What Would Jesus Do? On Faith and Marriage Equality

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I am a Christian. Do you know what that means? But before you judge me, know that I fully support marriage equality.

When I first declared my support for marriage equality, other “Christians” professing the Faith looked at me with sudden scorn, a visceral kind of hatred concealed in judgment and in other cloaked sentiments not worthy of discussion.

Over the past few days, I have been accused of apostasy, of promoting/endorsing sin, of being a fraud, and so on. I have been called cruel-and-unusual names and condemned by so-called “friends” and by others who consider themselves faithful. And yet I’m not fazed because Jesus foretold of these events. “As they persecuted Me,” He warned, “will they also persecute you.”

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But today’s blog post isn’t personal. It’s about resurrecting the spark now fallen, raising a light in the darkened skies; it’s about promoting a vision of faith based on Love.

Sometimes people with good intentions, very good intentions actually, approach me. They are stargazers and light-seekers, friends and family members and even strangers who genuinely pursue relief from splintered eyes, clarity from the murky darkness of confusion. They want to see as I see, or at least they want to know why and how I see as I do.

Ever since June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court decided marriage equality would be the law of the land, these light-seekers, these stargazers have questioned. One genuinely wanted to know why I supported marriage equality. She wrote:

I read your article “in defense of love.”  While we all have a right to choose whom we will serve, I’m curious as to how you came to your position given the fact that you love God.  

Putting feelings aside, did you use the Bible in any of your research for this article? If so, what did you find? If not, why didn’t you?

An inquiring mind just wants to understand.

I haven’t responded to her until now. It has taken me a few days to digest her question I guess because my perspectives on politics and faith are personal. However I do think that I merit some responsibility should my explanation serve to enlighten—for one of the chief miracles of Christ was restoring sight to the blind. Having received deliverance of the plank from my eye, I hope my explanation and Biblical defense of marriage equality sheds spiritual light on some.

The Darkness in Light

My faith does, in fact, inform my politics. Indeed, in my decision to fully support marriage equality, the lamp of my faith has guided me. Christianity and many of the other major faiths (e.g., Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism) center values of peace abiding through hope. However, the main premise of Christianity adds to hope, Love.

Love is the final yet enduring element, eternal and imperishable, giving life to the Faith. It is the totality of the Law and all other just laws. It keeps the most holy sacraments of the Faith untraceable, resolved and sustained undeniable.

There is nothing that a person can do to earn this Love. It is given freely, extended by Grace as grace to us. We don’t earn it. We are all sinners, but God grants it to us anyway.

However, those blinded by fictions of faith—the practices that belie Love—believe that they have purchased heaven, that in some meritocratic way, they can own bliss—having rights to include and exclude as by lottery, but in accordance only with the stubborn stirrings of ethnocentrism and hegemonic conceit. They believe that they can negotiate with God—haggle wages not promised to them while denying others God’s enduring generosities.

I believe in marriage equality because those who oppose it also oppose light and yet cling to darkness.

The Dead Word

The clingers of darkness, lost in the seductive obscurity of the night, abide by a doctrine of darkness, and in the spirit of hate-filled intolerance, they persist. These so-called believers, in their exaggerated zeal and with their pompous authority, work as extremists themselves, exalting their domain above righteousness to our collective peril. Their mission is to be right instead of getting it right. They become the worst kinds of believers—fundamentalists who are more-or-less pimps of faith overly eager to use the bondage of people’s devotion to God to control, manipulate, divide and impart hatred.

These are instructed by doctrines of darkness, and their word is dead. Their dead word is, also, often dated. Regrettably, it romanticizes a bygone era, and postures itself along some fixed continuum of history locked in the bronze age—where women and men portray puppets on a stage of strings, outfitted in the drag of gods pretending to be kings.

Moreover, attending faith gatherings (in churches, mosques, and temples) in this historical occult is like moving in and out of a dream or a nightmare (rarely is there a difference). In this space, people masquerade as true believers but through a carnival of medieval compliance lived with an enthusiasm and unrelenting recital of an overly religious Renaissance festival. To practice modern faith, in so many situations, requires this slip in time, a digression to a place where people are actualized uneven—some as peasantry and others as nobility. It is in this disturbing liturgy of people equally born of the common pains, that we, at the whims of power and control, are given titles as inhumane as master and slave. The dead word’s fixation on this oppressive praxis is both sad and laughable.

