don’t catch fire as you rise

Wax dripped onto my fingers as I gripped a candle in the midst of hundreds. I stood in Washington Square two nights ago, catching snatches of the speakers’ declarations, a litany of “Stand up, fight back”s and “This is what America looks like”s and “No ban, no wall”s. The memory of the press of people at my shoulders bolsters me now as I consider the past few days of controversial Executive Orders and the resulting protests.

It is a complicated day to be an American. It gets even more labyrinthine when you are a woman of color and a Christian. I find myself caught between multiple communities, affirming some words, hesitating with others, all the while trying to be consistent in where I stand. I must contend with the condemnations of the Women’s March that I walked in as well as the constant charges from other Christians to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see.” I understand their reluctance to judge Trump’s actions–it can be perceived as an exercise of grace for a new leader.

Yet Trump has had more than a year-decades in fact-to demonstrate what kind of man he is and what he values. Words reflect the orientation of the heart, and I take his words seriously, as well as those from the constituents he surrounds himself with, many of whom at the worst have ties with nativist, neo-Nazi, and other discriminatory organizations and at the least offensive are unqualified for their positions of influence.

One hand grips this understanding. Then there is this:

Do I believe in a God big enough to transform Donald Trump’s heart, lead him in paths of wisdom and mercy? Yes. The answer will always be yes, as much as it was for Paul, as much as it was for me. When I align with Michelle Obama’s stance that “When they go low, we go high,” I choose to believe in God’s boundless ability to cultivate love in any person and use their life for good purpose–I refuse to doom them to eternal depravity, and it’s not my role anyway. Out of this, I choose to refrain from attacking Trump’s family, from engaging in aggressive actions against those who voted for him. Even if he doesn’t change, I still choose this. Going high means we don’t get to satisfy our desire to hurt others who have hurt us, no matter how justified it may be, and only God can enable that kind of grace.

I want to do the hard thing: acknowledge the imago dei in others AND hold them accountable for their actions–especially when those actions carry so much weight for communities already facing intense marginalization. There is a way to do both, and that path leads to the Cross. “We have the privilege of loving our enemies,” a friend told me yesterday. “And God’s like ‘You weren’t able to do this before. Not without me.'”

I had never thought about it in that way before. I get the privilege of loving my enemies. Before Christ, there was NO reason to do this–it makes no sense, it feels wrong even. Unfair. That is the Gospel though: the unfairness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because how dare He choose to love the unlovable. How can I stand before God and reject the humanity of another person He created when I have been reborn through this Gospel?

I think it becomes harder to receive this message when others have co-opted it to silence you and soften the edges of horrific realities. I have witnessed too many white Christians appropriating the grace of the Gospel to dispel the pain of their sisters and brothers of color. I went to a Christian college and felt the sting when me and other black students were criticized for “creating more division” and “being too angry” when we talked about the racial problems on our campus. By the time a blatant incident of racism happened and no one at school could ignore it, the chimes of forgive forgive forgive forgive from our white classmates pricked at calluses built over years of dismissal and apathy.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the barriers became so thick because I felt like we were being asked to extend a hand, extend trust, extend grace, with no assurance that the other students even acknowledged our pain or would take steps to stand by us in the future. Some of us had been burnt too many times to risk it.

I’m sharing this now because I want to emphasize how hard Jesus’ teaching is when he tells us to love our enemies–and it may not even be our enemies! It could be loving our friends and neighbors and co-workers-and even family-who have committed microaggressions against us, who have offended us with their words spoken out of ignorance, who have perpetuated a passive acceptance of the world as it is because they haven’t seen it for the specific challenges we experience–or have been unwilling to. Where we locate the resistant tension in our hearts when we think of these people in our lives, that is where all the implications of “do good to those who hurt you” becomes a serrated truth, cutting deep.

I get the privilege of loving others when it feels impossible to do so. That is what Christ enables us to live out in our everyday interactions with others, whether that be on Facebook, in the work room, or at the dinner table. But what does this love look like? Does it look like holding hands and smiling at each other, pretending that our houses aren’t burning behind us? Does it mean we wave off Trump and get over it?

Well…no.

