By Johari Jabir
Your ticket you must buy
No place for your soul to hide
You’ll be lost if you wait outside
You must be born again
“You Must Be Born Again,” As sung by Mahalia Jackson
But if one is to truly be born again
You would have to gouge out your eyes,
Cut out your tongue,
And grieve like a baby
That’s been snatched away
“Akel Dama” (Field of Blood), Me’Shell Ndegeocello
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
The cornerstone of the Christian Church is founded on the premise that the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the door to the abundant life. Yet, the institutional Church in the United States has done everything in its power to avoid dying to new life. Some of the most important turning points in American democracy have taken place in response to Black social movements. Born out of Black labor organizing, these social movements have, at times, aligned with strains of the Black church to move the country to a critical crossroads. At such moments of social transformation, a conservative political block within the White Christian Church has succeeded in mobilizing fear against faith.
While both political parties—Democrats, and Republicans alike—manipulate Christian theology to serve private interests over public good, liberal and conservative versions of the Church have a longstanding record of recycling through a catalogue of enemies; “abolitionism,” “communism,” “socialism,” and “feminism”, to name but a few. The current boogeyman in American Christianity is revealed in the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) panic over Critical Race Theory (CRT). The river of Black struggle that produced CRT is resonant with the activism of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy is often manipulated by the white moderate clergy within the SBC. However, King constantly challenged the legal and racist evils of segregation for which the white church was complicit. In his final speech in Memphis, TN., in 1968, King reminded America that Black people’s demand for democracy and equality was not out of the realm of the nation’s vision, but Black people were simply demanding that America, “Be true to what you said on paper.”
The SBC looks back to the early reign of Jim Crow to justify a regressive race theory, while CRT offers a progressive theorizing of race, one that moves the nation closer to its democratic ideals. Born in the decade following the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, CRT is a theory/praxis-based tool used to dismantle racism embedded in U.S. law and enacted through policy and institutions. By the time CRT was firmly established in the early 1970s and 1980s, the SBC was reasserting its commitment to the subjugation of women, and renewing its support for white militant masculinity, the latter of which was intended to impact both the organization and the country at large.
Like many white leaders in America’s institutions the SBC’s leadership has a default relationship to the term “race.” For this constituency the term “race” is heard as a personal indictment of racism, thereby requiring defense and deflection. Such was the case when the SBC’s new president, Alabama Pastor Ed Litton summarized on NPR, “The reason we don’t first turn to CRT is because CRT doesn’t really deal with the origin of sin in all of us.” Even if one subscribes to the notion of “original sin,” it is evident by the social realities of stark inequality, violence, and despair, that invoking original sin is but a deflection from the racism that plagues America.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is not alone in its anxious response to CRT. White educators across the country have expressed their outrage over the teaching of CRT — as well they should, given their longstanding investments in sustaining the racial order as it currently stands. Neither the church nor the education system can be considered innocent victims of a critical race theory conspiracy. Both of these institutions have long been teaching a regressive race theory through the strategic use of historical erasure, invisibility, and a deafening silence when it comes to the colonizing racial violence at the core of America’s founding. This colonizing racial violence has never ceased to be the enemy of human freedom and democracy in America.
The social political context for the SBC’s panic over CRT is due in large part to the fact that so much has happened to “wake the children sleeping,” to borrow a gospel riff from my own Black working class Baptist background. An irreversible wave of resistance is taking place all over America and throughout the world. From the pulling down of confederate monuments to the breaking of legislative chains known as the filibuster. From the multiethnic coalitions organized against police brutality, to the trans-racial collectives demonstrating on behalf of climate justice. From the global insurgence of workers against ruthless profiteering, to the activism of transgender persons who demand their lives matter!
Reactions to CRT on the part of religious leaders and white educators have contributed to the gross conflation that all truth-telling about America’s racism and/or xenophobia can be blamed on CRT. This intentional misunderstanding is part of the misinformation campaign indicative of the Trump era’s brand of fascism. And it continues, as the Republican party is currently advancing legislation against the teaching of a concept they don’t even comprehend. “Ignorance,” wrote James Baldwin, “allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
The white clergy of SBC and educators harboring such vicious reactions against CRT may not, in the technical sense, comprehend what CRT is and does, but they do recognize the signs of a new alternative to the status quo.