Perhaps worst is the dead word’s reliance on metaphors of war and devastation. That is, the dead word abides by linguistic systems of pillaging and lexicons of oppression. Its meanings survive through a factory of fears, each foreshadowing mass devastation and destruction, each appealing to perilous pathologies made real by our darkest dreams and nightmares (rarely is there a difference).

The faith of the dead word, too, is lifeless because it is based on contracts of hate, whose only evidence of vigor abounds in clusterings of non-believers (or so-called “saints”) who dine on the promises of scorched flesh. (One would never believe how many so-called Christians demand hell stones to rain from heaven as vengeance for the Supreme Courts marriage equality decision.) Because Love does not discriminate, the “saints” have called on their gods to kill to justify their cause. And this sacrifice of flesh is idolatry, a high sin in most modern faiths.

I believe in marriage equality because the doctrinal principles that oppose it are dead, not living.

The Living Word

The faith that led me to support marriage equality is alive. It survives through the Living Word, and the Living Word, like other living documents that govern and give freedom (i.e., the Constitution of the United States), must be understood in context and in its complexity, but also in the situations of real people. In this sense, the Living Word assumes a dynamic quality, possessing the resplendent prosperities of a flexibility fitted to the changing times and the unpredictable eddies that flow freely from human existence.

Insomuch as it retains relevance today, the Living Word moves and abounds with the people and culture, with love and in the pursuit of life. For this reason, true and lasting faiths boast a kind of resilience, capable of adapting to meet the ever-evolving needs and circumstances of people.

The Living Word doesn’t relinquish the doctrinal rites—i.e., the commandments of God. Rather, it interprets and refashions them in keeping with the greater designs of God. Love God, and in doing so, love others as you love yourself.

These commandments are summed up by Jesus, who said, “I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Moreover, Paul continues, giving testament of Jesus: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Paul maintains in The Book of Romans that Love, as in Christ, “is the fulfillment of the law.”

So why am I now focusing on the Law–or what can be otherwise understood as the legislated word? The legislated word, if lacking life, is also the dead word. Then, it has little authority over true believers, for such a law is perishable. For example, it was once common (and lawful) for a man to marry a sister, for a man of wealth to take many wives (and perhaps even a few concubines). It has been common (though corruptible) in the histories of humanity for the young to be betrothed to the old, for masters to make of servants vessels of sex. The examples of historical/Biblical revision are many.

I believe in marriage equality because my faith is not static, stuck in the past, nor immutable, captive to inevitability.

The Christian Case for Marriage Equality

On the question of marriage equality, Christianity occupies a peculiar space. In the beginning, it fought an exclusive cult(ure) to include the excluded. And like those who persecute us now for advocating marriage equality, followers of that cult(ure), who lived the dead word, persecuted Jesus for resisting their embrace of intolerance. And so they tried to kill Him. They attempted to bury Him but didn’t know He was seed.

The Bible speaks of these, the Pharisees and the scribes who advanced to kill Christ. The point I’m trying to make is that the persecutors of Christ are still with us, for the persecutors of Christ are little different than those who persecute us today for advocating marriage equality. Thus, having a form of the faith, they are faithless–hypocrites who, in the words of Christ, are merely “a brood of vipers.”

This brood claims to know the mind of God, though filled with conceit and faithless arrogance. When they pray they boast, while also accusing us—we who pray more sincerely—of crimes that they themselves have conjured, of which they themselves are not cured.

Their accusations are pitiful but familiar: “How could You sit with sinners?” they ask while they themselves sit in sin. They falsely declare that we (and our Christ) are devils and deceivers because we refuse the tainted cup from which they drink.

They did not know Him, and they do not know us though they profess Him and condemn us. Yet in their pitiful panics and boastful feats (both equally evil), they often judge, and without love, they have judged too harshly. In so doing, they harm both Him and His people—those of us He loves and sits with, heals and extends unearned Grace, tender Mercies, and the forgiveness of sins.

One can see the darkness in these so-called Christians now given the light that marriage equality has shed. Living in darkness, they do not abide by the Living Word. Hence, they can only oppose marriage equality because they maintain a darkness obscured to the Love that wills it.