There is grave injustice at work in our country, and there are forces actively spurring the flames of disunity and fear. We shouldn’t diminish the wrongness of that. I am furious, and every time I see another Executive Order, I feel like screaming to the sky “Come, Jesus come!” Our church is in a fractious state, our conversations with neighbors brittle with unspoken grievances. We must stand where are and look around; this is where we are starting. Loving each other within this space of tension and uncertainty and breaches of understanding means that we choose to wrestle with the pain, with the current division and still face the Cross together as we do this.

We call out evil when we see it. We humbly challenge each other to consider experiences we aren’t familiar with (I’ve been learning a lot about the experiences of my low-income white sisters and brothers lately). We mourn the pain of others even as we invite them to enter our own. We speak out when we’ve been sinned against and repent when we sin against others, individually and as a community. We say NO to any laws and actions that harm our neighbors. We resist racism and sexism and xenophobia and persecution of any kind that grieves God’s heart. We acknowledge unbalanced power dynamics in our relationships, in our systems, and we dismantle them, guided by those who have been disempowered. That is love that rises to survey the mess and embraces the incisive truth-telling and white-knuckled dialogues that form the foundations for bridges.

Exposing the pain, exhaling it, tangling and untangling it with another person willing to work through it with you, as equals, is one of the most terrifying and healing choices you can make. I had one of these conversations with a friend, a white woman I love dearly, and I’ll never forget what she told me, or the validating balm it was for my grief and outrage:

I’m sorry that in the great gamble of history, for some reason, people who look like me, people with my color skin, came out on top. I don’t know why that is when it could’ve have easily been the other way around. I’m sorry for the ways me and my people have hurt your community. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve oppressed you or silenced you and your community–especially unintentionally…The greatest injustice is that you were made to feel guilty for doing the things to survive, to feel safe…I don’t have a right to your trust. I have to earn it…Will you forgive me?

I did. And she forgave me for all the times I’ve painted her with a broad-brush, dismissed her as another white person I struggled to trust, failed to empathize with the suffering she has seen and experienced in the South. We’ve had a lot more of these conversations in the past year–and it’s hard. It’s confusing and tense and cathartic and vulnerable. We have found communion within burning wreckage and discovered ways to build a friendship that allows us both to rise without blistering.

In some ways it’s easier and harder to do this with a friend–what about with a stranger? Someone on the Internet? That person at church whose politics make you grit your teeth?The politician who makes himself an dart-board for mockery? Can we pursue this type of radical, counter-cultural, Gospel-seeded love with them too? I am asking myself this question now as I struggle between the reflex to pile insult and indignation and the awareness of how my actions testify to Christ whom I claim dwells in me. There is a difference between the righteous outrage that illuminates wrong and the bitter rancor that can warp our vision. We cannot shame and demean another person and face the Cross at the same time. Neither can we go high and still grip stones to throw.

the inaugurating call

We woke today in different frames of mind. Some celebrate. Some weep. Some lack the words to capture the complicated thoughts twisting inside them. I wonder how history will look back on this day. Will it mark the day as anything memorable? Will this day take up a corner in the national tome, only a blip on a grander scale? Will it signal a great quake or a tiny tremor, unworthy of notice by later generations?

But I don’t live 5 years from now, or 15, or 50. I can’t predict how these coming years will benefit or damage us, and neither can I tell you that this will all blow over when I have no assurance it will.

I am present in this moment, and in this moment, I feel grief. Those who boycott the inauguration or speak out against the man coming into office are being told to “get over it.” Through some eyes, to be critical is to denounce our democratic system or exacerbate the divisiveness in our nation. I acknowledge that there is always this danger of demonizing others or lapsing into a sense of self-righteousness when results don’t turn out in the way you expected or desired. I realize that our system as is elected this man, and I support a peaceful transfer of power. I choose not to ignore that reality. Donald Trump is our President.

He is my President, but I will not normalize his words or other actions. I will not affirm the contempt and vilification he has thrown upon my Latinx family, immigrants and daughters and sons of immigrants. I will not say it is okay when he compares Black Lives Matter activists to terrorists and supports further aggressive police measures to “keep order,” even when it may lead to more dead black bodies on the street. I will not get over his dismissal of my LGBTQA friends as they struggled  to be seen, his neglect of my indigenous neighbors when they have fought so hard to gain notice of the abuses they face. I will not stand alongside his consistent demoralization of my sisters of all colors.

