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Fr. Brown on blacks and whites

Excerpts from Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown’s talk at the Call to Action meeting in Chicago Nov. 3, 2001:

Unfortunately, as we see America defining itself at war, striking back, on alert, the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the color line again. The four founding members of the United Nations Security Council were the people who colonized most of the planet. And the places they colonized are the seedbeds of anger, rebellion, destruction and terrorism. But they learned it from somebody.

* * *

Now I know something about 400 years of African spirituality in the United States. And what I know about it is that people decided that since they had been ripped and raped from their home, since some of them chose to survive the Middle Passage [the treacherous middle part of the journey that brought captive Africans to America, a 21- to 90-day crossing of the Atlantic aboard crowded sailing ships, 1520 to 1850] … they were confronted with the most essential and existential choice any human being can face: My God has been taken away from me. The whole point of my existence has been erased. I will die and not join my ancestors, and therefore my spirit cannot benefit the unborn. If my life is to have meaning and coherence, if my existence is to have a grounding, I must have a God upon which to stand.

So I must learn the God of my oppressor.

I don’t think we can remember or imagine a choice like that, and the implications, to choose the God of your oppressor. I didn’t hear America saying, “Because we have been attacked by evil people, we will learn and become followers of the way of Islam.”

I don’t remember reading anything about Francis of Assisi saying that when he was captured on his little trek to the Crusades, he decided to become Muslim.

But I do know that there were people who were brought here and decided that they had to become believers in the Christian God, even though followers of that Christian God dehumanized them to the point where suicide was a logical choice.

Tell me about struggles with the church. They were at the edge and they had to wade in the water, and they did.

They had to learn scripture and it took many generations to do that since it had been withheld from them and many of them had to do it in secret, risking their death to read the Bible.

But they picked up on it and became theological geniuses who have not yet to this day been appreciated by any of our denominations or creedal communities.

* * *

The song says, “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. God’s gonna’ trouble the water.”

That means to me, and I don’t know any other way to hear this, that the water is calm until you get in it and then if it starts to roil around and flood and overwhelm you, it may be trouble, but it may be trouble from God as opposed to trouble from somewhere else. If you’ve got enough faith to start that journey, don’t you panic, Peter, once you get out there.

The song is saying all that, and it is claiming a mystical identity. We don’t have to try to figure out what Teresa of Avila meant or John of the Cross meant or Catherine of Siena or Julian of Norwich or Meister Eckhardt or anybody else. And you don’t need to go to the Sufis! Too many people want to go to India and won’t go to East St. Louis for the source of their spirituality.

* * *

Black song is about running song through your body.

I need to sing so I can run song through my body and change it.

Sometimes I can’t change reality in a physical way other than singing something so I am different.

You can’t sing these songs with a pinched throat and a pinched soul.

You cannot sing these songs and be as sad afterwards, no matter how much sorrow is in it. That’s why you got glory hallelujah, cause I got to just, [exhaling a long breath], sigh out the pain.

* * *

The old singers and the praying ancestors learned the scriptural lesson very well indeed. They wanted to be in the water when the angel of God troubled it. … When you’re deep in the midst of it, when you’ve been carrying it, weighed down, paralyzed by trouble for days, weeks, months or years, then you know that the change that God will bring to your life is radically different from whatever it is you have been enduring -- change, freedom, restoration, a new perspective, a new way of doing things. It’s better for you to get up and walk away from the crippling fear and worrying anxieties and doubts. Only somebody who had been able to experience the change brought about by God’s redeeming grace could speak with the authority of Jesus: Get into the water and don’t mind the trouble. But go together, children, don’t walk in there by yourself.

* * *

Look around. Whatever happened in the black community in the 1940s is happening to the whole country [today]. And if you don’t study black history then you don’t understand why the suburbs are unsafe to live in today.

Now if an Italian-American mother does not understand what to do with her son who is on cocaine or crack, I bet you one thing, [the hymn] “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” will help her out as much as it helped my mother out.

But that Italian-American mother has to know that her experience, while it may be new to her, is old to America. And when we are confronting these sorts of ills on an epidemic level in American society, the response has to be profoundly spiritual, so why not go to a source, namely African-American spirituality, that had a heroic spiritual response to the alienation, oppression, destruction and fragmentation of the family that slavery caused.

* * *

I’m going to go back to where I started off by saying I know our history. I know that al-Qaida are amateurs compared to the KKK. I know the symbolism of a burning cross or a brick through the window or two people I was in the seminary with who dressed in white robes, knocking on my door one night at 1 o’clock in the morning, thinking they were being funny.

I know about Tulsa, Okla., May 1921, when 3,000 black people were killed over a two-day period, when the state created concentration camps in Tulsa, Okla., so they could take all black property, all black wealth, and kill 3,000-plus people by flying planes over the Negro district of Tulsa and firebombing the city.

I‘ve seen those pictures, and I didn’t see them on the ABC news in the last seven weeks.

I didn’t hear anybody say, “We’ve experienced this over and over in America.” … I saw people being pulled out of the rubble but I didn’t see pictures of black men with genitals in their mouths hanging from trees, and I’ve got the pictures of those.

What is terrorism? Terrorism is the use of force to completely control your time, your space, your energy and to create such unpredictability that you will never have security in your entire life. I live like that every day.

Every day.

And I have to teach a group of Americans every day on a college campus in the United States of America how to negotiate around domestic terrorism if they are to live long enough to graduate.

Somebody could know the trouble I see if they ever bothered to look at it with open eyes.

And if people had bothered to look at the trouble I see, if people had understood how to sing with [the late black leader Sr.] Thea Bowman, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” then New York would have made profound spiritual sense.

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002