Oscar Romero said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
I think I know what he means.
Tuesday night my son cried over George Floyd. He cried over the Ahmaud Arbery.
I told him it was okay to weep. I told him that after weeping he needs to pray. Then, I told him he will need to be ready to do the work of being faithful to God and call injustice what it is. I told him, “I need you to know these stories son, because I need you to know what white supremacy looks like when you see it.”
Every time Ian cries the blindness is washed from his eyes. That’s what I think Oscar Romero means.
There is a time for crying and praying. But there is a time for speaking and working, advocating and dismantling. For Christians I think it is a time to reckon with the fact that when Jesus liberated the cosmos from the reign of sin and death he also meant the liberation from the principalities and powers, systems and structures that perpetuate it. Feeling the weight of concern about a person’s pressed-down soul while not feeling the weight of concern about the dehumanizing realities surrounding a person’s pressed-down body is to proclaim a disembodied, unattached gospel.
It is the same gospel William Perkins (1558–1602), a Cambridge professor who garnered great influence in British Puritanism, wrote in his published text Ordering a Familie, “Though the servant in regard of faith and the inner man be equal to his master, in regard of the outward man . . . the mast is above the servant.”1 He believed that Africans and other dark-skinned people have equal souls but unequal bodies, an important (albeit abhorrent) distinction that he used to defend the master/slave relationship as being mutually beneficial.
Perkins got his gospel from somewhere too, but that’s too much to share here. Just know that it is the same gospel handed down to other Puritan preachers like John Cotton (1585–1652) and Richard Mather (1596–1669), grandfather to Cotton Mather, who would carry Perkins’ human anthropology onward, using it to justify the evangelization of Africans without challenging the morality of slavery.2 This and other theological frameworks (The Curse [of Ham] Theory, etc) set the standard by which the Christian gospel was taught throughout the colonies extending to today.3
What is left is a gospel concerned about souls, but not bodies. It results in a white-washed gospel (framed in the Middle Ages) that results in a disembodied gospel and discipleship disinterested in what is just and aligns with the practical neighbor-to-neighbor implications of the gospel. It allows us to twist what it means to love neighbors as ourselves because bodies aren’t really a part of ‘self.’ Whatever happens on earth is a temporal earthly affair, so let’s just focus on ‘the things of heaven’ and get on with it. Never mind the justice of God that rolls down like an unfailing stream from heaven. We preach boldly and work hard to free a man’s soul while holding down his body with our knees pressed into his neck. And many can’t see it.
So I told my son that it is good to cry. It is good to pray. But it is also good to put our feet and hands to our prayers and with clear eyes, do the work of justice. Because as Christians our gospel summons us to it.
1 Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning (New York: Nation Books, 2016), 33.
2 Kendi, 33. See also Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 22-23.
3 Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, “William and Mary Quarterly LIV (January 1997):103 – 142. Bernard Lewis and William McKee Evans argue that the curse of Ham from Genesis 9;18-28, also known as the Curse Theory, placed his descendants to perpetual bondage because of his treatment of Noah in Genesis was a belief held by Islamic peoples and influenced Christianity’s readings of the text. Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, (New York 1990), 44-45, 55; William McKee Evans, “From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea,” American Historical Review 85 (1980): 15-43. It must also be noted that a few medieval Muslim writers such as Ibn Khaldun and Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, proposed the view that Noah’s curse on Ham’s descendants included blackness and slavery. There are some who propose that the Jewish tradition lays the foundation for such a view, namely in the Talmud and Midrash. However, David H. Aaron argues that this is unfounded as no significant documentation has been presented to verify such claim. See also s work, “Early Rabbinic Exegesis on Noah’s Son Ham and the So-Called ‘Hamitic Myth’.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63, no. 4 (1995): 721-59. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.regent.edu/stable/1465466. The Hamitic Curse appears to be either of Islamic (Asian) or Christian (European) origin. The Curse Theory, had long been an accepted theological frame from which black-skinned people were seen. Eutychius, an Alexandrian Melkite patriarch, (d. 940) wrote, “Cursed be Ham and may he be a servant to his brothers… He himself and his descendants, who are the Egyptians, the Negroes, the Ethiopians and (it is said) the Barbari.” See Patrologiae Cursus Completus Graeca, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1857 –66), Pococke‘s (1658–59) translation of the Annales, 111.917B (sec. 41-43)7) Ishodad of Merv, the Syrian Christian bishop of Hedhatha, (9th century) says, “When Noah cursed Canaan—instantly, by the force of the curse. . .his face and entire body became black [ukmotha]. This is the black color which has persisted in his descendants.” See C. Van Den Eynde, Corpus scriptorium Christianorum orientalium 156, Scriptores Syri 75(Louvain, 1955), p. 139. Ibn al-Tayyib, an Arabic Christian scholar, Baghdad, (d. 1043) asserts, “The curse of Noah affected the posterity of Canaan who were killed by Joshua son of Nun. At the moment of the curse, Canaan‘s body became black and the blackness spread out among them.” See Joannes C.J. Sanders, Commentaire sur la Genèse, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium274-275, Scriptores Arabici 24-25 (Louvain, 1967), 1:56 (text), 2:52-55 (translation). Bar Hebraeus, a Syrian Christian scholar, (1226–86) writes, “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and showed [it] to his two brothers, That is…that Canaan was cursed and not Ham, and with the very curse he became black and the blackness was transmitted to his descendants… And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan! A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’” See Sprengling and Graham, Barhebraeus‘ Scholia on the Old Testament, pp. 40 – 41, to Gen 9:22. It became used as a justification for serfdom during the medieval era. Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1100) was the first on record to propose a caste system associating Ham with serfdom. He wrote that serfs were descended from Ham, nobles from Japheth, and free men from Shem. This became widely promoted in Europe. At the height of the medieval era, it was a significant trend to interpret Genesis that the serfs were also the descendants of Ham were serfs. As serfdom began to decrease the interpretation that serfs were descendants of Ham did as well. But it paved the way for further interpretation.