John Piper shared a message today that acknowledges the challenges of living under an unqualified leader. I resonate with the words he opens with:

Today we will inaugurate a man to the presidency of the United States who is morally unqualified to be there. This is important to say just now because not to see it and feel it will add to the collapsing vision of leadership that enabled him to be nominated and elected.

Not only that, but if we do not see and feel the nature and weight of this sorrow, we will not know how to pray for his presidency or speak as sojourners and exiles whose pattern of life is defined in heaven, not by the mood of the culture.

I appreciate the attention he gives to the “weight of this sorrow,” the difficulty of knowing how to respond to this presidency when it has aggravated so many existing divisions and grievances. Yet his later point that followers of God have been able to flourish under problematic political regimes echoes the words of my father, who reminded me that, “God allows the rise and fall of good and bad kings.” We see this to be true in the Old Testament when the Israelites experienced slavery, conquest, exile under pharaohs and kings. We see this to be true in the New Testament when the growing numbers of Christ followers were threatened by torture, execution, public humiliation under the law of Roman rulers. We may not understand why, but bad kings are allowed to take power, even as they ultimately fall under the sovereignty of God.

Now, no President can be cataloged as wholly good or bad, but we can acknowledge that with the rise of some leaders comes higher stakes for certain communities. I urge you now to consider who bears the cost of the inauguration today. Who is feeling fear today–who is grieving?

I will not dismiss these concerns as petty or over-sensitive when their weight drags me to the margins where we should all rightfully be. Yes, there has been a measure of bitterness and pettiness on multiple sides, but these do not diminish the legitimate concerns many carry in regards to this incoming administration. People worry about their healthcare, the education of their children, their citizenship status, their ability to walk to the store and not have to see racist or homophobic slurs scrawled on the walls.

I can engage these anxieties yet still point to the eternal reality that Jesus is Lord and, as he declared in John 16:33: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Whatever our circumstances are, He transcends them, and He equips us to navigate the difficult periods where we have few clear answers. I lean on that strength now and answer to him as Master.

Jesus is Lord, and we have work to do.

If you voted for Trump, defend and lift up your neighbor, similar and different from yourself.

If you did not vote for Trump, defend and lift up your neighbor, similar and different from yourself.

None of us can claim exemption from the type of empathetic listening, humble heart-wrestling, and perseverant bridge-building the years ahead require of us. We entered the election already divided in so many ways. Do not call for unity unless you are truly willing to answer to what it will ask of you, because as someone once told me, “Be careful of what you pray for, because God will surely answer.”

If you truly seek to be one united family, it will cost you your assumptions. It will cost you your pride. It will cost you your comfort. It will cost you homogeneity and familiarity. It will cost you the satisfaction of hurting those who hurt you. Much must be cast down for a new foundation to be built.

My indigenous sisters and brothers, you have work to do. This work includes allowing God to bring you rest and comfort. Let Jesus reach those deep wounds in your communities and bring healing. Confront the forces that try to shrink you, make you feel forgotten or abandoned. Our Heavenly Father loves you so much, and He hears your cries. Continue to protest the injustices done against you, and know you do not stand alone. Nurture your children and remind them of the beauty and strength and resilience seeded in your stories. Please share your stories. I need to hear them, need to be convicted by your words, and I submit to you now. Challenge the rest of us past silences towards action. Lead us as we untangle our country’s sins and reconcile our peoples.

My black sisters and brothers, we have work to do. Many of you have already been engaged in the rebuilding of your communities. You have reached out to our poor, empowered our children and reminded them of how exceptional and worthy they are. You have engineered more just local and national policies. You have been relentless in making visible what has been invisible to privileged others for too long in our country. Continue that work and do not grow weary of doing good. Pray for our country and allow God to use you in the transformation of our churches, our workplaces, our homes, our streets. When you are tired, rest and know that your anger and sadness are warranted. But do not allow our Enemy to manipulate that anger into resentment and condemnation towards our white brothers and sisters. As believers, we don’t get to write them off and stop talking to them. We are called to draw close, to love, to share, to seek to understand, and to hold them accountable. This is hard work, and other voices may take advantage of our compassion and demand more from us. Some may label us appeasers and warn us that by choosing to love people who have the potential to hurt us, we are weak. But that is not the mercy we have been shown by the Cross, and it is out of the grace given to us that we keep striving to bring the unified Kingdom of Heaven to our soil.

