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The Politics of Scripture

Racist Men, Complicit Women, and Prejudiced Children

Mothers like Hagar who bear the weight of racism in the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) are always on the verge of losing their children—inferiorized by racist prejudice. These mothers’ voices are crying out, “Do not let me look on the death of the child” (Genesis 21:16).

8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Genesis 21:8-21

Novelist Celeste Ng’s book titled, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ has become both a metaphor for and reality of our time. In the last days and weeks, there are little fires burning everywhere. People who have long suffered racist violence are fed up. Like the prophet Jeremiah in the lectionary text, they condemn the familiar and everyday experience of “violence and destruction” (Jeremiah 20:8). Rather than simply asking God, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1) they have taken to the streets, shouting, “We’re done waiting.” If one pays attention to their voice, one begins to hear the familiar and haunting words of Jeremiah, “there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Readers of scripture familiar with the recorded echoes of those who have suffered in history are to be at the forefront of translating the voice of today’s protestors into language that church-goers will understand—the same church-goers who, often, fail to understand the legitimate anger of those who bear the weight of racist violence.

In recent days, police brutality against racialized bodies has gotten sustained attention. This is certainly necessary. A church-goer in Newton, Massachusetts—a city that prides itself on liberal values and openness and where I am currently located—recently mentioned to me how racial profiling by Newton police has not changed much over the last 30 years. She shared the story of her black friend’s encounter with the Newton police in the 1980s. She recounted, “I live in Newton, where one might think there are people who are aware of and understanding of differences in people. In the 1980’s I had a girl scout troop.  My co-leader was black. Her husband, also black, was a high-level CEO. One evening as they were simply walking in their neighborhood (West Newton “Hill”—some of the most expensive houses in Newton), they were stopped by two police in their cars. They were questioned about why they were there.  It appears that several people in the expensive homes saw two black people on the street and deemed their presence as illegal. My friends couldn’t believe they couldn’t walk on the streets in their own community. They could not walk on the streets of their own town!” Two days later after I heard this story, we heard from the Mayor of the city that Newton police stopped another black person, Tim Duncan, just the other day who was simply enjoying an afternoon walk with his wife in his own neighborhood because he fit a profile. A gun was drawn but no trigger was pulled. The sad and glaring truth, however, is that in many parts of the country not only are guns drawn but the trigger is pulled as well, violently snuffing out with racist prejudice precious black and brown lives that matter.

Police violence is a problem, yes. But it’s far deeper than that. Kelly Brown Douglas, a professor of theology, observes how racist logics from the past affect even children at a fairly young age. Douglas recalls an experience with her 2-year-old son in a public park. As her son plays in a children-sized toy car in the park’s playground, two little white boys run to the same car. Seeing this, her son jumps out immediately and looks on as the two boys fight over the car. As he does so, one of the white boys looks toward Douglas’ 2-year-old son with his finger pointed toward him and shouts, “You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong” (Stand Your Ground, 86-87). The problem is deeper than just police violence. Racism affects police, yes, but it also affects mothers in public parks and their children. Racism affects police, yes, but it also affects affluent women like Amy Cooper who live in New York City’s Upper West Side.

Racialized divisions are like festering wounds. Healing is necessary, and hard. Police violence against racialized bodies needs to be tackled. It’s real. However, if we imagine police violence as one room in an old house that carries the ghosts (racism) of the past, we soon discover that the whole house needs repair. The U.S. may be compared to such a house. It seems like a fancy house from the outside, but upon entering it, one soon finds that it’s not simply a tap that needs fixing; it’s the whole plumbing. It’s not simply that the kitchen needs renovation; the range has been leaking gas and needs replacement. The fancy lights keep burning out and one finds out that the whole electrical wiring needs repair.

The whole house needs repair. Every room. One room in this house that often manages to fly under the radar, as it were, is the church because of its claim to goodness. But a question of our time is simply this. Is the church’s claim—and by extension the claim of religious people—to goodness self-evident? Not quite, it seems.

