Supporting Actors

By Tommy Airey, above with his nephews in Southern California

The day after an 18-year-old white boy livestreamed his mass murder spree in the only supermarket of a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, I was hosting another men’s group on zoom. We were sharing early memories of when our tears and tenderness were not honored by adults in our lives. One participant said something that stoked vigorous nodding from the rest of us. “It really wasn’t what I was told,” he said, “It was what I wasn’t told.” We were forced to fill in the gaps of all those silences. We came up with our own scripts saying we were not good enough and would never really be loved unless we met a certain standard of “success.”

The silence is a slow trauma that seeds deep feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness. It tills the soil of the gun culture, the rape culture, the corporate culture, the cancel culture. The silence sustains the default dominant culture, what Dr. Willie Jennings calls “the pedagogy of the plantation.” Unless we are intentionally taught otherwise, we are trained up to possess, master and control everything we come across. In America, men are the main characters, the owners of the plantation. It’s not just the passionate men with their man caves and their big trucks and their unregulated firearms—but also the passive men who pride themselves on staying safe, stoic, nice and neutral, above the fray, hiding their feelings as they over-function to “provide for their families.”

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A New Song

By Tommy Airey, reposted from Easy Yolk

“What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do.”—Kiese Laymon

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song.”—Psalm 96:1

Thirty years ago, four white cops caught on video beating Rodney King fifty-six times were acquitted in Simi Valley by a jury made up of ten white folks, one Latino and one Asian. In the aftermath, a righteous rage fueled the L.A. Riots. At the time, I was fifty miles south, getting ready for senior prom. Six weeks earlier, our high school basketball team won the CIF sectional championship at the Sports Arena, where the Clippers used to play back in the day. We beat Lynwood, an all-Black squad from south L.A. In our all-white minds, we were getting revenge.

When I was a freshman, we got manhandled by all-Black Manual Arts High School in the state playoffs. They brought a cadre of students and parents down to South Orange County, the metro region with the lowest Black population in the US. Their crowd was small but persistently on point. When they scored or made a stop, everyone in their section of the bleachers would extend their arms out like an alligator and chant in rapid succession, “We love it. We love it. We love it.” As they clapped together, the alligators chomped together. Black excellence completely obliterated our home court advantage.

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A Monarch Migration in March

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

On Fat Tuesday, six days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I drove out of Detroit while it was still dark. For the first two hours, the slipped disk in my upper back was screaming. This thorn in my flesh, this messenger from Satan, was signaling a lack of emotional support in a world collapsing with the 4 C’s: capitalism, climate, covid and conflict. I drove through all four time zones as gas prices sky-rocketed and the stealth BA. 2 variant spread. On the road, in this mess, I was trusting in Something greater than myself, a divine Presence percolating the world with steadfast love and solidarity. This Force does not sit on a throne. It hovers low like a nurturing mother bird and runs fast like an open-hearted, emotionally expressive father figure.

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Divine Dialysis: A 7-Minute Sermon

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.—excerpts from Psalm 51

This week, I read Psalm 51 in the wake of dear friends sharing the details of a sexual assault they experienced. My response was rage. I struggled to tap into tears. I was just so angry. At the perpetrator for what he did. At the police for what they did not do. Lindsay asked me if our friends’ story was triggering my own trauma. I wasn’t sure. I needed to go away to reflect—and sit with this Psalm, attributed to David who was called “a man after God’s own heart.” He was also a sexual predator.

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Abel Still Speaks

By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon (if you are speed-reading)

*Dedicated to Dr. James Perkinson who paradigm-shifted my reading of the Abel story. For more, check out Perkinson’s Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Art, and Empire (2013)

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.—Genesis 4:2b

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!—Genesis 4:8-10

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.—Mark 6:34

“I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances, a sense of humor is a great help.”—Hannah Arendt

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In the ancient world, shepherds tended their flocks on the edge of civilization, on the borderlands, straddling two cultures with the side-eyed and sidelined. Shepherds resisted mass migration to cities, built with resources extracted from somewhere else. What we called “civilization” was sculpted by strong men exploiting the masses. Shepherds were not part of this program. They stayed nomadic, foraging for food, going wherever the grass was growing. Shepherds were dirty people. Outcasts. Their testimony was not trusted in court.