My white sisters and brothers, you have work to do. Many look at the statistics of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and doubt the relevance of the church in its lack of social justice literacy. Some of us people of color have wondered how many of you in the safety of your homes espouse Trump’s beliefs, depicted powerfully in this comic. The hesitation and lack of trust this engenders has hurt our ability to commune together as one family. Now is an opportunity to approach those confused and hurting with gentle hands and compassionate hearts. Listen without seeking to defend your identity as a good person. Ask God what your role is to be in the lives of those oppressed right now, whether that means protesting, deepening friendships, reading books outside your comfort zone, joining efforts that address injustice, or teaching other white people from what you are learning. But do not be silent; do not be still. Out of the grace that has been shown to you, extend that now to those you may not understand right now. I assume nothing of who or what you voted for, but I invite you now to communicate with your choices, your actions how Christians love within the tension, within the adversity, within the existing divisions. Solidarity involves sacrifice. This is a grueling journey, and there are times when you will feel chastised and guilty for being white or hurt and frustrated when you are dismissed as a hater or ignorant when you just want to help others.  You are joining with others who have been in this struggle for far longer, and there will be clashes, but hold firm. You have much to gain when your sisters and brothers of color are finally treated as equals and we eat together at one table. Stake your identity in Christ and not the reputation you can craft and preserve. He loves you, and he will show you the way forward.

My Asian sisters and brothers, you have work to do. Our country may try to whiten you and widen the divide between our communities, but do not submit to that temptation. You are not foreign; you are family. Take ownership of that truth and share your stories. Bring light to the things I don’t see as a black woman. Know that God shaped you and cherishes you. I invite you now to step up and actively join conversations concerning justice–it’s for all of us, and the problems of the most vulnerable of us are ALL of our problems. You have a unique point of view, and we all need to hear it. Please let others’ lives matter to you in the personal made political. Declare that black lives matter to you and practice that. Protect immigrants, whether they speak Spanish or Quechua or Cantonese or Malayan. Our struggles become woven in one thread, and we petition God on behalf of our community, knowing He has created us to belong to each other. Out of the grace you have been shown, reach out to those outside your walls and may your love make them tremble.

My Latinx sisters and brothers, we have work to do. Our communities grow, and we are perceived as a threat in too many spaces; like our Asian neighbors, we are are Othered. But we treasure family, and when we accepted Christ, our family expanded to include thousands of all colors and backgrounds. Let us model that value and be unshakable in our desire to see all people welcomed. We get tired too, and it is tempting to isolate ourselves in our hurt and cling to what we fear to lose, whether that be loved ones, homes, languages. Cling to Christ; He will not forsake you. His love knows no boundaries, no walls and we have the privilege of allowing that love to permeate our interactions with others. We represent so much beautiful diversity, and our country needs exposure to that gift. We can act as curanderas at the cracks and bring paz even as we resist policies and crimes that inflict harm upon the marginalized peoples around us. We may be pulled in many directions, we may pass as many things, but we know where we come from, and we are at home in the arms of our Savior. Out of the grace we have been shown, let us welcome the stranger and make them our family, and may we stop any who dare make them feel less than lovable.

My sisters and brothers made Other, you have work to do. The racial binary was not designed for you, and neither did our Founding Fathers consider you when they created the laws of this land. You have come from many shores, and yet have not been assured a place here. I lament that reality with you. You are ethnic, ambiguous, biracial, mixed, unlabeled by human measure, but God designed you with intention. He will use that inherent resistance to fit into categories to break down barriers. He will use you to reflect His kingdom in its diversity and limitlessness. Loosen your hands so your story can be released into the world, and it will be a tide that sifts out what is broken and soothes seething rifts. Let no one silence you; speak out from where you stand. Mentor and lift up those struggling with their identities and remind them of the worth endowed them by Jesus. Draw out the truth from misconceptions and stereotypes, and make the unknown and alien real and personal for those of us who do not yet know you. Out of the grace you have been shown, take your place as ambassadors and bring about the flourishing of all peoples.