Toward a New Light

Indeed, in darkness, we are all victims. For instance, I have a friend who has a son who was born gay. For most of his life, she sequestered him in a secret kind of shame. Her “faith,” which endures in darkness, for years has led her to loathe her son. However, his only fault has been not fitting the fictions of her faith. Of course, she would never admit that her beliefs could be wrong. Instead, she imposes on her son undue blame for being the son whom she bore.

The dead word that stifles relationships like my friend and her son’s and makes rational its own deceits has given us a history of religious persecutions—the Inquisitions and crusades, the jihads and Bibighar massacre, to name a few. The dead word has long waged war against good sense—demanded a stilted solar system that held earth at its center instead of the sun, a patriarchy that maintains a woman’s right to be seen yet unheard. History has proven this dead word wrong time and again.

The Living Word, however, endures because it evolves. In its evolution, it moves humanity forward and closer to God. In so doing, it allows each of us to love a little more and, with that, a little better. It frees us from the tangles of unnecessary religious burdens.

The Living Word—which gives me defense in supporting marriage equality—appreciates marriage, a union of Love affirmed by God and contracted by His love. The marriage bed is undefiled; thus, the covenant of marriage, gay or straight or otherwise, promises a treaty of Life against the thousand daily deaths dealt by loneliness and the anguish of a life lived uncommitted.

If two people love each other, then let them marry, the Bible says. For what God has joined together let no man or woman put asunder.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

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Not Just Us? Using Classrooms to Get (White) People to Talk about Race

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If a Black body falls in the streets of Baltimore (or Ferguson or Cleveland or Columbia, SC) and no person of color hears it, will a White person (not named Rachel Dolezal) make a sound?

As the country mourns under the shadow of recent racial strife, many rights leaders and activists are, once again, calling for a series of “courageous conversations,” conversations about race that some researchers suggest White people don’t want to have and don’t know how to have.

For White Americans, race is more than just a touchy topic; its one that can often elicit an array of sentiments: shame and anger, guilt and grief, blame and confusion. However, the ongoing tensions surrounding race in this country, which have been amplified by the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, The Emanuel 9, and so many others, should inspire a more open conversation on race. But how do we have it?

Why White People Don’t Talk About Race

Don’t get me wrong: There are many conversations about race and the various forms of racism happening throughout the United States. Most of them, however, are not happening among White people.

Barnabas Piper, author of “Why White People Don’t Like to Talk about Race,” suggests that White silence on the topic is a privilege that stems from having grown up mostly “unaffected by” or “unaware of” the racial divide. For Piper, this privilege does not always redound to bigotry. Rather it reflects the extent to which White people are “unexposed to minority cultures (not just Black, but all non-White cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there.”

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University, adds that when White people talk about race, they “implode.” Much of this subsidence, DiAngelo explains, derives from Whites being socialized as privileged, which, in turn, renders them “racially illiterate.” Put another way, White people don’t resist conversations about race, per se; they hold the privilege to opt-out because issues of race and racism rarely hamper their qualities of life.

As such, critical race scholars such as Julie A. Helling, an associate professor and director of the Law and Diversity program at Western Washington University, believe that it is unlikely that courageous conversations about race will occur in White homes and White homogeneous settings without public pressure and public space. And though Helling maintains, “We need to talk about the effects of racism in this country, the rac-ing of people in general, and affirm the positive and plentiful contributions of all cultures to this country,” questions remain as to where these important conversations should take place?

Advancing Conversations of Race in Classrooms

In March 2015, Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz made national news when he offered his coffee chain as a site for initiating a critical dialogue on race in the U.S., and a firestorm ensued. Aptly called “The Race Together” campaign, Starbucks employees (baristas) were given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help start the dialogue. While some people appreciated the company’s effort, many others objected, arguing that Starbucks was the wrong venue to host race conversation and that its baristas were unqualified to lead the national discussion on race.

Some critics of “The Race Together” campaign suggested that classrooms, as opposed to Starbucks, were more appropriate (and safer) venues to discuss race. In a new book Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the classroom serves as a tool for educators who want to talk about race. To his credit, Milner offers comprehensive, evidence-based approaches and practical classroom tips for introducing race dialogues into classrooms, though he warns “such conversations require planning and administrative support.”