The Christian Church overall remains an important religious institution in American society. Yet, the church makes little space and time for religion; for the contemplation of awe, wonder, and mysteries of existence. Of course, the often subtle but volatile demands of a society baptized in “the spirit of capitalism” can mask hyper-activity for religious piety, thereby leaving no room to consider our radical but sacred each-otherness. A similar statement could be said about the negative reactions to CRT on the part of white educators. By and large, white educators in southern states decry CRT in order to protect the unequal distribution of economic resources, a disparity of funding which is the direct result of regressive race theories mentioned above. Like the church, our educational institutions lack the commitment to making time and space to nurture the innate capacity of our students as people. Public education, one of the most important institutions in a democratic society, is especially compromised by the pressure to “make” the poorest students into competitive market-place subjects in order to justify the cycle of stigma and inequality. Let me be clear: CRT remains an essential tool for America’s religious and educational institutions. But in addition to CRT, a contemplative practice of pausing, listening, and learning that opens to loving will need to be institutionalized if we are to realize the goals of social justice and democracy. The SBC and its allies stand with the rest of us amid the current moment of crisis, one that is also a crossroads in which, as Antonio Gramsci put it, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Indeed, the old is dying a long and stubborn death in order to prolong the possibility that we must die and be born again.
Flashes of murder from the past scorch the eyes of the present: Border security soldiers ride horseback in a scene from the 1850 fugitive slave act. Them that’s got shall get; the richest among the rich profit from the pandemic. Such signs of morbidity render our social delusions normal to the point that we would almost rather die than change. And yet! This point of no return is even more reason to reckon with the fact that we can — we must be born again, as Mahalia Jackson sang.
In a global pandemic where the callousness of our institutions has been revealed; the violence of our politics exposed; and a refusal to reckon with the climate’s pain is unmasked — What is it that we think we have to lose? We have no place to run, no place to hide. We find ourselves crowding at the edges of the sea. Just as fear feels palpable, an image of a messiah appears in the middle of the sea. His arms are stretched open, inviting us to walk out into deep waters to meet him. Some in the crowd, the self-appointed elect, recognize him as the Messiah, come to save only them from the world they’ve created. But even as they claim him there is no way to reach him save the risk of walking into the sea’s depths. They surrender to fear, and the messiah dissolves into the sea’s midst where another vision comes into view.
The children in the crowd see her first. In profound awe and wonder they point upward and say, “look!” There she stood, as if she had floated down from the sky and landed on a massive ship covered in fresh vegetation. Her skin was the color of dark cocoa, her cheek bones sharp with thick black hair parted clean down the middle. She wore blue and grey uniform with a tobacco pipe hanging from her righty jaw. Smiling and gently shaking her head she says “wade, children, just wade,” and the mountains of paradise opened up behind her.
The children are the first to lock arms and step in the water. The ship begins to float a few inches above the water’s surface. The woman, whom the children have identified as the captain, smiles and nods as she too fades. The crowd of strangers who once stood safely on the shoreline have made their way into deep water where each touch where a divine spark of humanity opens their eyes to a revelation: the edge of life’s shores is the doorway to each other’s hearts. There, in the shattered mirror of our illusions we breath the same air, begging for mercy, and surrender to the death that does not kill us, but renders us born again.
We are not returning to normal, but we are building up a new world, the tools for which require the dreams and instruments born of truth, struggle, and righteousness. No doctrine, ideology, or clever theology will save us. Only the humility of our common suffering can enable the courage to face the painful wreckage of the past and use that pain to make the world anew. We can only be saved, if salvation is what we seek, by leaning into the death that does not kill or destroy but offers renewal and restoration.
Johari Jabir is an artist, scholar, and contemplative. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Johari is director of music at St. George & St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Chicago, IL, and he teaches in the department of Black Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. His first book, Conjuring Freedom: Music and Masculinity in the Gospel Army of the Civil War (Ohio State University Press, 2017), is a cultural history of the nation’s first Black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
[i] “You Must Be Born Again” written by Steve Nestor, recorded by Mahalia Jackson, Columbia Records, 1956.
[ii] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. And trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 556.