Be encouraged today. Jesus has overcome the world, and He has set aside works for us to do, with patience, with faith, with love. I see you, and I pray for you. I pray for our new President, that he is granted wisdom and compassion. And I pray that we all do the hard work of contending with our racism, our sexism, our pride, our prejudice, our silence, our suffering and inaugurate a season of repentance and reflection in this nation. May the world be changed by what we start today, and may we never falter as God guides our steps.

hidden fences and tripped syllables

Awards season is here–whether you foam at the mouth at the mention of “Oscar” or start to yawn instead. Regardless, now is the time when critics and audiences sum up the highlights of the cinematic year. We start hearing more and more about “Oscar bait,” a reference to the period films and historical biopics and somber dramas that usually garner the acclaim of the Academy. This is when we reap the so-called best of the harvest–the films that enter the pantheon of essential films introduced to later generations. For Americans, these films are meant to reflect the peaks of our cultural and creative endeavor.

So I was irked when a reporter interviewed Pharrell Williams at the Golden Globes for his work on “Hidden Fences.” The ire flared again when Michael Keaton later announced Octavia Spencer (a notable black actress) for her nomination in…again “Hidden Fences.” There is no “Hidden Fences.” There is the movie Hidden Figures and the movie Fences, both of which:

a) came out recently

b) contain predominantly black casts

c) have received much praise from audiences and critics alike

But it’s a simple flub right? Shouldn’t I let it go and simply move on–after all, people make mistakes when on-air all the time. However, to simply dismiss it would be to forget #OscarsSoWhite. Last year’s awards season controversy centered on the startling dearth of people of color featured in film and critical attention…at least startling to many white Americans. When the gap finally become too wide to miss, suddenly you saw this outpouring of indignant articles and tweets confronting the Academy.

Black Twitter and other spaces where POC congregate have been tackling this subject for years.

I find myself less trusting of mainstream awards shows when it comes to representation of minority groups–and for good reason. When an actor or actress of color becomes a media darling, the result can be a double-edged sword: while their performance or film receives deserved recognition, the awareness of their race also heightens with it, and it can lead to some painful “flubs.” I still remember how people cooed over child actress Quvenzhané Wallis a few years ago for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet few took the time to pronounce her name correctly. Her otherness took form in the syllables of her name, which became unwieldy steps tripped over by white announcers and reporters and late-night hosts.

She was not the only person of color to have her non-whiteness pointed at by Hollywood, and she was not the last. White Americans do not have a great track record when it comes to celebrating people of color in cinema. The African-American blog MadameNoire has a great tongue-in-cheek article that highlights just how many black celebrities have been mistaken for each other over the years. The gaffes turn into a joke on SNL and then the public moves on–but we haven’t moved forward. That two major films like Hidden Figures and Fences can be confused for each other when this doesn’t happen to the La La Lands and Allieds underlines the need for more media spaces opened to people of color. It also underlines just how desperately America needs re-education on how white privilege functions both on the screen and off.

If two black films getting popular is such an anomaly that they can be treated as interchangeable, even though they focus on different subject matter, how indistinguishable are black people in everyday life?

I’m not talking about friends and neighbors–I’m talking about what happens when the rich diversity of darker-skinned peoples becomes subsumed into Black (for more on the history of racial labeling, check out The History of White People). There is so much awkwardness and tension surrounding the use of the labels “White” or “white people,” and weirdly enough, a nonwhite person could be written off as a “reverse racist” for using them. No one bats an eye when you start talking about black people. The facile use of “Black” implies that those connected to that category as normalized as part of a collective while “White” is associated with the individual. Black can be collectivized, blended and stereotyped on that level while White has the option of remaining safely unique and independent (no, those jokes about “white people can’t dance” are not equivalent in this conversation). White people don’t actually have to be white or a people, but black people will still ping on the radar in relation to their racial group first.