In spite of efforts such as Milner’s, there remain skeptics who affirm that classroom time should be devoted to learning core academic skills, such as learning how to read, write, and calculate. However, Mercer Hall and Gina Sipley point out, race is a construct of social status and identity, critical to the development of all American youth. They maintain that as scenes of racialized violence chase our eyes and whispers of hate propaganda haunt our ears, we can no longer pretend that young people are immune to the effects of race because racial stressors exist in the minds and daily experiences of students. Accordingly, they argue, we would be remiss to pretend that student learning is not affected by their social and emotional states. Therefore, teaching tolerance, as Helling has maintained, is perhaps more important than teaching traditional subjects, whereas conversations of “race need [sic] to exist more, not less in classrooms.”

Talking Race in Classrooms . . . We Do We Go From Here?

Talking race in classrooms is about more than issues of black and white. It is about developing and nurturing better human beings. And, while race dialogues in classrooms might give White people an important space to engage in deep deliberations about racial bias in the U.S., the discussion itself will give all people a chance to inhabit a greater humanity.

In her 1992 article published in the Harvard Educational Review, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about how all students can benefit from exploring race and that teachers should provide “a forum where this discussion can take place safely over . . . a time period that allows personal and group development to unfold.” In keeping with Tatum’s call, organizations such as Teaching Tolerance have created real models to help teachers advance conversations on race in their classrooms. One example they offer is a unit for teaching Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The unit begins by asking, what is needed to participate in an open and honest conversation about race. What ensues is pedagogical magic.

Of course, there are other resources available, such as Jane Bolgatz’s book Talking Race in the Classroom, which demonstrates ways in which “good conversations are not simply a matter of speaking and listening.” According to Bolgatz, “one must view racial issues through a critical lens that attends to current and institutional aspects of racism” in ways that help students understand that various forms of racism have developed historically and can be contested.

Researchers from the University of Michigan offer a dialogic model for engaging courageous conversations about race. Their Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) is “a social justice education program” that “blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students’ learning about social group identity, social inequity, and intergroup relations.” According to the group’s website, IGR offers youth dialogues on race and ethnicity as a way of fostering a more inclusive world.

While many models exist, there is no one single approach for discussing race. However, creating space in classrooms for such discussions do help. Regardless of race or ethnicity, we know, too, that discussing race and racism takes courage. “Courage,” as Winston Churchill said, “is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And there may be no better to place today in which to enact courage than classrooms.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Making Black Lives Matter in Classrooms: The Power of Teachers to Change the World

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On Saturday, May 16, 2015, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools held a conference titled, Race, Rights, and Responsibility: What Educators Can Do to Help Our Students Think Critically about Protest, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberty.

This conference was not for everyone. And while it was a conference for teachers presented by teachers, it was designed mainly for teachers who care deeply about racial justice and tenets of teaching for change. It was for those teachers struggling to find pragmatic classroom solutions that might interrupt dangerous patterns of policing that brutalize Black and Brown bodies and terrorize communities of color.

As we’ve come to realize in recent months, police overreach–even to the point of murder–is not an isolated incident. It is not coincidental. It happens daily in settings such as New York and Baltimore, where the students we teach are striving and struggling to make sense of the contradictions of democracy–the gross juxtaposition of ironies: freedom for some tied to the slavery of others, a light of hope set against the darkness of despair, a national dream that rests firmly upon a social nightmare. The questions are intrepid but real. Yet real solutions and spaces to engage in important thinking to overcome structural injustices in society are diffuse and lacking.

At one level we are witnessing what Cornell West calls “a democratic awakening,” the unique union of rights groups with poor and vulnerable people who are asking the right kinds of questions and demanding immediate answers. Still at another level, too many of us are still fast asleep, entranced (and sometimes deeply hypnotized) by the symbolism of the post-racial mythologies that typify the Age of Obama. It is my sincere belief that teachers will lead the democratic awakening because we can arouse to action the youthful but energetic masses lulled to complacency by the seductive and sedating rhetorics of post-racialism.