Religious people—and here’s the connection to Abraham and his family in the lectionary text from Genesis 21:8–21—have long been in the habit of masking violence rather than naming and revealing violence. Abraham, the same man called “friend of God” in scripture, is also the one who sexually exploits racialized Hagar (the Egyptian woman) for his own gain. Instead of owning up, he manipulates the situation and pins the blame on Sarah by making it seem as if he had to banish Hagar and her son Ishmael because Sarah made him do it. Scripture, disturbingly, even makes it seem as if God is the one granting permission to Abraham to undertake this casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. The truth of the matter, however, seems to be that Abraham is manipulative and finds some way to justify his racist behavior and hide it under the name of God or some other pious blanket.

The text makes one wonder if religious people like Abraham and Sarah are ubiquitous. Today, there are many men who inadvertently or otherwise condone their own racism and the racism of others (as Abraham did with Sarah) by masking the operations of racism rather than uncovering them. Sarah, too, is a woman who is complicit in Abraham’s racism. In a real way, Sarah too enacts her own racist actions, independent of Abraham. She acts in violence against a woman who was her slave and demands her removal from the household. In this reading, Sarah enacts racism and Abraham complies and becomes complicit. Sarah loses the opportunity to be in solidarity with Hagar and chooses, instead, to blame Hagar. By revealing these complexities, the text shows how whole households are entangled in the practice of racism. Perhaps, one reason why racism is often glossed over in churches and by religious people is precisely because of such entanglements that reveal the depth of collective complicity—the more layers one peels, the more layers there are. Complicity in racism seems to go all the way down. Two recent works of scholarship on the subject—one religious (Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible) and the other general (Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South) are worth noting here.

And, Isaac. Ever wonder how his parents’ verbal and non-verbal performances at home prejudiced his mind? Scripture does not record it for us, but we might ask ourselves, what would Isaac have done if he found Hagar’s son Ishmael playing in a public park. I would not be surprised if—like the two white boys who encountered Douglas’ two-year-old son—Isaac ganged up on Ishmael and said, “You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.”

It seems that not only does the whole house need repair, but also everyone in it. There are manipulative men, complicit women, and prejudiced children—all so very deeply affected by the poison of racism. Mothers like Hagar who bear the weight of racism in the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) are always on the verge of losing their children—inferiorized by racist prejudice. These mothers’ voices are crying out, “Do not let me look on the death of the child” (Genesis 21:16). And sometimes, these mothers die before their children and motherless children are left to cry “mama” as their necks are throttled by the violent knees of racism.

Much—life itself—is at stake. When this much is at stake, apolitical apathy is unacceptable. We might, then, ask ourselves, what are we encountering and/or engendering in our homes and in our churches? Is violence being uncovered and named? Or, is violence simply left unnamed or glossed over with piety and apolitical apathy? Aisha Alexander-Young, pregnant with a second black and beautiful child, marching at the Black Mamas March, reminds us that, “Movements start at home. It starts in your own household.” By extension, we can say that movements start at church. It begins with us.

Political apathy is common in churches. If you’ve been in churches or around Christians long enough, you are bound to have heard some version of “I don’t like to hear about politics at church; I come to church for comfort and peace.” Perhaps Christians would do well to consider the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 10, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10: 34–38).

Jesus seems to be implying here that when Christians truly love the world and actively work to heal its wounds, such efforts will bring conflicts and quarrels. It certainly did for Jesus. The one wound that has recently revealed itself conspicuously and in all its ancient ugliness is the wound of racism. Racism is an old wound that has never been healed because it is has been covered up for too long. One of these covers is a false piety that produces political apathy and easy peace. In this light, Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 10 are akin to Martin Luther King Jr’s sober reminder in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” that racism is “like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Exposing the tension of racism will ensue many quarrels. Unless we quarrel with each other to unmask and uncover the racial wound, its pus will continue to infect human imagination and action and simply reproduce manipulative men, complicit women, and prejudiced children not only in parks and streets but also in our homes and churches.

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