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Center for Action and Contemplation

Black Bodies

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Human Bodies: Week 2

Black Bodies
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Until the killing of black mothers’ sons [and daughters] is as important as the discovery of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. —Ella Baker [1]

As I wrote in last week’s meditations, the early ego creates itself by comparison or negation, by how we are not like others. [2] It likes to differentiate. The ego then holds onto this falsely created sense of superiority at all costs. Last year when I shared about coming to recognize my own white privilege—the unearned benefits I receive simply because of the color of my skin—I wasn’t surprised that the Center’s Customer Service team received more than the usual defensive and angry emails. [3] Many people think “white privilege” is liberal propaganda, a made-up idea to seed more division. After all, the United States had a black president! Surely, we’ve moved beyond racism.

And what about “reverse racism,” some whites say? Anyone can be prejudiced. But racism is all about an imbalance of power. In the United States today, most of the power still lies with people who are white. The very nature of oppression makes it hard for those of us who are comfortable to see this problem. [4] Perhaps subconsciously we know that systemic inequality serves our own ego’s interests and so we resist change. We still define ourselves by differentiating and comparing (dualistic thinking) and not by “similarizing” (which is unitive thinking).

As Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” [5] If we are all made in God’s image, if we are all the Body of Christ, then treating black and brown bodies with love and respect is the only way for our country, our communities, and our Christianity to be whole. Our love must be active and embodied. We cannot just preach peace and justice in a theoretical way; the rubber of justice needs to hit the real road.

One of our CONSPIRE 2018 presenters, author and professor Barbara Holmes, explores how some young people today are working hard to dismantle systems of oppression:

Ella Baker [1903-1986], civil rights activist and organizer, reminds us of the reason that we continue the struggle for justice. It is for fairness, equal treatment under the law, and the cessation of violence against innocent black and brown bodies. Another generation is on the rise, and they are confronting police brutality and advocating for black lives through the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLMM), its contemplative activism and deeply spiritual resistance. . . .

One cannot help but wonder why the same battles for justice must be fought by every generation? Certainly, there were enough sacrifices, martyrs, and legislation during the ’60s to ensure justice for all. Yet . . . “we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities and the rulers of darkness in high places” [Ephesians 6:12]. The powers or systems do everything they can to resist change. In response to the demand for justice, systems morph and adjust while maintaining the status quo.

So public hangings end and the murders of unarmed black folk rise. Slavery ends, but the mass incarceration of minority populations increases. Jim Crow practices are no longer openly discriminatory; they reappear as educational and economic disparities, voter suppression, and aggressive police actions against people of color. [6]

Power never surrenders without a fight. If your response to today’s meditation is to retort, “All lives matter!” I invite you to take a closer look at your own fears and biases. Of course, all lives matter! Yet until black and brown lives matter, no lives truly matter. Jesus spoke into specific lives, into particular circumstances of oppression, saying, “You, an outcast Samaritan woman, you matter. You, a leper rejected by society, you matter.”

[1] Ella Baker, from her keynote speech to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in Jackson, MS (August 6, 1964). Two days earlier, searchers had located the bodies of murdered civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. See J. Todd Moye, Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement (Rowman & Littlefield: 2013), 153.

[2] See Richard Rohr,

[3] See Richard Rohr,

[4] If you struggle to see how white privilege and racism exist today, learn about systems of oppression that disproportionately impact people of color, particularly Hispanics and African Americans. For example, explore the criminal justice system through Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: 2010) or the documentary 13th (available on Netflix).

[5] Emma Lazarus, An Epistle to the Hebrews (Jewish Historical Society of New York: 1987), 30. These fifteen essays were published from November 1882 to February 1883 in The American Hebrew.

[6] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 141, 144.

Image credit: The Thankful Poor (detail), Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894. Private collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: If we are all made in God’s image, if we are all the Body of Christ, then treating black and brown bodies with love and respect is the only way for our country, our communities, and our Christianity to be whole. —Richard Rohr
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