This isn’t even a phenomenon exclusive to black people–I’ve observed many times when a Korean and Chinese person are confused for one another, when blanket statements about “those Hispanics” pop up in conversation, when a Indian friend is asked if their “English name” can be used instead because their actual name twists the tongue. It stings. Not only are people of color defined first by a group status, reducing our singularities, our identity is implied as “forever foreign” (as Mia Tuan points out in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Todayor, simply, alternative to the norm–not white. When you are not the implicit norm, less time and space is allocated by the mainstream to examine those nuances that craft the complexity of your personhood.

Lack of exposure to diversity and a lack of effort to make those differences matter in personal practice cultivates this kind of latent indifference that slips into daily interactions. It may not be intentional, but it casts people of color in the role of the perpetual Other, and the reality is reinforced when our varied cultural ways of being, even down to the way we worship, can be construed as a deviation from standard–or worse, superfluous enough that it’s optional to learn our histories. That is why I took African-American Literature only as an elective in college–because we didn’t read black stories in the required core English classes. That is what it looks like to be on the margins: even your stories aren’t easily accessible.

In his speech on racial separatism, Malcolm X critiqued some contingents within the Civil Rights movement for over-emphasizing assimilation into American society as the ultimate goal of the movement. He stressed that the push for integration had not benefited black people–it just gave a new shape to their marginalization. He pointed to the white flight that occurred after neighborhoods were integrated, the economic disparities black people faced even as the color line by law appeared to dissolve. His words challenged listeners to think critically about whether assimilation signified true equality or a buttressing of whiteness as the ultimate aspiration for all Americans. I wonder if he feared what would be lost if black people were assimilated but not embraced on their own terms.

While I disagree with his conclusion that racial separation is the answer, I resonate with his frustration. Sometimes it feels like for all the self-congratulating speeches our nation gives itself on our progress, the otherness of our communities has been sharpened in the process. For instance, Black and Asian and Latinx persons shouldn’t be treated as exceptional only when they represent the exception for “their people,” framed in a triumphalist narrative that is palatable enough to be celebrated. When that happens, they are still being defined by their otherness and how well they negotiate it in white-dominated spheres of influence like Hollywood.

We shouldn’t need to be reframed or renamed to be welcomed as equals. We are allowed to be individuals, God-created persons who embody a mosaic of taste and talent and experience. And yet we should also avoid diluting our ethnic differences away to replace them with an antiseptic type of colorblindness that misses the richness of our individual and collective histories and cultures. There is a way to honor that variety without crystallizing it as atypical. Unity emerges from differences valued rather than tolerated.

We celebrate MLK’s birthday today, and it’s vital that we don’t romanticize the man and the injustices he noticed and challenged during his lifetime. MLK was a controversial figure who didn’t just speak of dreams–he spoke about the alienation of black people in a society not designed for our flourishing. He was the man who preached:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK framed inequality as not only the result of these silences, but also as a reflection of our estrangement as a greater American community. We are still not one people when some members are accepted as American without a second thought while others clamber over the -dash.

When even the names of people of color cannot be pronounced correctly, the American story contracts a little more, and the walls press against the backs of those who rarely enter the center of the action. We (people of color) are here. Our stories already indent this land. So maybe it is not the belonging associated with assimilation that we seek. I don’t want to be melted away into a pot of progress, my blackness, my Latinxness ceasing to matter. Neither do I want that diversity casually stumbled over, glanced at, treated as alternative and alien instead of beautiful and right and utterly normal.

Maybe we simply want the freedom of visibility, to be acknowledged, not as beacons of racial progress to indulge or emblems of the exotic and unpronounceable to tease, but as equals. What is hidden and held back can be hurt; when those hidden step into the light, they are human, bodied, and lovable. MLK was one such person who mirrored Christ in the way his actions clothed once-invisible bodies so they would no longer be ignored or diminished. He helped dignify marginalized peoples and champion the worth already inherent in their creation. So now when our names are spoken, when our stories are shared, when we join with our brothers and sisters of all colors and take up more space in the fabric of America, we honor that legacy and carry it forward.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King Jr.