While it celebrates its first Black president, our nation also continues its disregard for Black lives and Black life. The massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown bodies; the de facto legalization of murder against the Children of the Rainbow; chronic and mass un(der)employment; devastated, wasted, and occupied communities; heightened state surveillance; and the like are but a few of the looming examples of our current state of inequities. For Black lives to matter, for Black life to endure, these inequities must be dismantled. To dismantle them, we need a revolution as active and as committed as the systems that sustain human suffering and psychologies that maintain a deeply entrench yet murderous racial caste.

In this time of political slumber, we can’t afford to sleep. Indeed certain things in our world endure. Every 28 hours, a bird flies free of a lonely nest. A day, depending on the season, gets longer or shorter. Every 28 hours a mother kindles a novel wish for her vibrant, young child. Every 28 hours, a fresh day is beginning for some, but not for all. Every 28 hours, there is a new Freddie Gray . . .

. . . Michael Brown

. . . Renisha McBride

. . . Rakia Boyd

. . . Eric Garner

. . . Remarly Graham

. . . Amadou Diallo

. . . James Powell

. . . Edmund Perry

. . . Oscar Grant

. . . Sean Bell

. . . Yvette Smith

. . . Victor Steen

. . . Steven Rodriguez

. . . Aiyana Jones

. . . Carlos Alcis

. . . Christopher Kissane

. . . Deion Fludd

. . . Justin Slipp

. . . Duane Brown

. . . Akai Gurly

. . . Walter Scott

. . . Trayvon Martin

. . . Etc.

The use of deadly force has become so standard in the U.S. that every 28 hours an unarmed Black person is shot by a police officer or vigilante acting as a proxy for the State. So I list the names, understanding that this list could be much longer. But only this ceremony–the painful yet powerful procession of pronunciations–can move us to understand and finally act.

Some say this moment is about Black lives, but mostly it’s about Black death–not some medieval plague caused by filth and rats, but a composite of suffering and plight faced by darker-skinned human beings whose true “crime” is being born darker skinned. As a result, we are left to witness the folly of justice made more perverse by a tragic orgy of haunting and desperate scenes–an image we’ve come to know too well over recent years of Black men and boys dying. Our death is not always literal, but nonetheless it’s painful and tragic. Before the physical death there is the fatal violence that hinders our dreams, the brutal slayings of hope and inspiration that too characteristically typify our experiences in school.

For many Black males–myself included–classrooms bury potential, and good-intentioned teachers evict from the pliable imagination of young people a limitless real estate of fluid possibilities. It is in this reality that we define Black males as failing, and we use national statistics to scandalize this myth. We have failed them. To offer hope, human rights workers are now demanding changes in public policy–policing reform, as it were. However, this moment demands something greater than policy resolutions. By changing laws, we would find ourselves lucky to somehow change people’s behaviors. We need heart and mind solutions; we need to change how people think and feel. For that we turn to education. We turn to educators.

Teachers are human rights workers, and our classrooms are progressive vineyards thirsty for liberation’s laborers. Classrooms are never neutral sites. They are contested spaces, where the imbrications of competing interests wrestle daily for ethical real estate. Just as they can harm, classrooms can heal. In this light, classrooms matter. Healing and humanizing classrooms matter most. They have the power to move our assumptions away from the stale and negative deficit assumptions that strip away Black humanity and toward those complex narratives of people that build humanity and nurture sensitivities toward that humanity in ways that abolish pre-existing internal and external contracts of bigotry and violence. In such spaces, teaching takes on a new meaning. Here, teaching means teaching the mind as well as the heart. It means teaching for justice, which is always and only about teaching (to) love.

On May 16, 2015, close to 500 educators assembled as Justice’s (or, better put, Love’s) soldiers. This assembly of transformative intellectuals, activists, thought-leaders, human-rights workers, and passionate individuals came committed to addressing key issues at the heart of race, education, and policing. The conference was empowering, as it encouraged our assembly to teach our truth with more certainty and candor, a grander conviction and clarity, with greater credibility and courage.

About 500 hundred educators throughout New York City have gone back to their classrooms to teach change. One of those teachers emailed me today, saying: “I did a Black Lives Matter lesson with my students. They get it now.” In the end, isn’t that what it’s really about: Getting it! In a world were so many people continue to not get it, we would be remiss to ignore the power of classrooms and teachers to change the world.

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1. A version of this blog post appeared on The Huffington Post on May 28, 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-e-kirkland/making-black-lives-matter_b_7453122.html