Beauty for Ashes

Love’s in need of love today.[1]

Coming from an evangelical background, I’ve had these dueling tendencies. On the one hand, we were constantly admonished to “take everything captive”, to be aware of the Devil, who comes like a lion prowling for what he may devour. That we were to beware of the lusts of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life. We were fighting a war against sin. Sin became the center of discipline and Christian habits the way that older denominations focused on the Christian calendar. Sin and trying to avoid it became such an obsession that they actually captured the imagination and locked it in a dungeon.

On the other hand, there is love – the greatest commandment. It was what first drew me to Christianity and in the midst when nothing else made sense, passages like I Corinthians 13, I John 4, Romans 13, Galatians 5, Mark 12, and Matthew 22 kept me going, grounded me, pushed me and worked to define my Christian identity.

Since I have left the Evangelicalism fold, I’ve noticed that many of the old habits, but especially the centering of sin, are hard to kick. I refer to my state as post-Evangelicalism, because the ways of forming congregants take a pervasive and deeply embedded mental hold on us. Experience has taught me that post-Evangelicals are hardly fully free of those ways of thoughts because the patterns were established in our bodies and minds through regular, regurgitated practice.

This is troubling because it makes me look at the world through deficits. It becomes easy to look at myself and my kinfolk through problematizing lenses, rather than acknowledging us as whole, complex creatures. People who are fully lovely and complex and beautiful and maybe not so lovely. People who may be full of grace, generosity, grace, peace, anti-social tendencies, greed, intellectual curiosity, prowess, survivor skills, difficult histories, kindness, generosity, stinginess, power, tenderness, viciousness, pettiness, greatness…

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Instead, I easily reduce people to the awful things that they experience. People thus become projects. Those who don’t conform White Supremacist Heteropatriarchy are thus reduced to victims of it.

But we are not merely victims.

When Dylan Roof, the White Supremacist terrorist, came to Mother Emanuel AME church – a church founded out of necessity to resist and openly fight White Supremacy and slavery; a church burned down by slavers as a result of a foiled slave revolt; a church that was underground for thirty years because it would not subject itself to white overseers in the most intense days of slavery – sat in the congregation while they were praying for an hour, enjoying their welcoming of him in their space. He later says he was grieved to the point that he was worried he couldn’t do what he set out to do.

But he did. He opened fire.

What must have gone through their eyes at this violent betrayal of their love.

And to hear victims’ family members saying now, to Dylan Storm Roof, “We forgive you.”

That is superhuman. It is often expected of victims to forgive their abusers, oppressors, murderers. But it shouldn’t be. It cannot be. That is not forgiveness but more violence, more abuse, more oppression, more murder.

But yet the Mother Emanuel AME Church has a history of surviving in a world of White Supremacy through the seemingly conflicting or at least contradictory spaces of both resistance and forgiveness.

This is not the norm nor should it be expected. It is not loving to expect that of people. But it is a testimony to their loveliness – in both the resistance and the extreme acts of forgiveness. For children to say, “I cannot hold my parent any longer, but I forgive you,” is a testimony not to what should be universal, but to a vivid imagination that clings to hope in the most violent of spaces. It is family trying to find ways to recognize, respect and continue the work that their lost ones stood for. It is a legacy of endurance and beauty.

—–

The beauty of Black, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, North African and Middle Eastern people, of differently-abled persons, of women, and of those outside the heteropatriarchal sexual/gender norms is based in their humanity. For myself as a Christian, it is in the bearing of God upon us all and the Spirit that flows in through us all. That must be the initial point. That God has Come By Us and resides in us. It becomes more evident under the suffering, but suffering does not make one more lovely – only the loveliness becomes more evident.

The Blues, Black Gospel, Salsa, hip hop: Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson, Fred Hammond, Public Enemy, Bob Marley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Fela Kuti, Celia Cruz, Stevie Wonder – these are testimonies of struggle and survival, but also of innate beauty and grace and ugliness.

To be brief, they are worthy of being loved because they are lovely. No one disputes that. And no one should dispute the loveliness of the subaltern.

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[1] I planned this as an essay to think through loving my neighbor before I woke up to the news of the Charleston massacre. That affected the shape of this, and the delay in presenting it, but hopefully the message is the same.

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