to write and riot: one year later

Jordan Edwards is dead.

When I lift my fingers to type, they drum down on the keys with the weight of this–the names of the people Racism has stolen from my communities. They are not just headlines that will pass away; they are not just bodies behind bars. Yet I live in a country where non-White features designate people as Other and thus less valued–no matter how many exceptional people of color “make it out.” There is no “out.” We are all inextricably, unavoidably, in this, and the ripples of one boy’s death collide with each of our realities–even those too numbed to notice.

This is for those who hear me and stay.

I was recently startled into the realization that this blog is one-year old. God charged me during the Urbana ’16 conference to channel all the thoughts I wrestle with into something that could not only stretch my growth, but also potentially challenge and lift up others. This blog was born. I didn’t so much leap with faith as really tip over into a new realm where suddenly my words were pulled out of my head and heart and positioned on display for the world to see (whatever sliver of the world manages to find this blog).

Starting this blog was an exercise in anxiety. I’ve always shied away from public writing, even as I envied others who seem to share with such ease. I also didn’t believe I had anything groundbreaking to offer–not anything other social justice-oriented individuals had already shared (and far more eloquently). Yet God tugged at my feet, so I took a step forward into the unknown.

Rusty from a few years of wildly inconsistent writing habits that would provoke slow, somber head shakes from my former professors, I quarreled with a blank screen and an overload of ambition. I blundered (and still stumble) over the basic stepping stones: to whom to write (audience), what to write about (topic), and how to write about it (tone). Cognizant that I was writing about issues framed as controversial (cite: avoidable) in the Church, each typed word became fraught with tension.

The reality that I am a woman of color in her early 20s loomed over my fingers as they flexed, preparing for the Great White Portal to racial discourse. I sat before my computer (feeling) unequipped, inexperienced, and lonely in my racking desire to confront the racial pain burdening my heart and to help my communities somehow. Then the questions stampeded in, no pause to exhale:

What if I’m too angry?

What if I burn bridges?

What if I have nothing to say? 

What if everyone hates me?

What if I’m wrong? 

Dread wrapped in a tight, thick knot in my throat, I begged God to give me an out. Clearly I wasn’t shaped for this type of work.

A little over a year later, this blog remains (obviously). So what happened? A few realizations unfolded over time:

  • I don’t have to fix racism. It’s not on me to do this–I’m no Savior. I can speak to what I observe, what burdens me, what others have taught me, but I’m never engaging in this work of repentance and reconciliation alone, leading to…
  • I’m joining a conversation. I am one voice, carrying my stories and thoughts and struggles, and my voice matters, but I must recognize that I am entering into a space where I am engaging with past, present, and future threads. There are others I must listen to and learn from, other voices to reflect upon and voices to interact with as we untwist the problems of race and identity and community.
  • I’m human–own it. I am not perfect. Neither am I the ultimate authority on all things related to racial discourse. I can honestly admit that I’m stubborn and struggle with acknowledging my mistakes–I prefer to rationalize them as logical or excusable. I also have a ridiculous capacity for being judgmental, and that creates blinders that prevent me from seeing all sides and angles. I’ve been learning through this writing process how to take responsibility for my sin areas and make space for God to teach me differently. My writing will always reflect my imperfection and gaps in knowledge, but I am committed to deepening my comprehension, adjusting my vision, and growing outwards.
  • The pain is worth it. I’ve cried during and after writing a blog post. Some of them have excavated deep wounds I didn’t realize I still have; some shoved suffering into my face, leaving me adrift and unable to process it all. Some made me feel every single gram of my inadequacy, and I wanted to give up. But then I would get a message from someone who read a post, that it helped them in some way, and it was like God’s prodding to keep going. Words arose, quiet, steady: Keep going daughter. Face the storm. I am with you. So I went on.

I labor over this work–and it’s hard. I am constantly amazed by those of you who have been invested in this labor for years. I agonize over words, pray over them, gnaw my lip and wonder if I should soften the language or shift topics. God rarely responds yes. And even then, I don’t always obey, bending instead to the pressure to be polite rather than truthful.

