yet to do that in this country.” Forgiveness is precluded by the continuation of oppression, she said. One cannot heal from a burn while still standing within the flames.
As an attendee, I found the forum refreshing. The topic of race in the United States is often a sepulcher of failed conversation. Defensiveness, vengeance, derision, and adrenaline do their best to fracture what is already a fragile endeavor. When minds are closed, tongues are sharp. Yet, I detected no condescension, neither from the speakers nor from the audience. What I did detect, however, was a genuine interest to teach, learn, and most importantly, to act.
Altogether, there were four speakers. A question and answer session followed. Although this article is not intended to serve as proper journalism, I have done my best to remain factual while summarizing the most important points of the evening.
Rev. Winston, who I already mentioned as the first speaker, delivered a concise introduction to the history of racism in the U.S. “The first black people in this country weren’t slaves,” she said. “They were indentured servants, like all other immigrants who couldn’t afford their fares to the United States. Some even held political office. What happened was the invention of the cotton gin and the discovery that rum could be produced with sugar.” She went on to discuss the implementation of laws—including the miscegenation laws—that were enacted to separate indentured servants and other working immigrants from the newly formed slave class, a division that was intentionally created to protect the expansion of a profitable industry.
As the daughter of a civil rights activist, Rev. Winston also discussed the experience of her family after they moved to California. “We lived in Sherman Oaks. People would assume that anybody of color coming into the city was a domestic worker. There was an understanding—come sundown, you better be driving out. My father was stopped on a regular basis, and often by the same police officer, because he wasn’t driving in the right direction.”
Her final message was poignant, and one that is all too unfortunately scarce in modern discourses on race: “All successful movements against racism have been multiracial.”
Jessica Wong, Ph.D., an assistant professor of the Department of Theology, addressed the audience next. As a scholar of theological anthropology, cultural studies, and theologies of liberation, Dr. Wong explored the implications of the image of a Jesus Christ dyed in whiteness. “Jesus is not like us. He is not a white man or a generic human being. He is a Palestinian Jewish man — likely with swarthy skin, brown eyes, and curly hair. He is the dark bodied, Jewish man,” she stated, challenging the audience to think about the consequences of this type of visual logic. “This connection between whiteness and Christianity also produced the light skinned, blue eyed, long flowing, brown haired Jesus. You all know the image. It is this Jesus that many of us grew up with. It is this Jesus that shaped our imaginations as children. Without even thinking about it, we made a conceptual link between Jesus and whiteness. And if Jesus becomes white, what other attributes are we implicitly connecting with whiteness? Perhaps Goodness? Orderliness? True humanity?”
Christians, save for those Christians of Jewish backgrounds, are gentiles. The Jesus of the gospels did not bring his message to those of gentile backgrounds. Just the opposite, Dr. Wong explained—his ministry was to his community and was extended only through grace. Thus, any appropriation of his image, or ministry, in any manner that is not congruent with humility and with a comprehension and acceptance of otherness, is counterfactual and erroneous.
Furthermore, Dr. Wong also discussed the destructive psychological impact that racism has on our popular consciousness. “The blood of Michael Brown, of Alton Sterling, of Philandro Castile is not only on the hands of law enforcement. These shootings are a product of the perverted, racialized sight that infects our whole society. We, as members of this society, all of us, have been habituated into a problematic way of seeing one another.”
Michael A. Mata, M.Div., underscored her point on the dangers of Eurocentric images and systematic racialization. “When I looked in the mirror, a ‘dark spirit’ told me to hate what I saw,” he said, after recalling that he had fought the internalization of self-hatred for many years. When almost the entire body of images one is exposed to portray value and beauty as incarnated in the European image, he explained, it is almost inevitable to eventually find oneself ugly and without value. As a Mexican-American from Texas, he recalled how he was reminded of his otherness consistently. For instance, as a child in grammar school who loved education and looked up to his teachers, he never understood why he was consistently made to stay after class. Achieving superior grades, for his Anglo teachers, was an event incommensurable with his race and background. Such events corroborated a profound psychological trauma.
His anecdote, however, was not entirely personal. As the director of the M.A. Transformational Urban Leadership program at APU, and as an individual with years of experience as a community activist in South Los Angeles, he described widespread and systemic injustices that are happening to people of color. In particular, he described how an inequity in access to medical services has allowed a pandemic of diseases to flourish in South L.A. Innumerable women of color—and particularly African-American women—are suffering the effects. “If left alone, these diseases can cause infertility. Is this not a type of genocide? Where else would a pandemic be allowed to remain for 30 years?”
“Black lives do indeed matter,” he said. And his message was this: the current arrangement of power and relations cannot hold. There needs to be a change. Engaging in community organizing is a choice, true; but provided any semblance of belief in Christianity, or even in justice, it is an imperative. We must all overcome our implicit prejudices and fight for something better.
The words of the last speaker of the evening, Greg Moder, Ph.D., who is also a professor at APU but from the Department of Practical Theology, dovetailed with this message. In every society, there are mediators, he explained. These are individuals who do not feel quite at home in their primary culture and thus traverse into others, often traveling back and forth between them. Often, they are the marginalized. According to Dr. Moder, individuals such as these can play an important role as human nexuses of inter-group communication and unity in the process of building a movement against racism and injustice.
He did offer a caveat, however. While giving advice on the process of community organizing, which entails engaging other individuals and communities, he stated that it is important to be a listener, a student. It isn’t hard to see how Dr. Wong’s point on humility is relevant here.
Pertinently, he also surveyed Stephen Bochner’s theory on the social psychology of cross-cultural relations, which he has found useful for his own understanding throughout his many years in urban ministry. While he was very succinct, reviewing the theory is beyond the scope of this article. If the reader is curious, some of its material is accessible here.
What was also especially invigorating about this event was the fact that—even after it had officially concluded—about half of the attendees remained to ask questions and learn. This signified that participation in the forum was far from perfunctory. In other words, the students attended not by the force of coercion by well-intentioned professors, but rather by the force of their genuine interest in learning about the movement and how to build it. I was similarly struck that the question on many students’ minds was, “What can we do next?”
One of the last anecdotes of the night, which came from an African-American attendee during the question and answer session, bookended Rev. Winston’s opening and underscored the importance and urgency of community action.
“I had to take care of my grandma who suffered from dementia,” he said. “She was raised during Jim Crow. She regressed to that time due to her illness and I watched as she became afraid to even use the bathroom out of fear that she was in white person’s house.” He also described how he had been stopped by police officers numerous times while on his way to the university, and racially mocked.
This is not history. This is now. And while I dare not approach the topic with any amount of self-righteousness, I cannot help but to think that silence is tantamount to complicity.
Building the new civil rights movement is a social mandate; however, for those who follow the words of God, it is also a religious one.
Carry your cross, Christians. And if you are not Christian—and instead come from another religious or social tradition—carry your portion of the burden all the same. For insofar as you ascribe any value to the notion of justice in this society your interests are indelibly intertwined in this struggle.
Black lives do indeed matter. And if our lives are to matter in a different sense, this statement must transcend its status as a disembodied political platitude in our lives.
Thank you to these speakers, APU, and to all who participated.
Let’s do our part to help build this movement.
For more information on the Black Lives Matter movement and how to get involved, click here. Don’t hesitate! We can all do something. Check it out, talk about it with friends and family, and join a local group if you haven’t already. If you’re a member of a local church, temple, or mosque, perhaps even start a dialogue there.
(Correction: although I originally estimated that about 250 students attended the event, the official head count was actually 320 at its peak.)