Michelle Higgins, Director of Worship and Outreach at South City Church gave a riveting talk on justice, race and the Black Lives Matter movement at Urbana 15. In this article I attempt to respond to the three most common overt or implied criticisms I encountered from white participants. What I write certainly applies to non-black people of color who felt similarly. If the shoe fits, feel free to wear it.
“Why couldn’t she be more balanced in how she said things?”
For some, Michelle Higgins’ message seemed to lack balance but in reality it was an important disruptive word challenging those who have failed to deal with race except at the most cursory level.
If you are reading from a white perspective (or from a non-black perspective) leveling this same criticism, I want to invite you to take a long hard look at what is behind your demand that Rev. Higgins say things in a more balanced/nicer/slower way.
Michelle’s talk was prophetic. A prophetic word disrupts! It points to the kingdom in the midst of the sheer urgency of the circumstances. I am struck in listening to her again that she cannot be dismissed as shrill and unbalanced. She was bold, she was raw, she was tough and she called whites out but she was not cynical, snarky or rude.
Prophetic words tend to strip us of the defenses we use to inoculate ourselves against the devastating evils around us. Balance does not even enter the equation in the face of such urgency and what an urgent three years (and longer) it has been for black people!
I have often used this metaphor to describe my own pain and tiredness on the race journey. It seems like people of color and some whites are in the deep end of the waters, treading, swimming, fending off the sharks. Most whites I know, tip toe into the shallow end and shy away. They want to ease in slowly at their own pace and any attempt to invite them to take a plunge into the choppy waters of race is met with resistance. What I am saying is that the problem does not lie in the speaker but perhaps in the listener.
Gentle words, subtle hints, soft nudges, nuanced rhetoric and slow on-ramps have not worked. In my experience in the white evangelical church, these are met with a deafening silence. It takes a disruptive word such as Michelle’s to awaken.
The demand for a comfortable rhetoric around race can also be a subtle move to change the subject or control the conversation. It becomes more about how something is said rather than what is being said. That is a power move. The sheer shock at facing a disruptive word is understandable but deflecting it is unacceptable.
In short, the demand that the gift of the disruptive word that calls whites out of apathy regarding systemic sin should be gentle in tone and accessible in pace is a sign of privilege. It is a refusal to be stripped by the word of God shining forth in its ability to split bone from marrow.
That was the gift of her talk: A disruptive, prophetic word.
“She proof texted the scriptures”
This was a second critique I heard about Michelle’s talk, but in reality she had a well-honed Biblical Hermeneutic characteristic of the black church.
Sister Higgins wore her hermeneutic grid (interpretive lens) openly for people. She quoted Deuteronomy, Revelation and Hebrews and drew on the book of Genesis. Having participated in the life of a black church for several years and being challenged by black colleagues at the University, I have come to be healed by the black church’s hermeneutic.
Her first interpretive lens is one of community.
"We are family. I hope you will hear my story and think of your place in it...We have space in one another's stories for each other..."
God’s word comes to ALL His people as a community. It has been my sad experience (as an Indian Christian) that for many whites and westerners, the primary hermeneutic is individualism (me and Jesus spirituality).
Her second interpretive lens is that of suffering as she draws on narratives of injustice and pain. This differs sharply from the theology of comfort that I experienced in my college years in the US evidenced by a disproportionate emphasis on inner healing and recovery in the then mostly white Vineyard movement. “Jesus heals my brokenness” became the watchword and we focused on healing lepers without taking on the systems that promoted the marginalization of the same.
Her third interpretive grid is that of history. Michelle called everyone repeatedly to take our stories seriously; even the difficult parts.
..what happens when we avoid parts of our story...what happens? We forget our story.. We change our story and brother and sisters, we end up believing a lie..."
For some whites to read the scriptures aside from history (not just Jewish history but our own racial history); a hermeneutic practice, which is common in many white evangelical churches is to depreciate the incarnation. The Word has descended into human history and through the resurrection the Risen Christ stands as the Lord of all peoples and all history. Sometimes I wonder if to be evangelical is to be a-historic. For some, after Jesus came Paul and then Billy Graham with nothing much happening in-between.
Michelle was offering us a hermeneutic of the scriptures through the lens of community, suffering and history that challenged our oft-used evangelical grid of individualism, brokenness and a-historic attitudes.
Lastly, Michelle sang and spoke words that were poetic (from her tradition too). In Luke 1, the Blessed Virgin Mary, exposits Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel and instead of explaining it in a 3-point sermon, sings it back into the world. That’s what Michelle did.
"I read the Bible and say it back at you.....That’s what good preaching does”.
And it undid us. You may express discomfort at her exegesis, homiletics and style but it certainly wasn’t proof texting.
To read scripture within our own monochromatic communities leads to rigid interpretations and spiritual myopia to the breadth of the plan of God. We need others; diverse others to point out the areas of scripture we gloss over or neglect. To not listen to the word of God through the lens of diverse voices would be to compromise our holistic understanding of the word. Our Bible is at stake!
Michelle gave us the gift of a holistic hermeneutic.
“She blamed whites”
In response to this third criticism, I would say in reality she freed whites and offered them the invitation to their restored humanity.
The misuse of power dehumanizes. It dominates a human person created in the image of God and makes them a victim. The part that we do not often emphasize is that there are two dehumanizing acts that occur in injustice. The first is the victim. But the oppressor also is dehumanized because they have tried become God and in doing so have lost touch with their own humanity. The end result though seems freeing initially for those in power, ends up a weary and burdened existence.
..That is a burden that none of us can bear, especially my white brothers and sisters, let me talk to y'all and tell you, God wants to relieve you of the burden of being in control..
Michelle shifted the locus of power. She gave it back to God, acknowledging his authority as supreme and called whites to return their usurped power back to the one who alone defines, dignifies and loves. In doing so, she did not strip whites of their dignity but restored their humanity. Humbling perhaps but not humiliating! Whites listening carefully can hear a pleading invitation to stop trying to be God and thereby receive His freedom.
The gift of humanity!
Michelle Higgins prophetic talk was needful. Being brown these days is a liability and her talk helped me as a South Asian man acknowledge the weariness of my journey, turn over control again and continue forward in becoming “the evidence of things not seen.” But her preaching was NOT a series of jabs aimed at white Christians, rather it was a disruptive, biblical, freeing call to the same, made from the deep end of the waters with hopeful invitation: JUMP IN!