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Born to Bow in Reverence to Each Other

By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon on Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.—Genesis 1:26-27

My spirituality is saturated in the biblical claim that I bear the image of God, that we all bear the royal image of God. Hebrew scribes wrote and edited the book of Genesis after they were captured and exiled to Babylon, an empire that placed “images”—or  statues—of their king in public places to remind people who is supreme. Citizens were supposed to bow whenever they passed by. The Hebrew scribes subverted this human hierarchy of value by crafting their own creation story. The scribes stamped every human Being with the royal image of a God of love and compassion who designed a world without a human hierarchy of value. We are all royalty, born to bow in reverence to each other.

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John Brown Broke Rank

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from social media and his blog Easy Yolk

For centuries, white people from lower economic classes have been hired as police patrol by the white ruling class. White folks have been given guns and badges to exercise unlimited force on enslaved people, poor people of color and dark-skinned immigrant labor. This power is so intoxicating that white people consistently choose to police vulnerable people instead of finding solidarity with them in a common struggle against wealthy white exploiters. Sure, Kyle Rittenhouse shot white protestors. But his mother drove him to Kenosha to police people of color—and protect wealthier white people and their property. Policing people of color remains common practice in classrooms, curriculums, churches, stores and neighborhoods, where white people do not necessarily need guns and badges to demand “others” know their place.  

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Bound

By Tommy Airey

“The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.”—Saidiya Hartmann

Fifty years before George Floyd moved to Minneapolis, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got arrested in Birmingham. Dr. King, whose national holiday we now celebrate every January, was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. However, like love itself, Dr. King has been sanitized. White folks and middle-class people have molded him into a meek and mild Black man devoted to a watered-down dream of politeness and patriotism. The real MLK took his cues from a bold biblical brand of love that beckoned him to break rank from a cozy and counterfeit middle-class life built on injustice and oppression.

During his short life, Dr. King was arrested 19 times—the same number of trips that Harriet Tubman made back to the South after she escaped to freedom. While King was in that Birmingham jail cell, he wrote a long letter to white pastors on the margins of a newspaper and smuggled it out to get it published. It is one of the greatest documents ever produced in American history. In it, Dr. King articulated a profound spiritual conviction that serves as the basis for a biblical conspiracy—a life built on belovedness and belongingness.

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Summer Reading Subverting Supremacy Stories

By Tommy Airey, exclusively for RadicalDiscipleship.Net

This summer, Lindsay and I maneuvered a ministry of migration. We pivoted between and beyond the Kirkridge Retreat Center in the Poconos of northeast Pennsylvania, a studio apartment two blocks from the Deschutes River in Central Oregon and a wide stretch of beach on the Pacific Ocean on Acjachemen land in Southern California. I spent some of this time working on a book that lays out a biblical spirituality for white folks and middle-class people breaking rank from the default narratives of dominant culture. Those of us navigating the wilderness that borders both fundamentalism and liberalism need a spiritual training program for the ultra-marathon race of recognizing and resisting the supremacy stories scripted by whiteness, hetero-patriarchy, the profit motive, the penal system and patriotism.

My friend Sarah Nahar says this kind of inner work is like shedding colonial codes of conduct. Rev. Lynice Pinkard compares it to learning another language: speaking treason fluently. I like breaking rank because it sounds so subversive—what spirituality should be. Break rank with supremacy stories and you’ll gain your soul—and lose your social respectability. Try calling out capitalism at your church potluck. It sounds like a conspiracy, which in Latin means “to breathe with.” To grow our souls, us middle-class folk need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Because our hearts have stopped. But here’s the rub: we can only get CPR from those chronically oppressed by supremacy stories. So we start breathing with those who are Black and Brown, Indigenous and Immigrant, women and working poor.  

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The Logic of the Cross

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

On the cross, Jesus cried out in Aramaic, his native tongue, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbachthani. Many who overheard it thought he was calling out for the prophet Elijah. He was actually quoting Psalm 22 from the Hebrew Bible: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I learned in seminary that in the Jewish tradition, when folks quote the first verse of a Psalm, they are not sound-biting, but referencing the entire chapter. The next line of Psalm 22 goes like this: Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Jesus’ higher Power was a Sabbath God who shows up in the text hearing and responding to the groans of those oppressed and impoverished by the policies of Solomon.

In Genesis, it was the blood of murdered Abel. In Exodus, it was the Israelites groaning under slavery to Pharoah. In the Psalms and Prophets, the sighs and cries consistently come before the One who hears. In James, it was the unpaid wages of the day laborers crying out. In Romans, all of creation is groaning with labor pains, longing to be released from bondage, and the text says that, in our weakness, we do not know what to say in our prayers—but the Breath of God intercedes for us with groans that go beyond our glossary.

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