I don’t (as of now) face incarceration or mortal danger for typed letters, but as the PEN World Voices Festival warned me yesterday, not everyone has that luxury. So I treasure the freedom that allows words of challenge to unfurl out of my being and press against the world in some needed way. I don’t feign the posture of a great Liberator or Artist as I write, but because there is an unfathomable well of pain to speak to, I have a purpose in trying.

Writing, talking about racism is a tangle of pain and hope. The pain rises and throbs as you point to the realities of discrimination, unjust economic systems, and the hidden heart issues that bleed out into our actions. I move through a labyrinth of thought and feeling, a pack of understandings sloped on my back because I realize that confronting racism involves the indictment of that which has been hidden away, held taut beneath the surface and ready to snap. It requires examining what it means to be White and where White comes from. It mandates wrestling what it means to be Black and diasporic. It provokes the questioning of how to locate yourself within a color binary never designed for you if you are Asian, Arab, Indigenous.

This is tense, uncompromising work. It will not make you feel good–in fact, it will disturb and offend you. Confronting ugliness repulses us–and it should. I do not ask God to remove this tension from my gut; it unsettles me into a state of action so I will not be complacent when the needs are so great. They are great, and they are relentless.

With the presence of so much unfettered ignorance and a vacuum of empathy, how can I possibly soothe the heartbreak that racism causes in my country? I can’t. Sometimes all I can do is loosen my tears and not forget the ones abused by it. And I do this: I write. I lift my small torch to shed light on the margins so those willing to draw near them can mourn with me and step through the night into what could await us beyond it. This is a shade of riot, that we repel the forces that would keep us static and demand the ushering of Heaven to Earth, opening our hands to receive it and hold on tight.

Our hearts hurt because we sense that racial division and injustice is not God’s intention for us. His movement, always and forever, is to bind us together with words, with the Word, into one family with no dividing wall.

Words matter, and they have power. Writing can be an act of activism, rebellion even, against that which mars human dignity and distorts the beauty of our relationships with one another. Words have founded revolutions, fractured families and repaired them, and so I handle them with care and submit them to God. I look for the ways in which He is using them already to weave our disparate stories together, and I ask to join Him in that industry.

Yet there can be little communion when one member’s hands are burned, nerves exhausted. To resurrect our fellowship with one another, we must look frankly upon the wrongs done to our peoples and examine them, repent of them. Lament brings us through this cycle of sorrow, weighing the gravity of the past and present and leading us to the One who reconciles all. We end in a small echo of the final paradise: in praise, in community.

So I end this with where I started: a declaration of riot. I feel feeble sometimes, too passive and hesitant to shake walls and topple towers. I walk into rooms with an apology on my tongue rather than a confrontation. But you, my readers, my friends, and my God, you have dared me to surrender fear and point to the world I yearn for and the change I am now willing to labor towards. So I leave you with this and hope to encourage you as you take hold of the calling God has given you and till the soil for a world better than what you were born into:

The Cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of riot. Jesus’ sacrificial death momentarily shoved the world into a state of chaos as the sacred temple Veil was ripped, the ground itself rocked with tremors, and blood streamed from a beaten body and pooled at the feet of the terrified ones watching. All the cries of the abused, the violated, the oppressed, the lost, the unheard thundered above his bowed head. The darkness of a people estranged from God and enslaved to sin was broken by slashes of lightning that mimicked the aching stretch of his arms upon the wooden beam.

Hell emptied itself and Heaven touched Earth for the first time in centuries as the way to God’s throne was cleared at last, mediated by a soon resurrected Christ. He had thrown everything into violent, visceral upheaval, and we are still experiencing the vibrations.

The riot of the Cross challenges all that is disordered in our society and invites our participation in a holy commotion that will write a new draft above our stained histories. This draft is the Kingdom of Christ being ushered in now, though not yet in its final published form. In this draft, we are charged to disturb the status quo, remake the hierarchies of power,  demand justice for the marginalized, innovate new words to love and live with each other.

God writes the new draft of a Kingdom manifesto on a scroll of grace, unfurling to coil around each person with a binding embrace. This grace acknowledges our grievous wrongs and our depraved brokenness, both individual and systemic, but rather than charting an arc towards death, it writes us into new roles: redeemed rioters on Gospel terms. With renewed minds, we grow into our roles, stumble, and keep marching so that someday we will see the fullness of a radically altered world.

graceriot 2016

Riot on.

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